Wednesday, April 20, 2016

So, what's your beef with climate change??

Over the years, I have blogged in plenty (like here) about the environmental impacts of the foods that we eat.  I have even made fun of ardent environmentalists who are not vegetarians, because of the huge environmental footprint meat has.  As if I needed more, the Economist provides this:
Overall the livestock sector accounts for between 8% and 18% of global emissions—about as much pollution as comes out the tailpipes of the world’s cars. Ruminant livestock, such as cattle and sheep, have stomachs containing bacteria able to digest tough, cellulose-rich plants. But along the way, huge volumes of gases are farted and belched too. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the world’s domesticated ruminants annually release 100m tonnes of methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
So, what can a typical consumer do?  More research findings, please:
 A recent study also published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated the benefits of low-meat and no-meat diets using computer models through to 2050. The former daily regime included eating five portions of fruits and vegetables, less than 50g of sugar, up to 43g of red meat and a total energy content of between 2,200-2,300 calories. A vegetarian diet and a vegan diet were also analysed.
 How do you think the vegetarian and vegan diets compared with the "non-veg" habits, with respect to GHG emissions?  You need to think big numbers. I mean, big:
Following a modest meat diet, global greenhouse gas emissions were found only to increase 7% by 2050 (compared with an expected increase of 51% according to projections from the status quo). A widespread switch to vegetarianism could curb emissions by nearly two thirds and veganism by 70%.
Reduce emissions by two-thirds should be a great selling point, right?  Add to the GHG reductions the health benefits from not eating red meat or the "other white meat."  And then overlay the bypassing of the ethical issues about how we kill animals, especially the low-footprint chicken.  Going vegetarian is a win-win-win all the way around, right?

Which is why I, too, am puzzled that "People Still Don't Get the Link between Meat Consumption and Climate Change"
People who already eat less meat may be more open to hear and retain information on the climate impacts of meat, while people who eat lots of meat may be more inclined to deny or downplay it. That is, behaviors may inform knowledge as much as knowledge informs behavior. And as many studies have shown, although knowledge is an important aspect of behavioral change, it alone is rarely enough for people to change their lifestyles. Changing behaviors as intimate and culturally engrained as people’s daily dietary habits therefore demands a careful consideration of the psychological and cultural dynamics at play.
So, what can be done?
the greatest potential for a shift towards sustainable lifestyles is through a change in culture and worldview—a shift in assumptions about human nature, our relationship with the (natural) world around us, and our aspirations for the ‘good life’. Food touches on social habits and norms; plays a role in mediating power and status; is often key to social participation and acceptance; and is expressive of collective values and identity. Consumption and lifestyles therefore tend to be shaped more by people collectively than individually. The most effective strategies thus engage people in groups, and give them opportunities to develop their understanding and narratives about food in dialog together.
Tough luck, given that the youth in even the traditionally vegetarian culture is rapidly taking up serious meat eating!

Source

6 comments:

Ramesh said...

I'll wander into why scientific facts seem to be difficult for many people to accept while fakes and charlatans are sometimes more easily believed. I think it has to do with closeness with what we would like to believe and what is convenient to believe. If something that is peddled is convenient to us or close to what we fancy, we tend to believe it. If its inconvenient, then the human defense mechanism seems to be that of rejecting the idea. I submit that the area you have explored today falls in this category.

I believe the scientific community has to do a lot more than simply state a finding and expecting every body to believe it. And certainly avoid ridicule and condescension to non believers. The best parallel I can think of is the way Indian public reaction to the BCG vaccine was overcome. During the time we were born, there was widespread panic to the vaccine and all sorts of myths were aired. I wasn't vaccinated because of this, and you probably weren't too. But the government did a mass campaign for years. It was a multi faceted attack - communication, endorsement by respected people including religious leaders, easy availability of the vaccine, strict control against adulteration (even today BCG cannot be privately administered; only the state does it), etc etc. In a decade or two, it was completely adopted - and there has been no resistance.

