The Meat Apologists Strike Back

A recent article in Quartz, an online magazine owned by corporate-apologist Atlantic Media, is an example of the growing backlash against the surging vegan movement, of which VGNPWR is one expression.  The author, Chase Purdy, titled his piece “If the Entire Nation Went Vegan, it Would be a Public Health Disaster:”

The essay and its scholarly source are criticized below. However, it should be noted at the outset that Purdy has a history of misrepresentation where veganism is concerned. An earlier feature in Quartz, titled “Being Vegan isn’t as Environmentally Friendly as You Would Think,” had to be retitled after publication “Being Vegan Isn’t as Good for Humanity as You Would Think,” because it turned out being vegan was as environmentally friendly as you would think.

It also happens to be good for humanity – and for the animals.

Purdy’s bald assertion about veganism and health is based upon a single study by Robin R. White and Mary Beth Hall published in the September 2017 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concerned with the nutritional and greenhouse gas impact of a total elimination of meat from U.S. diets.

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The two PNAS authors are affiliated with the animal industry: one works in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech and the other for the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison Wisconsin.  They concluded that a hypothetical, meat-free system increased total food production by 23% and decreased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the agricultural sector by 28%, resulting in an overall GHG reduction of just 2.6 percent. This is absurdly low, and is based upon an EPA estimate that the agricultural contribution of greenhouse gases in the U.S is just 9%. More credible estimates of the total value of the agricultural sector – including processing, packaging and transport – are about 18% and possibly more. The authors also assume that plant refuse – stalks, cobs, stems etc. – currently used as forage, would instead be burned, adding to GHG emissions. In fact, such organic matter, (if still produced in the same quantity), can be converted to ethanol fuel, reducing the use of dirtier petroleum, or else simply be left in the fields, its nutrients returned to the soil.

But White and Hall, and following them Chase Purdy, also asserted that the switch to an all vegan diet would lead to deficiencies in certain essential nutrients supplied by animal products, including calcium, folate, iron, protein, vitamins D and B12, zinc and essential fatty acids. Leaving aside debates about how much of these nutrients are in fact essential for a healthy diet (and these are vexed questions), the authors argument for meat consumption nevertheless fails to stand up. Here’s three reasons why:

1. The authors’ conclusion that a 100% plant-based diet is inadequate to maintain good health assumes that all animal derived nutrients would be replaced by grain derived nutrients, “based on current proportions of crops grown,” and not fruits and vegetables. In other words, rather than switch from hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza to spinach, cauliflower and apples, consumers would eat more corn, wheat and soybeans.

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The authors justify this astonishing assertion on the following basis: “Given the tremendous domestic demand for fruits and vegetables, if it was viable to produce more of these high-value crops in the current system, this would already be occurring.”

Left out of this argument are all the political, economic and ideological reasons for the high consumption of meat and limited domestic production of fruit and vegetable: A) U.S. government price supports for cereal production – mostly for livestock consumption – are currently about $25 billion annually. (Three-quarters of that value goes to just 10% of farms producing the chief commodity crops: corn, rice, wheat and soybeans.)  Existing grain consumption is therefore not a matter of consumer choice or the free market, but of corporate and government coordination; B) Ubiquitous advertising in support of meat and corn consumption, the latter often in the form of high fructose corn syrup found in most soft drinks. If meat and corn were no longer marketed and advertised, tastes and diets would change. The quantity of imported fruit and vegetables, as well as the domestic supply, would vastly increase to meet consumer demand. Moreover, the government would institute programs to educate people about healthy eating. The entire agricultural sector would thus be re-oriented toward actual human needs rather than corporate profits.

2.  The authors falsely assume that consumers do not want, and could not be educated to adopt a tasty and nutritious plant-based or vegan diet. They write: “It is entirely possible to meet the nutrient requirements of individual humans with carefully crafted, un-supplemented plant-based rations, but this can be a challenge to achieve in practice for an entire population.” They again assume that a change as dramatic as an end to animal agriculture would be unaccompanied by an equally dramatic shift in ideology and political economy. It is more logical to assume, on the contrary, that a national decision to reject meat eating would follow or be coincident with changes in habitus: a new, national consensus in support of humane agricultural practices, government support for production of more nutritious, vegan food, and broad education about the characteristics of a balanced, plant-based diet.

