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


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.”


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.

heart and brain.jpg

Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.

The most AMAZING story you’ll ever read! (A.K.A., the concerning rise of Click-Baiting and sensational “science”)

Social media can be a catalyst for spreading awareness about scientific and environmental issues, and in some cases can help affect positive change. But for every link posted that actually leads to a valid, well-researched story, there are a dozen more that MIS-lead you to some nonsense article, or worse—a sensationalized, one-sided, often poorly-researched story thinly veiled as ‘scientific’.

Let me disclose my own perspective from the start: I trust the evidence showing that climate change is happening, and that CO2 and methane from human-caused activity is a huge contributor. I am skeptical that corporations generally have the best interests of society or the environment at heart, and I realize that government is not always transparent or just—regardless of which party is in control. However, I am also not a conspiracy theorist, and in fact believe that conspiracy theorists tend to draw attention away from some of the most pressing issues affecting the world.

While I know that human knowledge is still very limited, and our view of the universe is naturally incomplete, there are methods we can use to improve our understanding—and then of course there are methods some people use to obfuscate that understanding. As a trained scientist, I am wary of explanations that lack credible evidence (or use faulty evidence) to back them up. Each time we read a scientific story, we should be asking ourselves about the credibility of information we receive—what are the credentials and reputation of the source, what evidence does the source cite, and does the source consider multiple perspectives and valid references?

As a communicator, I am particularly sensitive to journalists, writers, or bloggers who display unacknowledged bias or inaccuracy in their reporting of scientific issues. I don’t claim to know everything, nor do I endorse any particular information source; but irresponsible scientific writing ends up burning more bridges between the public and science in a time when scientific understanding is more critical than ever.

Climate change denialism (like vaccination controversy) has been addressed effectively by hundreds of scientists and communicators, so I won’t spend time here discussing the ways that climate change science has been cherry-picked or misrepresented by people either not well-versed in science or actively trying to distort it. Instead, I’ll provide a few other examples of troublesome reporting.

Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species  in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.
Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.

Frankensquito or Insect Savior?

A smaller—but no less controversial—story popping up in news media lately is the development and release of genetically modified mosquitos to help combat mosquito-borne diseases. I won’t go into the details about their development, here but you can read more about the technology by googling, or in the articles I link to below.

GMOs typically refer to modified crops like soybeans and corn, but more and more research labs are toying with genetically modified insects and animals. I am wary of genetically modified crops for a number of reasons—the unscrupulous purposes of their creation, their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and their detrimental social-economic impacts to small farmers. However, it would be unfair, and extremely ideological, for me to render every single GMO as evil without considering multiple perspectives.

Even for those GMOs that I oppose, such as GM soy, I must acknowledge that we don’t fully know how harmful these crops will ultimately be to our bodies or the environment compared to conventional crops. GMOs developed by academic or independent institutions (as opposed to agro-corporations) may actually provide some human or environmental benefit that outweighs risks or harms.

So what about these genetically modified mosquitos? Depending on which media source you look to, the mosquitos are either dangerous mutants who will lead the apocalypse, or they are angelic saviors in the plight against deadly disease. Of course, neither of these depictions is completely accurate, but the concept that GM mosquitos are just one more, somewhat successful but limited attempt to control vector-borne disease is not a newsworthy headline.

The click-bait culture has fed into sensationalized media, enticing people to click on extreme headlines that never live up to their hype when you actually read the story. It still doesn’t keep people from clicking on the links, however. And while clicking is harmless, when links begin to spread from reader to reader via social media, a highly distorted viewpoint can reach epic proportions.

One such story from the site Collective Evolution talks about the potential release of GM mosquitos in Florida, arguing that these mosquitos may spread their genetically-modified DNA to humans, that their populations may eventually get out of control, and the diseases they carry are not even that dangerous or prevalent. All of these points are partially valid, but have been purposely slanted or stretched beyond scientific fact. The article does site some references, but many of them are from sources with well-known biases or controversies themselves.

On the other hand, NPR published an article about the mosquitos that projects a very benign, almost positive slant, providing arguments and facts not mentioned by Collective Evolution, but also not delving into much about the risks of GMOs. On the other extreme, an author from Discovery Magazine attempts to squash all fears about the mosquitos point by point, arguing that protests against their release are ignorant fear-mongering. Another pithy author took this approach to the issue in the Washington Post.

A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.
A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.

There are more than 50 Shades of Gray—metaphorically speaking

As with any issue where science meets society, there are many nuances to the GM mosquito story, only some of which are discussed in any one news article. This is not a clear black/white, good/bad issue. The decision to release these mosquitos or not is contingent on particular societal values at a given time.

Some things to consider: the mosquitos being targeted are not native to Florida, so eradicating them (or reducing their numbers) would not necessarily be a disruption to native fauna and flora. The diseases the invasive mosquitos carry, while not widespread in the U.S. at this time, are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm. The same mosquitos have been released in other cities around the world with great success, and no recorded harm, resulting in reduced rates of disease. The current method of controlling these mosquitos is with tons of pesticides—not exactly a healthy alternative. However, there have been many cases of biological releases gone wrong, so this is not a fail-safe procedure.

Would you rather be exposed to pesticides or take antibiotics rather than GM mosquitos? Do you fear GM technology more than tropical diseases? How you feel about these various trade-offs will color how you interpret the issue, and the media provides additional filters. My main point is just to be aware of your own biases as you react to any scientific story—while your viewpoint may remain the same, understanding how you construct your perspective is a valuable thought-experiment that can help you build tolerance and openness to other perspectives.

Our world is a mix of cultural relativism, objective external reality, and subjective reactions to that reality. Cultivating a greater awareness of what you read, and what you share with others, will help us as a society to expand our consciousness and be more thoughtful about how we co-exist in the world.