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Winter 2006 - Act•ionLine

by Jason Schoen | Winter 2006

Eating for Six Billion? Culinary Activism for a Healthier Planet

For most of us, it would be easiest to sit back and wait for the heads of government and industry to solve the problem of global warming. After all, making changes in our own lives would be inconvenient, the effects of global warming may not be obvious where we live, and, in any case, the impact one person can have on a worldwide problem seems minimal.

Taking responsibility for our own personal impact on the climate would, however, send a powerful message to our representatives that we as a society are not only ready for stronger greenhouse gas regulations but that we demand them.

So some people look to environmental organizations to find out what individuals should be doing to offset global warming. The standard set of recommendations includes using compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs, driving less, buying more efficient appliances or vehicles, and choosing renewable energy where possible. Of course, we should take such recommendations seriously. Nevertheless, such changes can be hard to quantify; and they may understate the magnitude of the problem global warming presents. That’s why a study conducted by University of Chicago professors Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin and published last year was especially important. The suggestion resulting from their study? Complete vegetarianism.

Eshel and Martin calculated the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from several different diets humans could adopt. They found that a completely vegetarian diet made by far the lowest contribution of these gases. Based on their analysis, Eshel and Martin found the difference between our population’s typical diet and committing to a complete vegetarian diet to be approximately the difference between driving a SUV or an average sedan. While these scientists are perhaps the first to make this striking claim, the work of other scientists too suggests that what we eat is having a significant impact on global warming.

A key study comes from James Hansen, a scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen explains the human factors in global warming in easy-to-understand terms: The gases that people have added to the atmosphere cause a heating of the Earth's surface as if two miniature 1-watt holiday bulbs had been placed over every square meter of our planet’s surface. This is equivalent to increasing the brightness of the sun by about 1 percent. If we carry on “business as usual,” Hansen has explained, greenhouse gases will increase at an accelerating rate through the 21st century.

Hansen’s “Global Warming in the 21 st Century: An Alternative Scenario” indicates the importance of focusing our attention on greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Methane, notably, accounts for half of all other relevant emissions, and its largest source is animal agriculture. The scientific consensus judges the warming potential of methane at about 21 times the effect of carbon dioxide. Given these points, a key to transcending “business as usual” would mean opting out of animal agribusiness. And that is something we can all do right now. As individuals -- and as social beings who meet and have an impact on other people in our sphere -- we really do have the power to take meaningful responsibility.

At one time, the questions to ask regarding global warming were “Is it happening?” and then “Are humans contributing to it?” and finally “Do we have to worry about its effects?” A broad scientific consensus has formed behind the view that global warming is, in significant part, being caused by human decisions and activities. According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, if we continue with “business as usual” the projections for the future include a rate of warming which, by 2100, could eliminate a majority (about 60%) of species on the planet. Today, there’s only one appropriate question: “What can we do to stop global warming?”

Deciding what to eat is something we do several times a day. It’s exciting to think that something so pleasurable is true activism.

Jason Schoen

Act•ionLine Winter 2006

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