Monday, 3 April 2017

Why becoming a zero waste, vegan, minimalist is not the solution to all our problems all of the time

Wouldn't it be great if we stopped destroying the rainforests, the plastic from the seas was removed and no more was ever added again, endangered species were no longer endangered and climate change was halted? So many of us are really hoping and praying that these things will happen, that we haven't already gone too far in destroying this beautiful planet that we live on and that there is hope for future generations. 

Hoping and praying isn't enough though is it, we want to do something about it too. I really want to do something and a large part of this blog is about being optimistic, about taking practical steps to change myself and the world around me, to have hope for the future. 

On my eco-friendly money saving journey three key themes have emerged as ways to live that can help. These themes are veganism, minimalism and going zero waste and these movements combined seem a lot like the answer to all our problems. I can't claim to be a vegan or a minimalist, but I've had a good go at living the zero waste, plastic free life. I've also been heavily influenced by minimalism and veganism and see them as goals to aspire to (with a bit of a caveat - keep reading).

These lifestyles have a lot of value in them and they are having a really positive influence on people and the environment, but they are not the right answer to everything all the time. As poster children for reducing waste, eating less meat and dairy and buying less stuff they work well. They make fantastic news stories, they inspire people, they make people think and question their current way of life, but if followed to the letter all the time they go too far, it is not actually possible to stick to them religiously unless you become entirely self -sufficient (which may be a possibility for an elite few, but not for the masses) and they are not the solution to everything. I think it is incredibly important that we recognise this, that we don't get caught up too much in sticking rigidly to one way of doing things when it doesn't actually make sense to do so and we recognise the down sides of the alternatives that we move on to when following these lifestyles.

Too often we are sold things on what they are not, instead of what they are and we miss the fact that although something may not contain x,y and z, they have been replaced by ingredients a,b and c which may be a big problem for different reasons. I could give you countless examples of this like this one -  microfibre cleaning cloths are sold as an eco-friendly alternative to using antibacterial sprays, but one problem is just swapped for another. Yes we are laying off the war on bacteria in our homes, which may be contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistant superbugs, but we are then releasing tiny plastic fibres into the oceans via our washing machines, when we wash the cloths. When we make swaps in the moves towards veganism, minimalism and going zero waste we need to be mindful that some of the things we are sold on swapping to may come with problems of their own.

It isn't possible to be entirely zero waste or vegan unless you become entirely self sufficient and even that isn't sustainable. 

You might think, well then we need to swap out that microfibre cloth for something that is more eco-friendly. I am really sorry to tell you this, but there is a downside to almost every alternative you can think of and that is because we do things in such large volumes and because we rely so heavily on monoculture - i.e. farming the same crops and live stock en masse in the same fields, with no or limited tolerance for any other kinds of flora and fauna. There may be better choices we can make, but there are rarely perfect ones. Anyone who buys food in the UK however zero waste or plastic free or vegan they like to think they are has had waste (including plastic waste) produced on their behalf and have had foods that have been sprayed with pesticides (organic foods are sprayed with pesticides, they just aren't synthetic ones) and possibly have also been indirectly responsible for the deaths of larger animals i.e. wildlife that were considered pests by farmers who wanted to protect plant based crops. As much as it might seem ideal to live off the land, we don't all have access to enough land and if we did live off our own land - what would we do if our crops didn't grow or were ruined?

Being zero waste and/ or vegan and/ or a minimalist isn't always the right choice

There are times when choosing the vegan, minimalist and /or zero waste path, won't work for you, won't solve all problems and/ or won't be the best choice for the environment. When is this?

