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Laurie David and Vegetarianism

[You can view my letter to Laurie David here.]

Last night I went to hear Laurie David talk about global warming. She just got an Academy Award for the movie "An Inconvenient Truth"; she is a dynamic, friendly, and positive speaker on this subject. However, the web site she co-founded (StopGlobalWarming.org) says not a word about vegetarianism. The FAO just published a report in which it stated that the cattle industry was the single biggest cause of global warming -- cattle are worse than cars. On her web site there is a list of 30 simple things you can do in your everyday life to help stop global warming. Surely, in a list of 30 things you can do, at least one of these things should address the single biggest cause of global warming.

In March, I sent an e-mail letter about this to the StopGlobalWarming.org web site, and received only an automated response. I then sent another letter to her personally via her personal web site, in which I asked her to consider listing vegetarianism as a possible solution.  When I went to hear her speak in Denver, I submitted a question asking in effect "do you think that vegetarianism would help deal with global warming, and if so, why doesnít your web site mention this?"

Well, to make a long story short, my question was not selected, but in answering another question she made some very interesting comments, which basically changed my whole approach to this topic. 

She said that a lot of people have asked her about eating meat and wearing leather.  "Some people have said to me, ĎLaurie, are you vegetarian?í or ĎDo you eat meat?í, implying that if I eat meat, Iím not a real environmentalist. I absolutely reject that. No one does everything. You do what you can, and then you go a little further."

I'm serious about this global warming thing.  Here's our cloth shopping bags, and recycled paper -- including some paper that we find in various places and use the back of.  The table was bought used at a consignment store.  The lilacs on the table are from our back yard.  

Now I see the problem. It is not the request itself, but the history of the request that is the problem. She is responding basically to campaign of the well-known animal rights group group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA) to convince us that you canít be a meat-eating environmentalist.  

PETA has a flyer which says, "Think you can be a meat-eating environmentalist? Think again! If you care about the planet, go vegetarian." PETA recently sent a letter to Al Gore, telling him basically the same thing and pointing out the above-mentioned FAO report.

This is exactly the wrong way to approach the problem and, I regret to say, is typical of the animal rights approach to everything. The PETA flyer does not address what is best for the planet (although an answer to this question is suggested, as an afterthought, at the bottom). It addresses the question "who is an environmentalist." The implied answer: "only those who are vegetarian."

Oh, wonderful. Weíre not going to talk about forests destroyed, methane emissions, catastrophic soil erosion, famines and disease threatening millions, or a civilization on the brink of mind-numbing disasters which will take us right back to the middle ages if we survive at all. No; weíre going to talk about who the "true environmentalists" are.

We also compost, big time.  

This is sufficiently wrong-headed that I am tempted just to leave it right there, and leave the question "what is wrong with this approach, and why?" as an exercise for the reader. However, because the animal rights movement has become increasingly isolated in recent years, I am now going to point out to you, gentle reader, in no uncertain terms just what the problems are with this line of thinking.

The main problem is that this kind of polemics doesnít match the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist, the emerging new world-view. The animal rights approach might have worked in the heady days of the counter-culture and youthful rebellion. It might have worked during the Reagan or Clinton years, when gas was cheap and PCs were appearing on everyoneís desk. The spirit of our times is different; it is one of crisis.

We grow all of our own garlic.  This crop should be ready in another couple of months.  

I know: people have declared that the end was near before, and it didnít happen. The Environmental Handbook prepared for the first Earth Day declares on its back cover -- "1970's -- the last chance for a future that makes ecological sense." So people have become somewhat jaded to declarations that the end is near; they have treated it as just another example of rhetorical overkill, and I see the eyes begin to roll as soon as I open my mouth to say, "environmental disaster is imminent." But the reality is that all the crises that activists of a variety of stripes have been complaining about for decades have now come to a head, and these crises have created an entirely different social consciousness.

Here is a clue: environmental disaster is imminent. The reason I am saying this is not for effect, or to get your attention, but because environmental disaster really is imminent. In fact, in a certain sense, itís even worse than Laurie David imagines, because of the problems of oil depletion. "Peak oil" means there will be no long, leisurely transition into a more environmentally friendly future. There will be an involuntary and rather sudden descent into economic chaos when demand for oil exceeds supply -- a more Draconian Kyoto Protocol, enforced by nature with a rather heavy hand. And oil depletion doesnít even solve the global warming problem, either -- because we may start burning lots more coal to compensate for the missing oil, as a number of liberal Democrats are already suggesting, a reaction that could make global warming dramatically worse.

I would urge vegetarian and animal rights activists to take a look at Barbara Tuchmanís A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which details a Europe that dealt with a plague that wiped out perhaps half of Europe and began the Hundred Yearsí War. That, my friends, is the closest historical analogy that we have for what is about to happen, indeed, that has already begun. As Laurie David says, "weíre going to be in a crash, but would you rather be in a crash going 5 miles an hour or a crash going 50 miles an hour?" Iím betting that weíre going faster than 5 miles an hour already. The animal rights movement needs to ask themselves this question: how are you going to convince people to believe in animal rights when gas is $20 a gallon and people are burning their furniture to stay warm in the winter?

O. K., maybe Iím exaggerating.  But more importantly, this is what is in peopleís minds: environmentalists are scared. All this blowhard rhetoric theyíve been spouting for years about "disaster" actually turns out to be, well, pretty much on target. Iím scared, and I can see it in other peopleís eyes as well. A conversation turns to the environment, and people start by complaining about how stupid the administration is and how screwed up the economy and the environment is, and then sort of realize that itís not their imaginations and their gums flapping -- itís real. And when people are scared, they look for wholistic solutions rather than disruptive solutions. Nature will be quite disruptive enough.

