Tag Archives: Vegetarianism

Plastic Straws Are Not the Enemy

My school has fully jumped on board with the “no straws” campaign. It was heading in this direction last year when signs went up in the café pointing out that straws contribute to the increase of plastic in the oceans. This year, the café no longer gives out straws or lids, except upon request.

Okay. I’m all for reducing plastic. I recycle everything that can be recycled, even though I live in a country that doesn’t really recycle. I take reusable bags to the grocery store and plan out purses and backpacks based on what I think I’ll buy and the best way to carry it. I’ve stopped buying paper towels for my kitchen and have always brought real cutlery in my lunchbox. So yes, let’s reduce waste and plastic. No argument there.

But . . . plastic straws are not the problem. Plastic straws are not the enemy. Banning plastic straws will not save the oceans, despite the current popularity of the sentiment. But banning plastic straws can raise awareness about the human impact on the environment. And if we keep the focus on “awareness” instead of demonizing the straw, maybe we’ll make some progress.

Beyond Straws
Straws are ubiquitous in our world. They are everywhere. We enjoy drinking from them and have gotten used to having them. To be honest, I didn’t think twice about straws until they became Public Enemy No. 1. People expect straws with their restaurant beverages because that’s what we’re used to. That’s part of what makes eating in a restaurant different from eating at home, even if we’re just drinking the same glass of water. Banning straws helps us recognize that we don’t actually need them. Sure, they’re fun and all, but necessary? Not for most of us. (More on this below.)

Hopefully, as we get used to being asked whether we need a straw or become accustomed to being discouraged from using them, we’ll realize that there are many other products we don’t need and can live without. For example, I have friends whose only paper products are in their bathroom. They don’t have paper towels and they don’t have napkins. They have tissues for guests but carry handkerchiefs themselves. They shop at markets to avoid plastic packaging and avoid takeaway for the same reason. I thought about these friends when I initially ran out of paper towels and, because their example served as a reminder, I haven’t bought any since. Napkins will be the next thing to go.

Realizing which products are unnecessary in our lives and making changes as a result is great. Maybe banning straws will raise awareness of how we can reduce unnecessaries in other areas of our lives, but banning straws can also be detrimental in unintended ways.

Because Sometimes, Straws Are a Tool
My sister and I discuss a lot of things that we both agree we can’t talk about with most other people. This summer, one of those things was our hesitation about jumping on board with the straw ban. My sister is a vegan and I’m a vegetarian and we both go out of our way to purchase environmentally friendly products, which we’re lucky to have the financial resources to do. But we both have educational background in and work experience with people with disabilities, and that means looking at conventionally popular campaigns like the straw ban through a different lens.

My sister is a speech pathologist and as soon as she mentioned it, it became obvious. Some people require plastic bendable straws to drink. Going out and being thirsty without advance planning or simply forgetting reusable alternatives at home should not preclude people with disabilities from being out in public and purchasing a beverage. It’s not hard to imagine that this could be a problem once you begin to think about it.

Based on that alone, I’m not in favor of an outright ban on plastic straws. Provide alternatives? Yes. Ban plastic bendable straws? No. The majority of us live in a world that we have designed to our needs and preferences, but those needs and preferences should not add yet another barrier to full participation in society for people with disabilities. We can rethink this and build inclusive communities. Do you need a straw? Maybe not. But might someone else. Absolutely.

So please, before you jump on board with any campaign, have a think. You can make personal choices without imposing them on people who might not have as much flexibility as you do.

And After All, Banning Straws Isn’t Enough
Another concern I have is that making a mission out of the plastic straw ban and vilifying those who use them might become a way for people who don’t otherwise pay attention to the environment feel like they’re making a difference. If “doing your part” means not using straws, that’s step one, but there’s a long way to go. And you and I and everyone else all bear responsibility for it.

Let’s consider pollution for a moment:

Air: According to the WHO, air pollution kills upwards of 7 million people each year. And 91% of the world’s population live in places where air quality exceeds the WHO’s limits. Industrialization and urbanization, which disproportionately impact people in developing countries, are largely to blame for this. The ways around this are expensive, yes, but it is certainly possible with today’s technology to sustainably build cities. And as the world’s population moves towards cities, we need them to be sustainable if they are to be liveable at all.

