The Plant-Eater’s Dilemma

“The world is a fabric of suffering and pleasure; in every action, good and evil dance together like a pair of lovers.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Earlier this year I joined some colleagues for lunch, and they decided to try out a local poke restaurant (poke, if you happen to have missed the rise of this ultra trendy cuisine, is a raw fish salad made popular in Hawaii). I eat a plant-based diet, but hoped that—since this was southern California—there would be a tofu bowl or other veggie option.

When it was my turn to order, I asked my waiter if they had any vegan options. He seemed unsure what I meant so asked his manager, who responded that they could make me a seaweed bowl. Then, the waiter asked me tentatively, “You know seaweed is alive, right? Is that okay for you to eat?”

My first response was to laugh out loud at the fact that he didn’t realize seaweed was a plant, not an animal. But then I thought for a second. Although it wasn’t his intention, the waiter’s question hit a deep philosophical nerve inside me that all vegans and vegetarians must confront at some point—what truly is the difference between eating plants versus animals? As if he was channeling a Buddhist monk, this man’s question innocently drove to the very root of our human dilemma: by our nature, we must consume other living things and thus cause suffering in one form or another—so where do we draw the line of “allowable” suffering? Well played, sir!

Of course, each of us creates our own moral boundaries, and no two are exactly the same. Nearly all religions evolved to address this very question of how we conduct ourselves in a ‘savage’ world, and most include at least a few dietary taboos. For example, the Jain religion of India, which dates back to the 6th century and is still practiced today, asserts that humans should not eat the flesh or eggs of animals, and should avoid any injury to sentient beings—even by stepping on insects (the most ascetic Jains carry a broom to sweep an area before they walk or sit on it to clear away any bugs etc. that could be harmed). However, many Jains, while avoiding meat and eggs, still consume dairy products, wear leather or silk, or partake in other activities that directly or indirectly cause suffering to animals. As with all of us, even Jains have to draw a line somewhere as long as they exist in this world. That line seems often to be drawn at ‘intent’; doing your best to avoid intentional harm while accepting that by living and breathing we will inevitably cause unintentional harm.

In a similar vein, most vegans and vegetarians choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons, whether out of a desire to reduce animal suffering, or to reduce their environmental footprint. I am not going to go into the topic of sustainability in relation to large-scale agribusiness and meat production in this post, but I’ve covered that topic in some of my past blogs including this one.

The most dedicated vegans not only avoid consuming animal-based foods, but also clothing and other products either made with or tested on animals. Side note: this is more difficult than it sounds—I only recently found out that most wine isn’t technically vegan, because the filtration process usually involves some sort of gelatin (sourced from fish, cows or pigs), egg whites, or casein (a milk protein). But even the most hardcore vegans can’t avoid causing suffering on some levels: eating plants still involves the killing of insects and microbes (not to mention the killing or ‘harming’ of the plants themselves) and has a carbon footprint. And if you choose only to live on air? Well, you would still inhale microbes that get destroyed by our own immune systems. You can’t win.

Thus the unavoidable conclusion: life is suffering.

How do we cope with such a conclusion, as beings that are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to feel such strong compassion? Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom I quote at the beginning of this blog, has spent the majority of his life and career as an artist exploring this uniquely human paradox. One of Jodorowsky’s childhood memories, which he recreates in surrealist style in his film ‘The Dance of Reality’, illustrates his inner turmoil. He recalls a time when, as a boy of 6, he wanders down to the beach and witnesses huge numbers of sardines washing ashore and dying. He tries to scoop them up and throw them back into the sea, but they keep washing up in greater numbers. Seagulls start to gather and snatch sardines out of his hands.

“The world was offering me two options,” Jodorowsky writes. “I could suffer with the anguish of the sardines, or I could rejoice at the good fortune of the seagulls. The balance tilted toward joy when I say a crowd of poor people—men, women, and children—chasing away the birds and gathering up every last fish with frenetic enthusiasm. The balance tilted toward sadness when I saw the gulls, deprived of their banquet, pecking dejectedly at the few morsels that remained on the beach.”

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This one scene encapsulates the whole of life’s joy and sorrow. What nourishes one, depletes another—at least in the physical world. To cope, many philosophers would argue, we must find a higher purpose or cause that gives meaning to the suffering. Some find this through religion, others through charity or vocation.

The biologist and philosophical thinker Ed Ricketts (author John Steinbeck’s close friend and inspiration for the character Doc in his classic Cannery Row) spent years developing his concept of ‘breaking through’ to address this same dilemma. Similar to the concept of enlightenment, breaking through referred to the ability to move from a state of suffering to a state of peace and joy. But Rickett’s version took a more intellectual slant; he described ‘breaking through’ as reaching a heightened state of understanding that could lead to solutions for a given problem—including societal problems such as poverty and racism. As Sagarin and Crowder (2007) write: “Ricketts acknowledged that breakthroughs were driven by passionate conviction and adherence to a cause or belief. He wrote, “Its most common vehicle is love, love of a cause, of people, of a person”.”

It all comes down to love. It’s the simplest truth we know and yet the hardest to adhere to. If we do our best to act out of love, than we can reduce suffering and perhaps even reach our own breakthroughs, spiritual or otherwise. For some people, acting out of love means avoiding all animal products. For others, it means making thoughtful choices about what they eat or what they buy or how they act in other ways.

If your main goal is to have a low carbon footprint, you may choose to avoid meat and dairy but still eat mussels and oysters, since bivalves can be sustainably cultured with little energy input or harm to other organisms; plus, there’s evidence (though not definitive) that sessile bivalves don’t feel any more ‘pain’ than plants when harvested. Others would argue, however, that plants do have some of the capabilities of sentient beings, such as the ability to communicate with each other and respond to danger. Without central nervous systems, however, its unlikely plants have any sense similar to ‘pain.’ In my opinion, it all comes back to making thoughtful choices, and showing gratitude and respect for the resources available to us—whether they are plants, animals, soil, rock, or water. If we could revitalize more widely the ancient practice of paying respect to the food we consume, perhaps this gratitude would spill over into other aspects of our lives.

I’ll admit that sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that many of my friends are passionate about conserving the ocean and saving wildlife, but still choose to eat unsustainable seafood, or beef and pork from factory farms. But then I remind myself that I often drive a regular car that runs on fossil fuel instead of riding a bike, and I buy foods wrapped in plastic when I could choose to avoid them. Rather than developing guilt complexes about all the things we do ‘wrong’ or finger pointing at others who do so, we could put that energy towards building empathy and compassion for each other as well as other living things.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

So ultimately, was I okay with eating seaweed? By the time my order arrived, I wasn’t so sure. Ironically, I was mistakenly served a poke bowl filled with raw fish, and had to send it back for the seaweed bowl. I had to hope that although I didn’t eat the fish that had been prepared for me, it wouldn’t go to waste. I had inadvertently caused undo waste and suffering by ordering the vegan dish. Morality is a complicated game. When my seaweed bowl finally arrived, fish-free this time, I acknowledged the effort and life that went into the meal and ate it without complaint.

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