Rewriting the Conversation

Missing the Mark
by D. R. Hildebrand

In the December 10th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for the magazine, discusses an observation by the British economist Arthur Pigou that “private investments often impose costs on other people.”  As an example of this, Kolbert describes a drunk man stumbling out of a bar (a private investment) and an officer who then arrests him (the taxpayers’ burden).  She goes on to consider a much greater private investment, and a much greater public expense: pollution and a carbon tax.  “Such a tax would be imposed not just on gasoline,” Kolbert writes, “but on fossil fuels—from the coal used to generate electricity to the diesel used to run tractors—so it would affect the price of nearly everything, including food and manufactured goods.”

The New Yorker often publishes commentaries and articles that address global warming.  Oddly, it nearly as often publishes stories glorifying animal agriculture and the consumption of meat.  Just one week before Kolbert’s piece on Pigou and the rationale for carbon taxing, the magazine ran its annual Food Issue.  These are the topics it covered:

  • Wolvesmouth, a young, underground restaurateur in Los Angeles who serves anything from rabbit to roasted pig’s head
  • Eating out in Oaxaca, Mexico, with ramblings on pork, beef, grasshoppers, duck adobo, dried maguey worms, and double-boiled deer penis
  • Trout, with the author stating, “I had never before felt vegetarian scruples, yet they were aroused by the butchering of a creature with such clear eyes, so recently alive and blissful in its element.  I asked my prey for forgiveness.”
  • The story of a boy returning to the farm in Pakistan where he was raised, and, at the age of eight, received his first gun, which the author explains, “finally put me on the way to hunting game—deer in the nearby desert, duck on the ponds . . .”
  • Sausage-making
  • The perfect Manhattan
  • Parisian bread, including discussions on salted butter, soft-boiled eggs, and melted cheese
  • A bachelor’s repertoire of cheeseburgers, fries, and Lean Cuisine glazed-chicken dinners
  • An Israeli chef who lives in London and prepares a medley of grains and vegetables, and just as many dead animals
  • Bear-skinning in Wyoming

New Yorker Dec 3_10

Politically, The New Yorker is unabashedly liberal.  Culturally, however, it is esoteric and elitist and it takes pride in civilizing modern man’s return to savagery, even while going out of its way to inspect any other possible cause of environmental devastation.  This Al Gore-like enthusiasm for changing light bulbs and recycling newspapers, while categorically ignoring the disaster that led to one’s dinner, appears to be a growing trend—never mind the inconsistencies.

We need to rewrite the conversation.  We need to highlight not what matters to us individually, be it animal suffering or the like, but what will get the greatest number of people to listen.  Readers of The New Yorker already understand Pigou’s hypothesis and already comprehend Kolbert’s concern: they see the effects of global warming and the dollar signs connected to it.  This means something to them, so they listen.  Yet what do suffering animals mean to them?

Omnivorous friends of mine often create distinctions between things they consider “rational” and things they consider “emotional.”  It is rational, they say, to end human suffering; it is emotional, however, to attempt the same for animals.  It is rational to respond to starvation, war, disease, global warming, “the stuff that actually matters,” but it is emotional to even ponder the animals who live and die each day in equally tragic misery.  Just recognizing the fact that humans inflict so much pain on so many creatures for so little reason is an emotional strain few wish to endure, so they dismiss it as “irrational” and carry on.

Yet we can draw their attention back, and we can do so without compromising our objectives.  When we hear people talking, for example, about a lack of clean drinking water, vast starvation, the wars now waged over finite resources, we should mention that 50% of clean water and 80% of grains in the U.S. are given to animals destined to be slaughtered, and we should ask, casually, which might feed more people: the flesh of a single being or the total lifetime of water and food she consumes?  And when we hear conjecture over the origins of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other preventable illnesses, we should recommend books like The China Study and films such as Forks Over Knives that articulate the benefits of a whole-foods, Water Pollutionplant-based diet, and we should ask, in earnest, which is the wiser: for our government to subsidize the industries that make us most sick—dairy, meat, and egg—or those that keep us well?  And when others talk about pollution and global warming, realities that are now impossible to deny, we must mention, with grace, the 35,000 miles of rivers contaminated by the urine and feces of countless animals who are fattened simply to be killed; the millions of acres of annual deforestation, solely to plant more crops for more animals for more death; the exploding quantities of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide that the tens of billions of slaughter-bound animals emit into the atmosphere day after day, and we should ask, as innocently as possible, which might cause less destruction: consuming animals, or consuming plants?

