Dario Martinelli: Veganism Is Not a Trend, It’s Classics

Important | 2015-12-04

“One curious transformation happened during my time in Lithuania: a paragraph “Potato dishes” was changed into “Vegetarian dishes” on the menus of different places”, says Dario Martinelli, Head of International Semiotics Institute at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU). KTU professor, who has been practicing vegetarian life style for 20 years, says that today less and less people find it “weird”, and is hoping that soon the “macho-culture” nonsenses such as “Real men eat meat” will disappear for good from public language.

Although Martinelli believes that his chosen way of life makes the world a better place, he is not preaching: “There is an enormous difference between feeling a “better person” and feeling “better than other people”

On Monday 7 December the Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities invites to the first study day on veganism and vegetarianism in the academic history of Lithuania VeGandhi. Lithuanian celebrities and public figures will discuss, share their experiences and philosophies (and recipes) of their chosen lifestyle.

Vegan life style is not only the one you lead, but also the one which you advise or, rather, encourage people to try. What is so appealing about it?

First problem: we kill 170 billions of animals only for meat. 170 billions: that is beyond any reasonable or humane relation with nature. Animal advocates are often called “extreme”, but I think that when you want to “moderate” a figure like that, you are everything but extreme.

Second problem: environment. The meat industry is heavily responsible for deforestation and pollution. To give up meat means to do good for the planet in general. Just one example: the production of only 1 kilo of beef meat pollutes as much as a car driving for 100 km. Imagine that.

Third problem: world famine. If we gave up meat there would be much more food to feed our starving human fellows. To produce 1 kilo of beef meat you need over 30 square meters of land, 1 kilo of pork is 20 square meters, 1 kilo of chicken nearly as much. And so forth. To cultivate 1 kilo of fruit, 1 kilo of potatos, 1 kilo of cereals and 1 kilo of vegetables, ALL TOGETHER, you need less than 5 square meters. The proportion is amazing.

Then, of course, there is also an important bonus: if you don’t want to do it for the animals, or for the planet, of for the people, you can still do it for yourself. It is universally acknowledged as a healthy lifestyle, especially now that WHO has declared meat either “surely” carcinogenic (processed meat) or “probably” carcinogenic (other types of meat). I’m personally not so much into this lifestyle because of health: I was relatively healthy before I turned to it and I am relatively healthy now that I am into it. But the ethical part makes a huge difference to me.

Why did you choose this lifestyle?

I mostly chose it for the animals. What we do to them is so violent and unfair. And it is so massive. 170 billions of animals per year means almost 500 millions every day, which means almost 20 millions per hour, which means over 320000 per minute and well over 5000 per second. I mean, does our imagination go so far as to imagine 5000 killings every single second? Just let’s stop for a moment, and count the seconds: 1 second: 5000 gone, 2 seconds: 10000 gone, 3 seconds: 15000 gone… it is just shocking.

The least I can do is to declare to the world that this is not done in my name.

Then, as I gathered more information, I was so happy to discover that this was not just about non-human animals, but it was also about the environment and the starving people. As an animal advocate, I get to hear very often comments like “but why don’t you care about people, instead?”. Well, that’s the answer.

For how many years have you been practicing vegan life style?

I am mostly a vegetarian, with strong inclination to veganism. I try to be vegan as much as I can, but when it becomes too difficult (in restaurants, while travelling, etc.), then I allow myself milk or egg products. Little by little, it is becoming easier to practice it everywhere.

I remember very well when I gave up meat and fish, though. It was on the 14th of July 1994 (I was 20, therefore).  I know the exact date for a funny reason: it was the day after the Football World Cup semi-final Italy-Bulgaria. Checking the records, that game took place on the 13th. Italy won 2-1, in case you wonder 🙂 

I remember everything of my decision: I was still living in my hometown Trani (in the south of Italy), and I had been entertaining the idea of becoming vegetarian already for a few months, having developed a strong interest in animal rights. That particular evening, after watching the game with some friends, I went back home rather hungry and all I could find was a can of corned beef, and for some reason that night I just couldn’t digest it. I took it as a sign that it was time to quit eating meat, and so I did, in a very radical manner, without any gradual decrease (as it is often suggested).

There were some funny accidents afterwards, like my mother preparing spaghetti with tuna the day after (I hadn’t informed anyone yet), or – most funnily – myself actually “forgetting” my decision a few days later: I was having a walk with a friend of mine called Giuseppe, and we always had this habit of stopping by a bakery to buy a (rather good, I have to admit) sausage pizza roll. The process had become so automatic, that, during that evening too, we stepped into the bakery, bought the roll and kept on walking towards Trani’s harbour. It was only after a few bites that I realized what I was doing: in total embarrassment, I went like “G-G-Giuseppe! In f-f-fact I have actually become vegetarian!”. I guess the decision was still “bigger” than me, to an extent: I had adapted emotionally, but there was more to it than just “having decided”. There was my life, my routine, my context, my actions, plus the actions and the lives of everybody else around me.