Land: Land pollution refers to activities that destroy or degrade the Earth’s surface and soil. This pollution can be more difficult to see or to recognize because the mere act of living in the world requires food and housing, generates waste, and otherwise has a direct or indirect impact on the planet. But awareness about the choices we make, which policies and programs we support, and where our food comes from can go a long way here.

Water: It’s old news that water pollution is increasing. We’ve been bombarded with a lot of pathetic pictures of ocean creatures and plastic, which was the impetus for the straw ban. Over half a billion people rely on polluted water for survival, which many of us don’t realize until we travel to places where you can’t drink the water. As with the above examples, water pollution is avoidable with conscious effort from companies and consumers to properly dispose of waste and reduce use of substances that can run off into water.

Straws? A gateway to solving some problems but not, in and of themselves, a panacea for saving the whales or the turtles. (It’s ironic that somehow we’ve forgotten the most vulnerable people.) And all those companies, restaurants, and cafés no longer purchasing and providing straws? I’d like to know what they are doing to support sustainability projects and programs. Because it’s about more than not using something. We instead have to do something.

Conscious Consumerism
I generally have a lot of optimism about humanity, and I also have a bit of a history of being disappointed. It’s easy to blame circumstances when plans don’t work out, but there are no circumstances here; there are merely people. So if we, the people, become conscious consumers of all things, from food and products to homes, transportation, and even the organizations that govern our work and leisure, we will all be better off.

For the reasons above, I don’t support an outright ban on straws. And if you’ve read this far, I suspect you don’t, either. But if taking something you’re used to out of your life helps you begin to recognize that you can make other choices, too, then the demonization of straws will have done its job. If you can say “no” to the use of a straw, how about yet another napkin with your takeaway? How about walking down the block instead of driving your car? Opting for a hearty salad without chicken? Opening doors and windows to cool your home? Spending an extra few dollars for eco-friendly cleaning products? Donating your clothes and old kitchen supplies? Taking your electronics to a recycling center?

Being a conscious consumer means being aware of what you’re buying and therefore what you support, instead of just doing the easiest, fastest, or cheapest thing. If the old aphorisms are true, that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” and “you get what you pay for”, it seems only logical that we must pay for a better world. Since this is the only world we have, and we’re paying much more dearly, in dollars and in lives, for a contaminated world, the solution seems obvious.

Make conscious choices. Think about what you need and what you don’t and remember that we’re all in this together. You matter in this change – you and your conscious choices.

https://www.economist.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/640-width/images/2012/06/blogs/graphic-detail/20120609_wom915.png
Daily chart, The Economist, June 7, 2012 – https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2012/06/07/a-rubbish-map

Finding Congruence

As the tagline of this blog suggests, I have one primary goal and that is to make the world a better, more peaceful place. Much nonfiction reading (see the end of this post) over the last six months has led me to question how to maximize my personal well-being while also being the best person I can for those around me. Finding a balance between these two goals matters if we aim to improve the world for all of those who inhabit it. I propose that we should consider identity as what makes us human, rather than what makes us individuals. Thinking about it like this, I hope we can better act in ways that benefit others while also remaining honest with ourselves. This post attempts to explain how I’m attempting to find congruence personally and professionally in who I am, what I do, and who I want to be.

Defining Congruence

When I was a child, my parents posited difficult choices as having two possible options: What is right or what is easy. As an adult, I understand that it is not so simple. Choices are far more complex than right or easy. We make choices in terms of what is good for others or ourselves, what will make different stakeholders the most happy, what causes the least amount of harm, and what most aligns with how we see ourselves.

Most importantly, we make the choices that we hope will increase our overall well-being. Doing so should involve consideration of not only ourselves, but also of others so that we are aiming to improve the world as a whole, which will have a positive impact on our own lives.

This is congruence – alignment in how you describe yourself, see yourself, and the actions that you take.

The difficulties, then, are not between right and easy (sometimes the right choice is easy, but not our preference). I see two difficulties here:

  1. In situations where self and other interests clash, how to cultivate an identity that benefits others without compromising ourselves
  2. What to do when there is dissonance between how we see ourselves and the choices we make

Difficulty 1: Developing Identity
There are certainly situations where personal desires do not square with the needs or desires of those around us. Let’s consider the example of a materialist (identity) who steals in order to obtain more and more (action, generally considered “bad” because it harms others and therefore condemned by society). There is clearly congruence here, but do these actions ultimately lead to greater life satisfaction? Research says no, more possessions do not lead to greater happiness. If the materialist is aiming for increased well-being, there are avenues other than acquisition that will be more beneficial.

