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Animals as the Bottom Line

Global Warming, Human Psychology, and Net Impact for Animals

At first blush, global warming seems to be a great hook for those of us promoting animal-friendly eating, but there are two problems:

1. Offering accurate information. Many people say that meat is the leading cause of global warming. But this is not true; the production of meat is not the leading cause of greenhouse gases – only more than transportation. From “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”:

Although the main human source of greenhouse-gas emissions is combustion of fossil fuels for energy generation, non-energy emissions (including from agriculture and land-use changes) contribute more than a third of the total greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

And elsewhere:

Greenhouse-gas emissions from the agriculture sector account for about 22% of global total emissions; this contribution is similar to that of industry and greater than that of transport. Livestock production (including transport of livestock and feed) accounts for nearly 80% of the sector’s emissions.

So livestock comes after energy generation and industry. And that is only globally; from the Salon article referenced below:

Here in the U.S., livestock’s impact is not quite so extreme: Six percent of our greenhouse gases come from livestock production, compared with 19 percent from cars, light trucks and airplanes.

See more here (scroll down to the update).
March 2010 update: report author admits even the claim re: transportation isn’t correct.

Very few meat eaters are actively seeking to be a vegetarian; rather, most people are looking for a reason to dismiss us. When we exaggerate or lie, that is all that is remembered – not our other points or even the underlying reality. That worldwide meat production contributes more to global warming than all of transportation is accurate and striking; there is no reason to exaggerate.

2. The expected impact in the public mind, and how it thus actually affects animals. When the public hears "livestock" (as in "livestock causes more global warming than transportation"), they think cattle, and the conclusion is that they should eat less beef. Even when people hear "meat ... global warming," they think burping (or flatulent) cows. (Of course, the news is written by, and the media run by, meat eaters. So they will always choose the side that is least challenging to their habits / the status quo.)

For those that look into the science and aren't already vegan, concern for global warming leads almost inevitably to more chickens being eaten (it takes about 190 chickens to provide the same number of meals as one steer; see "Suffering per Kilogram" and "Farm Animal Welfare, Legislation, and Trade" (pdf)).

For example, from “Earth to PETA”:

"Astonishingly enough," says study coauthor Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist, "the poultry diet is actually better than lacto-ovo vegetarian." In other words, a roast chicken dinner is better for the planet than a cheese pizza.

How about going vegan?

The average American is responsible for about 26 tons annually, so if the entire U.S. population went vegan, we'd reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by only 6 percent.

The vast majority of that 6 percent is from cutting out beef and dairy. (The entire article is worth reading for how "informed" opinion plays this out.)

Similarly:

“Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,”Environ. Sci. Technol. (pdf)

Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household's food-related climate footprint than "buying local." Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

The LA Times shows "replace beef with chicken" in action:

"No hamburger patties?" asked an incredulous football player, repeating the words of the grill cook. He glowered at the posted sign: 'Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices.' "Just give me three chicken breasts, please," he said.…

Here is another example. [June 2009: another example. October 2009: The government of Sweden tells people to eat more chickens to combat global warming.] A final data point is that if Al Gore – who believes global warming is an existential risk – won't change, it would appear that global warming/veg isn't an incredibly compelling argument for veganism (see here, and comments).

My general impression (and I know there are exceptions to this and all arguments) is that global warming is another argument that makes sense to us, and makes us think, “Here is a great, self-interested hook I can use to convince others of veganism's superiority!” But it isn’t a question of whether veganism is the best diet for addressing global warming (as far as I can tell, it is). The bottom line has to be the actual impact of the message we choose to present. In other words: we shouldn’t seek out and use arguments that seem to support veganism – veganism isn't the point. If we take suffering seriously, we must seek to present a message that reduces the most suffering.

As Nobel laureate Herb Simon discovered, human psychology / decision making is often determined by ‘good enough.’ People don’t hear about a concern (especially a relatively abstract issue like global warming) and take it to the fullest extent – e.g., stop driving entirely – but rather, those motivated enough will do something (drive a bit less, drive a more fuel-efficient car) and feel good that they are doing something. (The same has held true for “the health argument.”)

