Conscious Living

Last Saturday morning, vegans and vegetarians from across the city converged on Ida Noyes for Earthsave Chicago’s Conference for Conscious Living, “a daylong celebration of animal advocacy, health, and sustainability.” Few of them looked undernourished, but they were probably drawn as much by the veg-friendly vendors as by the illustrious lineup of speakers scheduled throughout the day. From the famous Chicago Diner to Chicago Soy Dairy’s justly-named Temptation ice cream, the variety of dining options ensured that a lack of meat would not cause anyone to go hungry. Another perk was the free goodie bag attendees received when they registered, filled with animal-friendly products ranging from probably tasty (organic tea) to possibly dangerous (faux-beef jerky called “Primal Stick”). Alongside the vendors were nonprofits like Mercy for Animals, Forest Ethics, the Chicago Raw Food Community, and the Dennis Kucinich campaign, each eager to hand out literature and share its earnest ambition to better the world. This particular crowd was unusually receptive, perhaps past the point of needing to be swayed.

First to take the stage was the cattle-rancher-turned-vegan-activist Harold Lyman, whose humorous account of his conversion and subsequent vegan evangelism elicited laughter even at the early hour of 9am. Also known as the “Mad Cowboy,” Lyman was a defendant alongside Oprah in the notorious trial for defamation of the beef industry. He closed his talk on an ominous note, comparing our environmental woes to those of Easter Island and warning that if we failed to control our consumption, “this could be the end of the human race.”

Next, Mia McDonald’s informative Powerpoint presentation did little to assuage any fears Lyman raised. As director of the think tank Brighter Green and a fellow of the Worldwatch Institute, she has studied the causes and effects of factory farming on developing countries, whose production and consumption of meat is steadily rising. Like Lyman, she pointed out that animal agriculture is a top releaser of greenhouse gases and absorber of water resources and, on an industrial scale, a threat to public health and indigenous culture. She argued that broader discussions and alliances are necessary so that Americans, “having already created a fast food nation, don’t create a fast food world.”

The following speaker also used Powerpoint, though his argument seemed far less substantial. Dr. Milton Mills contended that humans are naturally herbivores, who took up meat-eating only when they migrated to temperate climates. Using our aversion to raw and decaying flesh as evidence of our true nature, he maintained that the cooking and seasoning of meat is no more than an attempt to make it taste like plants. There were several snarky audience questions (“I assume you think war is an anomaly?”) before Josh Balk of the Humane Society began his presentation with obligatory adorable photos of puppies and kittens. He explained that, according to egg and pork producers themselves, activists are winning the ongoing battle against the consumption of meat “piece by piece”–or, more accurately, bite by bite.