What’s on the menu for lunch in Rio?
Barnaby Joyce objected with characteristic sophistication to Peter Singer getting the nation’s top honour last week, the Companion of the Order of Australia. Various letters appeared defending Singer on following days, but all talked of his moral philosophy and honours without touching on his environmental insight which was well ahead of its time.
Back in 1990, in the second edition of Animal Liberation, Singer wrote that forests and meat animals compete for land and then outlined the contribution of deforestation to global warming and wildlife loss. He described the imperative for reforestation to avoid the worst of both.
In the two decades since those prescient words, while mainsteam environmentalists were busy with BBQ fundraisers to raise money to campaign on such pressing matters as plastic bags or disposable nappies, the Queenland cattle industry deforested another 7.8 million hectares. Globally, cattle have increased by 130 million to over 1.4 billion weighing more than the human population.
This has expanded the orgy of deforestation on top of that required to grow feed for factory farmed pigs and chickens. Australia’s infamous live cattle exports are fattened prior to their eventual torture on palm kernel cake derived from palm oil plantations ripped from the forest along with murdered orangutans.
Singer was on the money back in 1990 and still is.
Extreme weather means extreme suffering. Cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 people in Burma in 2008. Pakistan’s 2010 floods displaced 20 million. Droughts bring famine and sickly stunted children. Our use of fossil fuels and deforestation are increasing the frequency of extreme weather. Everything about Singer’s philosophy and practical advice for living is about reducing suffering, be it animal or human. Hence his early recognition of climate catastrophe. Singer’s views are in stark contrast to Joyce and his ilk, who both defend live animal export and continually obstruct all attempts to reduce extreme weather disasters.
But however fitting a target Joyce would be for Singer, Singer’s latest call to conscience in the Washington Post is focused firmly on environmental and scientists and policy makers at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.
To paraphrase: Why would anybody but a climate skeptic or environmental vandal put meat on the menu at an environment conference?
Let’s put the question in context. There are three huge things we have to do to avoid the worst of climate change ... which is a precondition for sustainable development. First use clean technologies to rebuild and increase our electricity infrastructure. We don’t just need to deal with household electricity, but must also electrify the 80 percent of other energy use from fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, industrial processes, aluminium production, the list is long. We need far more electricity than we currently use and it must be clean. Efficiency gains will be welcome but more than swallowed by the second huge thing. Energy must be provided to all the people on the planet. The needs of the $1 a day masses are real, urgent and must not wait.
The third huge thing is to roll back 200 years of deforestation while improving food security for the vulnerable. We can’t do this while grazing is expanding and factory farmed livestock easily outbids the poor for food.
This last huge thing was on Singer’s mind in 1990 and still is. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has had reforestation’s role in climate change in mind for decades also. But Hansen hasn’t just thought about this, he and other climate scientists have quantified it. Dealing with energy is pressing but Hansen has shown that it is demonstrably not sufficient to bring climate warming down to a safe level by 2150. Head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri told the world to reduce meat consumption in 2008.
Deep meat consumption cuts to allow reforestation aren’t an optional extra.
Do climate and environment scientists and the myriad of bureucrats and policy makers care enough about the planet to change their diets?
Anna Rose of the young and enthusiastic Australian Youth Climate Coalition is currently winging her way to Rio+20. Does she understand the role of food in climate change? You’d think with livestock generating more warming than all our coal fired power stations, meat and dairy would feature prominently on the AYCC web site. Wrong. AYCC may be the future of young environmental activism, but they don’t grok the impact of food choices. For each Australian, there is 1.3 cattle and over 3 sheep. They produce methane 24x7, they don’t turn off during Earth Hour and they keep going even when your air-con is off, the car is in the garage and you aren’t jetting around the world to a conference. Everybody eats multiple times a day and plant food air freighted from anywhere on the planet has a much, much lower greenhouse impact than locally produced beef.
A recent special supplement of the Medical Journal of Australia pulled the rug from under decades of meat industry propaganda that some have relied upon to justify their planet bashing diet. Not only are plant based diets the most environmentally benign, they are healthier. Meat isn’t just dangerous for people, it spells extinction for wildlife and will undermine even the best efforts at energy restructuring. We need young committed environmentalists, but we don’t need clones of the old red necked BBQ greenie brigade. We need smart as well as keen.
Even with the best will in the world, rebuilding our energy infrastructure will take decades. Changing diets is much easier and the climate impacts will be almost immediate. Methane from ruminants is broken down in about a decade so its reduction will have very fast impacts. Similarly any reduction in deforestation will come packaged with increases in carbon sequestration in growing and expanding forests. Changing diets is not only cheap, it will increase the funds available to make other essential changes.
Eating well can quickly reduce hospital admissions and health care costs. A good place to start is the Meatless Monday initiative in association with the prestigious John’s Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Part of their focus is that as people begin each week, they think about their own health and that of the planet and ditch meat. Is it the thin edge of the wedge to a much healthier plan(e)t based diet? Of course.
I don’t expect Barnaby Joyce to change, but it’s high time for the many delegates at Rio+20 to make their food choices consistent with their hearts and minds. It’s time for them plus the AYCC, the Climate Commission, the ALP, the Liberal Party, the Australian Greens, the ACF and Greenpeace to catch up to Singer-1990. Better two decades late than not at all.
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