A belated vegan review of eaarth (Bill McKibben, 2010) and Diet for a Hot Planet (Anna Lappé, 2010).

January 15th, 2011 5:07 pm by Kelly Garbato

Last summer, I received review copies of eaarth and Diet for a Hot Planet – authored by Bill McKibben and Anna Lappé, respectively – though Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Though I devoured them rather quickly and back-to-back, it’s taken me quite some time to put together reviews for each. (2010 was a funky year for me, and not in a good way.) Given that they cover similar territory; complement one another in several respects; and suffer the same, all-too-common pitfall (in a word, speciesism), I thought a joint review might work best.

Eaarth by Bill McKibben (2010)

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben (2010)

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Let’s start with Bill McKibben’s eaarth, which is by far the more radical of the two books. eaarth opens with a terrifying premise: that, when it comes to climate change, humanity has already altered the earth’s environment to the point of no return. For the bulk of human existence, the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has remained somewhat stable at 275 parts per million (ppm). Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels have been on the rise, as has been scientific debate over its safest uppermost concentrations. Initially, 550 ppm was the supposed ceiling; in 2007, climatologist Jim Hansen identified 350 ppm as the “safe number.” This is problematic to say the least, as currently the planet has almost 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even if we drastically reduce emissions overnight (an impossibility, both practically and politically speaking), we’ve already reached the tipping point; our home’s climate is changing, and for the worse.

“Worse,” anyhow, for most of the species that have evolved to live on earth as it was, humans included. The “new earth” – christened “eaarth” by McKibben – will be a planet of much harsher living conditions and more extreme weather patterns; a planet “with dark poles and belching volcanoes and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.” McKibben looks to current climatological trends as indicators of what’s to come: warmer air and water temperatures, melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, increasingly acidic oceans, more powerful storms, prolonged droughts, a decrease in biodiversity and corresponding increase in invasive “pest” species – all of these phenomenon are interconnected and influence one another in myriad ways; sometimes unpredictable, almost always tragic.

I’m no climate scientist, so I can’t speak to the veracity of McKibben’s predictions – but the data presented in eaarth (buttressed by 25 pages of end notes) certainly makes for a striking argument. If nothing else, McKibben clearly demonstrates the degree to which seemingly disparate natural occurrences are interdependent; a change in one aspect of the earth’s climate affects all others. Human-driven climate change is real, and it’s really happening. Even if you accept this as a scientific truth, however, McKibben’s solution will be hard to swallow (not that you’ll necessarily have a choice, mind you).

In the second half of eaarth, McKibben shares his vision of a new way of life for a new planet. Though he doesn’t describe it in so many words, McKibben’s eaarth strikes me as somewhat anarchist in nature, marked by a number of small, mostly self-sufficient city states functioning under a shared moral code or social contract.* (It’s hard to pin down this new society exactly, as MicKibben doesn’t elaborate on such minor details as systems of government or human rights. I guess those things will just…work themselves out? Sarcastic, who me?) Rather than “regressing” to older ways of life, McKibben sees us living lightly on this changed planet by retaining some necessary and beneficial aspects of our current culture (e.g., the internet, new energy technology) and discarding those which are unnecessary and unsustainable (most of our current, bloated economy, including but not limited to the entertainment industry. No word on traveling bards, fwiw.)

Of course, the most obvious contributors to climate change – energy (i.e., fossil fuels) and food (particularly animal agriculture) – merit a drastic overhaul in this new world. Conservation coupled with a transition to renewable energy can make us energy independent, while a switch from industrial “factory” farming – necessarily reliant on the input of petroleum-based chemicals and focused on short-term gains – to farming that’s small, local, organic and works with nature rather than against it, will provide us with healthy food and a healthier environment: for the people, by the people.

Naturally, this next agricultural revolution must involve a significant shift toward a plant-based diet. While purveyors of local / organic / free-range / “happy” meat (and milk and eggs) would have you believe otherwise, animals exploited (I’m sorry, “raised”) sustainably simply cannot provide enough animal-based foodstuffs for us all, and certainly not in the volumes to which we’ve become accustomed. Sustainability isn’t just about you; it’s about all of us humans – all seven billion and counting. Animal agriculture requires a massive input of resources – energy, land, water, plants – and results in a relatively small return in food. Eaarth will not support such a system, even by McKibben’s own (speciesist) account.

