The term “Level 5 Vegan” is widely used in vegan circles and originates from the Lisa Simpson character. Lisa became a vegan during an episode starring Paul McCartney titled, “Lisa the Vegetarian”. As a condition of his appearing on the show, McCartney insisted that the writers agree to keep Lisa vegetarian for the duration of the series’ run. As a result, Lisa Simpson is now the world’s only eight-year old who has been vegan for fifteen years and counting.
Several seasons after the McCartney episode, the Level 5 Vegan term was introduced in an episode titled, “Lisa The Tree Hugger.” A Level 5 Vegan was defined as someone who never eats anything that casts a shadow. While this definition is nonsensical the Level 5 term as it’s used today is a mostly tongue-in-cheek reference to someone who refuses to make any compromises at all in their vegan lifestyle.
It’s easy to be a Level 5 Vegan if you’re a cartoon character but in the real world the concept of being the world’s most consistent vegan breaks down under the first bit of careful thinking.
The Level 5 Vegan concept is probably best understood as a parody of anyone who sincerely believes that the future of the meat industry hinges upon whether vegans can, through unrelenting zeal and willpower, eradicate every last iota of animal products from their diets and lifestyles.
The fundamental problem with this point of view is that it fails to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns. That is, the overwhelming majority of slaughter and animal cruelty in our lives can be wiped out with just a few simple changes. But getting at the very last bits of animal exploitation becomes increasingly difficult once you’ve addressed the biggest and most substantial areas.
Broadly speaking the numbers probably break down to something like this: dropping all meat, fish, and battery eggs from your diet probably decreases your animal cruelty and slaughter footprint by at least 80 percent. Moving from there to cut out all dairy and egg products probably removes 97% of all exploitation compared to what’s generated by a typical omnivore. From there, it’s still relatively easy and important to go further, but it’ll involve significantly more effort per animal protected since now you’ve got to go through the hassle of avoiding leather shoes, boots, car seats, and jackets—and you’ll also need to avoid wool, silk, and down. Do all these things and your life is probably now 99 percent cruelty-free, and we still haven’t gotten to cosmetics and personal care items. Once again,it’s quite possible to choose only vegan cosmetics and personal care items, but there’s some extra hassle and generally a lot of added expense. But once you abstain from these products you’re probably about 99.5 percent vegan.
For all practical purposes, you might credibly joke that you’re a Level 5 Vegan. It’s at this point where the law of diminishing returns pushes the pursuit of vegan perfectionism into madness. Simply put, the number of things we come into contact with every day makes it impossible to vet every last item for pure unadulterated vegan-ness. Your bike tires may be made from vulcanized rubber or your airline tickets might mean sitting in leather seats or the sugar eaten by the yeast in your bread might have been passed through bone char. There’s just an endless litany of choices you could conceivably make that might be potentially traceable to animal exploitation of some kind.
That said, worrying about the rubber in your bike tires amounts to narcissistic naval-gazing in a world where 50 billion farm animals a year are getting their throats cut. So maybe think of things in these terms: once you’ve banished 97 percent of the animals products from your life, feel free to go further if it’s easy and the thought of coming into contact with these traces of exploitation repels you. But recognize that the animals don’t measurably benefit from Level 5 Vegans—whereas they absolutely depend on the existence of effective animal advocates who know how to scale up their efforts to create the greatest possible difference.
Being a Level 5 Vegan is great so long as you recognize that there’s not a whole lot of difference to animals between being a super-strict vegan and being a chegan. The only way to make a massive impact on animal suffering is to go beyond your own diet and lifestyle choices, and to take aim at animal agribusiness in the largest possible way. A vegan world will come about, not through the existence of Level 5 Vegans, but from lots of otherwise ordinary people who’ve committed to becoming animal millionaires.