Thursday, February 28, 2019

Why I Am Sick of Hearing About Cowspiracies

It seems that today meat-eaters can hardly go a day without being subjected to a moral harangue about how their dietary preferences and nothing else is dooming the planet.

Anthropogenic climate change is an indisputable fact; so is the rapidity with which it has been unfolding; and the same goes for the necessity of serious action on it. Additionally, no reasonable person denies that meat production is a less efficient use of our resources than other forms of food production, or that it contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Yet, the actual scale of meat production's contribution to the problem, and the range of options for redressing that contribution, are wide open to question. Where the oft-cited documentary Cowspiracy claims that this alone is responsible for over half of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture altogether (of which meat-raising is but a component) is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as responsible for under a tenth of the total.

Someone is clearly wrong here. But surprisingly few people seem to be taking the trouble to work out who it is, critical assessments that might establish the validity or invalidity of the Cowspiracy analysis strangely lacking--as a Google search, and still more a Google Scholar search, will demonstrate. It appears there are only a handful of pieces from comparatively marginal sources out there, underlining the fact that outright climate change deniers have infinitely more media access than those who question the allegations of "Cowspiracy."

The result is that the intellectual basis for the assertions of Cowspiracy seems far from firm--even as those haranguing the meat-eaters automatically go to the most extreme solution. Virtually no one claims that we must respond to the problem raised by the greenhouse gas emissions transportation generates by abolishing the movement of people and things. Few even suggest doing very much to rationalize our use of transportation, most promoting alternative technologies that would permit people to more or less go on living as they do (like the electrification of vehicle fleets). However, abolition is exactly what those placing the stress on meat production, without preamble, insist upon--apparently uninterested in the reality that not all meat production is equally problematic (a substantial difference existing between, for example, the environmental impact of chicken and beef); and not all methods of meat production are equally problematic, either (evidence existing for grass-fed beef as actually a possible offset to other emissions). Indeed, where one might expect that those who are most insistent on the destructive effects of meat production would be champions of investment in, for example, the cellular agriculture methods beginning to show real promise, just as they champion renewable energy, they do not speak of it at all.

It is a remarkably categorical attitude, which can easily give the skeptic the impression that vegans have simply found outsized claims about meat production's contribution to climate change a useful addition to their list of arguments. That, perhaps, the fossil fuel industry that has fought so long, hard, dishonestly and successfully against curbs on its activity, or even the reduction of the colossal subsidies it enjoys ($5 trillion a year, if one counts externalities!), finds it convenient to have the heat turned on someone else . . .

And of course, that all this is simply another case of, in typically bourgeois fashion, trivializing every aspect of economic life into a "lifestyle choice," and what is more, casting aside any regard for equity, as mainstream environmentalism has too often and too long done. This sort of argument tells the well-off that it is not their mansions and Hummers and jet travel that is the problem (implying that they can go on indulging in all this without guilt), but the beleaguered prole who at the end of the day finds a burger more tempting than the plate of beans they want to hand him (not incidentally, in a country where it is the "elites" who turn up their noses at red meat meating as gauche); these lower class types they regard as so backward and reactionary as to justify any callousness or contempt.1

Rather than turning the fight against the real issue of climate change (and contemporary agriculture's genuine contribution to it) into an attack on the dietary choices of have-nots, one ought to acknowledge that our food production (of which meat production is a big part, but even there, still not the totality) is one of many dimensions to the problem, while as in other areas of life, the emphasis should be on meeting people's needs (I must admit that I am not convinced that a vegan diet really is best for each and all through the entirety of their life spans) in sustainable ways. Even if one accepts the extravagant claims about meat production's contribution to climate change (and as yet, there seems to me much room for doubt), the imposition of veganism on seven billion people in response is a last resort, not Plan A.

1. For a discussion of this sensibility, see Owen Jones' interesting book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.

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