25 September 2008

Conscientious Omnivores

Well, I guess I can actually write longer things while I procrastinate on that one post.


There's a discussion going on over at Jezebel that started out being about all the recent issues with formula and milk, and has largely fallen into a debate over the merits of vegetarianism/veganism. The location isn't really that important, as it's a debate I've had over and over in recent years. I'm part of the local outdoor community--in particular, the student/working class end of it--which tends to be fairly activisty (why yes, "activisty" is a word, why do you ask?) and has a particular interest in environmental and sustainability issues, as well as a general obsession with health. You can see how the whole "what you eat" discussion might come up on a regular basis. And so, because this really is something I've done a heck of a lot of thinking about, I'm gonna put my two cents out there:

As best I can parse it, there are three main aspects to the pro-veg* argument:

1) the animal rights argument: both the dairy and meat industries are run in ways that are unnecessarily cruel to animals, and we should not condone their practices if we are to consider ourselves moral human beings. The most extreme iteration of this would be the "meat is murder" argument that killing animals for food, regardless of how it is done, is immoral.

2) the sustainability argument: livestock farming is damaging to the environment in many ways: it consumes enormous amounts of resources relative to what is produced, it leads to the destruction of sensitive habitats through over-grazing and clearing of new pasture in places like the South American rainforests, and it leads to the production of hazardous wastes, including astonishingly high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

3) the health argument: eating vegetarian/vegan is just plain better for you. This tends to be based on the cholesterol and saturated fat issues often associated with consuming meat and dairy, the high incidence of lactose intolerance within certain ethnic groups, and the frequent use of low-quality feed, antibiotics and other drugs within the meat and dairy industries that will affect the quality of the food we consume (this last point is subject to the most variability with regards to local farming practices--eg. the much lower use of antibiotics in Canada as compared to the US).

To me, these are three distinct arguments with varying levels of power, depending on whom you're speaking to. I personally find argument #2 the most compelling, followed by #1 and then #3, but your mileage may vary. Unfortunately, they tend to get lumped together into a single meta-argument that is much less effective in the long run, because it treats three aspects of an issue that are going to be ranked differently in people's minds as if they were (or MUST be) of equal importance to everybody.

here endeth the summary portion of the evening, and beginneth the criticism and requisite navel-gazing

The first problem that tends to crop up for the pro-veg side in these debates is one of delivery. Many people, when they have found a way of living their life in accordance with their principles and, in this case, physical requirements, get really, really excited. This is no surprise. Some of them get excited enough that they want to tell everyone in the world about this amazing thing they have discovered, in the hopes that it will be as amazingly helpful to others as it was to them. No surprise here either. Some of these people then get a bit...sanctimonious...and preachy, and fall into the trap of believing that there is One True Way to attain health and ethical purity, and that anyone who doesn't believe in it is brainwashed/stupid/morally degenerate. This is also not surprising; nor is it particularly helpful. Nobody enjoys being talked down to, and it's really hard to convert anybody to a particular way of thinking if you can't convince them that you actually value them as an independent human being first.

Of course, there are loads of vegetarians/vegans out there who are not sanctimonious twits. I rather like them, and will happily engage in discussion over our respective dietary choices with people who are willing to listen to what I have to say and treat me like an equal human being. A lot of them are even willing to admit that it is possible to be an ethical human being with a significantly reduced ecological footprint and still eat meat. A conscientious omnivore, if you will.

And that is important, because the discussion over whether to go veg or not gets framed as an all-or-nothing question far too often. I believe there is a middle ground, and its existence is predicated on how one addresses the 3 arguments I've listed above. I don't really think that the ideas at the core of #1 and #2 are up for debate. There are serious ethical and environmental problems with the way that meat and dairy are produced on an industrial scale, and we each have to make choices about how we wish to address those, even if we do continue to consume these products.

Where things get thorny, at least to my eye, is with argument #3. I seriously doubt that there is One True Diet that will work for every body on this planet. Some of us really do better eating absolutely no meat or other animal products. Some of us really don't. I'm all for educating people about various aspects of nutrition, as i think that it is really important for us to understand how to keep our bodies running as well as possible, and to be able to recognise and deal with problems that will significantly impact our quality of life (some of these, like lactose intolerance, can be mild but still problematic, while others, like diabetes, can be tougher to manage).

But the key here is knowing what you need to be healthy. I'll use myself as an example, because I know my body better than I know anybody else's.

I'm a very active person: I commute by bicycle as often as possible and walk most of the rest of the time, I rockclimb and mountaineer (both pretty high-output activities) in the summer and ski tour (think hiking up a mountain with skis on and then skiing back down) in the winter. I'm also naturally slim. All of this means that (a) I need a fairly high caloric intake just to keep myself going and (b) I have a high ratio of muscle to fat, and need to consume a lot of protein to maintain that muscle mass. A lot.

