Thanks to the prompting of my vegetarian and animal-loving daughter Jenny, wife Nancy and I recently viewed the full-length film Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. This was newly-cut Netflix streaming version with updated information added to the original, which appeared last year. After watching the film I read a criticism of the original version by Joshua Finch on the Daily Kos website. Although his objections are not as valuable as the documentary itself, he makes a few legitimate observations.
The two central points of Cowspiracy are:
- animal agriculture is the leading cause of global warming and environmental degradation, and
- major environmental organizations do not emphasize this point enough.
Both statements are true. And what makes Cowspiracy so valuable is that both of these charges are so well illustrated by visual effects, including of fields, animals, interviewed people, and charts. Neuroscientists tell us that visual images have the most significant effect on what we remember.
The Cowspiracy website offers many useful links with one about the interviewees and also a Facts link and an Infographic link, which present some of the data used in the film, plus additional information. Besides the main point about animal agriculture having the single biggest negative environmental impact, including global warming, here are some other examples:
- “Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land.”
- “Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the U.S.”
- It takes 660 gallons of water to produce one hamburger, the equivalent of showering for two months.
- “Californians use 1500 gallons of water per person per day. Close to half is associated with meat and dairy products.”
- “1.5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food. 1.5 acres can produce 375 pounds of meat.”
- “Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.”
Cowspiracy's central message seems inescapably true: The single most important contribution people can make to lessen global warming and environmental degradation is to stop eating meat.
Co-director Kip Andersen interviews officials (or tries to) from various organizations like the California's Department of Water Resources, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club. Most of these interviewees fail to recognize how serious the negative environmental impact of animal agriculture is. He also talks to critics of this practice such as Michael Pollan, author and professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Pollan believes that one reason so many environmental organizations are remiss is that they rely on membership funding and would lose members if they came out too strongly against meat eating.
Yet, identifying the meat-eating habits of the world’s population as a major cause of our environmental and sustainability woes is nothing new. In an earlier essaywrote I quoted two paragraphs from my An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008) in which I cited UN reports on the connection. Cowspiracy updates such findings by citing later information like a 2009 report that asserts livestock and their products account for not 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (as reported earlier), but 51 percent.
In his criticism of the documentary, Finch finds fault with its use of statistics. (One thinks of Mark Twain’s quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”) Finch is especially critical of the “over 660 gallons of water to produce one 1/4 lb. hamburger” statistic. He believes that so-called facts “were cherry picked from reports” and that “alternative standpoints . . . are ignored entirely.”
But his more general criticism can be summed up as follows:
- Cowspiracy attempts to “build a case for vegan absolutism,” which “runs roughshod over nuance, presenting an exclusionary world-view as the only viable option.”
- Such “absolutism is almost always detrimental to public discourse.”
He cites as partial evidence of his first conclusion two statements in the film. The first from an interviewee who states “without a hint of objection: ‘You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products [...] don’t call yourself an environmentalist.’” The second, about ten minutes later near the end of the film, is co-director Andersen’s declaration, “I had come to the full conclusion [that] the only way to sustainably and ethically live on this planet with 7 billion other people is to live an entirely plant-based vegan diet."
Like Finch, I am suspicious of absolutist statements, and hesitant to be too judgmental. Truth is usually much more complex than most people admit. Absolutistic stances and rigid ideologies have caused much misery in history, and tolerance is a great virtue (see here for more on that.) As indicated in “Environmentalism and Why I’m a Vegetarian (almost),” a year and a half ago I considered myself an environmentalist and yet was not then a full vegetarian. Today I am, but not a vegan. For decades earlier I was a member of the Environmental Defense Fund but not a vegetarian. Have I ever been a perfect environmentalist? Hardly. Will I be one in the future? Nope. As with all of us humans, the land of perfect is one in which I’ll never reside. And there will always be some people, though not perfect either, who will be better environmentalist than I am.
Thus, like Finch, I shy away from statements that proclaim you can’t eat meat and be an environmentalist and prefer a less judgmental approach. But the nuance and subtlety that Finch and I consider ideal is not characteristic of mass media, including many documentaries. One thinks of that phase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” about “the worst” being “full of passionate intensity.” Unfortunately, such passion is seldom accompanied by a balanced, prudent, tolerant perspective. But to deal effectively with such a crucial and pressing problem as global warming, passion is needed. The struggle against deniers and the powerful money interests funding denial is too powerful to overcome without passionate resistance.
Although Cowspiracy is not characterized by scholarly objectivity, it is full of passion. And its advocacy of veganism should not divert us from its central message, one that seems inescapably true: The single most important contribution people can make to lessen global warming and environmental degradation is to stop eating meat.
Like the late Tolstoy and Gandhi, Colman McCarthy is both a nonviolence activist and vegetarian (and believes the two activities are causally linked). In a favorable review of Cowspiracy earlier this year in the National Catholic Reporter he wrote, “It is less and less possible, and equally less and less rational, to ignore the mounting, irrefutable and well-researched evidence that animal agriculture, in its many forms, is unrivaled in causing what may be irreversible damage to the planet.” He also states that in supporting this evidence “few sources of information are as rattling or relevant” as Cowspiracy.
As we know, however, from all the global warming deniers, mountains of evidence don’t necessarily move people to change their behavior. How we choose to react to Cowspiracy is up to each of us.
Walter G. Moss