Veganism, nuance and climate activism

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Veganism, Nuance and Climate Activism

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Dr. James Hansen, formerly of the NASA Space Goddard Institute and current author for open-access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics released a bombshell report about some updated calculations regarding how long we have to bring carbon emissions under control, and the intensity of and speed of which we will experience the repercussions. In the first section we also discuss the news from UofT about the "failed" divestment campaign (depending on how you look at it, but certainly not good).

The main focus of the show is to talk about the intersection of veganism and climate activism. Over the last couple years, there has been a surge in folks calling themselves "climate vegans," which should be a great thing (and can be) but unfortunately has led to almost as much "bad blood" between the vegans and climate activists as it has created co-operation and positive change. In the last few shows, Stefan and Daryn made a few throw-away comments about this issue that were understandably misunderstood because we didn't explain why we felt that way, and what our position on veganism and the intersection with climate issues actually is. We got several emails about these comments (a sincere thank you to those who wrote in to challenge us), and after several back-and-forths with the listeners via email, we decided to take most of this weeks show (and ended up being the entire bonus show as well) to explain 1) What our position is 2) What facts we agree with and what we think are wrong 3) What we think the best way to move forward together as a movement is.

The short version is this the below points, but for the same reason we decided to do the show on this topic, please listen to the show before commenting on the post itself because this is just a summary.

1. Eating red meat (and most meat in general) is absolutely the most harmful climate decision an individual can make, and eating less meat is one of the easiest things an individual who cares about climate change can do to reduce their personal footprint.

2. Unfortunately, there's a lot of bad numbers and inaccurate misuse of correct numbers in the incorrect context used by your average "vegan activist" (climate or otherwise) to make their case for veganism. This is harmful because if you convince someone to do something for a bad reason, the more likely they are to go back to what they were doing before and ignore you in the future once they find out it isn't true/accurate. The veganism documentary Cowspiracy which largely attacks environmental groups for not agreeing with "vegan absolutism" is unfortunately a great example of this, both with regards to bad numbers and arguments made in the movie, and the resulting individual vegan activists misunderstanding what even the correct numbers mean and misusing them in a way that make the argument demonstrably false. The movie is very convincing to people who don't know much else beyond the film (and other similar ones) about these topics... but the absolutism promoted by the film falls apart pretty quickly once you start to look a bit deeper into these issues.

3. If your actual goal is reducing carbon emissions as fast as possible, asking individuals to make personal lifestyle changes is simply less effective than making systemic changes that force good behaviour on everyone. This is why most people who start as climate activists and adopt vegetarianism as a consequence of this (at least some of the hosts fall into this category) tend to stick to "being an activist" about things like global carbon pricing, opposition to oil infrastructure and promotion of clean energy (which would force reduced fossil fuel use, and increase the price of carbon intensive meat products at the same time) rather than committing the majority of their time to promoting vegetarianism or veganism explicitly and exclusively. Veganism is (largely) great and please do convince as many people as you can to reduce meat consumption, but if you need most people on the planet to do something they don't want to do, forcing them with laws (carbon pricing) is much more effective than asking them to make person changes that might conflict with deeply held personal beliefs and habits (whether cultural or personal preference).

In conclusion, Vegans: We Love You :D but please stop repeating bad facts and figures to make your case that you heard in a documentary or paper hand-outs if you don't understand the complexities of the issue (especially when confronting people who are already have been active on climate issues for a lot longer than you've been interested in the climate impacts of veganism). If you think this issue is simple, you are already on shaky ground right out of the gate and those more informed about these issues are going to notice right away and either find it irritating or just plain ignore you. Also please stop attacking climate folks for being mostly meat-free and help us work to get the rest of the planet to make changes that will reduce climate impacts (including reducing global meat consumption, just not exclusively).

Finally, please understand that many of us don't think that asking people to make personal changes is as effective as regulating systemic change... especially when we have a time limit and we're down to the wire (see the Dr. Hanson's article linked at the top about how much time we have). The type of change many of you are promoting will take generations under the most generous assumptions, and we simply don't have time for that (even if it IS a great longterm goal).

Some interesting links about this issue:

Bonus Show: Unfortunately the batteries on our recorder died during the bonus show! (we kept talking for a while before realizing we weren't being recorded, doh!) Basically what you missed is that the final component of the conversation was about was that many (obviously not all) vegans came to veganism not because of climate change but because of strong personal ethical positions on animal cruelty. This is a completely valid position to have and we (the show hosts anyways) are also against animal cruelty (depending on your definition) and may even be open to being convinced to join you on this fight.

However, the nebulous discussion on "animal cruelty" is a personal moral issue, and while it is a completely valid discussion to have, it has almost nothing to do with climate change. If we can't work together because you refuse to accept that some people are only going to vastly reduce meat consumption, because you think that the only acceptable answer is that no one should ever eat any meat products ever... then congratulations: You are part of the problem. It is our position (Stefan and Daryn at least) that you are most likely doing more harm than good to the climate movement because of this almost completely separate issue you've tacked on to the climate discussion which has no objective truth attached to it, and is unrelated to the actual problem we are discussing: climate.

Even if we agreed with you (which we might if you'd give us a chance) forcing it as part of the climate discussion which requires solidarity and cooperation just creates a wedge for no reason, and fractures our ability to create change with infighting and subjective moral discussions. Frankly, it's not required to solve the first problem (and objectively more urgent) and we simply don't have time to argue about it.

This type of thinking (vegan absolutism) as a recipe for large-scale, rapid change of the type the climate problem requires is almost certainly a demonstrably false position based on everything we know about movement building and social change. You are welcome to welcome to believe that, but please leave us out of it. The rest of us are busy trying to save ALL life on earth from climate change, and you are welcome to sit at home and yell all the world. We'll be busy working together with all the reasonable vegetarians, vegans and ethical mostly-vegetarians to create solutions that help everyone now with problems that hurt every living thing on this planet on a timescale that actually has a chance of success to matter.

To the rest of you (likely 92 per cent) of vegans: we love you! Glad you are here, and we can't do this without you. Once we've stopped the cataclysm that is runaway climate change that threatens to end civilization as we know it, we'll be happy to talk to you about ethics, animal cruelty and the last 5 per cent of our diet that comes from animal products as long as you'd like. Promise.

At the end of the day veganism is a great choice for many reasons, but it matters how you talk about it if you actually want to be effective in creating change.


Please join us on April 22 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 720 Bathurst -- Centre for Social Innovation -- Annex for a beverage and a chat to meet and hang out with the Green Majority team, past and present and other listeners to celebrate our 500th episode!You can get your very modestly priced tickets here.

We pretty much never get to all the news we find each week, see what else we flagged as important eco-news and VOTE for things you think we should come back to with VOTE FOR THE NEWS -- click here.

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