An occasional series in which ordinary people
talk about living a plant-based life
Our latest contributor is Martin Yelverton, co-editor of Bardo Burner, who believes humanity is slowly evolving towards veganism but that it’s a long, long game
Tell us a little about yourself…
I was born in Zambia but did most of my growing up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, which I left back in the days of apartheid to dodge my conscription into the army after college. I’ve been living in the UK ever since and now consider myself an immigrant Londoner. I’m 52, married, and have a grown-up son. I work as a yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance news journalist.
You’re vegan now; were you vegetarian before? What led to that? How long have you been vegan? What led to that choice?
I became a vegetarian in my early 20s after getting a kitchen job in Germany that involved killing trout for instant cooking (this was during the summer; in winter it would also have involved killing rabbits). I was no good at killing, lasted one day in that job, and decided that if I couldn’t kill animals, I shouldn’t be eating them. About four years ago I watched Cowspiracy and was a vegan by the end of the week (couldn’t resist not finishing off my cheese stash – used to love the stuff, now it grosses me out almost more than meat). Since then, I’ve learnt a lot I didn’t know about how grotesque the dairy industry is; I can’t believe I supported it for so long as a vegetarian, but there it is; one learns.
Do you see yourself ever going back to being an omnivore?
I can’t imagine that happening. However, I’ll never say never, because I did return to eating meat for two years during my long stretch of vegetarianism. I studied Hung Gar kung fu with an old school teacher who believed you had to be a meat eater to be strong enough for some of the stuff he taught. When I do something, I’m all or nothing, so for the sake of the kung fu, I tried going back to eating meat to learn these things. I tried to convince myself I was getting stronger. I wasn’t. And deep down I knew I wasn’t being true to my principles either. Eventually I drifted away from the kung fu and into yoga, returning to vegetarianism. It was a big lesson: don’t take a teacher’s word as gospel – this is something I try to impart to the people who study yoga and Pilates with me.
Are you a ‘healthy’ vegan? Often people assume we’re all fitness-obsessed, when the reality is that we come in many flavours and for many people life is an eternal hunt for vegan cake. What makes up your diet?
I try to be a healthy vegan, with varying degrees of success. I mainly eat rice, wholewheat spaghetti and variations on vegetable stews and curries, as well as tons of fruit and nuts. I eat a little more processed food than I’d like to, but keep working towards a whole food diet as an ideal. I’m inclined to beat myself up when I don’t manage this, but try not to; being a fundamentalist is never a good thing. My biggest challenge is processed sugar. For the most part I don’t use it, but every now and again I’ll treat myself to some of the fine vegan cakes and desserts out there, and I always regret it, because the sugar gets right up there like a monkey on my back. I find it scarily addictive. If I can keep processed sugar out of my life, my diet tends to be pretty healthy.
Where do you shop?
I shop at local supermarkets, whether big chains or independents. We are spoilt for choice in London; vegan food is everywhere. I sometimes feel guilty shopping at the big supermarkets, which do so much to keep the meat industry alive, even as they’re serving vegan customers so well, but, hey, it’s not a perfect world.
Do you consciously think about where you get your protein, etc, from?
No, not really. I sometimes go through the motions, but it’s not a big deal for me. I’ve gone through phases of being too protein obsessed but I think that’s a fool’s errand. I simply try to eat a balanced diet and let nature take its course: fruit, veg, grains, nuts, pulses. And so far, so good; I’ve never been healthier.
For many vegans, the initial realisation of facts that make us turn to a different lifestyle is pretty life-changing and alienating. We view things differently, from the supermarket shopping experience in a meat-eating world to the people around us. How was that change in mindset… the reality of being an outsider in many situations… for you?
To start with, it didn’t bother me much. I believe passionately that we’re all just doing our best to get through the dark night of the soul, whether we eat meat or not. Life is hard and we do the best we can; I try my best to empathise with all beings. But the more time passes, the weirder I find meat eating, and the more I feel like a stranger in a very freaky world. I often think it’s like that David Cronenberg movie They Live (see clip below), in which these special sunglasses allow you to see beneath the surface of reality, and all around there are subliminal messages to conform, consume and never question, and the people in charge are actually aliens who look like zombies. Yeah, I feel like I’ve got those sunglasses on, although I hate the fact that this sounds kind of judgmental. On the other hand, those sunglasses are there for anyone who chooses to put them on and have a look at the reality of meat consumption: there is so much good information around; not to engage with it seems like an active choice to stay ignorant. Like I say, though, we’re all just struggling through the dark night of the soul.
Do you mix with many other vegans – does your lifestyle mean that you come into contact with people of a similar outlook regularly?
My wife and son are on the same planet as me, so yes, I mix with a handful of vegans, but more broadly, out in the wild, no, it’s not a regular thing. I am struck, however, by how frequently I do cross paths with the odd random vegan in the most unlikely of places, like the hard-boiled newspaper office where I work. We are in a fantastically small minority, but we are out there.
Do you seek out vegan groups and forums online?
No, I don’t. I am in a semi-permanent state of trying to reduce my internet consumption, and this includes vegan forums etc. While I subscribe to them on reddit, for example, I very rarely visit. I think that, for the most part, they are time sinks, and invariably they’re all about preaching to the converted, or food porn, which I find very boring. I get that I’m a bit of a grumpy old man about this. I appreciate that vegan forums etc are very important for inspiring the foot soldiers of the cause. They’re just not for me.
Do you feel you have more in common with vegans than the majority of other people who don’t believe plant-based is the way forward?
