To Eat or Not to Eat Meat

Striking at the Root of Global Warming!
  • Satinder DhimanEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter explores the vital role each individual can play to improve the state of the planet. It focuses on understanding the economics, ethics, and spirituality of a meat-based vs. plant-based diet – something that concerns everyone and something over which everyone has complete choice and control. It offers a unique perspective that all food is essentially vegetarian (see Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.2: Open image in new window Food comes from vegetation), although one can have a meal that is nonvegetarian. This chapter explores three main reasons to turn to a plant-based diet: health, sustainability, and compassion. It offers a perspective that switching to a plant-based diet or reducing the meat and dairy intake represents one of the most effective solutions to global warming. The uniqueness of this approach lies in its humanity and its locus of control: It depends upon each one of us.

Many spiritual traditions recommend a plant-based diet based on moral and compassionate grounds. Nonviolence, ahiṁsā, is the basis for the vegetarianism within Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism though it goes well beyond just being vegetarian. The universal value of harmlessness is a core virtue derived from the Vedic injunction “mā hiṁsyāt sarvabhūtāniOpen image in new window – do no harm to living creatures.


Conscious Consumption Ethics of plant-based diet Sustainable food systems Ecological cost of food Global warming Health hazards of meat-based diet 


When nourishment is pure, reflection and higher understanding becomes pure. When reflection and higher understanding are pure, memory becomes steady. When memory becomes steady, there is release from all the knots of the heart.1

This chapter explores the vital role each individual can play to improve the state of the planet. It focuses on understanding the economics, ethics, and spirituality of a meat-based vs. plant-based diet – something that concerns everyone and something over which everyone has complete choice and control. It offers a unique perspective that all food is essentially vegetarian,2 although one can have a meal that is nonvegetarian. This chapter explores three main reasons to turn to a plant-based diet: health, sustainability, and compassion. It offers a perspective that switching to a plant-based diet or reducing the meat and dairy intake represents one of the most effective solutions to global warming. The uniqueness of this approach lies in its humanity and its locus of control: It depends upon each one of us.

The environmental and health risks of industrially produced red meat are well-documented. Research shows that eating red and processed meat increase the risk of cancer and heart disease and that a single individual by simply not consuming meat prevents the equivalent of 1.5 tons CO2 emissions in a year. There is also some evidence that an increase in industrially produced beef correlated with a decline in shareholder returns (Stashwick 2016). Since no living being ever wants to get hurt, the value of harmlessness or its positive form, compassion, is naturally recognized. Many spiritual traditions recommend a plant-based diet based on moral and compassionate grounds. Nonviolence, ahiṁsā , is the basis for the vegetarianism within Jainism , Hinduism, and Buddhism though it goes well beyond just being vegetarian. The universal value of harmlessness is a core virtue derived from the Vedic injunction “mā hiṁsyāt sarvabhūtāniOpen image in new window – do no harm to living creatures.

This chapter answers the vital question: What can we all do to make our planet more sustainable?

As a point of departure, let’s consider the following alarming statistics:
  • Every year in the USA, more than 27 billion animals are slaughtered for food. Raising animals on factory farms is cruel and ecologically devastating.3

  • By switching to a vegetarian diet, you can save more than 100 animals a year from this misery.4

  • According to the United Nations, a global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change.5

  • Producing 1 cal from animal protein requires 11 times as much fossil fuel input – releasing 11 times as much carbon dioxide – as does producing 1 cal from plant protein.6

  • Of all the agricultural land in the USA, 80% is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them – that’s almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states! On top of that, nearly half of all the water used in the USA goes to raising animals for food (Ibid.).

  • Using land to grow crops for animals is vastly inefficient. It takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based (vegan) diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals. According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, it takes up to 10 lb of grain to produce just 1 lb of meat, and in the United States alone, 56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres are producing plants for humans to eat.7

  • More than 90% of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock. In addition, one of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybeans used for animal feed. (The soybeans used in most veggie burger, tofu, and soy milk products sold in the United States are grown right here in the U.S.) (Ibid.)

  • Farming and raising livestock take up 40% of the world’s land, use 70% of freshwater, and are responsible for 30% of the greenhouse gases pumping into the atmosphere. If every American skipped meat and cheese just 1 day every week, they would cause carbon emissions to decrease by 40 million metric tons, the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road for a year (Cassidy and Van Hoesen 2015).

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that animal agriculture is the single largest source of methane emissions in the USA. A staggering 51% or more of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute (Goodland and Anhang 2009).

  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, and animal farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Runoffs of animal waste, pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics are contributing to dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reef, and health problems (also see Foer 2009, p. 174).

  • The US food production system uses about 50% of the total US land area, 80% of the freshwater, and 17% of the fossil energy used in the country. The production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than ten times the fossil fuel input as a calorie of plant protein (Pimentel and Pimentel 2003).

  • NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) estimates that if Americans ate just one less quarter-pound of beef a week, it would be like taking ten million cars off the road for 1 year! (Stashwick 2016).

In the following sections, we will examine the case for plant vs. meat-based diet as one of the most effective resolutions to global warming . The uniqueness of this approach lies in its humanity and its locus of control: It depends upon each one of us. Whenever there is choice, a free will, it becomes a human problem. Hunger is not a human problem. Thirst is not a human problem. Humans have no choice over these natural desires. But we have full choice over what we eat. We can exercise our free will, if we chose to and want to.

From observing the animal behavior, we infer that they have no choice over what they eat. Their behavior is instinctually programmed and directed. A cow has no choice over being a vegetarian just as a lion has no choice over being a meat-eater. No one blames a lion for being violent and glorifies a cow for being kind and compassionate. They are just following their instinctual nature. And these animals face no moral dilemma since they have no freedom of choice. One cannot appeal to lions and tigers to consider plant-based diet. As humans, we have a choice – to eat or not to eat meat. How we exercise our choice is up to us.

To Eat or Not to Eat Meat: Addressing Global Warming!

