Hi everyone —
I want to share a piece I wrote for one of my classes during my first year of college. In this course, individuals got the chance to collaborate and publish their own magazine. My group created the publication, Grow Up, and investigated the uncomfortable realities we inherit when no longer existing under a parent’s roof. We challenged the message of a linear progression of our lives by showcasing narratives from young, confused people.
My piece titled Vegans Suck is a personal narrative I wrote for a magazine project class during my freshman year, an exploration of my time as a vegan, environmentally-conscious consumer living in New York City. I spent my freshman year a bit paranoid about how much waste I consumed, how I can live in a more “eco-friendly” way to the point of becoming paranoid about plastic-wrapped vegetables. I explore the contradictions, burdens, shame, and struggles that individuals who take on the label of being “sustainable” feel in the 21st century. More often than not, we use labels to implicate a higher moral ground than others, whether it be “vegan” or “zero-waste” without thinking about how we still can contribute harm while practicing these lifestyles, often through our plastic waste or economic privilege to afford this certain lifestyle. I grapple with the neoliberal reality we all live in which forces consumers to believe in the con of our individual choice instead of demanding systemic political changes to how we treat the planet.
Below there are scans of the content from our physical magazine, and the text is written in this post as well! Hope you enjoy.
I walk into Trader Joe’s on 14th street and panic: the zucchini I was planning to buy is wrapped in plastic, a material which poses extreme environmental risks. I could drop this plastic-soiled, unsustainable food and run to Whole Foods which is just a couple of blocks away in Union Square where they have fresh produce I can put inside of my canvas tote. An organic zucchini at Whole Foods would be about $4, whereas the 3 plastic-wrapped zucchinis would only cost me $2.49. The zucchini may be a within my budget and dietary needs, but it is not packaged in a way which supports the underpinning choice of why I went vegan: helping the planet. I have about 20 minutes to decide or else I’ll be late to class.
As a vegan, environmentally-conscious student living in New York City, it is difficult to practice conscious consumption. It got me thinking. Yes, I’ve chosen my lifestyle and diet, primarily because I believe individuals can impact our planet by not supporting animal products. You often hear the token vegan in your social circle go on and on with facts about how switching to a plant-based lifestyle can curb greenhouse emissions and stall rising CO2 levels. For example, Tara Thean describes in “How Meat and Dairy are Hiking Your Carbon Footprint” that investigators looked into practices at one dairy farm and discovered, “this one dairy gives off 3,575 pounds of ammonia, 33,092 pounds of methane, and 409 pounds of nitrous oxide per day. Now consider that there are 365 days in a year and tens of thousands of dairy farms in the U.S.” Thus, I feel deeply connected to the impact I can make by avoiding meat and dairy.
But I find myself living in the contradictions, wondering if individual choice matters in the grand scheme of things. It takes a lot of effort to practice sustainability, and often times, you can never find a way to live without having to make an absurd sacrifice in a world cluttered with harmful products. Why do I hold such persistent values that force me to engage with choices that cause extra time and energy to seek out an option just so I never have to use a plastic straw again? Am I really saving the sea animals by avoiding the iced coffee that I could grab between classes to stay awake?
I want to be able to practice what I preach about environmentalism, but there I am, wasting another to-go container for dinner at the dining hall.Why would I put myself through an hour-long excursion, out-of-the-way from my own residence, to simply get food each day when my own building has a dining hall? It’s 20 degrees, my feet are slipping through snow at 8pm on a Tuesday, I have a paper to write, and I seek out the “vegan-friendly” dining hall just to grab food that supports environmentally-friendly diet and put vegetables in single use to-go container. Does that container I waste each day cancel out my efforts to not eat meat?
It prompted me to think about about my personal impact of not eating animal products compared to if I only made a conscious effort to reduce plastic consumption, a topic which is not mutually exclusive in the vegan community.