3.  That nobody will take a B-12 tablet or other dietary supplement to replace animal-based nutrients difficult to obtain from plants. B-12 is in fact the only nutrient that cannot be reliably obtained from a plant source. (The vitamin is produced by bacteria, but no animals need to be killed to obtain the nutrient.) B-12 is easily absorbed by the body, so consistent consumption of the nutrient in tablet form or fortified foods (such as vegan milks) can easily maintain health. Moreover, because a reserve of B-12 can be built up in the liver, people can do fine for weeks or months without additional B-12 supplements. (Still, a daily pill is the best advice.) Recent research actually indicates B-12, supplements are recommended to everyone – vegan or not -- over the age of about 50.

While the PNAS authors concede that a “carefully crafted” vegan diet can meet the nutrient requirements of humans, Purdy claims such a dietary change would be “catastrophic.” He especially worries about low-income Americans, but fails to acknowledge the high rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and other diet-based illnesses that already disproportionately affect poor people due to their excessive consumption of fat (from meat and dairy products), sugar and salt. Does he really suppose that a plant-based diet would bad for the health of the 15% of American living below the poverty line? Wouldn’t a national effort to assure consistent access to fresh fruits and vegetables be a better solution to these health woes? Indeed, in making his claims, based upon the PNAS article by White and Hall, Purdy overlooks another article in the same journal, published just a few months before, arguing that significant decreases in GHGs and major improvements of public health, especially in the most developed countries, would be achieved by a global shift from animal to plant-based diets.

Finally, Purdy ends his feature story by promoting the emerging, so-called “clean-meat” industry. Clean meat is meat grown in laboratories from animal cells. (The source animals do not have to be killed.) While it is as yet unclear if such non-animal meat can be produced to scale (or if it can be successfully marketed), it is certain that the energy inputs for the product are considerable.  Any reduction of GHG from reduced intensity of animal agriculture will be offset to some degree by the production and distribution of energy-intensive clean-meat. (The actual research on this question has not yet been done.)

All of this leads to the inevitable question: If you want to protect animals from suffering, reduce greenhouse gasses, preserve human health, and reclaim political power from a handful of corporate, animal agriculture behemoths, why not just go vegan?

 

Taking on a Critic of the Anthropocene Concept

In a recent issue of the journal Earth (September 2017), published by the American Geosciences Union, the philosopher Christine Cuomo cast doubt on the validity of the Anthropocene as designation for the current epoch in geologic history:

The Anthropocene, as visitors to Anthropocene Alliance will know, is the name proposed by the Working Group of the Anthropocene (WGA), a committee established by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), to describe the moment in Earth’s history when humans came to dominate and even determine major earth systems.

Cuomo argues that: 1) the term misrepresents the geologic record; 2) the association of the Anthropocene with destructive events – for example the detonation of nuclear weapons --implies an essential association of humans with violence, carelessness and selfishness, and denies the “inherent worth” of Holocene nature and culture; and 3) the nomination Anthropocene implies hopelessness – that the relative ecological health of the Holocene (the epoch that began some 12,000 years ago and superseded by the Anthropocene) is ended and will never be restored.

It seems to me that Professor Cuomo is mistaken. Here’s why:

1. Every geologic epoch, to be so designated, must be exhibit clear, stratigraphic markers. For the Holocene, it was indications of a warming climate and sea-level rise (compared to the earlier Pleistocene), changes in flora and fauna, a wealth of archaeological artifacts, and more narrowly, the presence of deuterium excess value in ice core data.

The Anthropocene, according to the WGA team and many other researchers, is similarly well marked in the stratigraphic record. Climatic, biological, geochemical and archaeological signatures are clearly present, as are radionuclides, uniquely deposited on the earth following the first atomic blast on July 16, 1945 at Trinity Site, near Socorro, New Mexico.

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Another marker is the presence of chicken bones, the products of Post-War industrialized agriculture and fossilized in landfills all over the world. Signs of the Anthropocene, in other words, are both recondite and manifest, global and local and the epoch cannot be dismissed on empirical grounds.

