I’m not sure when I first started to worry about the planet.
There’s a photo my parents took when I was about six: me and my four-year-old brother bundled up in our winter coats, standing next to a cardboard sign with a smiling sun drawn in marker and childish letters: “SAVe The eARth, PLEASe dON’T LiTTeR.” I would get upset on the way to school, looking through the school bus window and seeing so much garbage along the road. I made the sign and begged them to staple it up on a telephone pole where trash piled up in the gutter. My parents humored me, taking the photo by my sign of earnest protest. They did not, of course, tell me that the sign itself would disintegrate into litter a few days later.
That kind of futility has marked most of my environmental activism.
In middle school, I developed an obsession with recycling—it seemed like a noble cause to take on—and even bought a bleached-out shirt with the recycle symbol on it to advertise my passion for the environment. Then I read somewhere about the hidden costs of clothing like that shirt: the dangerous working conditions, the carbon footprint of transporting it from China, the likelihood that it would go to a landfill after I was done with it. Tossing a water bottle in a bin didn’t really seem to cancel that out. I felt vaguely hypocritical whenever I wore it.
In high school, I joined the Earth Club, but lost heart when our Earth Day spectacle featured styrofoam cups stuck in the football field’s chain-link fence to spell out “GO GREEN, BRUINS.” Everyone parked in the adjacent neighborhood and walked a quarter mile to school, picking up trash as they went. But as the parking lot filled up with cars again, the cups fell out one by one and were ground into the dirt to last for another millennia. No one else seemed to notice the irony.
In my last semester, my dream college, New York University Abu Dhabi, accepted me on full scholarship. Thrilled to be leaving the United States and starting on a new adventure, I learned everything I could about my new home in the United Arab Emirates. Depressingly, it turned out to be worse than the US in terms of carbon footprint per capita. A city in the middle of the desert requires plane travel, water desalination, 24/7/365 air conditioning, and billions of tons of oil.
Well, I thought, maybe I can make a difference here.
But I didn’t. The more I learned, the more defeated I became. Really, what could a reusable water bottle and double-sided printing do in the face of melting ice caps and global droughts? I had to take taxis and planes. I couldn’t install solar panels in my dorm room. I lived twenty floors up, and that was too many stairs to climb all the time. I like long, hot showers. We weren’t supposed to drink the tap water. The recycling all went to the same landfill. Every Friday they hosed dust off the plastic bushes on campus and left puddles of water to evaporate in the street. Really, what could I do?
So I gave up for four years.
I returned to the United States for graduate school, studying design at Maryland Institute College of Art. For the first time, I was living Really On My Own in an apartment in Baltimore. I had choices to make. Would I walk to school? Would I make the effort to go all the way to the backyard to separate the recycling? Would I get plastic bags when I bought groceries, or remember to bring the reusable ones? What kinds of businesses and products would I spend money on? It still seemed like recycling wouldn’t do much to save the polar bears, and I couldn’t afford organic eggs. But I walked and took public transportation, so I hoped that would balance things out in the end.
My boyfriend Nick started taking environmental science classes back home in Virginia, and we stayed up late on the phone every night. He’d call me on his way home from work and I would read him the news, scrolling through the phone to find the most interesting stories. I’d talk about problems with my projects, and he would describe the films and reports he watched in class. Nick grew up on superhero shows and secretly wants to save the world from injustice. The stories of communities devastated by climate change weighed on him.
“I wish I could skip through college and graduate already,” Nick would say at 2 AM. “I want to make changes that matter now. If I had some kind of influence, maybe people would start doing something about our environment, and we could avoid these catastrophes. Erin, I feel so helpless.”
I’d lay in the dark with the phone trapped between my ear and the pillow, and I’m least idealistic when I’m sleepy. “You are helpless,” I’d say. “Nothing we do could really make a difference. Anyways, the planet will survive. It’s just humanity that is all going to die.”
Still, in the daytime, I started to choose more cautiously. I separated recycling every week. I used cloth bags for my groceries. I paid attention to science news. Rising temperatures and drought and flooding did seem increasingly urgent.
For the summer, I went to live with my aunt and uncle in West Virginia, working on marketing for a nonprofit that taught sustainable development classes. Their office perched on top of an Appalachian mountain; Nepali prayer flags and solar panels covered its roof.
Everyone there was excited about community development and sustainability, but my supervisor, Katherine, took it to a new level. She had just moved from California and had been vegan for decades and drove a Prius: a definite oddity in rural Virginia. Katherine was writing a series of class materials about the state of the environment and sustainability, and I would look over them during lunch. And one day, spreading avocado on a bagel, she said something life-changing.
“You know, even if we completely stopped all transportation emissions tomorrow, we would still be in trouble and hit the two-degree warming mark just because of all the meat we produce,”
I froze on the other side of her desk and swallowed a bite of turkey sandwich.
“What? How is that possible?” Wasn’t driving pretty much the worst thing you could do to the environment?
Katherine told me about the water reservoirs and acres of land used to grow grain for feed. We could feed ten billion people if half of the world’s food and water didn’t go to livestock. We’re cutting down rainforests to grow more corn to feed the animals, and this is heating the planet even more. She told me about the billions of pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from cow waste. She described the tons of feces that fill the air with methane and hazardous particles, which leaks into rivers and flows into oceans to poison marine life. She discussed the crazy amount of antibiotics used to keep factory-farmed animals alive; those antibiotics end up in the animals’ edible products and create “superbug” diseases that antibiotics can’t treat. Eating a hamburger, she said, was about equivalent to driving 30 miles and showering for four hours straight.
