7.2 Conscious Consumption


Most of us in the modern industrial world live in cities and our cities are growing. There are more people living in urban areas today than there are in rural areas. As someone living in an urban area and as a conscious consumer, I consider the most important thing that I can do to promote a Butterfly culture is to consume an Organic, plant-based Vegan diet and I have been quite vocal about my reasons for this choice. With an Organic Vegan diet, I am eating low down in the food chain, minimizing my land use footprint while also minimizing the radioactive hot particles, the pesticides and other carcinogens that I’m ingesting since all these pollutants concentrate by an order of magnitude at every step up in the food chain.

According to Prof. Danny Harvey of the University of Toronto, the total energy required for a plant-based vegan diet is nearly one-fourth the total energy required for the average world diet today and one-seventh the energy required for an affluent diet[9]. Currently, the average world diet includes about a billion people who are literally starving, bringing down the average. Including the energy input required for growing the food, an affluent family of four would save 4 times the energy switching from an affluent diet to a vegan diet than by switching from their automobiles to bicycles. Now can you imagine returning three-fourths of the land that we are currently using for livestock production back to Nature to regenerate forests? That would be a true world-changer!

Further by consuming an Organic Vegan diet, I am also assured that with every mouthful, I’m actually helping the soil to regenerate, to sequester more carbon. In addition, such a diet is not only good for the other species on the planet, but it has been good for my health as well. I consider it the least that I can do as an urban dweller to promote Life and the Butterfly culture.

As Prof. James McWilliams has pointed out[10], our diet is an intensely political choice. What all of you eat affects me, my children and especially, my grandchild, Kimaya. Conversely, what I eat affects all of you and indeed, all of Life. I have no business eating things that cause you and especially your children and grandchildren needless suffering in the long run. Organic Veganism is one of the most powerful political responses that we can make to the depredations of the industrial food system. It strikes at the very foundation of the Caterpillar culture. Besides it is hard for me to promote the Butterfly culture while eating eggs, for example, and thereby causing two day old, male, baby chicks to be thrown into a meat grinder. In the Butterfly culture, the culture of Life, babies are precious. It is also hard for me to promote the Butterfly culture while eating conventional foods where pesticides, i.e., poisons, were used to kill insects in vast numbers, thereby killing birds that feed on these insects, while those poisons then run off and pollute our waterways, killing the fishes.

Though Prof. Danny Harvey calculated the total energy required for a lacto-vegetarian diet to be just 50% more than the total energy required for a plant-based vegan diet, his calculation assumed that there are meat eaters around who would consume the spent dairy cows and their male offspring to reduce the impact of the dairy consumer. If the diary cows were allowed to live out their lives, then the total energy required for a lacto-vegetarian diet would be comparable and even higher than that of the average world diet today.

As Emerson famously said[11], “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” Extend that beyond the slaughterhouse to the baby chicks, the calves and their mothers, the insects and the birds that feed on those insects and the fish that die from the pesticide runoff and the fish that are caught to feed our appetites, to get an idea of the true complicity in the current world diet.

But such advocacy invites some very vocal detractors. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the UN IPCC was also lambasted in the press for similar reasons, for promoting a vegetarian diet. A typical rejoinder from my detractors goes like this:

“So… is it your wish that family/small business farms and corporate farms to close down – no more cattle, pork, chicken, lamb, fish hatcheries, etc.? And no more agricultural field lots for said animal farm lots? And resultant loss of jobs that support this industry? What do you suppose the result will be to the economy? Are you willing to stand up and take the blame for crashing the economy?”

This very same argument, that change will take away jobs and crash the economy, is used to fight the conversion of our energy infrastructure from coal, oil, gas and nuclear to solar and wind as well. In a John Klossner cartoon[12] that won the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the representative of a corporation is shown with a briefcase visiting with a family, all of whom are wearing gas masks, including the dog. In the background is a factory spewing black smoke into the atmosphere, presumably the reason for all those gas masks. And the corporate type says, “Think of how many healthcare-related jobs we’re creating.”

