CAT | Environment
Caring for the environment is an important part of the progressive movement. Ever since the 1970′s, the general public’s knowledge and awareness of environmental issues has increased dramatically. We are now entering a point in time where the rejection of scientific evidence explaining global warming is no longer politically fashionable – even many Republican political candidates cannot ignore the message that scientists are telling us any longer – to do so is not only irresponsible and disingenuous, but the worst kind of political pandering. Young people, by and large, get it. We understand that our environment is important. Whether it is our “cause” as progressives is really irrelevant – we are all in support of taking better care of the planet. In other words, in both the scientific community and in the progressive community – this “debate” is over. It has been resolved. We agree that we have to take care of the environment. So now what?
The Devil, of course, is in the details.
Caring for the environment is a no-brainer. Without a healthy environment, your quality of life suffers. This is a basic concept that even young public school children could explain to you, but what are we going to do about it? I think we can easily agree that nobody should litter. Right? That’s an easy one. “Don’t mess with Texas”, the Texas Department of Transportation litter-prevention campaign, has become a national treasure and a badge of pride for Texas, because after all, “Don’t mess with Texas means don’t litter.”
I think progressives can also agree that it is wasteful and wrong to drive a Hummer or a similarly inefficient car. I personally do not know any progressive who has ever owned a Hummer. But I’ve known plenty of progressives (and conservatives) who drive the most fuel-efficient car they can afford. Whether that be the holy-grail of the 2000′s, the Toyota Prius, or the practical, no-nonsense Honda Civic. In this way, we all do our part. We understand that when we turn on our engine it creates byproduct gasses that contribute to global warming and climate change, therefore we should drive less and carpool when possible. I even know a lot of folks who commute by bike and public transit. (I commute to work by bike and the Capital Metro Rail nearly everyday.)
Progressives also understand the power of recycling. How cool is it that you can re-use virtually everything? Maybe I’m a geek, but the concept is exciting to me. Young people, generally those ages 30 and under, get this concept really well. They educate their parents about the importance of recycling. They set up recycling programs in their middle and high schools. When they move off to college and get their own apartment, they take full advantage of the recycling services available to them and keep recycling baskets in their house in addition to trash cans. They are strengthening recycling programs at their places of employment and leading by example. The reasons for recycling are obvious. When we throw away recyclable material (which is generally more than half of our refuse) we are putting things in landfills that could literally last thousands of years, leaving future generations to inherit a legacy of our environmental shortsightedness and frankly, laziness. Not to mention, it is a waste of resources (oil, water, trees) to constantly create new disposable material when we can simply recycle what we have already made. Not recycling is becoming the new littering.
What progressives can’t seem to agree on though is the most important thing we can do to combat global warming and protect the environment. Ending our addiction to meat, dairy and eggs. When we evaluate our behavior with the scientific scrutiny of protecting the environment, we can all agree readily that litter-prevention is key, recycling is a must and driving fuel-efficient cars is necessary. We can also all agree on simpler changes like switching out old incandescent light-bulbs for new compact florescent light-bulbs (which will become law next year when incandescent bulbs will no longer be sold). These are all incredibly important ways in which we can do our part to live green and help the planet – but they pale in comparison to the environmental effects our diet has on the environment. We are willing to make the aforementioned conventional changes, but why are progressives so resistant to even considering changing their diet in an effort to help stop global warming? I think for some reason people have built a defensive wall around their habits regarding food. They take any criticism personally and associate their cultural ideas surrounding food with the sacred. And progressives in particular don’t want to be told that they are harming the planet with every bite. I certainly became defensive the first time I learned the negative consequences of meat, dairy and eggs – and most people become this way when they are first introduced to the concept. Close-mindedness is not a progressive value though, but being open-minded is. The truth in the matter is that we ought to approach our diet from a practical, environmental perspective just like we do with other aspects of our lives, like transportation, waste, water-usage and conservation. When we get lost in selfishness, defensiveness and resistance to scientific reason and change we become nothing more than…well, conservatives.
