Thursday, 24 January 2008

climate change, meat, and "personal choice"

Last week Rajendra Pachauri, who is the head of the UN scientific panel on climate change said something rather radical out loud at a press conference in Paris. He asked people to "please eat less meat". You see, it's old news that livestock production creates lots of greenhouse gasses. And I'm not talking cow farts here. Livestock needs land, feed, water and transportation. Lots of it. So greenhouse gas emissions from livestock total more, in fact, than all forms of transport combined. And guess what? We've known this for a long time, yet it is rare to hear any sort of public debate about whether or not people ought to eat animal products daily, and whether or not participating in something that contributes to environmental destruction on a global scale can really be considered a personal choice.

I find it fascinating that there is broad social support for smoking bans pretty much anywhere. After all, smoking is a personal choice, no? I mean, it pollutes the air in restaurants and annoys the people around you, but is it really so different than the personal choice to eat a steak that requires cutting down rain forest, using underpaid labour, and then has to make an international journey to end up on your plate? In both cases, you are taking an environment that is meant to be a shared one, and needlessly polluting or destroying it because it makes you feel good. Oh yeah, and there's the bit about killing a sentient being for no reason other than taste and convenience. One can make the argument that smoking is also harmful to the person doing it. Well, diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart conditions are on the rise, and the last time I checked, those were bad for your health too. I'm sorry, but in what way is that kind of behaviour a personal choice? Shouldn't a personal choice be something that primarily affects the person making it and doesn't gratuitously hurt others?

Despite the ethical and environmental reasons not to consume animal products, most environmental groups and private individuals who are concerned about equality and environmental issues are loathe to suggest that people should consume less meat or, heaven forbid, stop using animal products altogether. Even when one totally ignores the possible health benefits of a vegan diet consisting of something other than fries and sugar, there are compelling reasons to reduce or eliminate animal products from our lives. I sometimes imagine being an old woman and having to say to a teenager "Dude, sorry we left you a trashed planet, but you understand that my love of ice cream and my right to drive the suv to the store to buy it is infinitely more important to me than you and your future, right?". Put that way, no one would say that the ice cream is more important. Sadly, our actions say otherwise.

We know that the animal killing industry is bad for the planet, bad for the underpaid workers, and bad for our health. And we know that we don't need it in order to survive. So why oh why won't anyone talk about it? People seem determined to keep up our willful ignorance about how our "personal choices" are going to eventually "fuck up the planet that we rely on for such luxuries as air, water and food", and our public figures are pandering to our childish insistence of living in a fantasy where our choices about what and how much we consume are ethically neutral. Some days I meet people who give me hope that people will change, but when I see someone with a Nobel prize suggesting the western world to cut meat consumption to only 5 times a week, and the western world balking at this incredible "sacrifice", I want to crawl under my bed and cry.

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