Identity should reflect not only who you are now, but what you want for the future. If you want to be happy, you are better off taking actions that are empirically proven to increase well-being overall. Congruence that is a result of careful consideration of goals and desires and how to meet them is more likely to increase satisfaction both for oneself and for those around us, particularly by avoiding actions that cause harm.

Difficulty 2: Dissonance Between Self-Image and Choices
Again, there are situations where we are forced to make choices with options that we don’t like. People have a tendency to blame the people who put us in those situations, which really only increases our personal sense of injustice, therefore causing more harm to ourselves than to anyone else.

The better option is to reflect on our chosen identity. If I see myself (or want to see myself) as a supportive friend, for example, I need to make choices that demonstrate my support. I need to attend the lunch at an inconvenient time, host the bridal shower, or make a difficult phone call. My actions need to demonstrate my support, regardless of how satisfied or happy that choice will make me. I may not want to host the bridal shower because it’s expensive and time-consuming, but a supportive friend would host the bridal shower. The satisfaction that I ultimately feel is a result of the congruence created by aligning identity and behavior.

Personal Congruence

When actions and identity do not match, dissonance arises. In some circumstances, being satisfied with dissonance is appropriate and acceptable. Many people pursue hobbies for sheer enjoyment, pleasure, or connection with others and have no desires or hopes to turn those hobbies into professions. Calling yourself a chef because you enjoy cooking for your family might be an example of dissonance, but they are also two aspects of a larger identity in which you care for those around you.

Dissonance becomes a problem, however, when it interferes with or contradicts the development of a desired identity because of actions taken around it. With the larger choices that I’ve made, I’ve chosen to address the dissonance that arises when I recognize that my actions and identity are misaligned.

For purposes of example, a timeline to my vegetarianism:

  • 2008 – Stopped eating red meat (except when my mother made certain dishes for the holidays)
  • 2009 – Stopped eating poultry at restaurants but still enjoyed it at home
  • 2011 – Stopped eating red meat entirely
  • 2012 – Stopped cooking poultry for myself but would eat it if someone else made it
  • 2015 – Stopped eating poultry entirely
  • 2016 – Stopped eating fish from fisheries or farms that are not certified and vetted as sustainable

Why?

First, I realized that I didn’t like meat or poultry very much and reduced consumption as a result. (This is also a good time to disclose that I grew up in and maintain a kosher household, which means food restrictions have always been part of my life.) When I realized that I didn’t miss red meat and hardly touched it during holidays, I eliminated it entirely.

Second, I started reading a lot about what food is, where it comes from, and how culinary practices have evolved over time. Kitchen Literacy and Eating Animals impacted my decisions around poultry and I began thinking a lot about what human omnivorism means for the environment, which humans are depleting, and for animals, which are sentient beings. I grew uncomfortable (this is where dissonance comes in!) as I nodded and agreed with everything Vileisis and Foer said and then cheerfully enjoyed a turkey burger. By the time I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I had recommended both books to other people and largely developed an identity as a most-of-the-time vegetarian whose food choices impacted social outings.

Yet, I slipped back to old habits when avoiding both red meat and poultry grew challenging, particularly when I traveled. If vegetarianism impacted my food choices at home and at the restaurants my friends and I visited, was it important enough to impact my travels? Is there an off-switch for caring about sentient beings and maintaining an environment that can sustain human and animal populations? I didn’t think so.

Ultimately, it was more reading (examples include The Age of Sustainable Development, Altruism, and The Art of Happiness) that made me realize that all of the many actions I’d always taken to practice environmentalism paled in comparison to my eating habits and my status as a very frequent flier, which actually had a much greater impact on the environment. It didn’t make sense (dissonance again!) that, as someone who carried around paper coffee sleeves and plastic water bottles until a recycling bin appeared, I happily participated in decimating the world’s fish population.

Again, there was dissonance in how I described myself (as a vegetarian), saw myself (as an individual conscious of sustainability), and what I did (bought and ate fish with no regard for what the food on my plate meant for the ocean and river ecosystems).