It just takes just one second to decide to stop. The main reason not to eat meat and fish is to spare others’ life. This is not an extreme perspective. This is a most reasonable and compassionate point of view. (Ricard 2016a, b)

Matthieu Ricard, French writer and Buddhist monk, in his latest book, A Plea for the Animals, provides compelling scientific and moral reasoning for treating all of the animals with whom we share this planet with respect and compassion. He avers that compassion toward all beings, including our fellow animals, is a moral obligation and the direction toward which any enlightened society must aspire. Eating meat reveals another selfishness in terms of other fellow human beings. Rich countries consume the most meat: about 200 kl per year per inhabitant in the USA, compared to about 3 kl in India (Ibid.). The more the GDP of a country increases, usually so does the amount of meat consumption. While the health evidence and sustainability logic is strongly in favor of meatless diet, however, “the main reason to stop eating animals is to spare others’ life.” Today, 150 billion land animals and 1.5 trillion sea animals are killed for our consumption. We treat them like rats and vermin and cockroaches to be eliminated. This would be called genocide or dehumanization if they were human beings (Ibid.). In a recent post on his blog, Ricard shares even more disturbing statistics:

Humans kill six million land animals and 120 million sea animals every hour for their so-called “needs.” That is a lot of animals and a lot killing. In fact, in one week, that makes more killing than all the deaths in all the wars in human history. (Ricard 2017a)

Ricard further notes that “it is estimated that annually 2.5 million dogs and thousands of cats are brutally slaughtered and eaten in South Korea and, throughout Asia, this figure increased to over 30 million.” Then he makes an important point that we should treat all animals alike, i.e., with utmost compassion:

Of course, it is not dogs alone that suffer from our cruelty. Compassion should know no boundaries. Calling for an end to barbarian treatment of dogs, baby seals, and whales does not mean that it is fine to tolerate the mass killing of pigs, cows, and chicken. (Ibid.)

At its barest minimum, what role can each individual play to improve the state of the planet? First and foremost, one can resolve to be well-informed on this issue. To be aware of the extent and veracity of the problem. It is essential to be accurately informed so as to avoid inveterate cluelessness that is rampant in some business circles. Ricard cites a strange statement about the rising level of the oceans by the American magnate Stephen Forbes, who declared on Fox News: “To change what we do because something is going to happen in one hundred years is, I would say, profoundly weird….What matters is we sell our meat” (Ricard 2017b). One wonders what could be more bizarre than a statement like this from the head of the largest meat company in the United States?

Ricard rightly diagnoses the malady by stating that short-termism and self-centeredness lie at the root of the problem: “Selfishness is at the heart of most of the problems we face today: the growing gap between rich and poor, the attitude of “everybody for himself,” which is only increasing, and indifference about the generations to come.” What panacea does he offer? It is just this: “Altruism is this thread that will allow us naturally to connect the three scales of time – short, middle and long term – by reconciling their demands. We must have the perspicacity to acknowledge this and the audacity to say it” (Ibid.). If there is a single inhumane cause that cuts across most human issues in depth and scale, it is perhaps violence – in its overt and covert forms. If there is one value that holds the keys to most problems that humanity is heir to, it is perhaps compassion. The Buddha was right. And so was Gandhi.

A single individual by simply not consuming meat prevents the equivalent of 1.5 tons CO2 emissions in a year (Ricard 2016a). In a 2006 UN Report entitled, Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options, Steinfeld H et al. note, “Livestock production is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all human activities, measured in CO2 equivalent” (Steinfeld et al. 2006). According to this report, raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Nitrous oxide and methane emissions from animal manure, methane emissions from the animals’ digestion, and nitrous oxide emissions from mineral fertilizer used to grow feed crops for farmed animals make up the majority of this 18%. The livestock sector is responsible for the following proportions of global anthropogenic emissions of the main greenhouse gases:
  • Thirty-seven percent of total methane (CH4)

  • Sixty-five percent nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions

  • Nine percent of methane (CO2) emissions (Ibid.)

“The released methane,” the UN Report notes, “has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2” (Ibid.). How can we resolve this alarming situation? What role can each individual play in ameliorating this problem? All that we have to do is avoid eating meat. In the absence of demand for meat, there is no more need for breeding millions of animals for daily slaughter. The reversal of global warming becomes a certainty.

Herein lies the power of this strategy. It depends entirely upon us. By changing our eating habits, we can make this planet more sustainable.

Sustainable Diet: Animal vs. Plant Based?

In their groundbreaking book Population, Resources, Environment, Stanford Professors Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich state that the amount of water used to produce 1 lb of meat ranges from 2,500 to as much as 6,000 gallons (also see Robbins 2012). Let’s say you take a shower every day…and your showers average 7 min…and the flow rate through your shower head is 2 gal per minute…. You would use, at that rate, [5,110] gallons of water to shower every day for a year. When you compare that figure, [5,110] gallons of water, to the amount the Water Education Foundation calculates is used in the production of every pound of California beef (2,464 gal), you realize something extraordinary.

In California today, you may save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you would by not showering for 6 entire months (Robbins 2010, p. 231). According to the U.S. Department of Commerce , Census of Agriculture, “While 56 million acres of U.S. land are producing hay for livestock, only 4 million acres are producing vegetables for human consumption.”

One of the cardinal principles of sustainability is that, in the name of progress, we should not upset the setup carelessly. At its most fundamental level, that entails paying attention to what we eat since our bodies are “food bodies” and we are what we eat. Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage of twentieth century, used to say that of all the yogic rules and regulations, the best one is taking of sāttvic foods in moderate quantities. This view is consistent with that expressed in the Bhagavad Gītā, and indeed most of the sacred literature of India. According to the Bhagavad Gītā (17.8), sāttvic foods are those foods which nourish the body and purify the mind:
  • Foods that contribute to longevity, purify one’s mind, and provide strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction. Such foods are sweet, juicy, fatty, and palatable. On the other hand, the Gītā (17.9–10) continues, foods which are too bitter, sour, salty, pungent, dry, and hot can lead to pain, distress, and disease of the body.

What is the moral basis of a vegetarian diet? It is the understanding that no living being wants to get hurt or to die. Our self is the dearest of all to us. Love of self comes as a natural endowment that has its roots perhaps in the instinct of self-preservation. An important verse in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad states that we do not love our husband, wife, son, or any other being for their sake, but for our own sake: “It is not for the sake of all, my dear, that all is loved, but for one’s own sake that it is loved.”8 However, in our bid to push our self-interest, we often tend to forget the simple fact that, likewise, everyone’s self is also most dear to them.

Is there also a metaphysical basis of a vegetarian diet? Metaphysically speaking, all life is one. There is single essential reality that pervades the entire universe and enlivens all beings. According to the Hindu Vedic tradition, all creatures form limbs of a single, all-pervading divine being. To benefit any one limb is to benefit the divine being, and to harm any is to harm the integrity of the divine being. Therefore, every one of our actions should be performed for the welfare of all beings. All the great spiritual traditions of India, drawing upon this root idea, dictate that a spiritual aspirant must abstain as much as possible from causing any harm to any living being. However, at the same time, it is recognized that life inherently involves harm of some form or another .

