In a recent Go Vegan radio interview, Leslie Goldberg (author of the Vicious Vegan blog) gave an account of a conversation she had with Bill McKibben. (McKibben is a noted environmentalist and a co-founder of 350.org.) Leslie asked McKibben why he didn’t talk about meat consumption as a cause of climate change. McKibben first pointed out that most of the growth in meat consumption comes from the developing countries. Somewhat irritated, he then asked (in effect) “how can you ask people who are just starting to be able to afford and enjoy meat, not to eat meat?”
This is an intelligent question, so I thought I’d attempt to answer it. How, indeed, can we ask people in China and India, who are just now able to afford meat, not to eat meat?
Here is my suggested answer: “We are making a revolution. Want to join us?”
As a practical matter, there is no way that you are going to actually deal with climate change without some sort of massive upsurge of veganism. Livestock agriculture contributes over half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. If McKibben doesn’t believe this, then we need to have a dialogue about the science involved. Even most vegans do not understand how much of the biosphere of the earth is under the control of humans. Over 90% of the biomass of all mammals is humans, their livestock, and their pets. You can’t believe that all that manure, all the methane, all the carbon dioxide that these animals breathe out, and all the endless forests chopped down, doesn’t affect the climate at some point.
Certainly we should not ask anything of China and India that we would not ask of ourselves. We should go vegan ourselves before asking others to do so. But the situation is ironic, because a key reason that the developing countries increased their meat consumption in the first place was western imperialism. Before that, China and India had held (and to a great extent still do hold) the world’s most developed vegetarian traditions. But now if western vegetarians want to say “actually, you were better off with your traditional foods,” we can’t say that, because we don’t want to impose our values on them? Excuse me?
Perhaps McKibben is concerned about the self-righteous reaction of the newly wealthy Chinese? Possibly, but he shouldn’t be. It looks like the Chinese are beginning to figure all of this out on their own. China’s vegetarian population is the largest of any country in the world — 50 million vegetarians. Long Kuan, a Chinese resident and vegan activist, notes a rising trend towards vegetarianism: “The young generation, especially, they love to be eco-friendly, and they love to be compassionate. And they really care about the environment and the quality of life, about pollution.”
A much more formidable obstacle is the reaction of the environmental movement right here in the United States. Environmental organizations have taken note of the movie Cowspiracy, but they also seem to be dependent on large donations from wealthy cattle ranchers. But they keep veganism at a distance at their peril. We need some leadership here. Eventually, this leadership will come, but it may not be the current leadership of environmental groups.
Environmentalists have failed to provide concrete, workable plans to stop climate change. We need something more than just throwing up a bunch of solar panels and wind turbines all over the landscape, although we should probably do that too. Our environmental crisis is much bigger than climate change, although climate change is very important. It’s also about mass extinctions, soil erosion, deforestation, peak oil, and economic collapse. We need basic social, cultural, political, and lifestyle changes.
The vegan movement has quite a bit to offer to the environmentalists. This is a dynamic, growing, diverse, and energetic movement. Most vegans understand that there’s more to saving the planet than just going vegan. If we all go vegan, but keep burning coal, driving cars, and overpopulating the planet, in the end our veganism will only have bought us a bit of extra time. But while veganism is not sufficient to deal with our environmental problems, it is necessary. You can build all the solar panels and wind turbines you want, but in the end we have to save the plants and animals on the earth.