In Brazil and throughout South America, rainforest fires are burning, filling the skies with smoke, creating public health issues, destroying ecosystems and killing millions of animals. Seeking ‘prosperity’ and ‘economic growth’, and accusing ‘international leftist’ environmentalists of deliberately lighting the fires, the Brazilian Bolsonaro Government resists pressure to manage deforestation and land clearance. Fire has long been a feature of Amazonian destruction, driven partly by farming expansion, in turn by international demand for meat, but this year the rate of clearance and the number of fires has apparently increased. There are comparisons made about the response to the blaze that razed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which invoked billions of dollars of donations and expressions of sympathy, whereas the response to the Amazon on fire has been more muted, people complain.
The Amazon rainforest on fire certainly creates a dramatic spectre. The lungs of the planet! But the fires there are symbolic of a greater catastrophe and a wider driver of environmental damage the world over. Because after all, the forests of South America, are just what’s left of a global inheritance squandered after deforestation of much of the rest of the world. Most of the forest ‘lungs of the planet’ have already been burned, chain sawed and bulldozed. A recent Australian report found that the beef industry is linked to 94% of land clearing in catchments of Australia’s endangered Great Barrier Reef. In New Zealand two thirds of our original forest cover has been removed, much of it now intensively farmed for animal products – dairy, beef and sheep. Today’s Amazon fires are from extensions of farming, while intensive animal agriculture in the rest of the world, on land already cleared, contributes to 30-40% of greenhouse gas emissions. Added to this are nitrate loadings on fresh water bodies, public health impacts, and animal welfare abuses.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently issued a new report making the link between animal agriculture and climate change. Esteemed writers and scientists across the world are emphasising the point that we cannot sustain a growing population while managing climate change and biodiversity with current diets based on animal protein, especially feed for and products of cattle and sheep.
So surely here’s a role for the current mass movement for ecological action, Extinction Rebellion. However, Extinction Rebellion isn’t about “trying to change the world” according to posts on its New Zealand Facebook page this week. It is campaigning with triple demands that Governments must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency; they must act now to halt biodiversity losses and reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions to net zero by 2025; and must create and be led by a Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice. But because of its contribution to climate change, deforestation, desertification, freshwater depletion and pollution, and biodiversity loss, industrial agriculture should be in the spotlight of Extinction Rebellion’s call to Government and civil action. Animal agriculture is the elephant in the room regarding the climate change and biodiversity crisis.
Indeed, Extinction Rebellion calls for systemic change – expecting the Governments to lead based on their declarations of climate emergency. But neo-liberal governments focus more on market-rule and individual agency and less on regulation, particularly of primary production sectors. Government says people themselves must do more. The result is symbolic gesture, shouting into the void – hollow support for declarations of climate and biodiversity emergencies while business as usual continues to pollute rivers and skies and poison the biosphere.
Attempts to link individual consumption habits with wider ecological impacts through discussion on the implications of meat-based diets within the Extinction Rebellion movement, let alone within wider society, are fraught. ‘Extinction Rebellion isn’t about ‘animal welfare, animal rights, veganism or vegetarianism’ and ‘those debates are too polarising and would divide the movement”. ‘Veganism and vegetarianism are outside the scope of the climate and ecological emergency’ some say. But others say that Extinction Rebellion focuses on the end results of the current system, and the way we treat animals as commodities, is part of the toxic system that must be addressed.
Meanwhile other Extinction ‘rebels’ – assumedly devoted meat-eaters, say that vegan or vegetarian arguments are closed-minded, binary and quasi-religious, threatening Extinction Rebellion’s unity of movement. I’m reminded of a recent Facebook meme that suggested those who eat animals are normal, those who kill dogs are animal abusers, and those who do neither are extremists. When eating animals is so normalised that we are too scared to talk about consumption change to save the planet and its inhabitants, even while we’re talking about how to save the planet and its inhabitants, we will struggle to get very far at all.
Silence over the damage done by animal agriculture might be a tactic for unity within a movement, but it’s a problematic strategy. Enter ‘Animal Rebellion’, an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, focusing on the impacts of animal farming on climate change, biodiversity loss and animal welfare and rights. Animal Rebellion activists seek to develop a mass volunteer movement using non-violent civil disobedience to end the animal agriculture and fishing industries, to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of climate breakdown and social collapse. They plan to mobilise 10,000 animal advocates in October for sit-ins and road-blocks including blockades of meat markets.
Obviously, many people love to eat meat. The same way they love to drive powerful cars and take long haul flights for holidays in the sun. But we can’t expect Governments to take meaningful action, for the status quo to change, for an end to extinction and climate crisis if we keep doing what we’ve always done. It’s the increase in eating resource intensive and extensive meat diets, in flying and driving on a whim, that’s created the crisis to begin with. The self-justified pursuit of self-interest (self-indulgence?), on grand scale is what’s got us into this mess in the first place. By reducing our meat eating, our flying, our driving, we can put our concerns for global impacts into local practice. By exercising individual restraint, we can have collective impacts. By reducing our ecological footprints with every meal and every trip, we can be, and signal to Governments and industry, the change we want to see in the world. By being prudent and conservative with our own consumption, we take tactical and strategic action, more meaningful than any declaration could ever be. We don’t need to proselytise about the end of the world or proclaim that Governments need to declare, as much as we all need to practice. That way, our personal health, the lives of animals, of future generations, and of the planet, will all be enhanced. We are what we eat, and the personal is political. And if we’re serious about rebelling against extinction, to be consistent, our actions should entail rebelling against the impacts of intensive and extensive animal agriculture, and should start on our plate.