It’s good for writers to get out and do something active. That was partly why, one Friday recently, I was standing with a small but vocal crowd of students, holding a sign about climate change and trying not to make too much eye contact with the people strolling by. Nonetheless, a young man with a backpack planted himself in front of me and asked, “Do you have a lot of experience in climate activism?”

Holding a sign and avoiding eye contact.

“Well, as a writer I guess I do,” I said; “not much as a protester.”

“So here’s my question. I’m always being told that being vegan helps the planet. I guess I’m wondering if that’s true, but even more I’m wondering if anything I do is really going to have an impact anyway.”

Behind me a young female college student perked up but, constrained by having to hold one corner of the fifteen-foot protest banner, bounced and shouted over my shoulder, “I’m vegan!” The three-sided conversation soon shifted from the confusing to the farcical. I understood the man to be asking about the impact of individual actions on systemic problems and tried to answer him. At the same time, the chipper vegan wrestling the banner kept chiming in with, “The university food courts are serving meat substitutes now! It’s easy! You don’t have to sacrifice anything!”

I lobbed thoughts into the game of verbal keep-away as well as I could; I hope my questioner left with some kind of answer for whatever he was really asking. But the great luxury of being a writer – admit it, you’ve done it too, if only in your mind – is being able to go home and reconstruct what I should have said, to both the earnest questioner and the chipper vegan. So here it is.

I’ll begin with veganism. By all means, if your conscience or religious beliefs dictate it, be vegan. And it’s true that if everyone used fewer animal products, various environmental issues, including climate change, would be much mitigated. Eating less meat, especially red meat, would be healthy for individuals as well as the planet. But veganism is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems that face us.

First, land dictates what can best be raised there. Some areas – mountains, tundra, and semi-deserts, for example – can produce more and better calories by careful animal husbandry than by trying to force crops to grow. Should the Inuit or the Masai become vegan? How far would grain and vegetables have to travel to get to them if they did? What would be the environmental cost of that transportation? And if we did away with domestic animals, we would be losing one of our greatest sources of non-petroleum-based fertilizer. Does being vegan mean I have to eat food grown with artificial chemicals?

Second, many vegan activists commit the fallacy of false dilemma – that because industrial feedlots are evil, no one should eat meat. Surely there are cases where a local small farmer raising chickens on pasture is a more responsible food producer than an agribusiness farming monocultured soybeans thousands of miles away from the consumer.

Chickens on pasture.

Third, the chipper vegan’s recommendation to eat meat substitutes takes for granted participation in the bloated modern food industry. If she is genuinely interested in the interrelated issues of health, environment, and social responsibility, why is she eating overpriced, highly processed foods made with disguised ingredients by multinational companies interested in profits? A truly revolutionary vegan would move a lot further down the food chain and cook her own food from single, natural ingredients. I don’t mean to criticize the chipper vegan personally; it’s hard for someone dining in university food courts to shop and eat ethically, and I appreciate her attempts to do so.

But finally, the comment of hers that raised the reddest flag was this: “You don’t have to sacrifice anything!” Again, I don’t want to criticize her so much as to alert all of us to the danger of this common response to climate change, peak oil, and social injustice – that we can fix things by continuing to live our lives as we please, just spending a little money and making a few tweaks that ultimately cost us nothing.

And that brings us to my earnest questioner and his concern about making an impact. He’s got a point: whether he microwaves a prepared vegan meal from the frozen aisle or lives in a cave and eats nuts and berries, what difference does it really make to the planet? So, earnest questioner, here is what I tried to say last Friday.

You already know the true but unconvincing point that one person can have a ripple effect, that people can learn from you or be inspired by you to do something different. But even if you change the minds of a hundred people, will their altered buying habits have any impact on the vast corporations you’ve targeted? Probably not, since system-wide changes need to happen first. There are examples of boycotts that have worked, and we should continue to use our spending money as a way of exerting pressure, but it’s a cold, dry way of making a difference.

How about thinking of the issue the other way around, though? Don’t think of how small an impact on Smithfield or Tyson withholding your ten dollars would have. Think instead of how great an impact that same ten dollars will have on the small farmer at the farmers’ market. For her, a few ten-dollar sales can make the difference between being in the red and making a modest profit. And she won’t pass that profit on to rich shareholders or an off-shore bank account; she’ll pass it on to the local restaurant, plumber, or auto mechanic. The impact of your money is hugely more powerful locally than internationally.

Making a difference

Another point I tried to make to you was the practical satisfaction of skills, not just the redistribution of money. If you eschew processed food, either vegan or meat-based, and instead learn how to produce and cook your own, you will have a big impact on your own life and self-image. Many people your age have been raised as expensive luxuries, shuttled from building to building in the care of underpaid strangers, and told you have value only to the degree that you consume. Becoming a producer and not just a consumer will give you a sense of self-respect and independence that many of your contemporaries – and mine – have lacked. I don’t mean you have to buy a farm, just that you have to understand your food, know where it comes from, and be able to cook it from scratch, whether it’s meat or vegetables.

I also mentioned to you that there will come a point when the old-fashioned skills that we’ve ceded in order to be consumers will once again be necessary. Eventually our affluent society will contract, and people who are prepared and competent will do better than those who still rely on the fossil-fuel-based growth economy. “But will that seriously happen in my lifetime?” you asked. I can’t say for certain, but it might. Why not be ready when it does? Besides, it’s fun to know how to do things, to learn and pass on skills, and to live well according to your own beliefs, even if you aren’t having a visible affect on the unjust structures that currently rule the planet.

So finally, vegan or not, it comes down to this: Live rightly, and don’t worry about how large an impact you’re having. The intractable evil of the world around you is no excuse for you to violate your own conscience. If you think it is right to eat differently, spend differently, live differently, then do so, just because it’s right.

Because impact is like happiness: sometimes aiming for it is the worst way to hit it. Eat conscientiously, live responsibly, and maybe impact will happen.