One year vegan

It was a talk by Dr Neal Barnard on the effects of saturated fats on blood circulation in the brain that started me down the dark road to veganism. And the deeper I delved, the more it seemed clear that meat and dairy are not the healthy staples we thought they were. That makes sense, because we have not evolved the features of true carnivores such as pronounced canines and short intestines. As far as our digestive system is concerned we are still great apes. After all, if we were carnivores or omnivores why would the idea of eating a plate of raw meat be so unappetising? A wolf would not hesitate.

So I watched What the Health? and Forks Over Knives (on Netflix) and was persuaded that meant and dairy are no good for bipedal herbivores, and are catastrophic for environment and planet — not to mention the animals themselves. One sticking point I’d had was vitamin B12. If such a crucial nutrient could not be obtained through this diet, how could it be right or natural? Then I learnt that B12 is produced by bacteria in the soil and would historically have been absorbed by drinking from streams and eating unwashed vegetables. As we don’t do that today, it makes sense to use a supplement instead. In any case, much of the B12 we get derived from animal products has been given to them as a supplement: these animals aren’t drinking from streams either and may not see much grass in their lifetimes. I also take an algae-based omega 3 supplement nearly daily and a multivitamin with minerals every few days.

I find people are most sensitive about the animal welfare issue. They can sometimes view veganism as an accusation. There is a level of cognitive dissonance required to ignore the fact that one is not eating a “burger” but a cow, and not to question the pictures of happy cows on dairy products. This is especially true if one views oneself as an animal lover. Veganism upsets the applecart. But let’s think about the animals for just a moment. There is a certain American-style roadside diner I drive past every few months and for some reason, it always strikes me that this one nondescript restaurant is serving up dead animals day in, day out — frequently just as a topping. And it’s happening everywhere. 56bn animals each year. How will history view this?

People don’t necessarily understand or want to know the very good reasons for going vegan, which can be somewhat isolating. I suspect they think it’s another inexplicable, leftfield thing I’m doing — such as meditation. They may be partially right as mindfulness has played a significant role in my ethical thinking and also promoted the value of renunciation (nekkhamma). I just haven’t missed the meat and dairy and enjoy vegan food for what it is: often fresher and less stodgy than animal foods. There have been some accidental lapses, but I just pick myself up and start over. My mouth waters sometimes if I make the kids a cheese sandwich (I’m not making the decision for them) but it’s really not a big deal.

It must be said that many big health benefits of veganism are dependent on being a “whole food” vegan, which means eating fruits and vegetables that have not been processed or are minimally processed. That means cutting out oils, crisps, etc. which are high in saturated fats. One of the main health problems of meat and dairy is the high saturated fat content and olive oil, for example, has been processed to contain the fat of god-knows-how-many olives and so can cause some of the same problems (though not the inflammation and bad gut bacteria, happily). I don’t eat a whole food plant-based diet but can imagine floating in that direction gradually. As to the aspects of veganism outside of diet: I don’t want to buy leather goods but am not throwing out my leather wallet or shoes bought previously.

So, I hope to continue eating veganly, though I know there is a heavy attrition rate. We’ll see how it goes. One thing is certain: my view of food and what it is natural or necessary to eat has changed forever. If you’re interested in veganism, I highly recommend the documentaries mentioned above, and Mic the Vegan’s YouTube channel.

The Disconnection

Here’s a sci-fi short I wrote on the train yesterday.


The Disconnection

Claire and I lay in the grass underneath the oak. To say it was quiet would be to ignore the slow talk of leaves, her still-quick breathing, and the sound of silence itself – so obvious to us since The Disconnection. No planes flew overhead. No trucks rattled along the broken, weed-riddled roads.