High Cost of Raising Livestock

The current industrialized and corporate-led system is doomed to fail. We need a radical overhaul of food and farming if we want to feed a growing world population without destroying the planet. 9

~Magda Stoczkiewicz Director, Friends of the Earth Europe

Raising livestock for meat comes at a very high cost to the environment. Climate-impacting emissions are produced not just by the animals’ digestive systems but also by the fertilizers and manure used to produce feed and the deforestation taking place to provide grazing lands. To add insult to injury, livestock animals consume large amounts of water, agricultural, and land resources that could be deployed to support a higher quality of life for humans.

It is now a well-known fact that compared with vegetables and grains, animal farming requires much more land, water, and energy. From the water and grain needed to feed livestock to the emissions created by huge herds of cattle, farming animals has an enormous negative impact on the environment. Desertification, soil erosion, contaminated groundwater, and greenhouse gas emissions are just a few of the effects caused by raising animals for food (INFOGRAPHIC 2016).

The True Environmental Cost of Eating Meat

The current industrialized and corporate-led system is doomed to fail. We need a radical overhaul of food and farming if we want to feed a growing world population without destroying the planet. (Chemnitz and Becheva 2014)

Research shows that meat and dairy are hiking our carbon footprint (Thean 2011). According to energy expert Jamais Cascio, you can indirectly put up to 1,340 g of greenhouse gas when you order that burger for lunch (Ibid.). And “if a four-person family skips steak 1 day a week [for a year], it’s like taking a car off the road for almost 3 months.”10 Of all the agricultural land in the USA, 80% is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them – that’s almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states! On top of that, nearly half of all the water used in the USA goes to raising animals for food.11 According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization:
  • Globally, we consume 308.2 million ton of meat a year.

  • Thirty percent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock production.

  • Twenty-six percent of land is used for animal grazing.

  • Thirty-three percent arable land is used for feed crop production.12

Researchers have found that the total supply of crop being fed to animals could feed at least four billion people instead. Meat and dairy production are extremely water intensive. A single cow used for milk can drink up to 50 gal of water per day – or twice that amount in hot weather – and it takes 683 gal of water to produce just 1 gal of milk. It takes more than 2,400 gal of water to produce 1 lb of beef, while producing 1 lb of tofu only requires 244 gal of water. By going vegan, one person can save approximately 219,000 gal of water a year.13

Partnering with CleanMetrics , the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has conducted a meat lifecycle assessment of 20 popular types of meat (including fish), dairy, and vegetable proteins. Capturing the environmental impacts of meat production at each stage of the supply chain, this assessment provides the full “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm, from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking and, finally, disposal of unused food.14 Many of the EWG’s findings are quite eye-opening – like some revealing facts about beef, which produces twice the emissions of pork, four times as much as chicken, and 13 times that of vegetable protein such as beans, lentils, and tofu. That’s especially alarming since we waste so much meat – ultimately throwing away about 20% of what we produce – meaning that all that carbon was generated for nothing (see Thean 2011).

Examining about 50 years of data for 100 of the world’s more populous nations to analyze global dietary trends and their drivers, University of Minnesota Professor of Ecology G. David Tilman and graduate student Michael Clark illustrate how “ruminant meats (beef and lamb) have emissions per gram of protein that are about 250 times those of legumes” (David Tilman and Clark 2014). Professor Tilman, the lead author of the study, clarifies: “This is the first time this data has been put together to show these links are real and strong and not just the mutterings of food lovers and environmental advocates.”

In the study, published in the online edition of Nature, these researchers write:

Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. By 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80% increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing.

Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other chronic noncommunicable diseases that lower global life expectancies. (Tilman and Clark 2014)

The researchers indicate that the solution to what the ecologists call the “diet-environment-health trilemma” will require choosing plant-based, whole foods diets: “there would be no net increase in food production emissions if by 2050 the global diet had become the average of the Mediterranean, pescetarian and vegetarian diets” (Ibid.). Additionally, this research revealed that the “same dietary changes can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage” (Smith 2014).

In a 2014 research report by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy institute based in London, Rob Bailey, Antony Froggatt, and Laura Wellesley provide a comprehensive overview of high environmental cost of raising livestock. They also review the findings of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) over last 10 years. Their research indicates that livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains, and ships combined:

Livestock production is the largest global source of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) – two particularly potent GHGs….The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined….Emissions from livestock, largely from burping cows and sheep and their manure, currently make up almost 15% of global emissions. Beef and dairy alone make up 65% of all livestock emissions. Average global estimates suggest that, per unit of protein, GHG emissions from beef production are around 150 times those of soy products, by volume. (Bailey et al. 2014)

According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), our diets and, specifically, the meat in them cause more greenhouse gases methane (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and the like to spew into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry. The FAO report found that current production levels of meat contribute between 14% and 22% of the 36 billion tons of “CO2-equivalent” greenhouse gases the world produces every year (Fiala 2009).

Although experts have known the heavy impact on the environment of meat production but recent research shows a new scale and scope of impact, particularly for beef. The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water, and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases, with one expert saying that eating less red meat would be a better way for people to cut carbon emissions than giving up their cars (Carrington 2014). According to Professor Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, “The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat” (Ibid.).

In this regard, Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends the following to reduce climatic and environmental impacts: Make meatless and cheese-less Mondays part of your life15; on at least two other days, make meat a side dish, not a main course. Eat “greener” meat when you do eat it…. When you buy less meat overall, you can afford healthier, greener meat. Eat more plants: Good, low-impact protein foods include grains, legumes, nuts, and tofu. Choose organic when possible. Waste less meat: Buy right-size portions and eat what you buy. On average, uneaten meat accounts for more than 20 % of meat’s greenhouse gas emissions! Eat lower-fat dairy products. Choose organic when possible. Finally, EWG recommends to speak up – ask your representatives to change policies, such as:
  • Strengthening regulation of concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFOs) to prevent pollution and unnecessary use of antibiotics and hormones

  • Cutting taxpayer subsidies for animal feed and funding programs that support pasture-raised livestock and diversified, organic crop production

  • Strengthening conservation requirements on farms that collect subsidies

  • Serving less meat and more fresh fruits and vegetable in school lunch programs

  • Enacting comprehensive energy and climate policies16

Which Diet Is Best Suited for Humans?

