When I was 20, I lived on a kibbutz and worked in the kitchen. The sadistic and possibly insane kitchen boss was a wiry guy named Zvi, who always had a cigarette stuck to the very edge of his lips, even as he leaned over giant cauldrons of soup. When Zvi found out I was a vegetarian, he decided the best job for me would be meat prep, doing things like deboning 200 chickens or marinating large mountains of indecipherable flesh. I am not fond of handling raw meat, but I did it just to stare him down, to prove that my half-Israeli self was just as tough as he was, that a vegetarian could still get the job done. Why do meat eaters get so bent out of shape about even non-proselytizing vegetarians? Twenty years later, I still don’t entirely know.
On the other side, things are loud, too. By far, the most common emails I receive are from people who want me to share how important it is to be vegan. They send impassioned notes with references (footnotes!) and literature recommendations and exclamation points!!! And I agree with most of their sentiments. I’m an almost-vegan veg myself. But as a way to get people motivated on climate? I dunno.
It’s absolutely true that going vegetarian or vegan would be one of the simplest and most effective ways to bring our carbon emissions down faster than you can say “textured vegetable protein.” From a recent study in PLOS Climate: “If the world were to end all meat and dairy production and transition to a plant-based food system over the next 15 years, it would prevent enough greenhouse gas emissions to effectively cancel out emissions from all other economic sectors for the next 30–50 years. (The study was commissioned by plant-based people.)
And yet, despite the fact that many more people know that eating less meat would be good for the planet than, say, what a “flex reg” is, we don’t see it happening at the scale it absolutely needs to if we are to prevent global catastrophe (though vegan trends are ticking pleasantly upward). The answer here is simple: Sometimes, the technical solution is easy, while the behavioral solution is tougher than a third-tier cut.
“Try to regulate [meat], you get thrown out of office. Try and force people to change their diets, you’re not going to be their friend anymore. It has to be market-driven.” —Pat Brown, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and the founder and CEO of the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods
He’s not wrong. In 2013, Germany’s Green Party proposed Veggie Day, a mandatory meatless day that would happen once a week at schools and offices across the country. The backlash was so swift the party nearly plummeted to oblivion. It’s not so much that people weren’t open to eating less meat, but that they perceived the government, nay, anyone, ordering them to do so as the worst kind of kitchen-table overreach, not much different from people losing their minds over unfounded rumors that President Biden had grand plans to ban their burgers. Telling people what you think they should eat is the surest way to get them to order some backlash beef.
Indeed, the key forces that will de-meat our diets must be market-driven. The good thing is that the three solutions we need are extremely doable:
Meat-free must cost less.
Non-meat options cost too much right now. As these products scale, prices will go down, but it’s a hurdle for consumers already wary of making the switch. I support my 8-year-old’s fave A&W order (“Beyond Burger with only ketchup”), but the fast-food friction is valid given that said burger costs three times as much as its meaty kids meal counterpart. You have to want to do this. And you have to be able to afford a $10 fast-food kids veggie burger.
Meatful must cost more.
I won’t force anyone to endure another Sarah monologue about externalities, but until the cost of meat accurately reflects the harm it’s doing to the planet, we won’t find the rapid market transformation we need. Subsidizing meat only further tips those scales in favor of climate-ravaging patties. (“Patty” is a gross word. I don’t know why I used it.) The idea that eating meat is a birthright will have to disappear, and people will have to adapt. That said, to ignore how real this is for people is not only obnoxious, but also unhelpful. I still remember one of my university besties, a Cuban American named Alex, telling me that he needed to eat meat twice a day, looking at me in horror over his steak sandwich while I ate green things. He felt this both physically and culturally. Back home in Miami, his family always invited me to Noche Buena, an all-day affair in which an entire pig is roasted in a giant wooden box. As my husband is fond of saying, food is love. People show love by cooking very specific foods. So the pig will cost more, but the freedom to buy it if you absolutely need to must remain.
We gotta up the coulis factor.
Consider the positively poetic descriptions of meat-based menu items. And then … veggie burger. We have to make non-meat offerings so appealing you want to choose them regardless! Both better descriptions and point-of-purchase nudges about the climate benefits of certain menu items can significantly move the dial. Also, not calling things vegan! Also also, why is meat the default, with veggie offerings defined against them? There’s lots of low-hanging choice architecture that we could easily solve for.
And Now, to the Meat of Motivation
Do ethical arguments move people? Not to any meaningful extent (health appears to be the No. 1 meatless motivator). Instead, morality plays leave both parties feeling angry and further polarized. I remember my baby activist self (president of my seventh grade chapter of AARF, Artists for Animal Rights Florida!), unable to sleep at the thought of tiny cows in tiny cages, campaigning relentlessly to get my Bubby to stop making veal schnitzel, to little effect. And this is a woman who basically lived for my existence. I couldn’t understand her need to make this food in this way. But that was because I was an insensitive 12-year-old. If your parents and siblings have been murdered by Hitler and all you have is the faded memory of the food you used to eat together … eat as much effing veal as you want. (I wish I’d known this then.)
