The poor Sierra Club really took it on the chin in the recent movie “Cowspiracy.” With a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face, the club’s Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton was filmed as he fumbled, mumbled and, well, choked in response to a question about the huge impact of animal agriculture on the environment.
Some of the facts that emerged from that (enormously important) movie: Animal agriculture (and animal food consumption) causes 18 percent of green house gas according to the United Nation’s 2006 report or, if you like, 51 percent, according to the World Watch Institute in 2009; animal ag uses exponentially more water than fracking at this point; the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed primarily by the meat industry; and there’s not enough land in the United States to feed all Americans free-range/grass-fed meat. It’s the same when you look at the planet as a whole. “The land’s just not there,” said a dairy farmer in the movie.
These are statistics that haven’t normally been broadcast by the Sierra Club, or as the movie pointed out, other well-known environmental groups, such as the Rainforest Action Network.
In 2008, despite pleas from some Sierra Club members for the group to come out against the animal food industry and meat eating, Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told Ben Adler of the American Prospect magazine: “The Sierra Club isn’t opposed to eating meat, so that’s sort of the long and short of it. [We are] not opposed to hunting, not opposed to ranching.”
Fast forward to 2014, October 22. It’s hot and unbelievably dry in California. Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director, came to speak at a Presbyterian church in San Anselmo, CA. I was excited to go and hear him.
Would Brune talk about “Cowspiracy?” Would he talk about animal ag, the rainforest and climate change? Would he talk about animal agriculture, fish eating and the destruction of the oceans?
And if he didn’t talk about those things, I decided I’d do my own personal follow-up to “Cowspiracy,” which I’ve now concluded is the most important movie of the century, if not ever.
As far as I can tell from my research on the internet, Brune is a stand up guy. When he took over the Sierra Club, he put a stop to the group’s acceptance of “gifts” from a natural gas company ($26 million) and multi-million dollar “gifts” from the Clorox company. And I have to say, over the last three or four years, there have been little mentions here and there in the Sierra Club magazine and on the websites of local Sierra Club groups, suggesting that meat eating isn’t good for the environment.
But there have been no major articles on the environmental horror of animal food production. No major announcements for the public to stop eating meat from the Sierra Club.
Taking the lectern at the church, Brune began his lecture with a couple of jokes about the Giants and the World Series, and then he settled down to the business of sharing the Sierra Club’s recent activities and accomplishments. We found out the Sierra Club has been working with First Nations Peoples of Canada to try and stop the tar sands drilling and the pipeline. We also found out that the director has been talking with oil executives, pointing out that the tars sands oil isn’t worth the money, since the price of regular oil is currently so low.
We also found out that the Sierra Club did an amazing job, during the Bush administration, in preventing the energy industry from building 250 new coal plants. He didn’t mention shutting down any of the 600 or more existing ones and admitted that while the club’s efforts really didn’t do anything to slow down climate change, at least they somewhat prevented it from getting worse!
But then, again, we learned from his lecture, it is kind of worse because China’s going nuts building coal plants. But maybe that’s not so bad because they’re also building a bunch of solar. And, by the way, we Americans should put solar panels on our roofs and stop using coal, so that maybe we can be a good example to China.
Forty-five minutes of Brune talking and there was no “Cowspiracy,” no “animal agriculture and the environment,” no “don’t eat meat,” and no “don’t eat fish.”
WHAT??? Even after “Cowspiracy,” the Sierra Club’s still not coming out with it?
Audience members had been instructed to write their questions for Mr. Brune on index cards.
And just so nobody thinks I’m being viciously vegan and unfair to the Sierra Club, I’ve decided to include, word for word, what he said about animal agriculture. It’s up to you, vegans and other interested parties to decide – Does the following sound like bullshit or not? Use your own bullshit detector.
Michael Brune: So I’m going to read the most controversial question I have. “A recent documentary called ‘Cowspiracy’ focuses on how animal agriculture impacts the environment. It impacts wilderness spots, land degradation, water pollution and shortages. Why doesn’t the Sierra club address this issue? Why don’t you have a Beyond Meat program like your Beyond Oil or Beyond Coal, Beyond Natural Gas initiatives?”
