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If you're not a vegetarian, are you really an environmentalist?
Emily Gertz, 17 Sep 07

Admitting that he loves "poking the hornet's nest," Gristmill's Dave Roberts takes a look at a big ol' controversy swirling around recent statement by Matt Prescott, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that "you just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist." PETA and allies are currently running a campaign to convey how much raising animals for consumption is contributing to global warming.

Dave observes, and I concur, that this campaign succeeds on its own terms, by getting some public attention on environmental toll of massive-scale animal husbandry. But what I really enjoyed about this Gristmill post -- and why you should go read it -- is how effectively Dave unpacks a particular trunk of old school deep green dualism:

Is it true that you cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist?

This is a deeply silly question. The term "environmentalist" is socially contingent and highly contested. Environmentalism has no metaphysical essence. "You aren't an environmentalist" is moral judgment masquerading as an assertion of fact.

Every discussion I've ever witnessed about who is or isn't an environmentalist, or what does or doesn't count as environmentalism -- and believe me, at this point I've seen plenty -- contains vastly more heat than light. Feelings are hurt, umbrage is taken, but nothing is ever learned, no consensus is ever reached. It's a peacock show through which everyone parades their biases and preconceptions.

...Those of us on more or less the same side gain very little by furiously judging each other's personal choices in a futile attempt to define the tribal boundaries of environmentalism.

Go read the whole thing.

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Comments

Why dumb down what it means to be an environmentalist? Can you drive a Hummer and be an environmentalist, now, also? How about flying in a private jet?

If environmentalism means anything, it should mean that we don't make choices that are excessively resource intensive and polluting, and eating animal products is hugely resource intensive and polluting.
The U.N. report concluded that the meat industry is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."

It specifically addressed the contribution of eating meat to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."

The best thing any of us can do to walk more lightly on the earth is to adopt a vegan diet, and it's remarkably easy, as well.

Check out www.GoVeg.com/eco.


Posted by: TwinsFanatic on 17 Sep 07

Why dumb down what it means to be an environmentalist? Can you drive a Hummer and be an environmentalist, now, also? How about flying in a private jet?

If environmentalism means anything, it should mean that we don't make choices that are excessively resource intensive and polluting, and eating animal products is hugely resource intensive and polluting.

The U.N. report concluded that the meat industry is "one of the ... most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."

It specifically addressed the contribution of eating meat to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."

The best thing any of us can do to walk more lightly on the earth is to adopt a vegan diet, and it's remarkably easy, as well.

Check out www.GoVeg.com/eco.


Posted by: TwinsFanatic on 17 Sep 07

If you are not dead are you really an environmentalist?
With every breath you take you expel CO2, contributing to global warming!
All those beans you vegans eat aren't helping the problem either!
The vegetables you eat were grown on land that disrupts natural ecosystems!
The only real environmentalist are people like Jerry Garcia and Bret Midland the dead Dead.


Posted by: occam's comic on 17 Sep 07

In reality, the drive should be for reduction. It is ridiculous to think that every American will become a vegan (and surprisingly, every one I talk to tells me that cheese is the showstopper there, not beef or chicken). Instead, raising enough awareness about the environmental impact of our food choices might be enough to prompt positive change. So I agree with the author of the Grist article, regardless of what you think of Peta, veganism, and environmental impact, you are thinking about them, which is positive. Additionally, in spite of what the 'tribal boundaries' of environmentalism are, becoming a vegetarian/vegan is one area where people can get the most 'bang for their buck' in reducing their environmental impact so it is worth making an attempt at becoming a vegetarian. As far as I am concerned, any reduction in destruction of the environment and cruelty to animals is a step in the right direction and I, as a vegan, will applaud anyone for making that step instead of chastising that they haven't done enough.


Posted by: Rob on 17 Sep 07

Additionally, in spite of what the 'tribal boundaries' of environmentalism are, becoming a vegetarian/vegan is one area where people can get the most 'bang for their buck' in reducing their environmental impact

Vegans like to think that, but it's not true. The two biggest things one can do is not own a car and using only renewable energy for electricity. That dwarfs veganism in terms of environmental benefit.


Posted by: PT on 17 Sep 07

Using only renewable energy is a seriously pricey proposition - if possible at all - for the vast majority of people. Not owning a car is great for people who live in cities, like myself, but unrealistic for rural or suburban dwellers - a serious problem in itself.

Switching to a vegetarian diet, however, is relatively easy, and costs nothing more - and potentially much less - than eating meat. Bang-for-buck (in terms of dollars and convenience), Rob is undeniably right.


Posted by: Androo on 17 Sep 07

I am reminded of 2 sayings by the Buddhist philosopher Dogen Zenji (1200 - 1253).

"If you insist upon disciplinary regulations and vegetarianism as fundamental, make them established practices, and think you can attain enlightenment that way, you are wrong."

