“Gaia likes it cold” – Tanya Tagaq, ‘Cold’
The Bad News: Things Are About To Get Much, Much Worse
“Humans on Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism … The human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Pramtemaia, a plague of people.” – James Lovelock
We are living in a new age now. Some have called it the Anthropocene: an epoch in which temporary human gains result in ecological disasters; a period defined by extinctions and tragedies as definitively placed as boundary markers on a football field. Occasional environmental horrors are the new norm, and once “safe” animals like the giraffe are hurtling towards an inglorious end. “We are currently witnessing the start of a mass extinction event the likes of which have not been seen on Earth for at least 65 million years,” writes James Dyke.
Yet the Anthropocene could also be feasibly labelled the era of the “I Told You So”. After all, decades of climate-related scientific studies – many of which were categorically ignored, tackled only by the intellectually masochistic – have finally become reality, as the restrained, concerned tone of academics has been swapped for near-hysteria.
Indeed, it should be surprising to no one that climate scientists are suffering from nothing less than clinical pre-traumatic stress. “Nearly all climate scientists harbor serious doubts about the industrialized (and industrializing) world’s willingness to meet the challenges we face, which of course compounds their trauma,” writes Jack Holmes.
Occasional environmental horrors are the new norm, and once “safe” animals like the giraffe are hurtling towards an inglorious end.
Those fears are grounded, it seems. 2016 was the hottest year on record; 2017 was even hotter than that. According to NASA, levels of arctic ice were at the lowest ever recorded last March, while the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is at its very highest. And just two years ago, scientists working away at the suitably named Cape Grim in Tasmania measured 400 ppm of Co2 in the atmosphere, a symbolic marker that stands as testament to the seemingly unshakeable prevalence of fossil fuels. “It’s a bit sooner than we expected,” a scientist named Paul Krummel told Fairfax at the time.
Those could well be the words chiselled into humanity’s gravestone. The horrors of climate change are accumulating faster than most projections, and even calm ecologists now believe the human race is locked in a cycle of knock-on effects, with the ongoing acidification of the ocean, the mass dying off of trees and vegetation and the widespread devastation of endemic species all ensuring further warming.
That’s not even to mention the more abrupt shifts waiting ahead of us: as the author Naomi Klein notes in her terrifying, anxiety-addled premonition This Changes Everything, “once we allow temperatures to climb past a certain point, where the mercury stops is not in our control.” Climate change is not some gentle bell curve: it is a self-fulfilling cycle, one that will quite soon speed up to a point of horrifying, frenetic destruction.
Climate change is not some gentle bell curve.
“We are now closer to the risk of crossing thresholds or tipping points, which are large features of [a] climate system prone to abrupt, irreversible change when a critical threshold level of temperature rise is reached,” Dr Martin Rice, the head of research for the Climate Council says to the BRAG.
“Examples include loss of the Greenland ice sheet, the partial conversion of the Amazon rainforest to a savanna or grassland, and the large scale emission of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost. Each of these examples would cause very significant disruptions to the climate system, with knock-on effects for human societies.
“For example, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet would eventually raise sea level by approximately seven metres,” he continues. “[That would] commit humanity to continuously rising sea levels for centuries or millennia, devastating major coastal cities worldwide.”
Yet sea level rise is only one of a near comical litany of horrors awaits us, with each atrocity proving more unexpected and unusual than the next. For example, there are concerns that the melting of sea ice will unleash centuries-old diseases; that ancient illnesses will wreak havoc on an unprepared global populace. After all, as John Gray points out in his prescient philosophical treatise Straw Dogs, “our bodies are bacterial communities, linked indissolubly with a largely bacterial biosphere”, meaning any widespread alteration to global temperature levels will have a direct, potentially terminal, biological impact.
There are concerns that the melting of sea ice will unleash centuries-old diseases.
“We’re physiologically evolved to manage within a particular climatic zone,” epidemiologist Alistair Woodward told Mashable this year. “But if climate changes quickly, whether temperature goes up or down, we’re stressed. And one of the expressions of that stress is a greater vulnerability to disease, injury and ill-health.”
Then there’s the vulnerability of our food sources. Boom and bust farming patterns are precarious enough as it is, and will be directly threatened by rising temperatures. “Even a modest shift in climate could have massive consequences on yields and revenues,” writes Paul Roberts in The End Of Food.