Which just about sums up the gist of this particular argument. In the documentary, “Forks Over Knives[13],” Prof. Colin Campbell of Cornell University says that if everyone in America switched to a whole-foods, plant-based vegan diet, the health care costs in America would reduce by 70-80% as incidences of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer diminish. But, since health care is a $2.5 Trillion a year industry[14] in America today, think of how many healthcare-related jobs that would eliminate!

Anthony DeMello once said, “We don’t really fear the unknown; we fear the loss of the known[15].” We know that there are jobs available raising, milking, slaughtering, refrigerating, packaging and transporting all the cows, pigs, sheep, chicken, lamb and fish and for growing and trucking food and antibiotics to them. In fact, almost half the food we grow is to feed our animals, not humans. There are jobs in the health care sector to care for all the cancer and heart patients that result from the consumption of animal foods. And we are scared of losing all these known jobs. We just cannot imagine how people can be gainfully employed regenerating Life while sequestering carbon, when so many are employed today killing Life on such a vast scale while emitting methane and other greenhouse gases and while destroying millions of acres of forests each year to accommodate the ever growing demand for these animal foods. And in the grip of that fear, it never really occurs to us that killing Life on a vast scale while emitting methane and other greenhouse gases and destroying millions of acres of forests each year is actually not such a smart thing to do, to begin with. That is, if we believe in the purpose of the Butterfly and we want Life to flourish on this planet.

Another typical retort is that I’m being extremist for switching to an Organic Vegan lifestyle. Why not choose a moderate, Buddhist, middle way such as Meatless Mondays[16] instead? Why not switch to “sustainable meats” such as grass fed beef instead? Even PETA presentations warn us, Organic Vegans, to consider the fact that we’re not entirely independent of animals since the manure needed for growing our organic produce comes from livestock. Some of my colleagues at the Climate Project argue that if there is a substantial price on carbon, then the consumption of animal products and fossil fuels will automatically moderate. Therefore, we should all be focusing on promoting legislative action for putting a price on carbon without getting distracted with human behavioral issues.

I admit that I tend to be binary about human behavioral issues. Once I’m convinced that something is wrong, I drop it. If there are absurdities underlying our culture, then using price signals to moderate behavior leaves these underlying absurdities intact. Any changes that occur in society through such means will be due to external manipulation and therefore, not long lasting. I believe that it is far better to expose these absurdities and inspire changes from deep within each individual. For instance, putting a price on carbon will make no difference to the lifestyles of the rich, while pricing meat and gasoline beyond the means of the poor. This can be partly mitigated by returning the collected carbon tax back to the poor as a dividend, but such a proposal will run into rabid opposition in many countries where this will be construed as wealth redistribution and therefore, a devious, socialist plot. Without this dividend, by putting a hefty price on carbon, we would be forcing the poor and the middle class to stop eating meat and burning fossil fuels, thereby ensuring that there is plenty to feed the appetites of the rich. Which has all the makings of an elitist plot. And we dither between a “socialist plot” and an “elitist plot,” debating on the precise parameters of the tax and the dividend approach to make it equally unpalatable to the advocates of both viewpoints. And that’s what external manipulation does, when we ignore the underlying absurdities.

It was my good friend, Ken Laker, who taught me to be binary about behavioral issues. Just like Mr. Gore, Ken also literally changed my life. Right after I completed my Masters degree in Electrical Engineering, Ken offered me a job and then immediately turned around and advised me not to take it. He told me that once I start earning $30K a year, I would find it very difficult to go back to a $10K a year life as a poor graduate student. Therefore, since I had an offer from Stanford University for a teaching assistantship while pursuing a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, I should take that offer from Stanford over the job that he was offering. I took his advice and had the time of my life at Stanford, where I also met the amazing Jaine, who later became my wife.

Ken was a jolly, well-proportioned man, who laughed with his entire body, which made all his jowls shake. Three years later, I saw him again after my Ph. D. and he once again made me a job offer. I didn’t accept his job offer this time because I didn’t think that the new research organization that he was working in would last long. But he was his same jolly, well-proportioned self and he remained so for the next few times that I saw him over the years.

