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5 April 2000 Issue
The Five "C'S": Principles Of A Vegan Life

By Steve Best -- sbest1@elp.rr.com 

"While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect

any ideal positions on this earth?" ~ George Bernard Shaw

As one discovers the vast web of issues raised by the politics of diet, vegetarianism becomes not simply a culinary preference, it is also, and fundamentally, an ethics, a worldview, an entire way of life -- a spirituality. The ethical life is a consciously principled life, and thus is guided by philosophical awareness of how one should act in the world. Whether lived implicitly or explicitly, reflection reveals five core ethical principles of the vegetarian life which I offer both to those considering vegetarianism and those already there.

The first principle is connections: it is crucial to grasp the central role of the Global Meat Complex (GMC) in so many of our pressing personal, social, and environmental problems today. The world simply cannot be healthy, well-fed, socially just, compassionate, and humane so long as it is oriented toward the mass slaughter of animals as a primary food source. All of these noble goals require a global shift toward a vegetarian diet.

For many people, the first stage of disenchantment is learning the causal correlation between the consumption of meat and diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, osteoporosis, and overall poor health. That, of course, is reason enough to eliminate meat and dairy products from one's diet forever, but it is only one strand in a web of larger problems that implicate one's "personal" dietary habits in the suffering of others.

As the initiate continues to read and learn, studying books like Diet For a New America by John Robbins and Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin, she or he is bound to learn that the GMC is implicated in world hunger, social injustice, and nearly every major environmental problem the world faces, including global warming, rainforest destruction, topsoil erosion, and water pollution.

The second principle informing a vegetarian life is compassion, developing an empathetic bond between oneself and non-human animals. In its most authentic sense, compassion knows no boundaries and is a universal form of love. Just as it would be ludicrous to say one is compassionate only toward members of one's own age, race, gender, religion, or nation, it is absurd to limit compassion to one's own species. The standpoint of compassion shows respect for all forms of life and is moved by the suffering of any living being, whether it can solve mathematical problems or not.

Of course, this compassion includes one's fellow human beings and one who eschews eating the flesh of non-human animals ideally does so to help other people also, both present and future generations, to help preserve the earth. According to the Iroquois saying, "One should make no decision without first taking into account the impact that it will have over the next seven generations." From this perspective, vegetarians seek to be good ancestors of the future by walking light on the earth.

Compassion also means that vegetarians should not feel morally superior to non-vegetarians since they may not have had similar opportunities for learning and growth and therefore they deserve our understanding, not censure. Vegetarians must not be intolerant of others as they are of us.

Since the compassionate person would never want to cause harm to any other living being, the next major principle of the vegetarian life is choice. Based on the connections one draws at both the intellectual and emotional levels, it is important to draw the practical consequences and make the right choices in everyday life. As Peter Singer points out in Animal Liberation, almost all vegetarians were indoctrinated into a meat and cruelty-based culture since birth; until that fateful moment when, by one means or another, we were lucky enough to encounter a vegetarian viewpoint, we really didn't have the choice to be anything but a flesh-eater. Of course, one can still choose to consume flesh after knowledge of the full effects of the GMC, but the choice would not be rational, responsible, or compassionate.

Once we make the right choice, we must affirm it everyday, bringing us to the fourth principle, commitment. For, as vegetarians know painfully well, we live in an inhospitable culture of carnivores where we constantly confront prejudice, bias, ignorance, intolerance, and ridicule. While we may or may not live comfortably in the capitalist economic system, suffer racism or sexism, and have easy access to all buildings, we are nevertheless discriminated against almost everytime we shop for food, eat at a restaurant, and attend a party or dinner. It is easy, at least at first, to feel disoriented by this, to doubt the correctness of one's choice, to suspect that the dominant view may be the right view after all, or to succumb to the relentless pressure of family and "friends."

Yet an important part of the vegetarian commitment is a resolve to educate others as we continue to educate ourselves. But if they wish not to listen and debate, and if one cannot find a means of peaceful cohabitation, then there is always the option to end a relationship. While we may wish to endure non-sympathetic family members, and may not be able to avoid colleagues from work, we have greater freedom to select our friends. By raising our level of compassion and intelligence, we will perhaps lose some old friends, but we will certainly gain new friends who wish to share with us the journey toward health, compassion, and an ecological lifestyle. As Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy sings, "If I can't change the people around me, I change the people around me."

Finally, the fifth principle is consistency, which demands that the commitment to vegetarianism be a commitment to veganism. The road to health and awareness does not dead-end at the dairy counter; this is merely a roadblock constructed by another pernicious and deceitful economic interest, the dairy industry, one of the main tentacles of the GMC. If one steers around this obstacle, one will see that the way continues, leading to a place of greater coherence, to a vegan diet.

The path to becoming a vegan is clearly marked; the very same arguments that lead one to become a vegetarian should also lead one to become a vegan -- environmental, ethical, and health.

Just as with meat, the production of dairy products involves an irrational waste of water, food, land, and energy. To feed one meat-eater for a year's worth of food requires three and a half acres of land; it takes one half acre to feed a lacto-ovo vegetarian, but only one-sixth of an acre to feed a vegan. No different than cattle, dairy cows produce an enormous amount of waste that pollutes water sources.

A diet that includes eggs, milk, cheese, and butter still has too much fat, cholesterol, and protein. It also contains antibiotics and chemicals such as Bovine Growth Hormone, a suspected carcinogen. Moreover, there are significant levels of pesticides in dairy products; meat products contain 14 times as many pesticide residues as plant foods, and dairy products contain 5 times as many as plant foods. If that is not unappetizing enough, dairy products typically contain pus secreted from infected utters.

Clearly, the lacto-ovo diet has not severed all ties to the exploitation of animals. The demand for milk products generates a veal industry by making good used of male calves who cannot produce milk. One half of all dairy cows in the U.S. are intensively confined, hooked up to milking machines. They are repeatedly impregnated to continue their milk production and their calves are taken from them within hours of their birth. This exploitation is steadily increasing; in 1960 the average cow produced 2.5 tons of milk per year; by 1990, this increased to 7 tons; dairy cows are forced to produce ten times the milk they would normally make to feed their calves. But even this is not enough for the greedy; in 1993, the U.S. government approved the use of BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) that fattens cows to ridiculous proportions and causes infections, pain, stress, and deformities. Under normal conditions, a cow can live to be 25 years old, but after 5 years of incessant exploitation, their milk production goes down and they are slaughtered.

Many vegetarians have overcome the protein myth but remain victims to the calcium myth -- a myth furthered exploited through recent milk mustaches ads and the industry's renewed urging that everyone drink three glasses of milk a day. Yet vegans get all the calcium they need in foods like tofu, tempeh, dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, and fortified soymilk. Ironically, the only people who need to worry about calcium deficiency are people who consume meat and dairy products, because excess protein leads to calcium losses.

It is worth emphasizing that a cow's milk is for calves, not human beings; only human beings drink the milk of another species, and once weaned, only human beings ever again consume milk. If milk were a "natural" drink as the dairy industries would like us to believe, human beings would not have the health problems that they get by consuming dairy products, such as gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, allergies, gallstones, kidney stones, and gout, to name just some.

The logical evolution of ethical awareness is from meat-eating to vegetarianism to veganism. This path is not just a duty, it is a joy, an exciting journey into new cuisines, new ideas, new friends, and sharing healthy food with friends and loved ones. In the midst of adversity, as the cultural paradigm hopefully shifts from a violent and irrational lifestyle to one that is peaceful, sane, and compassionate, the "five C's" can help guide us in our journey.

This article originally appeared in "Life Giving Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).

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