Animal agriculture (the production of meat, fishes, dairy and eggs) is the number one cause of global warming. Originally a UN report by the Food & Agriculture Organization estimated that animal agriculture accounted for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, this report has been retracted due to improper calculations and a lack of information regarding the impact of fish agriculture. A more recent report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang of the UN’s World Bank and International Finance Corporation has found that animal agriculture plays an even more significant role in climate change. They found that meat, dairy, egg and fish agriculture accounts for at least 51% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Their scientific report utilized much more accurate calculations and processes and reveals the true threat that animal agriculture poses to our environment. You can read this ground-breaking scientific study for yourself, but the findings are clear. Our addiction to meat, dairy and eggs is fueling climate change and warming our planet faster and with more intensity than any other human activity – even more than all forms of transportation combined. That means more than all cars, all trucks, all trains, all ships, all jets combined. We so often villanize the car – and rightfully so, but our diet is the true culprit in the fight against climate change. We’re willing to call out gas-guzzlers when pointing the green finger, but most progressives dodge the dire consequences of their own milk-guzzling ways. When some of the leading scientific bodies in the world tells us something this plainly, with this much certainty, we have an obligation to listen. As progressives we value scientific evidence and reason – and the evidence could not be more clear.
The reasons animal agriculture has such a dangerous effect on increasing global warming are many. One of these is the issue of methane. Cows and other ruminant animals such as sheep, release methane as a by-product of their digestive process. Counter to what many people believe, this is not just an issue of flatulence, but the exhalation of methane from the mouth. Cows originally existed only in their wild forms, such as the Bison and the Buffalo. These wild populations fit perfectly into nature and helped to balance the ecosystem. However with our insatiable desire for meat, mega agri-corporations have factory farmed cows, and other animals, to keep up with the demand and the opportunity to make profits. As a result the population of cows and other farm animals has soared out of control to an unsustainable level that is in the tens of billions just in the United States alone.
Methane is 72 times as powerful as CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere. That means one ton of methane has the same negative effects as 72 tons of CO2 or other similar green house gas pollutants. And whether you’re buying meat, dairy or eggs from a factory farm (like 99% of animal products available) or from a locally-operated farm (less than 1% of animals raised this way) there is still methane being produced at alarming rates. In addition to methane, Factory Farms and local farms also use intense amounts of energy and fossil fuels. Chicken, fishes and other non-ruminant animals aren’t the solution though; those types of meat production also contribute greatly to climate change. In fact it takes more than 11 times as much fossil fuel to make one calorie from animal protein as it does to make one calorie from plant protein. Forget your carbon foot-print, it’s your carbon food-print that you need to be concerned about.
Factory Farms and local farms are also massive users of potable water in the country. And considering that meat, dairy and eggs are 100% unnecessary for human health, and actually harmful, Factory Farms are the biggest waste of water because we simply don’t need their products. While most of our cities and towns are put on fire-watches, and many children are growing up without getting to enjoy the spectacle of fireworks on the 4th of July due to droughts and water shortages, Factory Farm corporations and their CEOs are living it up. It seems a bit unfair to me that we must meticulously monitor how much we water our yard when corporate and local animal agriculture is wasting so much. After all we don’t need to eat meat, dairy and eggs to live; science proves that we would be healthier and live longer on a vegan diet.
Nearly half of our drinkable water resources are wasted every year by Factory Farms and animal agriculture. Farm animals are just like dogs, cats and people – they have to drink water to live! And when you keep billions of them alive for months to years at a time just to kill them to make one meal, you waste a lot of water in the process. Of course, the largest waste of water in raising animals for slaughter is the water used to irrigate the crops that are fed to the animals. Growing all of the grain that they eat, including the grass that “free-range” cows are given (The grass doesn’t just magically get rained on all the time – they irrigate it), requires an immense amount of water. In fact in order to produce just one pound of meat you need 2,500-5,000 gallons of water. In order to grow just one pound of vegetables or grain you only need 25-60 gallons of water. A person who eats a vegan diet could leave their shower running 24/7, 365 days per year and still use less water than a meat eater. That is because in order to produce just one pound of meat, it requires the same amount of water as 6 months of showers would use. A totally vegan diet requires only 300 gallons of water per day, while a typical meat-eating diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water per day. One of these is sustainable. One of these is not. One of these is progressive; the other is not.
