4.2 The Root Cause


Since AIT focused on the symptom, it identified the fossil fuels that we burn to drive our industrial civilization as the root cause of our predicament. But if the core problem is truly the extinction of Life, then the root cause is human behavior, our Caterpillar culture, specifically our culture of violence towards Nature, our neglect, abuse and consumption of Life and our thoughtless meddling with the biosphere of the planet. And climate change due to our fossil fuel burning is still a small part of the reason for the carnage around us, though a growing one. If we truly viewed Life on Earth as precious, to be preserved and celebrated for our own enlightened self-interest since no other planet in our galactic neighborhood has good life-support systems even if we managed to get there en masse, we wouldn’t be so mistreating Life as we do now. Sri Aurobindo, the famous 20th century Indian philosopher, said, “Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test, consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy – animals. And in this respect, humankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”

We don’t have to be experts in paleo-climatology or in the computer simulation of fluid dynamics to understand the non-sustainability of our mistreatment of Life. Just simple arithmetic would do. In a letter to Mr. Gore that I wrote with a few of my Climate Project colleagues, we explained, “The 2006 United Nations FAO report, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow[26],’ estimated that humans use nearly one-third of the ice-free land area of the planet, or nearly twelve billion acres, for livestock production. According to many scholars, such as Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University, just over one-fourth of humanity consumes most of these livestock products[27]. To put that number in perspective, the Global Biodiversity Assessment of 1995[28] estimated that the Earth can sustainably support just one billion human beings at American levels of consumption.” We concluded that the enormous footprint of humans on Life through our consumption of meat and other animal products is an Elephant in the Room that needed to be addressed in our presentations, especially to American audiences. Nevertheless, in an interview with the host Larry King on Cable News Network (CNN), Mr. Gore went on to publicly admit that he continues to eat meat, because he “likes the taste[29].”

Later, I was attending a speech by Jim Hansen, the eminent climate scientist from NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies at the Chabot Space Center in Oakland, CA. His speech was arranged as part of his book tour to introduce “Storms of my Grandchildren[30],” an expertly crafted case for action on climate change mitigation. Dr. Hansen’s reason for writing this book was that his grandchildren might otherwise say that “While Opa knew that climate change was serious, he didn’t do anything about it.” However, during the Q&A session after his talk, Dr. Hansen also admitted that he continues to eat beef and other meats.

What is troubling about these admissions is that it is now widely known that the embodied energy that is used in the animal agriculture systems of the planet far exceeds the energy used for transportation and even for the heating and cooling of buildings. Animal agriculture is the modern practice of raising animals as if they were mono-cultured crops, in vast factories, to be slaughtered and used as commodities for human consumption.

In general, any time we defy Nature and replace native ecosystems with mono-cultured crops, we pay a price by creating an imbalance in the Earth’s carbon cycle for one simple reason: native ecosystems are known to maximize the carbon stored on land, the carbon sequestration, in any given region[31]. Further, this imbalance gets amplified by an order of magnitude when we replace native ecosystems with animal agriculture where we feed the factory-grown animals with mono-cultured crops such as corn and soybeans, for most of what we feed the animals turns into just manure. Ultimately, climate change is a direct consequence of the imbalance we’re creating in the carbon cycle through human activities, where we’re essentially transferring naturally sequestered, land-based, carbon into the atmosphere in the form of gaseous carbon such as CO2 or methane, thereby amplifying the greenhouse effect.

We got an inkling of the impact of animal agriculture when the UN published its Livestock and Climate Change report in 2006, where the livestock sector was calculated to be contributing 50% more greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than the entire transportation sector of the world (12%). Later, in 2009, two World Resources Institute (WRI) scientists, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, pointed out that the 2006 UN report failed to take into account the carbon cycle imbalances caused by the conversion of forests to livestock pasture lands. They came up with an estimate that the livestock sector was responsible for 51% of world greenhouse gas emissions[32] but their calculations based on the breathing contribution of livestock were not widely accepted. However, in 2010[33], Prof. Danny Harvey of the University of Toronto in Canada, building upon the thesis work of Stefan Wirsenius from the Goteborg University in Sweden from 2000[34], calculated that the average human being is consuming more energy in food than in fuel and shelter combined, when we take into account the embedded plant-based energy input to the animal agriculture systems. And the main reason is that animal agriculture is so inefficient that, on an average, it requires 100 Joules of embedded plant-based energy to produce less than 4 Joules worth of animal foods such as eggs, dairy and meat for human consumption.

But if such simple arithmetic is hard to grasp for eminent scientists and thought leaders, should anyone be surprised that a substantial segment of the American public is being duped over the complexities of climate science by a well funded campaign of deception? Besides we don’t really have to convert all the ice-free land on earth to livestock production and eat up all the fish in the ocean before triggering ecosystems collapses; perhaps, our current consumption and pollution level itself is sufficient to trigger such collapses as the species extinction rate is already 100-1000 times the background rate. Just as cancer doesn’t have to consume all the organs in the human body before the human dies. When ecosystems collapse, they most certainly transfer their sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, thus creating a reinforcing feedback through climate change.

