Back in February, when the world was only beginning to figure out what to do about the COVID-19 pandemic, I made a commitment to finally go vegan. I spent years going in and out of vegetarianism, but this time, both as a service to my health and a more sustainable lifestyle, I decided to go all the way, relinquishing all my favorite animal products (especially all that yummy cheese!) and living up to the tenets I have embraced as part of a career working in sustainable development and climate policy.
I have to say, I was quite proud to have finally made the shift, encouraging my family to do the same and hoping that a healthier diet and more consistent exercise would help bolster my immunity to the effects of the coronavirus. From there, I started to look into creative vegan recipes and purchased several books that have helped me stick to this lifestyle.
Months later, I remain a committed vegan, have lost a great deal of weight, and feel better than ever. Certainly, I made the right choice at a time when good health is more important than ever, and as more evidence emerges that these viral pandemics have a lot to do with our blatant disregard for animal life—whether through habitat destruction or factory farming.
To summarize: Yay for me! Aren’t I great?
Touching story . . .
But seriously, who cares. Who cares about the lifestyle I am able to pursue thanks to my class position and access to fresh food, as well as the (often pricey) ingredients to cook nutritious, creative meals.
The self-righteousness with which many of us urbanites in the West clothe ourselves is shameful. We go to such lengths to let everyone around us know of our wonderful ways of life, tut-tutting at any person who doesn’t appreciate our contribution to “saving the world” from the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and other challenges. We are so quick to judge, quick to point fingers, quick to fall into the trap that somehow, individual lifestyle changes are the key to preventing ecological collapse and global conflict.
We love to wear our politics on our sleeves while ignoring the fact that it is our class position that permits us to do the things we do and make the choices we make. An entire identity has emerged that has embraced liberal individualism at the expense of the solidarity that is needed to actually move the needle of collective human salvation.
So yes, make the lifestyle choices you think are best for you, your community, and the world. But remember: nobody cares. Your individual decisions will not actually save the world. It is not about you alone and it never was.
For decades, globalization and neoliberalism have degraded not only people’s perceptions of the state but the very foundations of society itself, shifting the burden of solving social problems from policy action to the private individual realm. In the case of the environment, individuals are now responsible for fixing our unsustainable capitalist civilization, while the upper classes continue to peddle myths around endless economic growth on a finite planet.
When we indulge in self-righteousness, we only help perpetuate the neoliberal mythos that the state is simply not equipped to act in the interest of people and the planet. When in fact, only a strong society can muster the collective power to overcome humanity’s toughest challenges.
While we do need some level of behavior change to prevent ecological catastrophes, from climate change to ocean acidification, it cannot and will not happen on the backs of the poor and working class of the world. Working people everywhere produce a mere fraction of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and polluting substances that multinational corporations and people with means do. Meanwhile, wealth inequality continues to increase at a shocking rate, concentrating vast amounts of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
Policymakers working on solutions to our ecological crises have come up with a set of norms and guiding principles that are essential to what is called a “just transition.” A just transition from our current destructive economic model requires that justice be a central element of the shift to more sustainable societies – transforming our extractive, consumption-based paradigm, where people and planet are mere commodities in the drive for capital, to a regenerative, circular economic system.
People, especially working people, have to be co-creators in this new way forward, not derided and lambasted by privileged elites who are convinced that their Sunday farmers’ market jaunts and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are the solutions to all our woes. By all means, eat plant-based. Do what you can to avoid driving a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, or even any vehicle at all. Live in a dense, urban environment and walk everywhere. Compost, reuse items and make sure your electronics last a long time. But keep in mind: your ability to do so many of these things comes from your privilege, your ability to afford that fresh organic food, the low-emission vehicle, and a home in a city center. Most people are simply not in a position to do any of this, especially now, as COVID-19 ravages so many societies with inadequate social protection or economic support systems.
So no, my dear fellow vegans—your veganism alone will simply not save the world. Live your life as you see fit, but don’t waste your time and energy lecturing others on how they should live. Societal shifts are needed desperately to bring us in line with justice, planetary boundaries, and global health. Individuals only matter when they work in solidarity with one another, fighting as a collective and pushing policies that can in fact save the world.
And with that, I am going to enjoy some vegan mac and cheese with grain-free, bean pasta. Reach out for the recipe!
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