I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn isuzu pickup, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.
I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.
I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.
Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?
Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.
Until I was in my early 20s I ate nothing but crap. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket.
When did that start to change?
Well, I met a girl that I ended up getting married to and she was vegetarian, and so I started eating a vegetarian diet. Which is still completely disconnected and completely clueless as to what your eating and where it’s from, it’s just you’re not eating meat. I ate tons of grain, lots of dairy and cheese, even eggs, but just no meat… And that’s where I was at for probably a good eight years, until my early 30s.
But then I met a guy in Tasmania that basically just said “Dude, what are you doing?” and kind of told me in a very blunt manner that my actions did not match my rhetoric in a lot of areas of my life, including my dietary choices. His words were as sensitive as a sledge hammer but I couldn’t refute what he was saying. It was tough… but, like…
A lot of people, when you tell them a truth that goes against their reality, they get pissed off, because their egos can’t handle it, and so they want to dismiss what the person said… but I couldn’t do that in this situation. I was just clueless and when this guy gave me a clue, I couldn’t return to being clueless.
So at that point, I started looking at labels of everything that I was eating. It’s like, ‘whoa okay, so now I’ve got to worry about this and this and this… ‘ and it was a rabbit hole.
The more I learned about what was actually destructive to the environment or my body, the more I had to look for on labels, and after a time I couldn’t actually shop at the supermarket anymore because there was nothing I could eat there in good conscience, and then I started shopping at the food co-ops, and then I ended up as a two-year freegan – freeganism.
And I thought: ‘that’s my way out of guilt– my way of absolving my guilt from staying alive and eating food, is just eating food that’s getting thrown out.’ So I spent probably a good year and a half in Hobart, eating nothing but discarded food from restaurants and from market stall owners. I got to know all of them by name, and they would just save me whatever they had left over, and I actually had a rounds, so I never actually had to go to the dumpster, I just intercepted food destined for landfill.
What were you doing at the time?
I had quit my job working for the state government as an auditor/prosecutor for chemical spraying operations in Tasmania and had become a full-time environmental activist, because when I started going down this rabbit hole and learning more about peak oil and climate change I was like, ‘oh God!’ Here I was, just a couple years ago being completely clueless, and then this guy told me this stuff, and now I have the responsibility of the world on my shoulders, to tell everybody what I know, and I just thought at the time that it was literally a lack of awareness by people, and that if people like me would just get out and talk enough that it would all be okay, but I had no idea that it wasn’t a lack of information, it was just a lack of willingness to change. So that’s what I was doing, was just going around and speaking to school groups, speaking at different engagements… I was going to the state government of Tasmania and doing lobbying for energy policy reform, studying energy policy really really heavily, reading everything I could about climate change and human behavior, trying to figure out a way to engage with people that would allow them to absorb what I had to tell them. We all know how that works, but yeah, that’s what I did for a year and a half.