Climate Change Denial

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October 19, 2007


George Marshall @ 12:00 am

We heard this week that the government wants us to drink long life UHT milk because it is better for the climate. The reporting of this trivial proposal says much the denial strategies we are adopting to avoid real action.

This is the source. In a leaked report the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) proposes that British consumers should be encouraged to follow other Europeans in choosing heat-treated UHT milk. It alleges that there could be a substantial  environmental gain because UHT milk does not require refrigeration.

This is all tosh. Supermarket fridges are already chock full of things that don’t need to be there. Ten years ago Proctor and Gamble set a precedent by insisting that supermarkets had to stock Sunny D, a goopy allegedly-orange kids drink, in the chill cabinets even though it was so sterile you could use it to dress wounds. The rocketing sales proved that consumers associated coolness with freshness. Now supermarkets cool anything they can including fruit, potatoes and pasteurised fruit juices. You’d better believe they’d put the UHT in there too.

And I’d bet that UHT is way worse that fresh milk in loads of other ways. Once something can be preserved it can be shipped in from wherever in the world offers the lowest wholesale price. Once again small British family farms will be unable to compete with huge agribusiness estates on the other side of the world. None of this sounds environmental to me and I’ll bet that the total emissions prove it.

But none of this is particularly relevant to climate change anyway. The emissions involved in trucking or cooling milk may be large in aggregate but are tiny in terms of an average person’s emissions. And, in any case, they are dwarfed by the methane emissions from the cows.

Not that you would ever guess this from the milky froth generated in the British newspapers. Regardless of their editorial leaning all newspapers and columnists took the same line- don’t lecture us about what to do. So the leader of the right wing Daily Mail warns the government “Don’t Nanny Us”. Philip Hensher in the liberal Independent says “People are always going to weigh up saving the planet against the benefits of their ordinary pleasures.”

Now this story is not news by any definition- it is, after all, a tentative and irrelevant suggestion hidden inside a minor internal report. The newsworthiness has been generated because it fits so neatly into a powerful and familiar trope: ‘zealots’ under the pretext of ‘saving the planet’ want to take away our ‘little luxuries’.

People are now being offered a range of ready formed and well constructed arguments to avoid (or at least stave off) taking any action on climate change.  They are offered evidence that it is a lie, that it is politically motivated scare, that it has been exaggerated, and that it might be a good thing. 

But this argument is, I fear, the most dangerous. It does not refute the reality or seriousness of the problem. Only a fool would. Nor does it deny that we should take action to reduce emissions. But by trivialising the solutions and presenting them as impositions by do-gooders it helps to reject the need to change.

Like so many of our denial strategies it is the defense of an addict. I knew an alcoholic once who used to rail with indignation at the self righteous po-faced party-pooping do-gooders who were trying to take away the little pleasures that made his life such fun.

Of course he’s dead now.

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7 responses to “SOUR MILK”

  1. I’ve been vegan for about 10 years now, but do not see strict veganism as the only way to become sustainable.

    While I do believe that people generally need to make the connection between plate and planet, and need to recognise that the biggest change they can make to their own global footprint is by shifting towards a plant-centered diet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that veganism suits everyone (although I still can’t understand why not – losing 30 kg/70 pounds, and curing my lifelong eczema and asthma was enough to convince me!)

    The connection between the livestock industry and its products, and climate change MUST become more wellknown. This issue was completely ignored in the most wellknown of the climate change documentaries, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, leading vegetarian activists to question whether it was simply ‘a truth too inconvenient for Al Gore’?

    Gore’s “The Climate Project” similarly ignores this largest of factors in climate change. According to the 2006 UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the livestock industry (and its resultant products) is responsible for a greater share of greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transport sector – cars, buses, shipping, trucking etc. – combined.

    So where do we stand? The aforementioned report recommends an immediate halving of the world’s herds, yet this issue remains unnoticed, while such small details as cloth versus disposable nappies (which are barely a blip on the climate change radar) make headline news.

    There is an old saying among vegetarians that ‘there is no such thing as a meat eating environmentalist’. Although I find this wording a little too strong, and likely to create antipathy rather than positivity for reducing the consumption of animal-based foods, I can’t help but feel that it contains more than a few tonnes, not grains, of truth.

