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.

(Photodisc)

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 the 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. 

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  1. Skip says:

    Or grow your meat in the lab. Supposedly 80 to 95 percent less greenhouse gas.

    http://science.slashdot.org/story/11/11/13/1312235/in-vitro-muscle-cells-its-whats-for-dinner

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    • Keith Iding says:

      The problem with test tube meat is that it requires an exotic nutrient medium, not a surprise really, the blood serum of an unborn calf, obtained by killing a pregnant cow to get a few quarts of this ‘nutrient medium’. Example citation: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17113214
      Then there’s the problem that the type of cell produced would only be one kind, like muscle tissue. How is that considered healthy or palatable? All we need are amino acids from a variety of easily available food sources to produce all the varied proteins we need in our own ‘in vitro’ processing units, our bodies.

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  2. Ella says:

    Out of curiosity, how much would vegetarianism reduce emissions? How much extra benefit is it to go vegan instead of vegetarian?

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    • Susan Thomas says:

      I wrote this paper he is referring to. It’s over 50 percent. But even more interesting is the fact that a significant amount of this is from shorter-lived climate forcers. This means it would act much more quickly. CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for thousands of years, but methane comes out in about a decade, black carbon in a few months and ozone in a few hours. We have a new paper coming out to go over this in more detail. You can go to our website and sign up to be notified when it is released (which should be this week or early next week)

      http://www.worldpreservationfoundation.org/blog/wpf/

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      • Steve says:

        I wonder if the studies account for all of the surplus years a vegan diet would create. Think of the would be heart attacks that never materialized because of an elimination in red meat consumption. I think its “safe” to say on average Americans would each live an additional 5 plus years..? I am just guessing, but at any rate the additional years spent on earth might be worth trying to quantify in order to better understand the relationship between vegan and carbon dioxide emissions.

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    • Meechity says:

      If you grow it in a petri dish, it can’t feel pain, can’t cry, can’t suffer years of fear because of what the masses want on a cheap sandwich. I support lab-grown flesh.

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      • Gordon says:

        A comfort blanket. That’s all petri meat is here.

        This is always the point in the conversation with the people who aren’t vegetarian or vegan look around for some other way of making meat, some futuristic alternative which, where it to be implemented immediately world-wide, would address the problem. But that’s just a diversion. Most meat comes from factory farms, and factory farms evolved because of economies of scale. The meat you eat tomorrow and next week will not come from the futuristic scheme you talk about today.

        As always, its harder to actually walk your talk. Pining for petri dishes is just more talk.

        Eat plants. There are lots to choose from.

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    • Dawn says:

      It is of great benefit for your health, the environment, and the animals. Although eggs and dairy are animal byproducts and not the animals themselves, it still requires the same amount of energy, money, and resources to grow them and causes the same amount of pollution and suffering.
      Some great resources to learn more about vegan eating habits and the benefits of a vegan lifestyle:

      http://www.onegreenplanet.org/

      http://evolvecampaigns.org.uk/evolve/environment.aspx

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    • Cat says:

      A recently-published study found that “Vegans’ GHG emissions [calculated regulating SimaPro7 life cycle comment software] were 41.7% devaluate than a non-vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians’ emissions were 27.8% lower, pesco-vegetarians’ were 23.8% devaluate and semi-vegetarians were only underneath 20% lower.” (Ref: http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/R-D/Environmental-footprint-of-vegan-and-vegetarian-diets-30-lower-than-non-vegetarian-diets-say-researchers-We-have-to-drastically-cut-consumption-of-meat-and-dairy)

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    • Damian Pound (Chinoto Vokro) says:

      Vegetarianism is avoidance of animals and their secretions in diet, veganism is the avoidance of (ab)using animals at all. So aside from jackets, furniture, and tires, going vegan isn’t terribly significant in fighting global warming, but it does send a stronger message, which could help even more.

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  3. Mike B says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. Allen Hughes says:

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    • JR says:

      I’m not sure what you’re saying here–that environmentalists want to bring down capitalism? I’m an environmentalist but not at all anti-capitalist. My beliefs about the environment were what prompted me to start inching toward a vegan lifestyle.

      If you are saying that environmentalists focus on affecting capitalism because they think that will produce more results, you may be right on that. I don’t know any environmental activists, so I don’t know if that’s what motivates them or not.

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    • camdemonium says:

      Do you have any idea how massive the agribusiness industry is? The value of beef sales alone in 2007 was over 60 billion dollars. And why do you think environmentalists hate capitalism? Environmentalists want to replace fossil fuels with sustainable technologies, not destroy all economies of the world. I’m not really sure what you are talking about at all, but you need to do some more research before making blatantly wrong assumptions about our society.

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    • Corvus says:

      How on Earth is the exploitation and selling of animals, reducing living things to commodities for profit, and destroying the planet as a means to gain capital, NOT an issue of capitalism?

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  5. Mike Lemmer says:

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    • Michael says:

      Yes, just the other day I saw a heard of thousands of deer coming out of a few acres of woods and trample the surrounding area…wait, no I didn’t.

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    • capnpaco says:

      You still end up with a lot fewer wild animals than the livestock they’re replacing. An acre of forest (or grassland, or whatever) supports relatively few large animals.

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    • Jake says:

      Keep in mind, in order to grow livestock, we plant fields of corn, then feed it to the animals. All of that has a lot of human activity.

      Wild fields and wild animals don’t require a supply chain of fertilizers, grain crops, transportation, people to plow fields, plant, et cetera.

      Also – corn is much more needy of nitrogen than wild grasses. To compensate we use synthetic fertilizers, using the haber process. After its in the soil, the bacteria metabolize the nitrates into ammonia and carbon dioxide.

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    • Jake says:

      My guess is that we would still grow lots of corn, but use it for ethanol.

      A lot of land that is farmed is marginal semi-arid land that we’ve irrigated. It would not support much in the way of animal life if we weren’t irrigating it. If a majority of people suddenly stopped eating meat, it would be really disruptive to rural areas in states like Wyoming, Colorado, Utah – land value would drop big time because if you can’t sell beef, that land is basically useless for anything else. I would expect them to be really resistant to anything that advocates that kind of change.

      Our food system is built to be good on a $/acre basis, and not that caring about Calories/acre. The # of calories a fixed population needs is fairly static, whereas, the amount people will pay for food is rather elastic. If we started valuing an efficient calorie / acre model of farming, we would need to use less acres of land to feed the same # of people.

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  6. Rex McClure says:

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  7. Eric M. Jones. says:

    I am always suspicious that doing everything we can to pack more people unto a planet with dwindling resources necessitates this kind of thinking.

    The average first-world baby contributes over one-million kilograms of CO2 throughout its lifetime.

    Soylent Green…moooooo.

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    • Ed says:

      Don’t be! Most vegans I know are voluntarily childless and support ZPG or NPG.

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      • Meechity says:

        Ed: Indubitably!!! I can’t speak for everyone of course, all vegans I know personally are so for moral/environmental reasons, and get quite upset thinking of introducing more greedy mouths to fight over Mama Earth’s sore breast.

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  8. Nick says:

    Meat-eating environmentalists are the biggest hypocrites in the world, and instantly lose any and all credibility.

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    • Jeffrey Cohan says:

      Biggest hypocrites in the world? That maybe an exaggeration. But is it hypocritical to be an environmentalist and eat meat? Yes.

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