We Won The Oxford Union Debate

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it” – Nelson Mandela.

 

Share Vega’s message about animal agriculture and climate change.
Share Vega’s message about Food Healers.

Dear Climate Healers,

We won the Oxford Union debate on the proposition, “This House Would Go Vegan” by a margin of 112-84. At a venue where reason generally prevails, our factual case for the proposition on environmental, health and ethical grounds won over the emotional case made for the opposition on traditional and cultural grounds.

This is a critical step in making progress on the grassroots front towards a thriving future.

We intend to leverage this win and do the rounds of universities and institutions around the world to overcome the systemic obstacles found at the UN and other mainstream institutions. As COP28 in Dubai illustrates, with the meat and dairy industry in full force promoting their unsustainable products as sustainable nutrition while the organizers make back room fossil fuel deals while touting projected progress on future emissions, we must lead, not follow, the political class to solve our global ecological crisis.

The Oxford Union event began with a guided tour of the historic buildings in Frewin Court. We posed for group photos with the members of the Oxford Union, similar to the group photos with Mother Theresa and Albert Einstein hanging in the gallery.

The dinner that followed was 100% vegan and even those speaking for the opposition were served the same vegan dishes. The rationale was that the Vegans were in an overwhelming majority at the dinner table. For once, the shoe was on the other foot, when normally, the Vegans make do with salad and boiled vegetables, while the majority feasts on animal foods.

The debate began with the President of the Oxford Union, Disha Hegde, making the case for the proposition and introducing the speakers for the opposition. Then the President-Elect of the Oxford Union, Hannah Edwards, spoke first for the opposition and introduced the speakers for the proposition. Then each of us spoke, alternating between the proposition and the opposition, making the environmental, health and ethical case for going Vegan or not, in that order.

News articles on the debate with more details can be found here and here. The videos of the debate are expected to be uploaded on the Oxford Union Youtube channel by the end of the month. Meanwhile, here’s the complete text of the debate speech I made on the environmental case for the House to go Vegan, with references for all the facts used in the speech. I’m especially indebted to Glen Merzer, Carl LeBlond, Ken and Alison Hamje, Paul Papin and Mythili Rao for all the help in writing this speech:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my privilege to speak at a venue where, 200 years ago, you began rebelling against false orthodoxy [1]. Today, I want to rebel with you against false orthodoxy by speaking on bovine matters.

I mean, of course, cows. Yes, there is a Cow in the Room and not everyone can see it. I hope that by the end of the debate eyes will be opened.

The orthodoxy, the herd opinion if you like, is that animal agriculture has little to do with climate change. I believe that is very wrong.

I believe that based on data. I am an environmentalist by occupation, but a systems engineer by profession. Systems is what I do. I invented the protocol for transforming early analog internet connections to more robust digital connections, while accelerating their speed ten-fold. Still today, any data accessed on the internet likely passed through a device implementing this protocol.

I plead that this House rebel once again by voting for the proposition, “This House Would Go Vegan.”

Veganism is defined as a “philosophy and way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose [2].”

The proposition asks that this House Go Vegan, not Be Vegan, implying that this is a journey, not a destination. I highly recommend this journey on ethical, health and environmental grounds.

I will now focus on the environmental reasons to Go Vegan.

It is undeniable that human civilization has adversely impacted life-support systems on the planet. Scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries that we must stay within for the sustainability of life on earth. At the moment, we have transgressed six of them [3] and any one of these transgressions could end life as we know it.

The good news is that when we Go Vegan, we help resolve all six of them. That’s the power we have as individuals to reverse our existential crisis.

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of ecological destruction because it uses 37% of the ice-free land area of the planet just to graze animals [4], while bottom trawling an area of the ocean floor the size of South America every year for industrial fishing [5].

Animal agriculture is the only major activity in which we destroy forests and replace them, not with other trees for timber or paper, but with grass, which drastically reduces the diversity of life that the land can support.

Animal agriculture is the primary reason why humans have reduced the number of trees on the planet by half, from 6 trillion to 3 trillion, over the past 10,000 years [6]. Restoring those 3 trillion trees can draw down enough carbon to completely reverse climate change.

Animal agriculture is grossly inefficient because animals must eat 39 pounds of plants to produce one pound of human food, on average [7], a burden which the world can no longer afford.

By going Vegan, we can give nearly 40% of the ice-free land area of the planet, as well as the entire ocean, back to nature.