It’s a relatively simple example. Choosing vegetarianism has been such a gradual process for me that it’s not even life changing at this point. What is life changing, however, is that I finally feel that my food choices reflect the person I consider myself to be – someone who cares for our planet and all sentient life.  

That being said, I have not chosen to reduce the flying that I do. I find so much value in the experiences that I have when I travel, and firmly believe that I am a better person for doing so. By committing to vegetarianism, I am approaching care for the planet and for sentient life with a “do what you can” mindset. I’m okay with that for right now.

Professional Congruence

I’ve also been thinking about my identity as an educator. I consider myself a good teacher not because I’m confident in my content and pedagogy (though I am), but because I am constantly learning, innovating, and reflecting. I see learning as a huge part of what makes a good teacher. Similarly, I see a willingness to try as a huge part of what makes a good student. While I do tell that to my students, it’s not always on display in my own life. Teachers (and I am guilty of this, too) sometimes hide behind the tried-and-true. We don’t always like to take chances for fear that a new project, topic, or type of technology will expose what we don’t know. (And yes, sometimes the tried-and-true really is the most effective way.) Yet we expect our students to warm to challenges on a daily basis. We want them to be excited about new ideas and ways of showing their knowledge. We want them to ask questions and seek out answers.

But we don’t always show them that we, the older and more experienced learners among them, do the same.

During the past school year, I made a variety of changes to my teaching that I felt better reflected how I view my role as an educator. It wasn’t enough to tell my students that I believed learning was a vital element of teaching; I had to show them. I had to demonstrate that I was learning with them and from them if I wanted to develop a true community of learners in my classroom.

This is part of my continuous search for congruence between my identity (educator) and the actions (learning) that were crucial to education. I recognized a case of “Do as I say, not as I do” for what it was – dissonance between identity and behavior.

I’ve found it helpful to share with students what I’m reading, whether it’s a book, article, blog, or Facebook post. I’ve told them about research I’ve done to prepare a lesson, and about where I struggled to answer my own questions. I’ve made my learning part of my teaching in a way that students can see it. In doing so, I’m trying to find congruence between identity and action, and it feels increasingly more comfortable.

Conclusion

I no longer think about choices as binaries – what is right vs. what is easy. Instead, choices are about questions: Who do I claim to be? Who do I want to be? What does option X say about who I am? Does option Y better align with my personal goals?

Keeping these questions in mind, particularly about who I want to be, is a helpful guide for how to act when I recognize that my self-proclaimed identity and actions are incongruent. Rather than being angry or frustrated with a challenging situation, it is far more productive to return to the question of identity.

Who do I want to be?

It might be easier for me to have the hamburger or decline to host the bridal shower, but not if I call myself a vegetarian or environmentalist or supportive friend. It’s not about the right choice (after all, eating the hamburger means supporting an industry that employs a lot of people). It’s about seeking congruence between identity and action and recognizing dissonance for what it is – that uncomfortable feeling of misalignment that is no one’s fault. Rather than being frustrated with the options and doing (spitefully and irritably) what is “right”, do what aligns with who you want to be to the extent that it will increase overall well-being.

As Albus Dumbledore rightly points out, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

My goal every day is to be better than I was the day before. Being better, for me, means being able to improve the world around me. Working towards this goal is what gives me the greatest congruence, thus increasing life-satisfaction and therefore overall well-being.

Further Reading

For the curious among you, below is a list of many of the books I’ve read in 2016 that have impacted my thinking, my goals, and my actions. It’s likely not exhaustive and some might actually be from late 2015, but I honestly can’t remember!

Nonfiction
The Age of Sustainable Development – Jeffrey Sachs
Altruism – Matthieu Ricard
The Art of Happiness – Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler
Being Peace – Thich Nhat Hanh
Collapse – Jared Diamond
The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain De Botton
Creating Capabilities – Martha Nussbaum
Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
Doing Good Better – William MacAskill
Inside Coca-Cola – Neville Isdell and David Beasley
On Writing – Stephen King
Peace Education – Nel Noddings
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Fiction
11/22/63 – Stephen King
The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Course of Love – Alain De Botton
The Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
John Dies at the End – David Wong
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks
Rabbit, Run – John Updike
Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn
This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald