In Defense of Carnivorous Environmentalists

I have a sticker on my moleskin planner that reads Vegetarianism is Environmentalism. I know – this is an abomination to subtlety, just about as intellectually offensive as reusable shopping bags that read “Green is the new Black!” While I do confess to being a lover of stickers and pins advertising my gastronomic ethics (c’mon, a “cow hugger” sticker is just too darn cute to pass up!), I condemn such banners and badges that suggest an ethical superiority. (So why do I own and use a sticker that essentially says “oh, you eat meat? I’m better than you” ? Because 1) it was free 2) I have a compulsory need to personalize my moleskin planners and 3) that particular sticker was available at the time I was indulging in my decorative personalization. Call me a hypocrite, but at least I acknowledge it.)

However, this argument is not about the merits of sticker activism.

Let me preface this post by ensuring you this is not a diatribe against veganism OR vegetarianism OR carnivorism (is that a word?). This is simply a pragmatic discussion of the relationship between eating and the environment, specially meat eating and the environment.

Nicolette Niman recently took on this dilemma in a post for the Atlantic. She was writing in response to a debate in which she participated in Berkley sponsored by the Earth Island Institute and VegNews. Her “opponent” of sorts was feedlot operator turned vegan Howard Lyman who was arguing against the idea that people who eat meat can simultaneously claim to be environmentalists. In her Atlantic post, Niman discussed the difficulty in arguing her dissenting position to a room full of vegans. Niman is a vegetarian, and, like me, she holds some seemingly contradictory opinions on vegetarianism that are difficult for most people to swallow (pun absolutely intended).

But Niman’s opinions are important and should indeed be swallowed. Lyman’s claim that provoked the discussion – that eating meat directly contributes to global warming – has some scientific validity, but not the deterministic value that many a vegetarian and vegan assign it. Niman says in response:

Equally important, to suggest that going vegetarian means you’re “part of the solution” is simply wrong: all food production has global warming impacts, and some of the worst emitters have nothing to do with livestock. For example, wetland rice fields alone account for almost 30 percent of the world’s human-generated methane. British research has shown that highly processed vegetable foods such as potato chips have large carbon footprints. Some soy products in U.S. grocery stores are from croplands created by clear-cutting rainforests in Brazil. And researchers in Sweden discovered that the global-warming impact of a carrot varies by a factor of ten depending on how and where it’s produced. All of which shows that quitting meat does not absolve anyone’s diet of a connection to global warming.

In the same way that using a recycled shopping bag or a Sigg water bottle does not mean that you are single handedly saving the earth, simply eschewing meat does not necessarily mean that you have some sort of environmental superiority to all meat-eaters. The reverse is also true, just because you eat meat does not mean you are necessarily causing more harm to the earth than a vegetarian or a vegan, and Niman agrees: “My modest hope for the evening was to make the case that there is more than one way to eat environmentally and ethically.”
So go ahead guys and gals, take a bite out of that burger (although, it is a grass-fed, free range, organic, biodynamic, holistically raised, had-bedtime-stories-read-to-it-as-a-calf burger right?!)

In fact, many vegan products participate in the same industrial system as factory farming. Do you really know what’s in your vegan cheese? Do you know where those soybeans came from? Are they genetically modified soybeans?! Do you buy things from China? Do you eat processed foods? Do you use an air conditioner do you drive a car do you consume a lot of goods?! I’m asking these questions not to accuse, but rather to point out that there is more than one way participate in global warming, and more than one way to fight it. However, if you are virtuous enough to be able to answer “no” to all of these questions then please, as you were soldier, continue your stone throwing. But let’s face it, we are all contributing to global warming. So stop pointing fingers everybody and fuckin’ hug it out.


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