Drew Milne: Meat Capitalism and the Politics of Global Warming

Industrially farmed cows
Photo credit: rabble.ca

Meat is not just a consumer issue: it’s a class issue central to global capitalism. It is also a north-south global issue, and a symptom of the adoption of unhealthy Western diets across ‘emerging’ economies. Meat is killing our future, but humans hide from this. Why?

The ecocidal daily rhythms of mainstream media struggle to address the slow-burning dynamics of climate change. Updates on the emerging apocalypse punctuate the news, but not with the persistence with which weather is represented. We need daily reckonings on how the weather itself is changing, on how this is a new kind of news, and on what might be done about global warming.

Here’s some neglected headline news: the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, planes, trains and ships put together. Even conservative estimates acknowledge the problem: deforestation for livestock pasture, environmentally dangerous pesticides and antibiotics, water pollution and vast slurry pits, and dangerous methane emissions from burping and farting cows. To top it all, meat, especially red meat, is bad for humans, and linked to increasing rates of heart disease, cancer and obesity.

Fighting ‘fossil capital’ has begun to register globally as a political necessity, but livestock capitalism poses a more serious threat to global warming. Where, then, are the daily challenges to meat consumption? Where are the protests against the steak houses of meat capitalism?

It’s not difficult to come up with illustrative guides, but craven politicians have not dared to address the problem. The scientific advice is clear: stopping eating meat can cut a Western individual’s food-related carbon footprint in half. But such advice goes mouldy in the pages of the New Scientist. Even Green politicians appear scared of a consumer backlash.

One impasse is the prejudice that this is a moral issue pursued by vegetarians who don’t eat meat on principle. This blocks recognition that opposition to meat capitalism is a necessary part of sustainable anti-capitalist politics. We are all complicit with meat capitalism and there’s no moral or ideologically pure solution.

Another impasse is the reduction of the problem to consumer lifestyle choices. Devolving agency on to consumers fails to address the structural problems and merely demonises individuals sadly addicted to meat. The apparent futility of individual action makes arguments seem merely moral or arithmetically overwhelming.

Where meat was once largely restricted to Western diets, meat is now a global problem. Soaring demand for meat consumption, notably in China, increases exponentially as global population increases. Here is where the global class dynamics begin to bite. Telling ’emerging’ economies not to embrace meat capitalism is a bit rich when Western economies show no appetite for reducing their own dependence. We need a revolution in Western diets before Western social movements could mobilise global solidarity with people who have not had the luxury of meat. This structural problem runs deep in doomed attempts to defend green capitalism.

Recognising that vegan arguments are significant for the politics of global warming doesn’t make veganism compulsory. Anti-capitalists nevertheless need to think vegan, developing strategies of solidarity that can articulate the crises generated by the global livestock industry. Significant reduction in the consumption of red meat is the political priority, followed by a radical reassessment of dairy production.

Individual actions can add up to global social movements, but such actions are not ‘consumer choices’ for the majority of the world’s population. There are, nevertheless, deep connections between individual lives and global food, and a deep potential for global solidarity in the way food is produced and consumed. Making such solidarity politically articulate is an important task. Fair food for all is hardly a difficult slogan to understand. The slogans could be more playful: burgers are bonkers. The politics of meat capitalism needs to be recognised as a significant faultline in global class struggle.

  1. Is the problem meat consumption or industrial scale meat production" Now eggs are meat? Are Chicken farts such a big problem. That meat eating is a Western thing, is news to me. Would it be o.k. if I just kept dogs around the house and ate the puppies once in a while?

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