Posts Tagged ‘Cowspiracy’
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.
It has long been a source of frustration for the Pitchfork that so-called environmental leaders refuse to embrace eating an exclusively plant-based diet as an integral part of a larger environmental mission. I first wrote about the topic here and have since become so disillusioned with the sordid cant of conventional environmentalism that (with my tongue in my cheek a little) I recently wrote a piece arguing that it’s time for progressives to throw in the towel and forge a language of defeat. Throughout it all, my belief remains firm: we cannot eat animals and claim to care deeply enough about the environment to save it.
The reason old-school environmentalism won’t accommodate an animal-free diet might seem baffling, given the overwhelming evidence that eating plants would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of food production, prevent rainforest destruction, reduce global water and fertilizer consumption, and eliminate aquatic dead zones.
But the cowardly tendency involves several identifiable factors. Perhaps the first is that the movement (as it were) is fragmented into organizations dependent on fundraising to keep the green flag flying. Competing as they do for a limited and diminishing piece of the progressive pie, these groups are understandably wary of getting between a big donor’s pork chop and check book. Get the people angry over pipelines and coal mines, but not cows and pigs—so the reasoning goes. Second, those with the most power to deliver a hard message to the masses are, to an extent, overly dependent on audiences—and, I imagine, mired in a culture—that would kick them to the curb if they impugned their pasture-raised, hormone-free, humanely-raised eggs. They not only know who butters their bread but they know their bread is buttered with butter. Finally, environmentalism and commercial culture have become so deeply entwined that few are left with either the ability or the guts to imagine an environmentalism that you couldn’t buy your way into. Behavioral change? Blah.
That’s my take on the issue, in the most general terms. But a new, feature-length documentary in the works has the potential to do much more than complain about the situation and make vague assessments. It’s called Cowspiracy and it explores the question of why mainstream environmentalism refuses to directly confront industrial agriculture. Producers Kip Anderson (Animals United Movement) and Keegan Kuhn (First Spark Media) have teamed up to do what Blackfish is currently doing to SeaWorld: radically changing public perception about our use of animals in an industry we have traditionally failed to identify as a source of profound ecological destruction. For better or worse, the film appears to focus on industrial animal agriculture alone but, given the alarming nature of the problem, that’s a start—one that I support.
If you’re interested in learning more and helping Kip and Keegan finish the film, visit their Indiegogo page here. (Warning: you will be greeted with Michael Pollan, who is identified as an environmental writer, and thus you might have a reason to be skeptical, given his fervid defense of eating animals, but I would encourage you to watch the whole trailer to get what I hope is a fuller picture of the film’s goal, not to mention the inclusion of more trustworthy voices such as Will Potter’s and Richard Oppenlander’s.)