A Voice for Earth

Environmental and social justice and my personal experiences in the area.


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Three Documentaries That Shaped My 2015

When it comes to activism and doing my part to help the environment and curb my footprint on the Earth, I think 2015 marked the point at which posting articles to social media to raise awareness wasn’t enough anymore. Anyone sitting at home at a computer can do that and make no mistake, I continue to do that because although sometimes it can feel like you’re shouting in an echo chamber, preaching to the choir, it’s worth it to reach even a few people who’ve never considered these issues before and perhaps change their outlook a little.

Yet, increasingly, I’ve felt the need to take real action myself, to consider what I do on daily basis that I could tweak or stop to make my impact less. There are a number of things that influenced me onto this course in 2015, but perhaps none more than documentaries on the subject of how our activities are damaging the environment and risking our futures and those of the generations to come.

That way I’ve come to see it is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s so much potential for innovation and remediation of harm already done but between painfully slow, gridlocked politics and incessant corporate lobbying, they are not being implemented fast enough. So perhaps leadership on the issues facing us is not to be found with government or Big Business, it is within ourselves. It lies with us. Every person, everywhere, has the power to create some kind of positive change that taken together could shift the balance towards clean energy, better agricultural practices, protection of habitats and biodiversity, preserving air and water quality, and leaving a world with possibilities other than mere survival for our descendants.

In that spirit, I’ve laid out, in my opinion, the three best and most important documentaries of 2015, and how they influenced me to makes changes in my life currently and also in my plans for the future.

 

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Cowspiracy came out back in April. I knew the basic premise beforehand from the trailer and reading up on it prior to watching it. Simply put, animal agriculture, more than any other human activity, is devastating our planet. Nothing contributes more to climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, water depletion, species extinction, and ocean dead zones.

It’s one thing to hear that, it’s another to see it in images, in undeniable science and numbers. Feeding animals to feed us is remarkably inefficient, consuming fossil fuels, water, and arable land at an unsustainable rate, and the return on calories and nutrition is far less than if we actually ate the plants used to feed livestock.

This changed my whole outlook on issues of the environment, especially climate change. Everyone was so focused on fossil fuel burning and, of course, it is an important contributor to climate change, but it is merely a feed-in to the emissions total for animal agriculture, which by some estimates is responsible for over 50% of all emissions. On top of this, we have emissions of methane and CO2 coming directly from animals and destruction of carbon sinks to create more pastureland such as the deforestation of the Amazon.

What got to me even more was the fact that major environmental groups were largely ignoring the issues in favour of combating relatively softer targets like fracking or the tar sands, which are climate disasters in their own right, but tackling them seems to be a lot easier to swallow. As I said in a blog post I wrote after initially watching Cowspiracy, I think these groups underestimate the willingness of their members to combat these issues, but I can’t speak to whether or not they have other motivations to ignore this one in particular.

I think this documentary inspired my biggest personal change, the choice to become vegan. I’ve wavered about it before, having initially come across the subject in relation to the health benefits of a wholefood plant-based diet portrayed in Forks Over Knives. However, concern for my own personal well-being was only enough to get me to reduce my meat intake and cut eggs and dairy. However, having seen how much my dietary choices were flying in the face of my environmental concern, I made the choice to go fully vegan late last year.

The decrease in my carbon footprint, my water footprint, my use of arable land, grain, my contribution to deforestation, the tainting of our oceans with excess nutrients from animal waste, the lessening of animal suffering. Even if my contribution is small, that’s the point. A lot of people making this one decision could make a massive difference to the state of our planet.

I think it was one of the most influential documentaries of 2015, and I cannot wait to see what Kip Andersen, it’s creator, has in store with his follow-up documentary, What the Health, coming this year.

 

This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything was influential to me for one main reason, it verbalizes an idea that almost all people, especially in the West, have, but that we never really think about. It is the concept of Earth as machine and man its wielder. It is the idea that the Earth is an animal whose spirit must be broken and tamed, that we must and can become its masters. Everything it has to offer, all it can provide for us, can be exploited without limit and without consequence.

It is this plot that we have been following since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when fossil fuels allowed us to detach ourselves from the rhythms of nature. It was this supposed decoupling that gave us the notion that we humans are somehow apart from the rest of the biosphere, that our choices and actions could be carried out irrespective of Mother Nature and that any negative impacts would only affect the environment, not us, as if we live somewhere other than the environment.

We have crowned ourselves kings of the mountain and so have perpetuated an economic model based upon the concept of infinite growth on a finite planet. The only problem is that nature has caught up with us in the form of climate change, probably the biggest environmental problem to come back and bite us on the ass.