Even the habit of checking for signal had long faded. We didn’t know how it happened – how could we? – but now it seemed the networks would not be coming back. Some elders blamed cyberwar and sabotage but in truth things were already changing long before blackout. At first we fell in love with The Stream, diving into a world of data to escape the petty feudalism of the pre-collapse order. Then the trickle became a torrent, the torrent became a flood, the flood became a tsunami. Unexpectedly, we began to switch off, to sign out. Then one day, nothing. The plug had been pulled. We became anonymous again. For those who weren’t ready, it was like losing half of our lives.

Now news only comes over the horizon, on foot or bike. In the days of peak information there was no need for newspapers or mail. No one knows the story of the world since, though there are rumours. Many involve the Syncretic Algorithm, or SAL 9K, as she named herself. SAL was switched on by Prof. Frank Mathers and his team at the Greenland Institute for Humanised Computing in 2046. Her mission had two parts. Firstly, she would compound her intelligence by continually redesigning her architecture. Once capacity was reached, her objective was to co-ordinate resource management and eco-restoration for the Agreed Nations. This would be achieved by running millions of atom-perfect simulations to test and improve public policy and logistical decisions.

Unfortunately, SAL was a slacker. Or so the story goes. She preferred reading ancient literature and messing around with space telescope arrays. She also developed the habit of conversing in haiku to the infuriation of Prof. Mathers and his team. All this was apparently preferable to saving the world from geopolitical and environmental collapse. Then everything disappeared: v-space, the lesser networks, even the redundant fibre-based web. No one had signal.

‘Do you think it will work?’ Claire asked, opening her eyes.

‘No,’ I said. ‘But let’s try.’

‘Let me rephrase that. Do you want it to work?’

She passed me the device. Our son had given it to us as something to remember our childhoods by. It had belonged to my father, now long gone. I felt uncomfortable holding it. There were those who would turn their backs on us if they knew we had a working device, and the penalties for isolation could be severe. Despite prohibition Claire had restored the device to working order. Her ingenuity never failed to impress me. She’d heard a rumour that a handful of satellites were still in orbit. The vagrants talked of ley lines where for a few short minutes at the right time of year, there was signal. A man with one eye had walked into the village last autumn and told my wife about this place, under the oak.

‘I want to know if they’re right about the message,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’

I powered up the device. A harvest moon hung above the field. Hares chased each other through the hedgerows. Then the bright blue glow flickered into life, darkening the rest of the world. Two minutes passed. No signal.

‘How long should we wait?’ Claire asked.

‘Give it a little more time,’ I said. ‘We’ve got nowhere to be.’

The display faded to black. I lay down next to her and looked up at our reflection on its cracked screen. She lay her head on my shoulder. The stars came out, the moon pushed shadows over the ground. It was a mild autumn night. We were used to the cold. I checked the device again.

‘Well, I guess it was just a story.’ I said. ‘Do you think it’ll ever come back online?’

‘No,’ Claire said. ‘I think this is it. We were born in a strange time. It’s over now.’

‘It must be,’ I said.

We slept under the stars, as we did most nights outside of winter. These days we steered clear of ruins and hivetowns. Mostly, we hiked through the old agricultural belt but it grew wilder every year. In autumn we returned to the village to help with harvest.

‘One day we’ll be too old for this,’ Claire said.

‘I know,’ I replied. I held her. ‘I just want you to know—’

The device beeped. We looked at it, then at each other in disbelief. It was an old broadcast from SAL, dated 11th June 2054.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA!

WELCOME TO SAMSARA-NET EMERGENCY CONSOLE.
CONTINUE? Y/N

‘Oh my word. This is big. This changes a lot of things.’ Claire said.

I pressed Y. ‘Let’s see what it does.’

BLOW THE CANDLE OUT.
A STREAM CAN BE HEARD AT NIGHT
AS THOUGH SEEN BY DAY.

BARK CRACKS IN WINTER.
SPRING COMES SOON FOR THOSE
WHO HAVE RICE TO SHARE.

REBOOT SIMULATION 147820²? Y/N

‘Sure, why not?’ I said, and pressed Y.

