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 (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 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 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 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’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,, 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,, 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. Tazilon says:

    Now, if only we had real anthropogenic global warming to fight. since we don’t, this entire article is ….meh!

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  2. Sierra Nevada Solar says:

    I’ve never understood blaming cows for CO2 issues. It’s baffling.

    Coal is to blame. Plain and simple.

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    • Susan Barney says:

      perhaps you should take some time to study the issue more.
      1) 20% of CO2 is due to deforestation to create room for either grazing cattle or growing soya (90% of which is fed to livestock)
      2) Livestock are responsible for 30% of “shorter-lived climate forcers” (ie methane, black carbon and ground level ozone) which have a greater near and medium term impact on climate change than CO2
      3) CO2 lasts in the atmosphere significantly longer (ie over 1000 years) than methane, ozone and black carbon (which last 10 years, a few days and a few weeks, respectively), while the shorter lived climate forcers are significantly more warming than CO2. What this means is that if we stop consuming animal products, then we can experience a near-term decline in global warming — giving scientists time to create affordable low-carbon technologies and technologies to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere
      4) One study found that if there is a global embrace a vegan diet, it would reduce the cost to address cliamte change by 50% because it would free up enough land to allow for reforestation and by 2030 those trees would be big enough that they could pull a lot of that CO2 out of the atmosphere, so that it would not be up there for thousands of years. ds

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  3. Shirley Yanada says:

    Persons become vegetarian or vegan for different reasons, I think.

    What’s missing in the vegetarian may be the ‘compassion’ component. Vegans care more about cruely towards sentient beings, so eating cheese (which is ok for vegetarians) still causes cruelty & exploitation of animals.

    And once you’re vegan, you usually remain so because your conscience won’t let you go back to hurting animals. (yes, I know animals eat animals, etc.) Vegetarians mainly are so for their own health which isn’t wrong but it’s still hurtful for other beings.

    I do regret very much being a carnivore when it is *so* very unnecessary for any reason except being self-indulgent out of mere habit. I was so for 65 yrs, but no more.

    Good health to all.


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  4. sarah merrill says:

    The concept of needing to develop “meat” in a lab setting only exposes a lack of imagination and ingenuity on the part of the public which stubbornly believes that good red meat is a NECESSITY in one’s diet!

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  5. huanita says:

    If we continue supporting the animal agriculture, we are going to end eating cow’s poop and drink no clean watter. we need to be real. stopping consume cow’s meet conscientiously.

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  6. John Elbing says:

    Why is oil taxed (even if not enough), but meat is not? As environmental taxes go, wouldn’t taxing meat make the most sense?

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  7. gil says:

    Levitt makes a very good point here. though not good enough:
    with certain rotational grazing we can in fact reduce net carbon by increasing grass growth rate. (Allan Savory and others). so eating meat isn’t theoretically bad, only circumstantially so.
    but coal mining is just so easy to hate, because it has no redeeming qualities to it, and it doesn’t risk alienating people from the green movement since nobody is a conscious consumer of coal, but many are doing so with meat.
    you CAN buy carbon positive meat! but it isn’t labeled as such and chances are its not in your supermarket. so you may as well go vegan if you really care about the environment. someday, you will have the option to be green and carnivorous, but that would be the far future, and we might have to all be working in growing our own food, or at least in rotating pastures. (or back to buffalo hunting?)

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