"When you see others' errors and you want to guide them because you think they are wrong and you feel compassion for them, you should employ tact to avoid angering them, and contrive to appear as if you were talking about something else."

Thinking about this helps me not get too dogmatic, or self-righteous, and to remember that we all are trying our best in the situation we find ourselves at the moment.


Posted by: Sherwin Goodson on 17 Sep 07

If you drive a Hummer, fly around in jets, and preserve a billion acres of rainforest, then sure ... you might be an environmentalist.

Most of us don't operate on that scale, but it it has got to be about net impact, and not litmus tests.

(Jeez louise, my Prius is in a minority at Sierra Club events, with more 4x4s than small cars.)


Posted by: odograph on 18 Sep 07

After studying the nation's roadsides, I have to conclude you just cannot be a car-driving vegan. The roadkills large enough to see from a moving car are just the tip of the iceberg.

For that matter, you cannot be 100% vegan, successfully. You can strive to. You can bully and nag other people to. You can pat yourself on the back. But you can't actually do it. Even suicide would involve killing an animal.

But getting back on topic, you absolutely can be a meat-eating environmentalist. Permaculture, the most comprehensive recipe for sustainability we have, includes domestic animals such as chickens and pigs in its designs because we humans are simply not equipped to make use of all our resources and wastes without them. Eating them is optional, of course, but unless there's some other top predator in your food chain, not eating them is unnatural.

I am in no way in favor of industrial agriculture, and to that extent I agree with PETA. But fundamentalism is counterproductive.


Posted by: Ben Stallings on 18 Sep 07

In my opinion it is great to see people becoming more conscious about their harm/resource footprint on this small planet. Eating lower on the food chain, ie, reducing one's meat and dairy intake, especially factory farmed meat is one great step in the right direction. And of course no one can be perfect, fundamentalism has that underlying understandable desire to be perfect, however, in the process alienates those they try to change. But I think it is better to have compassion for yourself and others, leave some room to let folks grow on their own terms, rather than be rigid and unreasonable.

I have a feeling though that if you really wanted to reduce your lifecycle harm/resource footprint even more, consider having fewer children, or reversing your down-the-line future impact by adopting unwanted children, after all, folks with legacies of 20 or 30 grandchildren over two generations may be vegan etc, but those 20 grandchildren are all going to consume and displace many times the resources you used decades earlier...


Posted by: Road on 18 Sep 07

Using only renewable energy is a seriously pricey proposition

Cost me about 2 quarters per month.

- if possible at all - for the vast majority of people.

Green power options are widely available now.

Not owning a car is great for people who live in cities, like myself, but unrealistic for rural or suburban dwellers - a serious problem in itself.

They chose to live there, just like people choose what to eat. It's easy to live without owning a car, especially nowadays.

Switching to a vegetarian diet, however, is relatively easy

Not really, no. It's a major life change and requires a great deal of skill and knowledge to execute properly. It also impacts one's social life pretty heavily.

and costs nothing more - and potentially much less - than eating meat

The amount of money one might save from not eating meat is trivial compared to the amount one can save from reducing one's energy use in the home and with transportation (not to mention the expense of owning a vehicle). Vegetable protein isn't nearly as inexpensive as eggs and some chicken, unless you're talking cooking beans in a pot, which involves a lot of time, energy, and skill to pull of well. Plus, many people have severe trouble tolerating legumes.

Bang-for-buck (in terms of dollars and convenience), Rob is undeniably right.

Not in a million years.


Posted by: PT on 18 Sep 07

As people who care about the world around us, we should all strive to make as little impact as possible, and encourage others to do the same. Unfortunately, many of us must drive cars and use unsustainable electricity in this modern world of ours. While we can try our best to conserve, some use is unavoidable. These are the big, obvious issues. But what about the small ones? The every day purchases?

Every time I spend a dollar, I think "what is the environmental impact of this?" Because I avoid a lot of non-essentials, that leaves my food choices to consider. Most pre-prepared foods are out, for health and environmental reasons. I'm buying local as much as possible, so what else can I change?

The answer is simple. Eating low on the food chain prevents waste of energy. It also means less pollution and less global warming gases. Every time I choose a meal that is free of animal products, I am choosing a healthier planet.

We don't all have to be vegan. But we don't have to eat steak every day either.


Posted by: Anastasia Bodnar on 18 Sep 07

PT,
Is cooking beans or whole grains really more difficult than cooking meat? I really don't think so, especially considering that improperly cooked meat can kill you.

Check out the report "Livestock's Long Shadow" by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN). The research clearly shows that animal agriculture is extremely detrimental to the environment, more so than all forms of transportation combined.

Also, why not do both? If we all cut back on fossil fuel use AND cut back on meat consumption, think of what a clean world this could be! :)


Posted by: Anastasia Bodnar on 18 Sep 07

Is cooking beans or whole grains really more difficult than cooking meat?