This documentary tells it how it is. Our consumerist culture, our free-for-all capitalistic system, has overshot the Earth’s ability to sustain it, and we are now in ecological debt that we sink into deeper every single year. We have a mammoth task on our hands if we want to change that. We not only have to turn our ship around, but we have to completely overhaul it so it sails causing the smallest wake possible.

The fossil fuel era is coming to a close. We can all see that, even those who are heavily invested in keeping it alive as long as possible. Climate change does change everything, but whether that change runs its course quickly or not, whether fossil fuels croak quickly or peter out with painful slowness is, once again, up to us.

In most cases, our governments have done a poor job at standing up to the fossil fuel industry and have even promoted it with the Obama administration’s support for fracking, and the Canadian government’s overwhelming support for the Alberta tar sands. At the moment, Big Energy is rowing our boat through their political oarsmen. Only we can wrest the oars back by making better energy choices.

I currently do not have my own home, and I drive a ’97 1.3 litre engine Toyata Starlet. I hope that once I get on my feet, and my energy and transport choices are in my own hands that I can afford to use renewable energy sources and purchase an electric car. For now, all I can do is not be wasteful with energy where I live, turning off lights and appliances not in use, minimising their use also, air-drying clothes, not leaving heating or the boiler going for longer than absolutely needed, walking if I can, and trying to consume as little as possible in terms of unnecessary purchases, or choosing digital media where possible rather than physical copies. In time, I hope to be free of fossil fuels completely and the consequences of their use.

 

Racing Extinction

As much as the other two documentaries had a great impact on me, I think Racing Extinction touches a more personal note. I think it’s because it’s one of the first I shared with my new wife and because of the impact it had on her. She’d told me before that the state of world makes her angry and when I asked her why, she said she believes the people of the world have both the intelligence and the technology available to fix what we have broken. However, from her point of view it didn’t seem like anyone could be bothered to do it, and this had left her feeling hopeless. I have to admit I often shared those feelings even if I did my best to stay positive.

However, as dire as the message of this documentary is, that we risk losing 50% of all species in the next hundred years, that we risk compromising the habitability of our world, that we are poised to cause a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, that we have become the meteor with the power to change everything for the worse on our planet, and it comes down to our own inability to change with anything like the urgency needed to avert catastrophe, it still gave both of us hope. Why? Because despite all the negatives portrayed in this documentary, it was moving for both of us to see so many who do care and who are working to save our world.

Having watched it, my wife said she found it moving, and it had taken her from a state of pessimism about our world to one of cautious optimism, and it encouraged her to watch the documentaries above, including Cowspiracy which she laughed at every time she heard the name because it sounded silly but has now actually become her favourite.

If it showed me anything, it is that other people do care, a lot of them, and they are willing to take bold actions to force change if they have to. It is knowing you are not alone when it comes to wanting to protect the only home we have, to protect something that was billions of years in the making and is irreplaceable.

Together, we can make better choices about the food we eat, the cars we drive, the sources of our energy, how we dispose of our waste, and taking care of what industries we may be supporting. We can all be doomsayers, we can all resign ourselves to defeat and extinction and the collapse of society as we know it, perhaps even our own demise, that’s easy, but I don’t choose that. My favourite quote from the documentary was that it’s “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. I truly believe in that statement, and I know there are others who do, too. We are in a race against extinction and time, but we still have enough time on our side to change the course, and that is what I want to be a part of.

So, here’s to 2016, and making better choices for our planet and ourselves.

 

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.

 

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Cowspiracy: The Greatest Environmental Threat Hiding in Plain Sight?

I have been waiting a good deal of time to watch this documentary, having heard rumblings about it for months and months. When I saw the trailer, it seemed as though, like so many I’d already seen, that it would be informative and provocative, but what I imagined had nothing on the reality of it.

Since the release of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, everyone to some extent knows about climate change and even if they aren’t clear on the exact science, know that the planet is getting warmer and that we human beings are responsible. Generally when one is asked to point to a cause of climate change, they will say fossil fuel burning. The petrol burned in our cars, the oil and gas we burn to heat our homes, the coal we burn in our power plants, all of it is creating carbon dioxide emissions that increase the greenhouse effect, which in turn warms the Earth’s atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere is a more violent one.

Whilst we can all point to fossil fuels, few know that cutting down forests increases emissions or general changes in land use. What might you ask drives such destruction? One would assume it’s to do with lumber but especially in places like the Amazon, the main driver of logging and rainforest destruction is not for timber but to open up land for cattle ranching and growing feed.

It’s not just what we do to facilitate animal agriculture, though, it’s the animals themselves. Methane is also a greenhouse gas and is produced in large quantities by the digestive processes of cattle. It is 22 to 100 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. This means that raising livestock contributes more to climate change than the whole transport sector at 18% versus only 13% for all cars, trains, planes, and shipping. A World Bank report puts the figure even higher, at 51%, when including the clear-cutting of forests for grazing, animal respiration, and the amount of waste they produce.

