Will fear for the planet turn us vegetarian?

The impact of the meat industry upon our environment really should induce the kind of sleepless terror that forces people to give up their worst habits

By Ian Jack  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Fri, Jan 10, 2014 - Page 9

Fear is a great driver of resolve. New Year resolutions rarely see out February because they are born in a much less frightened spirit, a wishy-washy sort of hope, too weak to resist the seduction of old habits. Fear, on the other hand, keeps you on the straight and narrow.

“I shall stop smoking this year,” is no more than a pious aspiration uttered at the midnight bell. Only when the words become: “I must stop smoking,” spoken in the sleepless hours between three and five when premature death seems a more solid prospect — only then is there a real chance that smoking will actually cease.

I gave up eight years ago. It seems alarming and slightly disgusting to me now that I smoked for so long and in such a variety of ways — cigarettes, pipes, cheroots, cigars.

Smoking was my generation’s inheritance. My grandfather smoked Thick Black, brought out of jars and weighed in ounces on the tobacconist’s scales, while my father preferred Walnut Plug, which came in tins and needed to be sliced from its dense little block and rubbed between the palms of his hands before it was fit to be tapped down into his pipe and lit with a match. Or perhaps lit with a spill, those brightly dyed splinters that had a jar by the fireside all to themselves. They were part of smoking’s intriguing paraphernalia — cigarette holders and cigarette cases, ashtrays, humidors, pipe cleaners and cigar-cutters — that turned nicotine addiction into something richer and nobler, the companionship of tobacco.

The fall was very quick. I remember a satirical piece by anti-smoker Michael Frayn that substituted the word “spit” for “smoke” in an imaginary dinner party conversation.

“Do you mind if I spit?” “Shall we share a spit?” “Can you pass me the spit-tray?”

In 1990, it seemed dangerously provocative. Smoking by then had been abolished in cinemas and the London Tube and on most aircraft, but it still clouded pubs, restaurants and offices, while anyone who asked: “Do you mind if I smoke?” expected the answer: “No, not at all, go ahead.”

A few remnants from that age lie around me as I write. A cherrywood pipe made by Peterson of Dublin, as dead as an extinct volcano; a pretty little matchbox holder; a marquetry cigarette box circa 1920; a pottery ashtray that now accumulates the chewing gum that replaced the cigarettes. Stripped of this kind of ornament, smoking looks much less fun — a matter of addicts gathering on the pavement in the cold.

As a revolution in behavior, its completeness has been astonishing. That California outlawed smoking in public parks was predictable, but few of us imagined that similar bans would one day be just as calmly accepted inside Spanish bars and Indian hotels.

Money accounts for part of this turnaround — the cost, say, of legal claims arising from passive smoking — but at the bottom lies the fear of disease and death.

The question that arised, in this time of promises to ourselves, is why the same fear prompts so little behavioral change when it comes to the project loosely known as saving the planet.

Why, to consider another example of personal ingesting, do we continue to follow patterns of food consumption — and to expand them globally — when that will mean nothing but trouble, if not for us then certainly for our grandchildren?

An academic paper in the new issue of Nature magazine’s Climate Change journal warns of the consequences of eating red meat, in terms of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Domesticated ruminants are the largest source of anthropogenic methane and account for 11.6 percent of greenhouse gases that can be attributed to human activity. In 2011, they numbered approximately 1.4 billion cattle, 1.1 billion sheep, 900 million goats and 200 million buffalo, an animal population that was growing at the rate of about 2 million a month.

Their grazing and feeding takes up a greater area than any other land use: 26 percent of the world’s land surface is devoted to grazing, while feed crops command a third of total arable land — land that might more usefully grow cereals, pulses and vegetables for human consumption or biomass for energy production.

The paper’s authors argue that, with more than 800 million people chronically hungry: “The use of highly productive croplands to produce animal feed is questionable on moral grounds because this contributes to exhausting the world’s food supply.”

Other well-known consequences include tropical deforestation and the erosion of biodiversity, but unless governments intervene it seems unlikely that the demand for animal flesh can be curbed. However, which popularly elected government will ration meat or deliberately price it as a luxury?

More people, especially among the newly prosperous in India and China, have the taste for it. Animal meat production stood at a global figure of 229 million tonnes in 2000 and at present rates of increase will have more than doubled to 465 million tonnes by 2050.

The Japanese appetite for whale meat has disgusting results, as does the Chinese fascination for ivory trinkets, but elephant and whale slaughter is surely no more than a peccadillo in the context of the great, ever-expanding, overheating slaughterhouse that the world feeds from.

Animals with single stomachs such as pigs and chickens produce negligible amounts of methane.Perhaps we should rear and eat more of those, but wild fish are no alternative: The sea is steadily being emptied of them.

On the Firth of Clyde, where I go every summer, an inshore fleet was catching white fish until the 1980s — until there was nothing left to catch.

Now, a few small boats scrape the bottom for scallops and prawns until that harvest is likewise exhausted and all that remain are the salmon farms where salmon, being carnivorous, eat compounds of smaller fish.

The “moral eater” faces a series of puzzles.

“Eat oily fish,” is the government’s health advice, but if all of us did so, the stocks of oily fish would be even more imperiled.

“Eat more fruit,” is another instruction, though unseasonal fruit often depends on aviation fuel to reach us.

A diet that could reconcile the competing needs of carbon reduction, social equity, biodiversity and personal nutrition would probably consist of field-grown vegetables that have been harvested locally by well-paid labor: the diet of the £5 (US$8) turnip.

Nonetheless, my resolution this year is to become a vegetarian. Not quickly, but as a slow transformation, with mince the last to go — a sort of “Operation Vegetarian,” to use the name for Churchill’s plan, never fulfilled, to poison Germany’s cattle population with anthrax-infected cattle cakes dropped by bombers.

I doubt that I can stick to it. Where is the terror at three in the morning? A gale may be tearing over the house and a flood running down the street, but the link to a lifetime’s mince consumption will be hard to fix in my imagination.

When it comes to the bleak future of the world, the complicated route between cause and effect is the greatest barrier to our doing much to change it.