Vegetarianism, Morals, and the Judgmental Environmentalist Dilemma

So, I have a confession to make. I, the writer of this extremely interesting blog, am a…vegetarian. Whew, ok. What’s that? Oh, yes, I suppose I have driven in a car which contributes negatively to the environment just like eating meat does. Hmm, yes, glue does come from horse hooves and I did just lick that envelope..what? Oh, right, I have eaten fish on a few occasions since moving to Iceland, which for the 4 years of my vegetarianism until that point, I did not do. Yes, I agree, eggs are “just as bad” as meat. You got me!!


In case it is unclear, this is often the type of reaction people get when they admit to being a part of this damned minority. For whatever reason, being confronted with someone who self-imposes dietary restrictions brings out the defensive in people. I try not to describe myself as a vegetarian anymore, but that doesn’t mean my well-meaning friends and family don’t rush to my side to label me as such in any interaction over food. “This is my niece, Fríða – she’s a vegetarian,” or “Fríða ordered hummus because she’s, well, you know.”

I don’t think that a defensive reaction is entirely unfounded, however, because within all minority movements, including “green” movements in general, there tends to be an air of sanctimony, whether implicit or not. What a non-vegetarian hears when I say I don’t eat meat is “You’re wrong, you’re evil, you don’t care.” Of course I don’t believe this, and it’s unfortunate how much tension and awkwardness can be created from what seems to me to be a very simple, and personal, choice. I think the solution to the often deep divide between the two groups lies on both sides. On the one hand, the realities of industrialized factory farming are very dire and often horrific. On the other, one person choosing not to eat meat is but a drop in the ocean and makes an insignificant difference in that reality. The truth is the issues are not black and white, far from it.

This brings me to my bigger point – the judgmental environmentalist (say that five times fast). I often have issues in my new field of environmental studies with individuals who resent everyone who is not as educated about the concept of sustainability, global warming, the “right” eco-friendly products, and so on. It seems imprudent for a movement aimed at encouraging a new widespread public perception to act in a self-righteous accusatory manner. Doing so will only serve to alienate and isolate, rather than bolster communication across interest groups.

A 2012 study conducted by Kendall J. Eskine at Loyola University in New Orleans explores the relationship between dietary tastes and moral processing. Entitled “Wholesome Food and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments,” Eskine’s research looks at how we define ourselves and our moral obligations through the lens of individual moral acts, and how each of these weighs against the other. Even something seemingly benign like choosing a (typically more expensive) organic apple rather than a non-organic one can mold our self-image, and make us feel superior. This might even create a deficit in our subsequent altruistic actions, following the logic that “Well, I spent extra money on that organic apple, I don’t need to give change to that homeless individual today.” A Scientific American article describes the study further, if you’d like to take a look.

This perfectly embodies the idea that our actions are indelibly linked to our perception of ourselves, and we need to step away from the idea that environmental justice is a meter of virtuosity. There is nothing inherently evil or beyond hope about someone who use plastic shopping bag, gets her coffee from a non free-trade producer, or rolls his eyes when he hears “eco-friendly.” Integrating sustainable dialogue into the public narrative without finger pointing and soapbox standing is necessary for any positive change to happen. Education, as always, is the key to allowing folks to decide for themselves their level of commitment to a given goal, and I think education starts with the individual. Being a vegetarian gives you no license for a superiority complex, but it does grant you a great opportunity to help out a new acquaintance with a meat-free recipe, and that can go a seriously long way.


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