It would be bad enough if animal agriculture only significantly contributed to climate change, but that is definitely not the case. It is the main driver of deforestation, as I’ve previously mentioned, but it all drives habitat loss, species extinction, water depletion, and the formation of ocean dead zones. The original UN report that found it to be a greater emission source than transport also stated that it is major cause of resource consumption.

This is staggering. This is a profound realisation, that our demand for meat and dairy is fuelling climate change and every other major environmental crisis of our age. It also contributes to poverty and starvation, as the world has more than enough food grown to feed the world’s human population, but so much of that is diverted to animals that we then eat anyway, losing the majority of the nutritional value of the original crop.

Given all of this, why did it take this documentary to really bring it home for me? Why with all the environmental organisations that I follow am I only hearing about this issue now, let alone its significance? The movie answered that question for me, it’s too sensitive an issue to tackle.

Really? These environmental groups have no problem going after the fossil fuel industry, GMOs, loggers, poachers, whalers, industrial fishing operations, and yet the meat and dairy industry are not even mentioned. How is it that despite these reports that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Oceana, Amazon Watch, Friends of the Earth, how come all of them aren’t up in arms about this issue and telling their members not to consume meat and dairy. Perhaps because they don’t want to lose their members.

After all, people who genuinely care about the environment, who are willing to sign petitions, picket the streets, commit civil disobedience, are totally going to be turned off the whole green thing if you tell them that their dietary choices are damaging the very thing they want to protect.

Personally, I think these groups grossly underestimate their members but in the end, I can only speak for myself. I tried almost complete veganism for a few months. It wasn’t a hardship and indeed, I found ways to really enjoy the food I was eating. We seem to forget that despite the Western diet being very heavy on meat and dairy that far more variety is found among plant-based foods. I’ve backtracked a bit since then, eating a diet that is 70-80% plant-based but still not consuming any dairy. However, this film has really convinced me that long-term, I should be thinking of moving back the other way again.

One person can’t change much and like Kip Andersen, the co-director of Cowspiracy, we can all get efficient light bulbs, turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use, turn off our taps when brushing, drive less, and maybe that’ll make some difference. What I’ve come to realise is that I could do all these things, and they would amount to less than if I just chose a plant-based diet. That’s not to say that all the things you typically hear to do to be more green are for naught, they’re just less effective.

Imagine that we all did the most effective thing. Imagine we all collectively divested from meat and dairy, mostly if not completely and utterly. It’s hard to fathom the forests and wildernesses that would be spared destruction, the water that would be saved, the additional food we would have, the emissions cuts. We could create a better world with an agricultural system not based upon the consumptive industrial processes that we have in place today. However, we have to demand that.

This is where I think these organisations that should be championing diet as a means to protect the environment fall down. They are either afraid of backlash from their members, or, as was alluded to in the movie, may be taking hush money from the meat and dairy industry to keep their interests off their radar. I can’t speculate much on that. It would be quite dispiriting if it were true, akin to finding out that Oil Change International were taking money from TransCanada not to advocate against tar sands development.

Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that our food choices play a significant role in environmental destruction and social injustice. Can one really chow down on a Big Mac Burger, knowing that the cost of that meal in water, in emissions, in trees cut down, wildlife lost, and others going hungry is so high? I personally couldn’t, and I think many like me, having all the facts available to them, would feel the same.

So my message to Greenpeace, to Sierra Club, to Climate Reality, to 350.org, to all the environmental organisations is simply this, give your supporters a chance. I’m not asking you to shout from the rooftops “meat and dairy bad, you eat it, you bad”. All I’m saying is that it’s likely that your members are all intelligent, thoughtful people who when presented with the facts, will be able to make their own determination and respond accordingly. I don’t believe that even if they choose not to change their dietary choices that they will then withdraw their support for your organisation, simply because you told them something they didn’t particularly want to hear. These are people who believe in protecting animals and wild places, who believe that clean air and water should be a given, that our oceans should not be a dumping ground, that we should not consume our Earth, overwhelm its natural systems in a frenzy, leaving nothing for future generations.

Yet that is what our food choices demand that we do. We must clear more forest, we must use up every last drop of water, graze every acre, all the while creating huge quantities of waste and emissions that pollute our rivers and oceans and destabilise our climate. Presented with this, anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist, such as myself, has to act. Perhaps the leading environmental organisations who I and many others look to should hold themselves to at least that standard.

P.S. Watch Cowspiracy, I think it is one of the defining documentaries of our time, and the information presented should be everywhere, high and low. Let’s make it so!

Links:

http://www.cowspiracy.com/

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.