I tried going fully vegan. It was obviously the ‘right’ thing to do, for so many reasons. It started off well enough – I’d been veggie my whole life, so it wasn’t a huge step – but there were one or two downsides. For starters, I wasn’t fully comfortable with the whole ‘meat is murder’ entitled stereotype that seems to hang around like a bad smell. Expecting friends or relatives to cater specially to my choices when they had invited me for dinner seemed a tad rude. And finally – and let’s face it, this is the big one – sometimes I just really wanted a pastry.
None of these are huge things, and all could have been overcome with a bit of effort on my part. But it would have taken time, energy and thinking space to always be planning ahead, to be fielding endless questions (‘But don’t you miss cheese?’) and to never succumb to the temptation of a freshly baked croissant. I grappled with this for a while, and came to a conclusion: these little things meant that going all the way just didn’t seem worth it. My time and energy could be better spent elsewhere.
But most of the changes I did make weren’t a big deal. Buying soy milk (or oat if I’m feeling fancy), easy; coating every sandwich with liberal quantities of hummus, sure thing; cooking up a tasty vegan stir fry, don’t mind if I do. These substitutes – the simple ones, for me anyhow – actually made up the majority of my non-vegan diet. Altogether, I’ve cut out probably about nine tenths of my animal product consumption. I guess I’m a 90% vegan, if I had to give myself a label. And that makes 90% of the difference.
It’s an example of the law of diminishing returns. If you’re on the ‘path’ to veganism, some of the most straightforward changes you can make are also the ones that have the most impact. Making your regular grocery shop vegan is probably the simplest way to start. Energy invested: relatively low. Eco gains: pretty high, as that’s the majority of what you eat. Good stuff. But as you get closer to reaching ‘pure’ veganism, ironing out those very last little bits of eggs and dairy from your diet (the sandwich on the commute, your friend’s birthday cake, the odd morning-after pancakes) takes a lot of effort for relatively little gain. So why bother?
It seemed strange to me that this wasn’t a more commonly seen thing. It doesn’t just go for diet; it goes for everything related to environmentalism. Social media is full of perky purists, be they zero waste, plastic free, vegan to the (plant-based) bone. “My waste-free life defines who I am!! It’s easy and you can do it too!!!” is the sort of Insta caption you might expect to come across. “If you’re not doing it perfectly, you might as well not bother,” is the resounding implicit message.
This pushes aside all the low-effort, less absolutist changes that actually, if we all did them, would make a big difference. Social media doesn’t have much room for people with a ‘guess that’ll do’ sort of attitude. Which is a shame, because these low-effort changes are not small. Cutting out beef, for instance, makes a big difference even if you carry on eating other meats. Reusing bags does the same thing for plastic consumption (as long as you keep on reusing them). Turning your heating down a single degree can save a third of a tonne of carbon dioxide. Why don’t we shout about doing that sort of thing?
In terms of effort, everybody going halfway will make a massively greater difference than half of us going the whole way.
Making big lifestyle changes is not easy. Of course it’s not – anything that breaks habits, that makes you think more about daily decisions, carries an effort cost. This is why I have doubts that portraying these big changes as ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ is useful. I recently got into a (civilised) Twitter debate with a vegan society dude who claimed that veganism was ‘laughably easy’. Well, not for lots of people! Nobody would ever say that it’s ‘laughably easy’ to lose weight, for instance (unless you’re peddling a dodgy diet supplement); it would be patronising and dismissive. The same applies with veganism. Making any change to the way you live your life is rarely a walk in the park. We should recognise this, and congratulate people for the low-effort, high-impact changes – which in reality is the best we can practically hope for.
Most people aren’t going to devote their lives to making the world a better place. They’ve got their own stuff to deal with. But that doesn’t mean they’ll do nothing. Even if they’re not leading the charge on societal change, they can proudly bring up the rear. Social media is becoming more diverse, in terms of the views and the levels of absolutism that make it to the limelight. More and more people are taking up the eco mantle, and the ‘militant’, ‘eccentric’ stereotypes that have alienated so many are beginning to fade as more ‘normal’ people get involved.
We mustn’t fall into the old complacency trap: switching off the phone charger, patting each other on the back, and going off to the pub to celebrate a job well done. There are plenty of low-effort changes that yield low-impact gains. This is probably the reason why this whole way of thinking is not popular with environmental movements. But if we do some of these approachable, high-impact things I’ve mentioned, and talk about them to our friends and family, and – most importantly – encourage them to do the same, then maybe, one day, everybody will be on board. Not with jaws set in resolution and courage in their hearts, but with a shrug of the shoulders. Save the world? Guess we might as well.