Not that McKibben would have us all become vegans, nosiree! While he’s able to accept that animal flesh and secretions will become a rare delicacy on eaarth, McKibben is reluctant to give up his sirloin steak altogether. In light of the other proposals set forth in eaarth, forgoing the occasional glass of milk or chicken breast seems a downright conservative “sacrifice” to make. And yet, even as he argues in favor of a radical restructuring of human society, McKibben stubbornly refuses to welcome nonhuman animals – our friends and neighbors on this new planet – into his moral circle. Such is the degree to which human exceptionalism has poisoned our consciousness. It may not be in our best interests to enslave, slaughter and exploit other animals – but we reserve the right to do so, dammit!

To this end, McKibben spends quite a bit of time praising small-time animal exploiters. The many scribbles, underlining, explanation points of outrage, and all-caps commentary – most of which reads simply “YUCK!” – that you can find in the later chapters of my copy of eaarth speak to the disgust I felt at McKibben’s shameless displays of speciesism. Establishing a nonprofit to encourage meat and chicken farming?** “Swine clubs” in which pigs are kept in drained swimming pools? Livestock mortality composting? Yuck, yuck, yuck.

In the forward to Diet for a Hot Planet, McKibben writes, “Three times a day, we’re reminded of what is, and what could be.” Indeed.

As long as we’re rebuilding society, why not create a more compassionate world for all? Now that’s a truly radical idea.

Three out of five stars, with one star deducted each for speciesism and a failure to explore this new eaarth beyond the bounds of food.

Diet for a Hot Planet by Anna Lappe (2010)

Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It by Anna Lappé (2010)

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In Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappé also looks at agriculture’s contribution to climate change. In contrast to McKibben’s eaarth, Diet for a Hot Planet’s comparatively narrow focus results in a more cohesive and comprehensive discussion of the topic. Unfortunately, like eaarth, it too is riddled with speciesism.

From farm to plate and everywhere in between, Diet for a Hot Planet identifies and examines the many unsustainable aspects of our food production and distribution systems. This necessarily involves standardization, industrialization, waste, pollution, and – perhaps above all else – a dependence on fossil fuels, resulting in a glut of energy-dense foods. (It’s all connected, yo!) As McKibben notes in the forward, “[T]he entire industrial food system essentially ensures that your food is marinated in crude oil before you eat it.”

In order to compensate for the degradation of soil quality, farmers have moved away from crop rotation and the use of leguminous crops (which bind with atmospheric nitrogen) to the over/use of synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers and animal waste (which may solve the problem of soil fertility in the short-term, but actually exacerbate it in the long run). Food travels across countries and around the globe before reaching our dinner tables, requiring the use of fuel and attendant carbon emissions. Consumers travel by car to supermarkets and groceries – many of which are concentrated in the suburbs – to buy this food, most of which is heavily processed. (Not even the fruits and veggies escape such a fate: about half of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. are canned, frozen or dried!) In anticipation of our patronage, grocers store perishable items in massive, continuously-powered refrigerators and freezers – some of which consist of open cases. (Explain that one to your ten-year-old!)

As if this isn’t appalling enough, roughly 27% of our edible food is wasted – simply thrown away – at both the individual and institutional levels. As Lappé points out, most of this waste finds its way not into compost piles, but the garbage; some municipalities report that food waste represents 50% of the contents discarded into their landfills. Instead of feeding people or nourishing the soil, this uneaten food becomes waste – waste that’s the second-largest source of methane, next only to enteric fermentation (read: animal agriculture).

And then we have the most egregious offender of them all: meat, eggs and dairy. In Lappé’s own words,

[L]ivestock production is one of the biggest contributors to the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, both from pastures and from feed-crop production, from smallholder farms to large-scale ranchers to multinational corporations. The deforestation driven by pastureland and cropland is only one reason livestock contribute so much to global warming, as we’ll see.

Globally, livestock account for as much as 18 percent of all global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the U.N. study mentioned earlier. That figure includes almost one tenth of carbon emissions, more than one third of methane, and roughly two thirds of nitrous oxide. (Livestock is responsible for other polluting emissions as well, including two thirds of all human-made ammonia.) (p. 19)

Yet, like McKibben, Lappé simply isn’t able to imagine in world in which humans don’t retain their supremacy over nonhuman animals:

