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Problems with the environmental argument

July 15, 2010 (slightly revised July 17)

At a gathering last night, two respected vegan activists pointed out (in their talk) an interesting problem with the environmental argument for vegetarianism or veganism.  It tends to move people from beef to chicken and fish, rather than from meat-eating to veganism. Cows are connected with methane, which is connected with climate change, thus we should switch to chicken and fish. 

This doesnít make the environmental argument for veganism wrong; it could be answered. But it does create a case for dropping the environmental argument for most audiences that we might encounter, since the ethical argument clearly presents only one practical alternative, namely veganism, whereas the environmental argument (even if accepted) has much vaguer implications.  

Prioritizing the ethical argument to the exclusion of the environmental argument, however, creates a fatal problem for the vegan movement: the environmental issue just canít be ignored. It is the issue of the day, itís becoming increasingly critical, and our audience is likely to be less and less interested in anything else as time progresses. As James Hansen points out, we really are facing the extinction of all life on the planet.

At some point, the environmental issue will sweep all other issues from the podium. During the Great Depression and the Second World War, vegetarian societies which flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went into retreat as countries fought for survival against Nazi aggression; nobody had time for other issues. We have already reached a similar point. "Why worry about philosophical arguments concerning animal suffering," some will likely say, "when the future of the planet is at stake?"

There is a deeper problem here: one important reason that people are just switching from beef to chicken in response to environmentalism is that vegans have very little presence in the environmental movement. There are a few individuals such as Richard Heinberg and James Kunstler, although most vegetarians havenít even heard of them. When there is involvement in environmental issues, itís on a relatively superficial and opportunistic level; PETA and a few other groups tried to jump on the 2006 FAO report pinning 18% of greenhouse gas emissions to livestock agriculture, but there was very little attempt to understand or flesh out what this all meant, as illustrated by the claim that livestock agriculture was the "#1 cause" of greenhouse gas emissions.

On top of that, when WorldWatch magazine publishes an article in which they really do say that livestock agriculture is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions (putting it at 51%), it doesn't actually get that much attention in the vegetarian world.  

This is not to say that vegetarians are completely out to lunch on the environmental issue.  One shining exception is the PermaVegan (Jonathan Maxson), who clearly understands the implications of resource shortages and environmentalism for the vegan diet.  When the WorldWatch article was initially released, it attracted some positive notice from vegan bloggers such as Vance Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Ernst, and Sally Kniedel, as well as some criticisms from David Steele and Stephen Walsh; I also recall seeing a brief mention of it in VegNews.  But since late 2009, climate change seems to have disappeared as a major focus, and now prominent vegans are arguing against getting involved in the environmental issue at all.

I understand why vegans such as Stephen Walsh might disagree with the WorldWatch article, saying that it goes farther than the evidence, but to ignore the whole environmental issue entirely is really inexcusable. Humans could face extinction because of meat-eating? Maybe not, but we need to at least be looking at this. 

From a tactical standpoint, the main problem with the environmental argument for veganism is its complexity. You really need to understand the whole problem of resource shortages, limits to growth, and our debt-based financial system. Modern agriculture is really part of our industrial system, and as our industrial system founders on the twin demons of climate change and oil shortages, agriculture will founder as well. Indeed, agriculture will probably be the single most affected part of our system.  As the environment, our financial system, and our civilization collapse under the stress of unlimited economic growth, people are going to realize the necessity of a simpler lifestyle, of which veganism is an integral part.

Wake up, vegans: this is your issue.