Is My Veganism Sustainable?

Back in October I wrote that I had recently enrolled in a new degree program, and right now I’m deep into my second full semester. One of my courses is Issues in Biodiversity. In addition to doing a lot of reading and writing, we have all been tasked with designing a personal Biodiversity or Sustainability Action Plan for the semester. Some of my cohorts are elementary school teachers, and they’re devising wonderful projects that involve their students, such as planting a pollinator garden or creating compost for a community garden.

The assignment directions note, “Making a behavior change that positively impacts sustainability can be done simply through your choice in which products you buy, or how much you use your car.” As someone who doesn’t own a car, is an all-weather bicycle commuter, shops at farmers markets for a lot of my produce, carries all my groceries in my backpack, keeps my thermostat set at 65-67 degrees in the winter, and refuses to install central air conditioning, I jokingly said to some classmates, “What? I have to give up more?” But the idea of making a personal change struck me as a terrific challenge.

Some of My Vegan Cooking

Lately I’ve been coming across articles claiming that veganism was less sustainable—less eco-friendly—than several omnivore diets. In some cases, the conclusions were based on false comparisons, like imagining that vegans lived solely on exotic foodstuffs with high carbon footprints (avocados, for example) and pitting them against omnis subsisting on locally grown organic meats and vegetables. Still, I found these articles to be somewhat troubling. Cowspiracy (2014) contributed to my decision to go vegan. Since its release, critics have debunked several facts presented in the documentary, especially the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrial farming. Nevertheless, it still seemed—at least to me—to make implicit sense that eating a plant based diet was more environmentally sustainable than one including animal products.

For my Action Plan, I’ve decided to investigate the sustainability and carbon footprint of my diet and see how many positive changes I can make. I’ll be blogging about my discoveries, the changes I make, and posting recipes here. This blog will also be linked to my Instagram account, so that people who like my food photos will have the opportunity to learn more about the ecology of their diet. Wish me luck!

Photo of desert landscape en route to Baja, Mexico

Gaining Perspective

This past January I made an impulse decision to apply to a graduate program I’d recently discovered. Although I regularly juggle multiple interests through work, volunteering, hobbies, and travel, I’ve often wished I could do more to make a difference in the world. One day, while cycling through Chanthaburi, Thailand as part of Bike for Elephants 2018, I learned about a program that suddenly made my aspirations seem possible.

Group photo
Earth Expedition Baja I – photo by Jessica Seevers

Fast forward to June, and I’m hiking through 107-degree heat with eighteen other eager minds studying ecological field methods in Baja, Mexico. We were all first-semester students in Miami University’s Global Field Program, an innovative graduate program that combines summer field coursework with online learning during the school year. 

One reason the GFP appealed to me is that I’ve always loved travel. My experiences abroad have introduced me to extraordinary people and practices, shown me new ways of appreciating the world. But because we would be studying desert ecology—sleeping outdoors, abandoning the comforts of home, and being the only people wherever we went—I didn’t expect those sorts of revelations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Photo of Rancho San Gregorio
Rancho San Gregorio

One of our first assignments required us to map our location, Rancho San Gregorio. My map resembles a pre-Renaissance doodle: there is no world beyond a few structures, everything is two dimensional, and each building is front-facing, albeit from multiple points of view.

In addition to lacking perspective, my map is also bizarrely scaled: the gardens and open spaces have been minimized, the central building (seen in the photo above) is oddly compressed, and the cacti are wildly misproportioned. I’m not really sure what drove me to make such odd choices, but I believe my college art professors would not be impressed.

photo of hand-drawn map
My map

The significance of scale is a theme to which we returned time and again. In one learning activity, we read about the relationships between the area of a habitat and the number of species inhabiting it (Gotelli, 2008). We then used this concept of species-area relationship (SAR) to estimate the minimal sample area needed to characterize the local ecosystem, a sort of scale model for biodiversity.

The process we used is called the relevé method. Four teams measured out initial 5×5 meter square areas (quadrat) and then expanded them to 10×10, 15×15, and so forth. Each team identified and counted species within their quadrats: cardon, boojum, ocotillo, creosote … the total number of species increased with the size of the quadrat … until it didn’t. Once each team expanded their squares past 25×25 we rarely found any new species. We had found our minimal sample size.

Photo of me with a giant cactus
Me, pointing to scarring on a cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) – photo by Samantha Lee Arner

Why is this important? Imagine looking at a small corner of a meadow. You might see a cluster of flowering clover. While this could make for a beautiful photo, it doesn’t capture the meadow as a vibrant community of plant life. In fact, that clover might be an island surrounded by a sea of wild grasses. Examining random plots of the right sample size would give you a much better sense of the meadow’s species richness.

Although I am back in Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about scale—especially in terms of time. This semester I’m studying our city’s green spaces and interviewing people involved in greening the city. One person enthusiastically listed many things street trees bring to a neighborhood: shade, beauty, habitat. But another person claimed, “Trees are easy.” He explained how street trees provide a form of immediate gratification. And while that isn’t a bad thing per se, street trees can give residents a false sense of how green our city really is, which might make us less willing to support efforts whose effects we might not see for decades.

Photo of neighborhood tree planting
Street tree planting in Philadelphia – click for source

Many early cultures used a technique called hieratic scale in their visual arts. With hieratic scale, the most important figures appear the largest. Looking back—my map of the ranch, a close up of a flower, and greening a sidewalk—all these employ a form of hieratic scale. My map, for instance, reveals both my awe of cacti and my inability to distinguish much beyond man-made structures. The sudden popularity of trees suggests that we urban dwellers have difficulty investing in things we cannot see or touch.

My GFP cohorts and I are hoping to join a network of individuals engaged in conservation efforts around the world. My wish, of course, is to help the elephants. But I suspect that I’ve been looking at elephants as if they were clover, and I were strolling past the edge of that meadow. While the clover might seem sparse and precious to me, the meadow is not my home. If it were, the clover might appear abundant, maybe even a nuisance. If I want to make a real difference someday, then I will have to learn to accept multiple truths, embrace multiple perspectives.

References

Gotelli, N. J. (2008) Island Biogeography. In A Primer of ecology (pp. 154-177). Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.

Handbook for collecting of vegetation plot data in Minnesota: The relevé method. (2013). Retrieved from https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/releve/releve_singlepage.pdf.