Climate Change – The Cow in the Middle of the Room

Royal Dutch Shell's Death Star
David wins over Goliath!

The news just broke that Shell is pulling out of the Arctic – a major victory for the climate. My kayaktivist friends and I deserve some portion of the credit for putting ourselves on the front lines on multiple occasions at actions in Seattle, Everett, and Portland, though clearly this victory belongs to everyone.  It wasn’t just that the test wells in the Beaufort Sea yielded negative results for Shell, but there were also frank admissions that the massive groundswell of negative publicity played into their decision to retreat from their seven billion dollar investment. (Aside: A socialist friend of mine asked me to imagine all the solar panels and sustainability projects that money could’ve funded if corporations weren’t under the exclusive control of private individuals aimed at profiting the few instead of the many.)

As of 5:00 p.m. today, I’ve received no less than ten emails from a bevy of major environmental groups celebrating the victory – and using the occasion to ask for donations to keep up the fight in combating global climate change.  Having just watched the film Cowspiracy with my wife and twelve year old daughter over the weekend, my reaction is mixed.  Yes, environmentalists won a victory in the campaign to stop global carbon emissions. But climate change is more complex than simply reducing carbon emissions and stopping oil drilling, tar sands, fracking and similar industrial operations, though these are critically important.

The rest of the story isn’t being discussed openly by most mainstream environmental organizations (e.g. Greenpeace,, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Oceana, etc.) because to do so might threaten their corporate bottom line and maybe even threaten the personal lifestyle choices of some of the individuals who run these organizations. Animal based agriculture (meat and dairy predominantly) have a far greater influence on climate change than has been readily admitted by most – save a few researchers, authors, random fringe individuals like myself, and less notable groups.

I felt a little miffed after seeing the deception and ignorance on display in the movie by groups that I had previously trusted. it forced me to acknowledge that these groups behave – in some respects – not too differently than any for-profit corporation concerned first and foremost about its own bottom line. I replied tersely to an email from Greenpeace by typing “Cowspiracy” into the text field and clicking send.  Within the hour I received a detailed and obviously pre-formatted, reply which was clearly composed to push back against the allegations made in the film.  Their reply steered me to links on their website which were supposed to allay my concerns regarding their reticence to devote more than token attention to the topic of animal agriculture.  While encouraging in terms of content, the pages on which the articles were found were usually buried several layers deep in their vast websites. Only the most dedicated web-visitor will ever have the patience to delve deep enough to find them, let alone read them. The environmental organizations listed above do not talk about meat on their front page, despite meat’s outsized impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, Amazon rainforest destruction, oppression of indigenous cultures,  global desertification, habitat loss, species extinction, ocean dead zones, disappearing and contaminated aquifers.

We are a culture of sound bytes, short attention spans, and reputation management. We leave it to the big name organizations and experts to tell us what we should be concerned about and who we can trust. Few have the personal motivation or time to reflect on complicated issues, especially if they challenge not only our intellect, but our very way of life, and – gasp – our eating habits. Watch the movie (you can stream it on Netflix or directly from the film maker’s website). My summary notes from the movie, and a few additional sources follow:

*Animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. (Worldwatch Institute). Disingenuous attempts to laugh the implications of this away as merely “cow farts” as did one of the Directors of the NRDC, reek of ignorance.   Although the U.N. study cited above, estimated annual GHG emissions as only 18%, according to the authors of the Worldwatch study, they failed to account for important co-factors detailed in their report. For example, it is not natural for there to be 1.5 billion cows on the planet, therefore, we need to also count all the CO2 that these animals exhale.

*Animal agriculture is also responsible for:

30% of global water consumption

45% of land use

91% of the Amazon rainforest destruction. 1 acre of rainforest per second is cleared in order to provide pasture for cattle or to grow GMO soybeans that feed cattle and fish in industrial feedlot/fish farming operations. The rainforests are the lungs of planet Earth – producing massive quantities of oxygen respirated from trees. If we destroy our lungs, we die.

*Animal agriculture involves not just carbon dioxide (CO2), but methane. Methane is 86 times more destructive than CO2, and its effects are more immediate. If we reduce methane emissions, we get immediate beneficial results in lowering GHG in the atmosphere.

*It requires 660 gallons of water to produce one quarter pound hamburger. Keep using those low flow shower heads, low flow toilet tanks, repair toilet leaks, plant drought free vegetation (not lawns), recycle brown water from your household use – and more – but remember, domestic household water use represents only 5% of total use versus 55% for animal agriculture.

*So called “sustainable” pork, grass-fed beef, “humane” beef are misnomers or feel good distractions. At best, they are deceptions which do not account for the full environmental impact of meat production. For example. One grass fed cow requires 10 acres of land.  In terms of land use, this is less sustainable than factory farmed beef. There simply isn’t enough land for 7 billion humans (and growing) to consume beef. As for labeling any taking of life (i.e. killing) as “humane”, I can’t stretch my mind enough to wrap around that concept. Yes plants are “killed” also for food, but these do not possess pain receptors or a sentient mind.

