Climate Change is the defining challenge of our time. Regardless of where you live, there is simply no escaping the consequences of this phenomenon – from increasing wildfires and acidification of the oceans to melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and increasingly hot summers, the signs are everywhere.
While there are many factors contributing to Climate Change, one of the most important is frequently overlooked. Filmmaker Kip Anderson hopes to change that fact with his powerful new documentary “Cowspiracy.” The film takes a hard look at one of the most devastating causes of human-caused climatic change: the raising and killing of animals for human consumption. It’s a fascinating, disturbing, and sometimes infuriating film that comes to a simple conclusion – if we are going to stave off environmental disaster, we will likely have to make dramatic changes to our diet.
As the films starts, Anderson shows himself blissfully unaware of the importance of diet in the grand scheme of global climate change. Instead, he believed – like so many people – that recycling, saving water, switching to energy saving light bulbs, and, of course, driving energy-efficient cars, would be enough to reduce our impact on the environment and hold off impending disaster.
But he asks a simple question: if doing all these environmentally helpful things is so good for the planet, then why does climate change seem to be getting worse? As Anderson sets out to answer he uncovers some disturbing information about the impact of our current diet on the planet – and the tremendous amount of resources that it requires. As the film progresses, Anderson shares some staggering facts and figures with us. For instance, consider the following:
Water – Raising livestock in the U.S. alone uses up 34 TRILLION gallons of water a year, and is responsible for 30% of the entire world’s water consumption. We require that mind-boggling amount of water just so we can feed the 10s of billions of cows and other farm animals we raise annually. It turns out that the process of raising animals for food is incredibly water-intensive. In fact, it’s estimated that for just one hamburger, 660 gallons of water is required!
Deforestation – Up to 91% of the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest is undertaken for and by the cattle industry – a connection that many people are still unaware of. To maintain our current system of food production, a plot of land the size of a US football field is being cleared every single second. We need the land just to graze animals and grow their feed crop. Perhaps the most hard-hitting fact is that 45% of the Earth’s land surface is now occupied by land set aside for grazing
Greenhouse Gases – The meat industry also produces a huge amount of greenhouse gases. As Anderson points out, animal agribusiness produces 65% of the nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, a gas with a profoundly damaging effect on the environment. Amazingly, the impact of nitrous oxide – a major heat-trapping gas – is 296 times greater than carbon dioxide. Scientists now say that the nitrous oxide released by animal agribusiness has a greater impact on the planet than all the carbon from all of the vehicles and factories in the world combined.
As Anderson finishes gathering information, he concludes that animal agriculture is the single greatest contributor to Climate Change in the world today. But then the film gets even more interesting.
As Anderson soon discovers, there is a great reluctance by most people to address this problem. In fact, very few people are even willing to talk about it. During the making of the film, Anderson traveled the country and interviewed a wide range of people in positions of power and influence. And most were completely unwilling to talk openly about the subject. And for the ones who did, they were clearly uncomfortable with the topic. The more he pursued the topic, the more concerned he became.
Perhaps most disturbing is the general silence on the issue from some of the world’s most important environmental groups – the people you would expect to be MOST concerned about it. For example, Greenpeace International refused to meet and talk with Anderson at all. And those organizations that did agree to meet with him, seemed either unwilling to discuss the impact of animal agribusinesses, or seemed ignorant of the facts. In the case of the NRDC (Natural Resource Defense Council), their spokeswoman seemed to simply make light of it all, by laughing and joking about “cow farts” – much to Anderson’s dismay.
However, when Anderson interviewed a former member of the Board of Directors for Greenpeace, an enlightening, if troubling, conversation followed. “Environmental groups,” the board member said, “are not telling you the truth about what the world needs from us as a species.” He went on to express his disappointment in Greenpeace and other organizations, and how they are failing us and the planet by being silent about the most important factor behind climate change, animal agriculture and the eating of animal products.
All of which leaves the viewer with an uneasy feeling that those who we thought were “fighting the good fight” on the planet’s behalf, seem to be deliberately sticking their heads in the sand to avoid colliding with the animal industry juggernaut. After all, if organizations whose sole purpose is to defend the environment won’t be completely honest with us, who will? And how much will they really accomplish doing only half the job? If the meat and dairy industry and our consumption of animal products are having such a huge and devastating effect on the world, should this not be a major topic of conversation? If environmental groups are not on the forefront in this discussion, who will be?
