Apocalypse Cow: Is Veganism The Solution To Climate Change?

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Since I was fourteen years old, I have loved dystopian post-apocalyptic novels. I love reading them, and I love writing them, but I sure as hell don’t want to live in one. There is a reason why Disney and Harry Potter have theme parks, and The Hunger Games doesn’t: people don’t want to experience a futuristic hellscape where they have to fight for their own survival, people want fantasy and escapism, they want magic.

At some point, you have to stop hoping for a magic solution, and face reality. Last week, the UN released a report on climate change that shows we only have 12 years till the damage done to the environment is irreversible. Their best case scenario was like something out of a post-apocalyptic novel. If ever there was a time to change our ways — as a culture, as a society — it is now.

A study showed that 71% of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by 100 companies, and people on the internet are using that as an argument against personal responsibility for the environment. Frankly, I think that’s a cop out, and in the remainder of this blog, I will explain why.

We need to stop anthropomorphizing corporations. Yes, they are huge and hold a significant amount of power and impact. But these companies are run by individual people, they employ individual people, and they make products to meet the needs and wants of individual consumers.

Every product we buy is an investment in our future, and where we spend our money makes a statement about the kind of future we want to live in. To claim that we as individuals have little impact on the environment is simply untrue. We may each be a drop in the ocean, but this ocean is composed of 7.7 billion people. Individuals do no exist in a vacuum, we are all part of a collective, and our decisions count.

The most effective way to reduce our species’ detrimental impact on the environment is to go vegan. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, livestock (and byproducts of them) are the cause of 51% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day (the global warming potential of methane is 86x higher than CO2), and animal agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption [source: cowspiracy.com].

I’ve been vegan for two and a half years, and vegetarian for my whole life. My parents have been vegetarian since (if my maths are correct) 1973. My mum went vegetarian when she was 5, and my dad when he was 25. To me, not eating meat was the norm. It never occured to me that it was a radical thing, and I never quite realised how significant it was for my parents to have gone vegetarian 45 years ago, when it was far less of a social norm. I am lucky to have been raised this way, but it also means I don’t quite have the same understanding of carnist ideology as people who have been raised as meat eaters do.

Carnism is “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism, as ‘carn’ means ‘flesh’ or ‘of the flesh’ and ‘ism’ refers to a belief system” [source: carnism.org] In short, carnism, like veganism, is not simply a diet. The reasons for eating meat — particularly, for eating pigs. but not dogs, etc — is psychological. People have been conditioned to believe that some animals are designed to be eaten, and others are designed to be loved as pets. It’s why people are outraged about dogs being eaten in China, yet they will happily eat a cow or chicken. This is cognitive dissonance.

Whilst many people say they won’t go vegan because they like the taste of meat, the taste is not the reason they ate meat in the first place. They ate meat because their parents fed it to them as a child, and therefore it became normal. Carnist ideology is passed down from parent to child, in the same way vegetarianism was passed down in my family. It is about the norms we are conditioned with.

To quote Eliezer Yudkowsky “you are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” Being raised into a particular ideology is not a life-sentence. Every day we make choices about how we want to live; you are responsible for making the choice to change.

I grew up in a small village in rural Cumbria, where the main industry is dairy farming. Vegetarianism was rare, but veganism was even more uncommon. Furthermore, people viewed veganism as an insult to their lifestyle and profession. I remember once, before I went vegan, I was talking about vegetarianism to one of my classmates. She said she wouldn’t want everyone to go vegetarian, because then all the farmers would lose their jobs. At the time, I think I just gritted my teeth and didn’t say anything. I have heard similar comments echoed by other people over the years, and it greatly bothers me. It implies a profession is more valuable than animals’ lives, and that tradition is an acceptable excuse for torture. I went vegan because I don’t want to participate in perpetuating the suffering of animals, but this is a blog about veganism and the environment, so let’s look at this argument from an environmental perspective.

We have 12 years until the damage done to the environment is irreversible. At the risk of sounding dramatic, the apocalypse is nigh! This doesn’t concern our children or grandchildren, this concerns us, it concerns our lifetime. In 12 years, I will be 32. I will still be in the prime of my life. I don’t want to spend those years scavenging for resources or dying of malnutrition or dehydration. Yes, if the meat and dairy industries were shut down, a vast number of people would lose their jobs. But those industries would be replaced by an increase in plant-based agriculture. People will always need food, farmers don’t have to stop being farmers. I can understand that if something has been a way of life for centuries, people will be resistant to change. But this isn’t about having compassion for animals, or for future generations, it’s about putting the steps in place now to ensure their own lives aren’t cut short a decade down the line.

Since coming to university, I have met many more vegans, and even my non-vegan friends are a lot more accepting and supportive of my veganism than people in my hometown were. However, the reality is: most of my close friends eat meat. I have spent the past two and a half years trying not to be a “preachy” vegan, because I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable. But screw walking on eggshells; the world is ending! If now isn’t the time to speak up about the importance of veganism, when is?

