“We didn’t matter, the consequences didn’t matter; the moment when we agreed to put our love into action did. It was not an act of courage. It was a statement of belief that the world can change if we are willing to risk our own change first.”
—Terry Tempest Williams
This past winter was my 10-year anniversary of becoming a vegetarian.
In that span I saved, at the very minimum:
250 land animals
30,0000 pounds of CO2-equivalent gases
1,500,000 gallons of water
These are approximates and conservative estimates. If you factor in animals killed during the process of producing meat, the statistics are that a vegetarian saves between 371 and 582 animals a year. Which means I’ve saved perhaps upward of 5,820 animals from a sad and cruel end over the past decade.
There are no shortage of persuasive statistics out there that inform you how many bathtubs full of water in takes to produce one pound of beef (about 40) or how many miles you could drive to emit the same amount of CO2 as chomping down a single hamburger (for a patty alone, about 5).
Meat is bad for the environment. Like, really really bad.
But you probably already know this.
See, there is a gap between knowledge and action. We know things are bad—for ourselves, for our communities, for our planet—and we often do them anyway. We do them because it’s easy. Because that’s what we’ve been taught and that’s what we know. We do them because it’s comfortable and safe.
But easy isn’t always good. Comfortable doesn’t change the world. Real, meaningful action is difficult and imperfect and complicated. But we make these challenging choices and follow through because we care about something and we believe in the power of our own agency and we want the world to be a different place.
There is no perfect action. Maybe you give up dairy and switch to almond milk. But then you learn that one gallon of almond milk takes about 920 gallons of water to produce. So that’s not really great. Or maybe you’re already a hardcore vegan priding yourself on your sustainable choices, only to become aware that a single banana has a carbon footprint of about 121 grams (it varies greatly on where this banana is purchased. For example, a banana in New Orleans has a lower carbon footprint than one in Minneapolis. Also, if you read only a single source I’ve linked to in this piece, it should be this banana one). So maybe eating locally sourced food, including meat, is a better option.
AND THEN you have to come to terms with the fact that a “personal carbon footprint” and all those “watch your water usage” campaigns started off as propaganda from companies in order to shift the responsibility of change to the consumer and away from themselves, despite the fact that 71% of GLOBAL emissions are from just 100 companies.
The point is perfection is useless to chase after and that “sustainability” looks different with different metrics. What works for you might not work for someone else.
We, as individuals, are not responsible for the global environmental crisis. But it’s easier to criticize and target individuals than it is big industry. One of them is a bit more susceptible to guilt, easier to change.
In the face of that, the question often becomes why try at all? Why inconvenience yourself when it doesn’t matter?
Only it does matter. Individual action becomes part of collective power which can create large-scale change. It’s not about *your* singular actions changing the system but about communities changing the system together. This is true for environmentalism and anti-racism work and politics and really anything.
The hardest part is caring. Which sounds stupid, but it’s true. How do you make someone care about something that doesn’t affect them, that they can’t see or don’t experience? I don’t have any good answers for that. The opposite of love is indifference, The Lumineers sang (who, in fact, were paraphrasing Elie Wiesel), and if anything is going to be our collective downfall, it’s going to be apathy, our unwillingness to make sacrifices in our own lives because it would make them more difficult, our inability to care about anything beyond our own fleeting lives.
It is strangely easier to write loosely about the environmental crisis than it is to write about our current political landscape. It is heartening to see so many people involved this election season; however, I can’t stop reminiscing about all the apathy I experienced in 2016, the people who didn’t care enough then to do anything about it. Will they still care in 2021? Will this era in history be enough to radicalize them? I don’t know.
Life is harder when you care about things. You’re disappointed and frustrated more often. Living hurts a bit more. But if you’re not living a life you’re proud of, if you’re not prioritizing your values and trying just a little to change the world, what’s the point?
Thoreau wrote, “Be not simply good; be good for something,” and I think those are wise words. You don’t have to care about everything, but you have to care about some things, a lot of things, and you have to be willing to risk your own discomfort to make the world a bit brighter. It’s the only good fight there is.