I’m always pleased to hear about a new recruit to the veggie gang, and rarely does a newspaper headline, like that in the Times on Tuesday morning, put quite such a spring in my step: “Climate chief: give up meat to save the planet.” Britain’s top climate adviser, Nicholas Stern—ex-chief economist of the World Bank and currently chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE—has stopped eating meat to help combat climate change, and advises us to all do the same. “Meat,” he rightly argues, “is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”
The math of meat pollution is simple; methane from cows and pigs is the no 1 producer of greenhouse gases in the world. The UN reports that livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined. Moreover, methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas. The UN also warns that meat consumption is on course to double by the middle of the century.
The obvious question, then, is what should be done to reverse this upward curve? Except that we already know the answer to that question. Stop eating meat. The real, more uncomfortable question, is: why are we not outraged by what the meat industry and those who support it, which is, lets face it, most of us, is doing to our planet? Why is meat consumption not stigmatised in the way that driving 4×4 gas guzzlers is?
Meat is more than food. It’s status. It’s identity. We still associate the consumption of meat with wealth, power and abundance. And yet we still find the eating of animals and the ethical questions it raises acutely awkward topics of conversation. There lingers the notion that vegetarians are squeamish, silly types.
So Stern’s example is important because it breaks dominant stereotypes we attach to meat eating. It is (I know) stating the obvious, but Stern is a man, moreover a man of significant global influence and intellectual repute. Vegetarians, according to the long-standing stereotype, are supposed to be maudlin and over-sensitive characters; left-leaning women of a “delicate sensibility”—read: irrationally susceptible to their emotions. Stern’s stand goes against all of these prejudices.
Could his vegetarian outing mark the first step towards a world where vegetarians are stereotyped not for the supposed sentimentality of their choice, but its logical rigor and rational responsibility? Taking the facts into account, will it soon be the meat eaters of this world who are regarded as out of touch and irrational?
(Speaking of facts, take a look at Christopher Booker’s piece in the Mail today, which hands down wins first prize at the School of Absurdist Journalism. His writes that Stern’s advice is utter tosh because he doesn’t even use “real statistics” to back up his claims. Of course, how stupid of me—I forgot that the UN and the LSE only trade in fake statistics. Booker’s own “real” statistics are, instead, based on a beautiful line of reasoning—if we encourage giving up meat we would “destroy the meat industry.” Ergo, pass me my steak knife and to hell with the planet.)
In fact, stigmatising the environmental recklessness of eating meat has, whether you like it or not, already begun. A programme of carbon emissions labelling on food items in supermarkets has recently been introduced in Sweden; and its promising start means that such a system is likely to be introduced in Britain in the not too distant future. Carbon guilt at the checkout is on the way. Surely then, it’s only a matter of time before a “stern” tut-tut muttered over the ordering of a bacon sandwich becomes the rule, rather than the exception?