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Mind the Gap

Climate change has made us vegans mainstream

Number of vegans in Great Britain from 2014 to 2019. Source: Statista/Nils-Gerrit Wunsch

A Millennial’s perspective on the merits and challenges of not eating meat

After a recent upsurge of hungover cheese toasties from Pret, I finally admitted defeat. I no longer describe myself as “vegan” but instead as “plant-based”. Which means I still don’t eat meat, but I’ll occasionally eat things that contain animal products, and still throw a fit about having to drink a flat white made with anything but oat milk.

“Oh,” my fellow vegan friend at work said sadly, watching me chew morosely on a croissant one Friday morning after a big one. “I know,” I croaked back, trying to sound contrite. “Sorry.” Weirdly, I feel more judged by people my own age for relaxing my three years of veganism than I felt for adopting it in the first place. (Though I think my friend was just sad to lose one more ally in the quest for good vegan options at our Christmas party). Fellow post-vegan friends have experienced the same disapproval. One of them had to “soft-launch” their diet change on Instagram, fearing judgement about eating Dairy Milks, omelettes and finally McNuggets, after posting for years about how everyone had to stop eating meat if we wanted to save the planet.

My parents were at first scandalised, and then just vaguely annoyed by my veganism, at all levels of what they saw as extremism. What would they feed me when I came home? “Vegetables,” I told them, though they still panicked in Big Sainsbury’s whenever I came back. “She’s vag-en”, my dad would say every time we went out for dinner, rolling his eyes, at which point the teenage waiters would shrug and offer a variety of excellent plant-based options and he would huff even more. In his defence, for our parents’ generation, veganism was inherently extreme. It was associated with mushrooms and pallid, thin, unhealthy hippies. In classic Gen X rom-com Notting Hill, Hugh Grant is horrified to be set up on a date with a nutcase “fruitarian”, who believes plants have feelings, eats only raw vegetables and tells fellow dinner guests her cooked carrots have been brutally murdered. It was an easy joke for ’90s audiences. Vegans were people who chained themselves to trees and cared abnormally about animals.

I didn’t actually adopt veganism out of a pure, old-fashioned love of animals. It’s true I feel squeamish about the idea of eating pork, because pigs allegedly have the intelligence level of a three-year-old. I also get tearful about research that says cows feel fear going into an abattoir, know their friends are being killed and that they’re next. My veganism was primarily motivated, perhaps more selfishly, by health reasons, and latterly for the environment. Just as I’m uncomfortable with the intelligence level of an octopus and how willing we are to stick one on our plates, I’m uncomfortable with the way we steward our planet; the deliciousness of the octopus sadly doesn’t redress the balance.

But I’m also sensible. Man cannot live on coconut cheese alone (hence my hungover toasties). People will slip up, or they’ll find alternatives to over-farming that aren’t plants (such as insect protein). The difference is the awareness nearly every post-boomer brings to these dietary decisions. Our slip-ups make us feel genuinely guilty – scared to bring a croissant to the office or post a fry-up on our Instagram stories. Of course we feel guilty. We know already the planet is dying. It was hard to make the case for cow’s milk over Oatly this summer when the 40-degree heat had already melted the ice in our lattes. It’s impossible to ignore the barbarism of factory farming when our chickens are pumped full of antibiotics just to keep them alive long enough to be killed. And the ubiquity of the climate crisis goes well beyond diet. After growing up exposed to endless warnings about endangered species, we’re inured to the slow realisation that, as the planet burns itself from inside out, the real endangered species is, well, us. For millennials and older zoomers our relationship with the planet is a huge reason why, despite being admonished by older generations, some of us are choosing not to have children. Nor are we eating animal products, using disposable plastic or dreaming of wearing fur.

The reason these mentalities are increasingly perceived as less militant and less extreme is because the circumstances in which we exist are becoming more extreme. As the parameters for our responsibility to the planet change, and the world becomes hotter and more inhospitable, it makes sense that we’ll go further than older generations on causes for ecological and animal welfare. What was previously seen as ground-breaking, like banning fox-hunting, is now laughably tentative when it comes to saving the world from the devastating impact of our destructive habits. Younger generations are more determined than our parents and grandparents when it comes to looking at what no one wants to look at – our own selfish behaviour – and changing what we don’t want to change. We understand that necessity as a fact of life, not an extreme stance. Caring about the planet is not being militant, but simply being decent, or in possession of some sort of moral compass. Which all means, sadly, a looming end to my hangover cheese toastie era.

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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