A firestorm erupted on Grist recently over the perennially fraught topic of diet and the environment. In response biodiversivist asks a question I’ve long wondered over as well: what’s so bad about “partial vegetarianism”?
I recognize that people have diverse reasons for making their dietary choices, and many view vegetarianism or veganism as first and foremost an animal welfare issue. For these people, I grant, partial vegetarianism might not be a coherent ethical choice. (Indeed, the original food fight on Grist was provoked by PETA, an organization not known for seeing shades of gray on this issue.)
But for others, the primary virtues of a no-meat diet are environmental or health-related. And in this case, it seems to me that a low- or lower-meat diet is a perfectly reasonable position to stake out.
Oddly, biodiversivist and I seem to have come to a similar conclusion from opposite starting points. Biodiversivist is primarily interested in defending omnivores against the contention that meat-eating is necessarily in contradiction with environmentalism. In other words, he is denying that meat-eating environmentalists are necessarily hypocrites, and he even has some nice spreadsheets to back up his point.
When I first started thinking about this topic — in college, I think — it was the other way around. Self-described “carnivores” routinely enjoyed running down vegetarians for their supposed hypocrisy. This was an easy game to play. The meat-eaters didn’t see any ethical principle at stake when they shopped for food, so there were never any contradictions to consider. The vegetarians, on the other hand, had to live with whatever compromises they deemed either necessary or acceptable: leather shoes, pet food, a secret bacon habit. Hypocrites!
I should probably mention that I wasn’t then and am not now a vegetarian. But the accusation of hypocrisy never made much sense to me. A mostly meat-free diet seems a perfectly sensible compromise to arrive at, and for many will be more easily achievable than strict vegetarianism or veganism.
And for those who, like me, are devoted omnivores but still worry about their environmental footprint, I can say that reducing meat consumption is way easier than you might think — many of our food choices are depressingly mindless. As an experiment, try abiding by simple rules to get started: no meat at lunch, or no meat on certain days of the week, etc. You might be surprised.