As a vegan, I wholeheartedly endorse veganism and its diet for environmental, health, and ethical reasons. I disagree though with publicly preaching about its advantages without carefully selecting the audience.
There are a few reasons for this. A simple one being that many vegans adopt a ‘preachy’, self-righteous attitude in promoting the lifestyle choice, and it is clear that more often than not this only further repels people from the cause. Vegans promote and spread their beliefs, sometimes in a radical manner, for good reason; but I think we have to carefully consider how we do this if we really want to provoke interest and attract people to the ideas behind it.
More importantly, no matter how central I believe a certain political cause might be (in this case the pursuit of a vegan diet primarily for environmental purposes), I don’t think it is always appropriate to blindly attempt to spread an agenda — especially one which greatly concerns an individual’s socioeconomic position and their health.
To elaborate, veganism is a privilege in a number of senses. it is a privilege of education — having the ability to discover and research it, which is a necessary part of engaging in the diet safely and healthily; it is a privilege of having the time to be creative and experimental, in order to get comfortable with such a drastic dietary shift; and perhaps most importantly, being able to keep a healthy, varied, and sufficient diet it is undoubtedly a financial privilege too. In fact, these different types of lifestyle freedoms are very much interconnected. As is the case with most lifestyle choices and opportunities, veganism and its accessibility is an issue of social class, and by extension, white privilege.
Why veganism is a privilege
A low-income single mother of three will find it easier in many ways to feed her children fast-food, at perhaps an unhealthy frequency, than invest time and money she might not have into daily preparation of nutritious meals — though this may well be her wish. She, by no fault of her own but rather in virtue of the system which veganism condemns but also benefits from, lacks both the financial and educational resources to sustain a vegan diet for her whole family. A tin of chickpeas and a potato might cost less than a McDonald’s meal, but the issue of literal cash wealth and personal purchasing power is only one of many issues around the privilege.
Practicality and convenience are accompanying problems.
It’s unfair but realistic that a financially comfortable individual will find it easier to pursue a healthy vegan diet than someone at a comparative economic disadvantage. We also cannot hold people morally accountable if they have grown up in a culture that says there is nothing wrong with eating meat; it is a necessary part of human nutrition and we are not bad for doing so.
Culinary cultures vary a great degree across countries and continents, and so how we talk about food and our approach to discussing diet choices also needs to be considerate. It would be somewhat misguided to place the blame on individuals, especially those without the resources for self-education, who have been brought up in a society that values, enjoys, and in some cases places social status on the ability to consume meat. So I don’t believe we can societally make the claim that those who eat meat are bad.
How can we blindly and, as some activists unfortunately do, aggressively promote the adoption of a lifestyle which we have relatively easy access to? In discussing this I am not making a blanket statement about the inherent nature of veganism or vegans — many vegans respect and understand that financial circumstances play a large part in facilitating their personal choices. What I am saying however, is that there are some members of the vegan movement who do make this mistake, and in doing so contribute to the animosity towards and repulsion from veganism as a way of life. If as vegans we truly want to exhibit the progress and positivity of this dietary approach, we must carefully consider what allowed us as individuals to access and maintain the practice, while also recognising that not everyone can so readily participate in it. It is necessary to avoid the self-righteous and patronising attitude while delivering the message adequately to those who welcome it. Namely, that as a single environmentally-conscious act, this dietary shift is the most effective adjustment individuals can make to curb climate change, boost health, and contribute to a safer and more efficient global food system.
Is veganism unattainable then?
One response to the perception of veganism as a privilege involves the economics of supply and demand. It agrees that veganism is not universally attainable, but explains why this might not always have to be the case.
Many vegan products and brands — for example Oatly, Linda McCartney, Beyond Meat, etc — as well as organic veg, premium fresh and local produce, supplementary flavourings, and ‘superfoods’ sold in health food shops, are unaffordable for the majority of the population — to people who can only afford essentials. (A further breakdown of vegan vs non-vegan shopping lists, and product value analysis can be found in this article.)
These comparisons demonstrate why the most varied and healthiest forms of veganism — what most individuals in the movement exhibit, promote and of course enjoy — are a privilege. But, this can change if we accept that veganism makes up part of a long-term but drastic transition towards sustainability. By the simplicity and fail-safe logic of supply and demand, the more people consuming these products, the further the prices reduce. This process of course has to start somewhere, but we cannot place the responsibility on people who are already struggling to feed themselves and their families. The responsibility lies with the majority of people who do have (albeit varying) degrees of financial autonomy to buy these products. In doing so, demand will increase, supply will increase, gradually bringing down the price of these products. In the long-run, this will increase accessibility of the products for impoverished communities, which at this point are unable to afford them.
The above dynamic suggests that change at a more structural level is required concerning wealth redistribution and resource prioritisation. The ideals of a vegan lifestyle belong to a much broader social debate, but if we want to ensure that they are permanent positive adjustments and not just trends or ‘moments’, the ultimate answer lies in education. Arguably, this should start with a heightened focus on accurate teaching of nutritional information analysis to school children, together with the importance of environmentalism.
Differences in wealth
Britain and the west taken broadly are very wealthy. In the UK poverty is generally classified relatively and structurally, rather than by a universal model, whereas extreme absolute poverty in developing countries involves a large proportion of the population struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. It is of course important not to trivialise the struggle of those living in poverty in the west, but equally important is to recognise the scope of the problem and the demographics.
The fact that health and a balanced diet can be prioritised by most people in the west puts our relative collective affluence into perspective. Most of the world’s undernourished live in food-deficit-categorised nations. These states are unable to meet the nutritional needs of their citizens and also lack the wealth to replace the shortfall by supplying food products from the international market. Quite simply, they are unable to feed their people sufficiently, let alone endorse dietary selectivity.
Why veganism concerns white privilege
When something is an issue of class, in most cases it’s an issue of race and gender too. This is because each of these socioeconomic determinants, among others (age, abilities, education, sexual orientation), are not isolated but rather have effects on each other in varying causal directions. Different forms of oppression operate simultaneously, and:
‘what is perceived as disparate forces are actually mutually dependent and co-constituive’.
What this means is that a black woman from a working-class background will face more prejudice and oppression against her than a white woman of the same background, while both will face more than a white man of the same background, and all three more than a white middle-class male — and so-on and so-forth.
Granted this is a very generalised picture. But the idea is that our different types of privilege don’t just co-exist, and yet they often have the same effects, so varying degrees of privilege are experienced depending on many different factors. When it comes to veganism specifically, while it is harder for poor individuals to be vegan, it is in general more difficult still for individuals who suffer oppression and disadvantages as a result of poverty and any other socioeconomic factors.
So should we not be vegan?
Fighting to reform the socioeconomic structure that often limits healthy lifestyle choices like veganism to the privileged few, does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t be vegan. If it is a viable option for you, you can simultaneously follow the diet while acknowledging that by accident of birth only, you have the financial means to maintain the practice. By the same token, if you believe this is a lifestyle option that should be equally accessible to everyone, you can use your platform and knowledge to fight for the deconstruction of a system that prevents this accessibility.
Doing this will be more effective than condemning those are not vegan for reasons personal to them.