Talking to simple living advocates about veganism

The Practical Peacemaker, by Kate Lawrencepeacemaker_cover_60_pctOn the face of it, the practice of simple living implies veganism. If you live simply, you are consuming the least amount of the earth’s resources that you can. But eating meat consumes copious quantities of natural resources, causes untold animal suffering, and in fact is actually harmful to your health. It is the ultimate example of unnecessary consumption. How can you claim to be living simply if you are not vegan?

Kate Lawrence makes this argument in The Practical Peacemaker: the primary aspect of simple living is the reduction of unnecessary consumption of the earth’s resources, which obviously implies veganism. However, this straightforward argument has not won over most modern simple living practitioners, notwithstanding the examples of Scott and Helen Nearing and others. Why is this?

Some of these practitioners just haven’t been fully informed about the facts of meat consumption and are still caught up in myths about backyard chickens and grass-fed beef. But there is a larger reason, and that is that people have different ideas as to what “simple living” is these days. Many people don’t immediately think about environmental impact when they think of the idea of “simple living.”

Those advocating a simple life are generally referring to voluntarily reducing at least one of four different things:

1. Time commitments (typically, work hours)
2. Income
3. Financial expenditures
4. Impact on the planet

Much of the time, these things will go together. If you reduce your work hours voluntarily, then you will have reduced income. If you have reduced income, you will have reduced financial expenses as well; and if you have reduced financial expenditures, you will have less impact on the planet because you are buying less stuff.

The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer coverBut at other times these motivations can often be at cross-purposes with each other. A growing movement of people, known as “effective altruists,” seek to donate their disposable income and time for the greatest possible good. Some effective altruists reduce their consumption but actually increase their income and their time obligations. One such altruist, mentioned by Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do, took a high-income job in financial services on Wall Street but then lived modestly and gave most of his income away to charity. Clearly, this person is living simply, even though he didn’t fit the traditional mold of simple living.

Reducing your impact on the environment may also conflict with some of the other ideas of simple living. Getting solar panels installed, for example, might reduce your impact on the environment but increase your expenses. And taking the bus instead of driving a car, or taking the train instead of the plane, which are both generally good for the environment, may increase your time obligations and sometimes your expenditures.

In short, there are multiple ways to look at simple living. Many people who are sympathetic to the idea of simple living are not vegans or even vegetarians, such as many in the permaculture movement, the Amish, Transition Towns, and the “radical homemakers.” It seems to me that these people tend to look at simple living through a lens other than the environmental one.

They may see simple living in terms of reducing financial expenditures or time commitments, not in terms of reducing environmental impact. Your Money or Your Life (Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin), a modern classic advocating urban simple living, takes this approach in a straightforward way: reduce your expenses, save up your money, and quit your job. In a homesteading blog the other day, the writer said that she was trying to reduce her meat consumption, but splurged on a steak because it was on sale. Eating meat likely looked like a justifiable minor indulgence among all the other things she was doing, since the amount of money you would save by going vegan isn’t that much and it may complicate your social life.

A dialogue between these modern simple living advocates and vegans and vegetarians is possible. We need to understand where simple living advocates are coming from. Modern consumer society is increasingly complex, crowded, and unhappy, even in the advanced industrial societies. Simple living advocates are on to something which is independent of the vegan idea and from which vegan advocates could learn. Consumerism is immensely destructive, and not just because of livestock agriculture.

I’d suggest asking simple living advocates about these ambiguities in the simple living movement. Even aside from the livestock agriculture issue, what about something environmentally beneficial but financially expensive? How about spending extra money to insulate your house or get solar panels? What about making lots of money on Wall Street and giving it away to your favorite social movement? What about driving a car, if that simplifies your life in other ways? What about having children?

For those living in advanced industrial societies, simple living can be quite complex. When you consider the possible ways in which you could reduce your consumption, going vegan is actually one of the easiest ways to live simply.

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