None of this is to say we should abandon the element of animal suffering from our discussions, for it is real and it is abhorrent and there will always be someone who is moved by it.  We will, however, reach more people when we focus on the issues that matter most to them, like hunger, and disease, and natural disasters.  It we address them with Pigou’s ideas of public cost in mind we will, over time, see more responses like Kolbert’s, and come that much closer to achieving our goals.


I designed this as the first ad in a series about the impact of animal-based textiles on the environment. It’s a bit of a reality check for the eco-fashion crowd. See below for the sources on these facts.

Many people understandably ask, “Ok, I get not wanting to sell fur or leather, but what’s wrong with wool? Isn’t it just a haircut?

Answer: I wish! Momma nature led many animals to evolve in the perfect design when it comes to staying warm and dry in the elements, so it’s no surprise that humans who lack that body-hair want to wear it themselves. Many consider wool sustainable because it’s a ‘natural’ product. But, shockingly, wool production is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, land erosion, and animal cruelty:

From an ecological and ethical perspective, I hope this provides some clarity as to Brave GentleMan’s and others’ desire to avoid using any wool for any reason.

Blinded by the Lite-Green it shock you to find out that even if we all adopted the No-Impact-Man lifestyle and created zero waste, and we even convinced our local businesses to recycle we’d only, at the most, impact waste by 3% ? What if you discovered that 90% of all water used was coming from agriculture and industry and that taking longer showers really has minimal effects on water consumption? I tell you one thing, I’d shift my focus from turning the water off while I brushed my teeth to stopping the largest offenders. Any strategist would tell us the same thing: when it comes to saving the environment from “ourselves”, a lot of us are wasting our good intentions on a misguided idea that it is truly ourselves (individual “consumers”) who are ultimately responsible for these problems. Ideas and films like No Impact Man shift focus away from the real causes of global environmental crisis and allow industry and government to slide by, unnoticed.

The truth is so much scarier, and it’s easy to see why we have retreated to personal solutions; it’s easier to change a light-bulb than bring a multinational corporation or the military to its knees. So in the end, while we can all pat ourselves on the back from a puritanical perspective, many of us are just running around doing a lot of nothing under the impression we’ve used our time and energy wisely. I was so offended when I first looked into this. I didn’t want to believe that all that effort I made in my personal lifestyle choices were ultimately having very little impact on the problem at large. I didn’t want to admit that my efforts would be better leveraged in other areas.

Lite Green is the most mainstream, most digestible, and most corporate-friendly incarnation of the environmental movement (if you even want to call it that). Bright Green, with celeb advocates like Adrian Grenier, proclaim that, sure, you can drive your H2 through the McDonald’s drive-through, so long as you remember to bring your canvas bag and reusable coffee mug. It’s the movement that allows us to believe the contradiction that we can buy our way out of the hugest crises we face. Bright Green is so bright it’s blinding people to the real problems. In his August 2009 article for Orion Magazine, “Forget Shorter Showers” Author, Derrick Jensen asks:

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

The values of conserving, reusing, and protecting what’s left are amazing, but if we are to solve the ecological and social problems we face, they must be brought their their logical conclusions. This is not a call to stop caring or to stop living simply with more compassion – it’s a call to shift focus away from what industry wants us to focus on – buying more stuff that’s labeled “green” and filling our days with behavioral rules. Let’s not confuse personal choices and social change or political revolution. Let’s start with reclaiming our time and energy and shifting our focus to the real problems, getting together, and doing something about it.