…in which KitchenCounterCulture questions her family’s meat-eating in light of learnings from a book on Climate Change conundrums…

It ‘s International Vegetarian Week, and I’m not one.

But I’m hoping to put my attention, and thus to gain insight this time into what I’ve long struggled with as a personal imbalance– my occasional, but not totally rare meat eating, in the context of knowing what I know about world resources, climate change and animal sentience.  “Hypocrisy” is a strong concept– I think it’s a disconsonant ethics between belief and action in a world in which impurity and non-absolutes are easy.

(I tried to get at some of the difficulties in moral purity when I wrote this piece about veganism and locavorism faced with eating rabbits and roadkill.)

What I’m interested in is the slippage between best practice and the ease of mass-consumer conformity..

I eat meat, I tell myself, because my family likes it, so I cook it.  And because my husband needs it, or so he used to believe (as I’ll discuss below).  I mostly don’t eat it when we go out, only when I prepare it for them.  I try to keep our family’s consumption to a minimum (3x a week? which still feels like a lot,) but I could do better.  I try to buy sustainable local eggs and organic dairy and “happy” meat, and I try to make extensive use of every bit of meat — including bones and fat and offal — but I don’t always stick to the absolutes of my principles.  I am a fallible consumer.  I use the times that I “fail” to allow me insight into why other people also “fail,” and to recognize that personal choices are social behaviours– not that this is an excuse either.  But it keeps me real knowing that decisions around money, convenience, nagging children, peer pressure in their packed lunches, etc  feel important at moments of consumer choice.  (Which is one reason choice itself is not always a great thing.)

Nevertheless, in my soul, or somewhere, I’m a self-identified beans-and-rice kind of girl– and one who happens to be married to a Climate Change campaigner who has just written a book about the social/psychological construction of this huge and “wicked problem” represented by this social-ecological disaster-in-the-making.  Don’t Even Think About It takes a look at stories we tell ourselves around Climate Change and our own culpability –it’s the “perfect crime” in which most of us in the rich world are both perpetrators and victim.  We navigate complicated decisions daily, and tell ourselves tales that lend the outcome we seek.  This is the “wiring” of the human brain, but looking at its processes carefully we can overcome self-serving and destructive traps.

Or that would be the goal of activists and theorists of sustainability who seek golden keys to unlock behaviour change.

Proponents of a Plant-Based Diet, take heed.  My husband and I are turning the tables of enquiry on ourselves and examining our own meat-eating in terms of why even people — we ourselves us–  who have the information, who understand the weight of action and inaction, don’t change. And this. We are trying.  We’re getting there, slowly.

George has been speaking publicly on climate issues for nearly fifteen years, and often gets questioned by vegans in his audiences. They want to know why he doesn’t take on the meat industry for its significant contribution to a destabilised climate.  And they want to know how he justifies his own meat eating.  Long-time coming, my ever-introspective husband pledged to the most recent interlocoter that he’d focus on this subject, applying to himself the same themes and questions which he’s asked of others regarding activities which have an impact on emissions.

(His approach, I should say, is always that there’s a complex interaction between taking personal action and demanding and creating social change, and that the two should enhance and ease the other.  Taking personal action allows a clarity and strength of purpose, and social change of course would facilitate personal transformation.  It’s not either/ or but rather, both!)

Don’t Even Think About It also looks at Climate Change in terms of social “norms of attention” and “constructed silences” (read the book to learn lots more); George became aware, once he’d finished writing it, how he’d excluded the whole contentious issue of meat eating.  Meat it would seem is own particular blindspot — just as so many of his environmentalist friends may invite calls of hypocrisy for not cutting down on holiday flying, for example.

To be fair to George, he’d developed a comforting idea that in a carbon-rationed society (which he’d support), he would choose that supper of pork over personal automobile transport, a hamburger over a warm house.  This is a man who creeps down late at night if there’s a Pork Pie in the (miniature, energy-efficient) fridge.  No matter how good a vegetarian cook I may be, there is for him a sense of something missing in those meals.  That’s an honest look at what’s happening for him.

Like the others, he’s examining how he is able to construct creative narratives in the interest of changing as little as possible — which is so much the situation with different levels of climate change acceptance, denial and inaction.

So when George looks inside his meat-brain, he notices how internal narratives — the elaborate, intellectualised excuses — take the following forms:

–When confronted with evidence about the bad climate impacts of meat, he begins to sort through and evaluate with his own personal/ social/ cultural presumptions. Some claims about the impacts of global livestock impacts– for instance, from the FAO— bear strong weight, but are reduced in importance in his mind by a capacity to denigrate the emotional intensity of vegan campaigners; he identifies himself as NOT being one of them –deliberately putting on one side his many close and respected friends who are vegans and vegetarians.

