Sunday, February 3, 2013

Big Hair, Big Cars, or Big Ag? (oh my)

I walked the halls of Hanover High School in the age of big hair. The late eighties was a time when the female gender valiantly fought gravity with industrial-sized cans of Aqua-Net. I joined their ranks for a short while, sporting an embarrassing Joan Jett spiky hairdo in eighth grade that unfortunately didn't deliver the coolness factor I longed for. (Neither did the fluorescent-everything phase. Dang it!)

After a short while, I realized my new do was not bringing in the social riches I'd anticipated. Also, I had fine hair which didn't take well to onslaughts of hairspray. To use Eddie Izzard's words, it "collapsed like a flan in a cupboard."

Around this time, though, I learned that AquaNet was responsible for a mysterious, invisible hole in the ozone layer, so it was just as well. And I felt better, knowing I was no longer contributing to worldwide destruction through my stubbornly cornsilky bangs. By the time graduation rolled 'round, I was one of about four girls without big hair. I'm not making this up. My friend Nancy and went through our yearbook and counted.

As the years went by, though, it became apparent that it was not, in fact, Aqua-Net that was ruining the earth, but our big, bouncy, gas-guzzling cars. (Even so, the big hair went away. I think we all got tired from the effort. Plus we had our midriffs to start working on.)

In the last few years, though, the real culprit has been found. Transportation doesn't hold a candle to it. And hairspray quakes in its presence.

Animal agriculture is the worst contributor to climate change. Its effect on global warming is monumental. But we're not hearing a lot about it.

It's not because the research hasn't been done. Back in 2006 the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report that blew our worries about big cars right out the window. Or it should have. But most people never heard about it. I certainly didn't. It was entitled Livestock's Long Shadow. The report contrasted the environmental effects of transport against those of animal agriculture. There was no contest. Here is a telling excerpt:

Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.” 

Here and there, you'd hear little blips of information, but it was mostly done in a joking manner. I found out about it -- and I'm being completely serious -- through NPR's funny show Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me when one of their quiz's correct answers focused on the alarming amount of methane in, well, cow farts. Which is funny, when you think about it, but still. Why weren't we all curbing our animal-eating habits? Small and efficient cars became the new thing, both for the environment and for our collective wallet. Reducing or eliminating animal products on our plates would have had the same double-whammy effect, but most of us didn't change a thing.

Four short years later, the United Nations again pulled our attention to the catastrophic results of animal agriculture, this time insisting that a drastic change in our diets was necessary. (The United Nations for crying out loud!) The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) released "Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production,"  a rather lengthy report that cautioned us to go to a more plant-centric diet in order to slow down the deleterious effects of global warming.

Food production is the most significant influence on land use and therefore habitat change, water use, overexploitation of fisheries and pollution with nitrogen and phosphorus. In poorer countries, it is also the most important cause of emissions of greenhouse gases (CH4 and N2O). Both emissions and land use depend strongly on diets. Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives.

And further along the report: 

 “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."

Did you catch that on the news? Probably not. I don't know anyone who saw it. But that's a pretty big deal. If we were indeed focused on halting climate change, it should have been shouted from the rooftops. Instead we heard crickets.

Last month, President Obama was sworn into his second term. Among many things, he addressed climate change, which was heartening. Not surprisingly, though, animal agriculture was not even mentioned by the more renowned talking heads following the speech.  I didn't hear one word said, and believe me, I was on the ever-hopeful lookout.

If the United Nations has made such a big deal about the harmful effects of animal agriculture, why isn't it even being discussed? 

While I'm no Rachel Maddow, I can say this: the lobbyists for animal agriculture are very, very powerful. Look at Oprah, one of the most influential women of our time. She had the ex-rancher Howard Lyman on her show in 1996. When she learned that cows were eating other ground-up cows, making Mad Cow Disease possible, she stated, "It has just stopped me cold from eating another hamburger." She was subsequently hit with a suit for defamation from The Texas Beef Group. Though Oprah and Howard ultimately won two years later, it scared many people from saying "boo" about this nefarious industry. (They're just plain old creepy!)

There's more -- much much more -- to say on the subject, and I will be devoting a post to the devastating effect of fishing on our climate. But I did want to get this out there. Because most of us are completely unaware of it. And the fact that it is being hidden from us is, in my mind, downright criminal on several levels.

This ain't no fad. Even if one could argue that animals go through no suffering [they do], and even if one could prove that eating animal products is healthier than eating plant products [it's not], the stubborn fact is that our diet is well on its way to destroying the world we love. Sounds melodramatic. Even as I type this, I'm a little anguished, thinking, "How can I say this without sounding like a tree-hugging alarmist?"

The truth is, I'm not sure how to communicate it so that others will take heed and not dismiss it as simply interesting food for thought before they eat their meatloaf tonight. The facts are there, though, as much as we might wish them away. And as John Adams once said, "Facts are stubborn things." Global warming is not going to go away because big hair is out. It just isn't.  

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