Which diet is most suitable for humans – meat-based diet or plant-based diet? While most humans are clearly “behavioral” omnivores, the question still remains as to whether humans are anatomically suited for a diet that includes animal as well as plant foods. One important argument in favor of a vegetarian diet is based on the idea that human anatomy and physiology is best suited to a plant-based diet (see Messina and Messina 1996, p. 16). If you just look at human physiology and compare to other herbivores , we are undoubtedly herbivorous, and we are best suited to eat a whole-food plant-based diet. Our intestine to trunk length (shoulder to butt) ratio matches to other herbivores at about ten to one.17

A.D. Andrews in his book, Fit Food for Men, presents the following information comparing meat-eaters, herbivores, and humans18:




Have claws

Have no claws

Have no claws

Have no skin pores and perspire through the tongue

Perspire through skin pores

Perspire through skin pores

Have sharp front teeth for tearing, with no flat molar teeth for grinding

No sharp front teeth, but flat rear molars for grinding

No sharp front teeth, but flat rear molars for grinding

Have intestinal tract that is only 3 times their body length so that rapidly decaying meat can pass through quickly

Have intestinal tract 10–12 times their body length

Have intestinal tract 10–12 times their body length

Have strong hydrochloric acid in stomach to digest meat

Have stomach acid that is 20 times weaker than that of a meat-eater

Have stomach acid that is 20 times weaker than that of a meat-eater

Salivary glands in mouth not needed to predigest grains and fruits

Well-developed salivary glands which are necessary to predigest grains and fruits

Well-developed salivary glands which are necessary to predigest grains and fruits

Have acid saliva with no enzyme ptyalin to predigest grains

Have alkaline saliva with ptyalin to predigest grains

Have alkaline saliva with ptyalin to predigest grains

In his perceptive essay,19 “The Comparative Anatomy of Eating,” Milton Mills notes that “observation” is not the best technique to use when trying to identify the most “natural” diet for humans. Mills suggests that a better and more objective technique is to look at human anatomy and physiology. Humans are vegetarian by design. Our flat teeth are perfect for grinding grains and vegetables, not for tearing apart animal flesh. Similarly, our hands are designed for gathering, not for flesh-tearing. Our saliva contains the enzyme alpha-amylase, the sole purpose of which is to digest the complex carbohydrates in plant foods. (This enzyme is not found in the saliva of carnivores.) Basically, we have all the right apparatus to consume vegetarian products, and none of the right apparatus for flesh foods. After a detailed comparative analysis of the oral cavity, stomach, small intestines, and colon structure of carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores, Mills, on balance, states that:

In conclusion, we see that human beings have the gastrointestinal tract structure of a “committed” herbivore. Humankind does not show the mixed structural features one expects and finds in anatomical omnivores such as bears and raccoons. Thus, from comparing the gastrointestinal tract of humans to that of carnivores, herbivores and omnivores we must conclude that humankind's GI tract is designed for a purely plant-food diet. (Ibid.)

One of the arguments frequently advanced by meat-eaters to explain their food choices is that meat gives the body strength, builds muscle, and so on. However, the evidence proves otherwise. For example, Dave Scott, a U.S. triathlete and the first six-time Ironman Triathlon Hawaii Champion, followed a strict vegetarian diet during his entire training period.20 Another great example of the power of a vegetarian diet is Hawaii legend Ruth E. Heidrich. Ruth not only overcame the cancer, she went on to become an award-winning, record-breaking triathlete (see Heidrich 2000). Ruth has run six Ironman triathlons, over 100 triathlons, and 66 marathons and won more than 900 trophies and medals since her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1982 at the age of 47!

Likewise, many gorgeous creatures of the animal kingdom explode this myth that meat begets strength, muscle, or size.21 Some of the big, beautiful, strong, and powerful animals are herbivorous such as elephants, rhinos, hippos, horses, and yaks. They do not seem to have any protein deficiency either.

Plant-Based Diet: A Healthier, Sustainable Course for Future

For millennia, large segments of the world’s population thrived on diets with little or no meat. In the past century, however, the concept of eating meat as the paramount source of protein has become deeply engrained in the psyche and culture of Western countries and now pervades many other cultures and nations….This nutritional paradigm has changed in the past few decades as data now support that most plant-based diets are healthier than meat-based diets and yield greater longevity and lower chronic diseases among those who consume vegetarian diets. Furthermore, there is growing evidence linking meat consumption, in particular red meat and processed meat, with detrimental health outcomes. From a strict health perspective, there is no need to consume meat. (Sabaté and Soret 2004)

In the past, meatless diets have been advocated on the basis of religious, ethical, or philosophical values, not science. It is only in the past 150 years that empirical evidence has yielded dietary recommendations. The world’s demographic explosion and the increase in the appetite for animal foods render the food system unsustainable. Plant-based diets in comparison to meat-based diets are more sustainable because they use substantially less natural resources and are less taxing on the environment. Changing course will require extreme downward shifts in meat and dairy consumption by large segments of the world population.

According to Joan Sabaté and Sam Soret, a sustainable diet has been defined as “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (Ibid.). After combing through a large body of evidence on meat vs. plant-based diet and the changing world demographics, the authors conclude that reverting to plant-based diets worldwide seems to be a reasonable alternative for a sustainable future:

“Going back” to plant-based diets worldwide seems to be a reasonable alternative for a sustainable future. Policies in favor of the global adoption of plant-based diets will simultaneously optimize the food supply, health, environmental, and social justice outcomes for the world’s population. Implementing such nutrition policy is perhaps one of the most rational and moral paths for a sustainable future of the human race and other living creatures of the biosphere that we share. (Ibid.)

How a Plant-Based Diet Could Save the Planet

There is a mounting body of research that shows that a plant-based diet could save the planet, besides saving millions of lives and dollars. Recently, a group of researchers at Oxford University published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, comparing the future effects of three different dietary scenarios out to the year 2050. This study provides a comparative analysis of the health and climate change benefits of global dietary changes for all major world regions. According to the lead author of the study, “There is huge potential from a health perspective, an environmental perspective and an economic perspective, really” (Worland 2016).

