The Greenest Possible World

A couple of nights ago I gave a presentation on the environmental impact of meat for SMU's vegetarian club.   Here's the slide show--comprehensible without my voice-over, I think.

The slide show makes an argument--that the future will bring either vastly more factory farming or more plant eating.  It cannot bring more traditional farming, with animals grazing under the wide blue sky.  Why not?  Because 30% of the earth's non-ice land surface is already covered in livestock (26%) and feedcrops (4%).  Lovers of wildlife should be extremely concerned.  "Mild" animals--billions of grazing cows and sheep--are literally crowding wild animals out of existence.  They are also contributing to climate change and depleting valuable resources.

There are lots of cool graphs, charts, and maps in the slideshow, many from the UN report Livestock's Long Shadow--a really fabulous resource. 

I think it's quite clear we should eat more plants, but here's what's less clear to me.  From a green point of view, how far (ideally) would we roll back animal farming?  Would we ideally reduce the 30% to 25%...to 20%...to 15%...or to what?  Some animal pastures can be converted to plant farming, with much higher nutritional yields. Plant farming is much more efficient.  But some pastures cannot, so that eliminating animal farming on that land means expanding plant agriculture elsewhere.  I suspect the greenest possible world feeding 9 billion people (in 2050) couldn't be a purely vegan world.

On the other hand, the greenest possible world will also not be one in which the whole world consumes animal protein at the rate that affluent countries do today. Consumption of animal products has to decline, if 9 billion people are going to be fed in 2050, with any land left for other species.  From a strictly environmental standpoint, the moral rule to promote is "eat more plants."  It's all to the good for some to eat none, to compensate for others who over-consume.  But in the greenest and most egalitarian of all possible worlds (that involve 9 billion people living on this planet), I think everyone will eat a little meat.

That's a surprising conclusion to reach, I think.  It's not ethically unproblematic to take the life of any animal, whether or not they have robust rights just like ours.  So it's odd to admit that it's got to be done.  Perhaps the best diagnosis is this:  there are so many humans that our options are tragically narrowed.  We simply cannot all survive and also grant animals the full moral status they are entitled to.  Going into a future with too many people and not enough land, we cannot completely stop using them as food.

On the other hand, we also can't use animals as food to the degree that we do now.  The average American's animal consumption is the highest in the world--250 pounds of meat per year! Consumption of animal products is going to have to decrease, but perhaps not to zero.

Sound right? Look at the charts, maps, and graphs in the slide show, and let me know what you think.


"The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" (from January 25) has recently been much discussed (Stangroom, Blackford, Coyne, Schoen, Rosenau).  That's for your reading pleasure. I think I've run out of things to say on the topic.


Matthew Pianalto said...

Thanks. Nice slideshow. If you've not already looked at it, Tony Milligan's recent Beyond Animal Rights looks at this issue, particularly the question of whether a "vegan utopia" would be the most sustainable situation (putting aside for a moment the suffering issue), and he's not sure either, though he supports a vision of most people in most of the world as living on mostly vegetarian diets. Which, for us, is equivalent to your point that "We're not in New Zealand."

I've thought some about this, living in a part of Kentucky where I have pretty easy access (a short-ish drive) to a local butchershop that processes local livestock. From a bioregionalist perspective, it might be better to support that than to eat veggie dogs from the supermarket...Alas.

Jean Kazez said...

Darn-I just (5 minutes ago) ordered Simon Fairlie's book "Meat"--which seems to make the same argument. But I'll check out Milligan too.

Adam said...

I'm not really comfortable arguing against meat consumption on the basis of land use. I'd love to believe that land not used for grazing will be left as wilderness, but for all I know it could become a shopping mall. That tends to be more economically viable then wildlife preservation.

Jean Kazez said...

Given trends in the world right now, the land argument is that you slow the increase in land devoted to livestock by not eating meat. That seems plausible, doesn't it?

If the land is no longer increasing, and the argument starts to be--let's shrink grazing lands, so wildlife can move back in, then I think your point will be valid. It just seems like that's not realistic. What's going to move back in is a mall, like you say.

Aeolus said...

Surely the greenest possible diet is one that involves cannibalism, and the more of it, the better. (And don't even get me started on poverty in Ireland.)

The greenest possible world is one in which humans no longer exist. (And don't talk about paleolithic cultures, because you know where that leads: straight to industrial society, with a couple of brief stopovers to view human sacrifices at pyramids and tortures in Church dungeons.)

We can't talk about a green diet without implicitly or explicitly assigning value(s) to varieties of sentient life. Almost everyone is prepared to pay some ecological price to have some population of humans live and live comfortably. We should also be prepared to pay some ecological price to minimize animal suffering and death at our hands. If that's true, then the goal of a vegan world cannot be ruled out by claims that eating some meat would be greener. Again: if being green trumps everything else, start by eating your neighbours.

There are far too many people in the world, especially given our current capitalist industrial economy. The good news: reproductive rates have been falling dramatically. The key to ecological sustainability is replacing (or drastically altering) the global industrial system.

Thanks for the excellent slide show. I think it would benefit from a voice-over, or at least some tinkly music.

Faust said...

"The key to ecological sustainability is replacing (or drastically altering) the global industrial system."

Clearly. But that path seems astoundingly murky.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus--You make a good point. On the other hand, when I made the argument about tragic narrowing of options, I actually did have in the back of mind scenarios in which humans don't have any real choice but to exploit other humans. There have probably been periods of history when there pretty much had to be an underclass of some sort. Like...when? Can't think of a great example, but it seems not out of the question.

Yeah, I should try to add some music. I'll give it a try.

Eric Dutton said...

I've left nothing but critical comments on this blog so far, so I wanted to make sure I mentioned how much I liked your treatment of this subject. The sustainability and environmental perspectives are ones I hadn't thought much about.
Thanks for this.

March Hare said...

Aeolus, I think you make a good point but take it too far.

Cannibalism does not (necessarily) involve the killing of humans. Likewise not all meat eating involves killing animals and certainly not industrial farming.

There is a solution, but until we can grow meat in the laboratory then we can change to chicken (5kg feed -> 1 kg meat) from cattle (10kg feed) or, even better, insects (3kg feed).

Tony Milligan said...

Adam makes a nice point about land use. Given the unpleasant political realities of the day land released from animal farming would probably not be turned back to woodland. So let's suppose that no land at all was returned to the woods. It would still be the case that the pressures for further encroachment upon woodland would be decreased by a reduction of meat eating and that the impact would be both domestic and in the environemntally pivotal rainforrest areas where forrest clearance is to a large degree driven by the demand for soy exports. (A good deal of local and domestic meat produced through industrialised farming is transformed Latin American soy together with other protein constituents and the clearance process is still continuing.)