Once upon a time I watched Cowspiracy. Occasionally, I wish I hadn’t. The bleak narrative of environmental devastation caused by the animal agriculture industry was deeply affecting. Distressed, I arrived at a regrettable but unescapable conclusion: There must be a drastic global human cull. Otherwise, as the population continues to explode, the amount of meat we want to eat will totally trash the planet.
But then I noticed – at roughly around the same time that all newspapers everywhere started shouting about it – that a small minority group had found a different route to salvation. And that the minority wasn’t quite so small anymore. Enter, the vegans. Partisan stats from 2016 show the vegan population in the UK grew by more than 350% in ten years, making it, in their words, ‘the fastest growing lifestyle movement’. Two years on, it’s safe to assume that they’re basically everywhere.
Seems a bit extreme doesn’t it? I mean, who’d have thought that cutting meat, dairy, eggs and the gang out of your diet would catch on? Sure, there’s the occasional ‘bacon gives you cancer’ and ‘cheese fucks with your dreams’ headline to consider but with the rest of the population gladly chomping its way to a microwave meal grave, I’m unconvinced that we really prize our health that much. No, there must be something else behind the broccoli spike. It was only when I read Hugo Rifkind’s recent piece on Bannonism and the politics of outrage that everything started to make sense.
The allure of veganism, much like the Trump administration, lies in its extremity. It thrives off its own notoriety. It’s so damn contrary that, love it or hate it, everyone talks about it. And you must love it or hate it, those are your options. Online, the middle ground is no man’s land. When the topic is killing animals, it’s kill or be killed.
For the vegans, the opposition is a blood-thirsty hoard with outdated eating habits and no respect for the planet. For the blood-thirsty hoard, vegans are deluded, sanctimonious snowflakes, threatening their perfectly legitimate and delicious way of life. As ever, the comments section of the Daily Mail is on hand to provide insight from the front line:
“When can we have veganism categorised as a mental health problem? I have not yet met a vegan who isn’t a total head-case”
“Veganism is the religion L.i.b.t.a.r.d.s., that’s why they have all gone mad and depressed”
“Don’t they advocate not eating animals, yet steal the very food those animals would normally eat?”
What these fine folks may not realise is that, like a reverse Hulk, their anger only makes the meatless eaters bigger, stronger and greener. The more they moan, the more exposure veganism gets, the more polarised the debate becomes. Eventually, we find ourselves in a situation in which you are either a vegan or a murderer; or worse, a moron.
Of course, it also helps that it’s very difficult to make a convincing moral or environmental argument against veganism – despite Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s utterly compelling ‘they can be aggressive too’ stance. And yet, a word of caution. Veganism, an objectively good, moral lifestyle choice, must do everything within its power to avoid becoming a fad.
It is currently Veganuary. This causes anxiety for me, primarily due to our unceasing appetite for creating portmanteau words of human centipede-scale horror, but also because it reduces the practice to a trend, and one that is highly marketable. It nudges veganism in the same direction that clean eating once travelled, a road littered with pseudo-science and cauliflower steaks, leading towards a pot of dirty money.
Innovation is good. Make vegan cheese, whizz up nut butters, hell, make a name for yourself by selling vegan fried chicken and profit from it, but do it because, above all else, you want to provide a tasty meal for someone who has chosen the righteous path. If it takes the creation of a meatless burger that bleeds beetroot to ease people into saving the world, then so be it. But invention mustn’t come at too high a price. Veganism, though gaining popularity, is not a 21st Century novelty. Taking an already restraining movement and turning it into the preserve of the rich would be.
Veganism is, for the time being at least, a difficult, limiting lifestyle choice. Working in hospitality, I know the challenges of providing for people who have imposed these restrictions on themselves. It is a decision to be admired but not one that I would want to make. It’s a sacrifice, not a privilege. And it’s a bit extreme for me.