Transitioning toward more plant-based diets that are in line with standard dietary guidelines could reduce global mortality by 6–10 % and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29–70 % compared with a reference scenario in 2050. We find that the monetized value of the improvements in health would be comparable with, or exceed, the value of the environmental benefits although the exact valuation method used considerably affects the estimated amounts. Overall, we estimate the economic benefits of improving diets to be 1–31 trillion US dollars, which is equivalent to 0.4–13 % of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050. Changing diets may be more effective than technological mitigation options for avoiding climate change and may be essential to avoid negative environmental impacts such as major agricultural expansion and global warming of more than 2 °C while ensuring access to safe and affordable food for an increasing global population (Springmanna et al. 2016).

Leo Tolstoy: Vegetarianism and Deep Compassion

As long as there are slaughter houses there will always be battlefields. ~Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), perhaps the greatest of Russian novelists, championed vegetarianism and animal rights. He advocated vegetarianism as one of the first steps toward a good life and self-restraint. After his conversion to vegetarianism, Tolstoy lived simply on bread, porridge, fruit, and vegetables. Tolstoy’s main reason for becoming vegetarian was his conviction that eating flesh is “simply immoral as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to moral feeling – killing; and is called forth only by greediness and the desire for tasty food” (Tolstoy 1909). Tolstoy believed that “deeply seated in the human heart is the injunction not to take life” and that “Vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism.” He averred that eating flesh is not necessary, but is only a luxury.

It is believed that one of the experiences that made Tolstoy such a confirmed vegetarian and supporter of animal rights was a visit he paid to a slaughterhouse in the early 1890s. He records his experience in The First Step, which he wrote as a preface to Howard Williams’ The Ethics of Diet.22 Tolstoy regarded the choice of vegetarianism as the first step toward virtue: If a man’s aspirations towards a righteous life are serious…if he earnestly and sincerely seeks a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from animal food, because, not to mention the excitement of the passions produced by such food, it is plainly immoral, as it requires an act contrary to moral feeling, i. e., killing – and is called forth only by greed. (Ibid.)

Leo Tolstoy is one of the first widely known vegetarians. Though a meat-eater in his early life, by the time he turned 50, he decided that it was immoral for someone to kill on his behalf just so he could enjoy a piece of meat for lunch. Although his lovely wife, Sofia, herself never became a vegetarian, she considerately used to cook delicious and nutritious vegetarian dishes for her husband.23 We are told that Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sofia once invited one of her relatives to dinner who was a nonvegetarian. Tolstoy wanted to have only vegetarian dishes for the dinner. At his wife’s insistence, and in consideration of their guest’s preference, he relented and offered a creative solution. A live rooster was brought and tied to the chair of the guest, with sharp knifes placed next to guest’s plate. The idea was that if the guest really wanted to eat meat, she can cut the rooster and they will then cook it for her. When the guest arrived and saw this, she was shocked and could not even conceive of doing something so cruel. And the family did not have to go through the ordeal of cooking meat! One of the strange realities of the industrial farming is that the meat-eaters do not get to see the stark and ruthless process that the animals have to go through. The modern consumer remains blissfully ignorant of what goes behind the closed walls of slaughter houses.

There are at least three main reasons for anyone to turn to a plant-based diet: health, sustainability, and compassion. Research shows that eating red and processed meat increase the risk of cancer and heart disease (Rocheleau 2015). Says Dr. Neal D. Barnard: “The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of ‘real food for real people’ you’d better live real close to a real good hospital.”24 Dr. Greger, who runs the popular website and serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, says that “there is only one diet that has ever been proven to reverse heart disease on majority basis is plant-based diet.”25 However, shifting to a meatless diet for health reasons alone may not give our resolve its stick-to-itiveness that only a deep compassion can.

Our Habits Are Not Us

We are all creatures of habits. And we are told that habits die very hard. Take the word “habit” itself, for example. If we remove “h,” “a-bit” remains, and if we remove “a,” “bit” remains. And finally, if we remove “b,” “it” still remains! And the reason we are not able to see the truth in “it” is because of the crooked, lower case “i.” In other words, our little pride (small “i”) prevents us from seeing the big truth of our habits.

In any change efforts, therefore, it is important to remember that our habits are not us. Our habits are the by-products of the tradition we are born in and the sociocultural milieu we grow up in. And separating ourselves from our habits is the first step in growing out of them or overcoming them.

The second factor in overcoming some of our unwholesome habits is to be aware of what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” It is very hard to agree with the truth that disagrees with us; it is even harder to disagree with the untruth that agrees with us. To understand this, is to guard against our confirmation bias. Generally, the path we take in the formation of our habits is not informed by much logic or research. Once formed, we keep defending our habits impulsively, blissfully oblivious of our confirmation bias. Confirmation bias ensures that when reason is against us, we turn against reason. We do not like to end up on the side of being wrong, given our emotional investment in our habits. Confirmation bias also dictates the sources of our search for facts; it determines the information we select from those sources, its interpretation, and the conclusions we draw from the selected evidence. Once we become aware of the operation of our confirmation bias, we begin to become free from it noose.

Our eating habit is also just that, a habit. Mindful of our confirmation bias and armed with more research and awareness, we can make conscious choices about our food – choices that are good for us, good for the environment, and good for countless innocent creatures that get killed mercilessly every day for the sheer gratification of our taste buds. Real change is tough and, of course, seeing our defenses is easier than changing them. We need both engaged humility and patience to see through and overcome our pet habits and beliefs.

The Ethics of Eating: A Case for Vegetarianism

Lama Tsering Gyaltsen, when asked what the one thing is we could do to further our spiritual path, said, “Eat less meat or give it up all together. It would reduce the amount of suffering in the world and would create a healthier body, mind, spirit.26

Many people are attracted to vegetarianism primarily for health and ethical reasons. There are at least three main reasons for anyone to turn to a plant-based diet: health, sustainability, and compassion. Let’s take the health reasons first, for they furnish the most natural motivation. Research shows that eating red and processed meat increase the risk of cancer and heart disease (Rocheleau 2015). A recent report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research has indicated that bacon, ham, and sausages rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer, placing cured and processed meats in the same category as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic, and tobacco (Boseley 2015; also see Wu 2014). Processed meat refers to meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or undergone other processes to enhance flavor or to improve preservation, according to the WHO. However, shifting to a meatless diet for health reasons alone may not give our resolve its stick-to-itiveness that only a deep compassion can.

Our dignity as humans should lie in protecting those who are weaker than us. Those who have more power ought to be more kind to those who are weak. All spiritual traditions teach us not to do to others what we don’t want to be done to us. The compassionate basis of a vegetarian diet lies in the understanding that no living being wants to get hurt or to die, thus making harmlessness a universal value. Our self is the dearest of all to us. Love of self comes as a natural endowment, instinctually rooted self-preservation. This awareness can help foster “live and let live” way of life.

