why being vegan matters now (post-Irma thoughts)
The above picture was taken a few weeks ago, on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I had just finished my bar exam in the hopes of expanding my law practice to my home island of St. Croix (I'm already licensed in Florida and California). Since then, St. Thomas has been devastated by Hurricane Irma, suffering damage to most of the island's structures, including the hospital and Government House, and losing at least four human lives. Accounts of the destruction on St. John, the third of the USVI, are harrowing and heartbreaking, to put it mildly. St. Croix was spared the worst of the storm, due to its location south of St. Thomas and St. John, and it has become a base for aid in the region. I am so incredibly proud of the wholehearted support efforts put forth by the Virgin Islands family in St. Croix, much of it beginning the morning after the storm hit the territory. I admit that it has been hard for me to be unable to help directly from here in Orlando, where we were not hit with the worst of the storm yet have been reeling from our own inevitable hurricane mess and disruption (loss of power and internet, debris, supply shortages, inoperable gas stations, etc.). My heart aches for the sister islands, yet my life here in the states has to chug along.
I confess, I'm exhausted. My family and I have been incredibly fortunate in terms of our situation in regards to this hurricane, but preparing for, enduring, and trying to remain professionally productive in the wake and aftermath of a natural disaster are exhausting in their own right. I am exhausted by social media, which I have been more or less glued to in the wake of Irma, needing to check up on, and decode the best avenues for supporting, people and places so close to my heart.
Natural disaster or no, however, social media always exhausts me. I've known this for a long time. Before this blog, my Facebook account had been deactivated for several months, and to be honest, that's how I am happiest. Social media is also, unfortunately, by far the dominant avenue that readers reach this little food project... based on my analytics, without social media, my mom and mother-in-law would more or less be my only readers (love y'all!).
This morning, I woke up thinking that I would take a self-care sabbatical from all social media and non-optional digital activities, including this blog. VLGL's readership is fairly small, and it is purely a hobby, so I figured there would be no financial or public harm in taking a break. So, I made a fairly sloppy açai bowl (pictured above with some very interested kitties), snapped a picture for some friends on Snapchat, and sat down to eat it while contemplating whether to announce a sabbatical or just disappear (I'm already days off my posting schedule, anyway).
A little while later, the following response to my açai snap changed my mind:
It was this that made me realize that this blog isn't just a personal food or "wellness" project; perhaps accidentally, by providing a resource for anyone looking to eat more plant-based, it's a form of activism.
Since starting this blog, I have taken the advice of others to keep it welcoming and accessible... and not to make it "too vegan" or "activist-y." I do not intend on changing my tone or style (it's authentic as is), but I wish to be clear here: I am vegan because I believe it is the ethical choice given my personal position in the world (as a food-secure person living in a developed and environmentally destructive country), and it is likely an ethical path for many others similarly situated, too.
After witnessing a record-breaking hurricane harm and kill innocent people in my home state and sister islands, and with the connection between climate change and such extreme weather events becoming increasingly undeniable, I feel it crucial to advocate that we as individuals take responsibility for our climate impacts. It is by now common knowledge, or close to it, that adopting a plant-based diet is one of the most effective choices an individual can make to lower our carbon footprint. Being vegan matters now because our planet and its many sentient inhabitants are visibly, undeniably suffering, and eating plants instead of animals can directly alleviate this suffering.
A concept that comes up often in environmental law, particularly international environmental law, is that of common but differentiated responsibility. "The principle recognises historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing States to global environmental problems, and differences in their respective economic and technical capacity to tackle these problems." CBDR typically applies to nations, particularly in executing treaty responsibilities, but I think it has individual application, as well.
The ability to choose what (and if!) we eat is a privilege not available to many people around the world, and is largely available to middle- and upper-class people in developed countries, such as the United States. The United States is the second greatest emitter of greenhouse gases and equivalents in the world -- and this is largely due to our methane-heavy, beef-heavy agriculture sector. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Accordingly, applying CBDR, a middle- or upper-class person in the United States has greater capacity to tackle climate emissions by choosing from among the many plant-based protein options available and also greater responsibility due to our habits' greater collective contribution to the problem.
Given the disproportionate responsibility and privilege of wealthier people in developed countries, particularly the United States, I confess it distresses me greatly that much of the modern "wellness" movement focuses on pandering luxury items to the rich, e.g. collagen supplements and grass-fed beef (which may actually be worse for the environment than conventionally farmed) by evangelizing the self-indulgent tendencies already plaguing our culture. One contributor to an allegedly environmentally-minded wellness website (a "functional medicine practitioner" -- meaning someone with a health-related degree who openly dabbles in holistic practices/pseudoscience), recently derided the vegan diet as a poor path to "natural, optimum health" due to the need for B12 supplementation (I am not citing the article here because I do not wish to give it any more traffic)(also, this conflicts with the longstanding conclusion that a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy). The ability to eat a "natural" diet for "optimum health" is a privilege of the highest degree; when this includes environmentally-destructive choices, it performs as an upper-class commodity to the detriment of vulnerable people around the world, as has been dramatically demonstrated by Irma's devastation of the Caribbean and already long suffered by people in small island states, globally.
Even when one has the financial and logistical ability to eat plant-based, I understand how deeply food, especially meat, is entwined in culture and habit. However, if you can start with my girl Emily's approach (above), eating vegan for breakfast and lunch, you'll probably be on a better track than most meat-loving Americans (depending on portion sizes).
In closing, even though I'm busy and tired, I'm going to keep on cooking, blogging, and sharing, so that if and when you sweet friends reading decide you'd like to eat more plant-based meals, I'm here for you. I'm here for you for support, ideas, and of course, yummy recipes that are kind to our planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. If there is anything you would like to see on here, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, and perhaps with the most immediate importance, if you are able to give for post-Irma relief, I encourage you to do so in one of these places:
- Tim Duncan's US Virgin Islands Relief Fund
- Irma Relief for our Sister Islands (organized by a sister of a sweet island friend)
With love, a sore heart, and hope for a better future:
☼ Elizabeth, VLGL