Let's see. To cook a steak, I heat a pan, take the steak out of its package, rinse it, rub it with salt and pepper, then put it on the pan. Takes 15 or 20 minutes at most, depending on thickness.

To cook beans, I need to pick out any debris, rinse them a couple of times, then soak them for many hours - probably overnight. Then, I have to discard the soak water, rinse again (optional step), put into the cooking container, add water, some rinsed-off kombu, then let it go for another long period of time (overnight with a crockpot, a few hours on the stovetop, less time if using a pressure cooker). The latter two options require me to check on it regularly.

At the end of all that, I can add some salt for flavor, then move on to other flavoring or enhancement.

Yes, the meat is easier.

I really don't think so, especially considering that improperly cooked meat can kill you.

Kill me? Any food can kill you if you don't know what you're doing.

Check out the report "Livestock's Long Shadow" by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN). The research clearly shows that animal agriculture is extremely detrimental to the environment, more so than all forms of transportation combined.

What it says is that the sum total of emissions, both direct and indirect, account for 18 percent of global GHG emissions, which compares with 16% for direct emissions for transportation. It compares systemic with direct emissions, and is global, not specific to a developed country. In the report, they make strong distinctions about that. They also point out that fully 1/2 of that 18 percent is attributable to one aspect of livestock production, and that that number (9%) is highly uncertain, and is basically zero in a country like the United States. Have you read the full report? If you have, maybe you could tell us what that one aspect is.

Also, why not do both? If we all cut back on fossil fuel use AND cut back on meat consumption, think of what a clean world this could be! :)

"If we all" did all sorts of things, the world would be different. The hard part is making the "we all" part happen. Switching to carbon-neutral electricity takes 5 minutes. Changing from a gas guzzler to a fuel sipper takes a 2 hour trip to a car dealership. Dropping one's car altogether takes a classified ad. Getting a transit card and a carsharing membership takes a trivial amount of time as well.

Of course it's not either/or, but the impact of diet on the climate is severely overstated by some people, none of whom seem to have read the FAO report they all cite. One's environmental impact in a developed nation comes overwhelmingly from transportation and home energy choices. Even going down the food chain with diet doesn't guarantee a super-light footprint. It's the resource-intensive and high-waster industrial agriculture system that's to blame for that.


Posted by: PT on 18 Sep 07

PT, you got it exactly right in your last paragraph - "It's the resource-intensive and high-waster industrial agriculture system that's to blame for that."

Intensive agriculture methods cause a lot of environmental problems. The worst of all are the monocultures of corn and soy that blanket the midwest. It takes 3 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of chicken. Instead of using all that land to grow corn and soy to feed to animals, wouldn't it be less wasteful to eat the plants directly? That's what I mean by eating lower on the food chain. Honestly, it would be best if we all ate algae, but that would be considered extreme by most people. Cutting back the total amount of meat in your diet is simple, and has health benefits to boot!

You're convinced that you must eat meat, and I can't change that - but I encourage you to at least consider small local farms. The price is higher, but the quality is better and the negative impact is less.

Global warming gases are only one type of environmental damage to consider. Over-use and pollution of water is an even more immediate, but less frequently mentioned problem. Animal agriculture in the US is destroying the land, but so many people don't even care. It's sad.

For example, look at the article "Boss Hog" in Rolling Stone from last year. Their story isn't unusual.


Posted by: Anastasia Bodnar on 18 Sep 07

Meh. I'm a non-driving, local-eating vegan. I figure I'm doing ok as an environmentalist. But, you know, I'm on a computer right now. That's kind of toxic. Coal burning allows these lights to stay on, etc.

I figure most us will justify our actions, as unsustainable as they are. Nobody likes to call themselves guilty.


Posted by: David Lucas on 18 Sep 07

Some issues are provocative and constructive; others are provocative and divisive. In my experience diet choices are matched only by religious issues for noise/signal.

(Well, okay, there's Emacs vs vi.)

Worldchanging should be the place to find discussions of problems that are solveable. This one, practically speaking, isn't solveable.


Posted by: Patrick Hall on 18 Sep 07

Years ago, I tried to become a vegetarian for the express purpose of reducing my environmental impact. I set about this very deliberately and carefully, and did a lot of research on how to properly balance your diet to achieve proper nutrition without meat. I had also been eating about two thirds of my meals without meat for three years, so I figured it wouldn't be too hard to go the extra distance.

However, it really didn't work out. I ate about six times a day, and I was still hungry. The mix of various legumes, pulses, and grains I was eating were not enough to keep me from feeling like I was starving, and I lost six pounds in three months. I am not a guy who really needs to lose weight--I am 5'5" and normally weigh about 145-150 pounds. More to the point, I was always distracted by hunger. I finally gave up and went back to eating meat.

