Eating Meat with a Guilty Conscience

In the week of all the Hothouse Earth stories, I’ve been reflecting on how unpalatable it is to even consider the significant changes in our lifestyles required to maintain our planet within a safe operating space for humanity. This is obvious in the number of things we do in the clear knowledge that they are bad for us - I like a drink (more than one…), I enjoy lying around in the sun, and I take great pleasure in eating red meat. This final one is interesting because while sensible meat consumption might not be particularly unhealthy for us, so much evidence now points to the damage that it does to the planet.

Earlier this year I set my tutees the task of persuading me that eating meat is incompatible with most environmental goals. Their essays were utterly convincing because the evidence now is overwhelming (e.g here, here, here). Much as I have argued the minutiae in the past, about this specific pork product actually having a marginally lower environmental footprint than that particular tropical fruit - and notwithstanding this recent analysis that certain kinds of seafood have a lower overall impact than most plant-based foods - let’s just come out and say it: the environment would benefit immensely if we all stopped eating meat.

Yet I have absolutely no intention of giving up meat, dairy, or any other animal products, for one simple reason: I don’t want to.

Writing such a selfish and blunt statement is difficult, but I think a little honesty is required here. So I might talk to you about how much I value our traditional agricultural landscapes (and I do), about the need to protect rural culture and livelihoods; and while I might also plead that because I live in a family of various food allergies and intolerances, I see it as my duty - as someone who can eat everything - not to be deliberately awkward through choice; but ultimately I eat meat because I bloody love it.

On holiday last week - it's tea time…

On holiday last week - it's tea time…

Now you might try to convince me that vegan food too can be delicious. Several of my tutees took this approach in our discussion. But you really don’t need to - I know it is. I was vegetarian between the ages of 12 and 27 - formative years during which many my tastes matured, and I learnt how to cook and eat well. I still love vegetarian food; and, because of the food issues alluded to above, we typically avoid dairy in family meals, so much of the veggie food we eat is vegan too. The Venn diagram of ‘foods I love’ and ‘vegan food’ has a substantial overlap. But animal products can be delicious too, and denying this - or suggesting that some fake bacon or congealed vegetable fat ‘cheese’ or (shudder) margarine  is equally good - just won’t cut the mustard. (As an aside: I generally don’t trust things that pretend to be something they are not. Plastic floors pretending to be wood. Gas fires pretending to be coal. Soya pretending to be mince. The best vegan food does not pretend to be meat.)

Indeed the primary reason why I fell off the veggie wagon at 27 was a significant fomo. With a little disposable income at last, and a burgeoning interest in cooking (including the beginnings of a pukka cookbook collection) I wanted to expand my dietary horizons. And I have, and I’ve loved it.

Furthermore, I’m unconvinced that simple consumer choice will be particularly effective here. I was taking my own bags to Sainsbury’s for 25 years before legislation - the plastic bag tax - arrived to actually make a measurable difference nationwide. So while it’s good to encourage more thrifry use of meat, reducitarianism and the rest, it won’t make a difference without concrete measures to back it up. When I started eating meat again I intended it to be a luxury, a treat, but my consumption has crept up - especially since the kids arrived. Our kids eat veggie as often as we do, and surprise us sometimes with their tastes (my son is mad on greens: the one thing he insisted on for his 5th birthday tea was cabbage), but sometimes with young kids you just need a banker, something you know they will eat with minimal fuss and minimal waste: your fishfingers or your seared venison steak (don’t ask…) But even when I’m away from home I eat meat by default, because it’s easy. Making vegetarian choices the default is an interesting approach (and ‘nudging’ pro-environmental behaviour is apparently effective), and one I applaud - a neat example of applying psychological research to environmental and public health issues.

But this is all special pleading still. I know what the right thing to do is. The evidence tells me - clearly, unambiguously - to give up something I enjoy enormously. It’s almost a year since I last wrote on here, and the topic then was joy. Removing meat from my diet would make my life both somewhat less joyful, and rather less convenient. And if that’s a tough ask  for me, imagine what it’s like for someone less inclined towards an environmental ethic. Environmentalism’s problem is that, fundamentally, it instills a sense of guilt around things we enjoy - overseas travel, our diet, our children, pets, and general patterns of consumption. It is not surprising then that many choose to be persuaded by the bogus arguments of anti-environmentalism, or the promises of big tech solutions. Hell, if there was a (plant-based) pill I could take to stop worrying about such things myself, I’d be tempted.

Oh and hey, while we’re being confessional: I also enjoy drinking cinema Coke through a disposable plastic straw. There. I’m done…