Posts Tagged ‘Bill McKibben’
I collaborated on this piece with Kip Anderson, co-director (with Keegan Kuhn) of Cowspiracy.
At this very moment, thousands of environmentalists are marching through the streets of New York. They do so to undertake what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “the biggest demonstration in the history of the climate movement.” The driving motivation for the first People’s Climate March is a fiercely grassroots message as inspiring as it is true: “movements can shift political power—in fact, little else ever does.”
History demonstrates that McKibben is correct—but with one critical caveat: the movement must be focused on the right targets. It is on this point that today’s march, for all its passion, could lead the environmental movement down a jagged path.
Modern environmentalism assumes that our ecological fall from grace began a century ago with the transition to fossil fuels. This assumption explains the movement’s focus on gas pipelines and university divestment from fossil fuel multinationals. While it’s certainly true that our reliance coal, oil, and gas remains endemic to our current ecological predicament, our original environmental sin is rooted in an older and more fundamental transition: the domestication of animals.
You often hear environmentalists claim that there are too many people on planet Earth–about 7 billion. Well, the industrialization of agriculture has culminated in a global agricultural system that annually domesticates and slaughters an astounding 70 billion land animals. Producing over 300 million tons of meat a year arguably represents the most destructive misallocation of natural resources in all human history, one that contributes disproportionately to the core issues that The People’s Climate March will address: global warming, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
The most recent research on these issues pretty much ruins your steak dinner. We now know that at least 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to the production of land-based animals. Livestock are the leading cause of methane and nitrous oxide emissions—gasses phenomenally more potent than carbon dioxide. Scientists predict that the livestock sector alone might account for 70 percent of the future greenhouse gas emissions expected to raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees. If we allow business as usual to proceed, emissions from agriculture will rise another 80 percent by 2050.
When it comes to biodiversity loss, domesticated critters are equally culpable. No less than 75 percent of the planet’s agricultural land (30 percent of the world’s ice free surface) is used to raise animals for food. To really understand how this allocation endangers natural ecosystems, one need look no further than the Brazilian rainforest, where cattle are the direct cause of 70 percent of deforestation. When the global population hits 9 billion, as it’s predicted to do by 2050, if we all ate a western diet, 70-100% more cropland will be needed for agricultural production.
Then there’s the issue that’s on every environmentalist’s mind these days: water. From the perspective of fresh water, animal agriculture is inherently irresponsible. After all, the water footprint of any domesticated animal-based product is larger than that of any plant with the same nutritional worth. Plant-based food requires 8 times less water to produce than the caloric equivalent of an animal-based food. Our ongoing failure to acknowledge this inefficiency has resulted in feed production that uses 27 percent of irrigation water in the United States. If we do nothing, the water used globally to produce animal feed will double by 2050. This would make today’s water situation look like a period of abundance.
Environmentalists hate this news. To the limited extent that eco-leaders have addressed these concerns, they’ve suggested we eat animals raised under non-industrial conditions. Free range, humane, antibiotic free—that kind of stuff. But for all the positive attention lavished on these so-called “regenerative” or “holistic” systems—systems that liberate animals from confinement and place them on pasture—there’s no evidence that they would work on global scale. Animals being animals, their impact on land, water, and air quality would remain greater than that of plants. After interviewing Allan Savory, the world’s leading proponent of pasture-based animal agriculture, The Guardian’s George Monbiot concluded: ”He makes claims about his techniques which are not only implausible but appear to be scientifically impossible.”
Here’s something that not at all implausible: transitioning to a plant-based diet would have a profoundly positive ecological impact. Eliminating domesticated animals for food would allow us to re-wild hundreds of millions of acres of land currently in production. Research shows that, in the UK, consuming just 50 percent less meat and replacing it with plant-based food would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent. On the level of the individual, the average meat eater would more than halve the carbon footprint of his diet by eliminating meat altogether. This option requires no leap of faith—just a dietary shift. It’s the most accessible option we have. And it happens to be the best.
Despite the preponderance of evidence that a plant-based diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve substantial amounts of water, and stem habitat destruction, leading environmental organizations have proven reluctant to advocate such a transition. But if we truly care about the environment, this convenient “we don’t tell people what to do” attitude must change. If the modern environmental movement neglects to recognize the connection between climate change and the billions of animals we raise each year for food, it will wake up to find it has missed the swiftest and most elegant solution at hand while devouring our way into a climate crisis. Today, as we implore global leaders to take action on climate change, let us not forget that the answer to today’s environmental crisis is directly in front us, right on our plates.
Why is it that institutions with the power to initiate genuine beneficial change diminish their own effectiveness? I’ve railed in the past against mainstream environmental groups for refusing to promote veganic agriculture as a critical component of ecological amelioration. The evidence is simply overwhelming and undeniable: removing animals from agriculture would almost totally resolve the defining environmental (not to mention ethical) problems of global food production.
In the face of that evidence, though, leading environmental groups peddle the snake oil of untested or ridiculously utopian “solutions”—such as rotational grazing and urban animal agriculture—and insist that we can have our meat and eat it too. It’s a terrible shame, almost as if the cure for a fatal disease were sitting on an upper shelf but we decided it was too much effort to get off our ass and reach for it.
