Are ecologists hypocrites?

The sound of a aeroplane soaring over the auditorium punctuated the speakers sentence. “What you eat is twice as important as what you drive when it comes to carbon emissions,” he emphasised. “If you’re a vegetarian teach a meat eating friend of yours a great vegetarian dish,” he said, before admitting he was a pescatarian.

This man was David Tilman. He was talking at the recent INTECOL conference in London that I was at.  Though he made some good points,  he did what a lot of ecologists do – he didn’t follow his own advice. I’m not singling him out for criticism, thankfully –  if nothing else it could be disastrous for my career.

Many ecologists think the world is going down the plughole. We offer advice on how this could be solved whether it’s stronger regulation or a new protected area. This is all great and together we have undoubtedly helped stop a whole host of species from going extinct and communicated the general importance of nature to those who care to listen.

However, we also give out plenty of advice that falls on deaf ears. We talk in hushed tones about overpopulation and overconsumption, and that something should be done about them. But how many of us actually change our behaviour to combat these issues? I’d guess at not many.

I know I could do better for a start. I drive too much, don’t use public transport or my bike as much as I should and buy too many clothes, electronics and shiny things. Just because I work in conservation research it doesn’t magically offset my impacts. But I also don’t eat meat, I’m trying to cut down flying and I try not to eat anything that has palm oil in it.

Part of the problem comes down to the fact that some big things are really hard to solve. For example, reducing the impacts of energy production at home is hard when no-one in government is willing to stand up for relatively clean tech, like, say,   nuclear power that could help transition to a lower carbon economy.

But we do have a choice when it comes to our consumption habits and we would do well to examine ours carefully. Without this we are in danger of being lumped together with politicians and the catholic church as people who want others to do as we say, not as we do.

There are 3 obvious things most of us could change.

Meat

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As David Tilman says, the most obvious place to start is by eating less meat. If you eat meat every day try to make it once every two days, if you eat meat once every two days try to make it once every three. There are so many amazing books and websites that can help with this, there is no excuse.  I am well aware that vegetarian food suffers an image problem – people think it is all lentils and lettuce.  Try dishes like these and you will find out vegetarian food can be exciting, surprising and delicious.

Transport

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It goes without saying that we should try to fly as little as possible. This isn’t always practical but skype meetings can be just as productive as meeting in person. I have chatted to supervisors, collaborators and people giving me data this way and once you get over the initial weirdness it’s fine.

When you do travel do it by train as much as possible. If you live in Western Europe nearly everything within 2-3,000km of you is reachable in ~24 hours. There are great websites to help with this and this way there’s less messing around in departure lounges and it’s easier to get things done without the distractions of the office. Some, like the director of the Tyndall centre in the UK, have even opted to travel from the UK to China by train in the past, and why not. You could write a paper or two on the way. (See Kevin Anderson’s blog for further musings on this.)

We should also cut down on driving or at least car pool as much as we can. This isn’t that hard to do and has actually got me gainful employment by making new contacts in the past. Fixing these problems doesn’t need to only bring benefits to the environment.

Consumer crap

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We are constantly encouraged to buy the latest vital gadget. The one that will make you more attractive, a better parent, a better person. Think before you do. Extraction of rare earths to make these things can pollute ecosystems and poison people. Put an ad blocker on your internet browser – it’ll stop the incessant ads bugging you to buy things you don’t need. If you really need something, try to buy it second hand.

I know I won’t guilt trip people into making the right decision, really I just want people to think more. Many ecologists have chosen the career because of their love of nature. If we aren’t more thoughtful about how we live, we’re probably doing it more harm than good.

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15 thoughts on “Are ecologists hypocrites?

  1. Nice post Phil, and I certainly agree we should all do more re. travel etc. Though having kids has made some options less appealing – certainly I fly less now, but drive more…

    On meat eating too, I agree we ought to see meat as more of a treat rather than a daily necessity – I try to do this. But I have a problem with promoting vegetarianism as a solution (I was veggie for 15y, so am speaking with the zeal of an ex-smoker here!) First, there are different kinds of meat. Eating beef from corn-fed cattle imported half way around the world is clearly bad. But then, eating soya from large plantations is not great either. On the other hand, in some situations stock are a pretty efficient means of turning scraggy vegetation into something not only edible but delicious.

    Second, (sensible) livestock farming is part of our culture and important to our landscape in the UK – one of the reasons I re-started eating meat was because I enjoy a mixed farming landscape.

    Finally, an uncomfortable truth for vegetarians is that everything that applies to industrially-produced meat applies equally to industrially-produced dairy. If you don’t eat meat on environmental grounds, you shouldn’t eat dairy either. And I wouldn’t with veganism on anyone!