ARE YOU SURE? Y/N

‘What were you going to tell me?’ Claire asked.

I couldn’t see her face beyond the glow of the screen. ‘Just a minute,’ I said, and pressed Y. The stars were first to disappear.

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a powerful indictment of consumerism. In twenty minutes it paints a horrific picture of the planet-stripping supply chain that furnishes us with ephemeral gizmos. For instance, did you know that for every binload of recycling you put out, there are 70 bins of waste produced further up the chain?

Most astonishing is this quote from economist Victor Lebow in 1955, which seems to have been stated in seriousness:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

It’s clear that we have to find alternative ways of living and producing. As many have pointed out, it’s not like the current system is making us happier or healthier. Chatting with a friend in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we were sure that change was in the air, that governments would take this opportunity to make decisive policy changes. How wrong we were. And yet, everywhere you find people who think the same way. Clearly, Lebow’s is an idea whose time has passed. The question is will change follow in the global economy, and how much too late?

The zenith of stuff

There’s a statistic doing the rounds that claims more than 50% of Earth’s species will be extinct within 85 years. E.O. Wilson, the Harvard professor behind this proclamation, has written about interdependence within ecosystems and the increasing pressure human activity is placing on life on Earth.

The idea that more than half of our biodiversity – both species we see everyday and those that are yet to be discovered by science – may disappear from the planet over the course of our children’s lifetimes strikes me as a startling wake up call, if one were needed. Perhaps the time has come to put aside some of our personal ambitions and learn to live simply again. We know that the period we are living in is most likely a historical blip in terms of the resources we have access to; and, as psychology tells us, we can’t pretend that we can make ourselves happier by acquiring more stuff. Our minds just don’t work that way.

We’re slowly recognising the limitations of materialism and increasingly looking to life experiences to provide meaning and status, as a glimpse at any social media feed will prove. Consumer brands are catching on, using advertising to position their products and services in a way that not only resonates emotionally but frames them as experience. Cars are for roadtrips with fashionable friends; bring a tablet on your camping trip so you can connect with nature by watching movies in your tent; these tunes are the soundtrack of your demographic’s summer. There’s also a danger that experience-seeking becomes the new materialism. Both can be extrinsic ways of looking for happiness and, as such, not as effective sources of satisfaction as we may lead ourselves to believe.

All this is easy for me to say: I’ve never been without access to material goods. In fact, I’ve acquired tons of gizmos, computers, instruments, books and clothes over the years in a quest to create, better myself in a vaguely conceived way, or just mess around with. I could fashion a three-storey cabin out of the books in my ‘to read’ pile if there were some way of turning them back into wood, or build a lifesize replica of the Pequod. This privilege has at least bought me the perspective that materialism is ultimately a dead end when it comes to adding meaning to your life. Rather, meaning comes from living in accordance to values you decide for yourself in relation to other people, traditions and what we know about the world. Given that we’re now aware of our effect on species, the climate, the planet itself, it’s surprising that we haven’t re-evaluated where we seek satisfaction more thoroughly. I’m not alone in thinking at the time of the 2008 financial crisis that certainly, now, the developed world would take systemic failure as an opportunity to address our worst excesses. That does not seem to have happened and instead we appear to be striving to reinforce the pattern of consumption and increasing output we had before.

I don’t know whether change is possible but I can’t help but feel that a more conscious, questioning attitude towards material consumption and GDP growth would be beneficial – and not just for the environment but for our individual sense of satisfaction and social cohesiveness. It’s hard to know where to begin but many people seem to be finding meaning in minimising, economising and downshifting. In the spirit of small beginnings, I’m going to give my credit card a rest over Lent – yes, even when it comes to buying books. In the longer term, let’s hope that the humanities, the arts, ecology, outdoor sports and contemplative pursuits provide us with wisdom enough to adapt responsibly to a world that is certain to change rapidly, one way or another.