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Jon Coifman’s Blog

Hummers vs. Hummus

Jon Coifman

Posted August 29, 2007

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picture of a jarDon't be alarmed on your way to work if the Hummer in the next lane is being driven by a chicken. Two animal rights groups have launched high-visibility campaigns arguing that eating meat causes more global warming pollution than your friendly neighborhood SUV.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will put a person in a pullet outfit behind the wheel of one of the famous guzzlers and send it on the road to the White House, among other places, for a global warming conference later next month. The Humane Society of the United States, PETA and other groups are also making the case in a series of ads.

In addition, PETA is threatening to take the caravan to the doorsteps of major environmental groups that don't get with the program (thought what precisely they want green groups to do isn't clear).

It is a very clever campaign that is going to get a lot of ink. The story was the most e-mailed story on the New York Times website today. But it might be a little too clever for its own good.

The question shouldn't be hybrids versus hummus. They're both important parts of the puzzle. But setting up a false choice may very well undermine progress on both fronts.

There's no question that our dietary choices have major environmental implications — from overfishing tuna to overgrazing the West to the rivers of chemicals that keep much of modern agriculture afloat. Runoff from appalling factory animal farms is an ongoing ecological disaster in communities all around the country.

And don't forget the heat-trapping carbon dioxide released clearing forest for pasture, or the supercharged greenhouse chemical methyl bromide, which is used to wipe out naturally occurring microbes in the soil so that we can grow eerily huge strawberries and tomatoes.

The problem with putting gas on par with geese is that it creates even more confusion about global warming at precisely the time when so many business and political leaders are turning the corner in response to growing public pressure.

And just as they're running out of excuses, the campaigns give polluters, cynics and ideologues a brand new pretext to keep right on guzzling gas and pumping out emissions. You can hear it now: "It's not my fault; blame old Wilbur here."

Rush Limbaugh, eat your heart out. And enjoy that steak while you're at it.

No doubt the campaign will succeed in moving a few green-spirits the next step into the vegetarian column. And that's a fine thing. Meanwhile, millions of others will take away a message that insulating their home or buying a cleaner, more efficient vehicle is a waste of time so long as Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders or Mister Greenjeans are still in business.

This matters.

It matters because for many perfectly decent people, good environmental stewardship is still a lot like eating right or getting enough exercise. We all know it's the right thing to do. But it doesn't take much of an excuse before the right thing goes right out the window in favor of that second helping.

If there are two gaping holes in the roof, it would be pretty foolish to waste time during the rainstorm arguing about which leak is more important. Fix them both, and do it together. Instead of moving forward based on ostensibly common objectives, these inflamatory new media campaigns force potential allies into shortsighted polemic. That is an unfortunate choice. 

We should all be on the same side of the global warming challenge, not taking the wind out of each other's sails.

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ChrisAug 30 2007 09:14 AM

I had a number of conversations on this subject yesterday, and I remain convinced the environmental community needs to stay far, far away from the message about eating meat and global warming. All it's going to do is give people another reason to think the environmental community, not to mention PETA and company, is completely out of touch with mainstream America.

This campaign is only going to alienate people -- and prevent them from listening to us on issues we actually stand a chance of getting them to adopt.

Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, I'll drive my car less and make other accomodations for global warming, but anyone who wants me to give up my steak and pork chops is someone I'm going to have no use for.

Jon CoifmanAug 30 2007 11:38 AM

Broad sections of the public have come to view Environmentalism as an elitist, orthodox caste who turn up their noses at casual adherents. Perfection alone is seen by many as the price of admission, so they do bother knocking.

The reputation is not altogether unwarranted. But we’ve made huge progress over the last few years in opening the doors to newcomers who may not walk and talk the same way, but who cherish the same core objectives. That's one reason for the sudden boom in all things 'green'.

People need to enter on their own terms if we want them to stick around once the Earth Day issue of Vogue or Popular Mechanics has gone to the recycling pile.

Exclusivity is not a virtue.

Marisa Miller WolfsonAug 30 2007 02:56 PM

Interesting timing. Yesterday ABC News wrote a story about how 11 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 have given up meat products, according to the American Dietetic Association.

Full story here:

Seems to me that the veg message is not so "out of touch with mainstream America." This is our youth, who are a huge and crucial demographic we should be promoting our environmental message to.

