THE LIBERAL DILEMMA

An essay by Jordan Ehrlich

Liberals.

They champion important progressive causes. They speak out against injustices, big and small. They’re extremely vocal about the drastic action needed to mitigate impending environmental disaster. In general, their passion and agenda are commendable.

Those same well-meaning liberals also pay others to brutally torture animals and decimate the planet every day on their behalf. (facts below)

When I inquire about this glaring inconsistency, I’m given a wide range of excuses wrapped in intellectual rationales and political theories that deflect blame toward the corporations they willingly give their money to or the government’s lack of meaningful regulation.

https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food

The Misguided Neoliberal Excuse

Many educated well-intentioned liberals point to the misguided plight of the conservative or neoliberal who wrongly puts the onus on the individual to fix major social problems through free market forces.

Instead, they claim that if we just elect the right leaders, appoint the right judges and pass the right legislation we can solve the very problems we create for ourselves.

They do have a point. Any large-scale systemic change would have to include a monumental top-down undertaking with sweeping legislation and massive capital investments from a cross section of global and federal entities.

But liberals who point to this hopeful notion misunderstand the scope of the global predicament we are causing for ourselves and presuppose that there’s a viable political solution to a problem of this magnitude.

Moreover, it conveniently allows them a false sense of righteousness as they continue doing the wrong thing in the perpetual meantime.

Unfortunately, the real secret is this:

Unlike any other Liberal initiative of the past or present, there is no meaningful political will to address the core problem because they don’t actually want to change their most destructive habit–a habit directly linked to increased deforestation, soil erosion, ocean dead zones, methane emissions, health issues ravaging our healthcare industry, rapidly depleting freshwater supplies, pandemics and the torture of trillions of animals.

I understand why liberals want to enact legislation to limit others from destroying the planet and harming animals.

But I don’t understand why they spend so much time and energy trying to pass laws that would effectively force themselves to stop doing what that they know to be wrong and in fundamental opposition to their own goals and long-term self-interest.

Why not stop doing it in the first place? Is it lack of knowledge? Addiction? Self defeatism? Cognitive dissonance? Or all the above?

The Straw Man Argument

Other well-intentioned liberals focus on small, seemingly important, steps to address pressing environmental concerns and alleviate animal suffering. They’ll usually say something like “every little bit helps” or “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

A quintessential example of this is the movement to ban plastic straws.

This worthy endeavor has had notable successes in various municipalities, hotels, and restaurants around the world. It also brings us right back to the essence of the Liberal Dilemma — misplaced ineffective action that avoids taking personal responsibility for the direct cause of the problem.

Here are a couple of analogies that should clarify my point:

Imagine setting your own house on fire. The house is engulfed in flames but you decide to dig a moat around your mailbox. When the fire trucks arrive you insist the moat is a small step in the right direction toward saving your house, even as you continue to pour gas on the fire. Then, instead of letting the firefighters put the fire out, you ask them to restrain you from pouring more gas on the flames.

Or for the seafaring types…

You are in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. You kick a massive hole in the side of it. The boat is quickly filling with water. With one hand you use a teaspoon to slowly empty the water out. With the other, you use a gallon-sized bucket to dump the water back in as fast as possible.

I pose these analogies to simply say, let’s not falsely believe 1 small step in the right direction negates 100 giant leaps in the wrong one.

A Straw Fact Primer

  • There are about 150 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean.
  • Straws comprise 0.025 percent of that.
  • One of the biggest sources of ocean plastic is discarded fishing nets, ropes, crates, baskets, and other fishing devices–accounting for at least 20–30 percent.
  • The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be 46 percent fishing nets.
  • Fishing nets kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of turtles, dolphins and sharks every year (an exact calculation would be “way way way more” than straws).
  • We also destroy our oceans by land. Since 1950, ocean dead zones have quadrupled to more than 550 and rising. This dramatic surge is linked to worldwide industrial animal agriculture.

So, yes, plastic straws are bad. They get caught in turtles’ noses. They disintegrate into micro-plastics eaten by birds and sea life.

But that is not what’s causing the catastrophic annihilation of sea life and the environment.