2.  Just as the start of the Holocene did not extinguish all life that came before it, so the beginning of the Anthropocene – now generally placed around 1950 – did not the extinguish the life-world of the Holocene. Nor does recognition of a threshold between Holocene and Anthropocene mean any disparagement of the floral and faunal life of the former. Indeed, research into the epochal changes in the global environment beginning around 1950 led to development of the very field of environmental studies and a renewed focus upon the old term “ecology.” Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Jane Goodall and James Lovelock among many others, described a radical break between the present and the past, and at the same time expressed a sober acknowledgement of what was lost and what must now be protected.

3.  Far from declaring the Anthropocene “the new normal” as Cuomo claims, scientists, environmentalist and philosophers consistently describe it as the new abnormal, a decided perversion of the formerly prevailing order of things that must be rectified, for the sake of all sentient life. Far from surrendering to catastrophe, scholars and activists who describe the current epoch with the label Anthropocene are sounding an alarm and calling for change at a local, national and global level. Humans now have the capacity to alter and indeed destroy the world. Recognizing that fact is not to accept its inevitability; it is to highlight the responsibility of the leading capitalist powers -- the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, India and the countries of the EU – to come together to end the global devastation.

The point of the term Anthropocene is also to alert global citizens – acting individually and collectively – to challenge the political and economic culture currently leading us toward catastrophe.  That’s the work of Anthropocene Alliance and dozens of other environmental groups, large and small, formal and informal, in the U.S. and around the world.

Hurricane Harvey and its Aftermath

Since our founding in April, Anthropocene Alliance established a powerful tool for helping individuals and communities hurt by flooding, Flood Forum USA, along with a Facebook platform called SPOUT!  FFUSA has engaged over 100 community Flood Groups across 30 states in the US, representing 200,000 people, and initiated mitigation programs in 10 of them, assisted by the Thriving Earth Exchange of the American Geophysical Union.  SPOUT! has become a go-to, speak-out forum for up to date information about mitigation and flood relief efforts across the country. This recent article in The Huffington Post illustrates the bravery and resilience of our SPOUT! friends.

And then came Harvey

Compared to the devastation wrought by Harvey, our efforts at recovery and mitigation are tiny. There has never been a rainfall this size in the United States. Nearly 30,000 square miles received over 20 inches of rain (about as large as the state of Maine). 3,600 square miles received more than 40 inches (bigger than the state of Delaware). About 1,000 square miles received more than 50 inches of rain (the size of Rhode Island). If the heaviest rain had fallen as snow in Chicago, it would rise above a four story building.

The loss of life from Hurricane Harvey is significantly less than occurred with Hurricane Katrina. That’s a consequence of geography. New Orleans is a bowl, and when the levees broke, the storm surge quickly inundated densely populated neighborhoods, drowning many residents. Houston is flat, and the storm surge was relatively small, so water levels rose more slowly, giving more people a chance to get to higher ground. But while the loss of life with Harvey was less, the economic toll will likely be greater. Katrina cost $160 billion; Harvey will likely cost more, perhaps as much as $200 billion. There will be greater clarity about costs – both human and financial -- in the weeks ahead.  But a few, fundamental things about Harvey are now clear:

1. The disaster was entirely predictable and was in fact predicted! (See the 2016 report by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.)

2.  The response to the flooding was inadequate, regardless of the cheerleading of President Trump, Texas Governor Abbott, and many others. There was no plan to safely evacuate Houston or even the much smaller cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Many of the rescues were accomplished by amateur boaters – average people who risked their lives to search for folks stranded on rooftops, in attics, or in trucks and cars. The stories and pictures of rescues are dramatic and heartening, but we don’t hear as much about lives lost for lack of preparation and coordination.

3.  Federal regulation of the petrochemical industry in Texas and elsewhere is inadequate to the point of criminality. Fire at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas was inevitable in case of flooding, and yet the factory was allowed to continue to operate. The major oil refineries in the area have released thousands of gallons of petroleum products, and vented tons more. The receding floodwaters are a poisonous stew, and the soils in many areas will be toxic for generations.