    As I said, I am not advocating strict veganism for everyone. But when I hear my mother talk of how she grew up (in Hampshire, UK), and the only meat that was consumed was the weekly Sunday roast, perhaps the western world needs to shift back to a more moderate and sustainable appreciation of animal products, and save them for special occasions as our forebears did – the Sunday roast, the Christmas turkey, eggs for Easter etc.

    In other words, it’s time to embrace real sustainability and moderation once more. And maybe the American forefathers were right in giving genuine thanks and being appreciative for the small amounts of meat they got, rather than stripping the world barren in our gluttony.

  2. Andrew Cone says:

    Why not advocate veganism for everyone?

    Animal products are horrible for the environment. Every calorie of animal product–be it eggs, milk, or meat–requires at least 10 calories of feed. Growing grain takes energy (fertilizer, tractors, harvesters, shipment), so producing meat takes way more energy.

    Methane emissions from cows and chickens are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, as is the refrigeration necessary to ship meat.

    The most important point, however, is that animal products are completely unnecessary. Balanced vegan diets tend to be healthier than omnivorous diets. Whine all you like about vitamin B12–supplements makes this point irrelevant.

    Ironically, soymilk requires vastly less grain input than cow milk. It is typically made from organic soybeans, can be produced locally, and does not require refrigeration. Similar reasoning applies to vegan equivalents of all animal products.

    If you drive a hybrid to protect the environment, you are being hypocritical if you aren’t vegan. I see no reason to sugar-coat this issue. In response to Leanne’s point about generating antipathy, no one will take veganism seriously if it’s not advocated rigorously. Limp-wristed pining for a bygone era will convince no one.

  3. I know – to some degree from personal experience – that environmental groups, like others, try to make their campaigning fun as well as conveying a serious message. However, I can’t think whether anyone has tried to find ways of making finding some fun in sustainability itself, that is, for those not already committed campaigners. In some ways that might actually be easier when it comes to the really important things than stuff like drinking UHT milk which can seem like pettyfogging regulation. (Quite apart from your good points as to why it’s probably not even helpful.)
    But I do worry that if large-scale and rapid social and economic change is required to deal with climate change, then history suggests that force and violence is likely to be necessary. The fact that force and violence are most unlikely to be environmentally friendly in themselves is certainly not the only reason to be afraid of that prospect.

  4. Mark says:

    I’m vegan, but I think a better approach might be to advocate organic meat/dairy/eggs and sustainable sealife as the minimum goal someone should strive towards. Organic production is far better for the environment and uses a lot less energy (80% less I’ve read) than factory farming. Organic animal products are more expensive and there’s a limited amount of pasture for animals, so people will by necessity consume less (prices go up as demand outstrips supply), and eventually may be far more open to giving up the stuff entirely.

  5. Claire says:

    Apart from anything else – UHT milk tastes disgusting. I’d prefer soya milk in tea than UHT any day and I’m a committed dairy eater (in moderation).

    Surely the best thing environmentally is to buy organic from a local supplier. Eat meat (if you want to) only occasionally – once or twice a week at the most, eat lots of organic locally grown fruit and veg, and relying rather less on imported food (shipped, not airfreighted unless it’s by airship!).

    Oh, and unused land should be compulsorily purchased by local authorities for allotments. Allotments for all who want them!

  6. Paul says:

    Do you not see the connection between ‘hype’ (I would call it hysteria) and these kind of stories? As soon as Al Gore goes and tells us that sea levels will rise by tens of metres when even the worst predictions are saying centimetres, and that the Virgin Islands will be swamped which is clear and demonstrable nonsense, you have a problem that ordinary people cannot solve. So they give up in their minds and expect governments to do the planet-saving for them. It’s psychology. But is it really psychology of denial.

    Every scare story, as opposed to cool, rational science (most of which currently suggests – no stronger than that – that global warming is partly human induced), serves to worsen the problem. NO actual climate scientists are predicting venus on earth.

    Every day there is a scare story about what people eat. One minute we need carbohydrates as health foods, then we don’t. One minute we need omega-3 oils, then we don’t. This food causes cancer, this one is good for you. Now people laugh and ignore all advice because they know the next study will say something different.

    The same will (maybe has already?) happen with global warming. It’s psychology.

  7. Peter says:

    And UHT tastes like pish. Oh Claire got there first. Off to the allotment this living minute.

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