Why will people eat less meat?

In a nutshell, self-restraint and law, consolidated by peer disapproval. Even though presently even the cleverest, most affluent and most socially-conscious people I know are still eating animal products, and the least affluent and hungriest people I don’t know will with complete justification leap at the chance to improve their and their family’s diets any way they can, there are signs that people are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of eating much meat. Opinion formers are telling us to cut down for the sake of the climate, our health, the quality and animal welfare. Governments need to stop acting like retarded meat and dairy lobby shills and behave as if this is a matter of global and personal survival (which it is) by enabling healthy and environmentally acceptable alternatives, and by legislating.

You can ignore the rest of this post – it’s me busking unhappily and inconclusively about what I take to be conflicts between human and animal welfare on familiar themes without having done much reading. Do watch the video below though.

It’s maybe not yet common knowledge – although I thought it was – that, after energy production, the farm animals are the second highest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. There is already interdisciplinary agreement that populations of rich countries have to cut back on meat if the populations of developing countries are to be able to eat more without exascerbating climate change – this is most strikingly illustrated by Anthony McMichael and colleagues in The Lancet last year. When epidemiologists and climate specialists coalesce like this you take what they say seriously.

Over on Pickled Politics Shariq links to Mark Bittman‘s TED talk (TED is the RSA of the US) on ‘What’s wrong with what we eat’, describing it as “non-moral reasons to eat less meat”. Touches on the artificial demand, pollution, diabolical health consequences, and climate consequences, and also that

“…there’s no way to treat animals well when you’re killing 10,000,000,000 of them a year… That’s just the United States.”.

Great – a big blog nudging readers away from a death-based diet. “Moral”, “non-moral” (whether or not you care about global warming or not is pretty moral, I reckon) – however Shariq dresses it up I’m happy. You can eat fantastically well as a vegan, and I do when I am in charge. It’s going out that’s the problem. When Shariq links to this kind of thing it’s a portent that soon vegans will have alternatives when we go out for European cuisine, and soon we’ll be properly nourished when we go on holiday to the ethico-financial vicious circle they call the British countryside. Maybe some of us who’d enjoy something more sophisticated than vegetables in water for dinner will even bother to go to France.

That said, what I think Shariq means by “moral reasons” – the moral dereliction of causing unnecessary death and suffering of sentient beings – is reason enough.

But I’m not completely stupid about this. One easy consequence of living in a world (my world, in fact) where we thought of meat as, well, put it this way, a lot closer to dead human than we currently do, would be coming to think of people who eat meat as violent, backward and depraved. Quite possibly dangerous. Perhaps in the same way that a large proportion of people in developed countries would think of contemporary slave-owners now. Nevertheless, take away a slave owner’s slaves unceremoniously and you leave them at least temporarily destitute. So there need to be alternatives. As a world we’re not very good at providing alternatives to things that countries do which happen to be against the better interests of other countries. (I know I’m using a nationalist paradigm here, but national sovereignty is a fact of the world as it stands.)

Maybe, say, the citizens of G12 countries will be regarding the persistent meat-eaters amongst them in thirty years’ time – as pariahs – if the findings of Rajendra Pachauri and Anthony McMichael and innumerable others are acted upon at the level of the individual and they drastically curtain their animal consumption. There’s also a layer of reactive anger which comes from observing somebody doing something pleasurable which one has denied oneself – “If I can’t have it then nobody should have it” kind of thing.

In its current parlous state (which I partly attribute to Jay Rayner) veganism is too much to ask of most individuals, though. I think, although I can’t confirm this, that you have to have a personal horror of causing the death or suffering of an animal to be vegan today. Individuals – those of us who are smokers, alcoholics, over-eaters, or under-exercisers, for example – are famous for not to even being able to look after their own best interests, let alone the world’s. Asking people to foresake something pleasurable for no immediate or compelling return won’t work. This is quite normal and natural, and quite possibly something primordially human.

Back in 1992 epidemiologist Geoffrey Rose published his Strategy of Preventative Medicine (Oxford University Press), observing that:

“It makes little sense to expect individuals to behave differently from their peers; it is more appropriate to seek a general change in behavioural norms and in the circumstances which facilitate their adoption.”

Thinking about smoking, in Britain and Ireland we did something complementary – or perhaps it will turn out to be preliminary – to fomenting social pressure to change behavioural norms. We ignored the libertarians and legislated, which I think was a brave and correct choice for any society which believes in nationalised health care. (We also taxed but there’s a limit to taxation – over-taxing makes smuggling lucrative and enables me to buy 30 Marlborough under the counter at a discount off, say, New Rd in Hackney.)

My feeling is that we should slap a high carbon tax on meat which is hypothecated to subsidise decent vegan food (including, if it isn’t environmentally dreadful, in vitro meat analogues – nnngh, please let them begin with salt beef). Moreover, people who don’t eat animal shouldn’t have to subsidise animal eating as they currently do – it should be the other way round. And I’m generally in favour of personal greenhouse gas quotas insofar as they reduce emissions and – equally importantly – help people to relate lifestyle choices to environmental impact.

Mark Bittman unites vegans, locovores, gourmets etc around the objective of ‘good food’ – this is very inspiring, but I’d like people to unite around the, as it turns out, politically unacceptable notion rejecting suffering – not killing animals except in the most extreme circumstances. This doesn’t follow from the carbon argument, it’s a different ethical question which involves dealing with the horrible truth that the way things are in the world today, if it weren’t for animals then there would be a lot more extreme circumstances anyway. After all, we live in a world where human beings die of starvation at the same time as other humans die of coronary artery disease.

So, there is no “happy meat” or “happy cheese” or “happy eggs” – we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Where does this leave us? I don’t know.

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2 thoughts on “Why will people eat less meat?

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