Two years all your friends were raving about gourmet burgers, which were served on a roof slate and cost the same as a steak. Five years ago they were all about bacon. Now all your friends are becoming vegan. But why?
Sentimentality Around Animals
It’s not a bad thing. Sentimentality has kind of a stigma attached to it. Victorians were sentimental about the children they sent down the coal mines. But those same sentimental Victorians also invented the concept of child welfare and set up the first organizations committed to the prevention of cruelty to children.
Sentimentality towards animals is a feature of internet life and modern life in general.
Perhaps because the sheer scale of human awfulness on display in a perpetual 24-hour news cycle is just so paralyzingly terrible, animal stories seem much more manageable than airstrikes and famine in Yemen.
Politics may be increasingly polarized, but when someone puts a cat in a bin the internet is pretty united in what should happen next.
As people put off having children until later in life – if at all – and as social relations have become increasingly atomized, pets have become more central to the emotional lives of their owners. Within about a generation and a half all dogs have become lapdogs. Cats, who not long ago were notoriously aloof, part-time pets, are now generally considered part of the family.
Most urban dwellers now exist in a world in which animals are either emotional intimates or bloodlessly packed in the chiller aisle.
If you are the devoted skin parent to a fur baby, then the idea of eating a similarly fluffy mammal might put you off your lamb kebab.
Because most of us seldom encounter animals in the wild, or even kept as livestock or our relationship with non-human species is increasingly anthropomorphized… even sentimentalized.
But ironically, while estrangement from the natural order may cause us to project human characteristics onto the few animals we actually do interact with, it also reduces our sense of collective culpability for what our species is doing to the world around us.
Our pets are our best friends, pandas are cute and sharks are scary, but by looking at animal lives through a human lens, we forget that humans are the only animals currently remaking the natural world to serve short-sighted interests.
Which brings us to…
Environmental and Ethical Concerns
The greatest achievement of the 20th century were the famines that didn’t happen.
Which is not to downplay the immense tragedy of the famines that did. Disastrous agricultural policies in the Stalinist-era USSR resulted in millions of deaths, as did famines across Europe during WW2, in the course of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and in Cambodia.
In the later part of the twentieth century famine in sub-Saharan Africa claimed countless lives and created indelible images of human misery.
But the in the unsung, un-celebrated history of things that could easily have happened but didn’t, amazing increases in agricultural yields allowed food production to keep pace with dizzying increases in global population. This, along with improvements in networks of distribution and trade, may well have prevented World Wars 3, 4 and 5 and the deaths of literally billions.
However, all this has come at a cost.
Many look at intensive methods of livestock production and find that the suffering of sentient creatures is too high a price for cheap meat.
Others make the connection between meat production and mass deforestation, which destroys habitat, displaces local people and removes a natural means of carbon capture at a time when carbon emissions from industry are causing global climate change.
If industrial agriculture prevented WW3 in the 20th Century, then the challenge for the 21st Century will be how to feed the planet without bringing about environmental Armageddon.
Some vegans think they have the answer. Unfortunately, even if they’re right, listening to someone tell you how the fifth horseman of the apocalypse is actually a farting beef cow is enough to make you long for global annihilation.
If all your friends are becoming this type of vegan, you might find yourself in need of new friends.
Vegan Food Isn’t Terrible Anymore
Because all your friends are becoming vegan, vegan food has got a lot better. And because vegan food has got a lot better, all your friends are becoming vegan.
Gone are the days when the vegetarian option was, as one long-time vegetarian experienced while travelling in Germany in the 1990s, an egg in cheese sauce and the vegan option was the sprig of parsley on top.
Now demand for plant-based food has created space for a diverse and inventive generation of chefs, keen to cater to this new market.
And in part because of the dire reputation of European and American vegan cooking in the past, the manufacturers of vegan food have something to prove.
The result is food that’s delicious, fresh and well-seasoned, to appeal to discerning diners, who are put off by heavy meat-based staples.
Also, while there are many burger lovers in this world and plenty of hearty carnivores, there are also lot of people just don’t particular enjoy the taste and texture of meat.
In the past they may have eaten non-vegetarian options out of convenience, but with tasty meatless options more easily available they can avoid meat dishes without having to go out of their way to find alternatives.
But if you’re really curious about why all your friends are becoming vegan, ask them. If the old vegan stereotype holds true, they’ll be only too delighted to tell you.