The Meat Moderates


Underlying all complexity is a deep simplicity,” Murray Gell-Mann.

Nearly two years ago, Keith Akers convincingly showed in a must-read article that a mass transition to veganism greatly simplifies the task of mitigating climate change. Indeed, a 2010 UN report found that a mass transition to veganism is vital to save the world from hunger and fuel poverty, in addition to the worst impacts of climate change. The mathematics of deforestation makes that very clear since we’re gobbling up a Florida-sized area of tropical forests every two years, mainly to satiate our ever-increasing global meat and dairy consumption.

As Luiz Antonio’s video shows, it is not children who are the impediments to this mass transition to veganism. It’s the adults. And at the moment, it is not the adults who are avid meat eaters, the Sarah Palin types, who have vowed to give up their steaks over their cold dead bodies. It’s actually the adults who care deeply about the environmental legacy that we are leaving our children and have already taken some steps towards veganism, but are stuck at some moderate levels of meat, dairy and other animal food consumption and are finding it difficult to go any further. It is these “Meat Moderates” who are the key to make this mass transition truly happen.

For unless the Meat Moderates abandon their plateaued positions and switch over to veganism, the vegan revolution will not occur and the deforestation of the Amazon and the Congo will continue apace. Just as the civil rights revolution could not occur fifty years ago until the White Moderates showed up at the Washington Mall and supported civil rights whole-heartedly. This is precisely why the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that impassioned letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, 50 years ago:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., excerpt from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail cell.

Moderation is never a valid response to injustice. And make no mistake about it, there are grave injustices lurking in the continued deforestation of the tropical forests of the world. I’m not talking about new-fangled concepts like Polly Higgins’ eco-justice, but old-fashioned justice concerning the rights of indigenous people to have the freedom to pursue their lives without being forcibly relocated to the slums of Rio and Kinshasa as their forest homes get burnt down to make room for cattle grazing or GMO soy cropping to feed livestock. As a Native American Elder said to me recently,

We will not achieve sustainability until the White Man reconciles and makes peace with the indigenous peoples of the world.

His words hit home to me personally as our amazing granddaughter, Kimaya, is one-quarter Native American. Besides, surely, for our world to reach stability with plenty of forests to nurture life, indigenous forest cultures must peacefully coexist with the global industrial culture in a state of conviviality and mutual respect. Thus that Elder was absolutely right! And when it comes to justice, the time to redress grievances is always right now.

On an individual level, moderation is never a valid response to addictions either. This is why there are no organized smoking moderation programs, but only smoking cessation programs. And from a neuro-chemical point of view, animal foods like meat, fish and cheese are indeed addictive substances. But unlike alcohol, tobacco or drug addictions where the victims are ruining their own health and perhaps the well-being of those around them, our mass addiction to animal foods has planetary scale consequences in addition to personal health consequences and it is therefore, a much more ruinous addiction. And the worst part is that most of us were involuntarily forced into this addiction when we were children.

(As an aside, I’ve had considerable experience with addictions in the family and I’ve found that the right way to deal with them is not through shame or guilt, but through direct, clear-headed reconciliation with the personal barriers to resolve those addictions. As mere mortals, we’re all conditioned to some behavior or the other and when such behavior turns out to be harmful to us, we depend on each other to help change those behaviors. Show me an adult who’s not addicted to anything, who makes fresh decisions with childlike wonder at every moment in life, and I’ll show you the Buddha, the Enlightened One!)

Meat Moderation takes many forms, each with its unique justifications, but all serving to perpetuate the continuing injustice towards indigenous cultures and future generations as well as to perpetuate the personal addiction.

There are Meat Moderates who participate in Meatless Mondays and refrain from eating animal foods one day a week. Unfortunately, the majority of them seem to be  overcompensating for their “sacrifice” during the remaining days of the week.

There are Meat Moderates, like Mark Bittman, who are “vegan” before 6pm, but eat animal foods at night. Unfortunately, being a mere mortal, Mark Bittman cheats before 6pm as well.

There are Meat Moderates who are tireless champions of compassion, like the Dalai Lama or Karen Armstrong, but who exclude food animals from their circle of compassion. Unfortunately, that goes against the very essence of Buddhist teachings, which emphasize personal sacrifice:

Compassion and universal responsibility require a commitment to personal sacrifice and the neglect of egotistical desires. Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” HH the Dalai Lama

There are Meat Moderates like Bill McKibben who eat grass-fed, locally-grown beef, while admitting that this high impact choice would be “sustainable” if only the world’s population was fewer. Unfortunately, there is no way to engineer the necessary reduction in world population without draconian measures.

There are Meat Moderates like renowned climate scientist, Jim Hansen, who justify their consumption of meats by pointing out that they are actively pursuing other environmental goals such as the elimination of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this is putting the cart before the horse.

There are Meat Moderates who subscribe to various forms of selective vegetarianism, such as pesce-vegetarianism, lacto-vegetarianism, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, etc. These are still plateaued perches that require the exploitation of animals, thus making it seem “normal” and “necessary” for others to eat these animals and thereby facilitating the continued injustice towards indigenous cultures. Besides, unfortunately, lacto-vegetarianism is the primary reason for the destruction of forests leading to acute poverty among the indigenous forest communities of India as well as the primary reason for the miserable plight of the Bengal tiger.

Ultimately, the healing of our planet is truly underway only when the forests of the world recover and life in the ocean begins to rebound. And unfortunately, I haven’t seen a single form of Meat Moderation that can be plausibly shown to accomplish that. The trouble with plateauing at intermediate steps is that it continues to project the consumption of animal foods to be very desirable, something for all 7 billion people to aspire towards. Such projection will not lead to any reduction in our global meat consumption and will therefore, continue our oppression of the indigenous peoples of the world. But, why would we want to oppress indigenous people for six days a week or after 6pm every day? These intermediate steps are fine if they are an organized pathway to eventual veganism, but Mark Bittman, for instance, has been “Vegan Before 6 (VB6)” for 6 years!

Fortunately, right there in 3 year old Luiz Antonio’s beautifully simple reasoning, lies the key to many sustainability problems that we, adults, have been trying to address with very complex solutions.

It is Veganism. And we have to help the Meat Moderates tip over to it.



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