The Mystery Of Mark Bittman

I am a fan of Mark Bittman’s thoughtful columns in the new York Times. He often writes about animal welfare and the impact of livestock on climate, and understands better than most the connection between factory-farming, meat-eating, and these issues.

What I find puzzling is that, knowing as much as he does about the catastrophic impact of meat and livestock on both the planet and well-being of animals, he can’t quite bring himself to advocate a vegan diet. Sure, he urges readers to eat less meat, and to avoid factory-farmed meat. But he can’t quite quit meat himself, or make the case for a plant-based diet to his readers.

I know, I know, eating less meat is much better than eating lots of meat. And, yes, Bittman is a proponent of a Vegan Before 6 diet. But just because you don’t eat animal protein before 6 doesn’t really mean you can’t–or won’t–eat plenty of meat. You could have a steak per night on that diet. To me, a Vegan Before 6 approach is a little like advocating to an alcoholic a “Teetotaler before 6” strategy. How do you think that would work?

The impact of this failure to really go where his logic takes him permeates Bittman’s writing, and it makes it kind of frustrating to read. There are few people more eloquent about the negative consequences of our meat addiction for the planet, for animals, and for human health. But he takes himself and his logic right up to the edge of the obvious conclusion (we, the planet, and billions of animals would be much better off if humans transitioned away from animal protein and toward a plant-based diet) and….stops.

A good example is Bittman’s (almost) excellent recent column on last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March.” Once again, Bittman does an excellent job, referencing the views of George Monbiot and the incisive new book by Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” explaining how humanity must address climate change and the scope of the unfolding disaster demands that we change the way our economies and our politics works.

I agree with that. But Bittman also uses the column and the scale of the People’s Climate March to riff on the importance of grassroots action, and the power of the individual. I also agree with that. Then Bittman outlines the various responses the planet can adopt to climate change:

There remain several possible responses to climate change. One is stupidity: “There is no crisis.” (A subset of this is to acknowledge the crisis privately, but deny it or choose to ignore it publicly.) A second is hopelessness: “It’s all over.” (Sadly, many of my friends fall into this category.) A third is blind faith in technology, as if it were easier to modify the power of nature than to change a system that resists not only radical change but even tinkering.

But a fourth is action, a fight to regain democracy (a.k.a. “who is government for?”) and begin to remember quaint little slogans like “the greatest good for the greatest number,” to recognize that the payoff for seriously fighting climate change is not only the survival of our species (and others) but a better society. As Naomi Klein says, “Climate change isn’t just a disaster. It’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world.”

Notice what is missing (again)? Confronting the power of corporations in our politics and changing capitalism would be great. And it is necessary. But what is the single most powerful choice an individual can make right now to address climate change? Yep, you got it. Choosing not to eat meat. You don’t need legislation. You don’t need international treaties. You don’t need a revolution. You just need to make one basic change in your lifestyle. And if enough people had the courage and awareness to make that change, the climate disaster would be dramatically reduced. That seems like a sacrifice worth making.

I plan to get a lot deeper into this argument in the near future. But it is surprising and frustrating to me that even someone like Mark Bittman, who knows these issues inside out, cannot quite bring himsefl to draw the obvious conclusion.

In his column, Bittman quotes Monbiot as saying that with regard to addressing climate change governments “propose everything except the obvious solution.” I kind of feel the same way about Bittman and any number of prominent leaders in the climate and environmental movements.

Why Doesn’t Mark Bittman Just Come Right Out With It?

NYT writer Mark Bittman writes about food, and has long been troubled by the impact of our food choices on health, the environment, and the animals use in the food production system. He’s got the setup to the problem right, as here:

Nothing affects public health in the United States more than food. Gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.

And the root of that dangerous diet is our system of hyper-industrial agriculture, the kind that uses 10 times as much energy as it produces.

We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system. It’s been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on. The point is that “sustainability” is not only possible but essential: only by saving the earth can we save ourselves, and vice versa.

But given his diagnosis of the problem, I keep thinking he will eventually come right out and urge the world to go vegetarian (and he has written an excellent vegetarian cookbook). Yet for some reason he prefers to nibble his way toward that highly logical recommendation, without ever fully voicing it, which is a shame because there are few changes any human can make that match going meatless for beneficial impact on health, the environment, and animal welfare.

For example, after the setup above, Bittman goes on to write:

I believe that the two issues that will have the greatest reverberations in agriculture, health and the environment are reducing the consumption of sugar-laden beverages and improving the living conditions of livestock.

I have no problem with less sugar, which indeed would improve human health and reduce human impact on the environment. But just substitute “and dramatically reducing or eliminating the consumption of meat” for  “and improving the living conditions of livestock” and his sentence (and argument) would make so much more sense.

I am all for attacking the mindblowing animal cruelty embedded in our food production system. But c’mon, Mark. Why not just flat out urge your audience to give up meat? I know it sounds radical, but everything you write about food simply screams for that conclusion.

Nightly Reader: Oct. 22, 2012

Links to to ponder (or sleep on)…

Counterintuitive: Are electric cars worse for the environment than gas cars?

Two-Fer: I unburden myself of interesting links by handing you off to Mark Bittman unburdening himself of interesting links.

Mark Bittman Links

Alternate Reality: Planet Money assembles a spectrum of economists to craft a bipartisan tax reform plan that makes economic sense. They do. It’s really good. And almost none of it will ever get passed. But here is how it would be pitched: