The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Sustainability Secret: Rethinking Our Diet to Transform the World (Earth Aware Editions), written by Keegan Kuhn and Kip Andersen (with an introduction by Chris Hedges) and based on many of the ideas and insights contained in the 2014 documentary film, Cowspiracy, now available on Netflix.
My name’s Kip. I had a stereotypical U.S. American childhood. My mom was a teacher. My dad was in the military, and I have one sister. I played all the sports growing up, but I especially loved the outdoors and camping. I remember the first time I visited the redwood groves in northern California. I was about eight years old. I had to crane my neck as far back as it would go to look up at the ancient, colossal trees stretching into the sky, their enormous trunks like cliff faces made of wood. Around me grew enormous ferns that came up to my shoulders. I didn’t have the words at the time, but in the presence of those trees my eight-year-old self felt awe, reverence, and an odd little ache in my belly that had to do with their majestic beauty and the fact that I was standing next to a living being that had already lived hundreds or thousands of years. I know now that that wonder and awe wasn’t simply for the redwood trees, but for the astonishing planet from which they grew. I left that redwood grove changed, and I never forgot the realization that our planet is a miracle and a gift, to us and to all the creatures who live on it. I became a young man who believed in the goodness all around me. Life was simple. Not a care in the world.
And then Al Gore showed up. Like so many of us, I saw the film An Inconvenient Truth, which is about the impacts of global warming, and it scared the emojis out of me. In the film, Gore describes how our Earth is in peril. Climate change stands to affect all life on this planet. Monster storms, raging wildfires, record droughts, melting ice caps, acidification of the oceans, even entire countries going underwater—that could all be caused by the burden of human beings on the Earth. Scientists are warning that unless we take drastic measures to correct our environmental footprint, our time on this planet may be limited to only fifty more years.
I wanted to do everything I could to help. I made up my mind right then and there to change how I lived and to do whatever I possibly could to find a way for all of us to live together, in balance with the planet, sustainably, forever.
I started to do all the things Al told us to do. I became an OCE: Obsessive Compulsive Environmentalist. I separated the trash and recycling. I composted, changed all the incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents, took short showers, turned the water off when I brushed my teeth, turned off lights when leaving a room, and rode my bike instead of driving everywhere. I was doing everything I thought I could to help the planet. But as the years went by, it seemed as if things were getting worse. I had to wonder—with all the continuing ecological crises facing the planet, even if every single one of us adopted these conservation habits, was this really going to be enough to save the world?
Then, with one friend’s Facebook post, everything changed. The post sent me to a report online (pdf), published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), stating that raising livestock produces more greenhouse gases than the combined exhaust of the entire transportation sector. This means that the meat and dairy industries produce more greenhouse gases than all cars, trucks, trains, boats, and planes combined. Worldwide. That’s 13 percent for the global transportation sector compared to 18 percent for livestock. Cows and other animals produce a substantial amount of methane from their digestive process. Methane gas from livestock has a global warming potential eighty-six times greater than carbon dioxide from vehicles. This makes it a vastly more destructive gas than carbon dioxide on a twenty-year time frame.
Here I’d been riding my bike everywhere to help reduce emissions! It turns out there’s a lot more to climate change than just fossil fuels. I started doing more research. The UN, along with other agencies, reported that not only does livestock play a major role in global warming, it is also the leading cause of resource consumption and environmental degradation destroying the planet today.
The more research I did, the more I found that the situation is actually worse than I had thought.
In 2009, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, two environmental advisors to the World Bank Group, released an analysis on human-related greenhouse gases (pdf), concluding that animal agriculture was responsible not for 18 percent as the FAO stated, but was actually responsible for 51 percent of all greenhouse gases. Fifty-one percent. Yet all we hear about is burning fossil fuels.
This difference in the figures is due to factors that the FAO didn’t take into account, such as the massive loss of carbon sinks from clear-cutting rainforests for grazing in addition to the respiration and waste produced by animals. Goodland and Anhang used the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the global standard for measuring emissions set by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council on Sustainable Development, to reach the figure of 51 percent. According to their calculations, animal agriculture is the number one contributor to human-caused climate change.
I also found out that raising animals for food consumes a third of all the planet’s fresh water, occupies up to 45 percent of the Earth’s land, is responsible for up to 91 percent of Amazon destruction, and is a leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, and habitat destruction.
How is it possible I wasn’t aware of this? I prided myself on being up-to-date on environmental issues. I thought this information would be plastered everywhere in the environmental community. Why didn’t the world’s largest environmental groups, who are supposed to be saving our planet, have this as their main focus? I went to the biggest organizations’ websites—350.org, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, the Climate Reality Project, Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch—and was shocked to see they had virtually nothing on animal agriculture. Why would they not have this information on there? What was going on?
I had to find out. I teamed up with fellow filmmaker Keegan Kuhn to see if we could get to the bottom of this.