How a liberal arts education became a recipe for a vegetarian diet

You’ve heard of farm-to-table, but how about classroom-to-plate?

When you sign up for a liberal arts education, they tell you you’ll begin to draw connections between disciplines, but they don’t warn you that these connections may change your diet, your life, and, dare I say, the world.

Somewhere between freshman year burger dates with the boys and senior year salad dates with the gals, I stopped eating meat altogether. My interdisciplinary course load empowered me to challenge the statement, “I could never be vegetarian.” Critical thinking changed my diet, and it could change yours, too. Soon enough, going vegetarian might seem even more appealing than the alternative.

Looking back at the statement, “I could never be vegetarian,” there is a large assumption being made, one I used to take for granted. In my Buddhist Philosophy course, I learned about the concept of anātman, or non-self. Growing up, parents, teachers, and coaches encouraged me to find my true self. Their advice perpetuated the idea that each of us indeed has some intrinsic and unchanging part of our identity. Many Buddhists, in contrast, see the word “I” as only a convenient designator. Clinging too much to the conventional concept of self distorts the ultimate reality that each of us is a constantly changing collection of interdependent processes.

I found it liberating to recognize I was not attached to one identity. I didn’t have to commit to being vegetarian indefinitely in order to give it a try.

As it turns out, shifting my mindset from "meat eater" to "aspiring vegetarian" altered my behavior. Before filling my plate, I hesitated, remembered my agency, and intentionally avoided meat.

Back in the classroom, behavioral economics explained my transformation. Our world is outrageously complex. To cope, our brains rely on shortcuts. Dan Ariely, an expert behavioral economist, observed significant disparities in countries’ levels of organ donation. Upon investigation, individual preference or cultural norms did not explain the phenomenon, but opt-in or opt-out organ donation policies at the DMV did. Defaults determined decisions.

What does this conclusion mean for you? It means if you believe you can never be vegetarian, you probably will not be because your brain has dismissed the possibility. However, if you sincerely consider the viability of all options afforded to you, your diet just might change.

Admittedly, most of Microeconomics went over my head, but marginal decision making was fascinating. In order for a choice to make economic sense, the marginal benefit must equal (or exceed) the marginal cost. Out of curiosity, I began to wonder if I operated this rationally?

At first, I thought the marginal cost of eating a burger was its price as listed, but my Introduction to Sustainability course revealed the detrimental impacts the meat industry has on the rainforest, water supply, and human health, not to mention animal welfare. Aha! A negative externality, or a cost to the economy that is not accounted for in any market.

I used to find it really easy to enjoy a juicy burger. Now, the marginal benefit just did not seem worth the marginal cost of dismissing my liberal arts education.

The innovation offered here is not concrete, but it is powerful. If you have ever found yourself desperate to combat climate change in some small way every day, like I was, here is an answer.

You’re invited to make a difference for yourself and for our planet – just try it. For as long as the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost, you’re vegetarian, starting now.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.