Eating Meat: The Climate Equivalent to Socializing Amid the Pandemic

Do the stories of people ignoring stay-at-home orders and continuing to attend large church gatherings or parties bother you? Do you wish that everyone who can, would just do their small part and stay home? Do you feel frustrated and aggravated that other people’s actions might be putting you and your loved ones at risk?

I get it! That’s how I’ve been feeling for years about the climate crisis and people continuing to eat animals. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during the global coronavirus pandemic, we are learning that individual choices definitely have an impact on the rest of the world and that we should take that responsibility seriously.

As a vegan climate justice activist, I regularly educate people about the impact that raising animals for food has on the planet and the climate. Science shows us that animal agriculture is a leading driver of Amazon rainforest deforestation, species extinction, freshwater depletion, ocean pollution, and of course climate change [1, 2, 3]. A study published in 2018 in the journal Science found that even the least impactful animal-based products had a much greater environmental footprint than the most impactful plant-based products, leading the author of the study to conclude that “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on the planet”. [4]

Yet, when I share this information with people I frequently hear things like “don’t force your food choices on me,” or “individuals don’t make a difference,” and “blame the system, not the individual”.

So why the difference? Why is it acceptable to encourage, shame, and even mandate that individuals stay home for the good of society (even if they themselves aren’t worried about COVID-19), yet it is considered rude and inappropriate to even tell people that their choice to eat meat is harming the planet and that they should stop?

Yes, eating food is very personal. But it is also one of the most political and consequential acts in our day-to-day lives that we have control over. We can already see just how powerful our personal food choices are in shifting the market, with the explosion of plant-based dairy products as demand for them has risen sharply in the past few years. Imagine the impact we, as individuals, could have on climate change if meat-eating were as socially stigmatized as public gatherings are right now.

In the last few years, the environmental community began pushing a narrative focused on institutional change, rather than individual change. Calls for divestment from fossil fuels and government action to stop the climate crisis are now much louder than calls for individual habit change, with some people even ridiculing or dismissing personal changes as a distraction or unimportant.

Elizabeth Warren exemplified this narrative during a town hall last September where she said “But understand this is what the fossil fuel industry hopes we are talking about. …[ ]…. They want to be able to stir up a bunch of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70% of the pollution of the carbon that we are throwing into the air comes from three industries…”[5]

I agree that we need institutional change and individuals’ habits can’t fix everything. But there’s a problem with likening eating meat to changing light bulbs. Unlike energy companies that can divest from fossil fuels and use renewables instead, there is simply no comparable institutional change that can significantly lower the environmental impact of agriculture without people being willing to eat plants instead of meat. Nobody notices when they flip a light switch whether that power comes from a coal plant or from a windmill. But people do notice if the food on their plate is from an animal or a plant. This is why institutional change alone cannot solve this problem. There is an inherent inefficiency in producing food from animals. Feeding, raising, and slaughtering animals uses vastly more resources than growing and feeding plants directly to people.

The science is clear that the human demand for meat and dairy is driving one of the most damaging industries on the planet and threatening human survival. (Not to mention that eating animals is also likely the source of the novel coronavirus). Since the climate crisis poses a global risk to all of us and could likely claim more lives than the coronavirus, don’t we have a duty to act upon these facts and adjust our habits accordingly?

Just as we are practicing social distancing to “flatten the curve” and save lives, we need to eliminate meat and dairy from our diets to help stop the climate crisis. The environmental community especially needs to start taking this seriously. Both institutional and individual change is critical, but individual change has the added advantage that it doesn’t depend on convincing politicians to support our cause.

So, why don’t we see the same type of rhetoric from the environmental community calling upon individuals to take responsibility and change their diets to save the planet? I’m guessing it’s because it’s too inconvenient and people really like the taste of meat and dairy. How is that so different from individuals wanting to continue living their lives, working jobs, or going to church, even if it puts some folks directly at risk of dying from coronavirus?

Millions of us are giving up a tremendous amount right now and not leaving our homes for several weeks. If we can upend society and implement widespread social distancing to save lives, then I believe we can also encourage the widespread adoption of a vegan diet to save the planet and perhaps even more lives.

What do you say? How much is the planet and our future worth to you? There is no better time than now to stop eating animals.

Learn how you can make a difference today: sign up for a free online Climate Diet Summit taking place April 14th-18th www.CDSsummit.com

SOURCES:

1] Agriculture and overuse threatening wildlife https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/10/agriculture-and-overuse-greater-threats-to-wildlife-than-climate-change-study

[2] Amazon Deforestation Driven my Meat Consumption https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/02/revealed-amazon-deforestation-driven-global-greed-meat-brazil?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR21XaW6CIFnT_3Wo21wmBn6o5W3fVdnWGfJEqEu9yMfig6AK3fXzBJ0t1s

[3] UN FAO — Livestock’s Long Shadow Report http://www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e.pdf

[4] Avoiding Meat and Dairy Is Single Biggest Way to Reduce Your Impact on Earth https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth

[5] Elizabeth’s Warren Town Hall video https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2019/09/04/elizabeth-warren-fossil-fuel-industry-cnn-climate-town-hall-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/climate-change/

Life-long vegan, climate justice activist, science educator, and co-founder of Climate Diet Solution

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