(Brune looked up and addressed the audience.) How many folks have seen the film “Cowspiracy”? A few people? How many folks are familiar with animal agriculture, industrial agriculture and its impact on the environment and how many people are familiar with the impacts of industrial agriculture, meat eating and its impacts on the climate? A large number.
(Brune was still talking.) So this movie, “Cowspiracy,” is a film that, as you might guess, develops a theory that the (environmental) movement organizations working on climate change are shying away from this issue and it attacks the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, I think 350.org, Friends of the Earth, NRDC, and others for not doing it, for not having a large, public big grassroots campaign going after the industry.
And the intimation is that we are afraid to do that, afraid to take on industrial agriculture or hesitant to do it because of donors or the personal lifestyles of leaders in the organizations. We’ve thought about it, because any time you’re attacked for not doing your job right, it causes you to reflect on what you’re doing and to see whether or not you should change your policies. We like to be a responsive organization that is able to accept criticism. And so we – (he stopped for a moment, then continued.)
The Sierra Club has been working on industrial agriculture for decades. Before I came to the Sierra Club, the organization was the leading organization going up against CAFOs, concentrated animal feed lots, taking a lot of these facilities to court (in order) to protect water quality, air quality, all around the country. We have a public policy that encourages our members to eat less meat. It doesn’t encourage them to go fully vegetarian, but it says eating meat has a big impact on the environment and on the climate and as activists, as people who care about the environment we need to eat less meat.
We also have made a strong connection between climate change and industrial agriculture. And we recognize that we could heighten the visibility of this work more; to draw the connections between animal cruelty and cruelty to the planet as a whole. So we’re looking to find other ways to highlight it. We’re not afraid to take on any industry. We’re happy to discuss this issue with anyone. We’re happy to find different ways to communicate about this. But, we’re not all that interested in spending a ton of time with folks who are more interested in criticizing our friends on the issue. We’re always looking for ways to improve.
(Brune took a few other questions, mostly about carbon taxation until he got to my card.)
Vicious Vegan card: I’m a lifelong member of the Sierra Club, yet I have not donated for about four years because the organization doesn’t talk about animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change, water pollution, erosion, etc.
Michael Brune: Well, I’ve got a membership form in my back pocket for whoever wrote that. I’d be happy to talk to whoever wrote that. I would love to have you as a supporter and a member. We are a grassroots-driven and we are member-supported and we care about this issue. I’d be happy to talk to anyone about what the Sierra Club has done and what a lot of groups who are being criticized have done for [sic] animal agriculture.
Vicious Vegan spoke out: Could you read the back of my card?
Michael Brune: There’s a back to this card? It says, don’t forget to read the back of this card. “And why won’t the Sierra Club tell people that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 to 50% of green house gas emissions?” I watched the movie and it’s hard to square that, that’s a big range, 18 to 50%, that’s hard to justify, however the impact is huge. I don’t think it’s 50%, I don’t think it’s 18%, but it’s still huge.
Vicious Vegan tried to speak out again: OK, what about water, the water pollution…(I was shushed by the minister of the Presbyterian Church twice so I finally shut up.)
Michel Brune continued: So while being (unintelligible) to focus on is our dream, it’s a large issue, it’s a significant issue, it’s a challenge our society has to meet. We do need to find a way to protect our forests, of which animal agriculture has a huge impact, particularly in South America.
We do have to find a way to get off of coal and gas. Animal agriculture relates to that, but not directly. We do have to find a way to drive, to transport ourselves, animal agriculture doesn’t (unintelligible) I don’t think we have to compete those challenges against each other. What I think is the room for improvement for the Sierra Club is to elevate food production to a higher level. And I hope that you heard me when I said that we’re looking to do that.
OK, is it really happening? I checked the current Sierra Club homepage. The only article that seemed to have anything to do with food was “The Four Best Foods to Forage – Who needs the agricultural-industrial food complex when you can gather for free?” The article mentions dandelions, nettles, raspberries, oxalis and enoki. Okaaaay.
The question still hangs I think: Is the Sierra Club full of shit or not? Check out Bruce Hamilton’s October 2, 2014 blog post in response to “Cowspiracy” and decide.
Maybe we should just give the Sierra Club and some of these other groups some time. But how much time do we have?
— A Vicious Vegan blog post —