“Higher temperatures boost pest populations and allow insects, fungi, weeds and other pests to migrate into farming regions that were previously uninfested … Higher temperatures also stimulate soil bacteria … which accelerates the decay of soil organic matter and thus reduces the soil’s capacity to store and transport nutrients and water.”
Australia is not safe from such threats either. “Australia’s food supply chain is highly exposed to disruption from increasing extreme weather events driven by climate change, with farmers already struggling to cope with more frequent and intense droughts and changing weather patterns,” says Dr Rice.
“Water scarcity, heat stress and increased climatic variability in our most productive agricultural regions, such as the Murray Darling Basin, are key risks for our food security, economy, and dependent industries and communities.”
Of course, such issues will be further compounded if warming renders large sections of the planet inhospitable – and there is evidence enough to suggest that the Middle East and North Africa will become uninhabitable over the course of the next 50 years, meaning “more than 500 million people” will be displaced.
The world’s contemporary refugee crisis will be but a taste of what is to come. Amplify the current situation tenfold and add both a strained food production system and the possibility of widespread plagues and it is not hard to see why many predict that the endpoint of these numerous stresses is war. “Climate change will exacerbate regional and local tensions in ‘hot zones’ around the world,” reads an article on the American Security Project website. “In these regions, the impacts of a changing climate will act as an accelerant of instability.”
Ultimately, it is not hard to see why the likes of John Gray believe full-scale global civilizational collapse is imminent. “Humans are like any other plague animal,” he writes with his trademark detached cynicism. “They cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them … [It is] likely … that disseminated primatemaia [a plague of people] will be cured by a large-scale decline in human numbers.”
This is not all paranoid speculation, though it might sound it. Even the most extreme of effects listed above is supported by a plethora of evidence. After all, about a hundred years ago scientists were asking questions about the existence of climate change. About 50 years ago they were arguing if it could be avoided. Today the argument is not whether it exists, or if we can bypass it, but if the human race can survive it. That is the bottom line.
Is It Food’s Fault?: The Impact Of A Meat-Heavy Diet
“Meat’s increasing cheapness has not only allowed more people to eat it more often but has also effectively embedded meat deeply in the food economy.” – Paul Roberts, The End Of Food
Yet even as humans lay waste to a staggering 75 per cent of the endemic species on earth, there are other creatures that we enact crueller, more unusual punishments upon. In contrast to the range of dwindling, under-pressure animal populations around the world, the global number of meat and dairy animals is rising, as the creatures we breed for consumption are forced into increasingly cramped, increasingly inhumane conditions.
The human race is outnumbered. There are three livestock animals to every human on the planet, meaning that “at any one moment, the number of meat and milk animals is roughly 25 billion”. Accordingly then, a near ruling share of the planet’s surface is farmland, with the journalist Bryan Walsh noting that “some 40 per cent of the world’s land surface is used for the purposes of keeping all … of us fed,” with about 30 per cent of that used for livestock rearing.
Though anecdotally one might believe that vegetarian and vegan diets are rapidly taking hold, the facts simply do not support such a worldview. Meat is becoming an ever more important foundation of the global diet, with beef consumption in particular set to climb “by 25 per cent over the next 15 years.”
We cannot shake our carnivorous habits it seems, even as meat increases our cancer risk, contributes to global obesity rates – and, crucially, leads to the widespread destruction of the environment. Our meat-heavy diet isn’t only affecting our health. It’s affecting the health of the planet.
According to a controversial study published in 2006 by the Food And Agriculture Organisation, meat production accounts for about 18 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gases – a figure that has even been criticised by some for being too low. Indeed, a report published in 2009 went so far as to argue that food production is responsible for a startling 51 per cent of carbon emissions, with beef production in particular posing a significant strain on an already at-risk global resource pool.
Whatever the exact figure, the takeaway is largely the same: our reliance on cattle is killing us. For instance, cows not only produce more carbon than cars, they also contribute directly to deforestation. “Deforestation has huge implications for climate change,” Dr Rice says. “Forests store large amounts of carbon … When forests are cleared or burnt, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide. Deforestation accounts for roughly 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.”
That’s not even to mention the incredible pressure cattle put on humanity’s water supplies. A single pound of beef reared in the US requires 1,800 gallons of water, with food production in general taking up a staggering two thirds of our total global water footprint.
Then there’s cow burps.
Then there’s cow burps. Cattle don’t just drain resources, they actively pump methane into the environment, their unnaturally corn-rich diets helping disrupt their regular digestive processes and leading to an excess of gas. “According to a Danish study, the average cow produces enough methane per year to do the same greenhouse damage as four tons of carbon dioxide,” writes Matt Blitz.
