John Robbins could have inherited the well-known Baskin Robbins ice cream chain, but instead he has dedicated his life to advocating for a more compassionate, just world. Through his books, including the international bestseller Diet for a New America, Robbins supplements his activism and humanitarian work with the written word. Now releasing his sixth book, The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, Robbins is inspiring readers to shift their focus from acquiring wealth to living compassionate, sustainable lives.
The Good Life Doesn’t Have to Cost the Planet
By John Robbins
It’s important to be thrifty and save. But a truly fulﬁlling life requires more than frugality. It also requires, I believe, a sense of purpose that is connected to something greater than ourselves. For me, this means living with gratitude and respect for all life, caring for others, and being part, if I can, of restoring the earth.
For the ten years that my wife, Deo, and I lived on an island off the coast of British Columbia, we grew 90 percent of our own food. Everything we grew was entirely organic. Although the phrase “carbon footprint” didn’t exist back then, ours was very small.
We had no livestock because we didn’t want to kill animals for food, since there was other food we could grow or buy that provided all the nourishment we needed. Some may think I am overly sentimental, but I’ve known too many animals who’ve felt like family to me. When I see a wild bird in ﬂight, my instinct is not to grab a gun to shoot and kill it. My desire is to appreciate its beauty and understand its place in the web of life.
In the years since our time on the island, I’ve learned a great deal about how animals are treated in modern factory farms, and what I’ve learned has changed me yet again. I won’t describe it in gory detail, because you’ve probably seen pictures or heard stories of how bad it is—of the concentration camp conditions these animals are forced to endure. But I will tell you that in reality it’s every bit as bad as—or worse than—you’ve heard.
All of the animals involved in modern meat production—cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and so forth—are kept in conditions that violate their essential natures, that frustrate even their most basic needs, that cause them incomprehensible suffering. You don’t have to be a vegetarian, nor even a particularly compassionate person, to be disgusted by the level of cruelty that takes place every day in modern meat production. Julia Child, the famous chef, author, and TV personality, used to dismiss vegetarians as sappy. But when, late in her life, I took her to visit a veal production facility, she was horriﬁed by what she saw. “I had no idea it was so severe,” she told me.
All this leaves me with a question that I think we need, as a society, to ask: How is it that we call some animals “pets,” lavish our love on these animals, and get so much in return—and yet then we turn around and call other animals “dinner” and feel justiﬁed, by virtue of this semantic distinction, in treating these animals with any level of cruelty so long as it lowers the price per pound? The cruelties inherent in modern meat production are so intense that it’s hard to eat these products and honor compassion at the same time. If you eat any kind of meat, you might want to purchase products that you know to be truly free-range and organic, such as those with the “Animal Compassion” logo from Whole Foods Market.
Because I so deeply deplore cruelty to animals, and I’ve been publicly active in bringing attention to the systematic cruelty in modern meat production, people often ask me if my reluctance to eat meat stems from ethical reasons. Yes, it does, and yet over the years I’ve learned something else that has also affected me greatly. As a concerned citizen of our beautiful but endangered planet, I want to do whatever I can to help protect the fragile biosystems on which so much depends, so that your children and mine, and all generations yet to come, might have a chance for a viable future.
What does that have to do with eating meat? A lot more than you might think. In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a seminal report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” The report states that meat production is the second or third largest contributor to environmental problems at every level and at every scale, from global to local. It is a primary culprit in land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. Henning Steinfeld, a senior author of the report, stated, “Livestock are one of the most signiﬁcant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is needed to remedy the situation.”
As Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post in 2009, “The evidence is strong. It’s not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it’s that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a signiﬁcant margin, than the global transportation sector.” In his inﬂuential documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore presents a compelling argument for the seriousness of human-induced global warming. But for some reason he asks us to change our lightbulbs while never asking us to change our diets. Seeing this omission, I’ve realized how deeply we are conditioned to think of meat eating as the reward for afﬂuence and how difﬁcult it can be to question it. Meat eating has held such a central place in the old good life that it can just slip by, unquestioned.
But question it we must if we are going to take seriously our responsibility to the planet. Cattle are notorious for producing methane, which is one of the four primary greenhouse gases. You may ﬁnd it difﬁcult to take cow burps and ﬂatulence seriously, but livestock emissions are no joke. Methane comes from both ends of the cow in such enormous quantities that scientists seriously view it as one of the greatest threats to our earth’s climate.
And there’s more. The FAO report states that livestock production generates 65 percent of the nitrous oxide (another extremely potent greenhouse gas) produced by human activities. The FAO concludes that overall, livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes in the world combined.