In today’s factory farming system, animals have no legal protection from cruelty, which would be illegal if it were inflicted on our pets. Yet farmed animals are no less intelligent or capable of feeling pain than are the dogs and cats that we cherish as companions. Moreover, this cruelty to animals is not environmentally sustainable. In chapter two, we have seen that raising livestock for meat comes at a very high cost to the environment. In fact, recent research indicates that livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains, and ships combined (Bailey et al. 2014). Let’s be careful not to upset the very setup carelessly, in the name of progress.

Throughout the history, many great thinkers have recognized the salutary effect of a vegetarian diet on human temperament. For example, we have Einstein’s testimony:

Although I have been prevented by outward circumstances from observing a strictly vegetarian diet, I have long been an adherent to the cause in principle. Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind. (Calaprice 2005, p. 281)

Alan Watts, a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience, when asked why he was a vegetarian, famously quipped: “I am a vegetarian because cows scream louder than carrots.”27 Life feeds on life, Alan Watts knew very well. But he was awakened to the deeper truth of existence – that all killing involves pain! And one should minimize the pain, as much as possible. To the list of great thinkers and immortals of pen who became vegetarian for reasons of morality, we can add such luminaries as Pythagoras, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Leo Tolstoy, Nikola Tesla, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, George Bernard Shaw, John Rawls, and Franz Kafka.

Dave Scott is a U.S. triathlete and the first six-time Ironman Triathlon Hawaii Champion (1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1987) (Watson 2015). During peak training times, his highly regimented routine included cycling 75 miles, swimming 5000 m, and running up to 20 miles every single day. Widely considered to be one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world, an Ironman Triathlon format consists of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run, raced in that order and without a break within a strict time limit of 17 h. It is reported that in his bid for super-discipline, Dave Scott took his training regimen a few notches higher and used to rinse his cottage cheese with water to get extra fat off. What is even more remarkable is that, while training for triathlons, Dave Scott followed a strict vegetarian diet .28

Another great example of the power of a vegetarian diet is Hawaii legend Ruth E. Heidrich. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she switched to a completely vegan diet. With a strenuous exercise routine, a vegan diet, and an affirming mental outlook, Ruth not only overcame the cancer, she went on to become an award-winning, record-breaking triathlete (see Heidrich 2000; see also Heidrich 2013). Ruth has run six Ironman triathlons, over 100 triathlons, and 66 marathons. In 1999, she was named by Living Fit magazine as one of the ten fittest women in America. She still actively competes in marathons and triathlons, having won more than 900 trophies and medals since her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1982 at the age of 47.

Among the preeminent medical doctors who follow plant-based diet are Drs. McDougall, Michael Greger, Thomas Campbell, Neal Barnard, and Dr. Elmsworth.

There Are Alternatives

“Going vegan might save millions of humans, trillions of dollars, and maybe planet Earth,” declare Drs. Thomas Campbell and Erin Campbell in their highly readable article, Top 10 Plant-Based Research and News Stories of 2016. They cite a study done by a group of researchers at Oxford University comparing the future effects of three different dietary scenarios out to the year 2050 in terms of their effects on global human mortality, greenhouse gas emissions, and economic value of health and environmental benefits. The three dietary patterns were (1) a moderate pattern following dietary guidelines, (2) vegetarian, and (3) vegan.

Although global adoption of any of the three dietary scenarios would be beneficial, the more plant-based the diet, the greater the benefit, notes the study. Drawing upon the Oxford Study, Dr. Campbell and Campbell further provide the following revealing statistics:

Global adoption of a vegan diet was projected to avoid 8.1 million deaths per year and reduce mortality by 10% for all causes by 2050. Vegan diets were projected to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% of those predicted in 2050. A vegan diet was projected to save $1067 billion USD per year in health-related costs (3.3% of the predicted global GDP) and $570 billion USD per year due to avoided environmental harm.29

In 2014, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany, and Friends of the Earth Europe, Brussels, and Belgium, jointly produced Meat Atlas: Facts and figures about the animals we eat. Atlas invites you to take a trip around the world. This report provides “insights into the global connections made when we eat meat.” It rightly avers that “only informed, critical consumers can make the right decisions and demand the political changes needed.” It represents one of the most balanced documents which highlights the problem of irresponsible livestock production and suggests positive, insightful policy level solutions, and alternatives.

Notes Barbara Unmüßig President, Heinrich Böll Foundation:

In many countries, consumers are fed up with being deluded by the agribusiness. Instead of using public money to subsidize factory farms – as in the United States and European Union –, consumers want reasonable policies that promote ecologically, socially and ethically sound livestock production.30

The Meat Atlas presents the following lessons to learn about meat and the world:
  1. 1.

    Diet is not just a private matter: Each meal has very real effects on the lives of people around the world, on the environment, biodiversity, and the climate that are not taken into account when tucking into a piece of meat.

  2. 2.

    Water, forests, land use, climate, and biodiversity: The environment could easily be protected by eating less meat, produced in a different way.

  3. 3.

    The middle classes around the world eat too much meat: Not only in America and Europe but increasingly in China, India, and other emerging countries as well.

  4. 4.

    High meat consumption leads to industrialized agriculture: A few international corporations benefit and further expand their market power.

  5. 5.

    Consumption is rising mainly because city dwellers are eating more meat. Population growth plays a minor role.

  6. 6.

    Compared to other agricultural sectors, poultry production has the strongest international links, is most dominated by large producers, and has the highest growth rates. Small-scale producers, the poultry, and the environment suffer.

  7. 7.

    Intensively produced meat is not healthy – through the use of antibiotics and hormones, as well as the overuse of agrochemicals in feed production.

  8. 8.

    Urban and small-scale rural livestock can make an important contribution to poverty reduction, gender equality, and a healthy diet – not only in developing countries.

  9. 9.

    Eating meat does not have to damage the climate and the environment. On the contrary, the appropriate use of agricultural land by animals may even have environmental benefits.

  10. 10.

    Alternatives exist. Many existing initiatives and certification schemes show what a different type of meat production might look like – one that respects environmental and health considerations provides appropriate conditions for animals.

  11. 11.

    Change is possible. Some say that meat consumption patterns cannot be changed. But a whole movement of people is now eating less meat or no meat at all. To them it is not a sacrifice; it is part of healthy living and a modern lifestyle (Ibid., pp. 8–9).


