Thursday, August 20, 2009

Birthday Soapbox

I've been meaning, for a little while now, as the blog's resident strict vegetarian (nigh on vegan now that I'm back in Miami (my egg&dairy consumption is always way higher back parentside (not that I mind that--it's for financial reasons as much as dogmatic ones that I don't eat such things more often down here))), to comment on Jack's still-relatively-recent posts about incrementally vegetarianizing ones lifestyle. I've mostly put it off because I came home in August feeling like I'd been as annoying as a vegetarian as I've ever been this summer--some combination of being recently reinvigorated on the subject personally and then being goaded (probably asked politely, but you know what I mean) into actually stating my reasons rather than using my familiar stock answers (either a) "I just think it's something I can accomplish." (the earliest answer) or b) "Because the moral highground must be maintained at all costs (the now-middle-early ("early" remaining because I'm hypothetically now, on my 27th birthday, as Nate mentioned to me in a Glueckwunsch email today, only (or already) 1/3 of the way through a life of expectable length) answer)).

I've preferred stock answers because most people aren't going to become vegetarians, and certainly aren't going to do it because of me (it's much much easier to convert beer snobs, let me tell you), and, believe it or not, I oftentimes prefer not to be abjectly annoying (or just not that brand of annoying, anyway). But I felt annoying, even if I wasn't (not that I'm ever wrong--I'm completely in the right about this particular subject), but since it is my birthday, I'm giving myself the present of writing this post (and, given it's already-digressive nature and unshyness about using parenthesis, you can pretty well tell it's a self-indulgent birthday post (again, not that I'm wrong about this stuff, my logic for being meat free is fucking airtight). The annoyance-self-feeling also was probably magnified by a strange tendency of mine to state opinions about what one should expect in terms of what a sustainable globalized world community might be in a way that made it sound like I was wishing the deaths of billions of third-world citizens (not the case, to be sure; just an error of words intended to evoke a desire for the dismantling of the first world and its network of oppression).

Anyhoo, specifically, I wanted to address a particular concern about incremental vegetarianism that was brought up to me by our mother (I take it as a potentially widespread thought about the notion (not believing, too much, in "individualism"--with usual reference to the Hofstadter article on voting contained in Metamagical Themas)): that buying one or two fewer packages of meat a week won't affect anything, because relative to the amount of meat purchased by the more-and-more typical big box grocery stores is too large that that kind of blip on their ordering sonar would lead to anything but that same quantity of would-have-been consumed meat being ordered, produced, and thrown away. A valid concern, me thinks (and not just because she's me ma), especially because it calls into question my own basic tenet from the beginnings of my own meatlessness, that not eating that shit is one of the few things that makes a difference even based on a hypothetically individual action.

Which means that I'm unwilling to go with the indiviudal/group action explanation for why that wouldn't matter: because if you don't eat meat one day less a week, that also means that your demographic--or some subset of other people that have read the same topical piece of research and altered their behavior in a similar matter--doesn't eat that meat either, which turns a single package of disgusting, harmful, industrial bland-mill chicken into entire cases of diseased, nutritionally vacuous, tasteless chicken no longer demanded or then produced. That's not enough of an answer, just in case there is such a thing as "indiviudal action" relative to the American "free" market.

So other ways to make this incremental vegetarianism still work, assuming that your meat is still just being thrown away by your local (almost never "good" (unless, to an extent, you live in Wegmansville)) "super"market? One way is just to take bigger chunks of increments, so rather than eating meat one day less a week, eat no meat one week less a month instead. Or shop at a smaller store, where the spoils overhead will be way lower--I realize that this is easier said than done, but even the difference between a store the size of, say, a Trader Joe's, would be different than your typical Giant Eagle (terrible terrible stores, I was reminded whilst back in Pittsburgh) (this, of course, being based somewhat on my experience as the guy-that-ordered-the-meat for the nation's smallest Trader Joe's, where if even five people a day didn't buy meat for a couple weeks on end the ordering pattern would've downshifted (this was before my rise to cheese guy, and before my revolutionizing turn as the grocery orderer (was told, in so many words, that I had saved the store an absolute fuckload of money)--they (the first set of bosses I worked for (assholes)) initially had me order meat because they thought it was funny since I was a vegetarian (I still amaze myself that I worked for that store for so long in Boston, given how miserable it was for the first eight months that I worked there))).

Also, then, if you're eating way less meat, it can become more of a luxury, so funnel all that money you're saving by not throwing ground chuck into food that doesn't need it (chili, spaghetti sauce, hamburgers, &c), and find a real butcher and buy a real piece of real cow and cook it real nice. This way, you're never buying meat from the stores where it's hard to conceive of it mattering, and never buying there anymore will make a difference, epsecially if you're buying meat on every trip to the store. And don't buy frozen chicken, since it can sit in the freezer a long long time, and thus is a harder thing to affect the buying-at-store-level of.

In terms of the sorts of large-scale attitude shifts that need to happen, the making-luxurious of what have been typically middle-class lifestyle habits can make a huge impact. (And I really do believe that, if you find yourself doing something, that means that other similar people (and there are inevitably other similar people (even when you're as special a little snowflake as I am)) are doing it too, and that's what can make small-scale or grassroots thing into bonafied community developments, the recognition that we're all doing this, that we're in it together (vegetarian potlucks are always a good time).


Blogger Jack said...

Happy birthday!

That's interesting about spoils overhead -- I've never heard of that before. (Is there a whole big body of insider grocery knowledge that I've never asked you about?) As a problem, at least that's one that the supermarkets would be trying to avoid too. (Not trying hard enough, of course, since greenhouse gases are a market externality.)

The individual/aggregate action issue is one I've always been pessimistic about, probably too much. I like the idea of treating vegetarianism (incremental or no) as a climate change issue because it folds it into a class of sacrifices people are already used to thinking about -- use public transportation, conserve electricity, etc. -- and so it feels like more of a tangible group effort already. You maybe have a better sense that this stuff will meaningfully aggregate.

But I'm still pessimistic about anything making a difference outside of pricing greenhouse gas release. People by and large don't make responsible decisions if it's more expensive to do so.

8/20/2009 5:11 PM  

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