Sacred Rites Or Selfish Rights

A frequent problem I have with discussing environment is that actual discussion is almost impossible when there is no shared reality. It is easy enough to show why 2+2=5 is wrong and what the right answer is, but how do you respond to the claim that:

2 + 2 = (camels/g) marrying fire


It’s not just a problem of no common language, there seems to be  no common reality to work with or from.

In our culture most people lack even the most simple understanding of how the natural world works and what the implications of disrupting it are for them. I do not expect that the average person have much practical knowledge of ecology or climate, although it does shock me to learn that they imagine that they will still have food as the natural systems collapse. Also lacking is any sense of history or perspective to give them a context for making intelligent choices. Add to that an unbelievable sense of entitlement and what you get is not a formula for rational discourse.

While this disconnect pervades every aspect of the alleged discourse it is the latter that surprises me most. The expectation that because one has happened to enjoy privilege as a consequence of living in one of the militarily most powerful societies, one therefore deserves to continue to in privilege regardless of the consequences for anyone else … where does that come from?

Be that as it may, the expectation of privilege is only one aspect of the convoluted non-thinking that surrounds the issue, so let’s unpack one specific example to get a sense of it.

As part of my attempts to be a socially responsible citizen and moral person I try to live on a diet that is 90% vegan (as recommended by the UN to fight climate change), and 90% (by weight) locavore (ie locally grown, within 100 km approx).

One of the more common reactions I get to this is “so what do you eat?” It is oh so tempting to prey on their self-inflicted credulity by claiming I forage on lichens and pond weed, but for the most part I don’t. Instead I try to understand why they seem to think that this diet would leave one nothing to eat.

The other night I had a friend over for dinner and feeling in a playful mood I decided I wanted to make a meal that included dishes that were variously bitter, salty, sour, sweet and savoury, IE covering all five tastes. Being short on time I worked almost entirely with what was on hand (IE no special shopping trips) and recipes I knew pretty much from memory, or would just make up as I went. The meal was:

  • TVP Sauerbratten (with rhubarb & cranberries)
  • Fruit Kugel (apples & cranberries)
  • Italian long beans with garlic & chili
  • Herbed (tarragon) barley
  • Baked potatoes with a horse radish cream sauce
  • Tomato salad (3 varieties heritage) with shredded gogi & shiso leaves, sprinkled with zatar
  • Pickled Beets
  • Multi grain Bread
  • bottle of local Reisling

The meal was almost entirely made from scratch (the beets were already pickled, my guest brought the bread and wine) and took approximately 3 hours. Admittedly I love to cook and do have the advantage of a small vegetable garden that was the source for many of the ingredients, including some of the more exotic ones. Further, this was a meal prepared for company and rather more extravagant than I generally eat, but more in the number of dishes than in their variety and type.

Now, could someone please tell me just how is it that I am “suffering” as a consequence of trying to be ethical about my diet? As far as I can tell I eat a healthier, more varied and interesting diet than just about everyone I know.

How is this so? Certainly not through any particular effort on my part. I am basically lazy when it comes to domestic chores of all forms. Even so I regularly have my own vegan locavore versions of everything from Haitian goat curry to Malaysian Rendang.

Part of the problem is that when people discuss “limiting” their diet they speak in terms of the possible choices rather than the actual that they make. The truth is that most people regularly cycle through a couple of dozen meals, with perhaps a dozen more ‘special occasion recipes, and that’s about it. While they could theoretically be consuming from the full range of available food options, most only consume a very limited number of those choices; the proverbial spaghetti Monday to pizza Saturday with pork chops on Sunday.

In contrast, as a largely vegan locavore my choices are perhaps 10% (I made that number up for the sake of argument) of what theirs are, but I choose to draw from the full range of that is available to me. As such my diet is much more varied and interesting than theirs. If I have limited myself based on principle and ethics, then it is far less limited than how they have limited themselves out of convention and habit.

The struggle of people against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Nonetheless the claim is always that they ‘could not imagine making the sacrifice that I have’. There lie two more clues to our difficulties in making intelligent decisions. The first is a failure of memory and imagination. We do not remember that up until very recently virtually all of humanity were locavores (and without particular hardship or ill effects). Because we cannot remember, we cannot imagine.

To have the right to remember the past and

to have the right to imagine a future.

Brian Fawcett, Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow

The second problem is the understanding of “sacrifice.” As typically used in our culture it refers to what you lose. When someone talks about sacrifice the emphasis is placed on what the person making the sacrifice has lost, what they have given up. In reality the word refers to two parties just as ‘love’ or ‘desire’ do, but in our self-absorbed culture it has become narrowed to only the alleged suffering of the one performing the act.

In fact “sacrifice” comes from the Latin meaning “to perform sacred rites.”  Specifically it is a rite for “something given up for the sake of another” It is not about that which is taken away, but that which is given.

Sacrifice is not some transaction of loss and gain, but an interaction creating a greater good by opening oneself to the other. Opening myself to the awareness of their loss, not mine. It is an act of love. A sacred ritual of giving where we receive the opportunity to be fully human and intimate, a chance to cast aside the self-absorbed and isolated, frightened person that I typically am and become something greater, almost glimpsing what it means to be whole.

Yes, I make my supposed sacrifices gladly (although they are hardly a burden). I gain so much through these acts of love, lose so much when I turn away from them; how could I possibly do otherwise?

A belief is not merely an idea that the mind possesses;

it is an idea that possesses the mind.

–Robert Bolton

Image Credits:

bread by tschörda

squash blossom omelette by chotda


4 Responses to Sacred Rites Or Selfish Rights

  1. John Davis September 14, 2010 at 7:03 am

    I’ve stumbled on this article purely by accident. I am, quite frankly, very impressed with the inteligence, wit and originality of this man. He speaks truth with understanding and vision.
    I’d like to say his thinking is like my own … but no, he’s far cleverer.
    Why only 90% vegan Mike?

    best wishes,

    • Ole Ole Olson September 14, 2010 at 7:06 pm

      Mike is awesome. It gives me pride to have him as a contributor on this site. I’m sure he appreciates your kind words.

  2. Gilbert Mercier
    Gilbert Mercier September 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Another great one Mike. For anything to improve globally we all have to make change on the way we live on a personal level. Putting in question mass consumption, and pushing for locally grown food is a key element of this. On a lighter note, I am planning to try some of your dishes!

  3. Martha September 15, 2010 at 7:00 am

    For those not moved by their relationships with others (human and non-human beings), the main point is that you have significantly increased your health and individual independence: eating local or homegrown food is far more nutritious than transported, topsoil-less grown, sprayed, pumped and irradiated mass-produced goods; and eating local or homegrown food is cheaper and increases your ability to sustain your access to the food you need.

    Fortunately, I hate cooking. I’m happy to eat plain meals that give me the taste of a potato or beans or apples, just the way they really are.

    No one has ever suggested to me that making these choices about what to put in my mouth or what to do with my time is a ‘sacrifice’, in any sense (including the one you suggest). Quite the opposite: it is empowering, and if anything, people tend to indicate they are somewhat intimidated by how easily they might take control over something as basic as their food. Perhaps it’s a gender dynamic that leads you to be perceived in this way.

    I’m meeting a lot more people recovering their familiarity with food production, doing more backyard, community, balcony and indoor work to feed themselves and their families; and rejecting silent obedience to shopping. Many more are eating less meat and more locally-produced food than just a few years ago, to increase their health and independence. It’s all good.

    Nonetheless, I think my own main concerns are similar to yours. It is important to stay the course of concern for the consequences of what one does.


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