An interesting case now is the arguments against erection of mobile towers on worries of radiation. Everybody wants great mobile connectivity but nobody wants mobile towers anywhere nearby. Just like the 19th century fears of electrical transmission lines and towers. Even though its convenient to have mobile towers in your building, there is such a huge resistance from even supposedly educated people. There paranoia outweighs convenience.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, we like to believe only what we like to believe, and which doesn't upset anything that we believe. And, yes, one the struggles in science and technology has been about changing that culture.

However, unlike your example, in this link between climate change and meat consumption the people whose cultural habit needs to be changed are NOT illiterate or poorly educated.
To some extent, it is relatively easier convincing the poorly educated about anything--which is why the vaccine campaigns worked well, and which is also why the mullahs in Pakistan are able to convince the folks against polio vaccination.
The anti-vax crowd in the US or Uk are almost always with above-average education. Even in the US, the people who rant against the transmission lines and cellphone towers are typically highly educated.

I point these out because it is the educated who need to be convinced about the link between meat and climate change. (The poor don't have much money to spend on meat anyway) But, you hear the environmentalists talk about recycling, driving Priuses, and how they hate plastic and WalMart, but will put up all kinds of arguments against their carnivorous food habits. In fact, some of these very people are also the kinds of food snobs who will gladly talk for hours about the various kinds of meat dishes at various places.

We are bundles of contradiction, my friend. Aligning our values in every walk of life is not easy. All I can say is I am trying, even if failing, which you also read about via the autoethnographic posts ;)

Shachi said...

"I point these out because it is the educated who need to be convinced about the link between meat and climate change. (The poor don't have much money to spend on meat anyway) But, you hear the environmentalists talk about recycling, driving Priuses, and how they hate plastic and WalMart, but will put up all kinds of arguments against their carnivorous food habits. In fact, some of these very people are also the kinds of food snobs who will gladly talk for hours about the various kinds of meat dishes at various places."

THIS - one of the primary reasons I can never have a decent conversation about climate change with anyone around me. It is simply so difficult for people to give up meat, even for one day or one meal. These people rarely travel but complain about not finding options when you travel haha.

Somehow, the scientific community needs to come up with a believable story around this grave fact. Fear mongering or condescending their current choices won't work.

Sriram Khé said...

"the scientific community needs to come up with a believable story around this grave fact"
Nope, can't happen.
Scientists rarely ever are able to shape people's habits. Only the cultural forces can. Think about this: many of the foods that people eat around the world are not the "traditional" foods, yet pizzas and burgers and sushi and Pepsi and everything else are all over the world. Only those cultural forces (including businesses and governments, of course) can reshape our thinking on eating meat--but, they won't because it is not in their own self interest to do so.

So, the next best thing, and the only thing perhaps, that we can do is to politely engage in discussions with the meat eating friends and family, should they show serious interest in climate change discussions. I say "politely" because vegans--eve more than vegetarians--easily slip into a holier-than-thou sermonizing that quickly pushes meat-eaters into defending their preferences.

Anne in Salem said...

I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," which is about eating locally and in season to reduce one's food footprint. It is interesting and full of fascinating statistics, such as if every US citizen ate one meal a week of locally and organically (many pesticides are petroleum-based so worsen our footprint) grown meat and produce, we'd save 1.1M barrels of oil per week.

On the flip side, I read online today about fast food restaurants ditching healthier fare as not profitable and not conducive to expanding marketshare. They will expand waistlines for sure!

Vegetarianism will have a hard time as long as people think they need dozens of grams of protein a day. Most carnivores do not believe it is possible to consume sufficient protein through vegetable and grain sources. I imagine 90% of Americans don't need nearly as much protein as they think they need.

Vegetarianism will have a hard time also as long as grain products are vilified. "Carbs" are so easy to blame for all that ails us, but grains are vital to human health and to a vegetarian's meal plan.

Uphill battles, both.

Sriram Khé said...

Uphill battles, yes. More on that in the post that follows ;)

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