The Easy Fix

The truth is, I’m lazy and I don’t care about animals or the environment. At least I don’t want to. I really just want to watch hockey and take naps.

But my insatiable laziness combined with the sheer scale of the problem at hand has forced me to figure out how I can get the most results with the least amount of effort.

And the facts are in.

If we care about the fate of the natural world and the long-term interests of humans on earth, then the single easiest thing we can do to have the greatest positive impact on the most pressing problems we’re facing is:

Stop eating animals!

So why do 98 percent of the liberals I know continue to eat meat and dairy everyday? Simple. Because they like how it tastes and don’t want to stop. Any other reason is just an excuse. I’m sure many of you have those half-baked excuses running through your head right now as your defense mechanisms kick into high gear.

That’s not to say we aren’t up against powerful social, corporate, and governmental forces making it vital to keep fighting for meaningful legislation and competent, honest leaders. But we also can’t count on that happening any time soon. We need to be that change. It’s an annoying platitude, but it’s what’s required. We have to show our institutions that we are serious about what we claim to support, with our vote, our actions, and our dollars, every single day.

It’s great that liberals look to Greta Thunberg as a shining example of what one person can accomplish with absolute dedication. But they often overlook the fact that she understands you can’t fight for change while also being the source of the problem.

If we refuse to live by our own ideals, even when there is quite literally nothing standing in our way, then what hope do we have to create a world based on those ideals?

In closing, I leave you with this math equation that sums up the issue: 10 billion people by 2050 + eating trillions of animals a year = a problem that no amount of regulation or legislation will or can fix alone.

Just the Facts

These facts are simplified as much as possible from years of research. But it’s worth doing your own homework. The statistics are dependent of various complex factors. However, any legitimate inquiry into this topic reveals the same basic conclusion. Our current trajectory is unsustainable.

Sources: FAO-UN, World Bank, World Resource Institute, Oxford University, Johns Hopkins, NYU Environmental Studies Dept, Nestle, and a cross section of government, industry, nonprofit, and academic studies (titles and links below)

*Great charts by Our World in Data

Not Enough Land, Resources or Time

  • 7.5 billion people currently live on Earth, projected to hit 10 billion by 2050.
  • 50–90 billion farm animals slaughtered, the majority of which are tortured. This number is increasing rapidly with population and economic growth.
  • 1–2 trillion fish caught annually, 20–40% are bycatch or non target fish such as whales, sharks, dolphins and turtles.
  • 80% of all agricultural land is used for livestock (Meat, dairy and the crops to feed those animals).
  • 35% of arable land worldwide is used to grow animal feed (67% of crops grown in America is for animal feed, linked to detrimental farm subsidies).
  • “It would be impossible for a global population of 10 billion people to eat the amount of meat typical of Western diets… it would require too much land and water, and lead to unacceptable greenhouse‐gas and other pollutant emissions.” — 2019, Oxford University

The Most Inefficient Protein/Calorie Source

  • Animal protein is extremely inefficient. We typically waste upwards of 70–80% of the input resources per unit (energy, fresh water, calories, protein).
  • For example, it takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef.
  • In the U.S. alone for example, the dietary shift potential of replacing beef with a plant based alternative (i.e. legumes) amounts to ≈190 million additional people we could feed.

GHGs

  • Livestock production contributes an estimated 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic Green House Gas emissions — more than the entire transportation sector.
  • Together, the world’s top five meat and dairy corporations are now responsible for more annual greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell or BP.
  • If global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, global mean temperature rise will more than likely exceed 2° C, even with dramatic emissions reductions across non‐agricultural sectors.
  • Animal agriculture most likely accounts for even more GHGs than 14.5 percent because most of the current figures are under reported by industry and under estimated by researchers due to methodology shortcomings.

Biodiversity Issues Linked to Animal Ag

  • Sentient Beings on Earth: 60% Livestock, 36% Human, 4% Wild Mammals.
  • Deforestation: Livestock grazing and growing animal feed is the single most important driver of deforestation, with consequences for greenhouse‑gas emissions/releasing carbon stocks into the atmosphere and the rapid loss of biodiversity.
  • Key takeaway, the biggest positive impact we can have is not about eating local or “sustainable” meat, it’s about eating much less or no meat at all.