Meat, dairy and egg production is also one of the biggest polluters of water. In fact “animals raised for food in the U.S. produce far more excrement than the entire U.S. human population, roughly 89,000 pounds per second,” according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This massive amount of fecal and urine matter is not legally required to be processed like human waste in a sanitary water treatment station. Factory Farms commonly fill entire fields, dug into ponds, with this filth. The odor is so horrendous that you can smell it from miles away. People who drive the highways in California will notice this awful stench from the dairy farms that dot the rural landscape. It is far worse for people who live in these areas. Some folks lives and homes have been ruined from the stench caused by nearby dairy and meat factory farms. Imagine what it is like for the animals who are trapped inside of these windowless, non-air-conditioned factory farm barracks.
When these fecal ponds are overfilled or improperly managed, a simple rainstorm can cause them to overflow and ruin nearby vegetable crops intended for human consumption. This is almost always the source of E. Coli contamination on plant foods like spinach or sprouts, because E. Coli is a bacteria that is present in the stomachs of farm animals and never grows naturally on plants. These overflowing incidents also pollute rivers and streams and groundwater that rural communities depend upon for bathing and drinking. Sometimes factory farms use rivers as a dumping ground for the excessive excrement caused by their operation which suffocates the fish in the water and makes the water unsuitable for other uses. To learn more about this particular issue, I highly recommend the documentary, “A River of Waste: The Hazardous Truth About Factory Farms” by Cinema Libre Studios.
Raising animals for meat, dairy and eggs also is the leading cause of the destruction of the rainforest – the greatest piece of biodiversity that we have on the planet. Most species within the rainforest have not even been discovered yet, but we’re slashing and burning them all down so that we can produce cheap meat and dairy instead. Is this ethical? The majority of all food crops produced in the world are fed to animals to produce meat, dairy and eggs. For every meat-based meal that you eat, you could eat the equivalence of 20 plates of vegetarian food. You would never waste or throw away 19 plates of perfectly good food – yet this is what you are doing every time you eat meat, dairy and eggs. This process is an inefficient use of food resources, but also land. People who live near the rain forest are tempted to slash and burn to either grow crops to feed farm animals or to create grazing land for additional cattle. According to Greenpeace, from 2004 to 2005 nearly 2.9 million acres of the rainforest were destroyed (including the animals who naturally live there) in order to make room to grow crops to feed to factory farm chickens. Also, the majority of the world’s soy is fed to farm animals, when we could be feeding this complete, protein-rich food to humans. Most of the soy used in veggie-burgers and other vegetarian products like soy milk is exclusively grown domestically in the United States and not on the ashes of the rainforest. If you have any modicum of concern for deforestation of the most vital natural ecosystem in the world, our rainforest, who’s abundance of trees actually help to reduce global warming, then you ought to stop eating meat, dairy and eggs.
Fishes are incredibly intelligent animals that exhibit personality traits, the ability to use tools and certainly the ability to feel pain. Aside from the cruelty associated with fish consumption, the environmental effects are jaw-dropping. The scientific community predicts that by the year 2050, essentially all fish will be extinct. How is this possible? Trawling nets, which always kill ‘by-catch’ (meaning dolphins, turtles and sharks), are employed by fishing fleets to catch salmon, tuna and other fish to sell in supermarkets, restaurants and sushi bars. However this process is eradicating the ocean of fishes at a faster rate than they can naturally reproduce. The human demand for fish consumption is so great that even Bluefin Tuna is being considered an endangered species in Europe. As countries like India and China continue to see economic development and a consequential rise in meat consumption, the demand for fish is exploding past sustainability.