Throwing shame and animal cruelty at people rarely has the effect we want. Instead, it makes them tune out and turn off, and dislike the messenger to boot. This is not to say that animal cruelty isn’t the worst, worst, worst kind of horrible. A welcome part of dealing with meat emissions would be destroying the disgusting factory-farming practices and unsustainable agriculture that result in so much animal suffering. But as a motivating force for catalytic calving? Not so much. Tobias Leenaert unpacks all this with great advice on how best to motivate for meatlessness in his book How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach.
A Bit Rich
Just as wealthy nations are responsible for outsized emissions when it comes to the climate crisis writ large, our meat consumption dwarfs that of poorer nations (meat consumption correlates to wealth; see Our World in Data’s incredible charts). When rich nations tell poor nations, with their growing middle classes and broadening palates, to change their diets while we have the most high-carbon diets in the world, well, it grates. Yes, it’s true we’re headed for runaway climate change if poorer nations scale up their steak at current trends, but carbon diets need to start at home.
A final climate communications blunder is to presume that any one thing we do is more important than all the rest. Going vegan is great! But so is reducing all your household emissions, flying less, advocating for emissions regulations, choreographing climate jumpsuit dance routines in busy intersections—everything! When we start talking superlatives, we’ve lost. The key is to focus on your BIG THINGS. And everyone’s BIG THINGS are a little bit different.
The cool and inspiring thing about all this is that you can easily see how a confluence of the right market mechanisms will make this sous vide snowball quite speedily, doing the work that years of well-intentioned hectoring just has not. We need epic social contagion to bake in (bacon?) lasting behavior change. Start with dinner tonight?
- Less and better meat and dairy: a behaviorally-informed approach
- “Impact of increasing vegetarian availability on meal selection and sales in cafeterias”
- “Nudging Can Encourage Sustainable Food Choices”
Food for thought? Tell me about your experiences, be they carnivorous or vegan.
Last Week: Early Adopter Disasters
Here are horrible misfires from two of my favorite filmmaker friends.
Lisa, who beautifully directed this Talk Climate monologue, writes:
Paul and I bought a century old home with the intention of taking it back to the brick and rebuilding with insulation, an air forced heat pump, solar panels etc. etc. We interviewed about 12 designers/consultants and contractors and it became quite clear to us that we’d need half a million dollars to just scratch the surface of an eco friendly home. And finding contractors willing to do the work was impossible to find.
This was 2018. So fine, we’ll just do an airforced heat pump and insulation. We settled on a contractor who seemed easy to discuss possibilities with but we quickly learned was a grumpy pants. “Nope,” was his favourite word. He said we needed to tear out all of our rads and replace them with massive ducts to get air to the 3rd floor. We tried another 3 contractors who all said the technology for heat pumps is still too new. What?????! Paul had installed them as a kid out west in factories? As these debates continued, Paul and I lived in my parents basement and my kid was couch surfing. We decided to find someone fast. So we bit the bullet and went with the ducts. And to this day… regret it!
(The tech is fine! The contractor was not!)
Writes Jane, my director mentor extraordinaire:
A year ago we bought a PHEV. We’d been happily (and economically and gas-conservingly) driving a Hybrid Camry for over ten years and thought the PLUG IN was a next step. Maybe, but…
We live in a row house and park on the street – not on our side of the street but on the opposite side. i.e. we can’t plug in the car. I wasn’t worried. Toronto’s electric charging pilot program was underway. There were charging other stations not too far away. We could use those too.
We tried one of the city’s pilot project charging stations. It’s a half hour walk away (so an hour return trip) and it takes maybe 3 hours to charge the car. Fully charged, we have max 30kms available (this is a 2019 model car).
We tried a charging station in a U of T building’s underground lot. Only a 15 minute walk away but: $10 minimum for parking plus the cost of charging at $2.00 per half hour.
I love our car – and feel like an idiot for buying it. It never occurred to me that a product would be sold that was so impractical. The experience has taught me to proceed with caution in making expensive changes. That includes talking to people other than sales people!
Next up: I’m going to investigate heat pumps. Hopefully and with my eyes somewhat open.
(Heat pumps are awesome!)
Attend Got Your Back: Making It Safer for Women in Public Spaces, featuring Hannah Sung in convo with three amazing ladies, Sarah Polley, Ausma Malik, and Chi Nguyen.
I kinda lost my mind over this Globe and Mail editorial. Ten steps forward, a kilometer backward. We do not need Canada’s oil.
Speaking of which, it’s been very fun to work on this effort to push for an autocrat-quashing, fossil-free transition as quickly as we can manage it, through a ramping up of U.S. manufacturing. If you’re my Franglais sister, you can call it #PumpsForPoutine. Not sure what that means, Becky?! Learn more here.
Nothing has made me miss dance class more than this video!
Hope you are safe and happy and healthy and dancing (if you like dancing),
P.S. This is my newsletter for the week of March 18, 2022, published in partnership with YES! Media. You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com.
Sarah Lazarovic is an award-winning artist, creative director, freelance animator and filmmaker, and journalist, covering news and cultural events in comic form. She is the author of A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.