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Vegetarianism,
Al Gore,
and PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued a press release on October 1 once again attacking Al Gore because he eats meat and yet wants to end global warming. Theyíve got a billboard with a picture of Gore munching on a drumstick and saying "Too Chicken to go Vegetarian? Meat is the #1 cause of Global Warming." Ingrid Newkirk repeats the assertion printed on a PETA flyer that "there's no such thing as a meat-eating environmentalist" and cites the recent FAO study which stated that the cattle industry causes more global warming than the entire transportation sector.

PETA has some valid points: meat-eating is related to environmental destruction and global warming. However, their press release creates more problems than solutions. You donít make the environmental case for vegetarianism by making ham-handed and inaccurate attacks. This is such an obvious turn-off that I am tempted just to point it out and leave the question "what is wrong with this approach, and why?" as an exercise for the reader.

PETA may be assuming that "no publicity is bad publicity," but this is just not true.  At some point, people will write you off no matter what you say.  As long as this only affected PETA, it wouldn't be so bad, but it would be unfortunate if this spilled over to affect vegetarians generally.

Because others may assume that PETA speaks for vegetarians, vegans, and people who care about animals, Iím going to point out -- in excruciating detail -- just precisely what is wrong with this press release, and make it clear that PETA doesnít speak for me.

1. The core claim is inaccurate.

It is sloppy and inexact to say "meat is the #1 cause of global warming," and this is bound to come out when anyone takes a closer look at the realities.  Livestock actually contributes about 18% to the total global warming effect (FAO, p. 272). This is certainly significant, but that still leaves 82% for other causes.  That meat-eating is the "#1 cause" of global warming is an artifact of how we present the data.  If you changed the way you categorize the causes of global warming -- lumping transportation with manufacturing to produce a "consumer goods" sector, perhaps -- something else might turn out to be the "#1 cause."  

But there's another complication.  The FAO report does not implicate the meat industry in global warming so much as it implicates the cattle industry.  We do not have so much a "meat problem" as we have a "cow problem."  To quote from the FAO report, Livestockís Long Shadow: "damage occurs at both the high and low end of the intensity spectrum, but it is probably highest for beef and lowest for poultry" (FAO, p. 275). All meat-eating contributes to global warming, but what really boosts the cattle industry above the rest is methane production, a special feature of ruminant animals -- most notably, belching and pooping cows (FAO, p. 82-83). 

Itís ironic that the PETA ad shows Gore eating chicken, which is not the worst global warming food.  Compared to beef, it is actually substantially better.  They could have depicted Gore with a steak, but then the pun involved in calling him a "chicken" would be lost.  Publicity value, in this case, trumps accuracy.

2. Framing this as a "global warming" issue is misleading.

The FAO report is about more than global warming. It is about the soil, the water, and the forests -- issues on which the relationship between vegetarianism and the environment is much, much stronger. Food production takes about 17% of the annual fossil fuel use in the United States, but causes almost 100% of the soil erosion.

But soil erosion as an issue is not as "sexy" as global warming. So they altered a basically sound case so it would apply in a misleading way to the issue of the moment. It appears to me that PETA hasnít really studied this problem. Theyíve just thrown together a press release and launched their well-oiled publicity machine without actually considering whether what they are saying is strictly accurate.

3. Personal attacks donít cut it.

PETAís billboard is, in effect, a personal attack on Al Gore. It accuses him of cowardice because of his personal behavior ("too chicken to go vegetarian?"). It also engages in a futile debate about who the "real environmentalists" are. 

We could, I suppose, debate the ethics of making personal attacks. But beyond questions of ethics, who exactly do they think they are appealing to? Most environmentalists (and most Americans) eat meat. PETA is attacking most environmentalists, most Americans, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Uh, we need a different approach.

4. Disruption doesnít cut it.

There is a deeper point here, and that is that the mood of the country is shifting in a very significant way. From the 1960's to the 1990's, whether it was the counter-culture or Reaganís free-market economics, Americans have valued individualism. But now we are already facing major disruptions and challenges, such as global warming and a failed and immoral war in Iraq. We are on the brink of even more serious challenges such as peak oil and the collapse of the consumerist economy.

There is the growing (and accurate) perception that individualism has been taken too far -- that we do not need people to stir things up even more. The individualist approach of trying to disrupt things to get attention will become less and less effective with each passing month. PETA risks being categorized as a bunch of sectarian whiners.

Vegetarians can do better than this. Instead of the sort of name-calling slogans like "Gore is a chicken" which we often associate with the second grade, we need something along the lines of "Vegetarianism: good for you, good for the planet." By emphasizing that vegetarianism is a constructive and practical solution, we can connect with the environmental movement and ultimately the general public.