On one level, yes; on this key issue at least, I have more in common with vegans than the majority. But more generally, not necessarily. Vegans reflect as broad a spectrum of opinion and lifestyles as any other group of people out there, many of which I would not connect with. For example, I would probably have a lot more in common with a meat-eating martial artist and Fugazi fan than, say, a vegan fashion enthusiast who’s into boy bands and shopping. Being a vegan is only one component of who we are; for me, it’s by no means the central definition of who I am.
Do you, as most of us have to, eat out with non-vegans often and how do you feel about their eating choices?
I’m not particularly fond of eating out – I think restaurants are a rip-off – and mostly only ever do so to accompany the vegans in my life who enjoy it. Once in a while, for the sake of being sociable, I’ll find myself eating out with non-vegans, but it doesn’t happen often enough for it to be an issue.
Are you involved in any form of activism?
No, sadly I’m not. I feel I should be, but I really haven’t been able to make the time in my life. I work seven days a week, which is cool, considering I enjoy what I do, but it leaves very little time for anything else. I need to get a grip on that some day.
How do you feel about the vegan jokes… you know, that vegans can’t go five minutes without mentioning the fact or they explode?
If the jokes are good, I’ll laugh. Sadly, most of them are shit, so I just shrug, meh. With jokes, for me, the sicker the better. Frankie Boyle is my kind of comedian; I’m sure he’d come up the kind of vile vegan jokes that would make me laugh. Haven’t heard them yet, though. (Just found a decent vegetarian joke by Boyle; see below.)
Do you believe veganism to be a fad?
In the grand scheme, no, I think it’s a long, slow process of civilisation that’s slowly taking hold; at some point in the far distant future, if humanity hasn’t managed to destroy itself, I think people will go: “Bloody hell, can you believe our kind actually used to do this cruel shit to animals and eat their corpses and drink their secretions and wrap themselves in their body parts?”
In the here and now, though, it does come over like a fad, mainly because of the way it’s marketed everywhere: lifestyle features in the media about “celebrity vegans”, the endless churn of new products clearly cashing in (I simply don’t trust meat-based companies jumping on the bandwagon of a booming market), perhaps even blogs like this one help that cause of trendification. It’s all good, though. It keeps the issue in the public eye and I think it’ll stay there because of the money to be made.
So what if people try veganism out to be hip, then go back to carcass munching? Revolutions are always commodified. But if this one means that ultimately humans end up more compassionate to their fellow beings, I can keep my irritation about the gloss in check.
Do you believe that the meat and dairy industries have a future? If not, what do you believe the timescale for change to be?
I believe they certainly have a foreseeable future. While we in the West might get all excited about the growth of veganism, there are some countries, China for example, where meat consumption is on the rise as people slowly get richer. Long term, I suspect the meat and dairy industries will slowly fade, or at least mutate into something different; for example, much as it doesn’t appeal to me, lab-grown meat looks likely to be a huge thing in the future, and we are already seeing the growth of non-dairy milks – this is where the smart money will go.
Ultimately, even if only for environmental reasons, I don’t think factory farming of animals is sustainable and will definitely have to end or at least be massively scaled down. Time scale? Who knows? I’d like to think four or five generations, but I suspect it’ll take longer. History has shown us that humanity has an amazing knack for shitting in its own nest.
How do you think we best ‘convert’ omnivores to a plant-based lifestyle? And do you actively try to do this?
I think the best way to encourage carnists to consider veganism is simply to be a good example, living the change you want to see (to use the phrase frequently misattributed to Gandhi). For me, this means eating what I eat without making a fuss and being a normal, everyday human being doing his best to be kind and compassionate. I guess that means I’m not “actively” trying to convert anyone, but I do believe, from what people occasionally say to me, that it has an impact, at least encouraging a little thought without me having to preach. I kind of wish I was a little more active, but it’s not really my style.
How do you feel about the horror-show videos of the reality of meat? Do you share them? Do you feel they have a positive place in changing people’s understanding of the meat and dairy industry?
The horror-show videos definitely have a place; I can’t discount their power because I have heard too many people saying that it was these that turned them on to veganism. Personally, I don’t feel the need to watch them. I got through about 10 minutes of Earthlings before the overwrought narration began to irritate me, and I really don’t need to see the shocking imagery to understand how barbaric the meat industry is. I have watched a few short clips, particularly about the brutalities of the dairy industry, that have had a powerful impact on me. However, I think a lot of the time these kinds of videos tend to be shared in places where they are simply preaching to the converted, which seems mildly pointless (unless to reinforce beliefs).
I don’t share them because I know that when I do, my viewing stats show that no one looks at them (such is the nature of my social network connections, and the way I use social media… which is as little as possible). The challenge is to produce such videos in a way that inspires the “uncoverted” to watch them. However doubtful I sound, though, I must stress that I believe these videos are valuable; they have undoubtedly been a powerful force in convincing people to think again about what they eat.
Are you positive about the future of veganism?
I am, but I believe it’s a long, long game. I think it will take many generations before it becomes anything other than the minute fringe interest it currently is. While things are looking promising for veganism in rich Western nations, it barely seems to have reared its head in poorer countries. My fear is that people will destroy our planet – not least through the continuation of industrial farming – before we get there. I know that doesn’t sound positive. But I do believe that, given enough time, humanity will evolve towards a plant-based diet. If only more would understand we could probably buy ourselves a bit more time as a species if we go vegan now.
What does being vegan mean to you?
It’s a simple dietary and lifestyle choice that means I do not consume the corpses of animals or their secretions, or wrap myself in their flayed skins. It’s a bonus that I can see it as a small act of compassion to my fellow sentient beings, as well as a contribution to the cause of doing less harm to the planet. I don’t like to be self-righteous about this, though. I also appreciate the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Despite the fact that I am biologically closer to death than I was at 21, I feel a lot healthier than I did back then, when I primarily lived on chunks of flesh.