Sometimes, life can take a serpentine twist, flip you over and surprise you from behind.
For me, like a volcanic eruption, it started with an earth-shattering bang, then proceeded to slowly creep and slither into every crack and crevice of my mind. The bang was Cowspiracy, a documentary by Kip Anderson that is being injected into couch potato-consciences around the world by executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, whose new cut of the film gave it Netflix-fame.
Also on Netflix is Food, Inc., a documentary about how all US-food, yes all of it, is controlled by only three companies. It also features graphic imagery of screaming pigs being crammed into a metal kill box by a hydraulic shovel. Tiny yellow fluffballs of chicken fill a factory with their cute little chirps and tweets as they journey along conveyor belts, only to turn into red and white mush as they drop between two churning steel barrels at the end of it. Clandestine images of cows living out their entire and very short life in darkness and hip deep in their own shit.
Cowspiracy is not quite so gruesome in imagery, but it has just as much impact. It deals with the cattle industry and explains how large scale bovine farming has THE largest environmental impact on the world we live in. That’s right – cows. Not fossil fuels or CO2-emissions, but those friendly, long-tongued creatures whose milk we like to drink, whose butter we like to spread and don’t get me started about a yummy steak.
So those bug-eyed black and white fellows are the reason for our demise as a human race. Well, in reality it’s not them, it’s us, of course. We created a system in which we don’t think about what we eat anymore – not really. We may talk about how to eat healthier and cook more, because of hip trends like green smoothies and chia seeds. Over lunch in the canteen, we ruminate over why we choose the goulash when we should really eat less meat, because when we were kids there was only the sunday roast, now an animal is on the menu almost every day.
Most people, including me, just talk. It’s a good start, but pretty damn useless without action. Like most people, I am a slave to my habits. I have massive difficulties when it comes to changing my ways. I liked the taste of meat, and while I tried to ignore the cheap slabs of cold cut in the supermarket, most of the time the topping on my pizza would still be salami, chicken or sausage. While I was visiting the US, the cheap sandwich meat was back on the menu, because it was affordable. And after a few too many, nothing tastes more heavenly than a succulent kebab with crispy bread.
After watching Food, Inc., some kind of switch was flipped inside of me. It felt strange, like someone had literally reached in and turned a knob to off. I kept checking myself for signs of insanity. After all, I can happily watch a horror movie without putting on a mask afterwards and heading out the door to murder pretty college girls. So why should I suddenly feel the urge to follow this film’s message? As a kid, I had read about animal cruelty in a teen magazine. I considered it so important, that instead of watching Ninja Turtles, I went out and got adults to sign a petition against ruthless killings of dolphins and intensive industrial livestock farming. So it wasn’t new to me how animals were kept and slaughtered, and I had a pretty good idea how nasty it would be to look at.
So why would a film that deals only with the food industry of the USA have such an impact on me? I still have no idea, maybe it was just the right time for it. Maybe it was my bronchitis that had rendered me immobile for a week, which caused me to binge-watch Netflix in the first place and possibly rendered me slightly delirious. At any rate, I walked into a supermarket and almost keeled over. Strolling past the meat aisle made my stomach churn. I remembered how often I would just quickly grab a marinated collar steak for an impromptu bbq with friends. How illustrious I felt when I chose the pure beef over the mixed minced meat, because surely that was better. The spanish serrano ham had a picture of a farm on it and a black packaging with gold letters, ham for sophisticated people with an acquired taste.
Now I saw screaming pigs and businessmen who kill while counting money. And I was no better. I was a murderer, and I didn’t even have the guts to do the killing myself. It wasn’t right, not anymore. How could us humans live like this? There is a huge hypocrisy in our world today. Cloning and stem cell research are labeled the mother of all evil, because it’s just wrong to play God. At the same time it’s totally ok for supermarkets to stock microwave pizzas with those little salami dots on them, and sure we know most of the cheap cold cuts get thrown out once they are past they sell-by-date, but heck, that’s just the way it goes.
Let it be clear: Manufacturing animals, determining their use, lifespan and and point of death is playing God. And we have been playing Let’s create for the last century.
But don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s not your fault. Our minds have become so accustomed to the situation, that it finds excuses not to think about it. It’s a defense mechanism called avoidance. Talking about changing something and not doing anything about it is a defense mechanism called intellectualization. It can take a long time and large amount of effort to challenge your defense mechanisms.
Sometimes, it just takes sitting down and watching a documentary. Back home, I prepared a vegetarian meal and sat down to watch Cowspiracy. At one point, the filmmaker visits an organic farm that produces milk from cows that roam in pastures and eat grass, which is rare enough. He interviews the farmer, who goes on to explain that when a cow falls ill or is for any reason no longer able to produce milk, a financial decision has to be made. It needs to be sold off, and where does it go? To a normal industrial livestock farming industry. They are the only ones who will pay a decent price for it.
