I consider myself to be environmentally aware. I’m mostly vegetarian, I recycle when and where I can, and I keep a fairly mindful eye on the environmental impact of my consumer-driven choices. And, up until now, I thought that was enough. However, over the past few weeks I’ve been on an environmental awareness journey of sorts, a journey that exposed me to the reality that my actions are not enough. They are half-measures at best. 

My half-measured environmentalism had given me a false sense of responsibility. I was giving myself a pat on the back for taking reusable bags to whole foods, eating mostly plants with some fish, and supporting local farmers, allowing my little bit of mindfulness to make up for the aspects of my lifestyle that were less environmentally conscious. The truth is, being environmentally responsible requires a level of commitment that stretches beyond doing a little bit here and there. As Winston Churchill said, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” Churchill was speaking of World War II, however his words align perfectly with the present environmental conversation. The consequences that the global community now face, due to our collective inaction and “half measures,” are undoubtedly terrifying.

The environmental discussion includes a wide range of topics: deforestation, water pollution, water scarcity, mass animal extinction, ocean devastation, the plight of the bees, global warming, climate refugees, GMO’s, hydraulic fracking, the building of damns, animal agriculture, etc., and each topic comes with it’s own long list of damaging consequences. Any one issue here is worthy of attention;  but, as an animal lover and a huge supporter of the ethical treatment of animals, I can’t not focus my attention on how animals play into the environmental ethics discussion. 

Now, the topic of eating meat can be an incredibly touchy subject, so I typically avoid the conversation with the understanding that we all have a right to our own opinions on the morality of eating meat. However, after my recent research, I have a new, less personal path into the discussion: animal agriculture as a massive contributor to the destruction of our environment. It’s no longer just about whether eating animals is right or wrong for moral reasons, it’s about the clear and present impact that animal agriculture has on our planet.

In Cowspiracy, one of the most eye-opening documentaries I’ve watched in quite some time, the message circles around the environmental impact of animal agriculture, with the reality that eating animals contributes to many of our environmental problems. Raising livestock causes deforestation, water pollution, water scarcity, and – most significantly – global warming by way of greenhouse gas emissions.

A staggering statistic is that “51% of all greenhouse emissions are from livestock and their byproducts, more than any other source of greenhouse gas pollution.”

Furthermore, animal agriculture alone is the cause of “18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.”

And, we have a limit of how much CO2 our planet can withhold, and “even without fossil fuels, we will exceed our 565 gigatonnes CO2e limit by 2030, all from raising animals.”

Ummm…2030 is not some far off time and place, 2030 is 13 years from now, here on planet earth. 

Yet, as revealing as these statistics are, many environmental organizations don’t include the consumption of meat as an environmental issue. The Cowspiracy filmmakers interviewed leaders from a number of environmental non-profits, including well knowns like the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation, and none of them would publicly admit to animal agriculture as an environmental issue. The filmmakers suggest that this is because of the legislation written around the Food Libel Laws, laws that “allow a food manufacturer or processor to sue a person or group who makes disparaging comments about their food products.” Furthermore, I suspect that non-profits would lose some donations if they spoke out against the meat industry, which would likely impair their ability to fight for their cause. So mum is the word, creating a contradiction in the very center of the cause they are fighting for. The influence of money will never cease to amaze me.

In addition to the quite complex yet incredibly convincing animal agriculture discussion, our environment is impacted negatively in so many other ways. Take Hydraulic fracturing, for example. It pollutes aquifers and natural water systems all across our country with little to no response from the government. In some areas where fracking has occurred, the tap water that comes out of the local people’s faucets is actually flammable. Animals are drinking this water. People have consumed this water. Kids are getting sick. But… there’s a huge dollar sign attached to fracking, and, well, money trumps clean water.

BTW… have you every really looked at how connected the river systems are all over the country? If rivers are getting polluted with the fertilizers used to grow crops, if fracking pollutes our waterways with chemicals like arsenic, mercury, and formaldehyde, and if the 41% of the US landmass that is used for raising livestock allows its waste and pollution to run into our water ways…where does it end up?


Photo borrowed from treehugger.com

And speaking of rivers, damns have negatively affected our environment for years. I had no idea. Not only do damns have a significant impact on global warming, they also “disrupt flows, degrade water quality, block the movement of a river’s vital nutrients and sediment, and destroy fish and wildlife habitats.” The reservoirs created by damns “slow and broaden rivers, making them warmer, reducing water quality, and harboring destructive non-native species that disperse throughout the watershed and prey on and compete with native wildlife.” There’s a damn removal movement happening, and it’s a pretty good idea to get on board. 

And what about the issues that India, Bangladesh, and our very own sea-level communities face as our climate continues to exhibit symptoms of change – super storms, floods, and rising seas – turning millions of people into climate refugees with nowhere to go. The United Nations estimates that there are currently  25 million climate refugees – and this number is expected to double over the next five years. Furthermore, the Red Cross believes that as many as 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change over the next four decades. 1 BILLION. Um…yikes.

There’s so much more to this conversation. Animals are going extinct. We’re creating immense amounts of trash, with fewer and fewer places to put it. We’re overfishing our seas. Coral reefs are dying. These are all scientific facts. But sometimes statistics and general facts don’t have an emotional impact. How about the mental image of an arctic fox floating on a small piece of ice in the middle of the Bering Sea. There’s no other ice around. Just water in all directions. And when the ice melts…well…

I saw that image one time and it’s permanently etched in my brain.

Bottom line: We’re actively and rapidly disrupting the natural, inherent harmony of the earth, and nearly every choice we make either contributes to the problem or helps the problem. (And if your on the other team, the one that thinks climate change is a natural cycle of the planet as opposed to a manmade issue, please consider for a moment how much better it would be if it WAS our fault. Because if we caused it… we can fix it.)

Yes, the environmental conversation is big, and being aware can feel overwhelming. Looking at our choices and our carbon footprint and assessing our relationship with something as personal and habitual as food….well, it’s hard and it’s unpleasant. I totally get it. In this case, ignorance can definitely feel like bliss. But ignorance is also irresponsible. There are countless excuses we can muster to keep us from making changes, I’m sure I’ve used most of them in my life, but at some point we have to wake up.

When we become informed about environmental issues, we can begin to understand the bigger impact of our actions. We become aware of where our food comes from and what has happened to it along the way. We learn about which businesses we should support and which ones we shouldn’t. Being informed is key to being involved with legislation and policy as it unfolds, in our local communities and our larger communities, and it allows us to find a voice in the conversation. It allows us to stand for something. And by standing for something, we make a difference. 

In summary, the difference I am attempting to make with this post is this: By limiting, or eliminating, our animal product consumption, we can make an immediate and positive impact on our planet. Veganism offers the most bang for your environmental buck. “Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.” 

Let me write that again: “Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.” 

That’s huge. Veganism, as hard as it may be…and as annoying as the trend may feel…is an environmentally responsible way to live. Try doing one meat free day a week. This is something. Two meat free days a week is a hearty effort. Three days a week is even better.

Going completely vegan is makes you an environmentalist. 

As former cattle rancher turned animal advocate Howard Lyman says, “You can’t really call yourself an environmentalist and eat meat,” and at this point I’d have to agree.

Interested in expanding your awareness?  Watch these documentaries: Cowspiracy, Gasland, DamNation, Climate Refugees, If a Tree Falls, Food Inc.

2 Comment on “Eat More Plants

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