Produced by Kip Andersen
& Keegan Kuhn
Animals United Movement A.U.M., 2014
85 minutes running time.
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Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
I cannot recall the last time, if ever, that I gave a film a standing ovation, but Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret earned one at a sparsely attended February 28, 2015 special showing at the 88-year-old Clyde Theatre in Langley, Washington, co-hosted by Marnie Jones of the Whidbey Institute and Aubrey Keegan of Whidbey Vegetarians & Vegans.
None of the other 62 viewers stood, or clapped, but few moved to leave. Most seemed to be in mild shock from the film, which in truth includes only a few brief shocking scenes of the deaths of fish and ducks for human consumption. Cowspiracy, making the rounds of universities and art filmhouses since mid-2014, is actually a rather gentle look at the ecological and ethical aspects of eating meat––and succeeds as a work of film art, as well as a hard-hitting investigative documentary, precisely because it gently and often humorously pursues questions, rather than hitting anyone over the head.
Both structurally and in tone, Cowspiracy owes a debt of inspiration to Michael Moore’s Emmy Award-winning 1989 documentary Roger & Me, exploring the impact on Flint, Michigan, of General Motors relocating automotive manufacturing operations to Mexico.
Much as Moore unsuccessfully pursued an on-camera interview with former General Motors chief executive Roger B. Smith, Kip Anderson approached spokespersons for major environmental charities including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network, the Surfriders Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as for governmental agencies pertaining to water pollution.
Time and again, Anderson asked representatives of environmental protection institutions, and some representatives of agribusiness, to identify the major sources of pollution, deforestation, and habitat loss within their spheres of activity.
After politely listening to their answers, Anderson asked the enviros and government people why they did not address meat production––which some acknowledged was the biggest problem, but offered little excuse for failing to address.
Many interview subjects sidestepped. Greenpeace refused to allow Anderson to interview any Greenpeace representative. Ann Nothoff, California Advocacy Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, dissolved in giggles over “cow farts.” Animal Agriculture Alliance spokesperson Emily Meredith, who writes the “Activist Watcher” blog for the online agribusiness newspaper Meatingplace, professed to be unaware of any animal industry funding of environmental organizations.
Chad Nelson, environmental director for the Surfrider foundation, asserted that the livestock industry is not big in southern California. Anderson illustrated on a map of U.S. agribusiness that southern California in truth has many of the largest intensive confinement dairy and beef cattle production facilities in the nation.
Anderson’s questions eventually brought him to awareness of the killings of Brazilian rainforest defenders José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, the American nun Dorothy Stang, and rubber tapper Chico Mendes, who were among the most prominent of more than 1,150 murder victims who have protested against Amazon deforestation driven by beef industry demand for more land in which to grow fodder.
Anderson also became acquainted with Mad Cowboy author and documentarian Howard Lyman, who from April 1996 to November 2002 fought lawsuits brought by beef industry representatives in response to comments he and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey made about beef on camera. Lyman warned Anderson about the perils of SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.)
Late in production of Cowspiracy, Anderson and film making partner Keegan Kuhn lost one of the few funders they had been able to find, basically for asking too many questions that embarrassed too many representatives of Big Green, as the environmental establishment is often called, and of “alternative” agribusiness.
Frequently positioned as more environmental sustainable and more humane than factory farming, the grassfed meat and backyard husbandry sectors differ mostly from bigtime agribusiness in packaging, Anderson found.
Of course people who believe there is such a thing as “happy meat” disagree, but as a young investigative reporter on the farm beat in rural Quebec nearly 40 years ago, I came inescapably to the same conclusions: if conducted in any manner that makes money, there really is no such thing as genuinely humane, environmentally sound and sustainable animal husbandry.
This, more than any other reason, is why I gave Cowspiracy a standing ovation, standing alone.
As Cowspiracy details and publicity materials for Cowspiracy summarize, “Kip Andersen’s environmental awakening came as a result of An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 Dave Guggenheim documentary that was famously narrated by former U.S. vice president Albert Gore.
“After seeing the film,” the publicity materials continue, Andersen “began to recycle religiously, turn off lights constantly, shower infrequently, and ride a bike instead of driving. Andersen believed he was doing everything he could to help the planet by following the guidelines of national and international environmental organizations, but his life took a different direction when he found out animal agriculture is the leading cause of environmental destruction.”