The trouble is that we view other life-forms to be inferior to us and to be dominated over and this has become a routine part of our industrial, Caterpillar culture. We don’t even think about it, but just do it. The biologist Richard Dawkins once wrote[35], “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command.” In that one sentence, he captured the fundamental axiom of the culture of industrial civilization, that of domination over and separation from Nature.

Domination over Nature is a fundamental axiom in the culture of modern industrial civilization that drives the separation from Nature as it is not possible to dominate something without becoming alienated from it. And our “Domination” over Nature is absurd, considering how powerless we are in the face of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other calamities. However, with our superior tools and technologies, we certainly have the prowess to dominate over other species, to capture, imprison and kill them at will, to commit a Holocaust on them.

The Nazis attempted to eradicate the “lesser people” of the planet. My generation is blindly eradicating the “lesser species” of the planet. History has not been kind to the Nazis or to the silent witnesses of the Nazi holocaust. History will most likely not be kind to my generation either even though it is merely continuing the inherited practices of previous generations, but with exponentially growing potency.

But it is hard to become aware of the holocaust when we are in the midst of it. It isn’t just the factory farms and the slaughterhouses that we studiously ignore during our supermarket purchases that constitute the holocaust. We also pour pesticides to protect our crops, which cause insects to die as intended, but which also cause birds to die that fed on these insects and which cause fish to die when the pesticides run off into the streams and rivers. We use fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides on our farms and on our lawns to improve monoculture crop yields, but that deadens the soil and leaches poison into our environment. We ingest and excrete pharmaceuticals and pour other industrial and household chemicals into the environment so that most of our fresh water bodies are polluted and bereft of complex Life. As a result, we have to carefully treat our fresh water sources before drinking the water. A common water treatment system for human consumption is “a multi-step process involving micron pre-filtration, reverse osmosis separation, double ultraviolet sterilization and post carbon polish,” to quote from the side of the vending machine that supplies our drinking water at home. But who is supplying such multi-step processed water to wildlife? Is wildlife not susceptible to cancer and other diseases that we’re trying to avoid among the human population with our water treatment processes? I know that animals can contract cancer as our older dog, Midnight, is suffering from a terminal version of it at the moment. I also know that this is a common occurrence since there are more pet oncologists than human oncologists in our vicinity.

Nevertheless, as Jeremy Rifkin has pointed out repeatedly, not one of the 192 world leaders meeting at the UN nor Mr. Gore has highlighted our mistreatment of Life, even though it is one of the leading causes of climate change, well ahead of fossil-fuel use for transportation. It has been left to Mr. Rifkin and out-of-the-box thinkers such as the Professor from Harvard, Edward O. Wilson writing about biodiversity loss[36], or the journalist from NY Times, Mark Bittman, writing about the Western world’s addiction to meat[37], to prod humanity to ponder in that direction. As Mr. Rifkin said, “How serious are we, if we don’t even talk about meat consumption[38]?”

But denial is a standard response to addictions.


[26] UN Report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 2006. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

[27] D. Pimentel and M. Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Sep. 2003. http://www.ajcn.org/content/78/3/660S.full

[28] Vernon Heywood, Ed., “Global Biodiversity Assessment,” 1995. http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item5708206/?site_locale=en_GB

[29] Al Gore, “Interview with Larry King,” 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_n8FXcJ1mtM

[30] James Hansen, “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity,” Bloomsbury, Dec. 2009. http://www.amazon.com/Storms-My-Grandchildren-Catastrophe-Humanity/dp/1608192008

[31] C. Milesi et al., “Climate Variability, Vegetation Productivity and People at Risk,” Global and Planetary Change, 2005. http://secure.ntsg.umt.edu/publications/2005/MHRN05/milesi_et_al_GPC_2005.pdf

[32] Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change are Cows, Pigs and Chicken,” Nov. 2009. http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

[33] See Chapter 7 in L. D. Danny Harvey, “Energy and the New Reality 1: Energy Efficiency and the Demand for Energy Services,” Routledge, 2010. http://www.amazon.com/Energy-New-Reality-Efficiency-Services/dp/1849710724

[34] Stefan Wirsenius, “Human Use of Land and Organic Materials: Modeling the Turnover of Biomass in the Global Food System,” Chalmers University of Technology and Goteborg University, 2000. http://www.chalmers.se/ee/EN/personnel/wirsenius-stefan/downloadFile/attachedFile_f0/Doctoral_Thesis?nocache=1306401934.49

[35] The quote is from the book by Richard Dawkins, “A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love,” Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt, 2003. http://www.amazon.com/Devils-Chaplain-Reflections-Hope-Science/dp/0618335404

[36] Edward O. WIlson interview at UNESCO, “The Loss of Biodiversity is a Tragedy,” http://www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/single-view/news/edward_o_wilson_the_loss_of_biodiversity_is_a_tragedy/

[37] Mark Bittman, “Hooked on Meat,” NY Times Opinionator, May 31, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/meat-why-bother/

[38] Jeremy Rifkin, “On Global Issues and Future of the Planet,” Interview with Een Vandaag, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9wM-p8wTq4 

4.1 The Core Problem
4.3 The Way Forward
Sailesh Rao
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