Studies Worth Reading

Energy and protein feed-to-food conversion efficiencies in the US and potential food security gains from dietary changes
A Shepon et al 2016 Environ. Res. Lett. 11 105002, Academic, multi-university, study funded by the European Research Council)

Meat: the Future series Alternative Proteins, World Economic Forum
Oxford Martin School, Oxford University 2019

Shaping the Future of Livestock, Sustainability, Responsibility, Efficiently
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2018

Emissions Impossible: How Big Meat and Dairy are Heating up the Planet
A joint study by GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2018

Feed Demand Landscape and Implications of Food-Not Feed Strategy for Food Security and Climate Change.
National Center for Biotechnology Information 2018

The Importance of Reducing Animal Product Consumption and Wasted Food in Mitigating Catastrophic Climate Change
Johns Hopkins, Center for a Livable Future, Brent Kim, MHS; Roni Neff, PhD, SM; Raychel Santo; and Juliana Vigorito, 2015

Underestimates of US Emissions and Global Implications for Industrializing Animal Agriculture
Department of Environmental Studies New York University (funded by Tiny Beam Fund), Matthew N. Hayek, 2019

Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock, A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013

Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future
World Resource Institute, 2016

Comparative Analysis of Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production Systems, Agricultural Input Efficiency, and Food Choice
Michael Clark and David Tilman 2017 Environ. Res.

Appetite for Destruction
World Wildlife Fund, 2017

CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations
Union of Concerned Scientists Citizens and Scientists for Environmental Solutions, 2008

Nestle — Various Environmental Impact Reports (most of their info is buried on their website and pulled from external sources including some of the ones included in my research. But it’s worth noting that they are at least using this data even if it’s only for their own bottom line)

Global Food Demand and the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. vol. 108, 2011

Links to Sources and Charts

https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.AGRI.K2

http://www.fao.org/3/i8384en/I8384EN.pdf

https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts

https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/feed-required-to-produce-one-kilogram-of-meat-or-dairy-product

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/protein-efficiency-of-meat-and-dairy-production

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/land-use-per-gram-of-protein-by-food-type

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6cd5/pdf

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/10/105002
https://ourworldindata.org/meat-and-seafood-production-consumption

http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/

http://www.fao.org/3/i3437e/i3437e.pdf

https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/05/insider-responding-9-common-questions-about-shifting-diets-sustainable-food-future

https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/02/greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-country-sector

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/7-things-know-about-ipcc-special-report-land-and-climate

https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-01/importance-of-reducing-animal-product-consumption-and-wasted-food-in-mitigating-catastrophic-climate-change.pdf

https://ourworldindata.org/uploads/2013/11/estimated-deforestation-by-type-of-forest-and-time-period-pre-1700-2000-fao-20120-645x422.png

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/04/world-lost-belgium-sized-area-primary-rainforests-last-year

http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_White_Paper_Alternative_Proteins.pdf

https://grain.org/e/5976

https://www.nestle.com/csv/global-initiatives/zero-environmental-impact

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57cf3049ebbd1a6e5b9f3a74/t/5e53e7dc6dd0756fb825110b/1582557151239/Myth+of+Sustainable+Intensification.pdf

https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-11/WWF_AppetiteForDestruction_Full_Report_Web_0.pdf

https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-aoc-should-go-vegan-20200223-grypb7fwkzeipfyxiyy2ylxyiu-story.html?fbclid=IwAR2OXhH842K8D5XGXFNCsgvLAGdcgr0WLRNypX1DPE23ul-t44W7qEsrv4k

Best of Charts

https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food

https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/10/105002

https://www.iatp.org/emissions-impossible

https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5976-emissions-impossible-how-big-meat-and-dairy-are-heating-up-the-planet#gallery-2

https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-01/importance-of-reducing-animal-product-consumption-and-wasted-food-in-mitigating-catastrophic-climate-change.pdf

A documentary film production company founded by Jordan Ehrlich