To those of you that don’t know already, I have a confession to make. After years of picking holes in and finding flaws in their various ethical or other arguments and of mocking their dietary choices, I’ve become… a vegetarian.
Okay, this probably wasn’t actually a shock to anybody. Between the observations of the barbeque food I’ve been enjoying recently and the fact that I willingly chose falafel over hog roast a month or so ago, it’s quite possible that you’re saying “well, duh” at this so-called revelation. That’s why I thought it’d be far more-interesting for me to talk about the principal reason for this change.
You don’t eat what, now?
For some, however, this change has been a gradual one, beginning with dropping beef from my diet in January, and other red meats in March (making me, technically-speaking, a lacto–ovo–melo–pollo–pescetarian, which is quite a mouthful). Poultry and fish disappeared from my diet in April and May.
For a brief stint, I tried to remove milk, too, aiming for ovo-vegetarianism, but it turns out that – while oatmilk is a perfectly reasonable alternative to the white stuff, and there are some great soya-based dairy-free deserts – there really are no adequate vegan substitutes for cheese… and I’m just not quite capable of coping without it.
Why, Dan? WHY?
My decision to adopt a vegetarian diet is based on a few different influences, but the principal one amongst these is one of environmentalism and sustainability. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly apparent to me that the Western Pattern Diet has a hugely damaging effect in the following areas:
- Water usage sustainability – studies consistently show that it takes an order of magnitude more water to produce beef than wheat, rice, or maize, by weight of food produced. Other meats fare somewhat better, being only three or four times less water-efficient per unit of weight of food, but are still unacceptably water-expensive, to me. Milk and eggs are really quite water-efficient, being (respectively) about as efficient as soybeans/rice (depending on the region they’re grown in) and maize (note, of course, that beef and dairy cattle are almost always separate breeds, so the counter-argument that beef is a by-product of milk production or vice-versa is not valid).
- Climatic impact – intensive modern livestock farming has an appreciable negative impact on global climate, contributing over a third of the world’s methane, probably the most-significant of the greenhouse gases.
- Food scarcity – despite worldwide crop yields increasing faster than population growth, year on year, food security is becoming a growing issue owing to desertification of equatorial regions, increased uptake of the wasteful Western Pattern Diet, and an increase in the production of biofuels. A still-growing population, the depletion of fish stocks, and a rapid increase by developed nations in biofuel demands as oil supplies dwindle will only aggravate these issues. While a widely-adopted vegetarian/vegan diet would not in itself alleviate these problems (many of which are caused by political and economic constraints), it would help to ensure that it is possible to feed our booming population in the decades to come.
- Overfishing – most of those reasons, of course, are only applicable to the farming of mammals and birds, but it’s hard to deny that there are huge problems with our consumption of fish, too. We’re already reaching the point where the consumption of many species of fish is ethically very dubious, and an increasing number of species are threatened with extinction. To ensure that fish stocks remain available for future generations, we need either extremely restrictive multinational agreements on fishing quotas (unlikely), or dramatic reductions in the demand for fish.
In short, I could probably best be described as an economic environmentalist vegetarian: I’m concerned primarily with making sure that our agricultural practices are sustainable for the benefit of humans, whether currently existing or future. More on that, little doubt, in the Frequently Anticipated Questions, below.
So… how’re you finding it?
Man, I miss bacon.
Giving up beef, it turned out, was reasonably easy. Ditto lamb. But bacon: that’s something I miss. When my co-worker Liz had a bacon, mushroom and cheese jacket potato at an office lunch the other week, I could have almost drowned in my own drool. I find myself envying those vegetarians I know who don’t eat meat because they don’t like it: those guys have it so easy…
Chicken’s been challenging, too, because it’s always been a go-to base ingredient for me, and I’ve had to learn to substitute other sources of protein into my diet. Thankfully, I’ve been in a strong position: many years of cooking for vegetarians, at one point or another, has given me a pretty good understanding of what’s good for what and a decent repertoire of already-vegetarian dishes.
I tried to give up milk and milk products after realising that the ecological impact of milk production – while significantly less than beef, for a variety reasons – is still higher than I’d like. Sadly, it turns out that milk turns up in just about everything, and cheese and cream are remarkably hard to do without. Maybe some day I’ll give that another go.
On the up-side, though, I’ve discovered a reasonable number of things that I didn’t think I liked, that actually I do… or at least, that are perfectly adequate substitutes for meat products.
But man, I miss bacon. Pigs may be clever, but they’re not smart enough to not be delicious.
