Squarespace (the service I use to design my website) does not allow for footnoting. A PDF version of this post containing footnote citations and textual notes can be viewed here. This post benefited from the helpful comments of Neil Netanel, the first vegetarian I ever met.
“It's always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals.
Maybe you remember reading a version of this headline within the last few weeks: “E.P.A. Chief, Rejecting Agency’s Science, Chooses Not to Ban Insecticide.” Trump’s appointment of E.P.A. chief, Scott Pruitt—a climate change denier who previously sued the E.P.A.—was just the kind of appointment environmentalists dreaded, an inmate running the asylum. Yet, I still found it inconceivable that even Pruitt could simply ignore the facts provided by the E.P.A. on what should seem like a straightforward non-partisan issue, especially given the ample evidence of what happens when environmental regulation fails—notably the Flint water crisis. Of course, it’s not just Pruitt, but the entire Trump administration that chooses to ignore the evidence in favor of their "alternative facts.”
You don’t need me to remind you that our current administration is operating under the principle that reality can be shaped by words rather than the other way around. But I will remind you because if you are also feeling your stomach churn at the prospect of four more years of Trumpian anomie, if you care even just one iota about the environment, and if you find yourself infuriated that certain elected leaders choose to ignore the overwhelming and uncontroversial evidence of human-caused climate change, then you are exactly who I wish to address. Chances are that you are one of the 95.5% of Americans who eat animal products and one of the 67% of Americans who believe that global warming is happening. In that case, I want to call you out. Ample evidence supports the notion that eating a diet rich in meat and other animal products is unsustainable and is, in fact, a leading cause of climate change, water consumption, deforstation, and ocean toxicity.
Here are the facts:
Fossil Fuels and Greenhouse Emissions
- It’s not usual for meat to travel almost halfway around the globe to reach you. The average distance meat travels is 1500 miles. It takes 11 times more fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie from animal protein as to produce 1 calorie from plant protein.
- According to the United Nations, 19% of green-house gas emissions are directly attributable to meat production—a higher share than all transportation combined. Moreover, a report published by the Worldwatch Institute, asserts that 51% or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture. The Worldwatch Report takes into account the downstream deleterious effects of the entire meat industry supply chain, including environmental costs of refrigerating animal products at various stages of distribution.
- Production of animal products are more damaging to the environment than the production of construction materials such as sand, cement, plastics, or metals.
- Farm animals emit noxious levels of CO2, methane gas, ammonia and other pollutants.
- Runoff from factory farms and livestock grazing is one of the leading causes of pollution in rivers and lakes.
- Chemical runoff produced by livestock operations have created more than 550 ocean dead zones amassing to 95,000 sq. km. of ocean area devoid of life.
- In the United States, farmed animals produce 130 times as much waste as the human population—roughly 87,000 pounds of excrement per second.
- More that 30 diseases can be transferred to humans from animal waste, which contains disease-causing pathogens, such as salmonella, e. coli, cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform.
- 29% of the total water footprint of the world’s agricultural sector is related to the production of animal products.
- Beef is by far the most environmentally harmful animal products: One-third of the water footprint of the world’s agricultural sector is related to beef-cattle. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef (by comparison, producing 1 pound of tofu only requires 244 gallons of water).
- The water footprint of a 4 ounce hamburger patty (a quarter pounder) is equivalent to taking about a 3 hour shower. Eating an 8 ounce chicken breast for lunch and an 8 ounce steak for dinner is the equivalent of taking a 7 1/2 hour shower that day.
- Americans eat over a pound of meat a day—second only to Luxumbourgers (and they practically have “burgers” in their name).
- In industrialized countries, an average meat-eater consumes the equivalent of about 3600 gallons of water a day, which is 1.6 times more used daily by people on vegetarian diets, even assuming the vegetarians consume dairy products.
- A single cow raised for milk can drink up to 50 gallons of water per day, and twice that in hot weather. It takes 683 gallons of water to produce just 1 gallon of milk.
- The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value.
Deforestation and Land Use
- Deforestation related to animal agriculture releases an estimated 2.4 billion tons of CO2 worldwide annually.
- More than 90% of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock.
- It takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a vegan diet than it does to feed a non-vegan since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals.
- While 56 million acres of U.S. land are used to produce hay for livestock, only 4 million acres are used to produce vegetables for human consumption.
Green Eating as the Summum Bonum
“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period.” — Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher, and author of Mad Cowboy.
When it comes to measures we can take to mitigate climate change and otherwise protect our blue planet, it’s rare that a cause of action can be so obvious. Given how much consuming animal products—especially meat—impacts the environment, you can stand to make a BIG difference just chewing on different things at those several moments during the span of the day that you are chewing on anything at all. In the words of Louis C.K channeling God, “Just eat the shit that’s on the floor!”
That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that some meatless diets are better than others. Processed foods such as white rice and white bread require 60% more water to produce. As can be seen from Fig. 1, it takes drastically more water to produce a 4-ounce soy burger patty than a 4-ounce chicken breast; while soy burgers less-processed cousin, tofu, takes less water to produce than any meat, including egg. Moreover, fruits and vegetables tend to be wasted at a higher rate than animal products. Even an adamant vegan may negate the perceived virtue of their diet if they waste food or eat a lot of processed viands. The best diet for the environment will exclude highly processed foods in addition to animal products. It’s been shown that a healthier diet—in essence a diet grounded in traditional farming methods—can help reduce energy consumption by the US food system by 50 percent. Fresh foods—especially locally sourced foods—are more nutrient rich than processed foods. Processed foods are also have higher content of sugar, bad fats, and chemical preservatives. So eating in a way that benefits the health of the environment also benefits the health of the individual. Philosophers refer to such an activity in which the ends justify the means and the means are ends in themselves as the summum bonum or “the highest good” because such an activity is intrinsically worthwhile and should be pursued wholeheartedly.
Ethics of Eating: The Devil in the Details
Factory farms, as they are colloquially known, bare so little resemblance to actual farms that to describe them, the EPA has adopted the moniker “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs). Every year billions of animals suffer in crowded, inhumane conditions at CAFOs for the reason that the agriculture industry figured out that consumers can be bribed with cheap animal products to refrain from asking the simple question of how their food reached their supermarket shelves. Thus, many consumers are unaware of the dismal scenes behind the CAFO walls because they have chosen to reduce their knowledge about their food to its aisle at the supermarket. Having made this choice to tune out, consumers of animal products are complicit in the inhumane treatment of animals and the deleterious environmental effects resulting from the mass production of animal products.
Fortunately, a growing number of consumers have grown privy to the notion that there is something terribly amiss how we consume animal products and have decidedly “gone” organic, free-range, grass-fed, etc. Unfortunately, as the aforementioned facts reveal, merely buying into so-called humane labeling does not little if anything to mitigate the environment impacts of eating animal products or promote the humane treatment of animals. Such labels are hardly more than a marketing ploy by the agriculture industry intended mislead those who have become concerned about where their food comes from. The growing number of people (albeit relatively few) who have demonstrated a concern for the ethical treatment of animals has caused agribusiness to double down on its efforts to keep the consumer from asking inconvenient questions about the industry. And, as I will discuss, realizing that its business model depends on the obscuration of its operations, the agriculture industry works hard to keep the public ignorant about the true cost of their meat, eggs, and dairy.
At CAFOs, highly sentient and cognitively complex creatures such as pigs may spend their entire adult lives confined to gestation crates too small to even turn around or lie down. Imagine doing that to an emotionally sensitive and inquisitive being such as a dog or three-year-old child because pigs are just as sensitive to physical and psychological duress. Even animals we consider to be less-sentient than pigs are still capable of experiencing pain and distress. Chickens for instance have capacity to show empathic responses. Animals who endure only the baseline suffering of the crowded and putrid conditions at CAFOs are the lucky ones as CAFO employees regularly engage in horrific acts of abuse and torture. Workers have been documented kicking live piglets like soccer balls, forcibly kicking mother pigs as they resisted leaving their young, tearing the heads of live birds, urinating into the slaughter line, shocking livestock in the eyes, rectum, and face repeatedly, and running cows over with fork lifts. These cruel, but not unusual, acts occurred at abattoirs that supplied meat to major corporations including KFC, Tyson Foods, and the National School Lunch Program.
