the world is not your oyster

"What's the opposite of 'the world is your oyster?'"

I think of this line, from Noah Baumbach's film While We're Young a lot. Usually with respect to what I thought my life would be like (creatively, professionally, etc.) compared to what it's actually like as I settle into middle age. But this scene came to mind again last weekend at the Mindful Eating Film & Food Festival in San Rafael. A fundraiser for Rancho Compasión, the festival is sort of like a vegan Sundance...or at least, aims to be! One day. In the meantime, the third iteration of this event (the first one was in early 2020, then they went virtual during the pandemic, and returned to in-person this year) included a line-up of five feature length documentaries, several short films, guest speakers and panel discussions, and a whole range of vendors providing free samples, vegan meals, and tons of information about living a plant-based life. 

If you know me (and/or read this blog) you'll recall that I began the transition to being vegan early on in the pandemic (having already eliminated beef and pork from my diet years earlier). I've been describing myself as "mostly vegan" since because being 100% vegan is, at times, still aspirational. But many, if not most days I eat a totally vegan diet and have taken a close look at other areas of my life as well (I don't buy anything made with leather, wool, silk, etc.). I participated in Veganuary back in January but relaxed the rules again ever so slightly when the month was over. Attending the festival reinforced my commitment to being vegan and I thought I'd share some of that renewed (com)passion in a recap here.

Filmmakers Jamie Berger and Shawn Bannon with Miyoko Schinner.

The festival began with the west coast green carpet premier of The Smell of Money, which examines the devastating impact of the pork industry on the surrounding community in eastern North Carolina. (Coincidentally, I had just learned about Smithfield Foods a few days earlier when Direct Action Everywhere activists disrupted the SF Giants game at Oracle park; read more about the issues here. Activism works!) 

In addition to yummy vegan food and drinks at the reception preceding the screening, I also met Susan Hargreaves, an activist featured in The Heart Whisperer, one of the short films that screened before each of the feature-length films the next day.

On Sunday, the lineup included four more feature-length documentaries over the course of the day, one of which I'd already seen (The Game Changers, which is streaming on Netflix). I watched the first three films and took in as much of the rest of the festival as I could between films. Up first on Sunday was Elk Water, about the Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Park, effectively being held captive and restricted from accessing natural water sources (which are dwindling due to the ongoing drought here in California) reserved for the dairy ranches on park land. You can get a gist of the issues here and see tons of related videos from producer Skyler Thomas here (I suspect he'll add Elk Water eventually). Stylistically speaking, it wasn't my favorite film, but it was produced as a direct follow-up to The Shame of Point Reyes, (supporting data can be found on the related website here) which kicked off this event back in 2020 (the event took place on the very land at the center of the documentaries!). There was a related panel discussion I was unable to attend because it conflicted with one of the other films.

Loaded tostones from Oakland-based Casa Borinqueña for lunch.

Next up was The End of Medicine, about the relationship between animal agriculture (and our general treatment of animals) and things like pandemics and antibiotic resistance. It's not a good sign when someone says something like, "you think climate change is scary, just wait 'til you hear about x!" Most doctors, and by extension their human patients, are more knowledgeable about overprescribing antibiotics now, but there is effectively no regulation of antibiotic use in animal agriculture, which accounts for at least 70% of all antibiotic use. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill us before climate change does if we don't make some dramatic changes soon.

The final film I watched was Eating Our Way To Extinction, which takes a hard look at our increasingly insatiable appetite for animal meat and the disastrous effect fulfilling this desire is having on our planet (if you think being pescatarian is the solution, this is the film for you). This screening was preceded by 73 Cows, which was probably my favorite short film, about one beef farmer's journey to transitioning to a plant-based farm in the UK (Miyoko's Creamery has a transition program for dairy famers who want to make a similar change).

Have you noticed a theme yet? Are you surprised that it's not necessarily animal welfare? I tell people lately when they ask why I aim to live a vegan lifestyle that I came for the animals, and I stay for all the other reasons. The culprit in all of these films, whether they deal with native species, human communities (disproportionately affecting communities of color and lower-income folks), pandemics, or the planet is animal agriculture. If you think to yourself, sure I could kill a chicken in order to eat it, but you claim to care about any of these other issues, you should be very concerned. As Miyoko Schinner (of Rancho Compasión and Miyoko's Creamery) says in the Unbound Project short that preceded the screening of The End of Medicine, "everyone is a pre-vegan." You can choose to make changes now or you can wait until it's too late to do so in a way that starts to curb some of the downright dystopic effects of slaughtering 80 billion animals each year so that 7.8 billion humans (minus the vegan and vegetarian ones, of course) can continue to eat meat. Because the world is not, in fact, your oyster! As Eating Our Way to Extinction suggests, and a question that came up in the panel discussion that followed the screening, we simply must turn our personal desire into personal responsibility.

I will admit I was apprehensive about attending this event. I had a hard time watching the documentary Eyes without crying (a short film about animal activists, Moby among them, who gather in the middle of the night to greet trucks full of pigs on their way to slaughter, to be witness to and give them some small comfort during their final moments of an otherwise miserable life). But I left the event feeling a guarded mix of energized, empowered, and hopeful. I'm encouraged by the fact that it's easier—and more delicious—than ever to be vegan, and buoyed by statistics like these (according to this, about 10% of American do not eat meat). But I worry, like I do with minimal progress on emissions and other climate-related solutions, that it's happening at a pace far too slow to make enough difference in time to avoid doing irreversible damage (not to mention the billions of animals that will suffer in the meantime). 

But these concerns only underscore my commitment and my desire to share something I'm passionate about in a joyful way (animals are amazing! vegan baking is fun and delicious!). I'm grateful I'm not alone and that there are people with voices much louder than my own behind documentaries like these. The End of Medicine producer and actor Joaquin Phoenix, in his famous 2020 Oscar acceptance speech, points to the commonalities of all these different issues celebrities use their platforms to address (a common theme in all of the festival's documentaries as well...everything is interconnected!). At the end of that speech he quotes his late brother, River, urging us all to "run to the rescue with love and peace will follow." Love and compassion, not just for the animals, but for the farmers and the workers involved in factory farming, the communities directly affected by these practices, and even the proud meat eaters who dismiss the research and data in documentaries like The Game Changers as simply confirmation bias. As the late Tommy Raskin is oft-quoted as having said, "I’m working for a vegan world, not a vegan club." This is an all hands on deck situation, folks, not an exclusive club. You don't have to be perfect to make a difference. You don't have to attend the film festival to see the films (most of them are streaming for free!). The first step is to simply not look away.

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