I wrote this from the Overlander, a 9-hour train journey from Palmerston North to Auckland. My third visit to New Zealand is nearing its end. By the time I disembark this evening I will have seen 400 miles of beautiful natural scenery. I will also have seen some 30,000 sheep and cattle. They dot the emerald landscape in a country dominated by animal agriculture. I don’t tire of the sight of lambs running to their moms for security while the big engine chugs past.
When I lived here in the sixties, New Zealand ranked first in the world for per capita meat consumption (according to the most recent data, 2002, from the World Resources Institute, it now ranks second to Denmark). In recent years, dairy has risen to displace some of the formerly predominant sheep industry in New Zealand. Sheep, which once outnumbered humans here by about 20 to 1, now outnumber them about 10 to 1.
My message about animals—which leads inexorably to the conclusion that we must stop killing and eating them—is inimical to the agricultural foundation of New Zealand’s current economy. Nevertheless, to their credit, New Zealanders are believers in open discussion and dialog. I’ve given seven public lectures here (Oct 31 – Nov 10). I’ve been featured in New Zealand’s most prominent print, radio and television outlets. I also met for six hours with faculty and staff of the animal welfare unit at Massey University.
My presentations outlined advances in our understanding of animal sentience—the capacity to feel pain and pleasure and to experience joy and misery. I summarized examples of animal cognition, perceptions, awareness, communication, pleasure and virtue that would have been deemed fantasy just a generation ago. I also emphasized that sentience does not align smoothly with brain size or intelligence, and that the most fair and just conclusion is that animals are as sensitive and vulnerable as we are.
I did not quiz my audiences, but I did give them a homework assignment: adopt a plant-based diet for 30 days (then hopefully forever). I do this because it is not enough to provide information and outline problems. On a planet ravaged by human overcrowding and overconsumption, we don’t have time merely for reflection and discussion. We need action, and the sooner people take personal responsibility for change, the better.
Unfortunately, we too often hear what is wrong without being told what we can do about it. I witnessed an example of this when I attended a talk by a local ecologist. He effectively outlined the sorry state of New Zealand’s native environments, and how the government is hoodwinking its people with platitudes about being green and clean. We learned that the nearby Manawatu River was one of the most polluted in the world, and that the burgeoning dairy industry was a leading culprit. We also learned that New Zealand has one of the world’s highest rates of endangered and extinct native animal and plant species. Reason number one: land appropriation for grazing livestock.
Then the lecture ended, just like that. It reminded me of a talk I attended by a member of the Noble Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who outlined the irrefutable evidence for global warming to an audience of 800 science teachers. To his credit, he did spend five minutes encouraging people to bike to work, shop with reusable bags, and take shorter showers. But he made no mention of animal agriculture as a key driver of climate change, nor did he exhort people to make personal changes in their eating habits.
To be blunt, we are just pissing into the wind if we decry problems without prescribing meaningful solutions. This is as toothless as an animal welfare policy written by a factory farmer, or the New Zealand government’s dodgy claims of a “clean green image” in a country drowning in milk and weighed down by a glut of meat.
Do I expect all my listeners to immediately adopt a vegan lifestyle? I only wish it were so. Do I expect progress? Absolutely. I regularly get emails from people who have cut back on meat consumption or taken up the vegan challenge, including some who pledge never to return to their old omnivorous ways.
One last point. When I asked the ecologist about the responsibility of consumers to stop funding bad industries, he revealed a stark fact: Fonterra, New Zealand’s dairy giant, is the world’s largest dairy exporter, shipping 98% of its product overseas. Thus, as he pointed out, even if we were to get New Zealanders off the udder, it would hardly make a dent in New Zealand’s dairy industry. That’s a reminder that an effective movement for social change must be global in scope.
Image Source: kiwinz/Flickr