Damon R PorterAug 31 2007 05:47 AM

Girls ages 13 to 17 (a four year period), are hardly a "huge" demographic in America, let alone 11 percent of them. As someone who didn't leave that age group more than a few years ago, I do recall how easily fads swept the population. Regardless, even 11% of the entire population would not be anywhere near a majority (a greater percentage of males are probably homosexual, and no one considers them a majority), and the basic response to this PETA campaign is that it's stupid, not for trying to make some people vegetarians, but for basically giving people the choice of 'be green, or eat meat,' when it is very, VERY easy to be both.

If people are given those two options as their ONLY choices, very, very few people will be willing to give up a major part of their diet. Even those of us who respect vegetarians are well aware of the effort and expense it takes for an omnivore to be a vegetarian and stay healthy (just look at the UN report that PETA has quoted for this campaign--it RECOMMENDS eating meat). By ignoring the fact that most of the global warming and environmental effects of eating meat come from the processes used by the industry, and blaming the act of eating meat itself, PETA is actively damaging the far broader and more important case working against global warming in order to promote their own, much smaller and more idealistic agenda.

Ian WilkerAug 31 2007 09:02 AM

Do a search for blog posts related to the NYT article, and you'll see two things: first, an avalanche from global-warming deniers who are thrilled by the PETA ampaign; second, a lot of confusion about the source of global warming pollution.

Nice goin', PETA!

Jon CoifmanAug 31 2007 10:50 AM

The issue I meant to raise here isn't vegetarianism. There are lots of very good reasons that people decide that's the way to go...personal, political, environmental, ethical. And of course modern agribusiness practices, whether animal or vegetable, crate an endless set of environmental tradeoffs and challenges.

But as Wilker notes above, the problem with this campaign is that for all it's flash, it does a poor job of getting at those things. Instead what we have is fodder for the deniers and confusion for everyone else.

There are better ways to skin this carrot.

Marshall KirkpatrickAug 31 2007 12:23 PM

"it is very, VERY easy to be both [a meat eater and green]" - oh really? I wouldn't call it easy at all, it's expensive for one thing to buy socially responsible meat instead of mass marketed environmentally devastating garbage from factory farms. I do it myself, but I'd hardly call it easy.

Also, remember that these are living beings being processed through factory farms - there's more at stake than ecological impacts and PR, there's incomprehensible suffering as well.

Anyone care to discuss the economic class dimensions of this campaign by PETA? I'm sure it's loaded in that way too. Gender's never been their strong point at all, either. Point is, this is a much more complicated issue than is fairly responded to by saying "shut up about meat, we're focused on a single issue here!" imho

Jon CoifmanAug 31 2007 12:26 PM

Marshall is correct that this is not a blanc and white issue, which is precisely the beef (or beet) I have with the PETA campaign.

Marisa Miller WolfsonAug 31 2007 01:25 PM

I agree that it's not a good idea to be exclusive, perfectionistic, or all-or-nothing in our approaches and our tactics. And an adversarial approach is hardly helpful for building coalitions and moving forward.

However, I have to wonder why the environmental community hasn't actively promoted a shift to a more plant-based lifestyle as a means of fighting global warming? It never even comes up in climate change discussions.

Much of what I hearing from our community about what to do in our in day-to-day lives to lessen our GHG emissions is "change lightbulbs" and "buy a hybrid."

I will tell you that eating less meat is a lot easier than buying CFLs or hybrids. People can jump on the CFL bandwagon but where are these lightbulbs in every neighborhood? Where are they readily accessible for people every day? Can most people afford to ditch their cars and buy hybrids? Should they even? Plant foods are in EVERY GROCERY STORE.

This shift requires no new technology and no new science. It's a matter of informing people, and it's a matter of stopping gov. subsidies to factory farms so that the market reflects the true cost of food.

As for what constitutes a huge demographic, I wasn't referred to the 11% of female teens who are veg. I'm saying our youth is moving in a direction that is way more veg-friendly than our older demographics. So why are we ignoring that? According to recent polling, PETA is the no.1 nonprofit that teens want to work for.

And finally, on what page in the UN FAO report do they recommend eating meat as a way of fighting environmental destruction? On page 276 in the conclusion, they list "the tendency towards vegetarianism" as "a reason for optimism that the conflicting demands for animal products and environmental services can be reconciled."

DanAug 31 2007 04:00 PM

I agree with much of what Marisa wrote.

I don't think that the animal advocacy groups' point is that we should only focus on meat and ignore the rest. Maybe PETA is but they're not the only animal group around.

These groups just want people to give diet the same attention as transportation, since they are both responsible for greenhouse gas emmissions and pollution. Eating less meat is something everybody can do, it's certainly not "elitist" given how much cheaper tofu and beans are than both free-range and conventional beef, pork and lamb. As a vegetarian, I'm sure my grocery bill is signicantly less than most meat eaters.