All told, 70 percent of all agricultural land in the world is tied up with livestock production. But livestock don’t need to cause such ecological harm. Traditionally and still today, in much of the world, livestock have been integrated into diverse farms and their communities, playing a range of roles: providing companionship, manure to enrich soils, muscle for farm work, and as a source of protein as meat. […L]ivestock can be an integral component of sustainable systems. Well-managed livestock can even nurture the land. All that stomping and tromping helps to press seeds into the earth, fostering plant growth. The action of hooves on the ground can also break up the soil, allowing in more oxygen and improving soil quality. Today’s self-described “carbon farmers” are adopting these proven practices and mimicking time-honored grazing methods to increase carbon content in the soil. (p. 19)

While I agree that nonhuman animals “can be an integral component of sustainable systems,” I don’t understand why humans must enslave them in order to realize this. Nor can I comprehend why a diet comprised of no meat is so much harder for Lappé, McKibben & Co. to swallow than one involving a serving of meat once every few weeks or months. Lappé (daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, a longtime vegetarian and author of Diet for a Small Planet) describes herself as an “on and off” vegetarian since her teen years – so you’d think she’d know better than to, say, categorize nonhuman animals as “plants.” Then again, perhaps the “and off” part explains it.

All snark aside, as with eaarth, a good deal of Diet for a Hot Planet is devoted to celebrating small, local, organic farmers – including those who make a buck off the bodies of others. While Lappé does at least broach the idea of vegetarianism – according to my notes, McKibben only mentions the v-word (vegan) once and, if I remember correctly, it’s to make a very unfunny joke at our expense – it’s in a rather wishy-washy, noncommittal way that’s guaranteed to have abolitionists rolling their eyes. Sandwiched between the glorified animal exploitation, however, sits a wealth of facts and figures, tables and numbers, including some original reporting by Lappé. Additionally, she tackles a number of common myths surrounding climate, industrial agriculture – and biotechnology’s ability to save us from the perils of each.

If you can get past the speciesism, both books are interesting reads. Whereas eaarth is more thought-provoking in its subversiveness, Diet for a Hot Planet leaves the reader with the information necessary to counter climate change skeptics and corporate apologists for our existing food industries.

Three out of five stars, with two stars deducted for speciesism – including Lappé’s inability to promote a plant-based diet without objectifying nonhuman animals.

Updated to add: I posted variations of these reviews on Amazon and Library Thing; if you enjoyed them and are so inclined, please click on through and vote them as helpful, mkay?

eaarth: Amazon | Library Thing | Goodreads

Diet for a Hot Planet: Amazon | Library Thing | Goodreads

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* That said, my first and last introduction to anarchism was Bob Torres’s Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, which is equally short on the specifics in regards to building anarchistic societies. While an interesting read, in trying to present the case for veganism to anarchists – and anarchism, to vegans – Torres necessarily abbreviates both discussions, to the detriment of each. (imho, anyhow.) Making a Killing piqued my curiosity, but I haven’t had the opportunity to follow up on the topic as of yet. So I could be completely off-base in identifying McKibben as an advocate for anarchism, is what I’m saying.

** As if, um, chickens aren’t also animals and thus included under the rubric “meat”?

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4 Responses to “A belated vegan review of eaarth (Bill McKibben, 2010) and Diet for a Hot Planet (Anna Lappé, 2010).”

  1. peas Says:

    So much of today’s “green movement” is really just a hypocritical bid to sell stuff.

  2. Kelly Garbato Says:

    Greenwashing and consumerism, they’re all the rage!

  3. Food, oil, energy and excess: A review of The Energy Glut (Ian Roberts, 2010) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] nations can eat more. It’s a real WTF! moment, but unlike in eaarth or Diet for a Hot Planet (both of which I recently reviewed), it is – thankfully! – an […]

  4. Wendy Says:

    It’s despicable that Lappe would barely consider veganism, considering the work her mother did back in the 70s. About 8 years ago I read a book the two Lappes co-authored and it’s full of my scribbling against their stupidity, and their praising of animal-based (but cooperative) agriculture in Brazil and — crap, I forget the country but it’s in Africa.
    I have an issue of Yoga Journal (let’s ignore the fact that almost every issue seems to require pointing out to them their rampant speciesism [yoga hypocrisy] and ridiculous concepts [like being fat = bad]) and it has a short feature by Anna Lappe and nowhere did I see her even advocate vegetarianism (forget veganism).
    Are these people total unthinking morons? Because you might be able to buy your sustainable happy meat label if you’re wealthy, but if you’re not you have to buy the factory farmed stuff. So what, all poor people are cruel? In any case, with all the amounts of animal carcass and byproducts we eat, how could we ever hope to get sustainable animal products to everyone? We’d have to clear the damn country, kill all the wildlife — oh wait, that’s not really sustainable, either is it?

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