When we restore the native ecosystems on that land, we can grow most of the 3 trillion trees that we cut down over the past 10,000 years. This helps resolve all six planetary-boundary transgressions.

The least violated transgression is fresh-water change. Rewilding the land that is currently used for grazing animals will restore the fresh-water cycles of the planet.

The next is land-system change. Going vegan will allow us to return nearly 40% of the land area of the planet back to nature, resolving this planetary-boundary transgression.

The next worst transgression is climate change, which can be resolved when the excess carbon in the atmosphere is absorbed in the trees and soil that we can restore to the ecosystems of the planet.

The next is chemical pollution, which would be safely stored away in regenerating forests when we Go Vegan. Eating animal foods currently delivers concentrated doses of this chemical pollution into our bodies through bioaccumulation. Therefore, going Vegan addresses chemical pollution for both the Earth and ourselves.

The next worst transgression is nitrogen and phosphorus loading, mainly through our overuse of synthetic fertilizers for crops. Since over half the crop outputs are fed to farmed animals, going Vegan will resolve this transgression as well.

All of these transgressions impact wildlife, and biodiversity loss is the worst of the six planetary-boundary transgressions.

By restoring habitats for wild animals and allowing them to live freely in the ocean, we will resolve this transgression as well. If instead, we let wild animals die, we die. It is that serious.

There are two explanations for perhaps the gravest threat ever posed to civilization – and all life on earth: – the imminent danger of runaway climate change [8].

One explanation–the one we hear about all the time from our leading climate spokespeople–is the burning of fossil fuels. It is certainly true that the burning of fossil fuels contributes greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, thereby warming the planet.

But the other explanation – what I call the Cow in the Room—is rarely addressed.

The human folly of exploiting animals that is animal agriculture.

When these two sources of greenhouse gasses are compared in the media, fossil-fuel burning is always emphasized, and is almost always assigned the greater responsibility for warming the planet.

But the opposite is true. When you factor in the potential carbon absorption of the forest land cleared for animal agriculture, you find, with any honest accounting –as I published in a peer-reviewed paper –that animal agriculture is responsible for at least 87% of greenhouse gasses on an annual basis [9].

When I made that calculation, I did not include the respiration of farmed animals. I did not include the bottom trawling of the oceans by industrial fishing. I did not include the carbon released by pasture-maintenance fires set annually on grazing lands around the world. I did not include the loss of phytoplankton populations and sea forests due to industrial fishing.

I did not include those factors mainly because they haven’t been reliably assessed due to a futile attempt by the orthodoxy to hide the Cow in the Room. But it seems clear to me that if we could estimate these factors and include them in the calculation, we would find that animal agriculture is responsible for – wait for it – well over 100% of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Now that sounds unbelievable. How could it possibly be responsible for more than 100%? Because the evidence points to the possibility that the earth will start cooling in a Vegan world even if we continue to conduct all our other activities as we do today.

The cessation of animal agriculture will result in healthy oceans, healthy forests and healthy soils, and if we want to reverse climate change, then we must adopt a strategy that can draw down greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. Healthy oceans and sea forests can do that. Healthy soils and trees can do that. Solar panels and electric cars cannot.

Now, I am not a supporter of the fossil-fuel industry–far from it. It is my engineering assessment that we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels gradually. But we burn fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes, to transport ourselves, to manufacture goods, to ship goods. These are all social goods.

What social good comes from animal agriculture? Nothing. Only obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, biodiversity destruction, soil depletion, fouling of our waterways, antibiotic resistance, dangerous and dehumanizing work, animal cruelty, climate catastrophe, world hunger and let’s not forget pandemics. Indeed, there is nothing that will not improve when we end the cruelty and folly of exploiting animals.

I have just given you the intellectual reasons to Go Vegan, but lasting change comes not from the head, but from the heart. In that regard, I have made a pinky promise to our granddaughter, Kimaya, that the world will go largely Vegan by 2026, which is the year we will have killed almost all the wild animals if we don’t change course.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am confident that true to your 200-year tradition of rebelling against false orthodoxy, this House will once again break away from the herd, see the Cow in the Room and vote for the proposition to help our generation keep this sacred promise for all the children of the world.

