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less meat and fish, drink less milk. No request could be simpler, or
more consequential. Nothing we do has greater potential for reducing our
impacts on the living planet. Yet no request is more likely to elicit a
baffled, hurt or furious response.
This point comes across with astonishing force in the film Cowspiracy.
I would question some of the figures it uses, but its thesis – we just
don’t want to talk about it – is undeniable. Leaders of the big US green
groups either avoided the film makers like the plague or smiled and
shook their heads when asked about livestock. State officials were
struck dumb by the question.
Climate change, water use, forest destruction, river pollution,
floods, dead zones in the sea: the impacts of animal farming are massive
and global; in many cases greater than those of anything else we do.
But we don’t want to know.
Livestock keeping is so embedded in our cultural and religious
identity that to challenge it is, it seems, to attack the foundations of
society. We like to see ourselves as free thinkers, but we all have our
The world’s great monotheistic religions arose among nomadic herders.
While sedentary people worshipped a host of local gods, to the herders
moving across the land, God was an overarching principle, often residing
in the sky. The pastoral religions took root among settled peoples, and
we found ourselves, even in wet and fertile lands like Britain,
reciting the desert creeds of Abel’s profession, though we tilled the
ground like Cain.
For millennia we counted our wealth in cattle (otherwise known as
chattels, or stock). A literary tradition dating back to Theocritus, in
the 3rd century BC, portrays herding as a life of virtue and
innocence, a refuge from the corruption and venality of the city. Two
thousand years later, the trope persists almost nightly on television. You challenge these deep themes at your peril.