Keith Akers
October 13, 2007 (slightly modified October 17, 2007)

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UPDATE October 29, 2007:

There has now been some discussion of this by others on the web.  Here are my further comments.

1. Discussion of the claim that meat is the "#1 cause" on Salon.  

An article written by Liz Galst in Salon appeared, "Earth to PETA" (you may not be able to access it if you don't subscribe) which disputes PETA's claim, saying that "The No. 1 cause of global warming is burning fossil fuels for electric power."  She doesn't give the exact figure, but the "Time for Change" web site copies a graphic from Wikipedia citing the contribution of power stations at 21.3%, slightly more than the 18% from livestock.  

Matthew Prescott of PETA posted a reply saying that "in fact, animal agriculture uses enormous amounts of the energy produced by power plants to grow and process feed crops."  Evidently he thinks that if we didn't count the power generation emissions that specifically contribute to meat production, the 21.3% figure for power generation emissions would be brought down below 18%, thus once again making meat-eating the #1 cause.  

Well, I actually doubt this, but both Galst and Prescott have missed the point with this statistical quibbling.  When you have multiple causes, especially when each of them is much less than 50%, what the "#1 cause" is depends on how you slice and dice the statistics.  It is just plain sloppy to say something is the "#1 cause" without explaining that this means "18%" or "21.3%" or whatever.  If you wanted to, you could point out that 82% of global warming comes from causes other than meat-eating and conclude that "of all global warming emissions, the overwhelming preponderance is not related to meat-eating."  What would that prove?

2. PETA's Effectiveness.

I am in an environmental discussion group where this issue came up.  In this internet group, most of the respondents didn't like PETA's approach, even the vegetarians and vegans.  But one person did loyally try to defend PETA and raised an interesting point which I didn't think of: many people think of PETA as an effective group, and therefore tend to dismiss complaints about their obnoxiousness.

I don't have any scientific surveys to back this up, but in my experience PETA is not an effective group.  PETA is a polarizing group.  I have found that most environmentalists that I've talked to, in a variety of different contexts, are turned off by PETA.  At best they are indulgent, sort of dismissing what PETA does by saying things like "well, what do you expect from PETA anyway?" 

But the reaction of PETA's own members and supporters is quite different.  They see PETA speaking "truth to power," and send them more money.  PETA sees the money coming in and launches more campaigns, which in turn convinces the PETA members that the struggle is continuing -- and convincing everyone else that they are dealing with a bunch of people who are obnoxious, self-righteous, and uninterested in truth. 

PETA has created the same kind of vicious cycle of debate that the Christian right wing has done with their pet issues.  They've whipped up their own followers into a frenzy of enthusiasm and created a reaction among their opponents, but they have not actually substantially furthered public understanding.

3. The level of discourse.

I haven't seen anyone else (not even the Salon article) who has raised the question of the level of discourse.  This was so obvious to me that I thought it would be sufficient just to point out the infantile-like nature of a campaign that is reminiscent of second-grade playground rhetoric: "Gore is a chicken!" 

In the first place, Gore's motivations are not relevant to this debate and making this an issue does not help the debate.  It is an ad hominem argument, just the kind of thing that I am tired of, environmentalists are tired of, and the public is tired of.  But even at the level of political invective, it falls short; the only excuse for this sort of rhetoric is a plausible argument that Gore is, in fact, a coward.  If meat-eating caused 70% of global warming emissions -- the kind of thing which their misleading slogan about the "#1 cause" implies -- and Gore knew all this and didn't speak out, then I'd say they might have a good case.  

Now I don't know what goes on inside Gore's brain or what motivates him.  But with 82% of emissions due to factors other than meat consumption, and Gore at some considerable political risk striving to put the global warming issue on the world's table, I don't see how you could make a plausible argument to that effect.  PETA should produce some sort of argument or evidence that Gore is a coward, or they should apologize and stop their campaign.  In the meantime vegetarians and vegans can do their part by distancing themselves from PETA and saying to anyone who is listening: PETA doesn't speak for me.

UPDATE October 23, 2009:

It turns out that PETA might be right after all about meat being the leading cause of global warming! (Though for the wrong reasons.)  WorldWatch magazine is publishing an article "Livestock and Climate Change," by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. The key conclusion: livestock-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are 51%, or more, of all human-caused GHG emissions.  Anything more than 50% would make meat the undisputed leading cause of global warming, without any need to resort to statistical trickery.

Obviously this does not mean that we should make unsupported assertions on the chance that further research will justify us, so my basic political argument still holds.  It's also unclear how Goodland and Anhang's argument will stand up to scrutiny.  If it does though -- and their article at first glance looks pretty good -- then we might want to see if PETA still has some of those bumper stickers that have the slogan "Meat is the #1 cause of global warming." We might want to order some!