Many vegans, upon studying environmental issues a bit, conclude that there’s no such thing as a meat-eating environmentalist. Well, guess what, vegans! You’re right. Veganism is a necessary part of any sane environmental approach. But it’s still not enough. Even if everyone goes vegan, if we keep burning coal, driving cars, and overpopulating the planet, universal veganism isn’t going to save us. Let’s take a look at some key environmental issues.
1. Climate change. Let’s assume that the most radical published estimate for the contribution of livestock to climate change is correct. This was Goodland and Anhang’s 2009 estimate in WorldWatch magazine: that 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions comes from the livestock sector. Even if the planet goes vegan overnight, that still leaves 49% of GHG emissions that are not from livestock.
Universal veganism wouldn’t even be as good as this figure makes it sound, because Goodland and Anhang also drastically increased the estimate of total human-caused GHGs, to 63,803 million tons of CO2-equivalents. That 49% figure is 49% of an amount that suddenly is a lot higher than we thought. Assuming that Goodland and Anhang are right still means that 31,263 million tons of CO2-equivalents are not from livestock. For comparison, in 1990, worldwide emissions of CO2 alone were 22,671 million tons. While this figure was probably an underestimate, even this level (if true) was way too much. There’s no way that we can deal with climate change without dealing with “conventional” (non-livestock) sources of GHG emissions as well as dealing with livestock.
2. Because of aerosols, even completely eliminating fossil fuel burning will actually make climate change worse for about a century. Aerosols put into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels actually have a slight cooling effect on climate, because they block sunlight and thus counterbalance the overall warming of the climate. But once fossil fuels are stopped, these aerosols will drop out of the atmosphere very quickly (perhaps in a matter of weeks), so we’ll lose the cooling effect almost at once. We’ll be stuck with CO2 (which has a half life of about a century) for a long time.
3. If we expect to use the same amount of energy that we’re using today, the path to 100% renewable energy will be a lot more expensive than most people think. It can be done; but it will cost us. Moreover, renewables only produce electricity; and we have literally trillions and trillions of dollars invested in current (non-electric) technologies such as cars, trucks, and planes. All that will need to be replaced or abandoned at a truly massive cost. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do renewables anyway, just that we should be honest with the public and ourselves about what’s involved.
4. Soil and water. Soil is eroding 10 to 20 times faster than it is forming. Even on a 100% vegan planet, and even assuming that getting rid of livestock doubles or triples the effective food supply, this is obviously not sustainable. We need to implement drastic agricultural reforms, reduce human population, or probably both.
5. Much of America’s food system depends on depleting groundwater aquifers. When the water is gone, it’s gone, and much food from California or the Midwest (the Ogallala aquifer) will diminish or disappear. China and India are in a similar or worse situation.
6. Many of the huge increases in agricultural productivity in the last century have depended upon nitrogen fertilizers, which are today produced from fossil fuels. Without these fertilizers, it is likely that at least half of the world’s 7.3 billion people wouldn’t be here today. BUT fossil fuels are rapidly depleting. And soon we’ll reach the limits of phosphorus supplies (also needed for fertilizers); so “peak phosphorus” really spells the limits of the industrialized agricultural economy.
7. The relatively best nonviolent solution to the world’s overpopulation problem is the “demographic transition”: as the standard of living in a country rises, population increase slows, stops, or even reverses. Well, there’s an obvious problem here. If we raise the standard of living of China and India to the wasteful American standard — or even to the more modest Swedish or Italian standard — we’ll massively accelerate human depletion of the planet’s resources, our overuse of which is already unsustainable.
We are staring the collapse of industrial civilization right in the face. We can’t predict the precise outlines of such a collapse. It could be a long, slow slide, lasting the rest of the 21st century; or it could be a quick, dramatic collapse, along the lines of the Great Depression, which might happen in a matter of weeks or months.
Veganism provides an essential part of the solution here, which most people miss. There’s no way we can address these problems (and others) without an increase in veganism, whether it’s “clean meat” or the Great Tofu Revolution. But there’s a lot more to it than that. We do not just face one problem, but many problems, all with a single source, which is limits to the physical growth of the economy.
Wake up vegans: veganism is not enough.