Posts Tagged ‘Bill McKibben

The People’s Climate March

» September 21st, 2014

 

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.

 

 

Are All Major Environmental Organizations Cowards?

» June 19th, 2014

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?