Oxford Climate Society were honoured to welcome George Monbiot, Guardian columnist and author of the critically acclaimed Feral, for a talk on how stopping climate change means giving up meat. Monbiot is an internationally renowned environmental and political activist and writer, and as such holds a sphere of influence far outside that of the everyday student, yet his takeaway message from the talk was that individual action is the most important way in which we can tackle environmental problems.
Monbiot’s emotive ‘climate breakdown’ (as ‘change’ is too beige) is the closing of a window of opportunity for civilization which has so far facilitated growth and development. Within this narrowing error margin, Monbiot points to ecological cleansing of the land and sea by agriculture as the key environmental problem that must be tackled, as it is intrinsically linked to everything else. Quoting from the UN food and agricultural agency, he highlighted that at current rates of soil loss we only have 60 years of agriculture left, and that meat intake per capita has quadrupled in the past 50 years. It is clear that human action is impacting the planet on a massive scale, not only in terms of atmospheric climate change but also in the detrimental impacts of humans through resource exploitation, and it is this interlinkage that Monbiot emphasized.
The fix suggested to this growing crisis is a cultural shift towards plant-based diets, followed by increasing technological advancements in crop and protein production. With one third of calories and over half of the protein from grain and pulse production rerouted into livestock, the dairy and meat industry is alarmingly economically inefficient. Combine this with a growing consumption rate (accelerating faster than the population rate due to escalating demands for milk, meat and dairy), the moral quandary of financing an industry that revolves around slaughter and the massive environmental footprint of agriculture (in terms of both pollutants and habitat destruction), and there is a recipe for disaster. The carbon emissions produced for 3kg of lamb protein alone are equivalent to a flight to New York, yet Monbiot argues that this overconsumption is deliberately overlooked by governance in favour of curbing population growth, as this absolves the West from moral responsibility. However, he reinforced the notion that what we eat on a daily basis should be something of great responsibility and a considered decision that has implications.
A plant-based diet would greatly reduce the per capita land and water footprint; if we globally switch, the increase in efficiency would mean the planet’s carrying capacity would extent to feed another 4 million people. Further to this, the resultant greenhouse gas emissions from eating soya protein in place of beef would be 150 times lower. Economically, the cost curve with ‘clean’ or artificial meat has the potential to undercut animal products drastically, and growing demand for plant-based meals will be the behavioral trigger to this technological revolution. Monbiot quotes Jeremy Kent’s 3.5% population vanguard for establishing a cultural shift, and with 500,000 vegans already in the UK, this is a movement that may trigger an unconscious shift for the whole population.
George Monbiot ended this talk claiming that it will be a small number of people who change the world, and that they may well be in this room. He argues that a more environmentally conscious future can be achieved through normalizing veganism and making good vegan food, changing the words we use to talk about climate change and ecosystem services to re-engage people with the natural world and encouraging government action through removing meat subsidies increasing a tax. This is a Carnage-esque vision for the future, an equality-based utopia (probably with wolves) where people consume consciously, but Monbiot makes it seem as achievable as simply buying a Sainsbury’s vegan ready meal.
For more thoughts on the climate breakdown and how to stop it; http://www.monbiot.com
OCS Media and Research Team
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