On Earth Day, as every day, there are those who get into celebrating the planet and trying to tweak our lifestyle for the common good, and there are those who don't.
Those who don't sometimes make good points about home recycling bins as mere spit in the ocean of vast industrial pollution, and other times indulge in stubborn ear-plugging accompanied by magical and/or wishful thinking.
To all of us who recognize a scientifically credible threat, the head-in-sand position can be frustrating and we might roll our eyes at its ridiculousness. Yet even among the environmentally serious, there's a split between those who acknowledge scientific, quantifiable facts and those who go for, well, ear-plugging accompanied by magical and/or wishful thinking.
Let's talk about almonds! That's the consensus, after all, on California's epic drought and the measures recommended to combat it: Taking shorter showers pales in comparison to the almond industry's massive water use, consuming a full 10 percent of the state's water. So almonds are what we should really be talking about, right?
Well, they're a thirsty crop, but nothing like meat and dairy, which consumes a full 47 percent of the state's water, according to a Pacific Institute report on California's "Water Footprint." Put another way, per calorie, beef uses over twice as much water as almonds. No matter how you slice it, meat is by far the bigger water-waster. How prominently have you seen this mentioned in California drought coverage?
It's not just almonds and water -- the same skewed focus holds in many sectors. Quinoa production's good news/bad news for local economies made headlines, but not the analogous effect of animal agribusiness -- most starving children, after all, live in countries whose crops go to feed animals eaten by westerners. And we hear a lot about palm oil production resulting in the loss of rainforest, while five times as much rainforest is lost to animal agriculture.
Fracking is an eco-problem because it produces methane -- almost exactly the same amount nationally as does animal agriculture -- while both consuming and polluting water, as does livestock production, only more so. "Climate-change" discussions center on fossil fuel alternatives -- while animal agriculture is, at the least, a larger factor than all human transportation, and by some credible estimates is larger than all other factors combined.
In view of public health concerns, parents refusing vaccines for their children are vilified by parents stuffing their children and themselves with meat and dairy. Yet in addition to meat's proven individual health risks, factory farms' casual daily use of antibiotics is driving us toward a future where antibiotics will be useless -- all as 23,000 people annually are dying from new "superbugs."
In almost any comparison of plant foods to animal foods, the latter are both more resource-heavy on the uptake and more earth-unfriendly on the outflow. The only case-by-case question is whether they're just somewhat worse (as is, say, cow's milk is vs. almond milk) or, more often, worse by orders of magnitude. A notorious debate centers on whether beef, as compared to wheat, requires a mere 15 times as much water, or 300 times as much. (Most mainstream scientific estimates settle in at around 100x.)
The list of ways this one factor threatens our planet's ecosystems is too long to go into here -- nitrous oxide, methane, ocean dead zones, air pollution, topsoil erosion, species extinction, even violent crime -- all are documented to correlate solidly with animal agribusiness. So why isn't that the first topic out of the gate in mainstream discussions of eco-conservation?
The thing is, most of us don't like looking at or talking about meat and dairy's origins, and opt for, well, ear-plugging accompanied by magical and/or wishful thinking ("humane slaughter," anyone?) rather than tackling some of the most germane problems.
It's true that earth-friendly lifestyle changes are a challenge. As mentioned, individual actions can seem insignificant compared to the big picture. But eating vegan is one change that trades the least pain (read: inconvenience) for the most gain. And it's a change that can be implemented society-wide cheaply and relatively quickly as compared to the schedule for altering our technological infrastructure.
Any of us who claim to take science seriously, whether or not we're ready to drop animal foods right now, should be candidly evaluating and discussing this global polluter and leading climate-change factor. One thing all of us can do right now is to educate ourselves about the scope of this problem. A great one-stop shop is the film Cowspiracy, which is available online at cowspiracy.com, and can be seen for $1 on Earth Day.
This movie looks at the apparent blind spot of most major environmental organizations in the U.S. as to what is, numerically and scientifically speaking, the main enemy of the environment. The web site also has a good roundup of the facts presented, with scientific sources, at coswpiracy.com/facts.
So maybe we should cut the climate change deniers a little slack. There is, at least, a certain internal logic to pretending "global warming" is a vast conspiracy and we should keep everything as is. But acknowledging the urgency of the threat and then failing to take a clear look at the most efficient, cost-effective alternatives? That's just nuts.