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Why I became a vegan – and why you should, too

Animal farming is remorselessly destroying our planet.

In early October, I surprised my family, friends and colleagues by announcing that I had become a vegan.

Up until then, I wasn’t even vegetarian. I loved sausages, I ate chicken several times a week and I couldn’t imagine living without cheese. I have, of course, known for a long time that animal farming is a nasty business. Like everyone, I have seen those distressing pictures of the conditions endured by poultry, cattle and pigs in factory farms. Yet somehow I was able to put those images to the back of my mind when buying, ordering and eating food.

I have also long been convinced that a meat-heavy diet is bad for us, and that it is linked to many of the health problems of the developed world: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and so on. But it was rather like when I was a smoker. I accepted the evidence that smoking causes cancer, emphysema and many other chronic conditions, and always had the sense that one day I would give up. But I kept delaying the inevitable. It was not until I was 47, by which time I had been smoking for more than 30 years, that I did finally stop.

And now I have given up eating animal products. What prompted this, however, was not concern for my health. Neither was it concern for animal welfare. It was, rather, something that I had not thought much about before: the devastating environmental effects of animal farming. It started with an article in the Guardian about a WWF report that drew attention to the huge scale of the damage inflicted on the planet by the production of food for farm animals. The study found that “60 per cent of global biodiversity loss is down to meat-based diets”. The UK food supply alone, it states, “is directly linked to the extinction of an estimated 33 species at home and abroad”.

I knew that animal farming was cruel, and I knew it was making us unhealthy, but I did not know that it was destroying our planet. I started reading more about the environmental effects of animal farming and, by the end of the following day, I had decided to give up meat, eggs and dairy.

Becoming vegan is, I am now convinced, the best thing any individual can do to help our environment. Animal farming is inflicting damage on a scale that simply cannot be allowed to continue. For example, it is a major contributor to climate change, emitting more greenhouse gases than all the cars, planes and ships in the world put together. And the gases in question are mostly methane and nitrous oxide, both of which are far more damaging than carbon dioxide. Several recent studies have come to the conclusion that the only way the EU can achieve its emissions targets is through a substantial move away from a meat-based diet.

The evils of intensive animal agriculture have been vividly detailed in recent years by Philip Lymbery, the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, in his books Farmageddon and Dead Zone. But Lymbery does not go far enough. He does not suggest everyone becomes vegan. He believes that the solution is a return to the traditional mixed farms of old, in which fields were rotated between cereals and grass, and animals were allowed to graze.

Unfortunately for Lymbery, there is compelling evidence that this is not the case. This year, a major report on precisely this question was published by the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford. Its lead author, Dr Tara Garnett, summarised its findings: “Grazing livestock are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock… If high-consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution. Eating less meat, of all types, is.” If you eat pork, poultry or eggs, then you are contributing to colossal reductions in biodiversity; if you eat beef or cheese or drink milk, you are contributing to global warming. And if you think eating fish is the way forward, you should read Charles Clover’s book The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat. The current demand for animal products is simply not sustainable and enormous harm is being done in the attempt to meet it. We have to change.

There is, however, some good news. An Oxford study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences modelled the effects on our health globally between now and 2050 of four different diets: meat-heavy, meat-light, vegetarian and vegan. It concluded that if we ate less meat, five million deaths a year could be avoided by 2050; if we went vegetarian, the figure would be seven million; and a shift to veganism would save eight million lives a year. So, yes, it would help a lot simply to eat less meat, but going vegan would not only be the best thing for the planet, it would also be the best thing for you.

Despite this kind of evidence, some people worry that, even if it would extend their lives, a vegan diet would make them feel worse. Vegans are often stereotyped as having bad skin and being weak and lethargic. It’s early days yet, but this has not been my experience. I have lost a bit of weight and gained energy and vitality. I feel great. I’m missing sausages and cheese, but not as much as I thought I would. For the sake of the planet, for the sake of animals, and for our own sake, veganism is an idea whose time has come. 

Ray Monk is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton. His most recent book is “Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer” (Jonathan Cape) 

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia