Practical Issues > Health - Index > Planet
Vegetarianism and the Environment

[Grist Magazine - opinion]

Just 'cause I love poking the hornet's nest, I thought I'd weigh in on this brouhaha about PETA, vegetarianism, and environmentalism. As I see it, there are three core questions:

1. Should citizens of conscience become vegetarians?

To me, the answer to this question is pretty obviously yes. I don't see how it can be seriously argued.

Depending on your inclinations, you can heed the health arguments, the moral arguments, or the environmental arguments (regardless whether you agree with the UN study that meat production is the No. 1 contributor to global warming, it is obviously a very large contributor, never mind CAFOs' horrid effects on land, air, and water). Taken together, these arguments strike me as dispositive. It is not possible to participate in industrial animal farming with clean hands.
2. Is it true that you cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist?

This is a deeply silly question. The term "environmentalist" is socially contingent and highly contested. Environmentalism has no metaphysical essence. "You aren't an environmentalist" is moral judgment masquerading as an assertion of fact.

Every discussion I've ever witnessed about who is or isn't an environmentalist, or what does or doesn't count as environmentalism -- and believe me, at this point I've seen plenty -- contains vastly more heat than light. Feelings are hurt, umbrage is taken, but nothing is ever learned, no consensus is ever reached. It's a peacock show through which everyone parades their biases and preconceptions.
3. Is PETA's latest campaign counterproductive?

It's important when thinking about this question to disentangle your own response to the campaign from the question of its overall efficacy. I'll freely admit it bugs the crap out of me. Proclaiming who is and isn't an environmentalist bugs me. Using Al Gore as a foil bugs me. Using global warming opportunistically, as a convenient wedge, bugs me. The whole thing is irksome.

However, the campaign isn't designed to secure my moral or aesthetic approval, or yours. It's designed to spread awareness of something you and I already know: that eating meat is environmentally destructive and exacerbates global warming. A sober, fair-minded, carefully argued campaign would not achieve that goal. It would sink without a ripple.
As annoying as it is, I count the campaign a success, because of the hundreds of advocacy campaigns going on right now, this is the one we noticed. That's what PETA set out to achieve, and they achieved it.

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