In this case, though, doing “something” means eating a lot more chickens. We can say, “But being vegan is even better!” till we’re blue in the face, but experience shows that this is effective only in the rarest of cases; the vast majority of people who will be moved at all about global warming are happy to be “taking action” by eating a lot more chickens. (And it is the cattle industry that is worried about the global warming / diet argument, not the poultry industry – the latter loves anything that badmouths beef.)

Although the global warming / food connection seems clear to us, the bottom line is how it actually plays out in people’s minds. When used on its own, the diet / global warming angle can easily do more harm (increase in chickens eaten) than good (people going veg). Instead of an oblique anti-beef message, we can present a direct anti-cruelty / pro-animal message, and convince more people to eat fewer or no animals.

For this reason, I think that we should be very careful how we use global warming. It is a hot topic, so it gives us an “in” with the media and environmental groups. But if we present it on its own, given human psychology, the case is very often going to have the bottom line of more chickens dying. In my opinion, the global warming / diet connection does more harm than good when presented on its own, but can work as a hook to capture attention and allow us to draw attention to the horrors of modern agribusiness, with a special focus on cruelty to chickens.

 

Postscript

On a related topic, there is growing recognition that increased usage of certain biofuels will exacerbate global hunger (e.g., http://tinyurl.com/5wmh3y). Of course, the same argument of resource usage can be made regarding using crops as animals feed (e.g., http://tinyurl.com/2lvbww) – according to the FAO, only 100m tonnes of cereal crops go to biofuel, while 760m tonnes go to animal feed – and the latter figure isn't even counting soy. As pointed out here:

There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, will feed people.… But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals – which could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.

Keep in mind, however, that beef is much, much less efficient than chicken (and eggs) – see, again, the Salon article:

Welcome, then, the savior of environmentally concerned carnivores everywhere: the chicken. Unlike cattle, chickens don't burp methane. They also have an amazing ability to turn a relatively small amount of grain into a large amount of protein. A chicken requires 2 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, compared with about 6 pounds of grain for a feedlot cow and 3 pounds for a pig. Poultry waste produces only about one-tenth of the methane of hog and cattle manure.

Like thousands of activists over the past decades, I’d love to think there is some perfect, logical, self-interested argument that won’t just vindicate my veganism, but will actually convince large numbers of people to go vegan, while not leading others to eat more chickens. But this is not the case – there just aren't lots of people out there who secretly want to be vegan but just need that one statistic. For nearly everyone, any change away from the status quo is difficult and resisted. As much as we’d love to argue otherwise, in response to health or environmental arguments, the first, easiest, most convenient, and socially acceptable step is to eat more chickens.

It is worth briefly considering why health and environmental arguments seem to be more easily “accepted” by people, and why most individuals are resistant and defensive when faced with the cruelty argument. Much of this could well be that health choices are personal (and easily overridden by habit, convenience, etc, even in the face of severe health issues), while environmental concerns are abstract and easily assuaged by taking some action (new lightbulbs, recycling) from the laundry list of suggested actions (“No one’s perfect!”).

The obvious cruelty and vicious brutality of factory farms, however, is both real, immediate, undeniable, and clearly an ethical challenge to our view of ourselves. For these reasons, the animals’ suffering can’t be easily dismissed and forgotten; thus it is important for meat eaters to avoid the issue as much as possible (and to make the messenger the issue, whenever possible). For the same reason, it is incumbent on us, as animal advocates, to actually advocate the animals’ case, so that no one can avoid facing the hidden reality.

As I’ve written elsewhere:

I’m not fooling myself – I know that exposing what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses isn’t going to reach everyone. But feel-good arguments that avoid the horrors of meat production are easily dismissed, and thus simply not compelling enough. We don’t want people to nod in agreement and continue on as before. It is far better if 95% of people turn away revolted and 5% open their minds to change, than if everyone smiles politely and continues on to McDonald’s for a chicken sandwich.

Let me repeat: Trying to appeal to everyone hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. It is well past time to give up the fantasy that there is some perfect self-centered argument that will magically compel everyone to change.

In deciding what to present to the public, our criteria shouldn’t be, “Does this seem [to me] to denigrate (some) meat and/or support veganism?” We shouldn't be trying to justify our diet – we need to stand up for the animals. We don't get to determine how people should react; we must consider how our chosen argument will actually play out to the general public and through the media. We must set aside our personal biases and needs, and honestly ask,“Is this the argument that will alleviate as much suffering as possible?” The animals are counting on us.