    1. Hi Tom. Thanks for the well reasoned comment.

      I agree that eating meat is not a black and white issue. Whether or not the meat or dairy you eat is the product of recently converted natural ecosystems* is largely a function of where you live and what you are willing to pay for the meat (incidentally if you know of any research on this I’d be intersted in taking a look). In the UK we have lots of native livestock that is raised on land that was long ago converted to pasture, thus many people in the UK don’t see generally see pasture as a environmental problem and actually value it aesthetically – as you do. I (as you will have gathered from my blog) value forests and in the UK we have one of the lowest proportions of land under forest in Europe, largely because farming is the dominant land use in the UK.

      I take your point that eating soya is far from ideal but given that most soya grown in the tropics goes to feed cattle, not vegetarians, the scale of the problem caused by vegetarians is much less than that of people wanting cheap beef. Equally I agree that consuming less dairy would be better than what we have now, but that seems a difficult one to sell. Being alive means that I, and everyone else, kill other organisms either directly or indirectly on a daily basis. We can never reduce that harm to zero, we can only lessen it. That is what this blog post was about and on balance I think eating less meat generally has less negative impacts to biodiversity.

      * I use this because it is what most people generally consider to be ‘environmental/ecological impact.’ I like to call a spade a spade.

      1. You’re absolutely right – my views are very much coloured by living in the UK (my ‘privilege’, I guess), growing up in the countryside with farmers in the family. The prospect of the whole world converting to prime cuts of corn- or soya-fed meat for every meal is terrifying from an environmental POV (as well as from a public health one). However, my feeling is that this (clearly emotive) issue is one where a lot of dubious stats are thrown around, e.g. the huge amount of water / feed needed to produce a kilo of whatever meat – sure, in some instances, but in other circumstances ‘growing’ meat can be really efficient, and in general there will be a tremendous amount of variability in any such figure. I ought to become better informed, though, as I don’t have hard evidence for this.

        The dairy issue is important – especially with mega-dairies (keeping cattle indoors, wholly dependent on food grown elsewhere). And where do all the little boy calves go? 😉

        I found it increasingly difficult to justify vegetarianism from an ethical POV, but only once I had enough cash to buy good meat. But I completely buy into the idea of reducing food waste, which means being thrifty with meat, eating cheaper cuts as well, and not demanding meat every day.

      2. I agree about the dubious stats. There will inevitably be lots of variation in resources needed to produce meat. I discussed this a while back with people on twitter. It would be great to have a geographic breakdown of, say, the area of cropland or volume of water required per kilo of different meat types. I’m not sure we have much idea about how the impacts of different production systems in different countries vary apart from the broad statements both of us have made.

        The only vaguely quantitative stuff I remember about this issue is from a Radio 4 program a while back that claimed battery chickens were the most efficient means of meat production in terms of feed to meat production ratios, though I’m not sure I would advocate that as a production mechanism for other reasons.

        Re: calves – I totally agree, but I don’t imagine that eating veg stops me from killing all sorts of defenceless animals as well. Such is the collateral damage of my lifestyle.

        Finally I agree with the waste issue. Eating nose to tail if you eat meat is the way forward. It seems to happen in other countries, why not the UK? I would guess that the UK has been urbanised for much longer than a lot of other countries in the EU who thus have more connection with their agrarian origins.

        Incidentally I just came across this blog post – http://geocurrents.info/cultural-geography/culinary-geography/global-geography-of-meat-and-fish-consumption on the geography of meat and fish consumption which is a bit off topic but very interesting reading.

  2. Tom & Phil – I’d consider eating wild game to be the most sustainable approach to meat consumption, though guess it depends on how those game are managed re: hunting licenses etc.

    Another thing that I’ve found becoming increasingly prevalent – if only for budget constraints rather than making us more ecologically conscious – is the use of ‘virtual’ lectures. I’ve watched quite a few where you phone in, the presenter talks on speakerphone while showing slides via LiveMeeting or similar. A bit awkward at first, but a good way to get many people involved without the impacts of air/car travel.

    I know quite a few ecologists who live out of town and drive to work every day. Some would argue that their GHG footprint is higher than someone who lives in the city, and thus they’re not ‘practising what they preach’. But – many of them also grow a lot of their own food, manage the land they live on for nature values, etc. Which is more than can be said for people in town.

    I guess what I’m thinking is that, while we can provide general guidelines for decreasing our ecological footprint, it’s definitely not ‘one size fits all’. And we may have more success in getting people to consider reducing their footprint if we acknowledge varying choices as equally useful.

