Among the many internecine conflicts within the environmental community, one that seems particularly relevant as we struggle with our 2018 New Year’s resolutions is whether someone can be a card-carrying environmentalist while continuing to consume meat and other animal products.
Besides arguing against meat consumption from the premise that animals have an inherent right to life, one of the main arguments environmentalists put forth against meat consumption focuses on its connection to climate change. According to this argument, methane emissions involved in meat production are one of the biggest contributions to GHG emissions. If you seriously care about stopping climate change, then you should exercise responsible consumption and stop eating meat. In terms of gratuitous consumption, eating a filet mignon for dinner is equivalent to driving a Hummer to work, and no real environmentalist would do that.
Though this argument smartly capitalizes on people’s fear of catastrophic climate change, I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny, and I believe that we environmentalists do not do ourselves any favors by espousing it. To start, much of the rhetoric about industrial meat production’s contribution to GHG emissions is overblown. In the United States, agriculture of all kinds accounts for only 9% of the country’s GHG emissions. Compare this to the 27% of emissions generated by transportation, the 29% resulting from electricity generation, and the 21% produced by heavy industry. As for how much of this 9% comes from meat production specifically, one recent study that modeled US agriculture to determine the impacts of removing farmed animals on GHG emissions concluded that such removal would amount to only a 2.6% reduction in national GHG emissions. Granted, these statistics do not shed light on the devastating environmental impact of deforestation for livestock, especially for cattle in the Amazon and other vulnerable ecosystems. But for American environmentalist-consumers, these effects can be largely ignored, since American consumers do not eat much imported meat, and most of the beef we do import comes from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
Since removing all animals from US agriculture would only lead to a 2.6% reduction in national GHG emissions, one’s individual choice to refrain from eating meat amounts to an infinitesimal reduction in GHG emissions. Given how small the impact would be, is going vegetarian for environmental reasons worth making the choice at all?
Proponents of climate-based vegetarianism will point to the obvious fact that individual impacts may be small, but their effects in aggregate can make meaningful change. This is true, but I think it is important to balance the remote prospect of an eventual 2.6% reduction in GHG emissions (in the highly unlikely event that American consumers completely forgo animal products) against the consequences of embracing vegetarianism and veganism as tenets of American environmentalism.
In a thorough and perceptive article written in the wake of Trump’s election, Jedediah Purdy describes how, since the 1960s, environmentalism has moved away from its roots as a social justice movement and towards what he calls “Mainstream Environmentalism.” Mainstream Environmentalism puts elite, expert technicians – such as litigators and policy experts from the Sierra Club – at its center and focuses on “beautiful scenery and charismatic species” instead of focusing on urban communities that are affected by the unjust distribution of environmental harms. This turn towards elite decisionmakers and emphasis on protecting wilderness has led to environmentalism being increasingly associated with wealthy white liberals who may care more about polar bears than about poor residents of Flint, Michigan whose drinking water is still contaminated by lead. While there are important strands within environmentalism that push back against these trends in Mainstream Environmentalism, especially the Environmental Justice movement, Purdy notes that “the structural inequality that guides environmental harms along familiar racial and class lines runs very deep.”
Combine the reputation of environmentalism as a movement largely dominated by wealthy, white elites with the average American’s mental image of a vegetarian or vegan. Whether deserved or not, vegetarianism and veganism in America are also perceived as dietary choices adopted mainly by affluent white Americans, and studies of meat consumption patterns by race back this perception up. Making vegetarianism or veganism a tenet of environmentalism risks further pushing environmentalism towards its elite-dominated Mainstream Environmentalist faction.
For environmentalists who are passionate about addressing climate change, this is especially problematic because climate change is a social justice issue. As environmental disasters related to climate change become more and more frequent, low income, politically-marginalized communities in places like Houston and Puerto Rico aren’t able to adapt and rebuild as easily as wealthy, mobile, and politically powerful communities. Given the disproportionate effects climate change will have on such communities, it is important that we environmentalists continue to strive to make climate change activism into an inclusive, intersectional coalition that can work across broad cross-sections of America to get the legislation we need to effect just and workable solutions to climate change. With this larger political goal in mind, the potential 2.6% reduction in overall GHG emissions that would result from totally eliminating animal-based agriculture in the United States is not worth perpetuating the impression of environmentalism as the province of wealthy elites fixated on charismatic megafauna.
So while eating less meat is a laudable resolution for the new year – whether for health reasons, for animal rights reasons, or to reduce your personal carbon footprint – we shouldn’t judge environmentalists who don’t make this commitment. Environmental Pharisaism will win no converts to our cause. We should embrace all newcomers to the movement, for the problems we face are bigger than any individual’s personal consumption choices.