I don’t eat meat for simple reasons. When I walked to Helena from Kansas City in the mid-1990s, I saw the devastation that American agricultural policy wrought on the land. From irrigated farms that drink up western water for the sake of profit to desertification of public lands, I began to think very carefully about what I ate and what contribution I made to the damage.
It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That includes the amount the animal drinks, water used to irrigate the fields on which they graze, and the water it takes to raise the grain farmers and ranchers used to fatten up their cows. About 600 gallons goes into a pound of pork. This compared to about 200 gallons of water to grow a pound of soybeans and 100 gallons for corn.
But grain was problematic too. Irrigation in the semi-arid West drinks up rivers and streams and ruins local ecosystems. It drains wetlands and underground aquifers. Irrigation consolidates government and corporate power. It demands that millions of Americans pay for the benefit and profit of a few. In the end, I decided after I returned to Kansas City after that long walk and the canoe trip back from Helena on the Missouri River that ag giants would be just fine without my money. It was scary, such a decision. It took me almost a year and a half to take the plunge. In January 1, 1997, I lived my first day completely without meat.
But as the years passed, something else happened. I became less and less able to kill even the smallest creatures. I found myself taking ants and flies outdoors and leaving spiders hang in the basement. I shooed mosquitoes instead of swatting them—which isn’t much of a statement since I’m one of those people that mosquitoes leave mostly alone. As I thought about my vegetarian eating habits, I came to see them as about more than government power, corporate money, and environmental concern. It became part of a philosophy of nonviolence. When I grew up, violence was part of daily life—physical, emotional, or verbal violence. My parents, at bottom, were good people who were also inept parents. They learned from their parents how to deal with child behavior. But they applied their methods as they applied the rules, only haphazardly and in arbitrary ways.
I learned from my parents. Hitting and constant scolding didn’t get me anywhere but a world of hurt. I didn’t treat my kids that way. I didn’t hit them and I tried not to damage them emotionally while also attempting to exact discipline in uniform ways. In other words, I tried to follow the rules.
As my inclinations toward nonviolence grew, they moved into daily practices in the market. Where and what could I buy that exacted the least amount of hurt and harm to other people and creatures? Living, by itself, takes its toll on others. But how could I minimize my effect on other? More and more, vegetarianism became a mainstay in daily life.
There are all kinds of problems with my decisions not to eat animals. Do plants feel pain, as some biologists and activists maintain? Grain and vegetables take their toll on the environment, and particularly in the irrigated West. Farms and agricultural land have changed irrevocably forest, prairie, and stream—from sea to shining sea. Unless I limit my purchases from local sources, I’m making a negative impact on the environment. Just the transportation of food from distant places costs the nation billions of gallons of fuel each year. The lettuce on the shelf represents a petroleum used in farm production and transportation. Corporations that grow and harvest grains concentrate power and money. Aren’t dairy cows from whom I get cheese enslaved and exploited?
Yes. All that’s true or, at least, may be the case. But I have to eat. I’m just not going to eat another sentient creature.