Let’s look forward, not backward

The Live Earth concerts in July had an official companion book, The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills to Stop Climate Change—or Live Through It. Like the movies An Inconvenient Truth and The 11th Hour, it suggests individual actions that will reduce our environmental impact, such as recycling and switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs. But, unlike the movies, the book notes that refusing meat is “the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint” (emphasis in original).

This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent studies on the topic. Among them is the United Nations’ 390-page report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, which revealed that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.

Many people are responding by reducing or eliminating animal products from their diets. Others, searching for a loophole, are following the advice of authors like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) who eloquently denounce corporate agriculture and urge people to eat more local food produced on smaller, “sustainable” farms. Locally grown foods are, indeed, a very important issue. But often absent from this conversation is the simple fact that eating locally produced animal products is not a solution for the masses. Small farms use much more land per animal than do factory farms and feedlots. Given current consumption levels, a switch to this type of farming would mean that only a small percentage of Americans could continue to eat meat, unless everyone drastically curtailed their intake. We simply don’t have the required fertile acreage to accommodate this type of animal agriculture. “Elite meat” will always be for the wealthy. What is everyone else supposed to eat? Must only the poor become vegetarians, or should we as a society recognize the need for a paradigm shift towards efficient, plant-based diets?

Calls for a return to the perceived quaintness of the family farm of days gone by are unrealistic. Human population has swelled, and 21st-century solutions require that we look forward, not backward. Nostalgia won’t stop global warming.

— Stewart David

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