As my friend orders a grass-fed, turkey BLT sandwich and I order an acai bowl, we get into the highly contested vegan vs. non-vegan debate about if choosing a sustainable diet can substantially impact the environment. She rattles off a claim that her meal is cheaper than mine, and isn’t wrapped in plastic. Consumption is never perfect when the world we live in gives us so few viable options to purchase that don’t harm the planet, but I deeply agree with my personal rationale for going vegan, and feel like I’m contributing good even when casted as “That Annoying Vegan” who brings up buzzkill statistics at restaurants.
However, I call bullshit to this dietary choice I’ve made. The practice of sustainable lifestyles can be quite contradictory and most consumers do not review their own lifestyle, instead shaming those who do not make the same “eco-friendly” choices that he or she can afford.
How can I tell others to be a sustainable and ethical consumer on a budget in a city, with financial and practical constraints to the ease of never eating an animal product? There are plenty of choices I make that are vegan, but not entirely “plastic-free” or “waste-free”. Not a lot of vegans practice the same environmentalism they preach in totality: we forget to see how our own habits may be unsustainable once we are backed, and feel affirmed by a label like “vegan”. Saying that I’m “vegan” forgoes any guilt when I reflect upon about my consumption.
I feel conflicted about if the burden to change the environment is the responsibility of consumers… or maybe, climate change is far beyond our reach, aggravated by corporations and those in power? It is difficult to stay motivated to make conscious decisions when I know that for every time I don’t eat meat, this effort cannot combat how Scott Pruitt is dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency. It doesn’t seem like individuals have any control over climate change when large corporations have the power to dump oil into oceans. Martin Lukacs discusses how “Neoliberalism has Conned us into Fighting Climate Change as Individuals” in The Guardian, emphasizing how individual choice cannot combat systemic problems. He argues “while we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant. The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%. You tinker with those pens or that panel; they go on torching the planet.”
Class is another barrier to the ideal of sustainability, but many vegans and “health-conscious” individuals do not wrestle with how their purchases may be harming communities that now cannot afford sustainable options. It is not feasible to go on a juice cleanse at Pressed for $30 or not purchase plastic when grocery shopping. It is so contradictory to buy fresh juice in a plastic bottle, but many “eco-friendly” consumers do not wrestle with these discrepancies in their purchasing patterns. The cost of organic produce is not as affordable as junk foods which contain animal products and are not processed in an environmentally-friendly way, but sometimes, there isn’t a choice without cons.
Instead of recognizing one’s own inconsistently justified, “moral” purchases, we push the blame to meat-eaters or iced coffee-drinkers without thinking about how economic inequality fuels consumer decisions that may not be the best for the planet. Lukacs proposes a new landscape of consumption that shifts the blame away from consumers “so that solar panels can go on everyone’s rooftop, not just on those who can afford it…. individual choices will most count when the economic system can provide viable, environmental options for everyone—not just an affluent or intrepid few.”
Consuming to align with your moral values still does not tackle the larger systemic issues which aggravate the environment, forcing privileged individuals to be paranoid about their small choices that many others do not have the time or money to wrestle with implementing. Corporation’s greed for profit exacerbates climate change which my overcalculated purchases cannot amend.
It’s not the burden of individuals who are stuck with constraints to their personal choice, but a larger systemic problem occurs because of government. Untraining a neoliberal, consumption-based approach to solving climate change will relieve the burdensome nature that sustainability creates. If options, such as mass transit, are not affordable and widely-available, people will choose an option that pollutes the environment such as using cars. If options for organic produce are not affordable and accessible in areas such as “food deserts”, people will purchase animal products. We fail to investigate the industries that exploit our climate, such as the automobile or meat industry, and are unable to demystify what possibilities could be available in a future society. The solution cannot be resolved through money and consumption because it is unrealistic to mandate how others spend their paychecks, but rather there should be collective organization to demand a hopeful, progressive landscape that includes individuals from all economic classes.
For this reason, I will try to live without feeling guilty for each and every single-use item I use, but simply move the conversations that I have with others to discuss the systems that make consumers paranoid and competitive around their sustainable lifestyles.
My time will be better spent lobbying Congress instead of beating myself up about the plastic stickers on my fruit.
Thank you so much for reading, and let me know if you’d like to see more of my writing. Have a nice weekend, and my Instagram is @kateglavan if you’d like to see more of what I’m up to.