I also routinely slip up on the likes of isinglass (used in the production of many of my favourite beers), and gelatine (which appears in a surprising number of things), and I try not to kick up a fuss where food is being prepared for several people, of which I’m only one, in a non-compatible way. For example, I tolerate the addition of Worcester sauce (containing anchovies) as an ingredient where a meal is being prepared for several people – it’d be incredibly inconvenient to require a separation of the food at this point during cooking, and I’m happy to compromise a little where the chef’s convenience collides with my ethics.
Frequently Anticipated Questions
In order that I jump the gun and answer you before you ask:
You consume products made using isinglass, gelatine, and occasional small quantities of fish sauce… you’re not a vegetarian at all!
I guess not. But the label’s for my convenience, not yours. I use the word vegetarian because it’s the simplest-common-denominator. If I ask in a restaurant “what have you got that’s vegetarian, or would be but that it contains trace amounts of isinglass, is made using gelatine, has Worcester sauce in, etc.” I’d never get my meal. Plus, the staff would be confused. To take a mathematical model: the set of things that better-vegetarians-than-I eat is completely contained within the set of things that I eat, and the two are very nearly the same, so to call myself a vegetarian is closer to a convenient rounding error than a lie.
Also; that wasn’t a question.
Do you expect to make a significant difference?
No. But, like many moral decisions, this isn’t about making a significant difference but about doing the right thing.
If there’s a riot in your town and an out-of-control crowd begins damaging and looting the shops in the high street, you might be tempted to go out and steal a nice laptop or television yourself, too. Regardless of whether or not you do so, you won’t make a significant difference – Currys will be just as empty in the morning whether you partake of a little ransacking or not. But that doesn’t change the fact that it would be wrong of you to rob them.
On the other hand, over the course of the rest of my life I’m liable, under ideal circumstances, to make a miniscule but measurable net decrease in the demand for meat products, which might, under ideal circumstances, have an impact on meat production, thereby coming some way to achieving my ideals. Moreover, I’d like to think that my dietary choices go some way to making those dietary choices more palatable (hah!) for others, which may influence others to reduce their meat consumption too.
If the aim is to reduce meat consumption, why not simply eat less meat?
Because I can’t trust everybody else to play along.
My gut feeling is that this would work (although I haven’t read any research to either confirm or deny that suspicion): that if we all just cut down our meat consumption so that we were eating meat only once every few weeks, that we’d have a huge impact on sustainability for the future. But I can’t make everybody do this. The best I can do is to do so myself.
However, if I go just a little bit further and stop eating meat altogether, then I also help to “make up” for other people’s meat-heavy diets.
For every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat two!
Well, I hope you enjoy it, because you’ll probably not live too long after consuming all the saturated fats of all of the animals I don’t eat.
In any case: I’m not responsible for how you choose to live your life, even if you are threatening to push Comic Book Guy off a railway overpass.
You mentioned that the economic/ecological reasons were the principal cause for your vegetarianism. Are there other reasons, too, like the health and longevity benefits or the cost saving?
Yes. But they’re not the principal reasons.
Incidentally, removing meat from my diet made it far easier for me to lose the second of my three 10kg weight loss goals (as part of my ongoing effort to get down from 110kg to 80kg; I’m currently at about 89kg), because it’s far easier to avoid fats when you’re already avoiding meat.
He’s not… so much. These days, Ruth eats a reasonable amount of a select few different varieties of meat, and Paul… well, I’m not sure I can keep up with our favourite pepperoni-eating vegetarian, but I think that right now he’s abstaining from meat entirely, but I’m not sure.
I have a hypothesis that perhaps the world can only tolerate a certain number of vegetarians at once, so as I became one, Ruth had to stop.
What about sustainably-farmed fish/synthetic meat/a survival situation/some other hypothetical situation?
I’m pragmatic, first and foremost, so if somebody wants to demonstrate that a particular farmed fish is environmentally sound, to my satisfaction, then great: it’s back on the menu! I’m not going out of my way to look for any, though, because I was never a big seafood fan to begin with! It’s not a high priority for me to make my life more complicated by coming up with some kind of complex list of what’s okay and what’s not, when the simple rule “no meat” seems to be perfectly workable.
Survival situation: sure, I’d chow down on whatever was available to stay alive. I’m not stupid!
And synthetic meat? If it was economically-sound, environmentally-friendly, safe, and tasty… sounds like a win to me. Fetch me a plate!
Isn’t this quite a turnaround for somebody who was once quoted on the BBC as describing vegetarianism as an “eating disorder”?
Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always prided myself, though, on what I call “correctness over consistency”: that is, I’d like to think that I’m able to do the right thing, even where it means contradicting my previous attitudes or behaviour. I believe that we’d all do a lot better if people were less attached than they are, on average, to appearing consistent, especially when they’re faced with new information. There’s no shame in saying “I was wrong then,” so long as you can show that you’re learning.
