I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest. Neither have I. The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.
I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.
And the rain forest is beautiful. Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.
When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest. In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed. We raised money and sent it off in an envelope. I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees.
I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct. Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone. At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.
Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed. Everyone in the world would suffer as a result. If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.
Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own. If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.
A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.
In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today. We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems. It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.
Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself. This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
“But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?”
Foer knows that he could choose to help. Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.
He often doesn’t.
“There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance. Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger. We should be terrified of ourselves. We are the ones we have to defy. … I am the person endangering my children.”
As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed. Why? To clear space for cows to graze.
Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed.
Eating meat is pleasurable. A good cheese pizza can be divine. Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious. Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.
Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades. He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments. He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.
But this knowledge isn’t enough. He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.
“So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years? Why has it become harder? I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.”
Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants.
Eating meat is pleasurable. Eating cheese is pleasurable.
Injecting heroin is pleasurable too. Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable. Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.
In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances. Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.
Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions.
(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets. If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change. If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change. Only 20%. By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change. You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)
If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently. If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.
If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently. With no other changes, humanity would survive. Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.
Pleasure matters. I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually. I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.
Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese. I support responsible hedonism. Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet. Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults. Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us.
Well, most of us.
Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better. He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants. But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students. In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.
And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants! If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.
Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.