4.  The vast majority of people affected by flooding do not have flood insurance and did not live in areas zoned as a floodplain.

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5. Rich and poor alike were impacted by Hurricane Harvey, but the poor suffered worse.  Lower income, Black and Latino communities are less likely to have flood insurance and more likely to live in proximity to toxic sites. They also have less family wealth and greater job insecurity. Flooding has put thousands of people out of work.

6.  The rapid, essentially unplanned growth of Houston over recent decades, including a vast increase in impermeable surfaces (roads, parking lots, and roofs), combined with clay soils, shallow water table, network of bayous, and proximity of the Gulf, mean that even moderate rains are certain to cause floods.  Harvey is the extreme expression of what has already been happening in Houston for years. Arguments that lack of regulations has kept housing in Houston affordable are nonsense in the light of the thousands of people made homeless by flooding!

7.  The size and intensity of the storm was increased by global warming, though we can’t say by how much. Hurricane Harvey grew quickly from a tropical storm to a Level 4 hurricane when it passed over Gulf waters 2-3 degrees higher than historical averages. (Water absorb solar heat more quickly than land.) In addition, warm air holds more moisture than cooler air. As a result, the storm rapidly gathered both energy and moisture to become a powerful hurricane and a record shattering rainstorm.  The number and size of climate disasters has increased significantly in the last decade.

8. Hurricane Harvey was not a “natural disaster.” It was the product of poor planning, lax environmental regulation, inadequate zoning laws and building regulations, social inequality, and global warming. A Hurricane is an act of nature – destructiveness on the scale on Harvey is not.


Flood Forum and Harvey

Flood Forum US is not a first responder, and our ability to act in the middle of a major disaster is limited. However, Houston was already a priority city for us. Harriet visited the city back in July and met with two of the three citizen-based Flood Groups there (see our video and article on two of the groups here). As the storm hit, we were able to assist in several ways. A) We shared stories and photos of the impressive efforts of Houston families to protect their home from flooding. Our information was read and shared by thousands of people across the country. B) In the middle of the storm, we put Shannon Cooper, a flood survivor and community organizer from Louisiana in touch with the Flood Groups in Houston. Shannon then sent a flotilla of boats to Texas to help with rescue operations. C) We secured permission to upload raw video footage of the flooding and posted them on our dedicated YouTube channel under Creative Commons license, so that anyone can now use and share these visuals. We expect these will be valuable in the future for understanding what happened and how to better protect people, animals and property. D) Finally, we offered flooded residents the comfort of contact with other people from around the country who had survived flooding and managed to rebuild their lives. Many people from the largest Flood Group, ‘Hurricane Harvey 2017 - Together We Will Make It’, have since joined SPOUT!
 

Shannon Cooper lost her home in the flooding in Louisiana on August 2016. Since has since helped coordinate help for flood survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

Post-Harvey

Our work with the Houston Flood Groups will expand as we support their efforts to bring relief and recovery to affected citizens, and hold the city and Harris County Flood Control District to account. The group, ‘Residents Against Flooding’ brought a tort against the city several years ago. Their suit is still pending, and they’re advocating for a multi-county flood control district and stronger mitigation standards for new development. We intend to bring national attention to this struggle.

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As the threat of Hurricane Irma looms, we have linked up with groups in Florida and introduced them to SPOUT! and we’ll again start the process of sharing best practices and expertise among groups.

2018 will bring a new phase of work as we help set up new Flood Groups in Black, Latino and Native American communities, and plan and design a ‘Flood Fighters Boot Camp’ that offers training and technical assistance to group leaders so that they become effective advocates for nature-based flood prevention, improved water quality, and sustainable water management at local, state and federal levels.

No Road Sign for Climate Change

The unfolding disaster in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana coasts is a sign of things to come. Rain events are certain to get worse and more people are sure to be inconvenienced, displaced and even killed by flooding. Climate science proves it.

But there will never be a road sign that reads: “Yield to global warming.” Instead, climate change disasters will happen without warning, just as they do now. Seasonally occurring storms will form as they have in the past. A few will grow into hurricanes, as usual. But in a handful of cases – and increasingly over time – the hurricanes that form will be 100 year, 500 year or 800 year events. They will drop an astonishing amount of water and cause immense damage over a geographically large region.

