Shortly before his death in 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke of his greatest legislative regret: not compromising on the deal that President Nixon offered in the early 1970’s on national health care. He related how he didn’t think it went far enough. He was afraid that if he accepted it, complacency would set in and there would never be a motivation to move towards the universal care, single-payer system he favored. He said that, as a result of that decision, he was still fighting the exact same battle on his death bed, thirty years later.
I believe the vegan community can learn something from Senator Kennedy.
To be clear, I would love nothing more than a vegan world. I would love to wake up in a world with acres upon acres of beautiful, organic (and veganic) vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains; a world where commercial feed lots and industrial barns have been demolished, and the land repurposed to grow healthy food for the world. I would love a world where, because land and water are far more efficiently used growing plants than raising animals, there is plenty of food and water for everyone, and the concept of human starvation feels as distant as the Black Death. I would love to see the environment begin to heal from generations of abuse through this new order. I would love to know that the Franken-animals we have created for profit are mercifully extinct, and the cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, fish and other animals that do still inhabit the planet thrive in proper numbers, and in the form given them by their Creator. I would love to know that millions of animals aren’t suffering and dying every day, billions every year, with virtually no one to acknowledge their suffering, mourn their loss or value their lives.
This is not the world that awaits me each morning as I open my eyes. We are so far from that world that if I momentarily comprehend the distance, I spiral into a heart numbing depression.
In such circumstances, compromise is dodgy. While I respect everyone’s right to do what they please, I would add the caveat as long as it harms no one else. That cannot be said for the choice to eat meat, eggs and dairy. There is such profound and indefensible harm done in this industry that I believe it crosses the line from “personal choice” and “personal freedom” and enters the land of “you don’t get to enjoy the freedom to do whatever you want when your choice causes insane amounts of cruelty to billions of others, violent damage to the planet, and the corruption of your own health to the cost of everyone else.” Patience, under these circumstances, is very difficult to muster. If we’re patient, more animals will suffer unimaginable horrors and die brutal, violent deaths. The destruction of our resources will snowball. The health of the population will continue to deteriorate. But you know what? The same thing will happen if we aren’t patient. The world doesn’t want to move very fast, especially where the status quo and convenience are concerned.
As I hearken back to Senator Kennedy’s words, I realize that my part in this journey most likely will not be to see the finish line. Like those who chose to carve and lay the first stone of a medieval cathedral – workers who spent their lives building something they would never live to see completed – I realize that I may fight the fight without seeing the victory. I have been born somewhere in the middle. I’m like the suffragette who battled for votes for women and then died in 1915, without ever being able to cast a ballot herself. It is my job to grab the baton and run my leg of the race towards a compassionate world. I am not the anchor. I do not get to cross the finish line with my arms held high in victory. I’m in the middle. So what is my role, and how do I best accomplish it?
First, I must articulate my goals to myself and others. I must do this with clarity and simplicity. Vegans aren’t all cut from the same cloth, and we don’t all have the same goals. Each of us must create our own technique to run our leg of the race the best we can. For me, the goal is clear: I wish to reduce suffering and create a more compassionate world. Yes, I care about my health and others’. I care about the planet, and the harm being done by animal agriculture. I believe that improvements in those areas would go far to creating more compassion in the world. But the driving force, the thing that resonates deepest for me is to reduce suffering and increase consciousness around our choices; and ultimately, to see those choices bend towards more compassion.
Given these goals, I have to ask how I can accomplish the most good during my life in this determinedly non-vegan world. I worry about compromising too much; about creating a space where people are easily lulled into thinking that some small legislative change is enough; that gestation crates are banned here, so it’s okay to consume pork to their hearts’ content.
And then I remember Senator Kennedy. His very similar worries stopped him from making compromises that would have moved the needle in the direction he wanted. I don’t want to see the needle in the same spot as it is today when I breathe my last breath on Earth. I want to move the needle.
So how do I do that? I welcome the veg-curious with open arms. I educate when questioned. I try to share in as non-confrontational a manner as I can. I support organizations that educate, rescue, fight for legislative changes and offer sanctuary to the survivors of a brutal industry. And I make it clear in my dealings with non-vegans that any step towards more plants and fewer animals in their diets and on their bodies is a good step. A worthy step. A meaningful step. A step to be applauded and celebrated. And I try not to pester those who have no interest. That last one is hard, but I’m working on it.
The fact is if we demand absolute vegan conformity, most people will not even try. It is so far out of the range of imagination to them that they will dismiss the whole idea out of hand. However, if we can get people to take a step, then another, then another, the world will change. Perhaps not at the pace we would like, but it will change. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” If we can remember that, and remember our place on that arc, we can make a difference.
Most of the people I know will never be vegan. That’s alright. It has to be alright, because it is what is.
If I can help them find some alternatives to a meat-centered diet; to embrace the occasional vegan meal; to enjoy more plants in their omnivorous world; to acknowledge the plight of the animals and add some consciousness to their consumption, I will have reduced suffering in some measure. And if I can, through my words and actions, reduce suffering, I will have carried my baton to the next runner. I will have compromised with President Nixon. I will have moved the needle.