What We’re Not Talking About

This past November, I saw Do The Math in Boston with Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, and I was inspired to become an activist. I had known climate change was a big problem, but the immediacy of the problem became real to me, and though there are so many messed up things in this world that need to be addressed, I realized this was the battle that deserved my undivided attention, because what else matters if we don’t have a planet?

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I left feeling invigorated, a little depressed, and scared, which is the mixture of emotions I suppose the speakers were expecting to invoke in the audience. But I also had another feeling: disappointment. While listening to these icons speak, unapologetically (and justifiably) vilifying the fossil fuel industry, I kept waiting for them to take a swing at another industry, one which most of us actively support, one which, according to a UN study, is actually the number one cause of climate change. But this industry, the meat production industry, wasn’t mentioned once.

Now, full disclosure: I’m vegan and I love animals. I don’t want them to suffer or be slaughtered for any reason, so the fact that raising and killing them for food is environmentally unfriendly is a convenient talking point for me as an animal rights activist (it isn’t so convenient for the planet I happen to live on that’s burning to death, but I guess I can’t have my vegan cake and eat it too). Yet although I now consider myself an animal rights activist and I’d say that’s my main reason for abstaining from feasting on their carcasses, the reason I initially went vegetarian was because I learned about the major environmental impact of meat production, and I realized I couldn’t be an environmentalist and a meat eater at the same time. It just doesn’t make any sense.

I was talking about this recently with a non-vegan who, although he still eats meat, was clearly aware of the illogicality of doing so. His words on the subject: “We spend all this time and energy growing food so we can waste a ton of gas to ship it across the world and feed it to animals when we could just, like, eat the food.” I would add that we tear down forests so we can grow feed crops (say goodbye to the Amazon) and we waste a shit ton of water growing those crops (it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat!).

Anyway, he’s right—we could just, like, eat the food. And it would taste delicious. And it would be healthier for us. And we would live longer. And no one would have to die or live lives of misery in factory farms. But that’s not what we do.

We drive hybrid cars, we recycle, we put bumper stickers on our hybrid cars to tell other drivers that we recycle, and we eat hamburgers. We like to think of ourselves as environmentalists and we act accordingly, but only up to the point when it becomes inconvenient. When it impedes our lifestyle, when we have to make a real change and deprive ourselves of something we enjoy, we lack the willpower to confront our own hypocrisy and change our habits. So instead we avoid the subject altogether, and when we campaign, we campaign against plastic bags and bottled water, and when we rally, we rally against the fossil fuel industry.

It’s hard for me to articulate exactly why the lack of attention on this topic in the environmental activism world is so frustrating to me. I don’t blame the leaders of this movement or the movement itself; I am aware that in order for this country and the world to become motivated enough to join the movement against climate change, in order to attract numbers, we need a common enemy that isn’t ourselves. Veganism is a subculture, one that the majority of the population wants nothing to do with, and if we want tens or hundreds of thousands of people to drop what they are doing and take to the streets with banners and megaphones, we can’t be alienating. Most of all, for those of us who are already part of the movement, it’s easier to confront an industry we are reluctantly dependent on due to a paid-off government that invests in dirty energy than an industry that only exists because we ask it to.

So I get why that is not the fight we’re asking people to fight, but I still want us to ask ourselves, if we’re really invested in this, shouldn’t we be leading the way in making choices that reflect our beliefs? If we can’t make this small change that would make a huge difference for the environment as well as for the animals, what hope do we have that the rest of the world can make big changes that might have a shot at saving the planet?

But I think the thing that really bothers me is the hypocrisy inherent in valuing some lives but not others, appreciating the beauty and diversity on this planet and opposing humanity’s destruction but not our dominion, using polar bears and other species suffering as a result of climate change as mascots but participating in the mass suffering and murder of farm animals. So my final question for all of us, we who call ourselves environmentalists, is this: Isn’t the destruction of life for superficial reasons (greed, pleasure, etc.) the thing we’re fighting against? What’s a more superficial reason to end a life than on behalf of your taste buds?