And, yes, I am well aware that there are great sources of plant-based protein out there. A few major sources are soy; pretty much any other bean; nuts and seeds; and certain grains, most notably qinoa. There's lots to choose from, on the face of it, and I know several people with requirements similar to mine who do just fine consuming those sources. I don't. The biggest reason for this is that I have significant difficulties digesting soy, and lesser but still significant issues with most kinds of beans. They invariably make me gassy, bloated and (in the case of soy) mess up my normal digestive function for a few days. It's not pleasant, to say the least, and I doubt I'm getting what I need from them.

In fact, my symptoms are pretty close to those of lactose intolerance, a condition that is reasonably common and has been shown to be genetic and generally tied to a person's region of origin and how much cow's milk their ancestors consumed. I'd bet my first-born child that dairy isn't the only thing that humans adapt to consuming (or don't) over time. In fact, I'd say that really fucking likely that a group that has a had a consistent diet over a long period of time would adapt to get the most benefit possible out of that diet, and wouldn't have the same adaptations for foods that it had never historically come in contact with. I'd volunteer myself as test-subject for a study to look at how this works, seeing as my family has been in the same place for so long that one side of it takes its name from a village that got swallowed up by the bigger city that now stands on that spot (and that is my mother's home town) some 700 years ago. I'm from peasant stock, which also suggests that we would have been very closely tied to what the land could produce, even if wealthier Poles would have had access to more exotic foodstuffs acquired through trade. And the local diet? Pork, potatoes, dairy, beets and cabbage. Nary a soybean (or kidney bean, lentil or chickpea) in sight. I doubt that it's an accident I have difficulty digesting them.

If I rule out, or at least significantly limit beans as a source of protein, we end up with nuts/seeds and quinoa. Quinoa is a new addition to my diet, and I'm trying to see if I can eat more of it on a regular basis, but the stuff sits like a brick in my stomache, so I'm looking at limited intake for now. That leaves nuts and seeds. I might be able to consume enough of them to get the protein I need, but I doubt it. I think that they're a great way to supplement one's protein intake, but I don't think they work particularly well as one's primary source of protein. All of which means I have to eat meat, if I want to get the nutrients I need to keep my body functioning at my current level of activity. I suppose I could just throw my entire lifestyle out the window and become sedentary, but that doesn't exactly come without its own set of health problems.

I doubt I'm the only person who really does care about reasons #1 and #2 for why our current modes of meat/dairy production and consumption are seriously flawed, but doesn't really have the option of opting out entirely. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Because our economy is consumer driven, and those who stop consuming meat/dairy no longer don't have any power over the industry until their numbers get so high that there is no longer a large enough consumer base to support animal product production at all. And I doubt that will ever be the case, at least in part because non-consumption of these products isn't a viable option for a lot of people such as myself.

But responsible consumption is, and therein lies our power as conscientious omnivores. As consumers of meat and/or dairy, we get to choose whom we buy our meat, milk and cheese from, and we have the responsibility to call out producers on unethical and unsustainable business practices. And they have to listen, because their profit margins are dependent on our willingness to buy their product, and not the one produced in more ethically (free range, non-medicated, etc) and environmentally (organic, small scale, etc) sound fashion by the guy down the road. There is some truth to the "voting with your dollar" model, as problematic as the entire consumer-driven system is in the first place, and it is our responsibility as consumers to shop consciously as best we can**. We can all stand to reduce our consumption of the least sustainable products, such as beef, and favour ones that have a smaller impact, such as certain kinds of fish. And we can all be ethically and environmentally conscious while still consuming meat. In fact, we damn well ought to.

If we stop framing the argument as an all-or-nothing game, we can stop fighting over whose side is more morally upright and look at ways in which all of us can work together to make our food-production practices better for everyone, including the animals we kill and eat and the world we live in.


* I'm including both vegetarianism and veganism here and tend to lump them together in this debate, though I recognise the difference between the two terms.

** I'm aware that there are huge class and regional issues at play here as well. Deciding what kind of food to buy is a privilege. It's damn hard, if not impossible, to choose the (currently more expensive) free-range or organic chicken over the cheaper bulk pack when you can barely scrape together enough to feed yourself or your family, and where you live hugely affects what kind of options (eg. farmers markets vs. supermarkets) you actually have with regards to where you get your food and what kind is available. My point is that those who care about these issues should be doing what they can, within their means and working with their particular limitations, to address them. It's also why I think it's hugely important to make environmentally and ethically sound production affordable so that these choices are available to most people, but that means a whole different scale of activism and intervention, as I don't see a way of getting that ball rolling without the involvement of the highest levels of government.

16 September 2008

Bits & Bobs

Here's a round up of random things I found interesting today, as I continue to avoid going back to work on the epic of a post I have brewing:


The old spectre of appearance policing within the feminist community has reared its ugly head again, and some interesting shit is going down both over at Hoyden About Town--a very worthwhile place to visit, by the by--and Shakesville in response to an opinion piece by one Monica Dux, who seems to think that non-conventionally attractive, hairy lesbians are bad for feminism's image (because, you know, it's a brand and we need to pay attention to what sells). Women on both sides of the appearance question--those who reject feminine beauty standards, and those who don't, at least not entirely--are talking about how it feels to be judged for their appearance, and there's a fair amount of judging going on as well. I don't have too much to add, as I think this whole business of presentation policing ultimately doesn't do anybody any good, except that somebody at a bigger blog than mine seems to have come to a similar conclusion: lookee.


On another note, I love that the CBC is broadcasting results/news from the Paralympics with the same frequency and giving it the same prominence (first item on the hourly news) as they did with the "regular" Olympics. It's encourage to hear these amazing athletes getting the coverage they deserve, free of obsessive discussion of what exactly their disability is or other such fetishizing and othering bullshit.


While flipping through the Hoyden archives, I came across this bit of brilliance from earlier this year. While I get the impression that trying to discuss anything with mAndrea is a little like arguing particle physics with the cat (I mean, shit. Her entire stated purpose for writing is to sway people to her one true path of feminism through her amazing powers of logic, and then she admits the following, "The extent of my study of logic consists of reading a couple webpages"? Really? Lauredhel is right: that is just desperately bad performance art) the arguments that many of the posters put forth--especially tigtog and Lisa Harney--are sheer brilliance, and I want to keep them forever and ever as a reference to make use of the next time I end up arguing with an anti-trans* arsehole.


And finally, I saw a girl on the bus today wearing a shirt that said, "I'm just pretending to be gay for all the social benefits." It made me laugh in a way that snarky t-shirts seldom do, because it was just so...pointed...and smart.

13 September 2008

Asshole Customer of the Day: Special Uber-Sexist Edition

I still don't really want this to be a recurring feature, but I find it useful to remind myself of how much bigotry is still out there in the world, and that complacency and "post-feminism" (damn right those are scare quotes) won't get us anywhere. Onwards:


[I was helping a customer with walking poles, and was having difficulty explaining to him the differences between the two types we carry. He was dealing with back/hip problems, and both his doctor and physio had suggested he get some. Problem was, they'd given him conflicting information--one had suggested one type, and one had suggested the other--which he was conflating in his head. He kept insisting that this mythical 3rd type existed, and that I just didn't know about it, and tried to prove it to me by invoking his health professionals' authority.]

Asshole: "Well, they're men, and they told me I needed [list of qualities of non-existent product].


Note that he could have been just as much of a patronizing jerk by going with, "Well, they're doctors/have PhDs." But no; there had to be that extra little note of putting the uppity woman in her place to really bring his point home.

Unsurprisingly, I was livid after the interaction (years of working in customer service have left me with the useful ability to completely shut down my emotional responses until the customer has left the building and is out of range of my fists) and went to commiserate with some of my coworkers. They were likewise unimpressed, and brought up their own experiences with the sexism that they could not believe was still around. A lot of it was either some men's inability to believe that women actually know what they are talking about when it comes to sporting goods/outdoor recreation (this happens way too frequently) and second-guessing us with our male coworkers, or their inability to recognise and respect personal boundaries and doing things like asking "can I watch" when one female coworker was giving another a quick shoulder rub.

There were a couple incidents that really stood out for me, though. The first didn't actually involve an altercation, but was still disgusting: one of my female coworkers had to serve a guy who came into the store wearing a t-shirt that said, "Your fish smells like pussy." She was polite and professional, which I'm not sure I could have managed.

The other involved one of my male coworkers--let's call him "Boogie"--and another asshole he was helping check out at the registers:


[Girl who checked out before Asshole sets off the alarms by the doors, and Boogie motions her back to the till so that he can re-check her tags. She and Asshole are complete strangers to one another.]

Asshole: "Strip search!"

Boogie: "Excuse me? That was completely inappropriate."

Asshole: "Oh, come on, she'd like it."

Boogie: "No. What you said is inappropriate and offensive. Stop right now."

Asshole: "Man, what happened to your sense of humour?"

Boogie: "My sense of humour is just fine. That wasn't funny."


Thankfully, the vast majority of the men and women I work with would (and have) respond the way Boogie did, and get as angry as I do at the shit that gets thrown at women in this world. They're one of the reasons I love my job, even if one of its occupational hazards is exposing myself to this kind of treatment. It's people like that that give me hope for all of us, and they remind me just how little it costs to call people out on their bullshit. If each of us did even that much, this world would be a safer place to be a woman (or any minority, if we expand our calling out to racism, heterosexism, ablism, classism and all the rest of the nastiness that's still out there).