This is the most effective action you can take.
For decades now, Climate Change has been the elephant in the room. Awkwardly stuffed into the corner, this poor animal has simply been watching us as we try our best to avoid its gaze. And every time we’re forced to acknowledge its existence, the seeming intractability of the problem causes us to turn away.
This is understandable. Climate Change is a global problem that feels like it needs a global solution. But does that mean, individually, we can’t make a difference?
In his book, Doing Good Better, William MacAskill argues that our intuitions on big problems are all wrong. Our individual actions, he says, do make a difference — of course they do, because everyone’s actions combined add up to the total impact. The problem is that we don’t typically notice the difference we’re making.
So, if you want to do something today to decrease your impact on Climate Change, what would you do? Would you buy an electric car? Would you try to cut down on air travel (not a problem in today’s world!)? Would you buy solar panels for your home? Would you try to reduce the amount of plastic packaging you buy?
Each one of these activities will have a certain degree of impact. But, which activity would have the greatest impact — the biggest bang for your buck?
The most effective action you can take
A massive 2019 study examined nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries, which accounted for about 90% of global calorie and protein production. The study aimed to better understand the impacts of various foods on the environment. One of its findings is that while meat and dairy provide 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein, they use 83% of our total farmland.
Why does raising animals use so much of our existing farmland? One reason is obvious: we need to grow crops to feed these animals. So, we destroy rainforests and displace wild animals to do it. Another reason is raising livestock is incredibly inefficient. It takes 25 calories to produce 1 calorie of beef, 15 calories to produce 1 calorie of pork, and 9 calories to produce 1 calorie of chicken. That’s not a great return on investment.
This inefficiency has an impact on the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by raising these animals, and beef is by far the worst. In terms of the average GHGs emitted to produce an equal amount of protein, beef is about 2.5 times worse than lamb and mutton, 7 times worse than pork, 8 times worse than farmed fish, nearly 10 times worse than poultry, and 25 times worse than tofu.
At this point, you might be thinking that I’m going to demand you cut meat completely out of your diet — that you take an all-or-nothing approach to this issue. But, that’s not what I’m going to suggest.
It’s not realistic to expect any of us to suddenly switch to never eating meat again. And it’s not useful to try to shame people into becoming vegetarians or vegans, either. The fact is, many of us have eaten meat all our lives and love it. Yes, things can change, in particular when our values contradict our behaviors, but most of us would still find it incredibly difficult to quit cold turkey (pun intended).
Thankfully, we don’t need to quit eating meat to make a difference. Depending on the types of meats we eat, we can simply scale back on the worst offenders. Now that you know the relative impacts of each of these products on the environment, you can make decisions that better align with your values.
For example, if you eat beef 5 days a week, consider replacing it in one of those meals with another option, like pork, chicken, or (if you’re feeling bold) tofu.
Slowly shifting our eating habits toward the more environmentally friendly end of the food spectrum can have a huge impact on the environment.
What to do next?
For many years, I thought I had to give up meat entirely to make a difference. Learning that this is not true is liberating and makes addressing the problem feel more realistic. So, don’t let yourself be distracted or shamed by some people’s all-or-nothing approaches. Let’s be honest — they just don’t work for most of us.
Take a quick inventory of the kinds of meats you eat each week. As we learned, beef is the worst offender so if you can cut down your beef consumption by even one meal a week, that’s a huge win. But, regardless of the kinds of meats you eat, you could also replace one of those meals with a vegetarian option. If you haven’t made many vegetarian meals before, it might feel difficult at first. Not only can it feel wrong not to have some kind of meat accompany a meal, but you also might not know any good vegetarian recipes.
So, I’d suggest doing a little bit of research. A vegetarian meal doesn’t need to be a tasteless salad. There are some delicious vegetarian recipes out there.
Another big concern people have is protein. If you’re concerned that you won’t get enough protein from your vegetarian meal, add any of these high-protein plant-based foods: seitan, tofu, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, or kidney or black beans.
The bottom line is that helping to reduce your impact on Climate Change isn’t impossible and it isn’t even all that difficult. Sure, you might need to learn a couple of new recipes, but in the process, you might also find a go-to meal you absolutely love.
Thanks for reading!