*In many countries in Africa where starvation is a serious issue, agricultural lands are devoted to export grain destined to feed cattle which are consumed by more affluent populations elsewhere. It requires 140 to 150 pounds of grain each day to feed one dairy cow.  From one perspective, this is food stolen from the mouths of starving children. 50% of grains and legumes grown world wide are used to feed cattle.

*Range lands (i.e. public lands rented out to cattle ranchers for a pittance) are destroyed through over grazing while wild species such as horses, cougars, wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, lynx, ring tailed cats, etc. are scapegoated for competing for survival on these same lands for survival with cattle. The lucky ones are herded into holding pens. Wolves and cougars are aggressively

Got Protein? Western Lowland Gorilla – totally vegan

hunted, trapped, and gunned down from helicopters or cubs are shot in their dens, all as a consequence of our insatiable appetite for meat and our misguided obsession for meat based protein. Washington state’s Department of Ecology recently killed a pack of seven wolves at taxpayer cost of $77,000. Plant protein is certainly adequate for primate nutrition (humans evolved from primates) and if there was ever any doubt, just check out the physique of a gorilla (those that are still in existence that is).

*Meat consumption is relatively inexpensive in economic terms due to externalized costs which everyone pays for – carbon pollution, socialized medical costs due to heart bypass surgeries, diabetes, etc. Although a Big Mac only costs around $4. If these externalities were factored in, it would be closer to $11.

*Small scale back yard farming is no more sustainable. For example, it requires about 110 pounds of feed (i.e. grain) to “produce” 1.5 pound duck meat. (Aside: I have to put many of the animal husbandry terms in quotes because I cannot stomach the commodification and desensitization of our awareness that these are living, breathing sentient beings with exquisitely refined nervous systems which seek pleasure and to avoid pain – just like you and I. )

*A high consumption meat and dairy diet requires 18 times as much land as a vegan diet. One can grow 37,000 pounds of vegetables on 1.5 acres. That same 1.5 acres produces only 375 pounds of meat.

*”Meatless Mondays” do not address the scope of the problem. However well meaning the person or organization that gives this advice, essentially, such a campaign is little more than a feel good justification for participating in the unsustainable destruction of the planet during the other 6 days of the week.

Cow milk is for baby cows, not humans.

*We have been lied to and misinformed regarding the need for meat and dairy in our diet. The meat industry is one of the most profitable and powerful industries on the planet and has exercised virtual control over USDA policy for decades.  Dr. Micheal Klaper, M.D. points out that the purpose of cows milk is to fatten up a calf from 65 pounds to a 400 pound cow. The nutrients it contains are not designed for the evolutionary needs of humans – babies or adults. Sort of a no-brainer if you really think about it. Why-people-believeBut if you tell a lie often enough, …”milk does a body good”, we learn to look the other way when breast lumps, uterine fibroids and tumors, hysterectomies and mammograms and obesity ensue.

*The oceans will be empty by 2048 unless we stop fishing. There is no such thing as “sustainable fishing”, despite the continued  use of that term by Oceana and Greenpeace. 28 billion fish were (killed) hauled out of the ocean in 2013. Massive drift nets used by commercial fishing operation resulting in 5 pounds of “bykill” (untargeted species including dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and 40-50 million sharks) for every one pound of targeted species. From a karma point of view, when you eat seafood, all that is on your plate too.

*Transitioning to a solar and wind energy economy will take at least 20 years and 18 trillion dollars, or for the nearly the same savings in GHG emissions, we could stop eating animals today which would cost nothing. Our forests would begin to regenerate immediately. The oceans would begin to heal due to the cessation of nitrogen run off. Habitat and species would make a comeback.  Yes, there are many other problems we need to deal with too. But any comprehensive discussion of human global solutions which neglects a discussion of the cow in the middle of the room is flawed.

*As Buddhism and science comes closer in agreement regarding the architecture of the phenomenal world, there is growing acceptance that we live in an organized, non-random universe where causality is logical and flows from preceding events and natural laws. This applies not merely to weather systems and particle physics, but consciousness. Actions of killing and aggression – in the Buddhist psychology of karma – are said to result in more of the same. In a world where 70 billion “farm” animals are routinely abused and slaughtered, what sort of karmic outcome might that bring? Certainly not a peaceful world with compassion as the primary organizing principle.

2014-07-27 15.37.48I am full of hope. Every human being has an unlimited potential for wisdom and compassion. That this potential is not always used or only marginally used, is not evidence for its absence. We can transform this world back into a paradise – where the natural world is restored and humans live in balance with nature. We are part of nature. Accomplishing this holistic transformation of our world will require each one of us to take responsibility – for our knowledge, for our actions, for our intentions, and for opening our hearts in compassionate awareness to every living being in the circle of life. Let’s get started, shall we?




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