Your diet is destroying the world, continued.

A friend writes:

I was wondering if you could talk me through the complete chain of ethical reasoning. I have seen a lot about how meat consumption is responsible for a large percentage of CO2 emissions. And so I guess if we have a responsibility to cut CO2 emissions we have a responsibility to cut meat consumption.

But what is the responsibility to cut CO2 emissions? Is it due to immediate harm caused by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere? (If so, forgive my ignorance, but what is the harm?) Or is it due to a responsibility to stop global warming, which will in turn cause harm to future generations through flooding, drought, and eventually cutting short the life span of the earth?

Also, surely the main problem is beef, so why not continue with white meat and fish?

Yep, it’s really this simple. As John Broome characteristically puts it in his book: “Emissions cause harm in two steps. First, emissions cause global warming. Second, global warming causes harm”. That’s all there is to it. This thesis doesn’t depend on any contentious claims which fetishise the atmosphere as intrinsically valuable as an end in itself. We only need to claim that insofar as the climate is a vehicle by which the well-being of future individuals is deeply determined, we have a responsibility to cut emissions. Remove the floods and droughts and thereby the suffering and deaths, and this wouldn’t be the moral crisis of our time that it so clearly is.

Now, some philosophers do doubt this. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, for instance, makes some metaphysical manoeuvres when reflecting upon causation and counterfactuals to help him conclude that no individual is responsible through her emissions for any harm in the world. In short, because the phenomenon will occur regardless of what we do, he thinks it’s futile to say we are ‘obliged’ to act differently in any meaningful, traditional sense. I plan to say something about this shortly – probably in my essay, which I will link to. But I have little doubt that Armstrong is deeply misguided. It is still the case that our actions as individuals cause harm at the margin, whatever other people do.

It’s true that beef is the main problem here, as I’ve previously noted. Even meat-eaters could do vast good in the world by only eliminating beef from their diet. But just because one thing is the main problem, that doesn’t mean other things aren’t also problems. And the impact of other livestock like chicken is still bad. So I don’t see how I can avoid concluding I need to cut it all.

I am less clear about fish, but once more, it’s certainly comparatively better. Perhaps someone reading can help me. Does anyone know the fact of the matter here? Does the fish industry in its entirety cause more carbon emissions than regular inevitable food-producing practices?


5 thoughts on “Your diet is destroying the world, continued.

  1. I’m still not convinced that if the ‘harm’ of CO2 emissions is global warming that we have such a big obligation. It seems that global warming simply changes the timing of when the harm occurs rather than causes harm in the traditional sense. (this was my reasoning behind asking about your chain of ethical reasoning).

    I think my feelings are similar to Armstrong. You say he is misguided. But why? I dont really understand your response.

    You say: “It is still the case that our actions as individuals cause harm at the margin, whatever other people do.” But my thought is, “our actions as individuals, whatever other people do, simply have a marginal effect on the the timing of when harm will occur” so we have no obligation not to perform the actions.

    Not sure whether I’m making a scientific mistake or we have an ethical disagreement.

    • Will reply soon man; probably next week when I get to writing the essay and formulating thoughts more clearly and properly x

    • Global warming doesn’t just change the timing of when harm occurs it increases the probability and/or severity of harm occuring. Here are two examples:

      1) Forest fires: under GW forest fires are expected to be more frequent (more fires/year) as well as make them bigger and more intense because fire-prone forests will be drier for longer (more harm/fire).
      2) Storms/floods: under GW storms are expected to be more intense (more harm/storm) but not necessarily more frequent. But more intense storms leads to a greater probability of flooding after each storm thus more floods (more floods/year).

      Thus GW increases the harm/year in most places through a combination of a larger number of harmful events and more severe harm when a harmful event occurs. The difference in harm/year under GW and the harm/year without GW gives you the amount of harm that was caused by GW. Because these are statistical/probabilistic relationships you can’t say definitely which specific events were caused by GW but over a period of time you can determine how much harm was a consequence of GW.

      Similarly you cannot say a particular person’s lung cancer was caused by smoking but you can say over a population how many lung cancers were caused by smoking.

  2. I continue to be amused by the silence on cheese which is far worse in terms of GHG than many meats.
    Fish has a myriad of problems as well most urgently over-exploitation which reduces food available to future generations. But if we only care about global warming, then wild untrawled fish that hasn’t travelled far would have very low GHG emissions (possibly less than many veg). Wild fish are CO2 neutral, fishing methods (excluding trawling) don’t decrease the NPP of the oceans, and local fish will not have been transported by air so minimal GHG emissions there. Of course almost all wild-caught fish are over-exploited and produce a lot of by-catch but those should have little bearing on global warming.

    • Tallulah – Thanks. I have said that I’m perfectly open to the possibility now that I’m inconsistent here, and that my reasons for vegetarianism in fact entail veganism. There’s just so much meat-based literature, and stuff just on climate change, that I haven’t made time yet to internalise information on dairy produce, fish and wider environmental issues, and train my mind to care just as much. But I will with time.

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