(Just as I began to write this post, my middle furkid Peedee vomited up his breakfast – vegetarian kibble, natch. As is usually the case, he did so in the office, the floor of which is made of this weird textured faux pebble material that’s impossible to clean. In contrast, the rest of my home’s flooring is either concrete or tile, and couldn’t be easier to clean off. He’s got a gift, that one.
Anyhow, Peedee’s timing is fortuitous, as he so aptly manifested my feelings on Earth Day – or rather, on the half-assed lip service engaged in on Earth Day by the bulk of its Western human residents – through such a simple, biological, involuntary act. And yes, I am feeling a tad grumpy today, thanks for asking.)
As a vegan and environmentalist, it’s really hard to get excited over Earth Day when most of the mainstream environmental groups and media outlets – Earth Day Network, The Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Protection Agency, Tree Hugger, et al – don’t so much as mention vegetarianism and/or veganism as a means to combating climate change, deforestation, the loss of biological diversity, pollution, water scarcity, disease, hunger, poverty, etc.
While these groups encourage “activists” to drive fuel efficient vehicles, switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and use cloth bags when shopping, a meat- and/or dairy-free diet hardly ever make the list – and, when they do, it’s usually in a highly diluted form, such as “eat less meat” or “go meatless one day of the week.” Bleh.
In a 2006 report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions — by comparison, all the world’s cars, trains, planes and boats account for a combined 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. Much of livestock’s contribution to global warming come from deforestation, as the growing demand for meat results in trees being cut down to make space for pasture or farmland to grow animal feed. Livestock takes up a lot of space — nearly one-third of the earth’s entire landmass. In Latin America, the FAO estimates that some 70% of former forest cover has been converted for grazing. Lost forest cover heats the planet, because trees absorb CO2 while they’re alive — and when they’re burned or cut down, the greenhouse gas is released back into the atmosphere.
Then there’s manure — all that animal waste generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 296 times the warming effect of CO2. And of course, there is cow flatulence: as cattle digest grass or grain, they produce methane gas, of which they expel up to 200 L a day. Given that there are 100 million cattle in the U.S. alone, and that methane has 23 times the warming impact of CO2, the gas adds up.
The worrisome news is that as the world economy grows, so does global meat consumption. The average person in the industrialized world eats more than 176 lb. of meat annually, compared with around 66 lb. consumed by the average resident of the developing world. As developing nations get richer, one of the first things citizens spend their extra income on is a more meat-rich diet. Whereas pork would once have been a rare luxury in China, today even the relatively poor in the country’s cities can afford a little meat at almost every meal — so much so that pork imports to China rose more than 900% through the first four months of the year. In 2008, global meat production is expected to top 280 million tons, and that figure could nearly double by 2050.
Producing all that meat will do more than just warm the world; it will also raise pressure on land resources. The FAO estimates that about 20% of the planet’s pastureland has been degraded by grazing animals, and increased demand for meat means increased demand for animal feed — much of the world’s grain production is fed to animals rather than to humans. (The global spike in grain prices over the past year is in large part due to the impact on grain supplies of the growing demand for meat.) The expanded production of meat has been facilitated by industrial feedlots, which bleed antibiotics and other noxious chemicals. And of course, the human health impact of too much meat can be seen in everything from bloated waistlines in America to rising rates of cardiovascular disease in developing nations, where heart attacks were once as rare as a T-bone steak.
That locally-produced, free-range, organic hamburger might not be as green as you think.
An analysis of the environmental toll of food production concludes that transportation is a mere drop in the carbon bucket. Foods such as beef and dairy make a far deeper impression on a consumer’s carbon footprint.
“If you have a certain type of diet that’s indicative of the American average, you’re not going to do that much for climate while eating locally,” says Christopher Weber, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who led a comprehensive audit of the greenhouse gas emissions of our meals.
“Meat,” “dairy,” and eggs are not sustainable – even if locally grown. To borrow a phrase from Mary @ Animal Person, sustainability isn’t about you.
Nor is animal agriculture humane – needless exploitation culminating in death is by definition inhumane.
(And, while we’re at it, how ironic is it that a word meaning “characterized by tenderness, compassion, and sympathy for people and animals, esp. for the suffering or distressed” stems from “human,” i.e., the single cruelest species on the planet?)
If you consume “meat,” i.e., the corpses of former living and sentient beings, pledge to go vegetarian this Earth Day.
If you’re vegetarian, pledge to go vegan: egg and milk production both require the captivity and exploitation of millions of non-human animals, whose nutritional and space requirements and bodily waste contribute to climate change, land loss, grain consumption, agricultural inefficiency – and ultimately human poverty, hunger and disease.
If you’re vegan, good for you! You’re already doing more to help the planet and its inhabitants than the other 98.6% of your (American) counterparts.
But don’t begin and end with your plate! Everyone has to eat, after all, and once you’ve transitioned to a vegan diet, it doesn’t take much effort to maintain your veganism – a moral baseline. You can do more! Trade in your old clunker for a more fuel efficient model, switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, use cloth bags when shopping, borrow books from the library or buy them used, grow your own fruits and veggies when possible (and share with your friends, family and community if you have extra), pool your money with friends and neighbors in order to purchase and share occasional-use consumer goods, think about feeding your non-human animal companions a more animal-friendly diet, etc., etc., etc.
Once you’ve transitioned to veganism, then turn your attention to some of the piddling “solutions” trumpeted by Big Green on Earth Day. But only after you’ve gone vegan.
On that note, I’m headed out to finish preparing my garden for the coming season. A day of sunshine, dirt, sweat, vegetables and soy meat – all enjoyed in the company of five silly lil’ adopted vegetarian dogs…now that’s a truly green way to celebrate Earth Day.
Tagged: animals animal rights animal welfare vegan veganism vegetarian vegetarianism earth day green holidays observances meat climate change diet big green the revolution will not be funded denial cattle methane un united nations grumpy activism environment poverty hunger pollution habitat loss biological diversity peedee flickr photos video video blogging