I rarely raise the topic of veganism, because I’m a recovering people pleaser and I still go out of my way to not annoy people. However, people still ask me about veganism, and proceed to tell me that they know veganism is right, and produce a list of all the reasons they would still never go vegan. The reasons vary. A sample of reasons include: it’s easier to be vegan in Glasgow, but when they go home for the holidays, their parents will cook meat, and it is an important part of their family’s way of life/they don’t want to offend their family; they like the taste; they are passionate about cooking, and vegan products don’t cook in the same way as meat does.

My usual reaction is to stay silent. I don’t want people to think I’m judging them. But at the same time, it is hard for me. I have to watch people I love, people who are otherwise kind and compassionate, buying and eating the corpses of animals that have been brutally murdered. If they did that to humans, they would be classed as psychopaths, but because it’s animals it is the accepted norm. I have to numb my mind to the fact that the people I love most in the world participate in a practice and ideology that is inhumane and perpetuates the suffering of sentient creatures. I think that’s why I’m not particularly outspoken in my activism: because if I were to think about it too hard, I wouldn’t be able to look at these people in the same way.

So what changed?

Why am I writing a blog about a topic I usually avoid exploring in depth? Why am I risking offending half of my friends by implying that their actions are unethical? Oh yeah, BECAUSE THE WORLD IS ENDING! This isn’t me getting up on my ideological high horse (my favourite type of animal!), this is me finally getting in touch with the anger I have suppressed for years. I am done keeping quiet, silencing my voice so as not to make people uncomfortable. I have a right to be angry that the world may be utterly f****d within my lifetime, and I have a right to use this platform to encourage people to fight for their future.

A large part of millennial humour is joking about how much you hate life and want to die (a lot of the time, there’s probably a grain of truth in these jokes). I was born in 1998, and I have finally come to accept that — in spite of my love of avocados — I am not a millennial. I am at the beginning of generation Z, and we may be the last letter of the alphabet, but that doesn’t mean we should be the last generation to exist on this planet. Unlike millennials, I don’t want to die. I very much want to stay alive. Life is beautiful, this planet is beautiful, and I will fight for that beauty with all I have, because we live in a world that is worth preserving. We should do everything in our power to protect this planet, because it is the only home we will ever know.

Privilege, Prices, and Protein:

Now that I have explained the issue at hand (and probably offended quite a few people in the process), I’d like to debunk some of the common misconceptions about veganism.

“But isn’t veganism just for rich white people?” Oh honey, no! Admittedly, I am a white, British, cis-gender university student; those are quite a few layers of privilege. I am not the best person to tell you that veganism isn’t just for white people. I can tell you it’s not just for rich people, but we’ll get to that later on. The power dynamics of the relationship between veganism and race are not my field of expertise, and I acknowledge it is not a place where my voice is important. Part of acknowledging one’s privilege is knowing when to take a step back, and let others speak. So instead of getting into the nitty gritty of “vanilla veganism”, I will instead share some resources for you to look into yourselves:

This article by Media Diversified explores veganism’s race problem: https://mediadiversified.org/2015/12/16/veganism-has-a-serious-race-problem/

@rachaelxxs on twitter makes videos about her experience as a black vegan woman, and has a range of videos about the misconceptions regarding veganism and race.

On the subject of privilege: acknowledge your privilege, and use it for good. I’m not telling you to go vegan if you live in a food desert, or live in poverty. However, if you are reading this, I am assuming you are at a certain level of privilege. You have a phone or computer, you are literate, you have the time to read my long ramblings. If you have privilege, you are in a position to make a difference. You are lucky enough to be able to make a change, and you owe it to yourself, and to the planet, and to all the people who don’t have the resources to make that change. The planet is being destroyed, and you have the power to do something about it. There is no magic solution to climate change, there are only practical solutions. This isn’t something that will go away if you ignore it. It is a matter of changing your way of life now, or facing the consequences in the future.

When people tell me their reasons for not going vegan, they acknowledge that those reasons are selfish. But this is no longer a matter of selfish vs. selfless. You’re selfish? So what? Each to their own. At this point, continuing to support the meat and dairy industry isn’t selfish anymore, it shows extreme short sightedness. It’s also selfish to want to have a long, happy life on this beautiful planet. I’m not telling you to not be selfish, I’m telling you to pick your battles. The future is now. We, the human race, have the whole world in our hands, and if we’re not careful we will have irreversibly f****d it, not just for ourselves, but for every living creature.

I used to think there was a certain kind of beauty in the human capacity for destruction. I don’t see beauty anymore, I see an egotistical species with a humongous God complex, that needs to get over itself before the damage can no longer be undone.