So we shouldn't bring up the connection between livestock/methane/greenhouse gas emmissions/deforestation/factory-farming at all because it confuses people?? This is important information and I think it needs to get out there. People can reduce greenhouse gases by eating less, or no, meat. What's so confusing about that?? People don't buy hybrids or light bulbs everyday but they do eat everyday.

I don't agree with saying we should focus on one tactic instead of another- we should focus on both-I agree with you there Jon, but we shouldn't ignore this role livestock plays in climate change just because some (though not all) environmental groups are sqeemish about the topic of meat.

AndreaAug 31 2007 04:08 PM

Jon, I think you're over-reacting. I don't think any car exec in Detroit is going to say, "Well now I know that cows and sheep are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emmission, we should just forget about raising our MPG standard".

Chris- can't you even consider eating less of your steak and pork chops to help the environment?? I do have to question your devotion to the cause if you can't even consider slighly switching your diet. I don't blame the animal groups for urging people to go vegetarian. When you're bargaining, you always ask for more. Maybe not everybody concerned about global warming will go vegetarian, but now they know the connection between meat and climage change, some will make an effort to eat less meat. And that will make a difference.

Jon CoifmanAug 31 2007 07:26 PM

First off, thanks all of you for a lively discussion.

I will also say that this issue has definitely been getting more attention around here, and I think you will start to see more of it coming through in our work. Not, perhaps, with emphatic stridency you might get elsewhere, though.

NRDC’s forte has always been policy, and that has probably shaped the way we’ve come at the underlying questions. “Deforestation” winds up being the doorway rather than the dinner plate. Also, lots of the embodied emissions in the meat diet comes from the energy inputs in fuel, fertilizer and transport back and forth on the chain production. That’s stuff we’ve been going after from other angles as well, because it happens to be what we do well.

The lifestyle/personal choices angle on all this is comparatively new here. To those who will point out our support of hybrid cars, I would say that has been sort of a natural outgrowth of our policy focus on gas mileage. The compact fluorescent light bulbs, on the other hand, has just sort of happened.

That said, it’s probably not wrong to say that we could have been thinking about this all a little bit harder, and a little bit earlier.

Are my views on the PETA *campaign* an overreaction? I don’t think so at all. They are based on a dozen years immersed in the challenges of communicating about global warming in particular, and the environment in general.

At a mass-market level, this kind of thing really is corrosive. I can tell you from looking at lots and lots and lots of research that confusion, disempowerment and inertia are the big drivers behind people not being more active and engaged in fixing the problem. Anything that adds to that, as this particular campaign most definitely does, is a bad thing in the grand scheme.

The end of the world? A permanent setback? No.

But I’ll still argue that it does more harm than good.

Ariel NesselSep 9 2007 02:52 AM

If the NRDC, Sierra Club, Al Gore and various other environmental groups had not been consistently omitting the benefit to the planet of replacing a meat-based diet with a plant-based diet (for the purported reason of not confusing people about how they can slow down global warming), PETA never would have utilized this tactic. The animal rights community has, for years, been pestering these groups to speak truthfully about how destructive our societies taste for meat is on water quality, deforestation, air quality and global warming. Instead, while nearly ½ of our water is consumed for meat/dairy production and the majority of all U.S. industrial water pollution comes from these industries, a vegetarian diet doesn’t get even a mention (and if it does, it is in the footnotes, after not flushing when you pee).

PETA staffers frequently state that two half vegetarians are as good as one full vegetarian for animals (and I suppose the same for the environment). That concept too radical for NRDC to try to promote? The best most environmental groups can come up with, which has just been added to the NRDC’s website, is that we consider replacing one meat-based meal with each week with a plant-based meal. Wow, let's not set our expectations too high for the most zealous environmentalists. Thats like asking people to drive one less day per month to stop the onslaught of global warming. What, according to my very unscientific calculations, that will give us 4% more time until the glaciers melt?

Someone once told me if you shoot for moon, you hit the top of the fence, and if you aim for the top of the fence, you never leave the ground. I think the NRDC can aim higher than the low wheat (~70% of which is used to feed animals used to feed us). Maybe we should not try to confuse people about how they can reduce their ecological footprint by telling them to drive less or drive a more fuel efficient vehicle, as this may prevent them from installing that new compact fluorescent light bulb?


An Invitation to PETA on September 11, 2007 10:00 AM
NRDC hasn’t been visited by any chickens driving hummers, but we did get a letter from PETA earlier this summer asking about our policies regarding global warming and factory farming and vegetarianism. Our response to PETA just went out the...

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