But yes, I’ve been quite mean to many vegetarians for many years, as if I needed reminding. And so yes, this really is quite a turnaround. And I’m proud to be capable of that.
-  [PDF] Virtual water flows between nations in relation to trade in livestock and livestock products, A.K. Chapagain and A.Y. Hoekstra, 2003
-  [PDF] Virtual Water in Food Production and Global Trade Review of Methodological Issues and Preliminary Results, Daniel Zimmer and Daniel Renault, 2003
-  [PDF] The Changing Landscape of U.S. Milk Production, Don P. Blayney, 2002
-  Livestock’s Long Shadow; environmental issues and options, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2006
-  Methane’s Impacts on Climate Change May Be Twice Previous Estimates, Krishna Ramanujan (NASA), 2005
-  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006
-  [PDF] Hundred-year decline of North Atlantic predatory fishes, Villy Christensen et al., 2003
I sent a letter to Google, today. Click to see it in large-o-vision.
I my letter, I suggest that the search giant should add a feature to their UK search, as they already have to their USA search, that would provide the details of an appropriate emotional support helpline service to people searching for suicide-related topics (such as “how to commit suicide”, etc.). This would provide minimal disruption to users merely interested in the topic, but could potentially provide a critical lifeline to somebody in dire need.
Just thought I’d share that with you.
Update: Google have now made the change I suggested! Read more about it here.
I believe that it is ethically wrong to lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus. And, as it’s a topical time of year – and because I know that this view brings me into conflict with the views of many others (I’ve certainly had more than a couple of arguments about this before) – I thought that I’d explain my thinking.
Bias of background
I probably ought to come clean, first, about my own background. There’s a certain bias that people can have towards their own upbringing: the implicit assumption that the way one was brought up is somehow the best or the most-correct way. I’d like to think that I’m speaking from a position of rationality as well as morality, but I can’t deny that my judgment may be clouded by my own childhood.
I never believed that Santa was real, and was never encouraged to. My family played out a whole variety of modern, secular Christmas traditions, such as leaving out a mince pie for Santa, hanging stockings, and decorating a tree. But these were always understood to be what they actually were. There was never an illusion that the mince pie wasn’t being eaten by my dad just minutes after he’d checked that I’d finally managed to curb my excitement get to sleep (even without a belief in the patently mythological, Christmas can still be an exciting time for a child).
What’s the harm?
When I was growing up, I came into contact with many children for whom the Father Christmas myth was very real. I gather that they’re still remarkably common… and who can blame parents: perpetuating the Santa lie can provide a very easy and pervasive way to control the behaviour of their children!
For the vast majority of these children, the revelation of the lie was a harmless experience: over time, they developed doubts, from the childish (“We don’t have a chimney? How can Santa slide down radiators?”), to the logical (“Reindeer can’t fly! And how big is a sleigh that can carry presents for every good child on Earth?”), to the profound (“Why does Santa give the children of rich parents more expensive gifts than the children of poor parents?”). They’d hear stories from other children about the falsehood of the Christmas stories when they spoke to other children or, often, older siblings. Many would eventually challenge their parents on these lies, and most of these parents would then come clean, correctly judging that the lie had run it’s course. So what’s the harm?
There are some children who didn’t come off so well. I’ve seen children bullied at school and in social settings as a result of clinging to their belief in Santa. One kid I knew – bolstered by his mother’s ongoing lies (she would later claim that she thought he knew, but was just “playing along”) – genuinely believed in Santa until he was 14 years old, defying all argument to the contrary, and suffered so much that he ceased to gain any enjoyment at all from the festival for years to come.
I’ve spoken to parents who have attempted to justify their decision to lie to their children by dismissing it as only “a white lie”, something which does more good than harm, and I can see their argument. But for some children, as we’ve seen, this lie can spiral out of control, and even if this were to happen with only one in a thousand children, I wouldn’t personally want to take the risk that it was a child of mine.
That Magical Christmas Feeling™
A common response to my claim that lying to children about Santa is ethically wrong is that there is something particularly special (or “magical”, it is often said) about being able to believe in Santa. Those who make this claim invariably come from a background in which they were encouraged to believe in him, and they frequently talk of wanting their children to be able to have the same experience as them. (I would speculate that there’s a large crossover between this group of people and the group of people who would rather their children were brought up with their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, than be given the opportunity to make their own choices, too).
Having experienced life as an a-santaist, I can say that there never for a moment felt like there was something missing from my childhood Christmases. Children have a rich and beautiful imagination and a way of looking at the world which will find wonder and magic, if they want it, regardless of the untruths they’re told. Imposing false beliefs as truths on healthy young minds does not result in a net addition of “magic”. At best, all that is achieved is that the child fantasies about a specific lie, perhaps one that the child’s caregivers can relate to. We’ve discussed a couple of the worth cases already, and these aren’t isolated incidents.
