Happy Cows and Pink Elephants

Happy Cows and Pink Elephants are on my mind. After last month's encounter with Al Gore and the Pink Elephant of animal agriculture that he's largely ignoring in his climate change slide show, I've been bombarded with emailed reverberations from the "Happy Cow" column that Nicholas Kristof wrote in the NY Times on Sunday.

Perhaps, Colleen Patrick-Gourdreau responded to Mr. Kristof the best: "It would be funny - if it weren't so sad - to continually witness how desperately we try to paint a happy picture of what is inherently violent and utterly unnecessary. Exploit females' reproductive systems and breed them at our will, but look! They're happy! Take away their babies, but look! They're happy! Take the milk of the females and kill them when they're no longer "profitable," but look! They're happy! Your attempt to demonstrate that this is the best we can do still fails. The nutrients we need are plant-based; we get calcium from cows' milk because they eat calcium-rich greens. We can stop going through the "middle cow" and go directly to the source ourselves: calcium-rich greens. And we skip the saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, animal protein, and lactose, which we're not supposed to be consuming into adulthood anyway! We're supposed to be weaned - just like the calves get weaned - and move onto solid foods. We don't drink our own human milk into adulthood, and we - just like every other animal on the planet - have NO physiological need for human OR non-human milk once we're weaned. When we stop trying to go backwards and actually move forwards, we'll stop seeing desperate attempts to make the ugly palatable. I look forward to that day."

I look forward to that day as well. And when that day comes, we will have saved the environment and reversed climate change, while incidentally addressing world poverty, ending animal suffering and becoming a more enlightened human society. I dream of that day often and know that it will come soon so that our granddaughter, Kimaya, has a thriving future on this planet. But I also know that this won't happen through feel-good, growth-oriented measures on a finite planet.

"Happy cows" are marketing tools for the animal agriculture industry whose only purpose is to grow, Grow and GROW! Make no mistake that anything the animal agriculture industry supports is oriented towards growth. They are never going to support anything that will make them shrink and in that, they are no different from any other industry or corporation. The technical argument against "Happy" cow style welfarism is the larger context of planetary destruction and animal suffering as we go beyond the seemingly happily harvested animals and consider the collateral damage that occurs when we destroy forests and habitats.

The most massive social experimentation in "Happy cow" animal welfarism is India, where for the majority of people, cows are sacred. Though meat eating is on the rise in India, as a nation, India is still one of the lowest per-capita consumers of meat in the world, and that’s not all due to poverty. Even Mukesh Ambani, who built himself and his five family members a two-billion dollar home in the middle of Mumbai, is a lacto-vegetarian. As an aside, this is the man who can prove mathematically that the carrying capacity of the planet, much less India, is strictly less than 50.6 million people in the world he envisions. For if just 100,000 rich folks built houses like his, they would exhaust the 200 Trillion dollar wealth of the planet. Counting 500 "servants" for each home like he employs and the 6 people who are "masters," we reach a grand total of 50.6 million people in 100,000 such homes, with nothing left for other life forms or to maintain and run these homes. Therefore, the carrying capacity of the planet is upper bounded by 50.6M people - QED.

This is the lifeless world that Mr. Ambani envisions for Kimaya through his actions and intentions, with around 100,000 Easter Island style monuments to human hubris and deathly silence everywhere. This is the world that we're intending to co-create when we hope that scarcity and price signals will eventually modify our choice-driven behaviors.  

I imagine a much more raucous, inclusive, thriving and abundant world for Kimaya and her 9 billion friends and lovers in the year 2050. But I can't imagine that happening without veganism becoming the normative ideal soon. Please note that two-thirds of the people on the planet are already vegan through economic circumstances and it is only the top one-third for whom veganism is a matter of choice.

Let me explain why veganism is such a binary choice.

Lacto-vegetarianism is probably the closest we can get to being vegan, while still consuming animal products. India has an estimated 500-600 million lacto-vegetarians. Like Mr. Ambani, I was also raised a lacto-vegetarian. Like his, my family had been lacto-vegetarian for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, showing that lacto-vegetarianism is not necessarily a short, temporary step on the way to inevitable veganism. It took me a while to overcome my milk-drinking, cheese-eating traditions and habits, but I woke up when I witnessed the devastation caused by my dairy consumption in the forests of India. In India, we drink a lot of milk but don’t eat so much beef with the result that the cows live for 20-25 years overgrazing the forest and essentially destroying it. I realized then that as a lacto-vegetarian, I was depending on beef eaters to clean up my mess after me, but there weren’t so many beef eaters to do this janitorial work in India. As a result, there are almost 300 million heads of cattle in India, and the overall milk production system is tremendously inefficient. Furthermore, I realized that drinking milk was equivalent to eating deer, elephants, tigers and other forest creatures who were dying from all that livestock driven destruction of their habitat. This hit home personally, since a Florida-sized area of tropical forests is disappearing every two years mainly to accommodate our eating habits and in my day job at Climate Healers, I'm tasked with reversing that statistic. From that realization, it was a short step for me to associate drinking milk with eating our children and grandchildren whose future is being devastated by my consumption. And such cannibalism disgusted me and I quit all animal products and turned vegan, in 2008.

Veganism is one step where half-measures are truly counter measures. As I found out the hard way, even lacto-vegetarianism makes things worse. And measures such as Meatless Mondays when we eat cheese instead of meat are equally feel-good, but largely ineffective. Meatless Mondays is like trying to solve homophobia by persuading people to refrain from gay-bashing on one day each week. Indeed, no LGBT civil rights organization would consider the worldwide proclamation of Bash-Free Mondays to be much of an accomplishment and I can't imagine my LGBT donor friends at Equality Giving would donate even a single dime towards such a cause. But since nearly 7 million of people in the US alone have already gone vegan, veganism cannot be that hard for almost any culinary tradition to adopt. By going vegan in 2008, I barely made the 99th percentile among US residents. Indeed, if I had gone vegan today, I would be in the 97th percentile in the US as the 98th and 99th percentile positions are already taken. And the number of vegans is doubling every 2-3 years and the longer we delay, the further we slide down in that position pole when Kimaya and her friends try to pinpoint and celebrate those ancestors who made their abundant world happen. I'm focusing on the US because thanks to globalization and the spread of McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut, the affluent community in the rest of the world is trending towards aping American behaviors and customs.

To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, going vegan may seem impossible until it is done. Veganism may be hard, but saving the environment and reversing climate change, while incidentally addressing world poverty, ending animal suffering and becoming a more enlightened society is not going to be accomplished by just walking around with placards while phoning congressmen, with no hard personal changes required. Sorry, but I respectfully disagree with Mr. Gore on this issue.

Yes, I know that even Mahatma Gandhi was lacto-vegetarian and veganism is about renouncing the milk that even Gandhi used to consume and enjoy. But Gandhi was trying to free India from the British in the early 20th century and we have a much bigger global problem to solve in climate change and in halting the Sixth Great Mass Extinction event in the Earth's history. Therefore, it is fitting that our renunciation must go further.

The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela are clear that social transformations and personal transformations go hand in hand. And that we can't achieve, much less lead, the former without the latter.