Vegetarians co-opt the green movement
By: Christina Jelly
NBC's "Green is Universal" campaign, launched Monday, features a week of the network's programs incorporating environmental messages into its usual repertoire - or in NBC's words, "green-themed programming aimed at entertaining, informing and empowering Americans to lead greener lives."
The promotion is more commercial gimmick than noble concern for our planet, yet such acknowledgement of our shared responsibility to promote environmental sustainability is no less necessary. Useful tips include taking shorter showers or refraining from paper and plastic cup use in favor of reusable mugs - all green pointers hopefully familiar to most Americans.
Yet one surprising NBC green tip was to go vegetarian at least once a week as a means of cutting water and fuel usage. The harmful environmental impact of a heavy meat-based American diet may not be groundbreaking news, but the willingness of such a large network to integrate vegetarianism into their green message is surprising - and, with any luck, heralds more widespread approval of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.
Vegetarians and vegans are sometimes stereotyped as missionary-like zealots when it comes to converting the masses to their own, abstemious ways of life. Citing the cruelty of farming practices or the inherent vice of killing to satisfy our own gastronomic caprices, veggie activists are never short of justifications for their morally superior diets.
As a result, many Americans express either contempt or scorn toward the herbivore minority (only about five percent of the country's population is vegetarian) for its avid and ubiquitous advocacy, often equating members to pie-throwing, research-animal-releasing PETA fanatics. The tactful slogans "Save a Cow, Eat a Vegetarian" or "If animals weren't meant to be eaten, then why are they made out of meat?" emblazoned on T-shirts and pickup trucks delicately hint at underlying derision.
Yet most vegetarians and vegans, even those in PETA, aren't extremists. Not all of us are impassioned and incensed enough to launch Peter Singer-derived diatribes about the ethical offenses of exploiting and eating other animals in hopes of swapping your ostensibly depraved, omnivorous diet with our own enlightened regimen.
Such principle-based argumentation is likely to fail with the mainstream American who eats meat because it's natural for humans, as the privileged species, or it just tastes too good. Argue all you want, but convincing a steak-and-burger gourmand of the merits of meat asceticism will meet with mockery and a slew of daft counterarguments.
That's why it's so smart for vegetarians to penetrate the pervasive green movement. Carnivores, indifferent to the interests of animals, may be stirred by the environmental consequences of the meat industry. For example, according to the Audubon Society, 70 percent of grain grown and 50 percent of the water consumed in the U.S. is used by livestock production. Livestock require more land and energy than growing vegetarian foods, and the industry generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined, according to a United Nations report. Restricting your meat consumption can effectively mitigate your carbon footprint more than switching from a Humvee to a hybrid.
At the same time, a Cornell study showed that "modest carnivorousness may actually be better for the environment than outright vegetarianism, since cattle can graze on inferior land not suitable for crops." Current studies may conflict, but the essential message both omnivores and herbivores can agree on is that minimizing our consumption of meat is a practical way to aid the environment, especially because our demand, the global demand for meat, is growing - American per capita meat consumption has risen by 40 percent in the last 40 years, and China's has doubled in the past 10.
Manipulating global warning hysteria to curb meat consumption may be an opportunist move by the vegetarian and vegan communities, but it is the only scheme with a fighting chance of convincing most people of the value of vegetarianism. Giving up meat is not only a conscientious attempt to save animals or improve health but also a way to feel good about saving the planet - which makes you wonder why more environmental campaigns have not similarly advocated vegetarian or moderated meat diets.
Christina Jelly is a senior majoring in biochemistry and philosophy.