Christmas can be a magical time anyway. There’s time away from school (for children of schoolgoing age), a chance to see distant relatives, the giving and receiving of presents (how can I have left this until third in the list!), following unusual and exciting traditions, eating special food, the potential for snow (at least in this hemisphere), and a time for telling special stories and singing special songs. Special events are magical, and that’s true whether or not you subscribe to any particular religious or secular holidays. For a child, birthdays are magical, bonfire night is magical (ooh! fireworks!), the summer solstice is magical: whatever you’ve got can be magical when you’ve got a child’s imagination.
Think back to whatever family traditions you had as a child, especially the ones you had to wait a whole year for. They’re all special, all by themselves. You can enjoy eating delicious chocolate eggs without believing in either a magical rabbit with a confusing reproductive system, the crucifixion of the embodiment of a deity, or spring coming forth thanks to the earned favour of the fertility gods. Sorry, what were you saying? I was still thinking about chocolate.
So, no Santa at all, then?
If you were paying attention, you’ll have seen that I said “telling special stories and singing special songs”. My childhood was a secular one, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t full of stories of a jolly red man, songs about cervines with nasal photoluminescence, and so on. I enjoyed stories about a gift-giving magical man, just like I enjoyed stories about anthropomorphic talking animals: and it’s okay to understand these things for just what they are: stories! There’s perhaps something a little special in stories about Father Christmas in that they’re told pretty-much exclusively at Christmas time (and, perhaps, a little much – how many Christmas-themed movies are scheduled for television broadcast this winter?), but we don’t have to treat them as if they’re real.
My rules are pretty simple. If you (a) know something to be false and (b) teach it to a child to be real with (c) the intent for them to believe it wholeheartedly and for an extended period of time, you’re abusing the position of trust in which that child has placed you. (a) provides an exception for religious upbringing, (b) provides an exception for relationships in which there is not a disparity of power, and (c) provides an exception for whatever so-called “white lies” you feel that you need: that’s a pretty hefty lump of exceptions, if you need them – but still people raise objections.
Here’s what Santa means to me. To me, “Santa” is, and has always been, the embodiment of anonymous gift-giving: the genuine “spirit of Christmas”, if you like. And given my way, that would be what I’d want to teach my children, too. I’m not for a moment denying anybody the magic of the season, I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between Santa as an abstract concept (like a storm “wanting” to break) and Santa as a real, albeit magical, being (like Poseidon sending the storm†).
It’s a matter of trust
For me, this all comes down to trust. I don’t want to lie to my children. It’s not a difficult concept to understand: the only difference between me and a large number of other people is that they choose a different definition of “lie”. For the virtually all children who discover that they’ve been deceived about Santa, their trust in their parents remains fundamentally unharmed. For some, it’s dented for a short while but then comes back. But this still doesn’t make it right.
I want to be somebody who my children will always know that they can trust. I want them to know that I will not lie to them or deceive them. I want to be somebody who they can turn to for advice. I want to be somebody who they know will put them first, even in spite of tradition and convention.
That’s where I stand. Let’s here what you guys think.
But first, there’s one more argument…
…that I’ve heard recently. I’ve heard it put that it’s beneficial to lie to children about Santa because it teaches them not to trust everything they hear, teaches them to be critical thinkers, etc.. That being taught a lie will toughen them against other lies that they will be given to them later in the big, wide, and cruel world.
This argument holds no weight with me. Do these same parents like to beat up their children “just a little” so that if they get into a fight at school, it won’t be so bad? Do they lock up and abuse their kids so that if they’re kidnapped and raped that it isn’t so hard on them?
In my mind, a lie that you keep up for years on end is no longer a harmless lie. When I want to teach my kids about deceit, I’ll perform magic tricks for them. The first time you perform a magic trick for a child, they genuinely believe it – how did he make that coin appear from behind my ear? Leave it for a minute or so (a minute can be an eternity when you’re a kid). Then I’ll show them how it’s done. I’ll teach them to do the trick themselves, and they’ll see for themselves that magic is an illusion. Plus, they’ll have learned a cool trick.
The world is full of many very clever illusions and tricks, and often you can’t see how they’re done, but that doesn’t mean that they’re magic. There’s no shame in not knowing all the answers, but looking for answers is a noble and beautiful thing. I want to foster in my children a natural suspicion of magic, so that they’re better-able to avoid being conned by those who would do them harm. And I can achieve this without lying to them for more than a few minutes at a time. Shove that in your stocking, Santa.
DISCLAIMER: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE NATURE OF SANTA CLAUS. IF YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS, PERHAPS YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE READ IT.
† No offence intended to those who genuinely believe that Poseidon is the master of storms, naturally.