By Dr Cristy Clark
I’m happy to report that, according to my highly rigorous and scientifically valid survey (okay, twitter), we are all making significant changes to our lives — both in terms of daily habits and big lifestyle choices — in order to try to protect our planet.
To give you a feel for the responses, I’ll group them into a number of key themes. The first is consumption. People are consciously reducing their consumption, avoiding ‘fast fashion’ and meat, and trying to buy locally or only second-hand. Right on theme for this year’s World Environment Day, people are also focused on eliminating their use of single use plastics by avoiding excess packaging, and bringing their own containers, water bottles, keep cups, and shopping bags.
Recycling is also a big theme, including composting, worm farming, and donating clothing. And, finally, people are taking steps to reduce their water and energy consumption — moving into smaller housing, ditching their cars (or using them as little as possible), installing insulation, using solar power and energy efficient appliances, and avoiding the clothes dryer.
To add a bit more rigour to this analysis, these responses also reflect many of the ‘climate solutions’ identified by Drawdown as being worth taking due to their impact on both emissions and environmental and community amenity.
All this being said, the fact is that people remain frustrated by the limitations of individual action and are clear that there is a pressing need for structural and systemic change. While walking and riding to work is worthwhile, inner city living is beyond the means of many people, and public transport options need improvement. Inner city residents in turn would like to grow their own food, but have little space to do so, and there are challenges with gardening in communal spaces, including finding appropriate locations and dealing with issues of soil contamination.
Other people identified big steps that they’d like to take — such as going off-grid or building passive solar housing — if only they had the money. It is also challenging to avoid plastic packaging when it is so ubiquitous, and hard to efficiently heat and cool many rental properties.
“Australia is the third fastest growing vegan market in the world, and the roughly two million Australians who have adopted a plant-based diet are now thought to pose a genuine threat to the nation’s meat and dairy industries.”
Faced with these structural barriers to change, the question naturally arises as to which actions we can take that will have the most significant impact. And, as it turns out, recent research published in Science has concluded that the most powerful individual action we can take is to make the switch to a plant-based diet.
After examining five key environmental impacts — land use, climate change emissions, air pollution water pollution, and freshwater use — researchers from Oxford University and Agroscope, Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecekd, concluded that consumers have significant power to ‘deliver environmental benefits on a scale not achievable by producers’ simply by excluding animal products from their diets.
According to their findings, which were based on a survey of 38,700 farms and 1600 processors, packaging types, and retailers, the global adoption of a vegan diet would result in a 76 per cent reduction of agricultural land use for food production, a 49 per cent reduction of emissions, 50 per cent reduction of air pollution, 49 per cent reduction of water pollution, and a 19 per cent reduction of freshwater withdrawals.
Poore and Nemecekd describe these benefits as transformative.
Interestingly, this report comes at a time when the uptake of veganism is growing significantly, both globally and in Australia. According to some reports, Australia is the third fastest growing vegan market in the world, and the roughly two million Australians who have adopted a plant-based diet are now thought to pose a genuine threat to the nation’s meat and dairy industries.
This perceived threat is considerably heightened when it comes to vegan activists. No longer content to take over the world with cupcakes, many vegans have started to take a more radical approach. On 28 April 2018, several thousand vegan activists marched through Melbourne’s CBD to draw attention to the ethical issues associated with animal agriculture. There has also been an increase in direct actions such as farm and abattoir lock-ons.
While the focus of many vegan activists is on the ethics of the industry’s commodification and treatment of animals, environmental issues also feature in these campaigns and in the motivation for many people’s decision to take action. As several vegans explained to me, the protection of the planet is fundamental to protecting both humans and animals.
While it’s true that not everyone feels ready to make the switch to a plant-based diet, it is interesting to consider the choices so many are making to help protect the planet. Many of these actions would have seemed too hard not long ago.
So, maybe the same will be said about adopting a vegan lifestyle in the not-too-distant future?
Dr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.
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