The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said last week that we have 12 years to limit climate change. I’m not a fan of such language (what does that even mean – if we cease emissions in 11 years we’ll be fine but if we do it in 13 years we all suffer?), but it’s certainly gotten a lot of attention. It has undoubtedly renewed the sense of urgency among those already concerned about climate change. Yet people don’t really seem to be doing anything different, besides getting angry at governments and companies on social media.
If you’re paying attention to the space, you likely will have seen something like this quote. I think it’s the worst thing to come out of this entire media cycle and may have actually increased emissions in expectation. Here is why:
For a short few days after the IPCC announcement, mainstream media was starting to talk about something that some of us have known for some time (ahem, the UN said it in 2006 but few cared) – one of the most impactful things you can do as an individual to limit greenhouse gas emissions is to not eat animal products (or eat less, as they worded it). Finally, this weirdly neglected topic was being taken seriously by the media and public (and who knows, maybe even governments at some point).
Then, the above quote began to circulate. This lead many people who don’t understand expected value and marginal individual impact to shift the blame entirely to these large companies, or to governments, or to capitalism. I predict this stopped a lot of people from actually taking effective action (e.g. avoiding animal products) and made them feel comfortable with just blaming others. I take serious issue with the use of the word ‘responsible’ in the quote. A more accurate word might be ‘take part in’.
Marginal impact is an important concept. It is all well and good to argue that companies and governments and the system should change, and that may well be true. However, we are individual actors, and when considering what we can do to maximise or even just increase our impact, we have to think about it in individual terms. What can I do that would have the biggest impact? One might argue that we could maximise our impact by working together, but we can just capture that under the above definition. For example: As an individual, by working with others I can maximise my impact. And the reality is – as an individual, probably the most impactful thing we can do to mitigate climate change is to just not buy animal products.
Let me pose a hypothetical. Suppose you discover that there is a product you buy which turns out to contribute to a lot of suffering. In fact, over the course of your life it turns out that purchasing this product will cause several thousand lives to suffer and be ended. Strictly speaking, the company providing these goods is ‘responsible’ (to use the above and incorrect definition of the word), but you have the choice to just buy an alternative product. In this scenario, you are equally responsible (maybe more so, since the company wouldn’t create the product without your demand). By not changing your purchasing habits, you are causing these deaths.
If you agreed with this hypothetical, then I’m afraid that in order to be logically consistent you should stop eating animal products. Thousands of animals suffer and die to feed an average person in a developed nation who eats animal products, but even if you discriminate against farmed non-humans due to their species, the environmental damage of animal agriculture remains – and I haven’t even touched on its role in global antibiotic resistance.
This is not to say that I don’t think governments and companies have a role to play as well, there are many things I’d love to see them do including government targets to reduce animal product consumption. But we can’t shirk the enormous opportunity and obligation we have to reduce suffering and environmental damage just because some other entity has a role to play.
As an additional note, if you are thinking to yourself right now I don’t eat many animal products anyway, here is something to consider. I’ve copied these tweets below because they are bloody brilliant and you need to see them (I hope Christopher will forgive me), but here is the link to the originals.