Agnostic Carnivores and Global Warming: Why Enviros Go After Coal and Not Cows
There’s not a single person who’s done more to fight climate change than Bill McKibben. Through thoughtful books, ubiquitous magazine contributions, and, most notably, the founding of 350.org (an international non-profit dedicated to fighting global warming), McKibben has committed his life to saving the planet. For all the passion fueling his efforts, though, there’s something weirdly amiss in his approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions: neither he nor 350.org will actively promote a vegan diet.
Given the nature of our current discourse on climate change, this omission might not seem a problem. Vegans are still considered as sort of “out there,” a fringe group of animal rights activists with pasty skin and protein issues. However, as a recent report from the World Preservation Foundation confirms, ignoring veganism in the fight against climate change is sort of like ignoring fast food in the fight against obesity. Forget ending dirty coal or natural gas pipelines. As the WPF report shows, veganism offers the single most effective path to reducing global climate change.
The evidence is powerful. Eating a vegan diet, according to the study, is seven times more effective at reducing emissions than eating a local meat-based diet. A global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent, compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” In light of the fact that the overall environmental impact of livestock is greater than that of burning coal, natural gas, and crude oil, this 87 percent cut (94 percent if the plants were grown organically) would come pretty close to putting 350.org out of business, which I’m sure would make McKibben a happy man.
There’s much more to consider. Many consumers think they can substitute chicken for beef and make a meaningful difference in their dietary footprint. Not so. According to a 2010 study cited in the WPF report, such a substitution would achieve a “net reduction in environmental impact” of 5 to 13 percent. When it comes to lowering the costs of mitigating climate change, the study shows that a diet devoid of ruminants would reduce the costs of fighting climate change by 50 percent; a vegan diet would do so by over 80 percent. Overall, the point seems pretty strong: global veganism could do more than any other single action to reduce GHG emissions.
So why is it that 350.org tells me (in an e-mail) that, while it’s “pretty clear” that eating less meat is a good idea, “we don’t really take official stances on issues like veganism”? Well why the heck not?! Why would an environmental organization committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions not officially oppose the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions–the production of meat and meat-based products? It’s baffling. And while I don’t have a definite answer, I do have a few thoughts on the matter.
Part of the problem is that environmentalists, including McKibben himself, are generally agnostic about meat. A recent article McKibben wrote for Orion Magazine reveals an otherwise principled environmentalist going a bit loopy in the face of the meat question. The tone is uncharacteristically cute, even folksy, and it’s entirely out of sync with the gravity of the environmental issues at stake. Moreover, his claim that “I Do Not Have a Cow in this Fight” is a rather astounding assessment coming from a person who is so dedicated to reducing global warming that he supposedly keeps his thermostat in the 50s all winter and eschews destination vacations for fear of running up his personal carbon debt. I’d think the man has every cow in the world in this fight.
So to the real question: how do we explain this agnosticism? The fact that McKibben recently traveled to the White House to oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline (and got arrested in the process), provides a hint of an answer. I imagine that getting slammed in the clinker after protesting a massive pipeline project is a lot better for 350.org’s profile than staying at home, munching kale, and advising others to explore veganism. In this respect, the comparative beneficial impact of global veganism versus eliminating natural gas from Canadian tar sands matters none. What matters is grabbing a headline or two.
Hence the “problem” with veganism and environmentalism. Ever since Silent Spring (Rachel Carson’s expose of dangerous insecticides) modern environmentalism has depended on high-profile media moments to shore up the activist base. Veganism, however, hardly lends itself to this role. Although quietly empowering in its own way, going vegan is an act poorly suited to sensational publicity. Pipelines and other brute technological intrusions, by contrast, are not only crudely visible, but they provide us (the media) with clear victims, perpetrators, and a dark narrative of decline. I think this distinction explains much of McKibben’s–not to mention the environmental movement’s– wobbly stance on meat.
Another reason for the prevailing agnosticism on meat has to do with the comparative aesthetics of pipelines and pastures. When meat-eating environmentalists are hit with the livestock conundrum, they almost always respond by arguing that we must replace feedlot farming with rotational grazing. Just turn farm animals out to pasture, they say. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what McKibben argues in the Orion piece, claiming that “shifting from feedlot farming to rotational grazing is one of the few changes we could make that’s on the same scale as the problem of global warming.”
This all sounds well and good. But if the statistics in the WPF report are to be trusted, the environmental impacts of this alternative would be minimal. So why the drum beat of support for rotational grazing? I would suggest that the underlying appeal in the pasture solution is something not so much calculated as irrational: pastured animals mimic, however imperfectly, symbiotic patterns that existed before humans arrived to muck things up. In this sense, rotational grazing supports one of the more appealing (if damaging) myths at the core of contemporary environmentalism: the notion that nature is more natural in the absence of human beings. Put differently, rotational grazing speaks powerfully to the aesthetics of environmentalism while confirming a bias against the built environment; a pipeline, not so much.
A final reason that McKibben, 350.org, and mainstream environmentalism remain agnostic about meat centers on th
e idea of personal agency. For most people, meat is essentially something we cook and eat. Naturally, it’s much more than that. But for most consumers, meat is first and foremost a personal decision about what we put into our body. By contrast, what comes to mind when you envision an old coal-fired power plant? Many will conjure up sooty images of a degraded environment. In this respect, the coal-fired power plant symbolizes not a personal choice, or a direct source of pleasure, but an oppressive intrusion into our lives, leaving us feeling violated and powerless. Environmentalists, I would thus venture, go after coal rather than cows, not because coal is necessarily more harmful to the environment (it appears not to be), but because cows mean meat, and meat, however wrongly, means freedom to pursue happiness.
I don’t mean to downplay the impact of these factors. The visibility of pipelines, the romantic appeal of pastures, and the deep-seated belief that we can eat whatever we damn well shove into our mouths are no mean hurdles to overcome. But given that the documented power of veganism to directly confront global warming, and given the fact that emissions have only intensified alongside all efforts to lower them, I’d suggest McKibben, 350.org, and the environmental movement as a whole trade up their carnivorous agnosticism for a fire-and brimstone dose of vegan fundamentalism.