Many Cup of Jo readers have been asking for posts about climate change, and we are so happy to keep up the conversation. Today, my dear friend Linsey Laidlaw is sharing one of the biggest ways we, as individuals, can help: cutting back on meat and dairy. Please take our challenge below…
Like so many of you, I’ve been holding my breath for friends and family in California and now Australia, praying their homes and families will be kept safe from the flames, mourning for those who haven’t. These tragic fires are the latest blaring siren that our planet is in crisis. “I want you to act as if your house is on fire,” the young heroine Greta Thurnberg implores, “because it is.”
The scale of the climate crisis is so big it’s practically paralyzing — how can one family’s biggest efforts make even the tiniest dent?! Too often, I’m inclined to fold in defeat. But for better or worse, my kids — ages 6, 8 and 11 — are exquisitely stubborn creatures, and they’ve been steadily (if not always gently) coaching us as we change our habits.
We try to make one or two goals per month — using up what we have and adding more sustainable tools as we go. We’ve taken up composting, switched disposables for reusables, ride bikes or use public transit as often as possible, and watch out if our first grader catches you leaving a light on or the sink running too long.
Of course these things help a little, but I was surprised to learn that by far the biggest, most effective way an individual can combat climate change is something my daughter steered us towards years ago: reducing our meat and dairy intake.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, livestock are responsible for 51% of annual global emissions — more than all cars, planes, buildings, power plants and industry combined. There is a crystal clear line between the burning rainforests we weep for across social media and the barbecue we later gobble up.
If the image of ancient forests reduced to charred rubble doesn’t kill your appetite, this might: at this moment there are over a billion people in the world who are hungry, and our food choices are largely responsible. The affluent’s demand for animal products devours resources that could readily eradicate world hunger. In his newest book, We are the Weather, activist and author Jonathan Safran Foer elaborates, “Three million children under the age of five die of malnutrition every year. One and a half million children died in the Holocaust. Land that could feed hungry populations is instead reserved for livestock that will feed overfed populations. Factory farming starves the world as it destroys it.”
It’s often said that climate justice is social justice, reminding us that this is an issue of human rights and ethics as well as environment. Oxfam reports that the wealthiest 10% of the world population are responsible for half of all carbon emissions, while the poorest half are responsible for 10%. As we’ve already begun to witness: people in poverty, largely communities of color, are and will continue to be hit hardest by climate change, with the least ability to protect themselves despite contributing very little to the problem. Right now there are 70 million refugees worldwide — the highest level in nearly 70 years. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees — that’s 1 in every 45 people.
This is exceptionally jarring math — but can it shock us into a dietary reinvention? A gastronomic intervention? Americans really like meat.
For our family, transitioning from a pack of happily omnivorous eaters with a weakness for pepperoni pizza and Shake Shack didn’t happen overnight — (although it did for my daughter Ivy, who passionately declared herself a vegetarian six years ago and never looked back). The rest of us cut back gradually as we strived to support her, learning substitutions and great new recipes along the way. We’ve kept it pretty loose and low-pressure: my daughter Rosie defiantly claims the title of “meatatarian” (which mostly means she sometimes eats a hot dog at the park but gets to maintain her rebellious identity) while my husband and son have settled at pescatarian, and I occasionally indulge in meat at a restaurant. But eating vegetarian at home truly doesn’t feel like a sacrifice anymore — it’s become just what we do.
My friend Gisela taught me the term “reducetarian”, and I wholeheartedly endorse the method: going cold turkey is incredibly hard for something as social, emotional and habitual as eating. That every human on the planet would convert overnight to absolute veganism is as ideal as it is unlikely, but we don’t have to let perfect be the enemy of good: every single time you choose a plant-based meal, you make a positive impact on the health of our planet. Our family’s next reducetarian challenge is to cut back on dairy — an even bigger challenge for this cheese-loving group.
While forgoing burgers and bacon can be a challenge, for me the biggest pain point is being a pain point. I dread being perceived as a nag or hypocrite or goody-two-shoes — who wants their dinner party to become a sad-trombone lecture? I’ve often coached my kids to be “quiet vegetarians” — let’s do this, but let’s not make a fuss about it.
When really, making a fuss should be our entire focus, because one family reducing their animal consumption won’t make a dent. But a million families working together and joining in the fuss-making? That’s a hefty bite, and more importantly, a loud call to businesses who respond to market demands and policy makers who listen to public outcry.
At the risk of sounding like a Times Square Prophet — our children are in peril. Climate change is a speeding bus headed for each of them, and doubly fast for our grandchildren.
This is an especially smart and empathetic corner of the internet, a community that cares for neighbors and strangers alike. I read your comments and am inspired by your actions — so many of you are leading on this and other urgent issues. I am neither a pioneer nor a perfect ambassador for this plea — but I can promise I’ll continue to think daily on how I can personally answer Foer’s invocation, “…to take less than one’s hands can hold, to eat other than what our stomachs most want, to create limits for ourselves so that we all might be able to share what’s left.”
Who’s with me?
If you’d like to join us, please comment below with how you plan to dial back on meat and dairy this month. Are there any vegetarian or vegan recipes you like? We’d love to hear…
(Photo by Trinette Reed/Stocksy.)