What difficulties do you face – both in terms of attitude and practical things?

Yes… I was mentioning the lives of everybody else… Indeed, I soon learned that “everybody else” was to become the major problem in my new lifestyle. Everybody else (and, at that time, in that town, “everybody else” meant really “everybody else”), was against my decision: some out of concern for my health (like my mother, who soon after wanted me to take a blood test, to see how my iron level was doing), but most of them out of sheer ethical opposition. A long epoch started of comments, arguments and jokes, particularly at dinner, when my choice couldn’t be concealed. From “Humans are hunters by nature!”, to “What the hell do you eat, then?”, from “God gave us authority over animals” to “Why don’t you care for ‘real’ problems?”, from “These animals are specifically raised for food” to “what about the lion chasing the gazelle, then?” (for some reason, they always mention lions and gazelles… I don’t know why: nature is full of preys and predators, but it’s always lions and gazelles), from “Come on! Not even fish???”, to “Animals don’t really feel pain!”, etc. I heard those comments literally hundreds of times, and every time, those who said them thought they were being original!

Of course, I must have been rather annoying too, with my preaching attitude, and this insistence in pointing out that my decision was entirely ethical (which of course made my friends feel like I was accusing, rather than informing, them). But, in honesty, I have to say that most of the time, it wasn’t me to start the conversation: I would just announce that I was vegetarian, and immediately I would get the above-mentioned comments/questions, to which I of course had to say something in return, and them too, and me too, and them too…

In time, I learned to take it easier, and – in extreme cases – to elaborate less controversial explanations (for instance, there was a period when I would just say that I was vegetarian out of my doctor’s advice: that would normally put an end to the topic, as nobody would dare questioning the authority of a physician).

What a school that was!!! I realize now that all that training in answering those questions, fighting for my reasons, hearing people’s common places, examining their hostility… all of that shaped my inclination towards academic research and particularly animal studies (and even more particularly the analysis of human-animal relationships).

What changes do you see in society’s attitude towards vegetarian life style?

Oh, huge ones. Let me take Lithuania, as an example. I started visiting this beautiful country since 2005, and I started living here since 2012. Year after year, I saw vegetarian/vegan restaurants multiplying, I saw more and more vegetarian options within non-vegetarian menus, more and more vegetarians among my acquaintances, or – what is perhaps even more significant – more and more people who were not vegetarians, but wouldn’t anymore look at me like I’m weird… One of the funny things that happened in my experience in Lithuania is that, today, I enter a restaurant, browse the menu and find a paragraph called “vegetarian dishes”. Back in 2005, I would enter a restaurant and all I could go was to check “potato dishes” in order to find something suitable!

Also, the idea itself for VeGandhi was born out of the realization that in Lithuania there are so many VIPs who not only turned to this lifestyle, but they also became very vocal about it. They talk to the press, talk to the people… they are helping a lot in making this choice look “normal” and “cool”. I mentioned those who are participating to VeGandhi, but I should also mention others who would have loved to participate, but couldn’t make it, because of their commitments: Andrius Mamontovas, Gintarė Gurevičiūtė, Živilė Vaškytė… they would have all come. So, I take this opportunity to thank all of them.

Back to the general picture, it is not unlike Lithuania: little by little things are changing and becoming more inclined to these choices, up to make me very optimistic about a future when we will all understand that we cannot go on like this. As I said: for the animals, for the planet, for the people and for ourselves.

Can you compare Lithuanian and other societies both in terms of attitude and possibilities for practicing this life style?

Well, we can start again from facts and figures. Lithuanians consume 78 kg of meat per person, every year. This places us near countries like UK (80 kg p.c.), so in the “wealthy” part of the world (to give some perspective: France consumes 101 kg. p.c., Japan 44, and USA 125). It must be noticed that even pro-meat sources recommends that we consume max. 25-30 Kg. per year, so we are obviously exceeding our quota, and that means (animal killing aside) that other, poorer countries are paying the price of our wealth, and that the environment is suffering more than necessary.

The second thing I noticed in Lithuania (as well as in many other countries, of course) is that meat-culture is very much related to macho-culture. You get all this “real men” nonsense related to meat. And mind you: not just any meat. Real men eat beef and pork (and drink beer): chicken and fish (and white wine) is for women. It’s all a bit funny, isn’t it? I’m very happy that there are so many women in Lithuania who are into vegetarianism/veganism, but I have to say I am particularly happy when I see examples of “real men” who make this choice. I mean, look at the likes of Mamontovas, Didžiulis, Lubys, or look at athletes like Vladas Vitkauskas… not even the most homophobic, narrow-minded, chauvinist person could say that these guys are not – you know – “men enough”.

So, obviously, the changes that our societies will go through are also cultural changes. And I am very happy about it.      

What benefits do you see of being a vegan: ethically, practically, financially, health-wise?

