People have different reasons for becoming vegan. The plant-based eaters tend to come at it from a health standpoint, much like the whole-fooders and the clean-eaters. Others go vegan for medical reasons. Most of the vegans I know do it for the love of animals and their desire to not play any part in animal cruelty. I fall in with this last group, but also, because I can’t divorce my passions for conservation and environmentalism from veganism. Kindness to animals, for me, goes hand in hand with kindness to the earth, to the land, to the water, to the air. With this belief that we all belong to each other, which is engraved with ink on my skin.
When I first made the decision to adopt a vegan lifestyle about nine months ago, I knew giving up meat was the easy part. I’d already lived quite happily without meat for a year and half as a vegetarian. What was going to be hardest, I thought, was letting go of eggs and dairy. I ate eggs almost every day, in some form or another, for protein. I loved egg dishes of all kinds, especially for breakfast. I loved my whole milk lattes and, dear lord, my half and half. No tofu scramble or plant milk I knew of could come close to replacing those.
. . . . .
What I didn’t see coming were all the micro decisions within decisions that would shape my lifestyle, challenging me to expand my concept of being vegan. How many warm socks have wool in them. How many warm boots have leather. How many food items contain sneaky, ambiguous ingredients such as “natural flavors,” which generally involve an animal. How many artificial colors in products – products I sometimes splurge on, like candy for a movie or Mexican soda at a taco truck – come from an animal, or a byproduct of petroleum, which is toxic not only to ingest, but also to the earth and the habitats of who knows how many living species.
And this one, most recently, which makes my insides simultaneously ache and cringe: palm oil. It seems, though I’m slightly exaggerating, this is in most of the vegan products that I purchase. From the soymilk creamer that has satisfactorily replaced my half and half, to the Earth Balance butter I use for much of my baking, to the cashew milk ice cream I treated myself to today. It can also be found hidden in laundry detergents, cleaning products, toothpastes, cosmetics and shampoo.
And what’s wrong with palm oil, you may wonder? It certainly sounds vegan. On one level, it is. It does not contain, nor does it come from, any animal. No, but the majority of palm oil does come from rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, and mostly not with sustainable measures. Rain forests that are fragile, disappearing ecosystems, home to more animals and living things than I can name. According to the World Wildlife Fund, swaths of rain forest the size of 300 football fields are cleared every hour for the purpose of setting up palm oil plantations. That large of a territory is beyond my imagination. And they accomplish this largely by setting fire to the forest.
This is where I start to weep as I write this. I can’t type these words without seeing images of ancient trees consumed by fire; birds and reptiles and mammals fleeing their homes in terror at the hands of human oppressors and machines. Or more specifically, orangutans: running with their hair or limbs on fire. Some of them cruelly beaten to death by the ones evicting them from their home and eviscerating the land. I didn’t know how vital orangutans are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the rain forest; how certain seeds can only germinate in the forest after they have been ingested by and passed through an orangutan. As of now, it’s estimated that over 90% of the orangutans’ habitat has been obliterated in the last 20 years, constituting them as “a conservation emergency” by the UN. Somewhere between 1,000-5,000 are killed each year for the purpose of palm oil production.
To me, orangutans, or any living thing – large or small, simple or complex – are as vital to this planet as humans. As much as I love the taste of my vegan creamer and vegan ice cream and vegan butter (and the convenience of buying them versus making my own), I know I could never stand at the edges of a burning rain forest and shrug my shoulders; look away; stare at the violence and still come to the conclusion that my taste preferences and convenience are more valuable than these lives. If I saw it in person, I don’t know what it would do me. What it would compel me to do. I think the images of the horror, the sounds and smells, could possibly traumatize me for life if merely looking at pictures and reading an article can leave me with my face in my hands, sobbing.
. . . . .
Yes, it’s hard to see. To feel so much. To know ugly truths. People might label you a fanatic. A kill joy, a downer. Someone who always has to rock the boat, make things difficult, take all the “fun” out of life. A tree hugging hippie (which, for me, is a compliment). They might roll their eyes and say you’re an idealist, or accuse you of judging their choices. But who gives a damn what these people think or say about you when the world and so many living things you love are suffering, endangered – and increasingly disappearing – over human ignorance, selfishness and greed and you cannot bear to be a part of the violence any longer?
I will never forget the words of my counseling supervisor as a grad school intern: “You can’t unknow what you know.”
How these words have haunted me since I first heard them ten years ago. How they’ve come to influence me at crossroads in my life, where I am asked to choose between doing good or keeping peace with the status quo. How they’ve shaped who I am continuing to become; shaped my art, my yoga, my relationships or loss of them, my eating and my buying and my repurposing, my volunteering and my marching and my writing, my daily rituals. And that, essentially, is what being vegan boils down to for me.
For more on palm oil, the industry and its environmental impact, read here.