Americans are also eating more seafood now than ever before. At the current rate, without a widespread adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet, meat-eaters and pescetarians will be responsible for the extinction of all the fish populations that live in ocean depths reachable by humans. In addition to the damage being done to coral reefs, an incredibly important ecosystem, by climate change, trawling nets and anchors directly damage them when dragged across the ocean floor scraping to death these fragile and delicate natural life systems. It is wrong for our generation to be so selfish to obliterate all of the fish populations into extinction within 40 years. The demand for shark fin soup and whale meat in Eastern Asia has already pushed most shark and whale species to the brink of extinction. Without legal protection most fish species will become extinct by the year 2050, and our children will suffer grave environmental consequences as a result. We cannot allow that to happen, and the only way to stop it is to quit buying and eating fishes, lobsters, shrimp and other aquatic individuals.
There’s a saying in the vegetarian community: “There’s no such thing as a meat-eating environmentalist.” It’s really quite true. In the same sense that environmentalists don’t drive hummers and waste electricity, environmentalists also don’t eat meat, dairy and eggs. Now, you don’t have to call yourself an “environmentalist” to care about nature. Plenty of progressives who have other passions, like religious liberties, reproductive justice, labor, and LGBTQ equality make a concerted effort to not litter, to recycle and to use energy more efficiently. They aren’t hardcore environmentalists, just progressive folks who are doing their part. Eating vegan should be a part of that if we have any sense of basic concern for the environment.
If we are willing to change certain things in our lives in order to benefit the environment, we ought to change our diet too – otherwise we should stop bellyaching about global warming and water shortages. It’s kind of like voting. If you don’t vote, you don’t have much of a right to complain about the outcome of the election. The same is true for how we live environmentally. If you don’t try to live in harmony with the environment when easy green options are presented to you, then you don’t have much of a right to complain about the destruction of our natural environment. I believe that it is time that the EPA regulate Factory Farm corporations at least as stringently as they do oil companies and other corporate polluters. There’s an elephant in the room and this time it’s not the Republican Party; it’s us and our addiction to meat, dairy and eggs. It is time we adopt a solution for the sake of the environment. A vegan diet.
Factory Farm corporations and Big Agriculture should be taxed for the environmental damage they cause. Animal Agriculture industries should be taxed at least as much as the cost to repair their extreme environmental violations. After the BP oil spill, progressive Americans demanded that the company pay for its mistakes and rightfully so. But BP’s oil spill was literally a drop in the bucket compared to the problems caused by animal agriculture. Where are the progressives demanding that Hormel, Smithfield Pork Producers, Tyson, Pilgrim’s pride and the major dairy and egg corporations pay their fair share? The progressives are nowhere to be found. Calling for oil companies to clean up their messes while giving meat, dairy and egg corporations a free pass is simply hypocritical and self-serving.
Just as progressives demand an end to the massive corporate subsidies that currently go to oil companies, we should take away the subsidies that are enjoyed by factory farms. After all, if our purpose in taking away subsidies from oil and gas companies is to improve the environment, wouldn’t it make just as much sense to take away subsidies from mega-agricultural factory farm operations that are contributing more to global warming than all the oil being burned from all of transportation combined? Moving forward, any environmental policy that does not include restrictions on meat, dairy and egg producers is not only ineffective but downright flawed. Living green matters more than just using a reusable shopping bag when you’re at the grocery store. It matters what you put inside of it too.
The Democratic Party and its politicians ought to get a backbone and acknowledge this issue. It is time that progressives start demanding better environmental protection. I support President Obama. I voted for him and will vote for him again, but I hope that he will have the courage to stand up to Big Agriculture and speak up for the environment. It was recently reported by CNBC that the President, and various other parts of his administration including the United States Department of Agriculture, were lobbied to the tune of $325,000 in the first quarter of this year by the Dairy Industry. That is unacceptable, and we should hold our progressive politicians to higher standards. Food choices are not sacred. They are up for political debate and scientific scrutiny. Other aspects of our lives like health care, transportation, and education are all the topics of hot political debate; food should be no different. Progressives should stand together on the side of a diet that is more compassionate and better for the environment: a whole-foods, plant-based vegan diet.