My turkey sandwich suddenly tasted like 23 years of guilt.
But putting it down felt like hope. If my meat-eating had this massive and disproportionate impact on the planet, that also meant not eating meat could have the reverse effect, right? It’s something I could realistically do, starting that day. And I could do it for free.
When Nick called that night, I listed off all the facts I had looked up and the crazy statistics about meat-eating. “A vegan diet has, like, 1/16 the impact of a meat-eating diet! The same resources that eating meat takes up in a year could be used to feed eight people on a plant diet! This is something we can actually do, Nick!” I felt like I had found a secret, the secret, hidden in plain sight. The research was there but not the headlines—not yet.
“I have to do something about this. This is something that matters. How many other people are scared about climate change and frustrated but don’t know what to do about it? I can tell them! Nick, I’m a designer, communicating things is what I do!”
“Okay, yeah,” he said. “Then do it.”
“And we have to stop eating meat. Or at least cows.”
So that next day I paid attention to my food. I ate oatmeal without milk and packed a salad for lunch. I felt virtuous and green. And then, my aunt made burgers for dinner. Ground beef burgers, grilled outside, and they smelled great, and I didn’t want to be an obnoxious guest, after all.
I sat down to the table. Well, I just won’t spend any of my own money on meat. That’s what really makes the difference, right? Where the money goes. And I can’t choose for them. So yes, I ate the burger.
Later that week the dinner-table conversation did come around to meat and the environment. All I was reading about was food and sustainability, and my aunt and uncle were interested. They bought a Costco-size box of falafel and liked it.
When my immediate family visited they noticed that I wasn’t eating meat or cheese. They took a wary stance. “Are you, like, vegetarian now or something?” my youngest sister Becca asked disdainfully. She has been known to snapchat “bacon is bae” on Saturday mornings.
“Pretty much vegan now, so I only eat plant foods,” I answered. She looked at me like it was the most unreasonable thing possible. “It’s because producing animal foods and meat is really terrible for the environment,” I explained, “and this is something I can realistically do to help lessen climate change.”
My mom overheard from behind the couch and was taken aback. “Oh, come on, do you really think one person can make a difference to things like that?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, feeling a bit defensive. “Don’t you vote? Isn’t it the same thing?”
Over Christmas, my mom introduced me to dinner guests as “my daughter, who is a vegan,” and I explained it as a personal health experiment rather than preach about the environmental injustices of meat eating. I didn’t want to make the neighbors feel guilty about their spaghetti and meatballs. When I cooked sofritas to go along with the chipotle chicken for family taco night, everyone refused to try the tofu. “The texture just seems too weird.”
But something must have gotten through. My dad emailed me and announced that after a four-week, almost-vegan crash diet, he lowered his cholesterol levels to a healthy range.
I feel just a little vindicated.
This is all much easier when I am shopping and cooking for myself. I found a great way to cook tofu: freeze it so that the texture gets tougher; rehydrate it in a pot of boiling water; and saute it with a little bit of oil. I eat a lot of lentil curries, beans and rice, and stir-fry vegetables. In fact, it’s less expensive than eating meat, as long as I don’t buy the fancy tempeh burgers and chia seeds.
And even when I am in a position, as a guest or a traveler, where I can’t choose a plant-only option, I can weigh decisions against the environmental impact. Local or sustainably raised meat is better than industrial meat. Chicken is not as terrible as beef or pork. Eggs are even better, and vegetarian food is better than that. Half a year of eating (mostly) vegan has saved 198,000 gallons of water, 8100 pounds of grain, 5,400 feet2 of forested land, 3600 pounds of CO2 emissions equivalent, and 90 animal lives.
I’m 23, old enough to be thinking about my long-term future and my legacy. Nick and I really want to raise kids together. But what kind of world will they live in? If things keep going in this pattern, there will be political instability, food and water insecurity, repercussions of climate change that we can’t even predict yet. I don’t want my children to go hungry. I don’t want them to get sick from an environment that poisons them. I don’t want them to worry about survival.
And above all, I don’t want my family’s survival to be at the expense of other families around the world. Which has, unfortunately, been reality throughout my life. Water is polluted by animal waste or used up for irrigation so I can get my $2.50 fast-food burger. Tons of grain go to growing the two hundred pounds of meat I eat in a year instead of into the stomachs of people who need it. Rural towns fall sick because of toxic waste produced by factory farms nearby.
Tackling this life change as a thesis project has forced me to take responsibility for what and how I consume. The fundamental problem with eating meat is that the person who ultimately consumes it is not paying the full cost. With the way the industry works, the cost gets passed on to crop farmers in developing countries, to factory farm workers who put their health at risk, to communities near industrial farms, to species that are starved out of their habitats, and to the humans of the future who will have less water and food and arable land.
And every object that I buy suffers from the same problem of externalized costs. Whenever I choose to buy the best bargain, whether it’s cheap meat or an iPhone or a pair of jeans, I tell the consumer industry that it’s fine with me if other people bear the true cost.
And it isn’t fine with me.
Changing what I eat has empowered me to live in a more just way. I can make a small but significant stand in the face of these huge global issues. So I don’t eat animal-based foods anymore. I’m also changing what I buy: reusable dishcloths instead of paper towels, clothes from thrift stores instead of new, paper from wind-powered manufacturers, and soap from manufacturers with a commitment to sustainability. I am convinced that renegotiating the consumption chain is the best way to take action. I have the privilege to make consumer choices that ripple positively around the world and into the future, and so, I will.