PRIHODA: Putting responsibility for climate change onto our own plates

How to do good for the environment when recycling, voting and calling aren’t enough

It officially started with the disappearance of information about climate change from federal websites. Then, President Trump barred the Environmental Protection Agency from publishing studies or data prior to review by his notoriously anti-environment political appointees. As journalist/activist Naomi Klein points out, the resistance to environmentally-friendly policy is not in fact, actual disbelief in the science, but rather a deep-seated fear of the inevitable change in markets that would necessarily come with environmentally responsible policy. One of the world’s leading climatologists, Professor Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, has called for a “rebellion” by scientists against Donald Trump – but of course, climate change is not just a scientist’s issue; it is everybody’s issue. Though writing letters, calling our representatives, and protesting are legitimate ways of influencing how policy is shaped, we must recognize our power as consumers in shaping the future of our world.

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to exercise this power approximately three times a day when we sit down (or grab something) to eat.

While turning off the faucet while we brush our teeth, going out of our way to separate recycling and compost, or even opting for a used/hybrid car over a gas-guzzler, the lifestyle changes recommended to consumers to reduce their ecological footprint seem either insignificant or few and far between. Recently, our dietary habits have come under increasing scrutiny. In January this year, Forbes stepped out and made the following statement: the best thing we can do as individuals to combat climate change is to “become a vegetarian, or better yet a vegan”.

Let’s look at the logic behind this statement: If you trace the origins of any animal-based calorie, it is far more resource-intensive than the average plant-based calorie. Consider that animal-based foods require first and foremost the bodies of animals, and like our own, animal bodies require a lot of maintenance resources and produce quite a bit of waste.

Animals need food and water to survive – and these food crops require land and plenty of water themselves. This being said, animal agriculture is extremely land-intensive. Unfortunately some of the cheapest agricultural land in the world is where it is also most precious: the leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feed crops. According to a variety of sources, animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction as well.

Then, of course, animals produce waste – in fact, animals in agriculture produce 130x more waste than humans do in the US. Perhaps the most damning part of this industry’s impact on our planet is its direct contribution to global warming. Animal agriculture is responsible for anywhere from 14.5-51% of all greenhouse gas emissions (this figure has varied depending on whether the CO2 from animal respiration is taken into account, the effects of methane near and long-term, etc). Regardless of where the exact number is pegged, this is more than the emissions than for the entire transportation industry, which is 14% according to the EPA.

This piece is not intended as an endorsement of the role of capital as a means to change the world, but rather as a call to recognize that our buying choices (or lack of choices) often make us complicit in exploitation. That is, exploitation not only of the environment, but also of animals and of workers on factory farms who face one of the most dangerous and psychologically damaging jobs on the market.

The choices we make do matter, and our food choices take up the majority of consumer decisions we make. Changing dietary habits is certainly a challenge given that food is such a social staple for many of us. However, rather than an obstacle, I like to think of plant-based eating as a passive act of service to the environment and those most immediately harmed by animal agriculture. Public knowledge of the adverse effects of animal agriculture is always expanding, so time is only ever ripening for the occasion to invite friends to a vegan meal. When done together, going plant-based can easily be seen as a way of committing to something both self-sustaining and positive for the world beyond ourselves.

Luckily it is now easier than ever to opt for plant-based options. My Vanderbilt-area favorites are Two Boots, Chipotle, Satay, and Mellow Mushroom; if you’re looking for something a little more formal there’s AVO and The Wild Cow. Some great options around campus are the Tofu Bahn Mi at Bamboo Bistro, the Nashville Hot Tofu at Grins, and Bowls at Rand. There are plenty of options scattered throughout campus and the wider Nashville community and information about all things plant-based is available online.

As a closing note, we must keep in mind that being more responsible consumers is not about personal purity. You don’t have to be a vegan, or even a vegetarian to do better for the environment. However, as people with the privilege of going to a university like Vanderbilt (and the mandate of a meal plan for many of us), we must do what we can to mitigate the damage we inadvertently cause and chose to eat plant-based more often. Doing good in a democracy with such an emphasis on the power of the dollar puts our social responsibilities beyond the usual call of civic duty – we also have a consumer duty.

Christina Prihoda is a senior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at christina.e.prihoda@vanderbilt.edu

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