Was Gandhi Wrong? Is It Enough to “Be The Change?”

– by The Shitty Activist

GandhiGandhi 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?

It was all well and good for me to be a vegetarian for twenty years. But was I right to think that changing my own diet alone was enough?

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?


  1. swarnabhas says

    Good that the name Gandhi is spelled right. As to the quote, please see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html

    “Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

    Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

    Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

  2. says

    And Marxism in its failure reminds us, we are too damn tired to make any sort of difference; come home, watch tv with our tv dinner, smoke, go to sleep – do the whole thing over again…

  3. viet says

    That figure, 195 lb of meat a year, includes more than just cows. Saying vegetarians only save four lives a year is false. By far the most commonly slaughtered animal is chicken and fish. I don’t know why the author would use only cows. It’s misleading and disingenuous.

    • says

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that the 195 lb of meat includes more than just cows and think it could be interesting–though more complicated–to break it up in other ways, which would include chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, shellfish, deer, bison, bear, elk, pigs, etc.

      I used cows because it was easiest to look up the weight of a cow. I’d be happy to change that up in the article if you can come up with a better way of doing the measurement.

      Also, since this blog is about improving activism, perhaps you might consider how your future comments could be more persuasive to those who aren’t as open minded as The Shitty Activist. While The Shitty Activist has thick skin and is able to look past what seem like personal accusations, most people tend to shut down in the face of what they might view as hostility.

      While my choice of cows was an admittedly arbitrary one, instead of assuming a motive on the part of an author (in this case, your statement that I was being “disingenuous,” meaning dishonest), do you think you could’ve made your point just as clearly by leaving out the last sentence?

      Here’s a relevant excerpt from my article “Consciousness Raising or Brow Beating” that may interest you:


      “…you might not want to make statements about someone else’s intentions, the reasons you suspect they have a certain opinion. Maybe you’re right, but if you’re not, you run the risk of destroying your own credibility by crying wolf.”

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