Vegan or Die: The Importance of Confronting Climate Change

We are facing an imminent climate catastrophe. A recent study from researchers at the University of Oxford concluded that avoiding meat and dairy is the most effective way to reduce our inflicting harm on the earth. According to an article in The Guardian about this research:

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not new news. We’ve known for a while now that animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. But it can no longer be doubted: A massive shift to veganism may not be sufficient to avert climate catastrophe but, as a practical matter, it is certainly necessary.

Adopting a vegan diet is the one thing we can do right now. It does not involve any technological innovation. It does not involve any legislation or government regulation.

So are serious environmental groups promoting veganism or, at least a vegan diet, as necessary? No. For the most part, these groups (1) criticize factory farms and promote “sustainable” and “local” animal products; and (2) promote reducetarianism.

Let’s be clear: both of these strategies — “sustainable” animal agriculture and reducetarianism — will not succeed in averting climate catastrophe.

Factory farms are, indeed, an environmental nightmare for many reasons. But “sustainability” solves nothing. “Sustainable” grazing animals may consume less grain but they drink more water because they are more active; they still produce methane gas; and they require more grazing land.

Locally produced animal products have a much greater environmental impact than plants that have been grown somewhere else. According to a study in Environmental Science and Technology, transportation accounts for only 11% of the carbon footprint of food with 83% attributable to production. So the idea that you’re doing more for the environment by eating animal products produced locally rather than imported vegetables is just wrong.

What about reducetarianism? Any reduction that is going to be meaningful from an environmental perspective is going to have to be severe and represent something much more approximating complete elimination. That is, “Meatless Monday,” “Vegan Before 6,” “flexitarianism,” and all of those other gimmicks are not going to cut it.

Moreover, preliminary data indicate that reducetarians don’t seem to reduce very much anyway. And even if many people really seriously reduced their intake of animal products, we know that many people won’t. Therefore, those of us who completely eliminate animal products are helping to deal with the deficit caused by the non-participation of others in that serious reduction.

But wait, what about the Extinction Rebellion (XR) folks? They’re “radical,” right? Surely, they’re willing to go vegan and to promote veganism? Apparently not. Like all of the other environmental groups, XR rejects veganism as any sort of imperative.

How can this be?

I have seen many comments from XR people to the effect that XR is deliberately not focusing on asking individuals to do anything other than make demands directed toward the government. For example, in response to one of my Facebook posts on the matter, someone who claims to be a full-time volunteer at Extinction Rebellion, and who admits to not being a vegan, replied:

XR resurrects the personal/political distinction that we all thought was rejected in the 1960s.

So it would be a “distraction” for people who are concerned about climate change to do the single most important thing anyone can do to reduce their impact on the earth? That is nonsense. It is analogous to saying that we should demand that government end discrimination but that it would be a “distraction” to ask people who are concerned about discrimination to stop engaging in racist, sexist, etc. behavior. XR apparently embraces the “personal/political” distinction that every progressive movement for the past 50 years has rejected because common sense tells us that you cannot ignore the role of the individual in creating and perpetuating social problems.

Let’s be clear: the personal is the political. The idea that we don’t see as relevant our own obligation to do the most effective thing that we can do and do easily as individuals because that supposedly isn’t “political” is beyond absurd. Going vegan and promoting veganism are political acts. Veganism is disruptive. It is not, as is claimed, a “distraction.” What is a distraction is claiming to be an eco-radical when, as a non-vegan, you are refusing to do the single best thing you could do to address the problem.

Moreover, even if we assume (unrealistically) that the government will respond favorably to XR demands and will do so before it’s too late, it makes no sense to say that we should ignore a strategy that represents the single biggest thing we can do to reduce our environmental impact.

It is wrong to analogize promoting a massive shift to a vegan diet with corporate or governmental attempts to deflect finding solutions to the public. Such a massive shift would be the exact opposite of what the government and corporations have promoted historically.

XR apparently wants to have the government recognize a “Citizens’ Assembly” that will democratically identify what steps need to be taken. We no more need an Assembly to tell us that veganism is necessary than we would need an Assembly to tell us that not smoking cigarettes is a necessary step to achieving healthy lungs.

The bottom line is clear: we are facing imminent disaster. If we really want to save the planet from climate catastrophe, we must promote a grassroots effort with a clear normative directive: stop eating animal products and adopt a vegan diet.

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln.