In the two weeks since Meatless Mondays started, there has been a smorgasbord of arguments for and against: It was an executive decision that in no way represents student preferences. But it can really help to reduce the campus’s environmental footprint. Meat is an important part of a healthy diet. No, meat increases your risk of chronic diseases. Supporting small, local livestock farms is a good thing. But animals have rights too. And so on and so forth.
Here is an unappealing argument that is rarely offered: perhaps we don’t even have a right to eat meat. As distasteful as the conclusion seems, the case is stronger than you might think.
The planet is home to 7.7 billion people. Almost 80 percent of the population lives on less than ten dollars a day, and nearly half lives on less than two dollars and fifty cents a day. Eventually they hope to attain the standard of living that we enjoy in the developed world. Except they can’t. If everyone had the same lifestyle Americans have, we would need five earths to provide for humanity’s food and energy needs. The planet could not handle our waste production, much less the damage caused by climate change, environmental toxification, species extinction, and ocean acidification, to name a few of the most daunting problems.
The uncomfortable fact is that we in America and we on this campus are taking more than our fair share of the planet’s resources. Some environmentalists have called on us to reduce our consumption by roughly 80 percent in order to achieve an equitable, fair level of consumption by Americans relative to Earth’s capacity. Here is where meat comes in. Scientists tell us that cutting out meat and dairy products is probably the single biggest thing we can do to lower our ecological footprints. The main problem with our current lifestyles is the overall level of consumption, of which meat is just a part. But the point remains that if we have to reduce our consumption by 80 percent, eliminating meat consumption is a positive first step. Easier, at least, than giving up our phones and heating.
This particular ethical argument is, quite frankly, pretty depressing, and the most common response to it is simply avoidance. But when critics do engage with it directly, they typically make two standard replies: the environmental crisis is so huge that a) our individual actions won’t make much of a difference overall; and b) we will have to rely on new technology to solve the environmental crisis anyway, so individual actions will not matter much. Unfortunately, neither reply is very convincing after a little thought.
It’s perfectly true that our individual efforts are going to make almost no difference in the grand scheme of things -- although added up over a lifetime, they may have a larger effect than you might think. But that doesn’t absolve our responsibility to reduce consumption. Your individual vote makes effectively no difference to the outcome of an election, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a duty to vote. The fact that your individual effort isn’t, by itself, enough to bring about the solution doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the right thing to do.
It may also be true that the environmental crisis is so huge that we will need advanced technology to deal with it. But the fact is that there isn’t such technology available, and there’s no warranted reason to expect it will exist in the near future. In the meantime, our consumption is only making the problem worse. The question is, in the absence of such technology what is the right thing to do now? The answer is not too difficult. It is important to understand that nobody is perfect, and issuing blame is neither helpful nor fair. But it is also important to understand that there are serious moral reasons for giving up meat, and they are worth considering. At the very least, you’ll find some food for thought.