Cow, Cars and Global Warming – Why Haven’t We Heard About the Bigger Threat?

Live Earth was a global series of concerts to raise awareness of global warming, created by Kevin Wall and fronted by Al Gore. The star-studded event, on 7/7/07, was well-packaged and well-produced, but judging from the North American concert at Giants Stadium (see sidebar) it continued a pattern of promoting solutions focused on cars and fossil fuels while ignoring a major factor in climate change.

That factor, of course, is meat and dairy production.

Last fall, scientists from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations compiled an extensively documented report with a startlingly decisive statistic: Worldwide livestock production produces 18 percent of humans’ greenhouse gas – more than our cars, trucks, motorcycles, motorboats, jetliners and cruise ships – all forms of travel, the locus of our “addiction to fossil fuels.”

One might imagine an immediate reaction from journalists looking into how this could be. One might imagine the environmental movement publicizing this fact as part of needed solutions to the crisis. One might dream on.

The report garnered a smattering of science-page or “oddly enough” coverage and disappeared from mainstream discourse almost instantly, a distant memory by the end of the year.

Over and over we hear, instead, from mainstream media stories how crucial and urgent it is to do something about the energy efficiency of our cars and trucks, and how much CO2 results from jet airplane travel. What we don’t hear is how our global-warming contribution through those factors pales against our continuing to eat animal products.

Why should the media and environmental organizations be talking up the livestock angle? Simply put, if we’re already in a race against time to save the planet – remember that the Live Earth campaign has the Morse code for “S.O.S.” as its logo – we need to consider all possible actions and which ones can and should be implemented sooner rather than later. So out of two of the very top problems, how can we decide to ignore the bigger one entirely while beating the drums for the urgency of the second-place one?

More importantly, who decided to ignore it?

One all-too-obvious answer is Al Gore. The man who brought global-warming science to you in an easy-to-swallow, comprehensive presentation never saw fit to mention in his movie that forgoing meat was a simple and direct way to reduce your carbon footprint (a fact already well-known before the UN report, but lacking the “bigger than cars” numbers)

And certainly Gore, who still may be running for president in 2008, has played the issue like a politician, crafting his selection of facts so that only the most marginalized demographic will notice or be offended.

Pamela Rice, whose Viva Vegie Society (NYC) did a demonstration outside a Gore book-signing on Union Square, notes the political angle and how it complicates the dialogue: At that event, “a lot of the people,” she told me, “were just clueless. And I thought…If you [Gore] were talking about this everybody would be abuzz about it. And I got resistance from vegetarians also; they said don’t pick on Al Gore, he’s all we got, and he has a chance of getting picked for the nomination and he could win – again, and get in.”

Kyle Vincent, a popular vegan singer-songwriter who trained with Gore to be a presenter of the Inconvenient Truth slide show, also noted the former vice president’s deafening silence on the livestock connection: “It drives me nuts, it does. I had second thoughts about doing this [training] because of that. Because I watched the movie about five times in a row before going so I could be prepped and I thought you know, there’s a glaring omission here.”

Granted, Gore throwing his weight behind the issue would make a big difference, and it could still happen. But the public ignorance of this can’t all be laid at Gore’s feet.

Global warming is now a known, recognized, major news issue independent of Gore’s projects and promotions. The “counter-intuitive” finding from this authoritative UN scientific body makes a hell of a story to follow up on: Something every one of us does can be modified without pain or hardship to affect global warming more than all the efforts to modify our nation’s planes, trains and automobiles.

There are all kinds of good angles for those sick and tired of writing the “can the US reach 35 MPG by 2010?” story yet again. Best of all, it’s right there in a thoroughly documented international scientific report. It’s not as though one has to go digging through wastebaskets or tapping phone lines to nail this down.

So why don’t we see more in-depth reporting on this – or, frankly, any mention of it at all in the press?