NOTE: this is precisely what Climate Change deniers do– they give the scientific evidence the personality of people whom they can reject socially — left wing, hippy, out of touch, etc.

— The behaviour that is the exception to the rule.  This takes the form of a self-belief that George is good in so many ways.  He does important work, the internal story tells, and surely is allowed some luxury, a kind of “benign indulgence.”  For goodness sake, he’ll wear two jumpers in a cold house rather than burn heating oil.  I guess this is where the hypothetical carbon ration would sneak in.

— A pseudo physiological argument, in which he tries to claim that physiology and possibly blood type requires meat-eating, and that people who don’t eat meat have a different form of metabolism. In order to support this, he actively collects internet articles on this hypothesis. The Paleo diet might evidence this in evolutionary terms.  But George claims he’s not actually seeking evidence for truth, but rather, to seek out the info that supports the theory in the interests of his continuing to eat meat.  There’s another  logical flaw that happens– he doesn’t need to find evidence that he is someone who requires meat (ie to check out his own blood-type),  just that some people do– the theory is enough.  Then he fills in the gap about the story about the one time he tried to go vegan, 25 years ago, when he really didn’t feel very well; back then he smoked and drank and carried on doing who knows what — a different body.

— George makes another excuse: that in his work, communication and identity is very important and being a meat eater allows him a stronger basis for communicating with “non-environmental” people– an area of common culture that enables him to speak better to their values.  But of course he acknowledges that this is self-serving because there are plenty of things about George that aren’t “ordinary,” and not eating meat would in fact make his story stronger — a story of someone who loves meat and has given it up.  Nevertheless, this rationale works to keep the meat-eating behaviour alive.

— He also notes that meat eating goes deep into values and identity, as food does in general.  He was brought up this way– and talking about it, waxes poetic on his mother’s cooking: “My mother made THE BEST steak and kidney pie. She did GREAT short-crust pastry. Really the best I’ve ever had.”  There’s a high degree of emotional comfort, cultural identity, sense of love, connection, all of which need to be recognised as reason for attachment.   There’s a call to meat, different from addiction but a kind of compulsion, a way to feel and be satisfied. There’s also a historical culture to reckon with, how Celtic humans lived and survived on these islands — one can use this history to justify a lot.

–Living in mid-Wales, we are in an exceptionally strong position to buy ethical meat– sustainably grazed, sometimes organic, humanely raised.  But George notes he uses this potential for “Moral License” because often the meat he is eating — say if we go out for a Cheap and Cheerful Sunday Roast Dinner — falls far short of any standards of sustainability.  He compares this to the intelligent and thoughtful people in the oil industry who believe that the potential of carbon capture and storage justifies the continued expansion of oil production. The mere fact of the better, hypothetical possiblity allows them to justify the destructive behaviour.   George can tell himself that he’s an ethical eater with occasional lapses (I tell myself this too).

— George also slipped out that he can be confounded by vegan moral arguments against meat-eating which ultimately prescribe a different diet from environmental arguments which recognise that dairy can be quite damaging and that there might be low impact chicken, eggs, etc.  I too find myself lost for absolute truth in these arguments.  There are ways of imagining local animal fats (lard, butter), say, as less ecologically destructive, part of living landscapes of mixed, sustainable agriculture, vs. the plant-based tropical ones that are such common substitutes (coconut, soya, palm).  There’s a lot of back and forth in this.

My husband does note that as a professional communications person and campaigner, the whole issue of meat-eating and vegetarianism shouldn’t be framed as a giving-up so much as a gain…  a gain of health, a gain of opportunity to eat lots more health-giving and locally sourcable and sustainable vegetables.  A Plant-Based Diet.  That phrase is very appealing, as in a lean Bill Clinton.  I could see a mostly vegetarian diet — much upped from a Meat Free Mondays approach– as an opportunity to really be creative with my cooking– a wonderful way to explore how far one can go with world cuisines using mostly local and seasonal produce.  Fun, healthy, delicious. The Flexitarian, for example, is hugely inspired and inspiring as an approach to cooking and eating.

If George commits, he tells me, to significant reduction in his meat eating– to be fair, he does go many days a week without meat — or with minimal (say chicken stock as a base for a soup because I’ve saved and boiled the bones), it’s not the reports and information will not make him do it. A central point in his book is that data and rationality and figures do not change behaviour, but that people will change on emotional grounds. For him, there would be a profound appeal to morally consistency, and this would allow him to talk openly about the nature and process of personal change.  It would bring him closer to friends who have already made this step.  And he would be very compelled by evidence of increased health and vitality, such as we witness in the older vegans we know, who eat very carefully, consciously and well.