There's a great story that you may have heard. I was introduced to it years ago, though I'm not sure where and in what context. But it always stuck with me because it speaks to everything I know to be true in this world. If you love it as well, then I'll venture to guess that you won't mind a friendly retelling.
A couple of months ago, in fact, I had been thinking about this particular story and entertaining the idea of writing about it here. A day or two later, Ryan and I were enjoying some fantastic vegan Thai food in Brookline, and I heard a man two tables away from us mention "the starfish story" to his dining companion, asking if she'd heard it. I leaned over, very excited, and said, "I hope you don't mind my butting in, but I LOVE the starfish story! I was just thinking of it the other day!" He smiled generously and asked, "Do you want to tell it?" I laughed, a bit embarrassed, and said I preferred to listen to it told by someone else. So I indeed sat back, eating my green curry with tofu (perfectly done!) as he shared the story with his friend. I had this foolish grin plastered on my face, like some unnameable force had come hovering over our tables in a very My Dinner with Andre way. (If you haven't seen that movie, SEE IT.) One of those funny unforgettable moments in your life where you feel like all the stars lined up somehow.
And while I prefer to hear the story, I'm happy to give telling it a shot. So here goes.
Early one morning, a young girl stood by herself at the shore's edge, where thousands of beautiful starfish had washed up on the beach. They were still alive, but as the tide was going out, they would surely die. Knowing this, the girl began to pick up starfish, one at a time, and throw them as far as her thin coltish arms would allow, back into the churning sea.
In the midst of this activity, a man passed by on his morning run. He noticed the girl and what she was doing and curiously slowed down to watch her throw starfish after starfish into the water. "What are you doing?" he asked in that tentative way that some adults use with children.
She glanced at him and remarked with a light optimistic voice, "I'm throwing them back in the water!"
He smiled at her enthusiasm and asked, "Why are you doing that?"
"'Cause they won't grow up if I don't!" She giggled at his somehow not knowing this obvious fact, and went back to work.
The man glanced up the beach, dotted with thousands of starfish. He hated to see this nice kid disappointed and gently pointed out, "But there are miles of beach and endless starfish. This really isn't going to make a difference."
She listened politely and then bent down to pick up another starfish, throwing it to the sea with its comrades. Looking back at him with a contagious smile, she said with triumph, "I made a difference to that one!"
He laughed, shook his head, and then turned to continue his run down the beach. But then he stopped and looked back at her. Bending down and glancing back at her, he picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea.
Isn't that great?
When I first decided to divorce myself from the ugly world of animal production, I had a couple of well-meaning folks say to me in a kind way, "I can understand why you're doing this and it's nice and all. But your giving up animal products isn't really going to make a dent. The animal agriculture industry's just too big."
Like the little girl, I find that comment almost funny, and yet troubling. There are thousands of animals in shelters who are doomed to be euthanized. Perhaps you brought one or two home and saved them from that fate. Would you say it made no difference? You see the joy in that animal every day. Their quirky wonderful ways.
Of course it makes a difference. It's so self-evident, that it feels silly even talking about it.
Different studies show that, on average, each U.S. citizen eats about 95 land animals per year, which doesn't even take into account marine animals. (And I assume the figure is the same for many other countries.) Will this make a dent in the animal agriculture industries? YES YES YES! Substituting cow's milk for almond milk (or any of the other delicious plant-based milks) will make a big difference to one cow, whose babies continue to be taken from her quite brutally. Using flax seed with water in your muffins instead of eggs will mean fewer male chicks will be ground up alive in a hatchery for egg-laying hens. Everything we do matters.
What's more, when you give up eating animal products, it becomes the topic of discussion with everyone you know, whether you want it to or not. (But who wouldn't want it to?) People are naturally curious and want to talk about it. Which forces everyone to think about it, at least for that particular moment. The number of people who have changed their own eating habits since Ryan and I went vegan either by going vegan or replacing certain meats/dairy/eggs with plant-based fare has astounded me. I've talked to other happy plant-eaters who have had the same experience, so I know it's not unusual.
It makes all the difference.
And isn't that what we all really want? To make a difference in the world? What a truly easy way to do it.
So throw those starfish back in, politely smile at the naysayers and send them your love, and before you know it, you will have plenty of company with you on the beach. And soon, all those doomed starfish will rejoin their brothers and sisters in the water, where they'll get to grow up and do their starfish thing. :)
PS. Here is a recent video making the rounds that shows beached dolphins, rather than starfish, who were brought back to the sea. Sure made a difference to them, didn't it?