Given the evidence of abuses that occur at CAFOs, one would think that the government would take steps to ameliorate conditions at CAFOs. On the contrary: CAFOs receive various government subsidies making it difficult for smaller, traditional, and more ethical abattoirs to compete with them. Moreover, rather than advocating for stronger protocols to deter animal abuse at CAFOs, some state legislatures have relented to pressure from the powerful agribusiness lobby, passing or attempting to pass legislation—so called “ag-gag” laws—aimed at hindering the undertakings of animal-rights activists to document abuses. As of March 2017, eight states have ag-gag legislation on their books. While there are regulations aimed at preventing the grossest forms of animal mistreatment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), which is responsible for enforcing them, is ineffectual due to inadequate authority and resources. It’s been largely up to non-profit groups such as the Humane Society to document cases of animal abuse and to request prosecution under relevant statues, hence the meat industry’s push for ag-gag laws.
Aware that the grisly details of animal abuses threaten their pernicious business model, the meat industry goes to great lengths to veil the shameful conditions characteristic of CAFOs from the public. The industry realizes what Michael Pollen—author of several best-selling books on food issues—has opined:
No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or brutally as we [in the United States] do. Were all the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to do it this way. Tail-docking and sow crates and beak-clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering 400 head of cattle an hour would come to an end. For who could stand the sight?
Michael Pollen is right: People do indeed become incensed when confronted with the reality of animal suffering. Just this last year, the California Assembly passed a bill 77-3 allowing people to break into vehicles to rescue animals that appear to be in danger from excessive heat. The legislation was motivated by a spate of incidents in which dogs died after being left in cars on hot days. While we should applaud the efforts of the California legislature, we can’t ignore the fact that millions of animals suffer under harsh conditions everyday. The only difference between pigs at CAFOs and dogs in hot cars is that we don’t see the pigs suffer. By the time meat has reached our dinner plate, it is shrouded by the metaphors imbued by the language of commerce; we are blind to the connection between the chicharrón on our plate and the dead animal on our plate.
Aristotle insisted that man is a political animal, meaning that it’s an essential trait of human beings to come together and create civic institutions. Doing so saves our better natures from being overruled by baser dispositions that could otherwise make humans indifferent to moral restraint. Aristotle, however, only got it half-right, for our collective capacity to structure institutions that bond humans under the administration of justice and other social goods may also helm society to anomie under the right conditions. Telling of such conditions is the occasioning of what Hannah Arendt described as the banality of evil, a phrase she used in reporting the trial of Eichmann. Arendt observed that, contrary to being a sociopath, Eichmann was an unextraordinary government official who, unable to think for himself, relied instead on, equivocations, officialese and euphemistic language to exonerate himself of evil intent or complicity. “The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.” Analogously, in buying meat at the supermarket or ordering a meat dish at a restaurant, we participate in a system designed to obscure the relationship between a meal and a dead animal. The conceptual distance between a “Double-Quarter Pounder” and a dead animal is no less remarkable than the sorts of euphemisms used by the Nazis, especially when the commercial name of an animal product is preceded by a neologism aimed making the consumer believe a product is more humane than it actually is. The aesthetics of animal products— either in lexical form as menu items or as the visual of a neatly packaged burger—prevents us from equating our food with its source. I don’t mean to suggest that a dead animal is as inherently bad as a dead human. But given the context of how the meat industry kills animals, a Double-Quarter Pounder with Cheese represents and, ipso facto, obscures a corresponding wrong, the banality of which comes in as 14 points on Weightwatcher’s dietary scale.
