Meat and sustainability: more than emissions

Special treat or daily dinner? Photo: Eaters Collective

The production of meat and dairy causes greater emissions of greenhouse gases than the total number of transportation vehicles in this world. Since greenhouse gases contribute to global warming — a major threat to society — we clearly need to change our relationship with meat. But is an exclusive focus on emissions really the best way to bring those emissions down?

The issue at hand

Foto: Tess Castelijn
Saga Norrby, previously interviewed by Red Pers, now a part of the editorial team. Picture: Tess Castelijn

Global warming, also referred to as climate change, may have brought the concept and desirability of sustainability to the minds of many people, but a balanced climate does not equal sustainability. ‘Simply’ fixing the climate will not take us to where we want, and need, to be.

What really needs fixing is our mindset; with a sustainable mindset, lower emissions will follow on their own accord. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. We must first identify our current, unsustainable mindset(s), before transitioning to a sustainable one. We know many of the practices of our society are not sustainable, and we know that meat production is one of those practices.

However, meat has proven to be a particularly hard nut to crack; according to WHO, we eat more and more meat by every decade that goes by, and efforts to change our meat eating in a more sustainable direction have, so far, led to a social divide. This is, in broad strokes, a divide between those who think eating meat is right, and those who think eating meat is wrong. For simplicity, let us call the former ‘carnivores’ and the latter ‘vegans’.

Meat Atlas - Meat demand in emerging national economies is on the rise (2014). Source: Meat Atlas (CC-BY-SA Heinrich Boell Foundation, Friends of the Earth Europe)
Meat Atlas – Meat demand in emerging national economies is on the rise (2014). Source: Meat Atlas (CC-BY-SA Heinrich Boell Foundation, Friends of the Earth Europe)

The divide: who is right?

The two camps each have their sets of reoccurring justifications of their stance in the question. In these sets, there are two fundamental points — one from each side — which are particularly difficult to refute or reconcile.

Carnivores argue that it is natural to eat meat. It is something humans have evolved to do. Many other animals eat other animals, and humans are animals, so why should we not?

Vegans, on the other hand, argue that even though we may have eaten meat all throughout our history, we can choose not to. We not only can, but we should. Eating meat means inflicting pain on other creatures, and why inflict pain when it can be avoided?

Carnivores see vegans as rigid, self-righteous people with judgmental vibes, who shove their conviction down other people’s throats.

Both of these arguments appeal to common sense, which makes it difficult to give either side right or wrong. Instead, the two sides are left to go around in ominous circles.

In a very crudely painted picture of our society, vegans despise carnivores for being ignorant contributors to cruelty and not caring for anything but themselves. Meanwhile, carnivores see vegans as rigid, self-righteous people with judgmental vibes, who shove their conviction down other people’s throats. It seems as though the more the two sides interact, the more polarized they become, and the further we find ourselves from a sustainable approach to meat.

We can remind ourselves that food comes from the earth, not from the supermarket. Photo: Matthias Zomer
We can remind ourselves that food comes from the earth, not from the supermarket. Photo: Matthias Zomer

But do not despair – there is common ground to be found. And we can find it by recognizing that neither of the two common-sense arguments makes actual sense.

Let us start by examining the first argument, that of carnivores. To them it is natural to eat meat. They point to how creatures eating other creatures is the circle of life. Yet, the industry we have built around animals is very far removed from a natural, circular and wholesome system. Humans are animals, but we do not treat our prey like other predators do. While other predators end their prey’s lives, we have taken things much further; we rob our prey of their lives from the moment they are born. This argument may be applicable to hunting, but for the animal industry as a whole, it simply does not make sense – we cannot say we are just like other animals to defend doing what no other animals do.

Now, let us look closer at the second argument, that of vegans. They believe we should choose not to eat meat, to avoid causing other creatures pain. But, where do we draw the line? What is pain, what activities cause pain, and what in this world can experience pain? Because of how difficult – not to say impossible – it is to determine these things, the desire to not cause any pain runs the risk of becoming a desire to avoid any impact of one’s life on the world.

We will not live in tune with the system, until we realize that we are the system.

What the two sides have in common is that they both assume we are somehow separate from the whole ecosystem earth. On the one hand, the typical carnivore believes humans are superior to it – the best thing this world has ever seen. The typical vegan, on the other hand, believes we are inferior to it – the worst thing this world has ever seen.

Both of these assumptions, these mindsets, are inherently unsustainable. The earth is not a system separate from us, which is ours to solely benefit from, or respect from a distance; we will not live in tune with the system, until we realize that we are the system. We have as much a right to be here as any other creatures – neither a bigger right, nor a smaller.

Finding the middle ground

This equal right is the middle ground – this is where we can bridge the divide. We can learn to respect everything, and then allow ourselves to eat anything that we have gathered in a respectful manner.

We can educate ourselves and our children to understand, respect and appreciate how much resources goes into food in general, and animal products in particular. We can remind ourselves that food comes from the earth, not from the supermarket.

Practically, this means that animal products are best viewed in the same way as birthday cake – something delicious to treat ourselves to on special occasions.

If we learn to respect food, we will take good care of ourselves, our fellow earthly creatures, and the planet with its climate, all at the same time. If we make sure our diet is a diet of respect, our emissions – as a mere side effect – will go down drastically.