A couple of years ago while at a seafood restaurant, I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. I looked at the crabs on a platter in front of me and pictured the device that scraped them off the bottom of the ocean. Something about the image, amplified by people enthusiastically slurping the meat out of crab bits, hit me hard. Somehow it exemplified how much we’re fucking up the planet.
I decided to educate myself about the impacts our diets have on the environment. Three times per day you get to choose what kind of agriculture to support — so based on my research and my own values, I decided to make some changes to my diet. It feels like an easy form of activism. Ethical consumerism. I’m committed to it and I’ve done it ever since.
When people ask me if I’m a vegan I have a hard time answering.
I don’t call myself a vegan. I don’t avoid all animal products. I eat local honey, and sometimes eggs (eg. if they are from “backyard” chickens). I probably have some leather on my shoes. I haven’t memorised which food additives contain insects and I don’t know if my shampoo was tested on animals. I am totally against animal cruelty, but I’m very much for exploiting earthworms to keep soil healthy to grow crops. My primary goals have to do with environmental and food security issues rather than minimisation of all forms of animal exploitation. By these measures, I’m not a vegan.
But that’s not to say I’m not involved: I don’t eat meat or dairy. I actively boycott restaurants that don’t have good vegan options. I support restaurants that do. I dedicate time to continuous learning about ethical and environmental aspects of food production. I’m learning to grow my own food. I am an advocate of the vegan movement and actively support it in on-and-offline discussions. I’m writing this post because I think the movement is incredibly important and I want to see it thrive.
Recently, I heard the term “Third-wave vegan”, and have started to wonder if people are starting to redefine the movement’s membership criteria.
First-wave vegans were the pioneers. The term vegan was first used in the 40s, and back then people rocking the tag were seen as very extreme. It was often mocked and very unfashionable. Second wave veganism refers to the more recent explosion thanks in part to the rapid spread of information on the interweb. Suddenly, there’s all this info out there. Beautiful celebrity people are vegan. Supermarkets are stocking fake meats and the movement has gone more mainstream.
People are trying to define what veganism is: Is it vegan to eat food that’s going to be wasted? Is it vegan to eat vegetables that were fertilised with animal manure? Is LSD vegan? These are nuanced questions. People often turn to the Vegan Society’s definition for answers and perceive a level of perfectionism around how vegans should live. A person can dedicate huge efforts towards promoting the movement then be called a hypocrite for wearing a leather watch strap. To call yourself a vegan is to take on this sort of baggage and risk being attacked for your choices, no matter how well-considered they may be.
Third-wave veganism is a term that’s being used to describe a more inclusive idea. It brings together people who are thinking about the same, complex problems but have come to different conclusions based on their own motivations and circumstances. People wanting to eliminate animal exploitation can find allies in people whose main concerns are environmental, about protecting wildlife or increasing biodiversity, promoting good health, increasing food security or feeding a growing population — or some combination of these things. I think there’s a strong case for evolving the term and calling these people vegans too.
Of course, this broader definition could mean welcoming lazy vegans (AKA flexitarians — interested in veganism but who want to keep eating meat and cheese) — and I know a lot of vegans would not want that. Nevertheless, I’m in favour of expanding the definition to be more inclusive. I think it could make the movement bigger, better, faster, stronger — and make more people want to get on board. People should be proud (not scared) to be part of the movement — and the narrow focus, perfectionism, and associations with extremism make it less attractive.
Since my fateful encounter with that crab platter, I have been interested in the discussion around veganism and know what an emotive and divisive topic it is. We know that huge changes need to happen on individual, community, corporate, national and global levels to address the problems we face, and the complexity of the issues can polarise people who actually have the same goals.
I think third-wave veganism could help to unite people with different approaches, paint a more complete picture of what we need to do, and give the movement even more strength. One day I might even be proud to call myself a vegan.