Can you be an environmentalist and meat eater?
April 22nd, 2014
12:00 PM ET
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Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Before we jump into a debate about the environmental costs of eating meat, here are three things you should know:

1. I've experimented with vegetarianism twice, but it's never really stuck. Round one ended when I had a dream about a spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy's, and then woke up to march zombie-style to that fast-food restaurant to order it. Round two may or may not have ended with the brunch I had Sunday, I'm still not sure.

2. I ate chicken chilaquiles for brunch on Sunday. It was delicious.

Therefore, 3. This is not an anti-meat polemic.

But I have been thinking in recent weeks about our relationships with animals and what our diets mean for the health of the environment. It started while I was doing research for a story on illegal animal trafficking, and I was reading books, including Dana Goodyear's "Anything that Moves" - about how the American foodie scene is trending toward the bizarre and endangered (witness the 2010 bust of a California restaurant serving whale) - and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals," which argues, in part, that one cannot eat meat and also earnestly claim to be an environmentalist.

Read - Opinion: Skip the meat on Earth Day

Previously: Clean, green dining for Earth Day and beyond

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Filed under: Animal Rights • Earth Day • Events • Food Politics

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Jdizzle McConaughey ♫♫


    April 23, 2014 at 6:04 pm |
  2. jacuzo

    I clicked this article with curiosity about the facts. But the article is factually insufficient.

    April 23, 2014 at 9:57 am |
  3. Timothy

    Can you be an environmentalist and be a non-vegetarian? Sure. I'm a vegetarian, but I understand that for everyone there's a breaking point where you decide that you don't need to live in a shack made of driftwood to be true to your environmental principles. I'm not a pure vegan, because some of medicines I take have gelatine capsules on them, and I sometimes eat yoghurt. I'm not sure that makes me a serial killer. Similarly, you can be an environmentalist and eat meat. You just need to accept, as I do, that you are not a perfect environmentalist, and that there are simple changes you are choosing not to make which could make you a better environmentalist. Once you get past thinking of your own position as morally pure, and accept it as a merely a relatively bright shade of grey, and accept that that's enough, then, yes, you can have your steak and be green.

    Not that I would, but I'm not here to convert you.

    April 22, 2014 at 7:28 pm |
    • sam stone

      good post

      April 23, 2014 at 9:33 am |
      • JellyBean

        Yep, couldn't agree more.

        April 23, 2014 at 10:16 am |
    • Thinking things through

      Yes, thanks.

      April 24, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
  4. Here's the real solution...

    April 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm |
    • dinasoliman

      How is that a solution?

      April 22, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
      • Here's the real solution...

        Because having children is selfish and irresponsible. Period.

        April 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
        • dinasoliman

          Without reproduction, you wouldn't exist right now. Reproduction is a natural process; humans have evolved to be able to reproduce for the survival of the human race. All life on earth can reproduce, whether sexually or asexually.

          Suppose humans stop reproducing altogether. How would that help the environment? Evolution takes billions of years to affect organisms, so even if humans stop having babies right this second, the environment wouldn't magically improve overnight.

          April 22, 2014 at 1:14 pm |
        • RC

          Well aren't you just a beautiful ray of sunshine.........

          April 22, 2014 at 7:42 pm |
        • Jacob

          You're selfish and irresponsible. Rather than try to find a real solution, you think its better to wipe the slate clean. Do you know what happens if you have humanity go extinct? Sure, nothing for a few million years. The highest organisms on earth might be dolphins or ravens or whatever. But eventually a species will evolve into intelligence, and they will make the same mistakes we did. They will ruin the environment, and eat other animals. They will reproduce. It is better for us to fix the problems of the world, than for us to resign ourselves to oblivion. Quit denying life, say yes, yes, yes! Affirm life, affirm existence! Existence is not just the spice of life, it is life!

          April 23, 2014 at 12:09 am |
        • Thinking things through

          Having children is NOT selfish and irresponsible. I may not have any, but as with eating, or not eating meat, there are nuances to everything.

          However, Jacob: " Rather than try to find a real solution, you think its better to wipe the slate clean. Do you know what happens if you have humanity go extinct? " If you really really think that procreation could be eliminated, you are wrong. SOME people choosing not to have children is not remotely a threat to anyone else. (This really reminds me of the anti-gay stuff I've heard in the past.)

          Some (but not all) of us don't have children. Some (but not all) of us don't eat meat, or are incorporating in Meatless Mondays, or sustainable meat sources. Many of us are trying to find the best solutions that make sense to each individual, regarding our environment, our world. I'm not settling for a cookie-cutter answer.

          April 24, 2014 at 6:24 pm |
  5. dinasoliman

    I read Foer's book, and I think he's definitely one-sided with regards to being vegetarian. He pulls out the whole cruelty-of-factory-farming to justify being vegan/vegetarian and doesn't address environmental issues or the reasons why factory farming exists. I'm not a proponent of industrialized agriculture (it's horrible to the environment and antibiotic-pumped animals aren't good for our health either) but without it, it's impossible to feed the world. You could also argue that it's the food distribution network that's behind world hunger; however, if you think about simple supply and demand, if you don't have enough supply, you can't meet the demand.

    I'm a meat eater, and I do believe myself to be an environmentalist.

    May I ask what other books you have read?

    April 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
  6. The answer is...


    April 22, 2014 at 12:51 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      The answer is: Yes. I eat sustainable meats and veggies, and haven't reproduced. And before anyone jumps on that last, I don't think reproducing means one is un-environmental - it's just one of many things to consider in lives that are seldom yes/no black/white.

      Am I perfect at environmental action? No. I drive a car and go on road trips. Two or three lights here are still incandescent, simply because I'd have to change the hardware holding them. I compost, I shop a good percentage of food locally. I use evil poisons to combat poison ivy here. There are few simple answers, and meat/no meat isn't part of the course.

      April 24, 2014 at 6:10 pm |
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