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.

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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. 


Carnivore

Have you.... ever researched what prolonged abstinence from ALL animal products does to the human body? it's not good. Is it at all curious that in our vast history as human beings there has never once been a wild, "misinformed" tribe that ate an exclusively vegan diet?

It's extremely irresponsible to ask your readers to consider a lifestyle change that is harmful in the long run.

Environmentalists should seek grass-fed meat, and stop supporting CAFO operations.

I would certainly agree that overall reduction of animal consumption is imperative in order for that to happen, but foregoing all animal food sources in a human diet is not the way.

It's about balance, you don't have to eat mountains of meat, you also don't have to do the extreme opposite and eliminate all. I mean, we did this just fine for millions of years (or hundreds of thousands, if anybody out there still finds evolution "iffy") granted there were a lot less people back then, but we can blame the boom in society to agriculture, not to meat consumption.

Oh yeah, speaking of, you don't once mention the subsidizing of cereal grain, which has destroyed basically all the top-soil we have left, as part of the problem.

For more, kindly read:

-"Primal Body, Primal Mind" by Nora Gedgaudas
-"Adventures in Diet" by Viljhamur Steffanson (available for free by googling the title, and a rather short read)
-"The Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Keith (a vegan for over 20 years, who usually gets criticized mostly for lacking a good editor, and I definitely agree with that, the book could have been written a lot better, but her book is FOR environmentalists, and explains how going vegan does the opposite, while giving you a healthy dose of basic human biology)
- Denise Minger's breakdown of The China Study (aka the vegan bible, Ms. Minger is also a former vegan, currently a raw foodist that includes some meat in her diet... see? a perfect example of balance) found here: http://rawfoodsos.com/the-china-study/
- "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration" by Weston A. Price, whom as you are likely aware, was a dentist who found best dental health correlated to "native" diets more so than westernized ones. These diets included meat and animal fat in copious quantities.

I am not in STARK contrast against the vegan diet. I certainly agree that people eating a "clean" vegan diet (ie: a diet based on plant matter exclusively, not a pizza, or tofurkey diet) as vegetables and fruits are clearly nutritious, but the inclusion of even the smallest amount of properly raised animal fat and protein (I won't even get into organ meats, quite literally the most nutritious things humans can eat pound for pound, put it up against anything and animal liver is king) will make for a highly nourished human.

Though I chose to go with the 'carnivore' handle, my diet is comprised of a myriad of fresh vegs, cooked and not, some fruit, and enough protein and fat from non CAFO animals to ensure I actually am able to take in the nutrients found in the foods I eat. I would hope you know that most vitamins are fat-soluble and that vegan diets usually lack dietary fat? (even in the presence of avocados and coconuts) ... what about b12? This post should be revised or taken down, you're not doing your homework.

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carnivore

I mean to say that a "clean" vegan diet can make the population healthier than the current stuff we eat, and it is obviously light-years ahead of a highly processed diet. I know a few pseudo-vegans that are "doing it right" and mostly get their animal goodness from good eggs, and properly raised dairy, so it's not all about chomping down on steaks, again, choose your balance.

Tony

How would a wide-scale transition to veganism affect the economy?

Also: "In this respect, the comparative beneficial impact of global veganism versus eliminating natural gas from Canadian tar sands matters none."

Aren't the tar sands full of oil, not natural gas?

James

Garbage in, garbage out. This is what reasoning from a false premise gets you. I don't know whether this is simply honest ignorance and lack of thinking it through on your part, or a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the real problem, which is fossil fuel burning.

I suppose you all must not have been paying attention back in 10-grade Earth Science class, when you were supposed to have been learning about fundamental things like the carbon cycle. Maybe a little remedial education is in order.

Raphael

Well, even when the fossil fuel burning problem will be solved, there will still be the issue of food production efficiency.

How much arable surface and what amount of energy are needed for the final 8 oz steak (let's consider human needs and not human wishes) ? How much is needed for the same amount of calories, fat, proteins and stuff coming from soy, wheat and stuff ?

After these numbers are found (I can't back myself up with pre-made numbers right now), I'm pretty sure it's easy to determine there is still a loss of productivity somewhere that ends up being a pain for somebody.

Tom

And scientists wonder why us common people (people of severe intellectual lacking) tune them out.

Once again kudos to ph Dubstep and vLevitt for having the stones to bring geoengineering to our attention in SUPER F. I wonder how many dirty looks you guys got among your academia friends for that stunt. Are you even allowed to shop at your local farmers market anymore?

You'll always have a place in my heart - if you're ever hungry for a steak and are in Dayton it's on me.

Jon

Easier explanations:

a) meat yummy.

b) veganism is seen as "out there." Associating yourself with the promotion of "out there" stuff gets you tagged as "out there" too.

Convince Joe Sixpack to turn down his thermostat?: "Yeah, I guess I see what you're getting at."

Convince him to give up leather workboots?: "And what, walk around in pleather? Get real, nutcase."

Martin

According to the report, somewhere around 30-40% of methane emissions are due to livestock. Some of that can be harvested from manure and the levels can be manipulated through the use of different feeds. I wonder if they might even be able to breed a low methane cow.

Shane

Kangaroos don't produce methane, as it happens. I think I read somewhere that scientists were trying to figure this out in a way to reproduce their non-methane system in cattle.

Martin

The analysis also doesn't take into consideration increased human methane production from eating more plant based foods. You'd just transfer methane production from cows to humans

Shane

Wow, interesting points here. Perhaps it is also more difficult to create a narrative blaming global warming on farmers, compared with massive, faceless corporations and oil-companies. So it might be politically sensible to rally support against industry and oil, if not environmentally sensible. (Farmers, that is, are probably seen as being part of the '99%'.)

Ben

Uh, can I have that 10 minutes of my life back? This is an unnecessarily long piece of intellectual masterbation. The only real content here is your 2nd to last paragraph which is the answer to your primary question - if environmentalists started telling me to stop eating fish I'd tell them to go jump in a lake (with those fish). Of course I don't have a problem with them scolding coal companies for the black smoke emanating from their plants.

RJ Roy

I've found it very amusing that in the last few environmental posts I've read here, that the moment a single solution was estimated at a low percentage change, that it's instantly dismissed as a potential answer.

But just think, really. If we got 13% here from eating chicken, and then 10% from say a slightly more efficient hybrid, and then 7% from using more wind/solar, and so on, then it's adding up over time. We don't need ONE big solution, when 5~6 smaller ones that barely make an impact on the average person's daily life can be just as effective.