Social Decorum and Sustainability: One Vegan’s Quest Not to Sound Like a Self-Righteous Bore

By Eric Walton

Twenty years is a long time to do something; and it’s also a long time not to do something. In just a few months it will have been twenty years since I last ate any form of meat, eggs or dairy and despite the nearly two decades of experience in the matter, when asked to explain why I am a vegan, I’m nearly always stymied by the question. Not because I don’t have plenty of good reasons for not eating animals and the food made from them, but because I know that giving anything like a complete answer will often result in terrible awkwardness.

For instance, I sometimes give this pithy answer that only partially accounts for my decision to abstain from animal foods: “I don’t eat animals because I believe in compassion more than I like the taste of muscles and organs.” And true though that is, it always sounds sanctimonious and preachy. I realize that I have no reason to apologize for the moral clarity I feel on this issue, but nonetheless, I’d rather not sound like a sententious prick to someone who’s just asking a polite question.

Still other times someone will ask why I’m a vegan and I’ll respond with the somewhat more ambiguous answer that, “It’s for ethical as well as environmental reasons.” This will sometimes allow me to expatiate briefly on the demonstrable links between a meat-based diet and deforestation; water-shortages; desertification; top-soil erosion and water and air pollution. And though these are also perfectly legitimate and sensible reasons for eating low on the food-chain, who wants to ruin someone else’s otherwise happy meal by confronting him with the damage done to the planet just so he could eat it? I’ll tell you who: party-poopers.

In the U.S. alone, over 260,000,000 acres of forest have been converted to cropland to grow feed for farm animals.

When I’m feeling especially indignant about the state of the world and the social injustice and economic disparity with which a meat-based diet is inextricably linked, I’ll sometimes reply to the curious that I’m a vegan for political reasons, that I find it unconscionable that over half the world’s grains are fed to livestock, while 16,000 children starve to death on this planet every twenty-four hours; and that is to say nothing of the 84,000 adults who suffer the same hideous fate every single day, in part because the grains that could have been used as sustenance for them are instead being fed to cows, pigs and chickens. Believe me when I tell you that introducing that little bit of trivia into the conversation is the perfect way to get yourself crossed right off the guest-list.

And on those occasions on which I’m feeling particularly philosophical (as is often the case) and am in the company of those who seem to be of like mind (as is seldom the case), I may invoke Kant’s Categorical Imperative and state solemnly that in sparing the lives of animals and showing solidarity with the world’s needy and hungry by eating a diet that doesn’t deprive them of the means to feed themselves and their families, I am acting, “according to that maxim whereby I can at the same time will that my actions should become a universal law.” Of course, when in a Thoreauvian state of mind, I may explain that though I am not bound to devote myself to the eradication of any evil, I am obliged to wash my hands of it and lend it no practical support. I cannot tell you the number of friends of I have won with that bit of rhetoric.

An adult pig has cognitive abilities comparable to those of a three year-old human child.

Socially speaking, certainly the most palatable reason one can offer for being a vegan or vegetarian is simply that it is healthy. Given the amount of research that has been done on the subject and the ready access to information that we in the 21st century enjoy, many people already know that compared to meat-eaters, vegetarians not only live, on average, six to ten years longer and are fifty percent less likely to develop heart disease, but also tend to have lower body mass indexes; lower blood pressure; lower blood cholesterol levels as well as lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes and colon and prostate cancers. And, as vegans Natalie Portman and Alicia Silverstone can attest, it helps keep you skinny. Not surprisingly, the most solipsistic reasons for being a vegan can be the most agreeable to many people in our image-obsessed culture. Perhaps for this reason, I am almost never content to defend the vegan diet on the basis of its health benefits alone, even when doing so might bring relief to the poor sod who had the impertinence to inquire about it.

As the 40th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, as the connection between diet and the environment becomes more and more demonstrable and as climate-change threatens to imperil the future of our own species and many, many others, I am compelled (nay, obliged!) to answer the question “Why are you a vegan?” with a truth so inconvenient that even the venerable Al Gore is (so far) reluctant to mention it: the vegan diet combats global-warming.


*The production of just one pound of beef creates as much greenhouse gas as driving an SUV forty miles.
*Following a vegan diet decreases your carbon footprint by fifty percent more than switching to a hybrid car; and for every person who follows a vegan diet, one acre of trees is spared each year.
*According to, “In the U.S., seventy percent of all grains, eighty percent of all agricultural land, half of all water resources, and one-third of all fossil fuels are used to raise animals for food.”

*A study at the University of Chicago concluded that if every American had just onemeat-free day per week, it would be the equivalent of taking 8,000,000 cars off the road.

“Okay, I give up; where’d you put the glacier? Seriously, guys, where is it? Guys? Guys?”

Given the clear and unequivocal evidence of the connection between meat-production and global-warming, it is, I believe, a matter of great moral urgency to inform those who will listen of that connection, regardless of the social stigmas that may result. However, as everything is more pleasant when delivered in rhyme, I have composed the following Limerick to help soften the blow:

As you sit serenely devouring your steak medium-rare,
I would indeed be remiss not to tell you, “Beware,
Of the horrible things that brought that meat to your fork,
(And the same applies, I might add, to fish, fowl and pork);
And, incidentally, you’re wounding the planet, perhaps beyond repair.”

© 2010 Eric Walton


*G Eshel and PA Martin, “Diet, energy, and global warming,” Earth Interactions 10, Paper No. 9 (2006): 1-17. and


*H. Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, Livestock, Environment and Development (2006).

*, “It’s Better to Green Your Diet Than Your Car,” 17 Dec. 2005.

*Andrew Pierce, “Global Warming Is Mankind’s Greatest Challenge, Says Prince,” The Times 28 Oct. 2005.


*Diet For A New America by John Robbins, Stillpoint Publishing (1987)

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4 Responses to Social Decorum and Sustainability: One Vegan’s Quest Not to Sound Like a Self-Righteous Bore

  1. JM Darling says:

    I’ve enjoyed this article a number of times of over. And now I want a steak.

  2. all 3 says:

    Thank you for a great post.

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