I’ve come to realise that the reason why vegetarians take energy supplements has nothing to do with the absence of meat from their diet, it is to allow them spend 16 hours a day answering the “why did you become vegetarian?” question.
After almost 34 years of devouring every animal my supermarket could get its hands on, I turned vegetarian in March. Since then have been asked the “but why?” question more times than I’d had hot steak dinners.
It is a difficult question to answer, not because it is hard to rationalise the decision to stop eating animals, but because for most vegetarians the answer is so bloody obvious.
You may as well ask “was World War One a positive experience for Europe’s youth?”
“What are trousers?”
Most vegetarians are motivated by an objection to the industrial-scale slaughter of animals who are forced-bred and held in cages for the majority of their pathetic lives. I know: bloody hippies, right?
My reason for turning vegetarian is a little different. True, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with using a living creature as a condiment but that’s not really the driving factor.
Let me explain.
We are living through one of the most historically significant periods of the last half a billion years. This is an era when some of the biggest issues are being defined: the incredible speed of technological advances, the triumph of science over disease, the rise of market forces, the prevalence of the selfie.
These are all enormously significant issues, battles and photographic techniques. But none of these will be what this age is remembered for. You see, this is one of just a handful of historical moments over the last 450 million years where almost everything on the planet is about to die.
Think that’s dramatic? Well, think again.
Researchers last week declared that we have entered planet Earth’s sixth extinction event, when the majority of life on the planet is expected to disappear.
The five previous times that the majority of life on Earth was lost forever was as a result of atmospheric or geological factors. For example, the last extinction event was 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid.
The current extinction, however, is the first one to have been caused by one of the species at risk: us.
I won’t go into the details (you can read plenty about it here and here) but suffice to say the main reason for this extinction is that human activity is fundamentally changing our natural environment – the air, the sea and everything in between.
We are driving many species to extinction by cementing over nature at a terrifying rate, but even more disastrous has been the 200-year carbon binge since the Industrial Revolution. The level of carbon in the atmosphere is unprecedented in at least 800,000 years and is not compatible with the continuation of life on the planet.
At a conference I recently attended, Fr. Sean McDonagh summed it up well when he noted that humans are changing the environment faster than evolution can adapt. The result is that vast numbers of species are being driven into extinction. In an incredibly depressing report issued last year, the World Wildlife Foundation estimated that the population of vertebrate species – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish – have declined by 52 per cent over the last 40 years. It is predicted that 1 million species will be lost between today and 2100.
By that date – a mere 85 years away – it is also expected that, as a direct result of human activity, global temperatures will be on average 4 – 6 degrees Celsius higher and sea levels will be approximately one metre higher, turning much of Africa and Asia into uninhabitable desert and transforming cities such as Miami, New York and Mumbai into modern day equivalents of Atlantis. (See this World Bank report on the top ten cities at risk)
The warming and flooding of the planet will contribute significantly to species extinction. Humans, of course, can migrate quicker than other animals but the obvious question is: where will all these hundreds of millions of displaced humans go? If Nigel Farage can hold out until 2100 he is surely going to hit the electoral jackpot.
Reaction to the news of the planet entering a sixth extinction phase was relatively muted, which is perhaps understandable because there was a lot going on, what with Taylor Swift taking on Apple and all. It is quite remarkable to think that if humans survive for another 1,000 years (the chances of that happening are remote but please suspend belief for a moment) the one thing this age will be remembered for is the one thing nobody is talking about. In 1,000 years, even the horrors inflicted by Hitler will be an historical footnote compared to the widespread extinction of the majority of life on earth as a direct result of human activity.
What has all this got to do with turning vegetarian?
Well, on the face of it, not a whole lot. None (or, at least, a tiny fraction) of the species at risk of extinction are at risk because humans are eating them. In fact, a cynical view would argue that the only chance at risk species have is if we discover they taste nice with tomato ketchup because only then will we see an economic benefit in their survival. The cow would no doubt be extinct by now were it not for the fact that they taste so good sandwiched in bread.
What it is linked to, however, is the complete disregard humanity has for everything on the planet. Humans are a rogue species intent on treating the planet as if it there to serve our every need.
I recently made a film about climate change and its impacts. The film was primarily about floods, rising sea levels and droughts, but when I was speaking with the various experts one theme came out through all of their interviews: humanity’s complete disregard for nature. As interviewee after interviewee told me in the film, we have come to view ourselves as being somehow separate to the natural environment, as if we can do whatever we like without any consequences.
This, of course, is a fatal mistake. You cannot win a war against nature because we are completely reliant on the natural environment for our continuation as a species. We are engaged in a battle that we simply cannot win. What we are doing is essentially a slow suicide of our entire species.
Me turning vegetarian won’t contribute to conservation in any way. It won’t reverse or slow down any aspect of the ecocide we are engaged in. It won’t even save a single animal. Why I have done it is because I believe humanity needs to urgently reassess its relationship with everything else that exists on this planet.
The mindset that regards the sole purpose of animal life as being to end up in a kebab is the same mindset that has led us turning seas into dumping grounds, blowing-up mountains for mining, slashing forests and regarding green fields as “undeveloped land”. In short, it is the mindset that is killing us and everything around us.
This may sound very hippyish but it’s not. I don’t want us to live in trees, wear hemp clothes or recite poetry at each other. I quite enjoy modern life but I also recognise that we can’t continue to model our engagement with the planet on Oliver Reed’s relationship with his liver.
As long as we view our natural environment merely as something that can be cut down, build on or put inside burger buns, we are facing a head-on collision that we know we cannot survive.
We are turning the entire world into a battery farm. And guess what? It’s our necks on the block.