  1. When it compromises your health. A vegan diet may not work for everyone, especially people who have food intolerances or allergies to key vegan foods like beans, soya, pulses and grains. Medicines and medical treatments often involve a lot of single use plastic and although many people try to avoid taking medicines as much as possible, sometimes it is the sensible (or the only) course of action. 
  2. When it doesn't make environmental sense. Driving extra miles to visit different places to make sure everything is unpackaged is counter productive. Making poor swaps e.g. swapping plastic bags for paper bags - the paper bags may be biodegradable, but they are energy intensive to make and are still single use (reusable is better, but it needs to be reused enough times to make it a better choice). Swapping cows milk for alternative milks e.g. nut milks - for example almonds are very water intensive and these milks come in tetrapak cartons which are then discarded after use or recycled at best - read about the massive problems of growing almonds in this Guardian article about almond milk. Decluttering in the name of minimalism is actually encouraged by retailers, because the theory is out with the old and in with the new. The more people declutter the more new stuff they will keep buying. They might not own much at any one time, but they can still be big consumers. Fast fashion and the rate at which clothes are flowing through our wardrobes are a massive environmental problem  - read more in my blog post here: What is the problem with fast fashion?
  3. When it is just a bit too difficult because there were no vegan options or zero waste options or because you were trying to find zero waste ways to declutter your home and feel like banging your head against a brick wall! 
  4. When it compromises your relationships. You may or may not care how many people you offend with in the name of veganism, minimalism or going zero waste, but I think it is really important to take the following into account
    1. Most people around you won't get it. It takes a lot of learning and changing of mindset to switch from eating meat, buying packaged foods and seeing acquiring bigger and better stuff as a good thing to becoming a zero waste minimalist vegan (or even just one of those things). If someone had told you that everything you hold to be good and true is wrong and that you should change to these new ways of thinking and doing things and you hadn't asked them for their opinion in the first place, how would you react? People need to want to change before they will change. I'm not saying you can't talk to people close about your lifestyle, but be aware they will have plenty of reasons why they don't want to do what you are doing and they may be very valid. Even if they do agree with you and get it they still might not change because no-one else they know is doing it (peer pressure) or they are just too busy with other things and it isn't their top priority (life pressures). Trying to push people into following your path may back fire and push them further away from it. They also probably won't understand all your needs e.g. they may not know sweets that contain gelatine aren't vegan or that you really don't want a gift etc and that is reasonable. Unless they spent time and energy studying how to do all these things they are not going to know and understand how to do them. 
    2. If you agree with the statements I have made earlier,  then won't you also agree that these lifestyles will not work for you all of the time? How are you going to deal with these tricky situations without looking like a hypocrite (if you have compromised relationships over your ideals) or worse not doing something that would be a better choice because you don't want to look like a hypocrite.
For the reasons explained above, I think it is really important to set limits with these lifestyles - boundaries beyond which you won't go. 

Veganism, minimalism and going zero waste are not the solutions to all our problems all of the time - it is a bit more complicated than that. 

There are no perfect ethical or environmental solutions when it comes to the production of an item on a large scale. What we individuals really need to do is to consume less of everything and diversify (and try to avoid toxic substances to our products whether naturally or synthetically derived, when we can). By diversify I mean, rely on a greater range of resources and species e.g. there are lots of different types of fish but most of us in the UK rely on fish like cod, tuna and salmon (although it is contentious that there are any types of fish that are sustainable at the moment) and you can make clothes from bamboo, hemp and nettles, but most of the ones we buy are made from polyester and cotton and so on. Being a vegan, minimalist or zero waster doesn't always stop you from consuming more than your fair share of resources or relying too heavily on a slim range of things. Remember you can avoid one problem by boycotting something, but then create another with the alternatives, so it important to think about what the alternatives really mean, if they are always better and if in the light of that always sticking to the vegan, minimalist or zero waste path (or all three combined) is the right thing to do.

I feel we in the West put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and if we are not careful veganism, minimalism and zero wasteism (if that is a thing :)) can become just another stick to beat ourselves and each other with. We need to take the best bits from these movements - the bits that can make the world a better place and apply them when we can, but accept that none of them (individually or together) are the solution to all our problems all of the time - it's a bit more complicated than that.

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