Gitanjali and Isabella write about autonomy and if ethical diets can be effective under capitalism.
Vegetarianism, though with many ethical benefits, such as stopping animal cruelty and a reduced carbon footprint, can also have negative impacts on the planet. Specific meat substitutes like avocados and soybeans require large amounts of water and land to grow. Additionally, some fruits and vegetables like strawberries and blueberries have large carbon footprints when local fruit are out of season. Despite this, for some having a vegetarian diet is a means to reclaim their autonomy, as seen through the novella The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Although it is difficult to lead a perfectly environmentally sustainable lifestyle, the ability to choose to be vegetarian shows that the decisions we make on an everyday basis have an impact.
It’s important to be mindful of all products we consume — even the plant-based ones, where a vegetarian diet isn’t always green. It’s not new knowledge that the meat industry contributes massively towards the climate crisis, with Carbon Brief reporting that meat and dairy specifically account for 14.5% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission strongly recommended reducing animal-sourced food for a healthier lifestyle and planet. However, some plant-based foods come with a heavy price.
Avocados are another example of produce that has serious environmental impacts. As one avocado requires 320 liters of water, it reduces the water available to local communities, who also are unable to afford avocados due to their rising global price. This is ironic, as they are a culturally significant food product to Mexican culture, who are responsible for 80% of avocado exports to the US. Therefore, it’s important to consider where our food comes from as it may have consequences, even if you’re eating with good intentions.
Going vegetarian in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a healthier earth and environment. There’s an inherent association between vegetarianism and being ‘ethical’, however in order to make a change for the better, there needs to be an active and continuous effort towards caring about what we eat. In the context of a vegetarian, an understanding of where our meat-substitutes come from and the complexity of the food chain is key to a more holistic lifestyle.
With this, we take for granted that we even have the choice to be vegetarian. Therefore, in being able to make decisions for ourselves that may not follow the status quo, there is an ability to make a change.
The Overachiever Book Club pick for August 2021, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, elaborates on how strongly our decisions can influence our perception of others and ourselves. The novella, originally published in 2007, follows the central character Yeong-hye who, after getting a nightmarish dream, decides to go vegetarian, which leads to a lot of destruction in her personal and familial life. Her family, avid meat-eaters, could not understand the literal overnight change causing many violent scenes. Her husband recalls the way she would cook meat from early on in their relationship.
“Tongs in one hand and a large pair of scissors in the other, she’d flipped rib meat in a sizzling pan whilst snipping it into bite-sized pieces, her movements deft and practiced. Her fragrant, caramelized deep-fried belly pork was achieved by marinating the meat in minced ginger and glutinous starch syrup.”
Her sister, In-hye, uses childhood memories to try and help change Yeong-hye’s mind while also reminiscing on the “good ol’ days” before all the chaos ensued.
“It’s a peach, Yeong-hye. A tinned Hwangdo peach. You like them, remember? You used to insist on buying them even when fresh peaches were in season, just like a child.”
As we see in The Vegetarian, there can be confusion around the choice, especially from friends and family.
“Do you remember those mummified human remains they discovered recently? Five hundred thousand years old, apparently, and even back then humans were hunting for meat – they could tell that from the skeletons. Meat-eating is a fundamental human instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right? It just isn’t natural.”
With Yeong-hye’s decision to go vegetarian, the audience sees how the world around her responds to this and sees how they reject her living life authentically. This passage is only one in which her loved ones attempt to convince her to continue eating meat. Vegetarianism in this book is used as a metaphor to represent the freedom an individual has to make their own choices, thus, going vegetarian empowered her.
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