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Looking for our Keys in the Dark

Posted by tinako on September 17, 2011

There’s an old joke: One man is walking down a dark street and comes across another man on his hands and knees under a streetlight.  “What are you doing, friend?” he asks, and the other man answers, “Looking for my keys.”  “Oh,” says the first man, beginning to help him look, “did you lose them here?”  “No,” answers the other man, “I lost them over there, but the light is better here.”

I was thinking of this joke this morning as I walked around a “Live Green” festival after having tabled at a vegetarian society booth for a few hours.  The single most important thing people can do for the environment is change to a plant-based diet, but because no one wants to do that or thinks anyone else will, we fill our festival with recycled-magazine wallets.   Out of about 80 booths, one (ours) was devoted to changing diet.  The other 79 were for solar energy, insulation, electric cars, native herbs, and maple syrup.  There was a booth devoted to a device which will strip the paper label off your cans before you recycle them, because the recycling company just burns them on the can.  To repeat, the same number of booths promoted a can label remover as a plant-based diet.

I stopped by a booth promoting cooling our city’s greenhouse gas emissions, basically trying to get people to be more environmentally responsible.  I was a bit glum at the prospect of being nagged about driving, and she seemed put off by my discouragement, by my disinterest in discussing my laundry-drying habits (line-dry, by the way).  I must admit that it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine to be told by a non-vegan how I could become more environmentally responsible; I do a lot of other stuff, I just feel like those things are dwarfed by my choice of diet.  I picked up the book they were selling, Low Carbon Diet; despite its encouraging title I found a similar ratio: one page about actual diet and 75 pages about various things that will all have much less impact on the environment than what we choose to eat.

To put this into perspective, the U.N. estimates that livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases, which is more than all transportation.  A more recent study suggests it’s 51%.  But both the festival and the book devoted about 1% of their attention to reducing livestock.

Why are vegetarians the only ones seriously talking about reducing animal consumption?  Why are environmentalists reducing the most important thing people can do for the environment to a footnote?  If the answer is that changing our diet is too difficult, either for them or for the people they’re trying to convince, then aren’t they looking for their keys under the light?  The key isn’t there!  The answer isn’t there either, and as good as it feels, we can’t solve our environmental problems by pestering each other about hemp grocery bags while we continue to consume more meat per capita than any other country besides Uruguay.  Making computer chips into earrings for people who already have too many may be the low-hanging fruit, but diet is the enormous watermelon lurking in the back of the garden.  It occurred to me that the logical way to make the most difference is to stop eating most animal products, and then gently promote this to others to magnify the effect.  That’s what I do, and as much as I’d like to get involved with other environmental organizations, both local and national, I find I can’t get excited about suggesting fluorescent light bulbs to people eating too much meat, and the organizations’ diet myopia makes me tear my hair out.

I don’t mean to belittle these other efforts, I really don’t.  They are an important part of the picture.  It does help to recycle can labels.  But to invest so heavily in them while ignoring our best chance at saving our planet is beyond foolish.  It’s reckless.

For two hours this morning, I stood “in the dark” and invited people to taste free vegan samples, and if they wanted to, chat about meat’s effect on the environment.  My goal was to make it seem less strange or unreasonable.  Eating less meat and suggesting it to others may not be the easy place to look, but it’s where the keys are.

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