Of Connections and Complicity

As I wrestled with the decision to become vegan, I kept asking myself would there be greater ethical and environmental fallout from continuing to drink cow milk knowing even at the nicest small farm the cows are forced to breed annually, get separated from their calves immediately, and the male calves end up as beef—or drinking almond milk, shipped in non-recyclable cartons from California. Of course I admitted to myself three and a half years ago, I could live without consuming any form of milk, dairy or otherwise, but I wasn’t ready to do that yet. I opted to go vegan because I just didn’t want animals to suffer at my expense, at least in terms of what I eat.

The first great irony to throw a stick in my little vegan wheel came with palm oil. Once I realized vast swaths of gorilla habitat have been destroyed to accommodate huge palm oil plantations, I had to phone the nice folks who make Earth Balance vegan buttery sticks to ask about the source of their palm oil. While I know many vegans favor coconut oil for cooking and baking, the cost deterred me so I bought the line from Earth Balance that they source their palm oil as sustainably as possible. Nonetheless, I remained chastened and fully aware that even though, according to some estimates, I have spared 900-1000 cows and pigs and even more chickens over the 37 year span of my vegetarianism, animals have still suffered here and there. As Barbara Kingsolver pointed out in one of her books, ground-dwelling animals don’t fare well when land is cleared for soybean fields.

But now, with the the drought in California and the recent coverage about the enormous toll almonds take on water, I face once again the same ethical and environmental dilemma. Yes, I make my own almond milk weekly and store it in a glass bottle but if every almond really does take a gallon of water to produce, my ethics are in big trouble. On Thursday’s edition of the public radio program, Fresh Air, host Terry Gross interviewed journalist Mark Arax about the drought. He told her,

it is true that the almond uses about 10 percent of the developed water in California. There are a million acres of nuts now. … So the almond farmer’s going to tell you that I’m using my ground for something that’s very profitable. It’s a very efficient deliverer of protein. And if you look at it that way, it has a much better water footprint than beef or soybeans or certainly alfalfa.

For a nanosecond I felt less despicable for the quart of almond milk I make weekly but then it got worse, much worse. Arax recounted

the story of the Black Okies… African-Americans who, during that Great Migration, decided not to go to the big industrial cities and decided, coming west, not to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Oakland. They really cared about the rural lifestyle… so they migrated from the rural South and Southwest to rural California, the middle of California.… And they lived in these little alkali spots – salty spots of the valley – locked out of the cities by racism. …they had created something. They had rebuilt their shacks. I mean, these were shacks that looked like they’d been lifted out of the Mississippi Delta, 1930s. And some still lived in the shacks. Others built and rebuilt houses. And they watched as this farming got closer and closer. And in this community of Fairmead, one of the African-American settlements out here in California, these big almonds guys, looking for more land, more profit, started coming right across the street. And the one family that I profiled, the wife was literally looking outside across the street at this new almond orchard going in. And the [almond] farmer was testing his pump that day. And the pump was probably a thousand feet deep into the ground. And their little pump that was pumping the water for their house and five acres probably reached 250 feet into the ground. And as soon as he tested that well, everything went dry in the house – the kitchen sink, the bathroom, the toilet – all, alas, burble. And it’s been dry ever since – a year. And now they’re hauling water and setting up these kinds of contraptions, not unlike the contraptions they had set up a half a century ago when they first came.

I eliminated dairy and eggs and their derivatives from my diet to avoid exploiting animals but I sure as hell don’t find it a fair trade-off to exploit African American farmers trying to scratch a living out of arid earth. I can tell myself the wells have been dug and whether or not I ever imbibe another sip of almond milk the damage is done but hearing this story weighs heavily. Switching to soy milk carries its own challenges since soybeans soak up California water as well. Sure, I buy only organic soymilk and creamer, praying it is responsibly sourced and my tofu comes from an organic soybean farmer in Vermont. Rice, flax, and coconut milk just don’t make for a yummy mocha, though I certainly don’t need to drink that either.

Meanwhile, as I churn about what to do, I hear another report on NPR (Sunday Weekend Edition) with this horrifying story.

At his most prosperous, William Bakeshisha presided over a 30-acre farmstead in central Uganda’s lush Mubende district. He obtained the land, he says, through a now defunct government program for families of World War II veterans. He named it Paradise and spent 14 years there cultivating coffee and bananas for market and so much more for his family.…Bakeshisha, speaking through an interpreter, is standing under a canopy of eucalyptus trees, a commercial plantation that now covers his land. His farm had provided food and the money for the school fees for 18 children in his extended family. But in 2003, Uganda intensified restrictions on the use of its wooded reserves. Bakeshisha was told that he and everyone in the area were now squatters on national forest land.…Ten years ago, the national forest authority licensed thousands of acres of forest land to the British-based New Forests Company. With funding from the World Bank Group and others, the company planned to make timber products, including utility poles intended to deliver electricity to unserved parts of the country. Tens of thousands of people were ordered to vacate. Many refused to leave, and finally, in 2010, the forest authorities sent in armed agents.…Residents claim that soldiers burned down houses and crops, beat people and butchered livestock.

Preserving the forest to grow timber while dislocating subsistence farmers sounds as oxymoronic as becoming a vegan to spare domesticated animals only to impoverish small farmers destroyed by commercial almond growers’ deeper pockets and wells. Why is it humans so often exploit? Sure, every specie consumes another: hawks eat rodents and smaller birds; big fish eat little fish, even gentle deer can mow through a garden—but who among the other species digs a thousand foot well or clears the forest dwellers so that they can cut down the trees?

I realize my fretting, even agonizing over this does nothing to reduce the damage. I hope though, that grappling with the result of my choices, at least evinces an effort not to comply with what often feels like the unavoidable vortex of exploitation humankind has wrought. At the Passover Seder I hosted, we removed drops of sparkling cider from our cups as we named contemporary plagues, a gesture intended to acknowledge our plentitude and comfort come at a cost. And so the ritual will continue with every glass of almond milk I drink (and every dollop of vegan buttery goodness I spread). Alas, such symbolism feels woefully insufficient, especially in the wake of news this week from Baltimore.

Incessant coverage of looting and disruption distracts us from the far greater structural violence that plagues the city, the nation and really, the world. The milk in the glass and the glass in the streets implore us to notice, to live the questions, and try, even as it feels futile, to brave the answers. And so each day we begin again.