McWilliams to McKibben: “Go Vegan”!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to McWilliams to McKibben: “Go Vegan”!

  1. Erin Michaud says:

    I’m going to print this out and send it to Tim DeChristopher. I hope he is interested.

  2. This piece seems rather sloppy.

    “Eating a vegan diet is seven times more effective at reducing emissions than eating a so-called sustainable, local, meat-based diet.”

    The study cited by the WPF report doesn’t actually show this. That study compares the reduction in greenhouse gases achieved by eliminating all greenhouse gases to the reduction in greenhouse gases achieved by eating vegan foods. It doesn’t account for any differences in production between the local and conventional animal products. As such, it really only makes the argument against meat from the factory farm next door.

    “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.”

    The study isn’t referring to a scenario in which we substituted chicken for all beef, though. In context, it says that the 5 to 13 percent reduction would be achieved by substituting poultry for all marginal beef above 2000 levels.

    “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.”

    There’s a school of thought that problems on the scale of global warming can only be addressed on the societal level. Under this school of thought, even if a vegan society were a goal, the way of achieving it wouldn’t be to tell people to go vegan but to advocate for policies that would push people in that direction. And 350.org’s projects seem pretty consistent with this policy-oriented approach. They’re not telling people to stop using oil, after all.

    “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.”

    I will agree that this argument for pasture-based meat is not so strong. My issue with it is that it ignores the export of nutrients that happens on all of our farms (whether producing crops or meat) but never in nature. The exported nutrients have to be replenished somehow, and so we hear about pasture-based farms (i.e. Polyface) that actually bring in large amounts of grain to be fed to chickens or pigs.

    “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.”

    I doubt that a compelling case can be made for vegan fundamentalism on environmental grounds. A system that feeds its food waste to animals when possible will tend to be more efficient than one that composts those scraps and grows crops with them. If you want to argue against that kind of meat production, you probably have to appeal to the animal’s interests.

  3. Keith Akers says:

    RE: making a case for veganism on environmental grounds.

    In the first place, you couldn’t make such a case in a blog post. There are too many widely distributed assumptions that need to be undone. I tried to do that in my book “A Vegetarian Sourcebook.” It’s old and the data is out of date, but neither agriculture nor the laws of physics have changed that much in the past 30 years.

    You have to look at the system as a whole. You can make a case for pasture-fed beef as “environmental” if you isolate certain factors and ignore the whole system. This is what the advocates of pasture-fed beef are doing. Habitat destruction, for example, is the leading cause of species extinction, and grazing is extremely destructive in that respect.

    Grazing animals tends to deplete the soil. Humans view land they can’t till as “waste” and thus will not be content until every last square inch of the planet is exploited for human purposes. That is what we observe historically (northern Africa, the Thar Desert, the American southwest in the 19th century). Overgrazing is the single most environmentally destructive practice in terms of land and soil. Also, it would seem that feeding food waste to animals, rather than composting the waste, will tend to deplete the soil just because the nutrients returned to the soil by animals will be less than those in the original food waste.

    Keith

  4. Keith Akers says:

    Re: WPF link

    The link above for the World Preservation Foundation’s PDF is invalid. It appears that the link above includes the closing bracket as part of the URL. It should be just:

    http://www.worldpreservationfoundation.org/Downloads/ReducingShorterLivedClimateForcersThroughDietaryChange.pdf

    . . . without the closing bracket.

  5. Keith Akers says:

    Re: societal advocacy vs. individual action

    I see Adam’s point that societal changes may be more critical in achieving results than individual changes. Thus, advocating that individuals become vegan may be less effective than advocating changes in policies which will push them in the same direction.

    This sort of subtle distinction between changing policies versus changing individuals isn’t 350.org’s problem. The meat consumption that McKibben advocates — pasture-fed beef — is actually the WORST sort for climate change. It’s pasture fed beef which emits MORE methane than factory farmed beef. And methane, as the WPF report points out, is both one of the most ominous factors in climate change and also one of the factors that could be most quickly addressed. Why can’t 350.org admit this? Most likely, just for the reasons that McWilliams suggests.

    Let’s agree that meat-eating is a problem, a really big problem, in fact the most critical problem in addressing climate change. Then we can sort out policies to advocate and tactics to follow in fighting this problem.

    Keith

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