I got started with low-impact eating thanks to a zen master and a piece of string cheese.
To recap: Trump had just won the election, and I was exploring new frontiers of existential horror and anxiety for the future. My go-to coping mechanism—a glass (or three) of wine—was off the table because of my pregnancy. At night, I couldn’t turn off my brain, so I had to listen to something to sleep—something interesting enough to distract me from thoughts of cataclysm, but boring enough to allow me to drift off. I tried audiobooks, drone-y music, nature sounds, ASMR. In the wee hours of one brutally sleepless night, YouTube recommended a guided meditation by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The voice in my headphones was totally calm, compassionate, and patient–and in minutes I had found my way to sleep.
Every night, I started listening to recordings of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma Talks (lectures on Buddhist thought). His voice never failed to send me off to sleep. And though I never made it to the end of a video, the Buddhist principles I picked up before slipping into unconsciousness were helping me to cope with anxiety during my waking hours. I read a book by him, then another, then another. I started trying to incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my daily life.
Everything hurts and the baby won’t stop kicking me? Breathing in I know that my back hurts. Breathing out I relax my back.
Trump’s in a Twitter pissing-contest with North Korea? Breathing in, I arrive in the present moment. Breathing out, I smile to the present moment.
Arctic seed vault floods because of rapidly accelerating global warming? All the people, places, and things that I love will change. The nature of the universe is change.
This stuff really calmed me down. I became a bit of a Thich Nhat Hanh fangirl.
When the Vietnam War broke out, one young Buddhist monk was like—we can’t be hiding out in our monasteries, sending thoughts and prayers. We need to get out there, help the people, and organize to stop all this violence. Thus, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the practice of Engaged Buddhism. He’s the guy who convinced MLK to speak out against the Vietnam War. He’s written over 100 books. And if Westerners know of only two Buddhist leaders, they know of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama
In my semi-conscious listenings, I began to learn about mindful consumption, one of the five key practices of Engaged Buddhism. The idea is to just stop and think before you consume anything. Ask yourself, is this healthy and wholesome? Or is this toxic? Will it cause me or anyone else to suffer?
In order to practice mindful consumption of what we eat, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages you to look deeply into your food any time you sit down to a meal. He describes this practice:
We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualize the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. Then they saw petals falling down and the tiny green fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. –The Path of Mindfulness
Reading this passage made me uncomfortable. I knew that many of the foods I regularly ate had a much more complicated story than that of sun and soil and rain. I didn’t want to think about it.
After a few weeks of listening to these Dharma Talks, though, I was snacking on a string cheese, when I suddenly heard Thich Nhat Hahn’s voice in my head. He was like,
I looked at the string cheese and thought, “Euuuuhhhhnnnggghhhhhhhhh….Nope.”
Thich wouldn’t let me alone though. He was all,
I bit into that string cheese like a hot dog and said, “Nope. Don’t wanna.”
Then Thich was like
“What are you afraid of?”
So I was like, “Okay, okay, fine. I’ll look deeply into the string cheese.
Imagine a montage, set to death metal, of all those animal cruelty videos your vegan friends post that you catch 3 seconds of before quickly scrolling past. I saw the baby calves ripped from their mothers to be slaughtered, the cruel immobilizing cages, hooves in shit, the endless engorgement and robotic pumping pumping pumping. I saw the factories where the milk is processed, all stainless-steel tubes and industrial machinery. I saw into the plastic film wrapping the cheese–the petroleum extracted from the ground through fracking, the journey of the petroleum through it’s many molecular changes, like driving down 225 at night, the miles of tangled machinery and flaming smokestacks and noxious, cancerous ghasts. And then I saw into the future–I saw the the bit of plastic film in my trashcan, in a garbage truck, driven onto a landfill, caught by a gust of wind and blown into a drainage ditch, washed into the bayou, washed into the gulf, where a turtle eats it and never stops feeling full again, dies of starvation with a belly full of plastic.
That’s what I saw in the string cheese. I was shook.
When you start looking deeply into your food, it’s hard to stop. And very few foods, it turns out, tell a simple story. Yesterday I ate a plum that I got from Central Market, where they label the country of origin. This plum came from Chile. Looking deeply into the plum, I saw the sun, the soil, and the rain, but I also wondered what else might be there. This plum was not organic–were pesticides used, killing pollinators and native plantlife? Were fertilizers used that washed into waterways, causing algal blooms that killed all the fish? What about the workers who tended to the plum trees and harvested the fruit–were they mistreated? Did they suffer? And then there’s the journey from Chile to Houston, the petroleum spewed out the back of the tanker that brought the fruit here.