“Environmental organizations not addressing this issue,” points out Anderson, “is like lung cancer organizations not addressing smoking.”
To be fair, facing off against the enormously rich and powerful meat and dairy industries can be dangerous. In a terrifying revelation, Anderson points out that those who protest and go up against the cattle industry sometimes pay the ultimate price – actually losing their lives. The story of Sister Dorothy Stang is recounted in the film to prove this point. Stang was a nun who was very outspoken on protecting indigenous people and the Brazilian rainforest from cattle ranchers. She stood up to the cattle ranchers and publicized their negative impact. As a result, one night she was ambushed and assassinated by gunmen hired by the cattle industry. As a spokeswoman for Amazon Watch admitted, “no one wants to be the next one with a bullet in their head.” The level of fear and violence surrounding the topic is so unexpected it almost defies belief. But the movie does a nice job of providing clear evidence and documenting its claims.
The significance of the film’s topic, and the potential danger of pursuing the project, is nowhere more evident than when Anderson gets a call from the film’s financial backers and is informed that they are pulling out due to the growing controversy of the film’s subject matter. It’s a genuinely eerie scene – and one that you don’t often see in documentary films. But by including this conversation in the film, Anderson offers a concrete example of the fear the topic engenders.
And yet, to his credit, Anderson decides to carry on, where ever it may lead. Though, at one point, he does express concern for his own personal safety.
As the film progresses, we learn that humans eating meat and dairy products contributes not just to climate change, but to a long list of harm done to the natural world. Wildlife are killed in the millions every year by the government, and wild horses are rounded up to be sterilized, euthanized or sold off at auction to be turned into food. All done at the bidding of the cattle industry to open up public land for cattle grazing.
And the oceans don’t fare any better. Our consumption of seafood is devastating fishers all around the globe. Scientists predict that, due to over fishing, the ocean could be completely devoid of fish by the year 2048. Whether these kinds of predictions are accurate or not, just the possibility that they might be is cause for alarm. And 2048 is not that far away.
Despite all the destruction and danger, however, Anderson makes it clear that all is not lost. There are those in the film that are willing to talk about the subject openly, such as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who suggests a reduction in the consumption of animal products.
More importantly, there are others tackling the issue head on and coming up with solutions. One such company, Omega Creamery, is working hard at creating meat-free meats and dairy-free dairy foods that taste just like the real thing and have the same nutritional value – foods that use only 1/20th of the land and resources. There are also organic farmers, and even some doctors, who encourage eating less meat and turning to a plant-based diet to offset the harm done to the Earth.
Put in simple words, the message of the documentary is this: raising and killing animals for food is what is killing the planet. And if we are going to do something to save the planet, we HAVE to do something about our diet. Otherwise, everything else we do might all be for naught.
As Anderson’s film ends, he comes to the same (perhaps inevitable) conclusion that others before him have: the only way to prevent environmental collapse on an epic, world-wide scale is for humanity to stop eating animal products and live on a diet that is exclusively – or at least mostly – plant-based. And to his credit, Anderson makes a commitment to vegetarianism/veganism during the making of the film.
But of course, in the end, the responsibility of saving our world rests not just in the hands of controversial film-makers, environmental groups, or, for that matter, an industry that is just meeting public demands. It rests with each and every one of us and the choices we make every day.
Films like this are, of course, going to be controversial, because they challenge assumptions about our privileges and cultural norms dear to our heart. Not everyone is going to want to give up eating meat, let alone all animal products, regardless of the impact on the planet. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that “Cowspiracy” is one of the most important documentaries of our time, and should be watched by everyone, everywhere, at least, if nothing else, to get the conversation started. Because if the UN reports are accurate, then our animal-heavy diet is having terrible consequences and the survival of the planet might just be at stake. Clearly, the time for action is now.
As Anderson says, in talking about our responsibility to the Earth, “She has given so much to us for so long. It’s time to give back.”