Though I shamefully acknowledge that my last post occurred far too long ago (more than an entire week without blogging? C’mon, girl!), I hope to duly justify my absense from the virtual vegan community by recounting the fabulously thought-provoking weekend I experienced with the real-life vegan community at the 2nd annual Ivy League Vegan Conference held at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Focusing on “analysis of the current state of veganism in relationship to specific academic disciplines,” the conference sought to “create an atmosphere of open expression and productive dialogue, where we can examine vegan activism and advocacy with an academic lens and challenge ourselves to do better; to take the next step; to alter our future course(s) of action and scholarship based on the wealth of progressive intellectualism that we shall apply to these issues.” To me, discussing veganism at such a prestigious institution and among an overwhelmingly intelligent group of individuals underscored the legitimacy of the movement—if up-and-coming scholars, renowned philosophers and health experts, and all-around well-educated people have deemed veganism as the lifestyle best suited for a socially aware, logical, fully conscious, and progressive mode of existence, then perhaps mainstream society would do well to question its general view of vegans as uneducated, radical hippies bent on liberating the world’s non-human animal population in order to unleash its fury upon the evils of a capitalism society. Or something like that.
My Elian adventure began on Friday afternoon with a two-hour drive to New Haven, shared with five fellow members of the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition. Arriving on the Yale campus right around dinner time, our group of famished vegan scholastics sought a hearty dose of nourishment, which the conference website suggested we could find in the comforting Ethiopian fare offered at Lalibela. Indeed, the impressive variety of warming, flavorful, and animal-product-free wats, rife with tender veggies and legumes, more than adequately satisfied our travel-induced hunger. Opting to share three two-person combo platters, the six of us sampled almost every dish on the vegan section of the menu. Beginning at 12:00 and progressing clockwise in the top photo, the mouthwatering stews included shuro, a puree of berbere-spiced chickpeas; fosolia, a well-seasoned mix of tender carrots, green beans, and onions; yemisir wat, slow-cooked lentils spiced with berbere; and kosta, a blend of silky spinach and hearty potato chunks. The bottom photo features shuro and fosolia on the top of the plate, while ater kik—meltingly tender yellow split peas—and gomen—collard greens cooked down in a flavorful sauce—sit below them. Unfortunately, Lalibela’s injera—a fermented flatbread that serves as the plates and utensils in Ethiopian cuisine—consists of wheat flour along with the traditional teff, so my gluten-free self happily filled up on the wats, of which the tangy fosolia appealed most to my tastebuds, and left my eager dining compatriates to devour the spongy, crepe-like bread.
Contentedly sated and excited to meet the ivy league vegan community, our VARC group ventured to the house of the Yale Animal Welfare Alliance co-director for a lively gathering of fellow conference-goers. After chatting with a number of iV leaders and vegan activists heavily involved in the animal liberation movement, including an intern for Compassion Over Killing’s law department and none other than Humane League founder Nick Cooney, my soon-exhausted self ventured, along with my fellow VARC-er and dear friend Katie, to the room of two Yale students who graciously volunteered to host us over the weekend. Needless to say, I fell asleep immediately upon contact with my makeshift yoga-mat-and-blanket bed, and dreamed of the bounty of vegan education and cameraderie to ensue on the following day.
Upon awaking and enjoying a premade green smoothie for breakfast on Saturday morning, Katie, myself, and Rachel—a fellow conference attendee sharing the Yale dorm room with us—strolled a short distance to New Haven’s celebrated vegetarian restaurant since 1975, Claire’s Corner Copia. While studying the conference schedule the previous evening, I noticed that Saturday’s lunch would consist of vegan pizza (read: not gluten-free), and opted instead to pick up my midday meal before heading to the conference from the wide array of wholesome salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, and roasted vegetable medleys offered at Claire’s, which MSNBC apparently named one of America’s ten heart-healthiest restaurants.
Rachel, a graduate student studying Gastronomy (aka the coolest master’s degree I’ve ever heard of) at Boston University, united with the VARC-ers during the weekend of the conference and became fast friends with all of us. She’s interned at the California shelter of Farm Sanctuary, shares my ardent frustration with Michael Pollan, and has generously offered me a temporary home in Boston should I decide to visit Beantown in the near future.
The three of us arrived at the conference a bit after Eitan Fischer of the Yale Animal Welfare Alliance and Victor Galli of the Penn Vegan Society (a group boasting one of the most impressive student-organization websites I’ve ever seen) had begun their opening remarks. Victor, who appeared in Joshua Katcher’s article on up-and-coming vegan activists in the premiere issue of Laika Magazine, then introduced the leaders of the rest of the ivy league vegan organizations—Brown Animal Rights Club, Columbia Society for Animal Protection, Cornell Vegan Society, Dartmouth Animal Welfare Group, Harvard Vegan Society, and Princeton Animal Welfare Society.
With the formal introductions complete, the first talk of the conference began. Milton Mills, Director of Preventative Medicine at the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, effectively answered the question “Are Humans Designed to Eat Meat?” with a resounding “no” by comparing the physiology of humans to those of both carnivores and herbivores. Displaying that the body plan of humans parallels that of herbivores far more closely than that of carnivores—based primarily on skeletal composition, jaw structure, and digestive functioning—Dr. Mills shed light on the reasoning behind humans’ tendency to thrive on plant-based diets. He also introduced the interesting notion that carnivores specifically seek diseased animals upon which to prey—since they must expend far less energy to catch these weak creatures than to chase after a sprightly gazelle, for example—while herbivores scout out the healthiest-looking, most colorful foliage since it contains the most nutrients. To me, it seems far more sensible to imitate the herbivores and enjoy the rainbow-hued bounty of delicious plant food than to exploit weak animals and risk contracting their diseases by consuming them. But that’s just my humble opinion (oh, and that of a Stanford-educated MD, but no biggie).
Gidon Eshel, Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies and Physics at Bard College, delivered the final talk of the morning, entitled “The Environmental Effects of Diet.” Through his numerical examination of food production’s impacts on the physical environment, Dr. Eshel touched upon important statistical points of agriculture that cited agricultural development and animal grazing as counting for over 70% of species loss, small-scale agriculture as an extremely inefficient user of geophysical resources (read: grass-fed, pasture-raised meat is not the answer), and plant-based diets as requiring 0.27-0.41 less acres of land than omnivorous diets. While Dr. Eshel passionately instructed the audience to never eat cows due to the beef industry’s astoundingly negative impact on the environment, he concluded that if one must consume animal products, he or she should choose to eat eggs since they cause the least harm to the environment. However, since cows arguably suffer the least and egg-laying hens the most in animal agriculture, I would argue that we should simply ensure the best for both the environment and the treatment of animals by choosing not to partake in either.
After Dr. Eshel’s talk, I and the rest of the conference attendees broke for lunch, during which I enjoyed a scrumptious (yet unfortunately unpictured) salad from Claire’s consisting of baby spinach, mushrooms, red onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, chickpeas, and half of an avocado tossed in a creamy tahini dressing, while my fellow VARC-ers reveled in their glutinous pizza.
Saturday afternoon consisted of three more fascinating discussions on philosophy, animal-related career choices, and ag-gag laws, as well as dinner at Claire’s and the keynote speech from Yale alum and Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle. However, reflecting upon the lengthy post I’ve already scribed and preferring to leave you, dear readers, in suspense, I’ll save the second half of Saturday and the final conference events on Sunday for my next blog entry.
Until next time, Ali.