Similarly, a 2009 report published in Scientiﬁc American remarked that “producing beef for the table has a surprising environmental cost: it releases prodigious amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.” The greenhouse gas emissions from producing a pound of beef, the study found, are 58 times greater than those from producing a pound of potatoes.
Some people thought the Live Earth concert handbook was exaggerating when it stated that, “Refusing meat is the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint,” but it wasn’t. This is literally true. Even Environmental Defense, a group that was called George W. Bush’s favorite environmental group for its less-than-radical stands, calculates that if every meat eater in the United States swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon savings would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road.
People have begun comparing eating little or no animal products with driving a Prius (“Vegetarianism is the new Prius”) and likewise compared eating meat with driving a Hummer. But this comparison, as striking as it is, actually understates the amount of greenhouse gases that stem from meat. In 2006, a University of Chicago study found that a vegan diet is far more effective than driving a hybrid car in reducing our carbon footprint. Scientists who have done the calculations say that a Prius driver who consumes a meat-based diet actually contributes more to global warming than a Hummer driver who eats low on the food chain.
Then, in late 2009, Worldwatch Institute published a seminal report that took things further. The thoughtful and meticulously thorough study, written by World Bank agricultural scientist Robert Goodland, who spent 23 years as the Bank’s lead environmental adviser, and Jeff Anhang, an environmental specialist for the Bank, came to the conclusion that animals raised for food account for more than half of all human-caused greenhouse gases. Eating plants instead of animals, the authors state, would be by far the most effective strategy to reverse climate change, because it “would have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations-and thus on the rate that the climate is warming-than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
I often see very well-intentioned people going to all sorts of lengths to live a greener lifestyle. It’s sadly ironic that they sometimes ignore what would be the single most effective thing they could be doing. If we are really committed to saving the environment we need to know where our leverage is. We need to focus on where we can get the most beneﬁt. Eating lower on the food chain is a real boon to the whole earth community. The good life doesn’t have to cost the planet.
The question we will collectively answer with our lives in the coming years is this: Are we going to take the earth’s needs into account, or are we going to indulge our appetites without regard for the impact we’re having on the environment?
The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was released at the end of 2007, was the largest and most detailed summary of the climate change situation ever undertaken. Its authors included thousands of scientists from dozens of countries. It unequivocally predicted serious risks and damages to species, ecosystems, human infrastructure, societies, and livelihoods in the future unless drastic action to reduce warming was taken.
Summarizing our current predicament, the Worldwatch Institute says that if we do not radically change course, “Children born today will ﬁnd their lives preoccupied with a host of hardships created by an inexorably warming world. Food supplies will be diminished and many of the world’s forests will be destroyed. Not just the coral reefs that nurture many ﬁsheries but the chemistry of the oceans will face disruption.”
And one more thing: We all know that everyone needs to eat, but we tend to overlook the fact that it’s not efficient to cycle grain through animals. The production of a pound of feedlot beef requires sixteen pounds of corn and soybeans. That’s why the noted author Frances Moore Lappé called modern meat production “a protein factory in reverse.” From the point of view of world hunger, if you feed corn and soybeans to livestock, you’re actually wasting most of the protein and other nutrients that you’ve grown. If you think about the vast numbers of people who are starving on our planet, it begins to look like a crime against humanity to take 80 percent of the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. today and feed it to livestock. But that is exactly what we are doing, so we can have cheap meat. Cheap, that is, if you don’t count the human suffering that is and will be caused by climate deterioration, the cruelty to billions of animals, and the unmet food needs of hundreds of millions of people.
It’s striking to me how much correlation there is between the food choices that are the healthiest, those that are the least expensive, and those that are most socially and environmentally responsible. It is a fact of singular signiﬁcance today that eating lower on the food chain—eating more plants and fewer animals—addresses all of these goals in a positive way.
While efforts to use government as an agent of social change don’t have the best reputation, this could be an instance in which such an approach might be useful. Since we have taxes, why don’t we tax the things that are bad for the world and use some of that money to lower the price of things that are good? This would be a revenue-neutral way of fostering a better world. For example, what if we taxed agrochemicals and used the revenue to subsidize organic and other safe forms of growing food? What if we taxed junk food and used the income to subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables? What if we taxed white bread and used the revenue to lower the price of whole wheat bread? What if we taxed products that are responsible for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gases, such as meat, and used the money to subsidize vegetable gardens and fruit orchards in every school and neighborhood in the country?
The results would be impressive: We’d have genuinely happy meals, because we’d be eating far better and at far less expense. We’d be so much healthier as people that what we’d save in medical bills would go a long way toward solving the crisis in the health care system. And we’d dramatically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and thus have a more stable climate.