In a recent Go Vegan radio interview, Leslie Goldberg (author of the Vicious Vegan blog) gave an account of a conversation she had with Bill McKibben. (McKibben is a noted environmentalist and a co-founder of 350.org.) Leslie asked McKibben why he didn’t talk about meat consumption as a cause of climate change. McKibben first pointed out that most of the growth in meat consumption comes from the developing countries. Somewhat irritated, he then asked (in effect) “how can you ask people who are just starting to be able to afford and enjoy meat, not to eat meat?”
This is an intelligent question, so I thought I’d attempt to answer it. How, indeed, can we ask people in China and India, who are just now able to afford meat, not to eat meat?
Here is my suggested answer: “We are making a revolution. Want to join us?”
As a practical matter, there is no way that you are going to actually deal with climate change without some sort of massive upsurge of veganism. Livestock agriculture contributes over half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. If McKibben doesn’t believe this, then we need to have a dialogue about the science involved. Even most vegans do not understand how much of the biosphere of the earth is under the control of humans. Over 90% of the biomass of all mammals is humans, their livestock, and their pets. You can’t believe that all that manure, all the methane, all the carbon dioxide that these animals breathe out, and all the endless forests chopped down, doesn’t affect the climate at some point.
Certainly we should not ask anything of China and India that we would not ask of ourselves. We should go vegan ourselves before asking others to do so. But the situation is ironic, because a key reason that the developing countries increased their meat consumption in the first place was western imperialism. Before that, China and India had held (and to a great extent still do hold) the world’s most developed vegetarian traditions. But now if western vegetarians want to say “actually, you were better off with your traditional foods,” we can’t say that, because we don’t want to impose our values on them? Excuse me?
Perhaps McKibben is concerned about the self-righteous reaction of the newly wealthy Chinese? Possibly, but he shouldn’t be. It looks like the Chinese are beginning to figure all of this out on their own. China’s vegetarian population is the largest of any country in the world — 50 million vegetarians. Long Kuan, a Chinese resident and vegan activist, notes a rising trend towards vegetarianism: “The young generation, especially, they love to be eco-friendly, and they love to be compassionate. And they really care about the environment and the quality of life, about pollution.”
A much more formidable obstacle is the reaction of the environmental movement right here in the United States. Environmental organizations have taken note of the movie Cowspiracy, but they also seem to be dependent on large donations from wealthy cattle ranchers. But they keep veganism at a distance at their peril. We need some leadership here. Eventually, this leadership will come, but it may not be the current leadership of environmental groups.
Environmentalists have failed to provide concrete, workable plans to stop climate change. We need something more than just throwing up a bunch of solar panels and wind turbines all over the landscape, although we should probably do that too. Our environmental crisis is much bigger than climate change, although climate change is very important. It’s also about mass extinctions, soil erosion, deforestation, peak oil, and economic collapse. We need basic social, cultural, political, and lifestyle changes.
The vegan movement has quite a bit to offer to the environmentalists. This is a dynamic, growing, diverse, and energetic movement. Most vegans understand that there’s more to saving the planet than just going vegan. If we all go vegan, but keep burning coal, driving cars, and overpopulating the planet, in the end our veganism will only have bought us a bit of extra time. But while veganism is not sufficient to deal with our environmental problems, it is necessary. You can build all the solar panels and wind turbines you want, but in the end we have to save the plants and animals on the earth.
I am a vegan from a spiritual conviction. I can’t ask the rest of the world to go along with that. From an environmental perspective, I agree with non-meat diet. I could ask the rest of the world to stop eating meat. It is logical. But it would never happen; like asking an American to stop driving.
But Laura, they do have to give up meat eventually; they just don’t know it yet. Animal agriculture is not sustainable agriculture. And yes you can ask people who eat animal products to stop, just on the grounds that it is utterly immoral, not to mention that it destroys the planet. Just because people are grossly ignorant right now doesn’t mean they always will be.
Thank you very much for both the article and your response. Excellent. Your comment on Imperialism was very astute, and this point needs to be focused on with more vigor. US animal agriculture has been merging into other country markets with commodity buy outs and land grabs, specifically to produce cheap products for higher profits margins. Like tobacco, they, along with respective governments, are taking the opportunity to launch massive promotional programs, to increase consumption of that said product, even if it is well outside of cultural norms. For instance the largest dairy farm in the world is being planned and built in Vietnam, a country high in lactose intolerance, along with propaganda and pharmaceuticals to overcome the side effects. So for McKibben to say, “how can you ask people who are just starting to be able to afford and enjoy meat, not to eat meat?” One has to ask, what universe is he living in? We are not only asking them, governments are forcibly shifting eating habits already, to human kinds determent. For McKibben to be so ignorant of this fact (as well as so many other vital issues surrounding animal agriculture), makes me question his ability to be leading “environmental” actions.
I would also like to add the very real issue of resource scarcity (in particularity water), and food monopoly. Leaving the most vulnerable throughout the world at the power of larger political and financial interests. These are the seeds of war.
The far reaching and negative implications of animal agriculture cannot be overstated. The fact that most environmental groups do not even mention it, is like watching grown ups play house while it burns to the ground.
For facts & figures:
With Much Gratitude,
I would also be interested to know why McKibben feels is it ok for us to ask “developing” countries to alter their energy source, use, and transportation (just as they are gaining wealth enough to purchase amenities on a personal-individual scale, e.g. AC/ refrigeration/car) but it is not acceptable to ask them to reinforce their already existing traditional food inclinations (i.e. Chinese and Indian vegetarian traditions), rather than our imposed agricultural take over (see above)?
Thank you for indulging me.
Anna, thanks for your comments. My strong suspicion is that McKibben hasn’t really thought out his response at all. He doesn’t accept the Goodland and Anhang article referenced above, but can’t give any coherent reasons, persisting in the mystical and unscientific belief that grazing cattle is going to somehow make the climate better.
How about starting here at home and telling people the truth! Animal agriculture on its current scale, is a huge contributor to GHGe! It is the low hanging fruit of global warming! If we are to have a sustainable planet, there can not be large scale animal agriculture!
Humans are not adapted to eating high calorie low fiber foods! The very best diet is whole food, plant based!
That would be a huge step in the right direction!