Anderson then teamed up with Kuhn and found the sources who frame Cowspiracy, notably Food Choice & Sustainability author Richard Oppenlander, Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, World Peace Diet author Will Tuttle, and Greenpeace Alaska founder Will Anderson, later an executive for Earth Island Institute and the Progressive Animal Welfare Society.
As most of the above could testify from personal memory, Kip Andersen’s insights and discoveries should not be news to anyone truly paying attention to the evolution of environmental issues over the past 50 years––or longer.
Reporting on the first Earth Day, in early 1970, which was close to my debut in journalism on animal and environmental news beats, I listened to speakers including Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, Earth Island Institute founder David Brower, biochemist Bruce Ames, Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown, entomologist Ron Stecker, and many others, both in Berkeley and in San Jose, California, as they outlined their ideas for promoting an ecology-centered approach to living.
Each framed the ideas they set forth as being as much as a set of direct challenges to the environmental establishment of that era as to Washington D.C. and Wall Street.
The three strong takeaway messages favored recycling, using renewable energy (especially wind and solar), and eating less meat, or none.
The common goal was not just to clean up air and water, an urgent necessity, but also to prevent pollution in the first place.
Twenty years later the part of the message about eating less meat, or none, had long since been lost, buried, and forgotten, despite the rise in the interim of the animal rights movement. Another generation of activist authors, especially John Robbins in Diet for a New America, rose to remind people of “green” aspirations and concerns that no action accessible to every individual can do more to save water, fossil fuels, forest, and topsoil than quitting eating meat, nor does any action show more compassion for fellow sentient beings than ceasing to consume them.
Despite the runaway success of Diet for a New America, and the emergence of vegan and farm animal advocacy during the next 17 years, as of Earth Day 2007 only two of the biggest seven environmental organizations had even tenuously advised their supporters to eat less meat, let alone urged veganism or vegetarianism as a lifestyle––and neither of those organizations is vigorously promoting the need to eat less meat today.
Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (1988) and Friends of Animals, among others, organized a National Day of Climate Action called “Step it up 2007” a week ahead of Earth Day 2007 to try to increase Earth Day notice of global warming and try to put eating less meat––or none––back on the environmental agenda. The Earth Day Network published “Ten easy steps to cutting out the #1 contributor to global warming: farmed animals!” but only 1% of more than 8.9 million web postings about Earth Day 2007 events mentioned either veganism or vegetarianism.
From then to now, as Kip Andersen and Cowspiracy document, the silence about the contributions to meat consumption to global warming and practically every other major environmental problem has been deafening.
Yet total U.S. red meat and poultry consumption, peaking at 221.6 pounds per capita in 2004 and there again in 2007, has fallen by nearly 10%.
Published on February 19, 2015, the 571-page draft report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee represents the combined perspectives of experts from both the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The primary job of the USDA is promoting U.S. agribusiness.
Yet the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found that, “Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet.”
The animal agribusiness sector predictably went ballistic, petitioning Congress to intervene.
Already, reported Roberto A. Ferdman and Peter Whoriskey of The Washington Post, “Members of Congress sought in December 2014 to keep the group from even discussing impact on the environment, asserting that while advising the government on federal dietary guidelines, the committee should steer clear of extraneous issues and stick to nutritional advice.”
Regardless of what the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines look like, however, after Congressional meddling, the draft report adds more weight to the extensive source list cited in Cowspiracy and abstracted on the Cowspiracy web site. Some of the claims about the environmental impact of eating meat contradict each other, for example studies finding that meat production is responsible for either 18% or 51% of the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming. Some are shaky, in particular the oft-repeated saws about an “extinction crisis,” which really pertains only to large charismatic megafauna in parts of Africa and Asia. But despite the contradictions and questionable aspects, even the lowest numbers point toward eating less meat––or none––as the most effective way to reduce the damaging human impacts on Planet Earth.
Unpleasant and inconvenient as meat addicts may find the Cowspiracy message, it is a good-humored and easy-going warning to all who have missed the preceding 45 years of danger signs, during which time most of the worst-case prophecies about the short-term effects of global warming and continued high meat consumption have already happened, leaving the worst to come.
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