And it’s not as if these organizations aren’t willing to pursue extreme measures to advance their agendas. Bill McKibben’s 350.org has focussed like an attack dog on the XL Pipeline. Forget that abolishing this pipeline would ensure that oil and gas would move across the nation through less safe means [see this], the point here is that 350.org has boldly chosen to use the transcontinental pipeline as a symbol of the organization’s desire to end the consumption of fossil fuels altogether and replace them with alternative sources of energy. Doesn’t that strike you as more radical than pursuing a meatless agenda? Once again, there’s something about meat, and meat alone, that prevents making any suggestion that, for all its problems, we give it up. (Oh, right, it tastes good).
What’s particularly distressing about this cowardice, this craven refusal to call for the kind of change that demands sacrifice (yes, I know, veganism is not a sacrifice, but most people think of eschewing meat in that way) is the fact that even organizations explicitly committed to animals and the environment refuse to insist that veganism is the answer to our agricultural ills. In fact, with HSUS leading the charge, they support the small and “humane” alternatives as acceptable stepping stones to a stable alternative they refuse to explicitly define, much less place on a billboard: a plant-based diet.
To provide a more concrete sense of this cowardice, note what a representative from a notable organization concerned with animal welfare wrote in response to a request that the organization do an undercover investigation of a so-called “humane” farm:
If we expose “higher welfare” farms as being cruel too, then the majority of people who would have otherwise reduced their consumption or chosen higher welfare standards think it is useless to even try and stop eating factory farmed animal products. So, instead of moving people closer to the goal of veganism, it would have the effect of moving people further away. (I think it’s similar to citizens who feel politically alienated and powerless. Sometimes these individuals believe their vote doesn’t count and so don’t they vote at all.)
My thoughts are many in response to this rationalization. But first and foremost among them is this: if these organizations don’t believe in their own mission, why should we?
There’s not a single person on the face of this rapidly warming earth who’s done more to fight anthropogenic 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 veganism.
Given the nature of our current discourse on climate change, this omission might not seem a problem. 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 dirty coal or natural gas pipelines. As the WPF report shows, veganism is the single most effective path to reducing global climate change. [http://www.worldpreservationfoundation.org/Downloads/ReducingShorterLivedClimateForcersThroughDietaryChange.pdf]
The evidence is especially convincing. Eating a vegan diet is seven times more effective at reducing emissions than eating a so-called sustainable, 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 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.
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. The point couldn’t be clearer: global veganism would 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 organization that’s committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions not officially oppose the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions? It’s indeed baffling. And while I don’t have a definite answer, I do have a few thoughts on the matter.
Like most environmentalists, McKibbon is stubbornly agnostic about meat. A recent article he wrote for Orion Magazine, “The only Way to Have a Cow,” reveals an otherwise sharp-minded and 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, the claim that “I Do Not Have a Cow in this Fight” is an 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. [http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5339/]
So why this selective agnosticism on meat? The fact that McKibben recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline (and get arrested in the process), rather than stay at home in the Adirondaks and preach veganism, provides some hint of an answer. Not to get overly cynical here, but I imagine that getting arrested in a protest over a massive pipeline is a lot better for 350.org’s fund-raising mission than staying at home, munching kale, and advising others to do the same. The “problem” with veganism as a source of activism is that it’s essentially hidden from view. It’s a quietly empowering decision that lends itself poorly to sensational publicity. Pipelines and other brute technological intrusions, by contrast, are not only visible, but they provide us (the media) with clear victims and perpetrators. And, as we all know, that stuff sells.
Another reason for the agnosticism 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 have to replace feedlot farming with rotational grazing. Just put farm animals out to pasture, they say. And 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 recall that the statistics in the WPF report show that the environmental impacts of this alternative are minimal. Veganism is far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than meat raised on pasture. So why the near universal advocacy for rotational grazing among environmentalists? The underlying appeal in the pasture solution is that a pastured animal mimics, however imperfectly, symbiotic patterns that existed before the arrival of humans. In this sense, rotational grazing perpetuates one of the most insidious myths at the core of contemporary environmentalism: the notion that “nature” is more “pure” in the absence of human beings. Rotational grazing thereby evokes our inner Thoreau. A pipeline raping the earth from Canada to Mexico, not so much.
A final reason that McKibben, 350.org, and mainstream environmentalism remain agnostic about meat centers on personal agency. When you think about meat, what comes to mind? For most people (well, not readers of this blog, I guess) the answer will be “something I cook and eat.” Naturally, it’s much more than that. But for most consumers meat is first and foremost a personal decision–we make the choice whether or not to put it into our bodies. Nothing could be more intimate.By contrast, what do think about when you envision an old coal fired power plant? Many will contemplate ruined aquatic ecosystems, smog, and ruined air quality. And in this respect, the coal fired power plant symbolizes not a personal choice, but an oppressive intrusion into that choice, one sponsored by a sinister corporate-government alliance. We feel powerless.
Environmentalists, I would venture, thus go after coal rather than cows not because coal is necessarily more harmful to the environment (it appears not to be), but because it appeals to our instinctual, if misguided, sense of personal agency.
I don’t meat 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 choose are no mean hurdles to overcome. But given that the power of veganism to directly confront global warming, I’d suggest McKibben, 350.org, and the environmental movement as a whole trade in their carnivorous agnosticism for a hard dose of vegan fundamentalism.