Here is the full transcript of author Brian Kateman’s TEDx Talk: Ending the Battle Between Vegans, Vegetarians, and Everyone Else at TEDxCUNY conference. He is the author of the book: The Reducetarian Solution.
Can we save our planet? Will we continue to have access to water, food, energy, and other ecosystem goods that our planet provides? Each hour, three species disappear. Each day, 10000 people die from water shortage or contamination. Fourteen billion pounds of garbage are dumped into the ocean every year; most of it is plastic, and it will take nearly a thousand years for it to degrade.
Due to global warming, the Arctic may be ice free, and thousands of cities, including New York City, may be underwater. You’ve all undoubtedly heard of many of these statistics before, and likely, at least so far, you aren’t impressed. Yet still, in some sense, these facts turned societal platitudes, motivate us.
They certainly motivate me, and I, perhaps like many of you, am the typical environmentalist. I gleefully present my refillable cup to the Starbucks barista, I love to shop at Trader Joe’s, and I always bring my “Go green” bag. If you are anything like me, I spend one to two minutes in a fit of confusion trying to recycle the fork, bowl, napkin, and food that constitutes my salad. While my New Yorker instinct is to avoid eye contact with an over-eager side walk soliciting environmentalist, I proudly flash them a smile. Simply to remind them that I support what they do.
And as I reflect on my eco-friendly day, I sleep like a baby knowing I made a difference. I know what you are thinking, “You could do so much more,” and you’d be right. I could do a lot more. I could compost, and I don’t. I could walk to work through Central Park, and I don’t.
As one environmental campaign suggested, I could get clean and save water by showering with a friend or even an attractive stranger. Don’t get too excited for me, I shower alone, often, for many minutes at a time. Undoubtedly, we all could do more, but what if I told you that I did make a more difficult sacrifice for our planet? What if I told you that I am a vegan? Did you feel that? You did. One word and everyone gets a little bit nervous. You can be honest with me, this is TEDx, it’s a safe space, you feel a little awkward.
Why? Because I am a vegan? And presumably, many of you are not? What is that about? Well, we’ve all had that conversation before. You are out to dinner with a friend or colleague, and you learn that the person you are with is a vegan. You had no idea, you are surprised, and while the person in front of you may not look like this or like this, your perception of them has immediately changed. There is no going back to whatever it was you thought of them before this moment.
Back at dinner, the vegan likely feels compelled to explain to you that while he or she is a vegan, by no means does your culinary decision inspire offense. You, in turn, decide to kindly acknowledge that reconciling gesture, and attempt to, very quickly, move the conversation along to a more unifying topic. Yet, you still feel whatever it is you or your neighbor might be feeling right now. A tinge of nervousness, a pulse of discomfort, the manifestation of a mouth twinge, or the eyes widening. There is me, and then there is you. And somehow, our perception of one another is no longer the same.
Well, as it turns out, I am not a vegan. Uff! I am sorry to all the vegans in the room who have lost one of their own. To the rest of you, you can safely take a deep sigh of relief knowing I’m a carnivore just like you. But whatever connotations are in the word vegan, and the experiences those connotations create in our mind, I am absolutely fascinated by them, and think they may hold, at least in part, a key to solving complex problems like global warming and the loss of biodiversity.
Semantics aside for just a moment, we all know that vegans and vegetarians, the modern day pioneers abstaining from meat, are onto something, even if we ourselves choose to eat eggs and meat. We know our planet is in trouble, and we know that meat production, from the clearing of lands and trees to the transportation of these products accounts for nearly 20% of global green house gas emissions; 20%. That is why a vegetarian’s footprint is nearly half that of a meat lover’s. And for a vegan, it’s even lower.
We also know that meat production requires a lot of water. Producing just one pound of meat protein requires ten times the amount of water as producing one pound of grain protein. It’s a lot of water. We also know, perhaps most morally salient, that due to factory farming, animals are not treated very well. They’re not. They are incredibly smart and experience pain just like us. So as we look into the eyes of this very adorable baby pig, we have to ask ourselves, “Why do over 90% of Americans continue to eat meat?” Bacon! Bacon is the reason we eat meat.
For many, the mere smell of bacon in the morning, that crispy crunchy texture, that savory salty taste, they give us a reason to smile. That spicy buffalo wing, that juicy steak, they are the reason we eat meat. They satisfy our most primal urges.
So what should we do? On the one hand, we know that meat gives us a reason to smile in the morning, and on the other, we know it straddles our instincts to uphold our sense of morality, with its questionable impact on the planet. Plus, as some of the medical literature suggest, meat may not be very healthy for us.
Certainly, we can treat each meal as a choice, as you indulge, or make a more restrained decision, we could simply eat less meat and more fruits and vegetables. That seems simple enough, and as many have suggested, if we simply followed a meatless Monday diet, whereby we abstain from eating meat on Mondays, we’d have a billion vegetarians overnight. That would be huge.
But what is a person who eats less meat? They may not be a vegetarian, or vegan, or even on any particular diet. Where do they fall on the spectrum? I’ve discovered that there are a few words, each with their own connotations, to describe a person who eats less meat.
You could say: I am a semi-vegetarian, I sometimes eat meat, and sometimes I don’t. You could say: I am a mostly-vegetarian, I mostly eat fruits and vegetables, I sometimes eat meat, but I try not to eat a lot of it. Or you could say, and this one is by far my favorite: that I am flexitarian; I am flexible about it. Sometimes I eat meat, and sometimes I don’t.
So, imagine we’re back at dinner, and the person you’re with has just explained to you that he or she is a vegan. You decide to enthusiastically share that you get it, “I am a flexitarian!” “I am flexible about it!” “I sometimes eat meat, and sometimes I don’t, but I try not to eat a lot of it.”
As you continue to eat your steak, and here she continues to eat her vegetable kheema ball, you realize, perhaps unconsciously, that you still fall somewhere different along this moral landscape. We know with simple intuition, that flexitarian sounds, well, flexible. That by choosing to eat meat sometimes, as opposed to never eating meat, you alter your moral standards for primal urges and convenience. It’s weak, and it’s inconsistent.