A few weeks ago I wrote an op-ed based on the report “Why Pope Francis Wants You to Eat Veggies” and submitted it to a number of news websites, but without success. When I mentioned this to friends who knew the publishing industry, they explained that the piece might be offensive to the Jewish community and other American audiences.
The last thing I want is to insult survivors of the Holocaust or their offspring. Let me therefore point out that I am not accusing them or others of being Nazis. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Germans I am mentioning in the op-ed were not Nazis but regular people similar to those you find in England, Finland, Mexico, or America. Neither am I claiming that the suffering of animals nowadays is equal to, or worse than, the suffering of humans in concentration camps.
When it comes to making other audiences feel uncomfortable, I don’t really mind. Comfort is overrated.
That is why, rather than rewriting my op-ed and making it more palatable, I have decided to publish it on my blog as is.
Please find it below.
With Pope Francis, Change Your Diet and Change the World
As German I sometimes get the question: How it is possible that an entire nation did nothing when their government abducted German Jews, homosexuals, and people with handicaps and subjected them to inhuman brutality? How is it possible for societies to inflict the kind of cruelty that their members individually abhor?
I find the question odd, because we all partake in cruelty every single day. Think of the way our society treats livestock. Most of us know that factory-farmed animals are exposed to the inhumane treatment with which we want nothing to do, and yet we continue to buy their milk, cheese, eggs, and meat. Through the grocery store’s cash register each of those buying decisions is recorded and forwarded to industrial breeding operations with the message, “Bring us more!”
So why do we do it? For starters, it is easy to forget about such malice because we don’t have to watch it. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are removed from our cities, and the meat of CAFO animals is sold in clean shrink-wrap that severs all connections to the animal’s history.
Then there are the writings of our religious intellectuals, who teach us that it is okay to inflict suffering on animals. For Catholicism, Joseph Kirwan co-edited the 1996 book The Cross and the Rainforest. In it he argued 1) that animals very likely do not have feelings like humans do; and 2) even if they have feelings, humans do not need to take them into account because God created animals to serve mankind. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes Church doctrine, has done little to prevent such cavalier attitudes. It defines our relationship with the animal kingdom vaguely, asking that we love animals, but not too much; use them, but not too much.
What a breath of fresh air is therefore Laudato Si’, the June 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis, in which he urges us all – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – to save a planet in deep distress. Nature is God’s magnificent book, we learn; the artwork through which God communicates his sense of infinite beauty to us. By destroying creation we destroy a channel of divine expression. That is why we must protect our natural environment.
The pope does not object to slaughter, but he categorically rejects our absolute domination over animals. His words:
Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. (Laudato Si’ 67)
Nowhere is the domination over other creatures more absolute than in CAFOs. So if humans want to consume cheese, eggs, or meat, they should avoid these factory systems and instead buy from farms that grant full, if shortened lives to creatures in their care.
His Holiness believes that what’s in the heart cannot be segmented. Be mean to animals, and you’ll likely be mean to your neighbor as well. Treat animals with compassion, and you’ll behave the same way towards humans, including yourself. Perhaps, then, societies with a strong culture of kindness towards nature will be shielded from the hatred that can end in genocide.
Laudato Si’ contains a strong, if implicit, argument for vegetarianism. For one we should stop supporting brutality towards livestock. This means that we should only purchase animal products from certifiably humane operations or substitute plant foods.
Then his Holiness wants us to halt global warming. Through their rumens cattle emit methane, a gas that gram-for-gram traps 28 to 36 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, our baseline greenhouse gas. In 2012, U.S. cattle burped and farted up 123 million metric tons CO2 equivalent in methane. That’s about as much CO2 equivalent as you get by putting 25 million passenger cars, SUVs, and light trucks on the road for a year.[i] By lowering our intake of beef and dairy, we can shrink that number dramatically.
There is another way in which lessening our dependence on livestock can put a brake on global warming. Rainforests are important sinks for carbon dioxide, because they absorb that gas from the atmosphere and convert it to plant matter. A Guardian report in 2009 found that since the 1970s around a fifth of the Amazon rainforest had been destroyed, much of it due to ranching. Hence, as humans reduce their demand for beef they ease pressure on the Amazon rainforest, saving its remaining ability to mitigate the greenhouse effect.
Doing so has an added beneficial result. Over recent decades, Earth’s biodiversity has declined at about fifty times the natural rate of extinction. Since tropical forests house more than half of Earth’s known plant and animal species, they are especially valuable for preserving biodiversity. By protecting rainforests like the Amazon, we preserve the integrity of God’s masterpiece, as Pope Francis says we should.
A lifestyle that relies heavily on plant foods thus goes a long way toward realizing three goals of Laudato Si’: ending cruelty towards animals, stemming the greenhouse effect, and preserving biodiversity.
Medical experts such as Dean Ornish or Caldwell Esselstyn have found that by substituting whole plant foods for both processed and animal foods, you can boost your health and free yourself from diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Over the past ten years plant-based cookery has come into its own. Vegan chefs have converted classics such as Mac and Cheese into plant-based alternatives. Many taste as good as the originals, and most are far healthier. And yes, covering your body’s protein needs without milk or meat is as easy as 1-2-3.
Pope Francis issued Laudato Si’ during the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference, which is scheduled for December 2015 in Paris. Many of us accept that global warming is a human-made phenomenon, and we want our politicians to arrive at a deal to save the planet’s ecology. But our leaders are only empowered to compromise to the extent that we, their millions of voters, are willing to reform our personal habits.
Such reform can come in many ways: replacing electricity from oil with solar power; purchasing fewer throw-away items. Why do we so rarely consider changing the things we eat and drink? Given the impact our food choices have on both the planet, our personal health, and our relationships with other human beings, they should be on the table.
Let’s make our diet a vehicle for change.
[i] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that in 2012, light duty vehicles in the U.S. emitted 1,123.2 million metric tons CO2 equivalent in carbon dioxide. Light duty vehicles include passenger cars, sports utility vehicles, and light trucks. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that in 2012 there were 234 million light duty vehicles on the road. This means it took about 25 million such vehicles to emit 123 million metric tons CO2 equivalent in carbon dioxide. Hence our 2012 consumption of beef had the same global warming effect as driving 25 million light duty vehicles.