Soapbox Corner: The Humanitarian Vegetarian

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Every one of us presents a jumbled knot of preconceptions and contradictions to the world around us. We may try to neutralise and sterilise our attitudes and the words we say- yet every action, or inaction, that we take makes a clear statement to the rest of humanity. It may not be the statement we were hoping for; it may not be the same statement to every person, in fact it’s most likely that it won’t be. But the fact remains that whatever you do, and wherever you do it, you are saying something about yourself and your place in the universe.

I am a vegetarian- I was born a vegetarian. In the UK I was making a statement loud and clear before I could even talk. People assume things about me, they may not realise it but they do. They may think I’m a tree-hugging environmentalist who believes that vegetarianism is the only viable route forward in an overpopulated world. They might look at me and think there goes an animal lover, too squeamish or too naive, to think about killing something. They may think I’m a health conscious vegetable munching fitness guru. Or they may just think I am awkward- causing them to come up with a vegetable based alternative to the traditional Sunday roast. People identify me as an ally or as an alien. And all this based on what I choose to put into my mouth.

The truth is that I am all of those things to a degree and not any one of them entirely. I could kill an animal and I have no problem cooking meat for others but I do dislike, and aspire to change, mass farming practices in Europe. I am awkward, if you cook your potatoes in goose fat I won’t be eating them but I am quite happy to just have steamed vegetables. I am healthy but I have been known to drink too much on occasion and I do like a good Indian takeaway. The hardest one of all to live up to, and to shrug off, however is the first.

I am a tree-hugging environmentalist.

There I have said it. And believe me it is hard to say- environmentalist is a loaded word. If I say it, and I rarely do, it is, more often than not, met with a raised eyebrow and a hefty dose of cynicism. It is seen as an idealist position. How can you live in the developed world and be an environmentalist? How can you consume electricity, use cars, wear manufactured clothing, and be an environmentalist? People seek out the contradictions in your character, in the statement you have made to the world.  I believe that is why so many people shy away from the term. It becomes a label which sets you up to be shot down.

It is perhaps even trickier to admit when you work in the development sector. With over population and exponential consumption of the world’s resources can you be an Humanitarian and an Environmentalist?

My answer? They are, necessarily, the same thing.

However, this is still not the general perspective. There is a tendency, certainly within the media, to separate the two. Once separated they seem to stand in opposition. Save the forests or enable pro-poor agricultural development? Protect fish stocks in the Mekong river or encourage small scale fisheries? Overly simplistic dichotomies emerge and dissuade the faint of heart from entering into the debate.

That is why I was interested to read that Norway recently pledged $150 million to Liberia to fight illegal logging. It was not the funding and its prioritisation that I found interesting as much as the conversations that emerged around it. It was labelled as having incorporated a “conservation catch”. This was seen as both a clever and dangerous tactic. Clever to fund a project which speaks to multiple issues- in this case the deforestation has been identified as a contributing factor to the spread of the Ebola virus; dangerous to tempt Governments into looking for superficial “quick-fix” conservation objectives in order to secure funding in the future. The jury is out as to whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

It is, however, an indicator of a delicate shift in development research and funding trends. If we peer behind the funding model and look instead at the actual research being acknowledged and acted upon, we find something more tangibly positive. Norway has made a statement here and people are reacting to it. Norway has effectively admitted environmentalist values and credentials at a time of a global humanitarian crisis.

Working through the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative, the allocation of this funding makes a statement of particular significance, coming as it does amidst the Ebola outbreak. It is defying those who see a unified approach to development as idealistic- it is saying these problems do not stand alone, they are complex, muddy and difficult to solve but that does not mean we do not try. It says “there is no distinction between the environmental and the humanitarian- they rest upon one another”.

And this project is not alone. Increasingly with the growing global focus on Climate Change, social research and human development is working within, and for, the environment. We are acknowledging ecosystems and the place of the human within them- just another animal with its own set of survival needs and drivers.

This step by Norway says something to me. It may not be what they intended but it tells me not to worry about being shot down. Even when panic and fear dominate you should not be afraid to be unpopular. If you have a goal that you believe in then you should ride out any waves of cynicism and raised eyebrows. And above all you should not shy away from contradictions- it is more important to get the message out there.

So, just for now, I feel empowered to say- I am a vegetarian but I shop at big supermarkets sometimes; I support local organic farms but I will grab a pasty when I’m out; I do not drive but I watch TV and I use central heating; I live in a modern developed country and I espouse self-sufficiency and sustainable living. Yes, I am contradictory in places but I try not to be.

I am an environmentalist who believes that humans are part of the environment that we must work hard to preserve. I guess I am trying to make the same statement as Norway; things in general don’t break down into neat little boxes; the world is messy and hot and muddled but to be a true realist, I believe, you have to be an idealist at heart.

So shoot me.


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