There is a sense of crisis combined with an awareness that existing political and economic institutions cannot deliver the goods. People tend to draw together. They want community. And when they are concerned about the environment, they do not want to hear right off the bat that some animal rights group doesnít think that they are "true environmentalists" because theyíre eating meat.

The PETA slogan might make some marginal amount of sense if there was actually a large, active animal rights contingent within those who consider themselves environmentalists. But in fact, animal rights activists and environmentalists live pretty much in completely different universes. So in practice, saying "true environmentalists donít eat meat" excludes about 90% of the environmentalists from a movement that the animal rights people are not even part of.

And here's our low-flow showerhead. Is this the Ritz or what?

So what do we do about this? One approach would be to accept environmentalism as a movement, as it is, and then seek to change it from within. You would not start, in this scenario, by declaring that all who disagreed with you should be excluded from the movement. Instead, you would come to the movement with the message, we want to help. We want to help both because our message is a helpful message, and also because we personally are helpful.

By being vegetarian, we help the environment. Itís your choice whether or not to become vegetarian, but we can explain what weíre doing and how it helps the environment, which is quite a bit. I mean, look at all those methane emissions that you are never going to see. No one insists that anyone who does not use a compact fluorescent, or does not use a push mower, or refuses to turn down their thermostat in the winter, is not a "true environmentalist" -- but the sharers of these practices are all allowed a place on the environmental stage, so to speak. In the same way, we do not insist that anyone who is not a vegetarian is not a "true environmentalist." We simply offer vegetarianism as one possible solution, which some people may wish to adopt. All we ask is that people consider what we have to say, that we are allowed to put in our two cents' worth along with the purveyors of compact fluorescents.

This is my bicycle, which I use on almost all local trips, usually at least 5 times a week.  You'll notice that Kate's bicycle, which would be to the right, is missing -- she had ridden it to work when this photo was taken.  

But we can also demonstrate our solidarity with environmentalists by adopting the rest of their program not related to our pet issue. We should use low-flow showerheads, push mowers, and compact fluorescents. And, we should talk about it. We are not just mouthing the words "environmentalism" as an opportunist strategy.

I think that if we adopted this strategy, we could probably get Laurie David to add "eating low on the food chain" or even (if we really, really promise to behave ourselves in the future) "going vegetarian" to her list of 30 simple things you can do to help stop global warming. I think that would be just peachy. The main thing that I want is just to have vegetarianism considered on its merits; and thatís what this would do.

But suppose this doesnít happen? What if some evil cattle industry politicians who have inflitrated the environmentalist movement prevent any mention of vegetarianism or even of "eating low on the food chain," despite our being on our best behavior? Is there any way to make our case to the public without being disruptive of a movement which has a great deal of appeal to the public?

Well, there are other groups besides Laurie Davidís. For example, the Sierra Club has its "True Cost of Food" campaign which cautiously, but explicitly, mentions the "V-word." So I donít think that it is the case that one group, or one clique, could shut vegetarianism out of the global warming debate.

[Photo Missing]

Kate and I were going to put in a shot of our kids here, but we decided not to have any.  The planet might be able to sustainably support a population of about 2 - 3 billion people (1/3 to 1/2 of what we have now), if we all became vegan.

There is, generally, a second alternative here, and that is to form a counter-movement to the more moderate global warming groups that refuse to take up vegetarianism. That is, instead of trying to disrupt something else, form your own movement. This is what EarthSave was, I believe, initially conceived as. During the 1990's, some EarthSave leaders would say things like "EarthSave is not a vegetarian organization," and John Robbins wanted to form a movement that included nonvegetarians. I heard Stacy Vicari say things like, "We donít say, ĎIím a vegetarian,í we say ĎI eat vegetarian food.'"

This concept of EarthSave never quite got off the ground, and the leaders switched tactics and decided that EarthSave was a vegetarian or even a vegan organization after all. I donít know why this happened, but it may have been simply because it wasnít attracting very many nonvegetarians -- the nonvegetarians may have viewed the group just as a "front" for the animal rights movement.

Now here is where the first problem arises. What about all the issues that donít involve vegetarianism or animal rights? What about transportation and buildings, for example? Do we just mimic the other environmental groups, saying things like "more mass transit" and "wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat in winter"? Or do we declare that much more radical solutions are necessary? And how important will food issues be in the final mix of solutions? This is more than just a case of where our values are, we also have to have a sense of what the science is and what the realities of the situation are.

We've put in compact fluorescents throughout the house.  

There is a certain logic towards taking a middle-of-the-road approach to these other issues. By positioning vegetarianism as close as possible to the "mainstream" of environmental opinion, and seeking to improve the face of vegetarians so that we donít look quite so grouchy, we might eventually see all the major environmental groups accept vegetarianism to a greater or lesser degree. But if we think that it is a major, once-in-ten-thousand-years, civilization-ending crisis, we would probably want to look at more radical solutions. We might want to advocate eliminating private ownership of automobiles, superinsulation of all existing housing, and a strict one-child population policy. In this case, we might want to ensconce ourselves with the more radical environmentalists.

Here's our push mower.  I'm really, really worried about global warming. But none of the pictured actions on this page are as important as our preference for plant foods.  While I haven't done the math, I suspect that our preference for plant foods is more important than all of them combined.

Either way, we have to engage the environmental movement on its own terms, instead of just declaring that those who do not agree with us are not "true environmentalists." Environmentalism is a reality. It is, or will become, the dominant issue and dominant reality of our time. If vegetarians want to be more than a footnote in history, they need to understand both the environmental issues and the environmental movement.

Keith Akers
May 4, 2007

UPDATE January 18, 2008 -- Laurie David now has responded positively to the vegetarian issue.  See my update to the letter I sent last May to Laurie David.