Thank you for your consideration, from the bottom of my heart!
_____________________________________________________________________

References

[1]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HJetz7S0m4

[2]. https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history

[3]. Richardson, et al., “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries”, Science Advances, Vol 9 Issue 37, 2023. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adh2458

[4]. IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse gas fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Aug 2019 (see bar chart C on Page 4) https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/Fullreport-1.pdf

[5]. L. Watling, E. A. Norse, “Disturbance of the seabed by mobile fishing gear: A comparison to forest clearcutting,” Conservation Biology, vol 12, no 6, Dec 1998, pp. 1180-1197 https://marine-conservation.org/archive/mcbi/Watling_&_Norse_1998.pdf

[6]. Crowther, T.W., et. al., Mapping Tree Density at a Global Scale, Nature 525, Sep 2015, pp. 201-205. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14967

[7]. Smith P., M. Bustamante, H. Ahammad, H. Clark, H. Dong, E.A. Elsiddig, H. Haberl, R. Harper, J. House, M. Jafari, O. Masera, C. Mbow, N. H. Ravindranath, C. W. Rice, C. Robledo Abad, A. Romanovskaya, F. Sperling, and F. Tubiello, 2014: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA (see Chapter 11, Fig 11.9, page 836). https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter11.pdf

[8]. McKay, et al. “Exceeding 1.5C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points,” Science Vol 377, Issue 6611, 2022 DOI: 10.1126/science.abn79 https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abn7950

[9]. Rao, S. K., “Animal Agriculture is the Leading Cause of Climate Change: A Position Paper,” Journal of Ecological Society, vol 32-33, pp. 155-167, 2021. https://www.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.54081/JES.027/13.”

With much love,
Sailesh on behalf of the Climate Healers Core team.
(Akhil, Alison, Anne, Bill, BJ, Carl, Chip, Dakota, Deborah, Debra, Gabriele, Giva, Jamen, Kelly, Ken, Kimaya, Krish, Lisa, Liz, Maggie, Marco, Paige, Pareen, Paul, Ray, Sailesh, Sarah, Shankar, Stacey, Suzanne, Tami and Vega, the Cow and Climate Healer)

 

Healing the Planet as a Global Infrastructure Upgrade Project
UN COP28 Will Go Nowhere. Will the Oxford Union Go Vegan?
Sailesh Rao
srao@climatehealers.org
7 Comments
  • Judy Bernstein
    Posted at 16:03h, 07 December Reply

    Wonderful! Congratulations! Vegan is the way – we just have to keep opening minds and hearts. Thank you!

  • Charlie Behrens
    Posted at 17:27h, 07 December Reply

    Congratulations! And kudos on such a well prepared argument! The depth and breadth of your points are powerful and enlightening for all who are in doubt about why our planet needs us to end animal agriculture.
    Your comparison of social goods coming from the fossil-fuel industry vs 13 devastating negatives from animal agriculture is absolutely brilliant!

  • Rajesh Raman
    Posted at 17:28h, 07 December Reply

    So amazing, Sailesh!
    You’ve presented some staggering data.

    Yes, we must see the cow in the room, sooner the better.

  • Katelijne Van Look
    Posted at 01:05h, 08 December Reply

    Brilliant!
    Thanks for your loving persistence!!!
    World Vegan, World Peace WILL BE!

  • Rebecca Allen
    Posted at 02:55h, 08 December Reply

    That is such an excellent easy to follow speech. Thank you for your excellence and perseverance.

  • Bill Glover
    Posted at 22:45h, 11 December Reply

    “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.” Ghandhi

  • Ray Kowalchuk
    Posted at 21:48h, 31 December Reply

    It is fascinating to me that vegans are accused of being irrational and sentimental and too emotional to assess the place of animals in “our world.” Yet it comes time to debate whether we should go vegan and those against respond with sentimentalism of familiar menus, emotional appeal to conformity, and ad hominem attempts to distract from a vegan opposition who present facts and logic to which they haven’t even prepared in the slightest.

    As a street activist I’ve always marvelled that the most frequent opposition we encounter is hollering “MMMM BACON!” out of a truck that peels out in retreat. Is that the bravest “counterpoint” on offer? Now that the time has come for a proper debate and the smugness of carnism STILL arrives with all bluster and no footnotes?

    The video from the debate is now published!
    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLr4MdA7NxDBI7MJgC7AbjWX4b4CGu9c8l

    My Numici notations and comments
    https://app.numici.com/l/gZpwIi

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