In his poignant speech at the Oscars, Joaquin Phoenix was at his most heartfelt when he described consequences of the collective human assumption, that we’re at the centre of the universe. “We go into the natural world and we plunder it. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby even though her cries of anguish are unmistakeable,” said Phoenix. Like many woke people in and out of Hollywood, Virat Kohli and Roger Federer for instance, Phoenix is a practising vegan.
It’s true enough that human beings have an egocentric worldview, which is precisely why, over millennia, we successfully transitioned from nomadic wanderers to conquerers of outer space. Now, very much like the circumference of the earth, we’ve come full circle to the point that to control further environmental degradation, even our dietary choices need to be monitored. Meanwhile, the resolutely self-aware Phoenix and his small but growing tribe are well ahead of the curve, having taken a serious look at the world and drawn some realistic conclusions on the future of the planet. Is it that these special few care more about carbon emissions and animal welfare than us stellar, law abiding citizens who continue being meat eating offenders? It is a truth (silently unacknowledged) that there is an unpleasant chasm between the born again herbivores and the omnivores, who have yet to see the light.
Even the rabidly unapologetic non-vegetarian Anthony Bourdain confessed to having nightmares about a lobster donning a chef’s hat and exacting revenge, after he saw the beleaguered specimen trying to get away from a pot of boiling water. Though Bourdain built a career eating a variety of exotic creatures with relish on national TV, some part of him was aware that just maybe, his lifestyle was painfully callous. Because, everyone likes to think of themselves as fundamentally good. We think we care about the issues plaguing mankind except, it’s in an off-hand kind of way with an acceptable lack of integrity. Like the image floating around WhatsApp of a woman sitting at a dining table, weeping at a Koala bear suffering in the Australian wildfires. On her plate, was an uneaten beef steak. Or, it’s much easier to support the Shaheen Bagh protests by changing a display picture on Facebook (while secretly thanking your stars that it’s not your kid who’s spending two hours in a school bus on Mathura Road).
All these contradictions come to the fore more forcefully when we are faced with people who find the wherewithal to make difficult changes, and support others while inconveniencing themselves. Turning vegan though, is a different level of challenge for self-improvement. For example, if you care about labour practices and exploitation in the fashion industry, it’s not so difficult to change purchasing habits. One may move to a different, sustainable brand, or stop shopping completely. Turning vegan means giving up milk in coffee and cheese with wine, a situation guaranteed to make most of us very whiny. Needless to say this makes vegans a bit annoying, more than teetotallers and fanatical exercisers who subsist on boiled veggies and packaged protein.They’re doing it for selfish reasons, their health and hopefully, a great figure.
Vegans may, in all fairness, make the preposterous claim, they’re thinking of the greater good, and what can be more annoying than that. For people who can’t hack an all-or-nothing diet but who aim to make changes, there is a new term: reducetarianism. A reducetarian commits to eating less red meat and dairy, working towards the goal of vegan-ism but without committing to be a plant muncher for the rest of his life. It’s a humble beginning.
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