The health reason is a strong one, too, although – as I said – I do not feel like saying to meat-eaters that what they eat will make them sick, or something. I think we all live in a society that sells us more poison than good stuff. When you think about it, a greasy plate of French Fries, a bottle of cheap brandy, a can of Coca Cola, a pack of cigarettes, a snort of cocaine… these are all vegan products!!! And I myself lapse into junk food more often than I would like. So, for me, the health argument is good up to a certain point. And by this, I mean that I also reject the other way round: when they come to me saying that a vegan diet is not healthy I find it quite irritating. Particularly, because of the illogical aspect of the conversation: they come to me, someone who gave up meat for more than half of his life, to tell me that one cannot survive without meat. And I’m there, in front of them: alive and kicking. So, my friends, if I cannot survive without meat, what exactly am I now? A ghost? A 3D print?

And I can get very mad when they accuse vegetarian or vegan parents to be “criminal” (as I read in one Lithuanian magazine, not too long ago) when they don’t give meat to their children. This is really too much, and sooner or later one should think about legal actions against such defamatory comments.

My memory goes back to the first daycare where my wife and me brought our son. There was this lady who politely told us how much she was against vegetarian parenthood, but that – as a professional – she would respect that choice. Now, mind you, while she was saying that, the kids were being fed with potatoes and sausage. Sausages are now in the “group A” for WHO: it means they are “surely carcinogenic”. Funny, huh? The lady criticizes us for not ensuring a healthy diet for our son, and at the same time she gives carcinogenic food to the kids. Luckily, in the next two day cares we brought him, there was much more understanding, and no one had anything to say. A bit of moderation doesn’t hurt.

The financial side is also interesting: meat producers are very determined in defending their industry, and they mention unemployment as their main case against a change of lifestyle. Now: never mind that when they abolished capital punishment there must have been a few unemployed executioners, as well. What is really interesting is that there are changes in society every time – every day, I would say. Changes in society mean also changes in economy. Now, what clever companies do is that they adapt, and – if needed – they reconvert their activity. If farmers have land to grow grass to feed the cows, they can use the same land to grow plants that feed the people. If supermarkets buy fish and meat from producers, they can also buy tofu and rice milk with the same money. In the modern world, there is no such thing as a “frozen” market that cannot move along with the changes in society. When they tell us so, they are only using rhetoric tricks to move people to compassion with the “what about the poor workers?” strategy.

As for the practical reasons, let me offer a paradoxical reply. I will talk about the most practical of things: our soul. You may know a novel called Elizabeth Costello, by the South-African writer John Coetzee: it’s about this old lady who is an academic and is giving some lectures. One of such lectures is about animal rights. After she finishes, this lady is asked why she’s vegetarian, and her answer is quite unexpected, because during the lecture she was promoting animal rights from a very pragmatic point of view. But, when she’s asked that question, she gives a very “spiritual” answer. She says: “I’m vegetarian to save my soul”. And you know, being myself a die-hard rationalist, I immediately thought that it was not such a brilliant answer. I was sort of expecting a strong statement against violence on animals, or things like that… but no, she wants to save her soul…

Well, I changed my mind after some reflection. Now I think it’s a GREAT answer. Because now I see the point: when you do something violent, cruel, that violence, that cruelty become part of yourself: you become an “insider” of violence. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you contribute to that… but you, as a person, have this burden on your soul. The burden of violence, exploitation, cruelty. That’s what Elizabeth Costello wants to avoid, I believe. 

Choosing not to be part of all this killing, pollution, starving, has a very practical consequence on the way we “stay in the world”. We say “I don’t want to be part of this, I don’t want to kill”.

But it’s a personal growth: let me repeat that this has nothing to do with feeling better than other people who do not make this choice. It is important to distinguish between feeling “better person” and feeling “better than other people”. It is an enormous difference.

Sometimes it seems that being a vegan is a kind of fashion, people choose it in order to define themselves as belonging to a certain group of “trendy” people. What would be your opinion on that?

Well, I imagine civil rights, antiracism, feminism, anti-apartheid, and all the rest must have been called “trends” as well, at some point. I personally do not think that any movement animated by an ethical force for a better world can be called “trend”. I rather call it evolution. I can imagine some Alabama landowner of the 19th century calling slavery abolitionism just “a silly trend”, for sure. But he wasn’t facing a trend, he was facing history: he got wiped out by it, and now his grand-grand-grand-children go crazy for Kobe Bryant, have Hip Hop in their iPods and date Afro-American boys or girls. 

I certainly hear very often that “veganism is just a trend”, and it will disappear sooner or later. I respectfully disagree. What these people ignore is that since the early 1970’s the number of vegetarians and vegans have been growing constantly, with no inflections. They have become more and more numerous, and now the last data I have (from 2014) is that there are 375 millions of people in the world who are either vegetarians or vegans (of course, vegetarians are still more in number). To remain into fashion jargon, when a trend lasts 50 years, you don’t call it a trend: you call it a classic. Sorry guys: veganism is not like saggy pants or hipster beards. It is more like a dark blue suit matched with a regimental tie.