On a train from Sweden to Denmark, I sat with my vegan friend and another passenger close by. My friend and I were having a rather loud conversation about global warming. When we started ranting about factory farming’s contribution to it all, the stranger got up and left our compartment. He sat himself a few rows down. I was slightly embarrassed that we made him uncomfortable enough to move away from us, but it also made me wonder when it will be socially acceptable to get angry about what is happening to our environment. When will it be a part of our dialogue?
As 2016 Earth Day approaches, the hottest year on record just past in 2015, carbon dioxide levels are the highest in 650,000 years, and a record-low ice streak is exposing never-seen before land. As such, this Earth Day presents a time to remember that our anthropogenic footprint is threatening to override the careful balance of our planet. The problem is so gargantuan and overwhelming that activists are desperate for a wholesale green movement. The ability to achieve such a movement would be necessary for the survival of life on earth, yet it is an upward battle to convince others that our standard lifestyles must change. Global warming deniers and others less inclined to support environmentalism are a threat to achieving a benchmark of change. As Earth Day approaches on April 20th, there are many problems to consider and mull over, yet the breadth of issues is impossible to surmise. The best way to grasp the intimidating idea of climate change is to make its presence an everyday reality. The clothes, cars, chemicals and foods we consume are subject to conversion. There are many options to convert to a green lifestyle, but, perhaps, the most cost-effective, impactful and immediate action one can take is to reduce personal meat consumption.
There are some startling figures to support this. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that “when one includes land-use changes and deforestation, livestock activities contribute 18% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” Animal agriculture attributes for 51 percent, or more, of global greenhouse emissions and the University of Chicago found that adopting a vegan diet is even more sustainable than going from a standard car to a hybrid. The United Nations says that a “global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change.” As one presents these facts, coincidently, a survey of 8,000 vegans showed that 42% became vegan after watching a documentary that showed similar factoids. Not only is meat unsustainable, the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that eating a vegetarian diet is cheaper. If people were simply aware of the relatively unknown destruction caused by the meat industry, and its expense, would they change too? There is understandable reluctance to change one’s diet and it is not simply enough to espouse numbers—it becomes dizzying and repetitive. So, enough with the statistics.
What the green or environmentalist movement calls for now is pragmatism. It is exhausting and unfruitful to get on one’s soapbox and persuade naysayers. It is more effective to simply focus on individual and familial responsibility, right? Whatever “little helps” is encouraged and socially acceptable (i.e. turning off the lights, unplugging one’s charger, etc.). Being a vegan seems unattainable, radical and preachy, just as being a tree hugger or ‘living off the grid’ seems wacky. In David J.C. MacKay’s “Without Hot Air,” a scientific paper, doing “whatever little helps” is a lot more manageable and acceptable, but it does nothing to benefit the overall climate.
Currently, the United Nations is looking into viable solutions to make big things happen. One of the three main pillars of the United Nation’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development is combating climate change. Getting to achieve that goal, among others, by 2030 seems just as arduous as trading every article of one’s clothing into eco-friendly hemp. Whatever little a person or family does, or even the UN declares, can be overshadowed by irreversible damage already in existence, notwithstanding government policies that allow future destruction. It is impossible for some politicians to even believe that climate change is real and, if they end up believing, it is even more contentious to implement new sustainable infrastructures and systems. When the meat industry is ever included in the climate change discussion, there is denial and incapability to regulate the very industry that lobbies and funds those politicians.
A deeply-ingrained global food culture of meat eating is not only influenced by governments, but by tradition, religion, masculinity, and myths of a proper diet and mere tastiness. The most controversy surrounding a meat-free diet is infringing on others freedom to choose. However, the freedom to eat as much meat as modern factory farming allows may inhibit even our ability to source fresh drinking water in the future.
Earth Day sets a time for contemplation, especially as climate change becomes increasingly acute. It is concerning if the world has enough time for languid days of reflection, watching documentaries, like Cowspiracy, on Netflix for the trend, or continuing the relaxed modern lifestyles that incorporate spurts of environmentalism with an ultimate emphasis on excess. The capacity to do, buy and eat whatever we want has catalysed unchangeable effects.
If societies were to sanction the meat industry and demand sustainable meats, that would mean an overhaul of facilities, infrastructure and a possible strain on those who are used to eating meat for every meal of the day. Prior to the Industrial Era, factory farming was non-existent and most families consumed meat only once per week globally. There is one more statistic to share: since industrialisation began in the late 19th century, the earth has warmed 0.8 Celsius since 1880 and continues to increase 0.1 degrees every decade.
Some may challenge that human civilisation has only survived and evolved because of our capability to manipulate nature and industrialise. We have irrigated fields and slaughtered animals since early human history. Our carbon foot print began as soon as we discovered fire, and has merely escalated as our civilisations have grown in size and complexity. Scientists theorise that the ability to maintain animal protein in the hominid diet nourished crucial brain development for the eventual modern human. However, anthropologists, archeologists, and forensic scientists have found that fossils of early humans contain mostly nuts and fruits. It is indisputable that the modern human is the product of survival and ingenious inventions, but their development does not hinge on animals. Meat was hard to hunt and keep fresh. Keeping animals domestically is as ancient a practice as civilisation, beginning in Mesopotamia, but animals were hard to keep in bounty. The meat consumption we rely on today is a feast compared to the modest diets of grains, vegetables and the rare animal protein of yesteryear.
Looking at our guts and digestion, they are incredibly neutral. We can survive off of many different foods thanks to our adaptability. Rather than assuming our current meat-based diets are the same as all other points in human evolution, and that our physiology is dependent on and made for meat, it is theorised that the last few million years have changed our guts more than ever. We have digestive systems that are not tailored to particular proteins, yet scientists have found that now our digestive systems are consolidating agriculture and highly-processed foods. There are recent microbial complexes. With agriculture, people have evolved extra copies of amylase genes to metabolise starchy foods, some populations evolved gene variants to deal with consistent lactase to break down lactose in milk beyond infancy and various populations in Japan have developed bacteria to efficiently digest seaweed. In essence, our bodies are prepared to survive on a plant-based diet and only recently have evolved to adapt to agriculture and processing.
Our reliance on meat and unsustainable practices is a direct correlation of our development and incurring population size. We believe we have no other choice but to practice unsustainable methods because that is the key to our survival. We have so many mouths to feed and a demanding market. However, the mechanisms we choose for survival can span from ecological to downright dangerous. We have chosen practices that now threaten human, animal, and plant life. The window of opportunity to change those habits is closing as warming temperatures go beyond the tipping point. The question remains: once at the tipping point, will we act?
Environmentalists and vegans may be overpowered and what they do may be cancelled out by the majority, yet both movements are still growing. My friend, who was on the train with me to Denmark, is still a vegan despite it being discouraged by family and, as we discovered, total strangers. To her, this movement is bigger than their disapproval. She is an environmentalist and vegan for the world: its animals, plants and people.
As Earth Day arrives and the climate becomes incrementally hotter, it is important to see if climate change begins to alter habits and extend thoughtfulness beyond Earth Day. Blaring statistics and science may appeal to some, but it may be more persuasive to make emotional appeals. The impact of climate change must be felt before people decide to act. One has to feel this is all wrong in their gut. To think about the utter destruction of our planet may compel a person to cook tofu stir fry instead of meatballs tonight, but this is, of course, just food for thought.
By Mariah Katz
Cover picture: Public Domain
Picture 1: Public Domain
Picture 2: Public Domain