These lessons are full of engaged hope and provide essential alternatives to unsustainable factory farming. Their analysis is insightful and balanced and the solutions offered are eminently doable. Yes, alternatives exit and change is possible. It is our future and the choice is ours too.

Compasssion: Our Best Gift to the Universe

When a scholar named Chou Yu was cooking some eel to eat, he noticed that one of the eels bending in its body such that its head and tail were still in the boiling point liquid, but its body arched upward above the soup. It did not fall completely in until finally dying. Chou Yu found the occurrence a strange one, pulled out the eel, and cut it open. He found thousands of eggs inside. The eel had arched its belly out of the hot soup to protect its offspring. He cried at the sight, sighed with emotion, and swore never to eat eel. 31

As is clear from the foregoing, plant-based diet is good for us and good for our planet. The health hazards of eating meat and the high environmental costs of a meat-based diet are very well documented in the current scholarly and popular literature on health and nutrition. In the final reckoning, however, the decision to shift to a plant-based diet hinges on compassion. It depends upon understanding and honoring the principle of live and let live. Many spiritual traditions recommend plant-based diet based on moral and compassionate grounds. Nonviolence, ahiṁsā , is the basis for the vegetarianism within Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism though it goes well beyond just being vegetarian. This core principle is derived from the Vedic injunctions mā hiṁsyāt sarvabhutani (do no harm to living creatures) or hiṁsām na kuryāt (do not cause injury). This recommendation is also repeated in the Upaniṣads, the Hindu books of wisdom. A commitment to a nonviolent way of life emanates from the profound understanding of the moral and metaphysical basis of life. It is only when one is able to perceive and “realize one’s self in the Self of all” can one become nonviolent in the truest sense. The Christian dictum of “love thy enemy as thyself” − because our self is dearest to us − the practice of loving all, including our enemies, as “ourselves,” pivots on the realizing the fundamental oneness of all life.

It is true that what we eat is largely governed by our personal beliefs and choices. These choices, being habit-driven, are not always easy to change, even if one is willing. The spirit is willing, says the Bible, but the flesh is weak. Observation and reflection make it clear that as human beings we are not the most rational creatures when it comes to forming our beliefs and making our choices. If life were rational, nobody would choose to smoke. For some, the decision to become vegetarian happens instantly. They read some study on the risks of eating meat or watch documentary footage of a factory farm, and meat is off their menu for good. For others, the decision may come in fits and starts.

It is an inevitable principle of life that life feeds on life. Our responsibility is to minimize it. As a Vedic verse puts it, “Life lives by living off another life” (jīvo jīvena jīvati). It is true that vegetarians, too, cause harm by killing plants or using animals to plough the fields, so inadvertently harming other beings in the process of raising crops. However, this seems minimal compared to the routine cruelty that is involved in raising, transporting, and slaughtering animals for food. For want of a nervous system, the plants cannot feel the pain, but the animals can. Like us, these animals can feel the pain and do not wish to be physically hurt or killed.

It is true that no one in reality can have a completely harmless existence. But that does not mean that we should abandon the core value of harmlessness. We must minimize the harm we cause to other creatures as far as possible. The Buddha said, “All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill or cause another to kill” (Acharya Buddharahhita 1985, p. 43). Clearly no one is arguing that Eskimos and others who have no other means of sustenance should adopt a vegetarian diet. However, abstaining from eating meat is possible for nearly all of us, given the choices that the modern life accords. This is the minimum all of us can do.

Concluding Thoughts

According to one estimate, 150 billion marine and land animals are slaughtered every year worldwide by the meat, dairy, egg, and fish industries with cruelty that has no parallel anywhere, not even within the animal kingdom itself. At this rate, the entire human population of the world will be wiped out in less than 20 days! Again, 150 billion animals are ruthlessly killed every year for a sandwich and human greed and gluttony!32 How can we claim to be the “crown of creation?” Perhaps, “bane of creation” is more like it. If one realizes the terror of the situation, living just by the “golden rule” alone – the ethical compass most people use to gauge right from the wrong – meat will be off the table for good. All this suffering and misery is preventable. We can all change what we eat, if we want to. The choice, as always, is ours!

Of course, we cannot appeal to the tigers and lions in the jungle to become vegetarians.

Carnivorous animals are programmed as such by nature. This is not the case with the humans.

Gary Yourofsky, an American animal rights activist and a vegan superstar, is succinct:

If you put a live bunny rabbit and an apple in the crib of a 2-year-old, let me know when the child eats the bunny rabbit and plays with the apple. We are purely herbivorous. We have no carnivorous or omnivorous instincts whatsoever. And physiologically if your jaw moves from side to side in grinding motion when you chew, you are hundred percent herbivorous. If you were a meat eater like lion, your jaw will only go up and down, rip and swallow, then you are a carnivorous. If you sweat through your pores to cool yourself, you are herbivorous.33

Besides, animals do not have the awareness to choose differently based on what is right and what is wrong. As humans, we have choices and can certainly choose to become vegetarian/vegan as a healthy decision both for ourselves and for the environment. We can also choose to become vegetarian/vegan out of love, kindness, and compassion. By way of spiritual rationale of vegetarian diet, we present the following excerpt based on author’s meeting with a contemporary sage, Muni Narayana Prasad:

Can a Self-Realized person be non-vegetarian?


A Self-Realized person realizes that the same Truth is in everyone and sees his or her own very self in others. Therefore, s/he cannot harm others, since that will be harming one’s own self. Hence, the value of non-harming, ahiṃsā.


So, it cannot be otherwise?


Yes! It is so.34

Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.2, an important wisdom text, says that all food is vegetarian.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a contemporary Vedānta teacher-scholar and a vociferous advocate of vegetarian diet, used to aver that though one may have a nonvegetarian meal, food comes from vegetation and can therefore be vegetarian alone.35 He maintains that vegetarianism is an expression of nonviolence, ahiṁsā (Swami Dayananda 2007, p. 41), and that plant-based food is the rational/ethical choice for human diet (Ibid., p. 44). Every biologist will agree that the primal food chain starts with plants. The reason why the Taittirīya Upaniṣad says food means plants is because only plants have the ability to make their own food through the process of photosynthesis using sunlight to make sugars from methane (C02) and water (H20). A principal difference between plants and animals is the plant’s ability to manufacture its own food. All animals either eat plants or eat those animals that eat plants; they have the ability to only digest food and not manufacture food. Therefore, food means plant-based food only.36 As we have seen in the foregoing pages, plant food is good for us, good for the planet, and good for all beings.