*For those unfamiliar with the total environmental cost of meat production, I encourage you to do your own research, and also to watch this incredible speech:

  • dz0

    Great post, Shayna! I’m trying my hardest to lead by example; to not be preachy but to answer questions when asked; and to cook awesome food that my coworkers will envy during lunch, so I can show them that veganism isn’t about deprivation, but about ending the cognitive dissonance that lets us love our cats & dogs but inflict suffering on other intelligent and inquisitive creatures. Choosing to stop doing so is such a relief–I want those closest to me to experience it. -allisor

  • Loretta Middleton

    Great article, Shayna! You got my attention.

  • http://tutusandtinyhats.wordpress.com/ Laura

    I don’t think it’s impossible to be a vegetarian and environmentalist at the same time; in fact, from what I’ve read, we couldn’t have a truly sustainable agricultral system without animals. As Joel Salatin says, “There’s no system in nature that does not have an animal component as a recycling agent. Doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables do best if there is some animal component with them – chickens or a side shed with rabbits. Manure is magic.” (source here, which has more detailed explanations of why meat is necessary for sustainability).

    What we need isn’t to get rid of meat–we just need it to happen on a smaller, local scale, so that it’s environmentally beneficial rather than detrimental. Same as with crops, and pretty much everything.

    • EricKrasnauskas

      That’s generally my way of thinking too, Laura.

  • http://tutusandtinyhats.wordpress.com/ Laura

    Another thing worth keeping in mind: livestock can actually help sequester carbon when managed properly.

    Also, eating meat is not merely a superficial matter of taste; for many people, it’s important to culture, health, or both. Personally, I can’t live without meat, and that has nothing to do with the taste: I was vegetarian for about 12 years, semi-vegan for 7 of them, and I never missed the taste of meat. But I did get sick despite eating an otherwise healthy diet, and only started getting better when I reintroduced meat and eggs into my diet.

    So I get a little annoyed when people suggest that veganism is the One True Way of eating for everyone. It’s really not, environmentally *or* health-wise.

  • Shayna Orent

    Hi Laura,
    You bring up some good points, and I enjoyed reading the article you quoted from (which also had some interesting counter-arguments in the comment section). In writing this article I decided to stay away from hypotheticals, because I feel that a lot of the time we get stuck in that world and we can excuse harmful behavior by saying that it could be hypothetically not harmful. The fact of the matter is that isn’t the world we live in, and unless you’re buying meat from a local non-factory farm you’re supporting factory farms, and they are extremely harmful.
    The other problem with that hypothetical you bring up is it isn’t realistic with the demand. I don’t believe small local farms would be able to raise and kill 2 billion animals annually in the US alone. Any system with that much of a consumer demand needs to be factory-like to meet that demand.
    I obviously focused on the environmental irresponsibility of eating meat (which you may disagree with) because that was the point of the article but I also tried to tie in the ethics of eating animals. I don’t know the reason you went vegetarian, but it appears you and I aren’t on the same page about the ethical questions, because you brought up meat being important to culture, and personally I think that’s a weak excuse to commit moral atrocities (although it’s an excuse that is used quite often to try to justify a lot of different moral atrocities). What I’m assuming we disagree on is what constitutes a moral atrocity. Most people would say killing animals for food doesn’t bother them, but in a society that loves animals and finds animal abuse to be abhorrent (and illegal) when it is committed against animals we consider pets I’d be surprised if they took on Phillip Wollen’s challenge and watched Earthlings and still felt okay about eating animals. They feel, they suffer, they love, and I don’t think there is a valid justification for ending their lives unless it is a question of our survival.
    Anyway, thanks for reading.
    Shayna

    • EricKrasnauskas

      Good response. Shayna I’ve got a thread you should read, when I posted your article to this FB feed people really lit up in good discussion about this exact exchange we’re having. Check out https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheMoreBeautifulWorld/ (I posted it on July 30, had over 100 comments!)