Lessons from an Anthropology Classroom: How a Plant-Rich Lifestyle Can Reverse Global Warming

Keri J. Sansevere, Ph.D.

Feature Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

“We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment. –Margaret Mead” is the first thing my students read on the syllabus for a course I teach called Global Environmental Issues. Mead, arguably one of the most famous anthropologists of her time, published the bulk of her research during the first half of the 20th century. She may never heard the term global warming when she penned that blunt statement (that term was first used in 1975 by Wallace Broecker). However, the fact that anthropogenic gases heat up the atmosphere and that humans have serious impact on the environment was already understood.

I survey my class early in the semester and ask, “What can we do to ‘go green’?” “Turn the lights off.” “Take public transportation.” “Install low-flow fixtures.” “Don’t let the car idle.” “Buy a metal straw.” These are noble enviro-mantras, and things we should be conscientious about, but are their impacts enough—even collectively—to address the scale of environmental problems at hand right now?

As much as 50% of global greenhouse gases have been connected to industrial cattle farming, a point articulated in our course textbook Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken (2017). Its aim is to generate a blueprint for the top 100 solutions to drawdown emissions and reverse global warming, one of the most urgent issues society faces today. The ambitious project was informed by thorough research and careful evaluation of information. Data for the book were contributed by 70 individuals who hold advanced degrees with diverse and impressive professional and academic backgrounds.

A plant-rich diet is ranked fourth out of 100 ways society can draw-down emissions. In other words, what industrial factory farms do is draw-up emissions.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

A plant-rich diet is ranked fourth out of 100 ways society can draw-down emissions. In other words, what industrial factory farms do is draw-up emissions. Cows are often fed cheap rye grasses that lack adequate nutrition. These grasses sit in the digestive track for longer periods of time than more nourishing foods and are left to ferment. Methane is concentrated in emissions from cows. It’s a concern for scientists who identify methane as one of the top and one of the most potent greenhouse gases on Earth. “If cattle were their own nation,” Hawken says, “they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” I want to emphasize that cows are not the problem in and of themselves; rather, the global demand for beef and the unsustainable practices corporations use to raise cattle and leverage maximum profit is at the heart of the issue.

Industrial livestock farming costs the environment more than just methane emissions. The amount of land required to sustain the industrial livestock food system is vast. The global demand for beef is so high that some of the world’s most treasured forest ecosystems (such as the case with the Amazon) are burned and cut to make room for cattle pasture and industrial operations. Forests are carbon sinks that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when destroyed. The energy consumption associated with industrial cattle farming—from the fossil-fuel powered machines used to clear-cut forests and raise livestock feed—to transporting packaged meat to grocers—also produces carbon emissions. Commercially raised livestock puts demand on water resources, the same resource jeopardized by uncontrolled animal waste that leaches out of industrial cattle farms into streams and rivers.

Anthropologists say we are living in an era called the Anthropocene. Though the beginning date of the epoch is debated, anthropologists agree that the defining features of the Anthropocene are the human actions that cause unprecedented and irreversible damage to the environment on a global scale. Science identifies factory farms as a leading cause of the environmental issues at stake today. So, why is it more palatable for us to “turn the lights off,” “take public transportation,” “install low-flow fixtures,” “not let the car idle,” or “buy a metal straw”? Why is it that we say these are our options to “go green”, like some kind of muscle memory? As an anthropologist, I get how the act of eating can be deeply personal and cultural for people all across the world. But, if the thought of carbon dioxide emissions from an idling car makes us cut the ignition or if the discovery of plastics in the guts of pelagic birds makes us ditch plastic bags and opt for metal straws, we should also think about cutting the beef.

One of my goals as a teacher in higher education is to get my students to gather and evaluate information before drawing a conclusion, forming an opinion, or making a decision. My class participated in a “sustainable dinner party” the week after we worked through Hawken’s chapter on food. The assignment asked students to bring in a dish that they felt best represented the theme of “sustainability.” There was a lot of flexibility to interpret the assignment based on the reading we had done. Hawken’s chapter outlines more than a dozen other strategies that drawdown global emissions in the food sector, some of which include reducing food waste (ranked #03); silvopasture, a system of integrated trees, pasture, and livestock (ranked #09); and composting (ranked #60). To my surprise, every single student who participated in the assignment brought in a meatless dish; almost all of the dishes could be considered vegan and did not include any dairy. They contributed their recipes to a class cookbook titled Food for Thought, organized by student Lisa Marie Oliver.

Agency,” I tell my students, “is the power individuals have to contest norms, make a change, or be the change.” Anthropologists observe how people flex their agency by protesting, striking, or negotiating, for example. It need not be that formal or complicated though. Agency can be something simple, part of your everyday routine, and still be effective. Michael Pollan, award-winning author and journalist, offers this simple advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Keri J. Sansevere lives in New Jersey and holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Temple University. She is a vegan cook, baker, author, and regularly teaches college-level courses in anthropology and archaeology. Follow her plant-based cooking @doctor_bakey.

Note from the editor: Comments like RG’s (see quote below) are not uncommon or unheard of. RG states that there’s nothing wrong with confining cattle on restricted acreage to ensure that consumers receive their much desired “cheap meat.” Remember, industries work to produce what they can to meet the demands of the consumer. A company’s primary interest is to produce as much product as possible, as cheaply as possible. An important question for animal protein consumers to consider: is it “fair” to demand food products that are proven to be suffocating our planet?

Plant-Based Nation explores many plant-based lifestyles and practices in an effort to promote education and outreach about plant-based living. We want to thank Dr. Keri Sansevere for sharing her expertise as a professor of anthropology and archaeology with our followers.
– Tabby

“…feedlots exist because people want cheap meat. It’s simple. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just the truth. Don’t complain about feedlots while on BK WiFi eating a $3 whopper that would cost $10+ if it weren’t from feedlot cattle.”

a comment left by “RG” a YouTube user

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