Dirty Death is everywhere. And it’s unavoidable, there are just too many people on this planet to supply them with ecologically sound animal products. To meet the needs of the United States alone, the majority of the Americas would have to be covered neck to toe with eco-friendly farms – including mountains and lakes.
It’s not about fighting the evil that is the meat production industry. It’s not about saving the planet, though by all means use these examples to strengthen your will. It’s about the choices you have, the decisions you can make every second of every day. If you go vegan, will you end mass animal farming or stop global warming? Not a chance. But with people becoming increasingly sensitive to combating the habits installed by the generation before us, our future generations may benefit from the choices you make today. And if that’s too tree-huggy for you, maybe the positive effects on your health can be a factor. Once you start paying attention to your diet, your digestion will improve and thus your mental health and overall well-being. You will start to feel lighter, more happy and your chances of colon cancer and diabetes will plummet. Trust me – only weeks ago, I used to fill a hole of loneliness with ice cream, double frozen pizza and 300g bars of chocolate.
I met my first vegan during my studies in Aberystwyth, Wales. She was short, stunted and had a ghostly grey complexion. She looked malnourished and ill, and for the life of me I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to go through such an ordeal, let alone abstain from such lovely things as eggs, cheese and bacon.
That was 15 years ago, in 2000. Since then, I have met more healthy vegans, but a lot of them were even more militant than vegetarians or non-smokers. Just mentioning that you like mayonnaise with your fries could set them off on an angry monologue, bearing down on you until you have fully understood what kind of nasty, insensitive and generally awful person you are. Which, of course, never really worked. I would nod and smile and take a bite out of my dripping bacon sarnie once they were out of sight. The delicious taste would make me smile and I was certain the vegan anger came from the unnatural choice to abscond from all animal products. It couldn’t be healthy, our minds and stomachs are connected and we are carnivores, omnivores, biologically created to eat meat or at least eggs.
Maybe it was the fact that smoking had caused a small emphysema in my lungs and my doctor had scared me into imagining a life with a face more grey than that of the little vegan girl 15 years ago, constantly wiping my lips with a sloppy tissue to remove the slime rising from my broken bronchia. Maybe it was the fact that I had been struggling with bad habits my entire life and couldn’t shake them, but was determined to never give up and try new things to get there.
Like a drunk man’s moment of clarity, I knew my life would never be the same again. I started researching vegan diets and recipes, and was surprised to see that the commonly stated main hurdles about living vegan were simply not true. In fact, it seemed easy enough, especially since in large and modern western societies such as in Berlin, it’s trendy to be vegan and many shops and food stalls offer a vegan option.
I was determined to give it a shot, but without pressure. I wanted to avoid a yoyo-effect or beating myself up for not making it – yet again. The next time I entered the supermarket, I took my time to carefully turn over every item. I read every label and held every product in my hand for a while before putting it in the basket or returning it to the shelf. I took pictures of prices and considered whether it was really necessary to buy organic courgettes or if normal ones would be ok, too.
When I reached the diary aisle, I hesitated. I had narrowed everything down to just a few animal products. My memory of the taste and texture of Philadelphia Cream Cheese was overwhelming, and I took and replaced it at least five times. I decided to try going without and see how it goes. But surely milk I couldn’t do without. And what about the evils of soy production and water waste for almond milk? Again, I decided I need a trial run. I went for organic soy milk, hoping that the organic would actually mean sustainably produced soy.
Since I was planning on making a vegetable soup, I went to find dissolvable cubes for broth. I turned over the package and stopped breathing for a second. How could vegetable broth contain traces of eggs? I dashed through the aisle, turning over package after package, hoping to find one article that would make the cut. Not a single one did. Even frozen vegetarian pizza had traces of eggs, tuna, and so on. Of course this meant these products were merely made in the same factory, and I assumed little flakes of the animals could land on the food before it got sealed. But the point was to stop supporting factories that fed our bad habits that enabled such factories to exist in the first place. So yes – eggs and butter did make it into my basket. But so did a huge amount of ingredients to make a vegan vegetable broth.
I left the supermarket inspired and happy. I spent the next few days running across markets in Berlin, trying to find good prices for fresh ingredients that could support a vegan lifestyle. It was utterly exciting to finally have a reason to cook again, after months of eating pre-packaged food, which is something that happens to many people who are single and lonely.
Over the next 22 days, I will be recording my transition to a a vegan diet. I you like, you can join me on this journey. I will be posting recipes you can try, and you can laugh at me if I slip up. Because it’s not about being hard on yourself – it’s about having the courage to take a good look at yourself and question your values and beliefs.
- This article is part of my transformation series on changing habits and perspectives so you can keep growing into awesomeness and never stop.