There's something about vegetarianism that co-opts other causes—animal welfare, health, yogic meditation. Everyone seems to want to have a side of philosophy with dinner these days. The hottest, newest cause to be assimilated into the vegetarian-anti-industrial complex is global warming. Environmentalists and vegetarians have long maintained excellent relations, but the dawning of broader awareness about fossil fuels expended in food production and the other environmental impacts of farming have brought the two causes into an extremely cosy relationship.
And behold the strange offspring of that alliance:
The sweaty woman featured above is Heather Mills, the very-soon-to-be former Mrs. Paul McCartney. She was glamour model before she lost her lower leg in a motorcycle accident, and she recently strapped on her dancing leg and competed to excellent effect on Dancing with the Stars. She's tabloid famous, but she has put her fame to some good use: Her Adopt-a-Minefield charity campaigning deserves the high praise it has won her.
In the midst of her messy, minutely chronicled divorce—and just after her public relations rep quit and the law firm that was representing her in the divorce made the unusual decision to "fire" her as a client for being a little too chatty with the press—she has launched this bold, strange new campaign for environmental veganism.
The idea, it seems, is to convince people who bike to work, buy carbon offsets when they fly, and only exhale CO2 when they absolutely must that they're still terrible environmentalists. They simply haven't given up enough. Meat will have to go as well. And eggs. And milk.
The State of the World report focused on consumerism in 2004, and reported that "belching, flatulent livestock" are to blame for about a fifth of the world's production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, a figure that several subsequent reports more or less agree with, though usually not quite as colorfully.
Viva! director Juliet Gellatley reinforces that statistic: "Meat and dairy animals are the second biggest cause of greenhouse gases at 18 per cent compared to 13.5 per cent from all the world's different modes of transport combined."
Since the proportion of greenhouse emissions from transportation are similar to those produced by raising animals for food, the logic goes, having a burger undoes all the good of your virtuous bicycling, and not just around the waistline. Indeed, after they have made so many sacrifices, the prosthetic-wearing Mills says to meat-eating enviros:
Viva, the British group sponsoring the billboards, warns us "eating meat, fish and dairy amounts to a "Diet of Disaster," complete with histrionic capital letters. The basis of this claim is the idea that farm animals, cows in particular, are emitting greenhouse gasses at an astonishing rate, grazing on lots of land that could have been carbons sinking forests, and otherwise causing environmental havoc. But Viva is primarily a vegetarian outfit, not an environmental group—it cites environmental concerns as just one of four reasons to "go veggie." This might explain why they're not willing to publicize that there's a lot of middle ground on the issue of vegetarianism and global warming. It's not as simple as veganism versus and environmental apocalypse.
Like Viva, Mills mixes her environmental vegetarianism with other reasons to go veg. Or she tries to anyway. During a media appearance to promote the campaign at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park (a favorite spot for political pronouncements and the occasional loony rant since the late 19th century), Mills appeared in a green t-shirt touting veganism to speak to the people. She said: "There are many other kinds of milk available. Why don't we try drinking rats' milk and dogs' milk?" Mills later clarified that she meant to highlight that drinking the milk of any animal was unnatural and shouldn't be done at all, but the incredible weirdness of the campaign makes it hard to tell the distortions of the notoriously slapdash British press from the truth.
But does it really help either cause to equate part of an ordinary to drinking milk from rats? Will asking the bike-riding green to give up steak at dinner parties help him spread the word? Why this strange desire to bring together the self-denying, ascetic streak in both vegetarianism and environmentalism? Why guilt and accusations instead of good cheer?
As an antidote to Mills' cheeky but still depressing billboards and all that they represent, below is a list of a handful of the many promising possibilities for minimizing the methane output of cows in the works–including genetically altered bovines, better feeds for animals, and other technological solutions that can make possible a vast middle ground for those who like a steak, but would also like for there to be some ice left somewhere on Earth to chill the martini they're washing it down with.
There's the $53 million dollar Methane to Markets program to capture methane and use it for good and not evil, sponsored by the U.S. government.
Last month, Greenpeace suggested that kangaroo meat might make a better low-methane meat for those concerned about the effects of global warming.
In one of the tastiest mixed metaphors in recent memory, the Center for International Forestry Research addressed the land use issue that same year: "In a nutshell, cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil's Amazon rainforests." (Mmm, mincemeat in a nutshell.) But here again, it's not meat-eating per se that's the problem. It's irresponsible grazing. This is an issue that can be addressed in a variety of ways, not least is giving property rights in rainforests to responsible stewards.
This is just a sample of the neat technological fixes coming down the pipeline. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, though, and it's hard to beat the image of sweaty Heather Mills. Here is the best I can offer:
Rather than forfeiting the option of the occasional juicy hamburger in the name of saving the planet, why not buy one of these patented methane harvesters for your friendly neighborhood bovine to wear? Catches greenhouse gasses from both ends!
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.