Scarier still is the surprisingly minimal energy conversion involved in beef production. As Roberts notes, 60 per cent of a cow is considered waste, disposed of before it even reaches your plate. “The modern cow needs at least seven pounds of feed to put on a pound of live weight – nearly twice that of pigs and more than triple that of chickens,” Roberts writes in The End Of Food. “Worse, because so much more of a cow’s weight is inedible – 60 per cent is bone, organ, and hide – … beef’s true conversion rate is actually far lower.”
To that end, beef isn’t just a means of damaging the environment; it’s a strikingly inefficient way to harvest and redistribute food energy. And what with the effects of climate change beginning to accumulate and multiply, efficiency is soon going to become more important than ever. As our water supplies become strained, as land must be abandoned, and as droughts and storms ravage the corn we grow to feed our livestock, our already unsustainable cattle production industry is set to fall into tatters.
Ultimately, we are relying on a system that cannot be sustained. And consider that ‘we’ very localised – Australia is the “meat eating capital of the world”, and beef production accounts for exactly half of all agricultural farmland in this country . Although it might be true that we use less water than Americans in our means of production – beef lobbies are very keen to distance themselves from a range of Stateside methods, for obvious reasons – all other issues remain the same.
We are setting ourselves up to fail; leaning in to a coming catastrophe our politicians won’t even acknowledge. And every day that we do, we dwindle down our alternatives, leaving us relying on a system as outdated and destructive as fossil fuel production. Roberts says it best: “The meat-rich diets of the West simply don’t work on a global level.”
Unsurprisingly, the beef industry is working hard to wash its hands of all this. Anti-cattle studies play hard and loose with the facts, lobbyists say. The carbon imprint of cattle production has been exaggerated, they say. Beef is no worse for the environment than any other meat, they say. We don’t deserve to lose our jobs, they say.
And, for what it’s worth, beef lobbyists in Australia are certainly making a lot of noise about their attempts to offset the industry’s impact. Target 100, a local initiative, is attempting to educate both farmers and the population at large about the ability to grow and distribute ethical meat. Their website, one long, extended pat on the back, stresses that emissions associated with cattle production have been in decline since the ’90s, thanks to insidious developments such as “increased survival rates” and “heavier finishing weights”.
There are other widely circulated beef “breakthroughs” being bandied around the place too, as the industry promises change rather than face total obsolescence. One of the more interesting developments, for instance, involves substituting cattle’s usual corn-dominated diet for seaweed. Seaweed is more prevalent than one might think – 25 million tonnes of the stuff is farmed each year – and results in significantly less methane produced by cattle. As a food source, seaweed is also considerably more environmentally friendly than corn: it’s easier to grow, easier to distribute, and richer in nutrients.
There are numerous other solutions making the rounds too, some of them government directed. Emission Reduction Funds are available, designed to support farmers in “increasing the fat content of a milking cow’s diet” by introducing additives such as canola meal. Such a move, the fund’s proponents say, will see methane emissions reduced by the introduction of fat, meaning carbon production will be dramatically offset.
Yet such attempts are ultimately about as useful as rewording a problem without answering it. Climate change is no longer avoidable, its early symptoms are inescapable, and direct action is needed to halt the very worst of what is coming. Remaining reliant on the beef industry – a $17 billion behemoth – is a threat no amount of surface level change is going to fix.
And anything less than a total reimagining should be considered a surface level change: the above listed alterations, for example, are largely cosmetic, and deliberately underplay a range of other issues associated with cattle production. Even if the industry curbs its still sizeable carbon problem – which seems unlikely, given its habit of drowning out cattle critics rather than effectively communicating with them – that won’t alter the issues of pollution or deforestation, twin threats embedded deep in beef production. “Demand management has to be part of the solution as well,” says CSIRO scientist Mario Herrero, simply.
The Future Of Food: What Can Be Done To Help?
“Nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is up to us.” – Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
Humans are not good at change: particularly not when it has to be speedy. Alterations to global attitudes happen slowly, over decades, as ideas once considered fringe are gradually adopted into the mainstream. So although a majority of global citizens now agree that climate change is real, they are yet to accept that it is an “immediate threat”. As a result, “getting people to ‘go green’ requires policymakers, scientists and marketers to look at psychological barriers to change and what leads people to action” according to a report produced by the American Psychological Association.