The reason Hurricane Harvey grew so quickly from a tropical storm to a Level 4 hurricane is that it passed over a warm water trough in the Gulf of Mexico that was 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding waters. And those Gulf waters were already about two degrees warmer than historic averages dues to global warming. (Oceans absorb solar heat more quickly than land. In the Gulf, the surface water temperature was 87 degrees.)  As a result, tropical storm Harvey was able rapidly gather both energy and moisture and become a powerful hurricane. (Please see the article recently posted by Scientific American.) In addition, warmer ocean water occupies a greater volume, increasing the likelihood of tidal surges and coastal flooding.

The quantity of water that has fallen from Harvey, up to 50 inches in some places, is almost unprecedented. (Tropical storm Claudette dropped 42 inches in 24 hours on Alvin Texas in 1979.) This incredible rainfall may also be a consequence of climate change. Warmer air holds more moisture and thus produces more rain. (The Clausius-Clapeyron equation explains the thermodynamic relationship.) In addition, heavy storms create a vicious moisture cycle: when a land surface is covered with water, it provides an additional water source for a storm. So in effect, the more it rains, the more it is likely to rain!

To get a sense of the scale of the current rainfall in Texas, consider this: 50 inches of rain translates into almost 42 feet of snow! (The U.S. record for snowfall in a single month is 32 feet in Tamarack CA. on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, in 1911.) This means that a storm of that magnitude would accumulate snow to the fourth floor of the Chicago apartment building I’m sitting in.  Transportation of any kind would be impossible and the eventual snow melt would cause devastating flooding everywhere.

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The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott denies the existence of human-caused climate change. So does the current occupant of the White House. Indeed, the president has proposed major funding cuts both for climate research and for emergency preparedness. But super-storms like Harvey (as well as Sandy and Katrina before them), have occurred despite climate-change deniers and their frequency will increase in the future. Unless we yield to the lessons of climate science and take dramatic measures to reduce the emission of global greenhouse gases (and do so fast), we are sure to suffer ever more, and ever more catastrophic flooding in the future.

Anthropocene Alliance is launched at a propitious moment.

Never before has the human role in environmental degradation been more widely acknowledged and understood. From great cities in the U.S. to small hamlets in rural China, people are discussing air and water pollution, the degradation of soils and aquifers, and especially, the looming crisis of global warming. People are poised to act.

And yet at precisely the moment when the majority of the global population has the greatest capacity to come together to face the environmental crisis, the world’s largest military and economic power has shrunk or shut down federal programs to research and limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.  The appointment of a climate change denier, Scott Pruitt as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, administration plans to cut his agency by more than 30%, and the scrapping of the Clean Power Plan (that would reduce the use of dirty, coal fired power plants) indicates the direction the current president intends to take the country for the next four years.  

Reasons for hope

Clearly, environmentalists — and everyone else who cares about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit — must feel alarm bordering on despair at recent developments. And yet we at Anthropocene Alliance believe there are reasons to feel hope. The paralysis (and worse) in Washington D.C. provides scope for climate change mitigation and reduction at the state and local level. The principle of federalism  — articulated in the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution — states that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”  In the past, this principle has been used as a shield by southern states to challenge progressive civil rights legislation. But now, it  has become a sword allowing states like New York and California to promote the use of solar power, and require increases in automobile fuel efficiency. (But even progressive CA has begun to lag in decarbonizaton, according to a recent study from the Brookings Institute).

If local communities can organize themselves in order to combat the effects of climate change, like the folks in the communities we have profiled have done; if they can get in contact with other communities in their state that are facing similar challenges; and if these collectives can stimulate the formation of other groups elsewhere in the US, then state legislation to limit the emission of greenhouse gasses and mitigate its impacts can advance quickly. At that point, climate change must inevitably be an issue to be addressed at the national level too. 

Anthropocene Alliance is committed to work to advance communication and solidarity between and among the people and communities most affected by climate change. And once folks start to talk to each other and work together, almost anything is possible — even the salvation of the planet.