– by The Shitty Activist
Gandhi told us to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” at least according to a bumper sticker I saw on the back of someone’s Subaru the other day. Of course, it’s pretty suspect whether Gandhi actually said those words, but it’s still a lesson followed closely by many do-gooders, including myself.
For twenty years I did my best to embody that ethic by refraining from consuming any and all meat products, because was concerned about animal suffering, land use issues, water consumption, and health.
The USDA calculates that the average American consumes 195 pounds of meat per year. If you do the math, that means I avoided 3,900 pounds of meat over two decades, which amounts to just about four cows (roughly half of a cow gets converted into food). Cow lives matter, of course, so four cows is still something. But did my personal sacrifices really make much of a dent in regards to the vegetarian cause?
Meat consumption in the U.S. increased steadily after World War II, but peaked around 2004. Since then, meat consumption in the U.S. has slowly declined, which isn’t attributed to ethical concerns, but economic ones, as meat is costlier than it’s ever been. Those trends aside, Americans still eat lots and lots of meat, with vegetarians hovering around five percent of the U.S. population, vegans at two percent.
Until recently, China ate little meat, but Chinese meat consumption per capita is now that double that of the U.S. The reality is that the world, overall, is eating more meat. It can be said that my personal decision to avoid eating meat for twenty years didn’t do much, if anything, to change the world.
But what if I had been a vegetarian activist? Even if I had only converted one person, that act alone would’ve doubled my impact in regards to the amount of meat consumed. If I hadn’t simply assumed that my own personal actions were enough to change the world, I might’ve saved more than four cows.
As you undoubtedly know, Gandhi himself did much more than model good behavior (and allegedly some not so good behavior). He organized marches, boycotts, and civil disobedience. The man clearly believed in the importance of challenging the structures of injustice themselves by mobilizing others to act, and by broadcasting the need for positive change to the greater world.
“Being the change” is the foundation of all movements. Without it, nothing meaningful can happen. But it’s only fifty percent of the way there.
Say, for instance, you want to stop gang violence. Is it really enough for you, yourself, to pledge not to participate in a drive-by shooting? Or what if you want to protect old-growth forests? Is the best way to do that simply to purchase recycled paper?
Of course, these are indispensible actions without which these goals can’t be achieved. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m saying we don’t need to “be the change.” Walking the walk is absolutely essential to any movement. But to enact meaningful and lasting change outside of our own tiny sphere, don’t we have to go beyond simply doing the right things ourselves and hoping the rest of the world will fall into place?
Because, after all, wasn’t my decision to become a vegetarian in the first place the result of someone else’s vegetarian activism? It’s doubtful it would’ve occurred to me to stop eating meat had I not been introduced to the concept, if indirectly, by vegetarians somewhere. By merely “being the change” and refusing to pay it forward to try to influence other potential vegetarians, didn’t I let down the cause I truly believed in?