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Eco Etiquette: Can You Be An Environmentalist Without Being Vegetarian?

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My friend is a hardcore vegan and says I can't call myself an environmentalist, since I still eat meat. I disagree, since I sincerely care about the future of the world and do a lot to help the environment. I even volunteer with an organization to plant trees in my community. What do you think? Are you a vegetarian?

-Peter

Oh, please. We can bicker over the semantics of the word environmentalist until we're all green in the face, and alienate our fellow do-gooders by telling them they're not do-gooding enough, but the fact remains that we're not going to accomplish any lasting change by doing either. We've got ice sheets in Antarctica in "runaway melt mode" and oceans acidifying before our very eyes; as far as I'm concerned, an environmentalist is anyone who is making concrete changes to protect our natural resources and spread the message of conservation to the billions of people who reside on this planet.

Using your friend's logic, I'd also have to add that having children excludes one from being an environmentalist, since the most effective way to reduce global warming and pollution would be to just stop procreating. Granted, I know environmentalists (vegetarians as well) who have made this difficult choice, but they are a rarity. And no matter how ardent a greenie you claim to be, unless you live in a cave, there's a good chance there's room for improvement: Johnny may be a vegan, but he has two dogs that contribute to the 10 million tons of pet waste polluting our waterways every year; Suzy eats all organic but can't live without her daily Diet Coke; Bob outfitted his entire house with solar panels but flies to Europe four times a year on business; and so on and so on.

That being said, I think if you consider yourself a passionate advocate for our planet, yet find yourself hitting the drive-through for a McRib thrice a week, you might want to rethink the latter. I'm not going to use this space to debate the environmental repercussions of every conceivable food choice -- it took Michael Pollan two books to do just that -- but the information fueling your friend's snarky statement is correct: Adopting a vegetarian diet is indeed one of the most effective ways to slash your ecological footprint. If you currently eat a typical meat-heavy American diet, then switching to a lacto-ovo vegetarian one will cut your carbon footprint by almost a ton a year, not to mention drastically reduce your water consumption and help stop deforestation in the Amazon.

It may enrage some of you to learn that I am not, in fact, a full-fledged vegetarian. But I am working to limit my meat consumption, which is why I took the Meatless Monday pledge earlier this year. As a -- yes -- environmentalist, I believe we'll have a more resounding impact if we focus on solutions that people can reasonably embrace. My friend Joanna Lee, who works on the Meatless Monday campaign, agrees. "It's unrealistic to expect every individual to become a full-time vegetarian," she says. "In engaging a broad audience, every person's small meat reduction, collectively, makes a big difference." (Lee, by the way, also considers herself an environmentalist.)

A funny thing happens, too, when you don't berate your friends and family for not subscribing to your particular eco philosophy and instead encourage them to make small, doable changes: Those smaller changes often lead to larger ones. That's why I like to call Meatless Monday the gateway drug to vegetarian eating. I started with Meatless Monday in May, and with each passing week, I found myself experimenting with more meat-free eating, like making lentil soup for weekday lunches, or ordering tofu when I went to my local Thai joint for dinner. And then, I started buying slightly smaller portions of meat for my family at home, filling the void with more vegetables and complex carbs. I estimate that overall, I've cut my meat consumption by 30 percent.

For those still working toward a vegetarian (or flexitarian) diet, there are other ways to tread lightly on Mother Earth via your food choices. Buy organic, grass-fed, or locally-produced meat; stay away from fossil fuel-intensive processed foods (to wit: Kraft Foods' Boca Burger, with its "enriched textured soy protein concentrate product" made from genetically modified soybeans); and consider growing your own vegetable garden.

I'll leave you with this thought: Being an environmentalist isn't some hipster club that you're only allowed to join if you're a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club and drive a Schwinn. It's the rancher who decides to start raising her cattle without growth hormones and antibiotics; it's the Wall Street investor who focuses on renewable energy companies; and it's the big-rig trucker who decides to fill up his tank with biodiesel. My ultimate goal is for every person on earth to consider how our individual actions impact the bigger picture. We'll make the most progress when we focus more on contributing and less on criticizing.

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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