There is a stereotype about vegans thinking they’re better than everyone. After reading that last paragraph, you probably want to punch me, and are probably assuming I’m a judgemental bitch who thinks I’m better than you all. False. I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I think all humans are inherently selfish, myself included. I am selfish, I am a hypocrite, I am flawed, and I make a hell of a lot of mistakes. I am judgemental, but I’m more likely to judge you for misspelling words like “you’re” and “there” than for eating meat. I believe that each person does the best they can within their circumstances, and I have compassion for people even if I don’t agree with them. I’m not writing this blog to be preachy or judgemental, I’m writing this blog because I am passionate about a cause, and I want to use this blog to raise awareness of it.

Another argument against veganism is that it’s expensive. False. Some of the cheapest foods in the world are rice, grains, potatoes, etc. Veganism is expensive if you only buy processed foods (particularly if you buy them from Sainsbury’s or Waitrose). If you buy your vegetables from somewhere like Lidl, and have a mostly wholefood diet, veganism is actually super cheap.

“But where do you get your protein?” From the same place your protein gets theirs: plants. Plants contain protein. Particularly beans and legumes, but also things like broccoli, mushrooms, chia seeds, oats, and many, many more. I have never eaten meat, and I haven’t had dairy or eggs in 2.5 years, and I am perfectly healthy and strong.

“What about people with eating disorders? Following a vegan diet could make them relapse.” See the above section on privilege. I am not advising you to go vegan if you are unable to. If it adversely affects your physical and mental health, you are not in a position to go vegan. You’ve got to look after yourself first!

“Bacon tho” It’s not an argument. I studied philosophy at university level for two years, believe me when I say I know what a valid argument looks like. That’s not even an invalid argument, let alone a valid one. If I were to treat it as a serious argument against veganism (which it’s not, in any way, shape, or form) my answer would be: the planet is dying, and the future of humanity matters more than the taste of some fried animal corpse.

Vegetarianism, pescetarianism, and those damn plastic straws

“I’m vegetarian, isn’t that enough?” Yes, and no. Vegetarianism is a great stepping stone on the way to veganism. It can be an important part of the transition, but it should not be the end goal. If you’re vegetarian because you don’t want to harm animals, then you should consider veganism, because the dairy industry could not exist if it wasn’t for the forcible impregnation of cows, whose babies will then be stolen from them at a young age, in order for their milk to be sold to humans. If you’re looking at this from an environmental angle, vegetarianism doesn’t make too much of a difference. You see, the dairy industry is completely reliant on the meat industry. If it wasn’t for the meat industry, there would be a growing surplace of male calves. The two industries are interlinked, and there is no getting around that fact. If you stop consuming meat, but still buy dairy products, you are still supporting the meat industry.

On this note, veganism is also a feminist issue. Cows are forcibly impregnated, and have far more pregnancies in their lifetime than they are designed for. Their bodies are used and abused, over and over. Their milk is then taken from them, as are their offspring, and the process is repeated. Female cows are stripped of their bodily autonomy for their entire lives. If you believe women (or people in general), have the right to bodily autonomy, why do you support this treatment of animals?

“I’m vegetarian, but I eat fish.” No, you’re pescetarian. It is not the same thing. Ethical implications aside, pescetarianism is also bad for the environment. Recently there has been a lot of talk about plastic straws polluting the ocean. But a much larger cause of ocean pollution is actually fishing equipment. 700,000 tons of abandoned fishing equipment are found in the ocean each year. The “great pacific garbage patch”, a floating pile of trash larger than the state of texas, is mostly made up of fishing gear. It’s more convenient for people to preach against plastic straws than to eliminate fish from their diet, but it is also hypocritical, and continues to fall into carnist ideology. Don’t use straws, save the cute turtles, but still eat salmon? It comes back to cognitive dissonance.

If you’ve started reducing your meat and dairy intake, that’s great. I’m proud of you! To take any step towards change is momentous and important. But let it be the start of a journey, not the only step you take. Change takes time, and I’m not telling you to go vegan overnight. But the fact is, our time is running out. We are responsible for preventing this planet from dying. The changes we make need to be drastic.

What else can we do?

Whilst veganism is the most significant change you can make, there are other steps you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. You can recycle, and use reusable, fabric shopping bags. You can walk, ride a bike, use public transport. You can invest in a bamboo toothbrush. You can use a menstrual cup, instead of disposable pads and tampons (the average woman uses 9,600 tampons in her life [source: divacup.com]. That’s not good for the environment or your bank account!). There are so many changes we can make to reduce our impact on the planet. But the first step is to acknowledge our responsibility.

It’s easier to blame it on corporations, or on plastic straws, because the reality is scary. We have to shake up the foundations of the world as we know it, or we won’t survive. I don’t know what the world will look like in ten or twenty years from now, but it will be unrecognisable, either way. It comes back to the fact we are responsible, we have to be better than our parents and their parents, and so on. We can’t look to outdated systems and expect them to carry us into an uncertain future. We have to take action, because this world is all we’ve got, and it is worth fighting for.

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