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 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. 


Caroline

Interesting article! I gave up meat partially for environmental reasons a while go, but was wondering if it really made that big of a difference. Glad to see it is that crucial!

However I don't think it's fair to think all environmentalists are like McKibben. I think the issues he stands behind are important, but just because one guy doesn't think veganism is a big deal doesn't mean the majority of people feel that way.

Tony

Telling people what to do is not the *means* for these people... its the *ends*.

Consider this -
Why isn't Al Gore more interested in stopping coal power plants in China than he is in stopping SUVs in the USA?

Because he's not interested in being the president of China!

All this BS keeps us AGW skeptics warm.

Raphael

Are you saying that Al Gore may have more influence over the Chinese government and people regarding environmental issues than he has over the American people ?

For him to do so would be an utter, total, complete waste of energy and money. At least he does have somewhat of an audience around the USA.

Roguish

RJ Roy has it right. If eating less meat reduces co2 emissions then lots of people eating a bit less meat is identical to a few people eating no meat. It's much much easier for people to change their eating habits a small amount than it is to change their whole diet. So veganism and vegetarianism are a side issue. Further, the main international trend is for rapidly urbanizing populations in countries such as India and China to eat more meat as they get richer. Is this trend entirely inevitable? If not, there are two questions to be answered. What is the cheapest, most effective way of persuading people to maintain their traditional diet? And which organisations can benefit financially from so influencing the trend? It's a similar matter with car use. Reduced car travel reduces co2 emissions (potentially). But no one talks about 'walkertarians'. Much better to encourage many people to make small changes.

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gofer

There are six different sources of atmospheric methane. In order of importance these are wetlands, fossil fuels, landfills, ruminant animals, rice paddies and biomass combustion. Maybe all the swamps should be drained and tell Asians to stop growing rice.

According to NOAA, atmospheric methane has decreased greatly and if trends continue could end-up at zero. It's bearly measurable.

BTW, there is zero scientific evidence for McKibben's 350 ppm number. It simply pulled out of the air (pun intended). You can find scientists who say 440 is the top and others with other numbers. It's totally ludicrous to presume the temp. lies upon one variable of the level of CO2, which we know is false, since the temp has been flat for more than a decade with rising CO2 levels. Maybe you could write an article showing scientific backing for 350 ppm as being the safe level. It's just a logo.

When you get down around 200 ppm, plants begin to suffer and die. If we were going the other direction, then a panic would be justified, but increased CO2 has greened the world, according to research showing world vegetation has increased greatly.

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Dash

I cannot understand how the brightest and most scientific minds continue to ignore the impacts that a meat-based diet is having on the environment. Nearly all of the attention is on deforestation and burning of fossil fuel. Some of you have been nice enough to share what the impacts are of changing ones diet, but for stupid people like myself, could someone tell me what reducing ones dependency on oil by way of buying locally grown food and clothing, riding a bike, driving a hybrid, and using public transportation versus eliminating meat all together. For many stupid people like myself, having a chart with data showing this kind of information could make a difference.

Laura

I would love to hear your thoughts on just general hypocrisy today. I'm struggling with understanding my friends who are pro "Occupy Wall St" - but live in upper-middle class homes, work at corporate jobs or elite educational institutions, plan to send their children to elite colleges, and generally just like to complain about the great income divide in this country. I'm not saying I don't understand their moral virtue of caring for the suffering of others - I'm assuming they are thinking of the real struggling bottom % (not the 99%) - but it all seems to come off sort of as jealousy and hypocrisy to me - considering the privileged lives they lead. What exactly are they so pissed off about? That they are surrounded by those even wealthier than themselves? That they have had to have two wage earners to live in a $500k home? That they have to work slightly harder to send Johnny to a $56k college? That they won't be going to Europe on vacay this year? What should one be doing if they are really pro Occupy Wall St? Or what about the children of my friends who are doctors? Do they know their dad earns $400k a year? They are happy to talk the talk of Occupy - but is no one telling them - they are the "Man"? It seems people who like "causes" - any cause - don't really need to think about the reality of all that it entails to be actually pro-something. It must be feeding something else in their psyche. And don't get me started on my vegetarian friends who won't wear leather - but eat eggs?

And then I have other friends who feel very righteous about their views on

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mr. chang

Now what I really wanna see is PETA taking a fire-and-brimstone stance on carbon neutrality.

Tom

Veganism is not sustainable, to eat all this corn, wheat, soybean, rice without animals on any kind of scale requires fossil fuels, which alsl destroys topsoil. Animals are a key part of the ecosystem.

passerby

"natural gas pipeline from the Canadian tar sands". Um, no. Not natural gas, but bitumen, which is an order of magnitude more carbon intensive than natural gas. (That's one of those facts that we expect you guys to get correct.)

Skeptical Vegetarian

It is simply implausible that this sentence: "In light of the fact that the overall environmental impact of livestock is greater than that of burning coal, natural gas, and crude oil" is both true and forthright.

From the EPA, "The largest source of CO2 emissions globally is the combustion of fossil fuels"

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/co2_human.html

Of course that small fact doesn't even address what society can practically regulate or change.

While there is a lot to like about Freakonomics, Mr. McWilliams consistently achieves what is poor about Freakonomics (both the blog and the books). As Ezra Klein put it:

"The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one."

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/10/the_shoddy_statistics_of_super.html

leif Jenkinson

leif says:
So where do the vast heard of wild "meat" animals that existed prior to us overpopulating most every continent fit in with this theory? The vast herds of buffalo (okay, "bison") on the north american plains, cariboo across the arctic, the vast herds of various "meat" animals across Europe back in our "caveman" days?
I'm not being sarcastic - or only a little. I really want to know if we have estimates of the wild stocks prior to "global warming" and our present so-called civilization versus the present "domestic" stocks. I believe we do, or at least educated guesses. I think it is a valid point against your above argument if the numbers come anywhere near the present numbers. Or is that what contributed to the melted ice from the last ice-age?
I'm not arguing that returning more land to agriculture - the growing of crops and forrest - is without a big effect, but this question remains. I also would also appreciate references to document the size of your argument.

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J Alexander

I know what happens to me when my diet is more heavily weighted to veggies ... is there a quantitative difference between gas produced by cows and chickens and gas produced by humans?

Rupert Wolfe Murray (@wolfemurray)

Excellent point and let's hope the 360 crowd see it too.

Kiaser Zohsay

This was posted a while back, but it still seems relevant.

http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2010/11/23/how-vegans-dont-work-an-amazing-look-behind-the-scenes-at-the-vegan-communitys-dirty-secret/

kz

Cara

Doesn't the author's line of thinking mean he would advocate for not doing ANY activity that harms the ennvironment? After all, in this article the phrase "meat eating" could easily be replaced by "riding airplanes" or "heating your home with oil" -- as in, "Bill McKibben should recognize that home heating oil is a leading cause of global warming and should stop using his furnace." Is the author willing to never ride on an airplane again, or to heat his home with a wood stove? If he's demanding that people who care about the environment go vegan, there's little to stop him from demanding that they stay home all the time and wrap themselves in blankets.

RGJ

PS: Everytime I hear this argument I think of the farm machinery running around spewing diesel fuels and the chemicals etc....are grains et al really that low impact? I sort of think a cow out in a field is one of the more natural sources of food, when you consider chicken farming and veal raising all the machinery it takes to grow anything in quantity.