Milk is murder…?

Over the years, I have tried several times to be a vegetarian. The longest I managed was for a year in 2015, which was my way of participating in Fast For The Climate in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit. Ironically, it was while I was in Paris for the start of the summit that I started eating meat again, as I was eating in restaurants and there wasn’t a lot of option. These days, we probably eat meat once or twice a week, and we make sure that it’s organic and as local as possible. But it’s a shoddy compromise.

One of my problems is that I really, really like meat. I was brought up eating meat at least once a day, but usually more than once, and I love it. I still have this feeling that a proper meal consists of meat, mashed potatoes and a vegetable. That’s a deep-seated reason why I have struggled to be vegetarian. Another reason is simply lack of imagination and time. I get home from work tired and really can’t be bothered to think too hard about what to cook for the family supper. I know that I could tackle this by looking through some vegetarian recipes and making a plan, but I don’t do it.

One thing that de-motivates me is that I’m aware that being a vegetarian doesn’t solve the issues that I want it to, in terms of either the environment or animal welfare. I watched a short video last night called ‘Dairy is Scary’. I can’t embed video on this blog, but you can watch it here:  I know it’s sensationalist and that American food standards are often lower than those in Europe, but even so, I was appalled and found myself shaking my head and saying ‘No’ through much of it. The thing is that it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I already knew that, for environmental and welfare reasons, not eating meat is not enough – I should also stop eating milk and cheese. Whereas, in fact, being a vegetarian led me to eating much more cheese than before.

And that leads to another consideration. In a meat-eating culture, giving hospitality to a vegetarian is a nuisance and, in my erstwhile vegetarian experience, hosts often just substitute a slab of meat for a slab of cheese. It’s either that, or you end up eating a lot of Quorn. So – is it better to be gracious in giving and receiving hospitality (and simply living in the company of others) by eating meat or easy substitutes, or should you find a way of sticking to your principles, in humility and grace? Is it better for the environment to eat some chicken that was organically farmed up the road, or some weird stuff that was made in a factory somewhere, wrapped in plastic and driven for miles? What about almonds grown in drought-stricken California? Is it better to eat butter made, in a simple process, from English organic milk and wrapped in paper, or margarine made in a factory from Indonesian palm oil (Palm oil! No!!) and wrapped in a plastic tub? I have wrestled with these kind of questions for several years, but today I feel that the answers come more easily when the mental image is still playing in my head of milked-out exhausted dairy cows being dragged across concrete by a tractor, thrashing their legs as they go to be hung up, still conscious, by those legs while some man eventually gets around to killing them since they’ve given all the lovely milk that they possibly could and are no use to humans any more.

[Pause to shed some tears]

I recently heard someone say, while defending the oil industry against the divestment movement, that for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, clear, easily understood and wrong. My own response is that for every problem that can be made complicated as a way of avoiding change, there is a solution that is simple, right and scary. In this case, how can the solution be other than adopting a vegan diet?

Here are a few thoughts about it…

  • A low-impact, plant-based diet is going to be very different from a meat-based diet. Substitutes like Quorn and margarine are problematic in their own ways, so the answer lies in re-thinking food. It occurs to me that re-thinking food in a dietary culture shaped through animal-exploitation is similar to the challenge of re-thinking the use of fossil-fuels in a culture based on cheap energy. You tend not to notice the culture in which you’re raised – it’s just the way life is – so the values go right to your core and often go unnoticed. Going against the culture means dragging those values into the open, naming them and changing them and the change goes right to the core of who you are. That couldn’t possibly be easy, but when the culture is destructive, a new culture that affirms life will be far better in every way once you transition into it – and holding onto that prospect in hope, disciplined hope, will (hopefully) help the transition.
  • Ethics don’t begin and end with animals. An animal-free diet still presents moral challenges to do with the origins of our food, including impact on soil, water and wildlife, packaging waste, food miles, and emissions and waste from processing.
  • Time is of the essence. I’m thinking of time to think about what to buy and cook, as well as time to prepare food. As I’ve written elsewhere, saving time often costs the earth.
  • No regrets! Rather than thinking about what I’m missing out on, I should focus on what is gained by this change and make it positive rather than reductive. I need to figure this one out, because it just feels reductive, not only in terms of my diet and the food I enjoy, but also reductive in terms of the suffering of farm animals.

I’ll let you know how I get on. It’s not going to be instant, not least because I live and eat with other people. I think that trying to live a morally good life in the modern world is always going to be an exercise in deciding where the compromises are going to fall. But, step by step, I hope to move the compromise nearer to what I believe in.

Is this an issue that you’ve wrestled with? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.





For those of you who like bible studies, I’ve written a new one about the end of the story of Noah. Click on the link here – Noah After The Flood – or use the menu. It’s developed from an older study and explores the darker side of the story and its challenges for these days of extinction and rising seas.

For those of you who don’t like bible studies, I’ll be writing something else soon!



I have been to three events in recent weeks that seemed to me to reflect the sense of loss I’m feeling in this post-Brexit, post-US-election, post-sabbatical world.

The first was a local gathering to show solidarity with the protectors at Standing Rock. I’m against unconventional oil extraction and the infrastructure that makes that oil accessible. If we are to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 Celcius, we need to keep most of the known reserves of oil in the ground, let alone develop new sources. img_20161112_135113There are all sorts of other reasons to oppose pipelines like Dakota Access, carrying tar-sands bitumen thinned down in a cocktail of dangerous solvents across wilderness, under the Missouri, etc. The risks to life from inevitable leaks are just too great. Anyway – about 100 people gathered in Brighton in the rain to express our solidarity, and it was a very moving and spiritual time.

