Those of you who know me know that I don't eat meat, but not everyone knows why. I'm not generally one to browbeat, and in this, as in all the facets of my life, I try not to judge other people and the choices they make. However, today, inspired by Earth Day (and coincidentally Good Friday, a day when many people are more conscientious of what they consume), I thought I'd share a photo-essay project I did last year elucidating my reasons for choosing vegetarianism. I chose to pair my story and photographs with quotes from well-known vegetarians and vegans to illustrate the fact that this choice is shared by some of the greatest and most well-known minds in history.
I used to work in New York City in a very high-end french restaurant. To say I ate meat would be an understatement - I ate every kind of meat, and quite a lot of it. I loved it. I recommended sweetbreads and calves brains and foie gras to our customers with such enthusiasm that they frequently tried dishes that they might otherwise have felt squeamish about. My then-boyfriend (now husband) shared my zeal, and much of our disposable income was spent eating and drinking at restaurants that would never be described as vegetarian friendly. Then one day we were driving from New York to Virginia. Along the way, we kept passing what seemed like an unusual number of dead animals on the side of the road: deer, obviously, but also several dogs, foxes, and even a black bear cub that had been hit. After a while, we started remarking on these animals, and my husband in particular kept saying how sad it was. I then pointed out how hypocritical such a statement was - that we should pity these animals that, up to the point of their deaths, were happily running free in the woods, while we routinely consumed animals quite literally tortured to death for our gustatory pleasure. Given that we had some time on the road, we started to have a conversation about what it would mean to stop eating meat, and ultimately decided that we would give it a shot.
I don't believe either of us thought our little experiment would take, but now, seven years later, I can't imagine going back. Though it took about a year to get to where I no longer missed roast duck in Chinatown or felt conflicted when I smelled bacon frying, the more I learned about the meat industry and the many, many facts that support a vegetarian diet, the more resolved I became that this was no short-term commitment. I now firmly believe that if thinking, responsible people allowed themselves to be more aware of these issues, they would, to a person, either eschew meat altogether, or at the very least become fastidious about the source of their meat and the frequency with which they consumed it. I have several personal friends who admit that they specifically avoid learning too much about the subject for fear that it will impinge on their diets, which they are reluctant to change. And I understand that. But I also feel like we can all make strides toward bettering ourselves and the world around us, even if that calls for sacrifice at times.
Though animal mistreatment certainly is an important topic unto itself, I did not want to make this project about shocking my audience or making anyone sick. Instead, I chose to focus on what I see as the three fundamental reasons for considering vegetarianism. First, that animals, though certainly different from humans in many ways, are demonstrably capable of emotion, and therefore not only experience the physical pain of mistreatment and slaughter, but also fear and suffering related to having their offspring removed from them, being kept in unnatural, often horrible environments, and watching other animals be slaughtered. This capacity forms the basis for several of my photographs.
Second, that the meat industry's impact on the environment has been hugely detrimental. A 2006 United Nations report described the devastation caused by the meat industry, calling it "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." The report recommended that animal agriculture "be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity." (H. Steinfeld et al., Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, Livestock, Environment and Development (2006).)
Finally, the vegetarian diet has been shown time and again to have several health benefits, including reducing the rates of our country's three biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, and strokes. According to the American Dietetic Association a well-planned vegetarian diet leads to “lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; … lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type two diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer” as well as a reduction in obesity (Ann Mangels, Virginia Messina, and Vesanto Melina, "Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian Diets," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jun. 2003, pp. 748-65).
Again, it is not my intention in this post to point fingers, to browbeat or to judge. If anything, I hope its given you a moment's pause... Earth Day is the perfect day to think about the choices we make and the way that they affect our environment and, ultimately, ourselves. Have a great weekend, and for those of you celebrating, Happy Easter :D