I offer this up to anyone who says that it is "easy" to become a vegetarian. Maybe for some it is, but my metabolism apparantly does not support it. To deal with my carnivorous tendencies, I would like to raise small meat animals and egg-laying chickens, but I am currently living in a place where that is not legal. I recently found out that I have hypoglycemia, which means that I require more protein than a lot of people just to keep my blood sugar from crashing.

I am pretty sick of radical vegans who insist that everyone must eat only vegetables. The fact is, our human ancestry is full of people who subsisted largely upon meat, when they could get it, and our physiology reflects that. Most Americans could surely eat less meat than they do now. Our industrial farming model is exceptionally hard on the both the ecology and the organisms which are contained in it, including animals raised for food. But veganism is not a solution that we can all participate in.


Posted by: Christian on 19 Sep 07

I appreciate the remark that Worldchanging is where we write about solutions...and want to point out to anyone who feels that this discussion isn't "worldchanging" that hashing through these issues is part of reaching out for solutions. As a tactic, PETA's campaign is great: more people now know how taxing large-scale meat farming is to the environment, particularly the atmosphere and climate. But if the end is to really get the average American to give up eating meat, then the value of the campaign diminishes. Most people will dismiss giving up meat as an option, and probably decide that therefore it's pointless to change any habit.

What if they ate half as much meat? What if it was all sustainably raised? Or even half sustainably raised? All of those changes would make a positive impact.

We've noted on Worldchanging in the past that in the near future, methods of culturing meat in labs likely will be perfected and undertaken on a large scale. At that point, the ecological negatives of industrial-scale animal husbandry may virtually vanish.

Once the killing of a living, breathing being with a central nervous system is removed from the equation, will it be ecologically ethical to eat meat?


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 19 Sep 07

In response to the above, I've asked many of my meat-eating friends this same question. Only one of them said they would ever touch vat-grown meat. Their reply is the same reply some "environmentalists" give for not eating genetically modified foods- it's not "natural".
We'll see, tho, won't we? When vat grown meat is safer and cheaper than raising and killing whole animals, one would be kind of foolish or mean to turn it down.


Posted by: David Lucas on 20 Sep 07

Re: the comment above, that switching to a vegetarian diet "also impacts one's social life pretty heavily"

Clearly more important to maintain one's social life than to make an adjustment to address major environmental crises.

Fortunately, we humans are looking good and being socially acceptable while most animals we eat are born and raised in a factory.


Posted by: Vaci on 21 Sep 07

Clearly more important to maintain one's social life than to make an adjustment to address major environmental crises.

If that adjustment actually made a difference, I might be inclined to be sympathetic to your position. But since it doesn't, and most people know this already on an intuitive level, they aren't about to, en masse, give up one of the most important aspects of one's human existence (one's friends and relationships) for the sake of some vague goal, with low likelihood of making a meaningful impact.

That may offend you, but you will never ever see mass martyrdom for an extended period of time for something very few people will ever really understand or believe in.


Posted by: PT on 21 Sep 07

Ah, veganism, my old enemy. We meet at last.

But seriously, this is an issue that seems to come up a lot in discussion. Can someone be an environmentalist, but still eat meat?

Of course. What, you were expecting more before I jumped into that? Sorry to dissapoint, but I really didn't see the need to do that, though I'm not about to leave you hanging.

So as I said, of course someone can be an environmentalist and still eat meat and animal products. As a biologist, I'm privy to the little-known that that humans *gasp* are omnivores. I'm not saying that meat is the way to go, but it is a valid option and people need to recognize that.

Big-business farming is horrible on many levels, and I don't think that anyone is arguing with that. It's essentially a process that ruins huge tracts of land, is terrible inefficient, and is often very cruel. I just don't think that vegie/vegan is a viable option at the moment.

For starters, the vast majority of people (and many vegans) have no clue to live that lifestyle and be healthy. I personally know two people that are anemic because of dangerous vegan eating habits years ago. All of those processes need to be changed, as that's much more likely than getting a significant percentage of the population to drastically change thier eating habits.

If you're concered about the impact of your diet on the environment, then look into your individual products. Personally, I've taken to buying kosher meat because of the better quality of performance pre-plate. :P

I think that a much better start would be driving as fuel-efficient of a car as possible. The argument that noone *has* to own a car and that it's allways a non-environmentalist choice is also nonsense. Sure, I could choose instead to live in a city where there is public transit and shorter distances, but do you really think that you're not causing equal if greater environmental damage in a city? What do you think that buses and trains run on, flower petals?

Buy some solar panels to layer your roof with, drive an efficient (if not electric) car, and then do what you can with your diet. I think that's a much more valid wayto approach things.


Posted by: Psiborg on 26 Sep 07



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