  3. Thank you for this post! As a young ecologist i follow all the things you mentioned (few to no airtravels, vegetarian since many years and i still use my old colorless nokia phone). But we need not only to change our habits but improve the sustainability of the current production systems. And also get grandma´s cooking recipes down from the shelf. Many of my friends started to eat less meat but they fail to cook appropriate meals for themselves. So they eat a lot of sweets, chocolate, french fries and so (yes even vegetarian can be quite unhealthy). And then you see the connection between a chocolate bar and tropical deforestation for palmoil.
    I am vegetarian mostly for ecological reasons (10% rule – why not eat what the cows eat). The argument that, because vegetarians eat more soy it would worsen the situation for tropical rain forests, is inaccurate. Most of the large scale meat production systems today feed their cows with a mixture of corn and soy which could very well be eaten by humans in the first place. We would be able to efficiently nourish more people on earth (see this recent publication http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015 ). The same applies to all those pescetarians out there. Even with so called MSC certified aquafarming facilities most of the commercially used fish still and will always need to eat other smaller fishs in their adult life (which have to be caught from the ocean). Not to mention the tremendous impact of aquaculture on coastal habitats (mangroves) and eutrophication of the ocean. I don’t say we should all abandoned meat from our meals (tell this to an Eskimo or a starving african surviving from bushmeat), but most certainly less is more! In the old days meat was only eaten every sunday (in presence of the whole family) so why not revert back to that time? Because we like the wealthy and unsustainable lifestyle?

    1. I agree that lack of cooking ability is a problem when it comes to eating vegetarian. I had the privilege of growing up in a home where food was valued and I helped to cook meals while I was growing up so when I left home I could already cook quite a lot of things from scratch.

      I largely agree with what you say about the environmental impacts of meat and fish production, but as Tom says above it’s more nuanced than simply saying meat=bad.

      In reference to people needing meat for survival – these people are not the big problem. The problems associated with meat are largely as a result of consumption in North and South America, Europe and Australia. (See this map for the average meat consumption per country http://geocurrents.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/meat-consumption-per-capita1.png). However, the increasing demand for meat in China combined with their huge population will be likely to drive land use change in other parts of the world.

      I would imagine the increase in meat consumption almost nothing to do with people’s attitudes towards the environment. It has more to do with cultural norms. Traditionally vegetables have been seen as poor people’s food. With greater wealth more people can afford to eat meat and they see it as desirable. That would be my guess anyway.

  4. Thank you for the post! I am trying to work toward eating less meat and using more sustainable transport. I was surprised that you mention overpopulation but don’t talk about having fewer (or no) children. I think that making the decision to bring fewer children into an uncertain world can have a big impact. Even if the world is theoretically capable of sustaining more humans, all of the conservation challenges that we face will be easier with fewer humans.

    1. Hi Lisa, glad you liked the post! What are you doing to improve your transport habits?

      You have a point about population (which I will touch on in an upcoming post) but I’m not sure how I feel about telling people what to do with their reproductive organs.

      I agree that having less children would generally be a good thing so that we can slow the population increase that we currently face but I think the ‘easy’ thing to target it unwanted pregnancies & resulting children. Many of these occur because women don’t always have control over contraception, especially in certain less economically developed countries.

      People choosing how many children to have is largely a first world problem. I doubt that people would take too kindly to being told that they should have less kids. Population increases in many economically developed countries is likely to be a product of influxes of immigrants rather than birth rates. If we are going to be prescriptive about things maybe to protect the environment we should restrict access of immigrants from developing countries to richer countries? After all per capita consumption is much higher in rich countries.

  5. A really good post – I think as a whole people are hypocrites, but then, in this world it is very hard for anyone NOT to be a hypocrite.

    I am an ecologist and I’m well aware that I don’t always practice what I preach – actually been an ecologist requires you to travel around a lot, as often jobs are a long way away and if you are doing bat surveys for example, often public transport isn’t feasible….

    So, I did the next best thing. Early this year I sold my 10 year old Ford Fiesta and bought a brand new Corsa. Although I miss my 1.8 engine, this new car is not only more fuel efficient and has much less emissions than my old car, but it is kinder to my wallet too. I don’t fly anywhere and take public transport where I can.

    I always buy local produce where possible to ensure low food mileage and encourage fairer prices for local growers, and I eat meat maybe 4-5 times a week, but as some of it is local game meat, I don’t feel too bad.

    I’m an old fashioned person – I have my mobile and laptop and that is it. I would much rather listen to the world around me than deafen myself with music blaring in my ears and enjoy watching the world go by on public transport rather than having my eyes stuck to an I Pad screen.

    And as for children…. I can think of nothing worse than having a child to look after for the next 20 years, so I am doing my bit to ease a growing population 😉

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