Danielle Nierenberg, senior researcher on livestock production at the Worldwatch Institute, believes that “one of the reasons that the press doesn’t pick up on climate change and food yet is that people like myself haven’t found a way to communicate the issue effectively enough.” This is a pretty tall order, though, given how long it took Gore to come up with his successful “effective communication” strategy. “I just don’t think people get,” adds Nierenberg, “that fertilizer production, grain production, making meat, transporting vegetables, meat, milk, etc. has an impact on the climate.”
While it’s a given that those of us who are concerned about that impact should work on engaging ways of promoting it, it’s still fair to expect that journalists looking at the global warming issue in general should unearth and discuss this.

Rolling Stone’s recent “Special Report” issue (June 28, 2007) on climate change, Al Gore and the Live Earth concerts was the first to be printed on carbon-neutral paper. On those carbon-neutral pages are spotlights on the artists performing, an overview essay, an interview with Gore, a compendium of the Bush administration’s efforts to deny and stall on the issue, and a policy paper from Robert Kennedy. Jr., “What Must Be Done?”

And carbon-neutral full-page ads for McDonalds and for Beef (It’s What’s For Dinner), two consumer products that are integral to the one of the biggest threats to the earth’s climate.

Coincidence? Well… yes and no, actually. The idea that meat gets pushed, and vegetarianism dissed, within the mainstream media because of big bucks coming in from the livestock industry is pretty much a myth. The causal relationship is much more subtle than that:

Then why aren’t the stories about livestock and climate change showing up?

From my last decade or so working in newsrooms, I think it stems from a flaw in the way journalism is practiced here: “Objectivity” is unspokenly tied to conventional wisdom. Journalism that defies conventional wisdom is, by default, “not objective” until it “proves” itself. It proves itself with data, but also with story – that is, real-world experiences of people that speak directly to the reader’s emotional center. There needs to be a critical mass of a given “story” to allow it to be put up against a conventional wisdom story that it’s contradicting.

Unfortunately, there’s already a conventional wisdom about vegetarianism as a frivolous hobby for misguided rich kids and earnest kooks that blocks this one from getting into the journalistic noggin. In a rare case of similitude, the reporter’s interest in not researching the story, “Is Vegetarianism Imperative?” is perfectly in sync with the public’s interest in not knowing the answer.

Worldwatch’s Nierenberg notes that food has a special attachment: “People are very reluctant to change their personal food consumption habits. They’re happy to drive Priuses or install compact fluorescents because those things don’t really change their habits…they’re just more efficient. Food is a different matter because it forces people to think about something they don’t want to think about or have been accustomed to thinking about the last 50 years – where their food comes from. Reducing the climate impacts of food will necessarily mean that people will eat less meat, eggs and milk that are produced in factory farms and I am not sure if people will be willing to give those things up.”

So it’s not all Al Gore or the meat-funded media, but our national mentality, too. In addition to the expected denial and cognitive dissonance, we tend toward fair-weather activism: Distracted by surface and sloganeering, we’ll loudly and proudly jump on the bandwagon and then, after a short ride, slide quietly off.

Live Earth, after all, is named after Live Aid (an extension of Band Aid), which was all about ending hunger in Africa. More than two decades later, it’s not surprising that the problem is still flourishing there, but it is notable that our 1985 high-decibel passion for “doing something” about it didn’t seem to even make it out of the 1980s.

Similarly, that ubiquitous spiral fluorescent light bulb is a symbol (employed as such on the July 2 New Yorker’s cover) of taking action and doing something “thoughtful” about climate change. The problem is that for most Americans, if not most Westerners, it looks like the thoughtful action will end there. After all, as Pamela Rice so trenchantly noted, all Gore could come up with when pressed on camera for a real-world, everyday action ordinary people could take was “change your light bulbs.”

