I never would have guessed that the fate of two old oxen on a Vermont college campus would inspire tens of thousands of people around the world to raise their voices. But it did. Bill and Lou, scheduled for slaughter after a lifetime of service to the college, were featured in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe and many other major media outlets, and inspired action and dialogue around the world. But now that Lou has been euthanized due to an injury and the college has decided to keep Bill, an even more urgent dialogue needs to happen. It is a dialogue about sustainability.
Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont is a liberal arts institution whose mission is to "prepare students for productive, caring and fulfilling lives by taking the environment as the unifying theme underlying its programs." This laudable mission is seen in course offerings, green jobs programs, numerous campus-based green initiatives and much more. The school's commitment to the environment appears to be close to a raison d'etre. Look, for instance, at its Strategic Plan 2020, which charges the school with becoming "authentically sustainable," or, in their words, "giving back more than we are taking." Named the nation's greenest college by The Sierra Club, the Green Mountain community intends to walk their talk. Good for them. Good for us.
I wonder if this environmental innovator has begun a conversation about becoming a vegan college. Plainly and simply, growing animals to feed humans -- no matter how conscientiously -- is not sustainable, and animal production appears to be a key piece of the Green Mountain experience. The controversy over Bill and Lou, in fact, began when a farm animal sanctuary offered lifetime care to the boys, but the college refused to sign them over, deciding instead to feed them to the students.
The devastating impact of animal agriculture is a hard, cold fact, presented convincingly by dozens of organizations including the United Nations and borne out by scientific review, the careful charting of environmental degradation, human illness and cancer rates, and increasing global climate instability. Why does it have such ill effects? A very complex issue can be boiled down to this: with a growing human population demanding more animal products, there is an accompanying demand for more water, more land, more feed for the animals, more fertilizer and pesticides and antibiotics (all toxic, all entering our soil and water), more fuel, more electricity, more waste disposal capacity, and on and on. That constant demand for more has pushed Mother Earth to the breaking point... and she is pushing back.
Let's take a look at just one resource: water. WorldWatch Institute notes that the standard American diet (meat and dairy-based) requires 4,200 gallons of water per day, while a plant-based diet requires only 300 gallons a day. It takes between 2,500 and 5,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, vs. 49 gallons to produce a pound of apples. We're taking 13 trillion gallons of water per year from the Ogallala aquifer, the largest body of fresh water on earth, mostly for beef production. As a result, say many scientists, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico may soon be virtually uninhabitable. These are but a handful of thousands of ways that animal production taxes our finite water supply.
As our diet is causing the middle of the country to shrivel up like a prune, lower Manhattan, the Jersey shore and other areas in the Northeast have just experienced their own Katrina. Climate scientists' predictions are coming true sooner than anyone anticipated: our shorelines may soon be underwater. Look at the havoc wrought by Katrina, Irene and Sandy alone, not to mention more devastating catastrophes farther from American shores. Conversations unfathomable a few short years ago are taking place -- about putting houses on stilts, about building towering walls at coastlines to keep out the sea. On the heels of so many other "natural" disasters, Sandy convinced even some naysayers that global warming is here, is real, and that we need to act. But first, we need to question. To think. To change. We need a paradigm shift.
Green Mountain College envisions itself "leading the world toward sustainability through our example" by the year 2020. But "animal production" and "authentic sustainability" are mutually exclusive. Even though Green Mountain is growing animals far more responsibly than agribusiness does, it turns away from a larger truth: to be authentically sustainable means to be vegan. No matter how animals are grown, growing plants to feed humans is easier on the earth than growing plants to feed animals and then turning those animals into food. Indeed, the breadth of devastation wrought by animal agriculture is impossible to capture in a brief blog post, but ranges from the loss of biodiversity to the loss of 40 percent of our ecologically vital Amazon rainforests and 75 percent of our topsoil to the extinction of entire bodies of water and thousands of plant and animal species. According to Time, regarding its impact on global warming, "the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that livestock farming generates 18 percent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions," while other scientists postulated that the more accurate figure may be as high as 51 percent.
Where, America, is the urgent conversation about changing our personal behavior -- i.e, our diet -- to mitigate environmental disaster, and prevent loss of life and other hardship on a scale that we likely can't imagine? Right now, all I'm hearing are conversations about sea walls and raising the foundations of houses. Impractical, for starters. More to the point, these remedies are nothing more than sticking our head into the sand and waiting for Mother Nature to whack us in the ass. They are band aids, not preventive medicine.
As we humans bump along through history, we become more enlightened, not less. Despite a vociferous few who cling to archaic ideas that fail to serve the greater good, most of us march forward, toward a more enlightened view of the world. Social change is a tall order, requiring folks to reconsider deeply held beliefs influenced by culture, religion, family history, personal bias, and more. But to our credit, we Americans are good at paradigm shifts. Consider, for instance, the election, and reelection, of Barack Obama. It is my hope that Bill and Lou -- two humble, beloved souls -- become the teachers who jettison us to the next level, creating the conversation that helps us all make the next urgent paradigm shift: the shift to veganism.
If humanity is to survive, a shift of this magnitude must happen right now. Now is the moment for us to talk seriously, as a world community, about veganism. Vision, knowledge, leadership, and political courage are desperately needed. If it chooses to, Green Mountain College, in the once-sleepy town of Poultney, Vermont, is poised to lead the conversation for, thanks to its own admirable mandate and two old oxen named Bill and Lou, the whole world is watching.
Suggested reading: "Livestock's Long Shadow."