I remember an incident from my childhood when I fell very sick. My uncle took me to a nearby doctor. The doctor examined me and said to my uncle, “The child looks very week due to protracted fever. Give him some fish curry to eat. It is good for him.” I do not know what possessed me at the time, I could not resist saying, “But, doctor, it is not good for the fish!” Once this author heard a sage explain, “I can live without fish. Why bother fish?” Exactly! Why bother the poor fish or a chicken or a cow. Of course, one can find a thousand reasons to rationalize and continue doing what we are doing in terms of one’s eating habits. It has been observed that “when the reason is against man, man turns against reason.” Choosing not to cause the suffering of other living creatures for the satisfaction of our taste buds and appetites is the minimal expression of compassion we all can offer. It is good for us and it good for the environment too. This indeed is one thing we all can do to make our planet more sustainable.

Any change at a personal or social level requires commitment, hard work, and patience. Sometimes we feel disheartened in wake of the enormity of the undertaking. We feel overwhelmed. We start entertaining thoughts such as “what difference does it make? I am just one person.” The following story37 illustrates that when we choose to follow the right course of action, it does make a difference.

You Can Make a Difference

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” said the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”



  1. 1.

    Adi Śaṅkara, the pre-eminent commentator of Indian wisdom texts, Upaniṣads , in his commentary to Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7.26.2 states: Open image in new window

    See Swāmī Swāhānanda (1996), pp. 546–547.

  2. 2.

    See Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.2 Open image in new window : Food comes from vegetation.

  3. 3.
  4. 4.
  5. 5.

    See Lesser consumption of animal products is necessary to save the world from the worst impacts of climate change. Retrieved June 3, 2017,

    According to UN Environment report, “World must urgently up action to cut a further 25% from predicted 2030 emissions.”

  6. 6.

    See Climate Change and Animal Agriculture, Explained. Retrieved June 5, 2017,

  7. 7.

    See Meat and the Environment. Retrieved June 6, 2017,

  8. 8.

    na vā are sarvasya kāmāya sarvam priyam bhavati, ātmanastu kāmāya sarvam priyam bhavati: Swāmī Mādhavānanda (2008, pp. 246–247).

  9. 9.

    Cited in MEAT ATLAS (2014, p. 7).

  10. 10.

    See Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change +Health: Lifecycle Assessments: Methodology & Results. Environmental Working Group. Retrieved July 29, 2017,

  11. 11.

    Climate Change and Animal Agriculture, Explained. PETA/Features. Retrieved July 2, 2017,

  12. 12.

    According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

  13. 13.

    Meat and the Environment. PETA/ISSUES/ANIMALS USED FOR FOOD. Retrieved July 2, 2017,

  14. 14.

    For details, see

    Also see A comparative Life Cycle Assessment of plant-based foods and meat foods: Assessing the environmental benefits of plant-based dietary choices through: a comparison of meal choices, and a comparison of meat products and MorningStar Farms® veggie products. Prepared for Morning Star Farms by Quantis. Retrieved July 23, 2017,

  15. 15.

    The Meat Free Mondays movement has gained momentum and has now been established in 29 countries around the world. See: MEAT ATLAS (2014, p. 58).

  16. 16.
  17. 17.

    See Mic, the Vegan, My ‘Humans are Herbivores’ Video Was Debunked.

  18. 18.

    Based on a chart by A.D. Andrews (1970).

  19. 19.

    See Milton R. Mills, The Comparative Anatomy of Eating. Retrieved October 21, 2015,

  20. 20.

    See Dave Scott (triathlete) entry in Wikipedia. Retrieved January 24, 2017,

  21. 21.

    Top 10 Vegan Animals. Retrieved on June 20, 2017,

  22. 22.

    It was originally written, in Russian, as the Preface to the Russian translation of The Ethics of Diet by Howard Williams, first published 1883, Russian version from 1892.

  23. 23.

    This recipes are now available in a book form: S. Pavlenko (2016).

  24. 24.

    Cited in Tallman (2015, p. 19).

  25. 25.

    VEGAN 2016 – The Film [PART 1] Retrieved November 17: (see also Greger 2015). In this informative book, Dr. Greger describes which foods to eat to prevent the leading causes of disease-related death and shows how a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes might even save your life.

  26. 26.

    Lama Tsering Gyaltsen , speaking at the Omni Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology, Fayetteville, March 2, 2017. Source: Judi Neal, Personal Communication, March 25, 2017

  27. 27.
  28. 28.

    See Dave Scott (triathlete) entry in Wikipedia. Retrieved March 28, 2017,

  29. 29.

    Thomas Campbell and Erin Campbell, Top 10 Plant-Based Research and News Stories of 2016, New Letter published by T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. Retrieved July 24, 2017,

  30. 30.

    Cited in MEAT ATLAS (2014, p. 6).

  31. 31.

    Record of Protecting Life. Retrieved March 21, 2017,

  32. 32.

    Gary Yourofsky, Best Speech You Will Ever Hear (Updated). YouTube video retrieved March 25, 2017,

  33. 33.

    Gary Yourofsky, Vegan Activist destroys Ignorant Reporter. YouTube video retrieved on March 25, 2017,

  34. 34.

    Meetings with Remarkable People: Muni Narayana Prasad. Unpublished Interview Transcript: December 22, 2015

  35. 35.

    Swami Tattvabodhananda narrates the following explanation in this regard:

    “In this context, I would like to share what Tattvavidanandaji told us this morning in the Taittirīya Upanishad class where the mantra “Open image in new window ” came up for discussion. He acknowledged the objection that people raise about plants too having life and dismissed it saying that though plants too have life, the objection is misplaced. This is because, Open image in new window is explained by our Rishis as “Open image in new window :” ‘That whose life ends with its giving its respective ripened fruit.’ A paddy crop, for example, dies after it gives us the rice grains. The crop is over after it gives its fruit, which in this case is rice grains. So is the case with wheat and most of the vegetables. Take tomatoes, or sugar cane or even bananas, for example. That is why farmers have to start afresh every year. Therefore, we are not killing to eat, but only eating that whose life is already over.” Retrieved June 3, 2017,

  36. 36.

    See the discussion on vegetarianism:

  37. 37.

    Originally written by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977), the story has appeared widely over the Web. This version was prepared by Catherine Ludgate on November 21, 2006.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BusinessWoodbury UniversityBurbankUSA

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