August 7th, 2008
By Alison Banville
There is something strange about today’s environmental movement. Something is not quite right. Passionate argument pours forth from the mouths of the ecologically aware - and yet there is something missing. There is a ‘Twilight Zone’ quality to the discourse, and the disturbing whiff of what the more cynical amongst us may even label a conspiracy.
What’s wrong? What is making a small, but very concerned, number of green campaigners so uneasy?
The answer lies in the stubborn refusal by the wider movement to confront, honestly, one of the most compelling issues at the heart of the debate - the disastrous environmental impact of meat and dairy production. Never has something so central to the causes of everything a movement is fighting to remedy been so willfully ignored by that same movement. But what can the reasoning be behind such an omission? Why on earth would intelligent, knowledgeable people, from grass roots campaigners to esteemed experts, disregard an issue as crucial as this in their fight for environmental justice? The answer is very simple - most environmentalists just adore a juicy steak, a bacon sandwich, a Sunday roast, a cheese toastie or a grand latte!
That is the inconvenient truth. It is the truth of the self-delusion of those who consume meat and dairy and yet congratulate themselves on their environmental awareness. These impassioned campaigners have found they are even more passionate about their pleasures. How annoying to find that the two conflict! And conflict they most certainly do, because as hard as it may be to digest, if you are a green who consumes meat or dairy - you are a walking environmental disaster.
The 2006 United Nations report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ sums things up nicely when it describes meat production as ‘one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.’ It states that animal agriculture, ’should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity,’ before concluding that ‘livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and - the impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.’
A slight problem, then, for those who expostulate on ecological destruction, to have to reconcile their eating habits with their environmental credentials. But, as the issue of global warming has reached centre stage, the role of animal agriculture has loomed ever larger as an undeniably significant factor, accounting, as it does, for eighteen percent of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than all the cars on the planet combined. In other words, the meat industry is a major villain of this piece - and the environmental movement is failing to confront it because those within it are just not prepared to examine their eating habits.
The glaring culpability of animal agriculture has, however, recently forced some commentators, belatedly - and perhaps out of sheer embarrassment - to construct a defence which will allow the carnivorous campaigner to discuss ecological destruction over a steak dinner with a clear conscience. In his recent article, ‘The Pleasures of the Flesh’, George Monbiot attempts just this using the ingenious ‘admit everything then reject the obvious conclusion’ strategy. He fully acknowledges the appalling environmental impact the meat industry has then, when the facts are screaming for the next step to be taken - that we stop eating its products, he declares that he cannot advocate a vegan diet because he tried it once and was not capable of following it! Well, what a well founded argument George! Your personal weakness is now a basis for not recommending something which would contribute massively to reducing every environmental problem faced by the planet.
What next? Peace activists arguing we drop fewer bombs? Would William Wilberforce now be held in such esteem had he advocated only a reduction in slave ownership because he had a slave himself and found he simply couldn’t do without him? What an inspiring speech in Parliament that would have made!
But George then stoops even lower in his desperation to justify his position. He peddles the kind of old-hat smear tactic one only expects to hear from an unreconstructed carnivore - the notion that all vegans are pale and weak. However, he does have evidence! Apparently, apart from a couple of miraculous exceptions, all the vegans he has ever met have fitted this description. How convenient! Perhaps he could argue the point with Carl Lewis, who, when he won his record-breaking four gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics was a vegan. It’s really a wonder he managed to stagger across the finish line.
Or maybe George would like to discuss his stance with Scott Jurek, the world’s greatest ultra-marathon runner and course record holder of the 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, run in temperatures of up to 130 degrees and known as the toughest footrace on earth?
What about shooting the breeze with Oscar-nominated actor Joachin Phoenix? Would he dare repeat this myth in front of the man who played the substantially built Johnny Cash so convincingly?
The evidence for the health benefits of a vegan diet is there for anyone who wishes to find it. George simply doesn’t want to know. He has employed his methods to give his position a veneer of credibility, and it will no doubt be pounced upon gratefully by others who are also in the throes of cognitive dissonance. But it demeans him, because it is disgraceful that a figure of his influence should discourage the adoption of a lifestyle which would have such clear environmental benefits. If he had half the integrity we all thought he did he would urge others to do what he could not, instead of wrapping his arguments up in shabby spin. He really should have left his ego out of it.
Paul Watson, founder member of Greenpeace and now scourge of the Japanese whaling fleet with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, asks in his essay ‘A Very Inconvenient Truth’, ‘why is it that all the world’s large environmental and conservation groups are not campaigning against the meat industry? It is a question that needs to be answered, and with a willingness to deal in truth, however painful that may be.
Gandhi famously said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ He was moved by compassion for the suffering of food animals, something rarely considered by environmentalists. They remain unmoved by that, but it seems they cannot even make a compassionate choice for the planet. The meat and dairy issue will be the true test of their commitment to this cause.
© Alison Banville 2008