At the recent TEDxDirigo conference, we watched a 4-minute TED talk, Why I’m a Weekday Vegetarian, by Treehugger.org founder Graham Hill. Hill explained why, despite everything he knows about the cruelty, health problems and environmental destruction associated with meat-eating, he wasn’t a vegetarian. “Why was I stalling?” he asks in the face of the truth that “my common sense and good intentions were in conflict with my tastebuds.”
Hill’s answer is to become what he calls a “weekday vegetarian,” someone who is vegetarian during the week and chooses whatever he or she wants on the weekend. Such a plan, if adopted widely, would dramatically reduce meat consumption and thereby diminish the abuse and death of billions of animals, the environmental harm caused by their production and the number of heart attacks, strokes, cancers and incidences of diabetes.
So why wasn’t I more enthusiastic when I heard his talk? Given the power such a talk has to make a difference (it has been “liked” on Facebook 19,000 times), why didn’t I find myself cheering at the end? I think it’s because, while I realize that Hill’s idea is positive, it still strikes me as a failure of conscience. For Hill to allow his desires to eclipse his values is surprising coming from someone so committed, engaged and active in improving the world. I like his idea; I just wish he would hold himself to a higher standard. I wanted him to advocate “weekday veg” to people as a path on which to begin, but not an end point, and not his own end point.
I began thinking about how we would all react if we heard a talk by an activist working to end slavery who said that during the week she avoided chocolate produced through slave labor, but on weekends ate any chocolate she felt like. Or an environmentalist who said that during the week he only drove a Prius but on the weekend would drive a Hummer. I even imagined a man who spanks his kids, but is unable to resist coming to the decision – surely positive – that he’d only do it on the weekends and become a “weekday good dad.”
For the animals Hill eats on the weekend, life is still brutal and cruel; it is still, as he says, something that would never be conscionable if done to a dog or cat here in the U.S. And sadly, because Hill says that eating cows causes the most environmental destruction, if we “take it to the next level” by choosing a different meat than “red meat” on the weekends, as he advocates, we’re condemning many thousands more animals to suffering and death. Most of the sustainably-harvested fishes he recommends (and all of the chickens and turkeys people might choose instead) are so much smaller than cows, meaning adopters of his approach may eat several animals over the weekend instead of a small portion of one.
I want leaders for a better world, environmentalists and those who are active in the peace and justice movements, to both inspire by example and remind us that living according to conscience is not a sacrifice, but an honor; not a burden but a liberating responsibility. Perhaps others will feel that Hill, in admitting his weaknesses and his failures, paves the way for more people to follow because they will be willing, like he, to give it a try, at least for 5 out of 7 days. Hill’s may ultimately be a very effective approach, but it still rankles when someone recommends what they themselves identify as cruel and destructive acts (albeit fewer of them) because of personal weaknesses cast as too hard to overcome.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Christina Hoheisel via Creative Commons.