The second event had a similar theme, but closer to home. It was a picnic on Leith Hill, the highest point in southern England, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the proposed site of an exploratory oil drill. Most of the Surrey/Sussex Weald has been carved up for oil and gas extraction licences. Some drills have already gone ahead, but Leith Hill has become a major focus for protest.img_20161203_115909 It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the North Downs countryside, heavily wooded, where vehicle access is along narrow ancient sunken roads with mature trees growing out of steep banks. The thought is that if they can drill for oil here, nowhere is safe. (It would be fracking if the Government hadn’t changed the legal definition of fracking). I grew up not far from here and often came to Leith Hill on walks or cycle rides and so I admit to a sense of sentimental attachment – I don’t want this beautiful woodland and farmland ripped up to make way for concrete pads for heavy industrial equipment or the roads widened and new roads put down for heavy trucks to access the concrete pads. I particularly don’t want that destruction to be for the sake of oil that, if we burn it, will contribute to all this dying anyway, while some rich people get richer as a result.

The third event was more explicitly about loss. November 30th was a day of remembrance for lost species, with events held all over the world to mark and mourn this 6th great extinction event (and the first in human history) in which we are living.img_20161130_185433 In Brighton, we processed through the town with a model of a Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), made in the form of a Chinese dragon. The last Thylacine died in 1937. On the beach, we gathered around the Thylacine. We named some species that have become extinct, and others at risk of extinction. We also named people, plants and animals, for whom we are thankful – including the environmental protectors at Standing Rock and Leith Hill. Then we cremated our Thylacine. It was, again, a very moving and spiritual occasion.

I think I live in a death-denying culture. At many funerals now, people are encouraged not to wear black, and the mood is often one celebrating a life rather than mourning a passing. In some ways, that’s a good thing, but it leaves a great truth unexpressed – that I have lost someone I love deeply, that they are no longer here, that the manner of their passing may have been cruel, painful and undignified and this gaping loss has ripped my world apart. It feels as if acknowledging this is a heresy against the Myth Of Progress that underpins the modern worldview. But, sometimes the darkness needs to be cursed, even if at the same time you light a candle.

I think we need to name and curse the darkness. We need to own up to the loss we feel as the world changes. Grief will come out some way or other and maybe that is one way of explaining, at the wide level of society, the anger that has been expressed in the ballot boxes this year in the UK, USA and elsewhere.

In particular, I think it is important that we name and mourn the evil that is the extinction of so many species of animal and plant. This autumn’s report issued by Zoological Society of London and the World-Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the world has lost 58% of wildlife since 1970. Much of this is attributed to human activity, just as global warming and climate change are. I am angry about the destruction of the rain forest in Borneo, epitomised in the sad faces of orphaned Orang-utans, all for the sake of palm oil. I am angry about the destruction being wrought on earth through pollution, intensive farming and the burning of oil. This is not progress – unless you only look at selective stories of human well-being. Otherwise, it is a bloody mess.

Maybe, if we can find ways of expressing grief for destruction and injustice, and find ways of supporting each other in that grief – not to deepen the vortex but to uncover sources of love and courage between us – some creative, caring action will emerge. I wonder if action that doesn’t emerge from love discovered in the darkness will simply be angry, shallow and ineffective.

One of the things that struck me in all three of the events I’ve described, was a sense of unity, which was sometimes articulated. It echoed in an article by Charles Eisenstein about Standing Rock, in which he essentially said, how you play is what you win. If our protests and our action are expressed in the binary us-and-them terms that have caused the problems in the first place, then further division and destruction will be the result. What I hope for is a world of kindness, grace and peace between all beings. If I try to work towards that in a framework of thinking that sees oil executives or farmers as my enemies, I won’t build peace. I might, just possibly (because the powerful are powerful) win an occasional battle, but I won’t win the peaceful, loving world I long for. War doesn’t make peace. Peace makes peace and love makes love.

It’s all starting to sound sentimental, but then I think of the Christmas story and, despite the best efforts of the cards and carols and nativity plays, there’s little in the life of Christ that was sentimental, from his humble birth to his execution, but there’s so much about love: love in action (non-violent direct action, if you like) that is good news to the poor, that heals division and embodies hope of new life for all the earth.

Animal House

A sad moment yesterday.  While shopping in Brighton with Mrs Mabbsonsea, we noticed that one of my favourite shops, the Animal House, is closing down this weekend.

The Animal House was like going into a zoo.  It was stuffed full of toy animals, plus masks, puppets and other animal-related goodies.  It was a great source of props for children’s talks and services.  Now where will I find a donkey mask to disguise a monkey puppet on Palm Sunday?  I don’t like internet shopping – I like going into a shop and browsing and dealing with a real person at the till.

There’s also nostalgia in my sadness.  My younger son has loved stuffed toy animals since he was a baby, and the Animal House was like Aladin’s Cave to him.  I remember bringing him there on day trips to Brighton when we lived in London.  Even as recently as last summer, we had a good long browse in the shop together and then had a milk shake from Shake-away next door.  Happy days, no longer available.

There’s some moral point lurking here somewhere, I’m sure.  I asked the tiger puppet I bought yesterday at a huge discount if she had any wisdom to share, but she just kept the silence – one reason why stuffed toy animals are such wise, good companions, especially when you’re feeling a bit sad.