The Holocaust taught the world that the average person is capable of complicity in atrocities when social institutions come to explicitly or implicitly condone immoral behavior. Under such conditions, wrongful acts performed by blithe individuals buildup piecemeal to a dissolute result. The complicity of the individual actors of is obscured by the fact that their wrongdoings are disseminated in time and space. While moral actors are willing to condemn the sum outcome of their collective individual acts, they fail to recognize their own agency as contributing to a damnable outcome; an instance, as it were, of a whole being more than the sum of its parts.
The net affect of this species of anomie—conditioned, on the one hand by the quotidian atrocities of individuals and, on the other, by establishments that benefit from compliance to the system—is the emergence of moral opacity and the resulting lack of incentive to guard against the adverse effects of one’s behavior. The meat industry is a prime example of a system encompassing moral opacity as CAFO obscuration shields consumers from the adverse affects of their viand selection. Having displaced the ethical considerations of killing animals unto corporations and ineffectual government agencies, people can go about their business feeling that they are no longer responsible for mistreatment of animals and other undesirable consequences caused by CAFOs. Underlying this system of blame displacement is the implicit question: How can Ibe committing a wrongful act just by doing some as perfunctory as eating?
Unfortunately, for the same reasons that we can become habituated out of fearing the unknown through repeat exposure to a source of anxiety, human nature is such that we can become morally oblivious to the diurnal, mundane, and seemingly insignificant activities of life.
Thus, where there is moral opacity, there is also moral fatigue; it takes immensely more effort to call out many people for doing a little bit of evil than a single person (including ourselves) or entity for carrying out a harrowing act of wrongdoing. Moral fatigue belies our imperfect capacity for moral calculus, our innate tendency to absolve ourselves of what we perceive to be as minor infractions, even if those small wrongs can in sum take on the magnitude of an act we would never dream of condoning. The conditions by which the meat industry exists exploits this particular quirk in our capacity for moral deliberation. To overcome this defect in our moral thinking, it is of outmost importance to equate one’s own agency with the totality of a systemic moral failure. To do so, will require each of us to bring our moral convictions bear on the minutia of everyday life.
Meat consumption is projected to double by 2050. To meet this demand, the use of valuable resources and waste associated with the production of waste will continue to get worse exponentially as more and more of animal products will be produced by CAFOs that pollute, yield unhealthy products, and treat animals inhumanely. Therefore, it’s up to us as consumers to make the industry and our leaders understand that animal cruelty and global warming will not be the price we pay for meat. To do so, it will require strength of character to live out our ethical values minute by minute, refusing to give in the temptation to pretend that minutes don’t add ups to years, or trademarked cheeseburgers to an industry destroying the world.
Who Am I to Call You Out?
I’ve been asking myself that question as I write that. I will be the first to admit that my environmental credentials are not completely in order. I am guilty of buying pre-packaged foods, eating dairy and egg (at present, I am only ovo-lacto vegetarian), using lots and lots of paper, and traveling frequently on planes, which is probably my biggest carbon sin. I’m definitely not perfect—but even the most hardcore environmentalist can’t claim total absolution for we are all inextricably linked to modernity. Still, some can do better than others, and not eating meat is low hanging fruit within the gamut of things we can do to save the environment—a much more effective and much easier thing to do than say giving up driving or showering (regrettably the latter always seems to be the go-to for young activists). While I do not believe that eating meat is inherently wrong, I have no doubt that the way in which we consume meat is not only unsustainable, but also unquestionably unethical. Animal cruelty is the price we pay for cheap meat. But unlike driving, using electricity, or buying plastic products, eating meat is not a necessity for modern living.
With the rise of Trump, America has hopefully reached its political nadir. However, in the venerable words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Indeed, our complicity in the industrial factory farming complex is a much bigger discredit to the American people than Trump. If you’ve read the facts I've presented and you still choose to eat animal products—or at least not significantly reduce your consumption of meat—then you hereby forego your right to indignation. It’s as simple as that. You are willfully living a Trumpian illusion if you choose not change your eating habits. There is no excuse for turning your mea culpas to silent while at the dinner table. Don’t delay, don’t cavil. Make Earth great again!
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Arendt’s reportage eventually led to a book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).
Mekonnen; Hoekstra, 2012. P. 413