But later, in the mid nineties, I ran into Ken once again and was stupefied to discover that he had lost almost half his weight and was looking extremely trim. I hugged him and said, “Wow, Ken, you look great! What happened?”

He said, “You mean, my weight?”

I said, “Yes.”

Ken replied, “Well, I finally ran into a doctor who turned it around for me. I was feeling really sick and went to this doctor, who ran some tests and said,

‘Ken, you are going to die if you don’t reduce your weight. I want you to eat nothing until Friday and come back to my office for a follow-up check.’

Until then I had been on several diets and none of them had worked. The diets were all about eating less of this and more of that and I never could stick to them and I always reverted back to my old habits. But, when this doctor told me to eat nothing, I understood that very well. I knew what ZERO meant.

I followed his advice and then went back on Friday. He did some more tests and then said, ‘OK, now you can drink two glasses of orange juice every day until Tuesday. Come back on Tuesday and we’ll do another check.’ And the doctor slowly rebuilt my diet from scratch and I’m now eating healthy.

I owe him my life.”

Since then, I’ve become a true believer in the power of ZERO, thanks to Ken! I do not believe in gradualism or moderation in the face of absurdities. Once I consciously understood that consuming animal products was senseless, I dropped them instantly. And a month after I turned vegan, I felt this enormous sense of guilt lift off my shoulders and relief wash over me until tears came into my eyes. I must have subconsciously known that my consumption of milk, eggs and leather was shameful and I had been suppressing that knowledge all along. Later I asked my uncle what our grandparents did with the dairy cows that stopped giving milk and reached old age in our farms back in the village. He said that they used to sell the cows to their Muslim neighbors for you know what.

Therefore, I believe that the most effective step that I can take in an urban setting to promote the Butterfly culture is to switch to an organic, vegan diet. Besides, no one can force me to eat animals or pesticides against my will. Moderation campaigns such as Meatless Mondays do serve to highlight the undesirability of meat consumption, but they also mislead people into believing that they are doing good when they are actually doing more harm. For instance, dairy cheese is known to be more carbon intensive than certain meats like pork and chicken[17] and on Meatless Mondays, people tend to splurge on cheese.

It is easy to justify our consumption of meat, dairy and eggs with rationalizations such as, “Well, that’s only 5% of my daily consumption and therefore, that’s just a small blip in the bigger scheme of things.” But, when we accept that those are foods, then when we celebrate an occasion, we tend to order buckets and buckets of the stuff because we’ve rationalized our continued addiction to those substances. Then the advertisers and marketers work over us to persuade us to treat every day as an occasion and to live life plentifully. And then nothing really changes in the world around us.

The so-called “sustainable meats” typically involve reverting back to the old way of raising animals, on bucolic farm settings. But factory farms arose in the first place in order to reduce the resources needed for producing animals.  The corporations that run these factory farms employ scientists with Ph.D.s who systematically determine how to optimize production. These scientists even studied how soon the calves had to be separated from their mothers in order to optimize milk production. The answer, within 1-3 days, for otherwise the mother gets attached to her calf, and starts bleating and refusing food, thereby diminishing her milk production[18]. Besides, traditional farms waste food by allowing the animals room to frolic and expend energy. It is far more efficient to have them stand still, as in factory farms, to maximize the conversion of the food eaten by the animals into meat and dairy. Prof. David Pimentel estimates that grass-fed beef requires twice as much water to raise as factory-farmed beef[19]. Twice as much water implies twice as much land for the same amount of meat and consequently, if everyone switched to such meats, there would be no more forests left on planet Earth. Of course, we can price the meats higher so that it is out of reach of the masses, but that would be construed as an elitist plot and tremendous pressure would be brought to bear on politicians to subsidize the meat to the same per-capita end consumption level as it is today.