Still, there is some evidence that Gore is wrestling with the concept of getting out in front of the livestock issue. Kyle Vincent tells how he worked to bring it up in the Inconvenient Truth training: “I thought rather than just writing Gore off and saying, well, he’s not mentioning it so let’s forget about him, let me try to work from the inside. So I spoke to his right-hand men and women and I brought it up slyly on the side [at] first, and said you know I’m looking at all this literature, you guys have given us, binders and binders – literally probably two feet of materials here – and I don’t see a word about diet.”

Vincent reports that the Gore people were “really positive and did not discourage me at all. They said they agree and that they don’t understand why it isn’t being brought up, and go ahead and ask [Gore about] it. Well, the first or second Q&A with Mr. Gore I had my hand up…”

Kyle Vincent had found the perfect lead-in to the question, and screwed up his courage to broach the topic, when Gore beat him to the punch: “Maybe he was tipped off, but he said, ‘Now, let me talk about something for a second,’ and I’m going to paraphrase – something like, ‘I should probably be a vegetarian. To be consistent I should probably be a vegetarian but it’s not for me, at this moment, but if that’s something that you feel is furthering your moral conviction in discussing the global warming crisis, and you feel you should do that, you want to talk about that, all power to you.’ He made some joke that he doesn’t think that he could not eat meat again and most of the place erupted in laughter.”

It’s probably not a stretch to append “nervous” to that laughter, as one can imagine the tension in the many sincere trainees wondering if they had committed themselves to some ‘radical’ lifestyle while explaining about this planetary emergency. Some will think about it further, though, and some will find their way to the facts.

Those of us who are looking at the big picture need to do our best to help that process, to break through the irrationality of clinging to a certain taste sensation at the cost of destruction of a livable planet. But PR is important in changing public perception, and that won’t happen simply by ridiculing what is, in all honesty, a ridiculous position – or by couching important messages in extremely negative, off-putting packages (see sidebar).

Still, I believe the breakthrough in general consciousness of this connection could happen. The reality of this livestock-climate change connection is immutable – just as global warming was already an immutable reality before “Inconvenient Truth” tipped the scales of public perception – but the news coverage of this issue is at the point now that the news coverage of global warming was 10 years ago. The news media will start covering and exploring the new angles when there is a critical mass of obvious “story” that pushes these documented facts toward the “conventional wisdom” column.

Following Pamela Rice’s example, activists can seize more opportunities to get facts into people’s hands at high-profile events. Recalling the admonishments from political-minded vegetarians, Rice noted that “I got flack from various places – on the other hand, there were people who came out for this who wouldn’t come out for other things.”

Another solution would be a veggie version of “An Inconvenient Truth” that would sweep through popular culture and galvanize the debate as that movie did – or even better, for Gore himself to start pushing the message.

But in a way, he already is – if unwittingly…

In his Rolling Stone interview, Gore addresses the resistance based in a sense of injustice in having to give something palpable up for this invisible cause – in other words, sacrifice: “Most of the changes we need to make,” he tells the interviewer, “don’t involve sacrifice in the way you are using the word – instead, they require us to overcome inertia and eliminate absurdly wasteful practices.”

Put another way, it will help to accentuate the “pluses” of our argument, since as Gore says a little further on in that piece, “most of the changes that have to be made to sharply reduce CO2 actually have a plus sign instead of a minus sign – they represent improvements to our quality of life.”

In a New York Times op-ed a week before Live Earth, Gore offered some of the most succinct arguments yet for dietary change to fight climate change: “Individuals must be a part of the solution. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, ‘If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on how I am and what I do, how would I be? What would I do?'”

Americans are indeed in this situation, having helped – with our excesses – bring the crisis to the point where it is already, with habits still being aspired to and emulated by developing countries. That’s why we need to be willing to severely curtail meat and dairy consumption irrespective of what policies are implemented in any other country.

Gore gets at this in the same op-ed: “But individual action will also have to shape and drive government action…Once again, Americans must come together and direct our government to take on a global challenge. American leadership is a precondition for success.

It is, after all, a planetary emergency.”

Editor’s Note: Some of the quotes in this article are from Vegcast (podcast) interviews. The full interviews are available at

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