It is very hard to buy food that doesn’t contain a great deal of suffering. Even going vegan alone won’t do it, although it definitely helps. I’ve tried going vegetarian a few times, but didn’t get my nutrition right, so I ended up with severe anemia. Especially with a young child, I’m just not prepared to go vegan cold-tofurkey right now. However, in the year since the “String Cheese Incident,” I have taken the following baby-steps to try to eat more and more foods that tell a simple story. I’ll flesh some of these steps out in greater detail in future posts.
- Gardening in containers and, more recently, a raised bed to grow more of our own food
- Eating no mammals
- Cutting down our cheese consumption
- Eating a vegan breakfast 5 days a week
- Cutting down purchases of food packaged in plastic
- Cooking a vegan dinner twice a week
- Choosing produce that is local and organic as much as possible
- Eating only locally caught or farm-raised seafood
- Using reusable produce bags to cut down on plastic consumption
- Kicking our very serious La Croix habit
Sustenance without Suffering
My little actions listed above are not, I believe, in vain. But relying on privileged individual consumer choices to combat food-related climate effects is just not going to do the trick. EVERYONE needs to change their food habits, and for many people, doing the changes I listed above are just not feasible. Maybe they are having to work multiple jobs to keep their family afloat and do not have time to cook fresh meals or go grocery shopping, so they rely on fast food. Maybe they live in a rural area or food desert where they don’t have access to good produce year-round. Maybe they can’t cook because they live in Flint or parts of rural Texas where the water has toxic levels of lead or fracking chemicals. We must enact public policy that ensures everyone has access to healthy, plant-based foods.
In the last post I talked about the necessity of enacting legislation that asks corporations to take on the True Cost of the climate- and health-effects caused by plastic disposable products. When it comes to animal products, what we currently have in place is the opposite of that policy–farm subsidies. The U.S. Government takes $20 billion out of taxpayers’ pockets each year and uses it to pay farmers to grow corn and soy—way, way more corn and soy than the entire human population needs. The vast majority of these crops go to feeding livestock. So the cost to Big Agriculture of feeding all those animals? Zilch! Essentially, we’re using taxpayer dollars to pay farmer to make the food that is by far the MOST detrimental to the environment and public health–cattle. Thus we have ass-backwards grocery stores, where a single bell pepper can cost more than a pound of ground beef.
Ending farm subsidies completely is essential to righting our upside-down food industry. But we must go further than that, and ensure the price of meat reflects its True Cost. Every food product should be taxed according to what it contributes to the costs of climate change. Fruits and vegetables, farmed sustainably, might be a net carbon sink, thus THESE are the foods that should be subsidized by our government and made much cheaper for the consumer. Because just by growing them we are helping to mitigate costs of climate change–pass that savings on to taxpayers! Animal products, on the other hand, would see a steep increase in price.
If food is packed in plastic, disposable packaging that accelerates global warming and creates problematic waste? Tax it!
If the food traveled halfway round the earth to get here, spewing CO2 all the way? Tax it!
If the food is highly processed in polluting, industrial facilities? Tax. It.
Under this legislation, you’ll walk into a grocery store and fruits and vegetables will be radically cheaper. You’ll have an expanded bulk foods section, also cheaper. Meanwhile individually packaged highly processed foods and meats will be much more expensive. Peoples’ eating habits will change accordingly. Meat will be a sometimes snack, as it was for hundreds of thousands of years of human history. And as it MUST be, if we’re all going to share this planet. You don’t get to eat a cow a day. Sorry I’m not sorry.
Finally, instead of throwing away 60 million tons of ugly produce each year, create a subsidized supply chain to get “ugly” produce to citizens and just give. that. shit. away.
Boom. Now everyone gets fed, climate effects of agriculture plummet, and we’re probably all a lot healthier to boot. While we’re dreaming, let’s make sure farm workers are respected for the vitally important role they play in society and pay them accordingly. Dreaming is free, y’all; don’t be afraid to do it.
Eat a Simpler Story
In the meantime, for those of us who have the privilege to be able to eat a more waste-free, plant-based diet, let’s do it. Let’s be brave and look deeply into our food. If we don’t like what we see, let’s make a change and eat a simpler story.
How do you use food choices to reduce your climate & environmental impact? Let me know in the comments!