Finally, the argument that we still need to raise livestock in order to generate the manure that we need for our organic produce falls flat on its face upon closer scrutiny. I asked an ecologist friend of mine, “Surely, we know of better ways to compost biological matter than by feeding it to a cow and collecting the manure at its rear end?” and he replied, “Whoa, we would need to radically alter societies at the village level if you are asking them to switch to vermi-composting[20]!” But, even if rural communities take a while to change to such simpler and more efficient processes, it is up to us in urban communities to stop enslaving livestock with the excuse that we need them for their manure. With worms doing all the composting that we need instead of cattle, we won’t be tempted to turn the worms into steaks and hamburgers and return to our Caterpillar ways.

Habits change and new taboos get created all the time. We no longer burn slaves at the stake for our night-time lighting as the Roman nobles used to do two thousand years ago[21]. We no longer lynch people in public because they looked “uppity” and happened to have a different skin color[22]. We no longer practice cannibalism with the rationale that our dinner came from a different tribe and therefore, deserved to die anyway[23]. Likewise, our animal enslaving practices have to become taboo in the Butterfly culture. This is already happening among the Miglets: a note on the “Occupy Wall Street[24]” web site recommends that well-wishers purchase vegan pizza for the protestors so that, and I quote, “everybody can eat it.”

This idea of low-footprint, conscious consumption extends to material goods as well. With the technologies that we have developed over the years, there is so much chemical pollution that accompanies each product that is manufactured. The documentary, “The Human Experiment[25],” details over 80,000 chemicals that our industrial and household products have unleashed on the environment and that we don’t really understand the biological implications of most of these chemicals. While organic veganism minimizes our ingestion of these chemicals in our foods, it is through reducing our conspicuous consumption of “stuff” that we minimize the introduction of these chemicals into the environment in the first place.  


[9] Statistics taken from Chapter 7 of L. D. Danny Harvey, “Energy and the New Reality 1: Energy Efficiency and the Demand for Energy Services,” Routledge, 2010. http://www.amazon.com/Energy-New-Reality-Efficiency-Services/dp/1849710724

[10] James McWilliams, “Why Eating Meat is Not Personal,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 2009. http://www.ajc.com/opinion/heres-my-personal-beef-202065.html

[11] From Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Conduct of Life,” 1860. http://www.amazon.com/Conduct-Life-Ralph-Waldo-Emerson/dp/0761834117

[12] http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/images/si/science-idol-2011/web-KLOSSNER-UCS2012calendarCOLOR.jpg

[13] T. Colin Campbell, Ph. D., and Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., M.D., starring in, “Forks over Knives,” Monica Beach Media, 2011. http://www.forksoverknives.com/

[14] John Fritze, “Medical Expense Have Very Steep Rate of Growth,” Feb 4, 2010, USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2010-02-04-health-care-costs_N.htm

[15] Quote taken from Anthony DeMello, “Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality,” Image Publishers, June 1990. http://www.amazon.com/Awareness-Opportunities-Reality-Anthony-Mello/dp/0385249373

[16] The Meatless Monday campaign is organized out of http://www.meatlessmonday.com/

[17] The Environmental Working Group has a lifecycle assessment of the carbon intensity of various foods at http://breakingnews.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/climate-and-environmental-impacts/

[18] See, e.g., Dr. Jane Parish, “Cow Culling Decisions,” Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Mississippi State University, 2006. http://www.thebeefsite.com/articles/664/cow-culling-decisions

[19] The water footprint of grass-fed beef is found in D. Pimentel and M. Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sep. 2003. http://www.ajcn.org/content/78/3/660S.full

[20] This is a process for converting biomass into fertile soil using worms. Please see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vermicompost

[21] Such burning was popular during the time of the Emperor Nero. Please see, e.g., http://www.roman-colosseum.info/colosseum/roman-executions-at-the-colosseum.htm

[22] The sordid history of lynching in the United States can be found in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States

[23] For more on Cannibalism, please see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannibalism

[24] The Occupy Wall Street movement resides on the web at http://occupywallst.org/

[25] Don Hardy and Dana Nachmann, producers, “The Human Experiment,” KTF Films, 2011. http://www.thehumanexperimentmovie.com

7.1 Regenerating Life
7.3 The Creation of Abundance
Sailesh Rao
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