Of course, analysing such psychological barriers takes time – and time, again, is something we are significantly lacking in. In order to stop the knock-on cycle of climate change’s worst effects, we must curtail our emissions almost immediately. Otherwise, it will not matter if the beginnings of a warmed world’s catastrophes scare us into cleaning up our act: when we get past a certain point, there is no turning back.
“Pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds could trigger … potentially irreversible changes,” reads a report by the American Association For The Advancement Of Science, cited in This Changes Everything. “At that point, even if we do not add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere, potentially unstoppable processes are set in motion. We can think of this as sudden climate brake and steering failure where the problem and its consequences are no longer something we can control.”
What, then, can we do to avoid such a fate? Should we uniformly reject a meat diet, turning our collective backs on the entire international livestock industry? The answer is, of course, no. Even if this was possible – which is hard to imagine – it could not be achieved nearly fast enough. And even if meat were to be rejected tomorrow, perhaps thanks to some international ban, we are yet to prepare an alternative.
That, after all, is part of the problem. Capitalism is a self-perpetuating system. Growth is everything, regression is death. Suddenly altering an organic cycle of supply and demand would be akin to thrusting a stick into the spokes of the bicycle you’re riding: global systems, particularly ones as widespread and ingrained as the meat industry, cannot simply disappear. Clearly, they must be slowly phased out to avoid mass unemployment and catastrophic food wastage.
The hope then is not mass veganism.
The hope then is not mass veganism – though certainly going two days out of the week without meat, an option pushed by Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people, would be the most sensible course of action for those seeking to offset their carbon footprint in the short term. But in the long term, what the human race needs now more than ever is not for its meat heavy diet to be totally abandoned, but for the source of meat itself to be altered. And in that way, two clear options have arisen.
The first is the widespread consumption of insects. No doubt to many, few concepts could claim to be as repulsive. After all, though a range of Eastern diets feature crickets and grubs, for Westerners, eating insects is an idea so outlandish as to fall well outside the window of what the public is willing to consider culturally acceptable.
Yet the benefits of such a move are almost innumerable. Unlike the ineffective energy redistribution proffered via a side of beef, insects are exceedingly nutritious. For example, 44 per cent of the matter ingested from a cockroach will be absorbed into the body, and the energy required to rear it stands as significantly less than that required to rear a cow. For very little cost and very little resource consumption, insects can become a truly sustainable source of food.
Of course, convincing the public at large to chow down on grubs, crickets and roaches is a problem in and of itself. But as the already precarious livestock industry begins to break down, and as huge sections of our already crowded earth begin to refuse us, there remains the chance that a foodstuff as easy to grow and distribute as insects could suddenly seem appetising indeed.
Then there is option two: artificial meat production. It sounds like fiction, and for good reason. Not long before it was seriously touted as a scientific possibility, genetically modified foodstuffs featured heavily in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake trilogy, a grim glimpse into humanity’s future that painted lab-grown meat as a kind of abomination.
In that way, what Atwood failed to consider was the huge ecological benefits of entirely artificial meat. Growing a leg of beef in a factory would neatly sidestep the barbarity of the slaughterhouse, but it would also phase out the more destructive impact of livestock rearing. No animal to cull would mean no water or grain needed to raise it, after all.
Again, though such a future might feel distant and alien, revolution is closer than one might think. Even two years ago, while admitting more research was needed, American food academics were projecting that “3D printed meat production will become technically feasible”, while breakthroughs in production mean some already foresee the development of “meat ink”, a kind of edible animal glue that will allow food scientists to create “high protein and nutritious meals”.
Though such a future might feel distant and alien, revolution is closer than one might think.
There are of course, ethical issues involved with the synthesising of flesh – not to mention a widespread academic disdain towards further human intervention fixing a problem caused by human intervention. John Gray for one argues that any belief in scientific progress is misguided. “Humans cannot save the world,” he writes. “But this is no reason for despair. It does not need saving. Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making.”
Yet such cynicism underwrites the potential for human growth and change – or, more accurately, it dismisses such a force entirely. Climate change is a burden of mankind’s own making, and though it is folly to assume we can divert it, we are not yet decisively doomed.
The pressures of a warming world will alter our lives in every conceivable manner. Maybe right now, that alteration seems inconceivable – like death; like the very end of the species at large. But, as Klein notes in This Changes Everything, if we can alter step by step with our planet, changing as it changes, maybe we can weather this thing. We just have to be ready to give up every element of the world as we once knew it: our food included. That is not the “right” or “green” thing to do. It is the only option we have left.