Just ’cause I love poking the hornet’s nest, I thought I’d weigh in on this brouhaha about PETA, vegetarianism, and environmentalism. As I see it, there are three core questions:

1. Should citizens of conscience become vegetarians?

To me, the answer to this question is pretty obviously yes. I don’t see how it can be seriously argued.

Depending on your inclinations, you can heed the health arguments, the moral arguments, or the environmental arguments (regardless whether you agree with the UN study that meat production is the No. 1 contributor to global warming, it is obviously a very large contributor, never mind CAFOs’ horrid effects on land, air, and water). Taken together, these arguments strike me as dispositive. It is not possible to participate in industrial animal farming with clean hands.

Add to all this the fact that unlike giving up a car, moving closer to work, or retrofitting a home to be more energy efficient, giving up meat involves virtually no cost or inconvenience. Eating meat is entirely an aesthetic choice, based on taste and habit. Taste and habit are not convincing counterweights to the arguments against meat.

So yes, you should eat less meat; ideally you should eat none. You ought to be a vegetarian.

Two additional notes:

  • Yeah, yeah, the equation is different if you eat only humanely raised animals purchased from local farmers, or if you hunt and kill your own meat. But about 0.001% of Americans do that, and there could never be enough of that kind of meat to match current consumption levels, so it’s a distraction from the real argument. At least for me, the argument for vegetarianism is not categorical; it’s contingent on the actual state of industrial livestock farming.
  • I’m not a vegetarian, so I’m a big fat hypocrite. I eat meat — not nearly as much as the average American, but some. I choose local and humane when I can, but lots of times it isn’t an option. My personal eating habits give me considerable incentive to justify meat consumption. But I’d rather acknowledge my hypocrisy than use a bunch of bullsh*t arguments.

2. Is it true that you cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist?

This is a deeply silly question. The term "environmentalist" is socially contingent and highly contested. Environmentalism has no metaphysical essence. "You aren’t an environmentalist" is moral judgment masquerading as an assertion of fact.

Every discussion I’ve ever witnessed about who is or isn’t an environmentalist, or what does or doesn’t count as environmentalism — and believe me, at this point I’ve seen plenty — contains vastly more heat than light. Feelings are hurt, umbrage is taken, but nothing is ever learned, no consensus is ever reached. It’s a peacock show through which everyone parades their biases and preconceptions.

What makes an environmentalist? Is it enough to care about (write about, advocate for) environmental policy, or must you also engage in activism? Must you take action to green your own life? If so, how much? Drive less, or not at all? Turn off lights, or go off grid? Eat less meat, or go vegetarian?

I don’t know, or much care. There are lots and lots of things decent human beings should do. Nobody’s able to do them all. We all do a little; we should all do more. Those of us on more or less the same side gain very little by furiously judging each other’s personal choices in a futile attempt to define the tribal boundaries of environmentalism.

3. Is PETA’s latest campaign counterproductive?

It’s important when thinking about this question to disentangle your own response to the campaign from the question of its overall efficacy. I’ll freely admit it bugs the crap out of me. Proclaiming who is and isn’t an environmentalist bugs me. Using Al Gore as a foil bugs me. Using global warming opportunistically, as a convenient wedge, bugs me. The whole thing is irksome.

However, the campaign isn’t designed to secure my moral or aesthetic approval, or yours. It’s designed to spread awareness of something you and I already know: that eating meat is environmentally destructive and exacerbates global warming. A sober, fair-minded, carefully argued campaign would not achieve that goal. It would sink without a ripple.

As I’ve argued before (in connection to another PETA campaign), it’s extremely difficult to make yourself heard over the din of pop culture and 24-hour media. There aren’t many people looking around for information on the destructiveness of their most intimate habits. Virtually the only way advocacy campaigns can gain any traction is by generating some controversy. Despite what you may think, that’s not all PETA does, but they do it a lot and they do it well. That’s why you know who they are. That’s why we’re having a debate about vegetarianism and environmentalism.

As annoying as it is, I count the campaign a success, because of the hundreds of advocacy campaigns going on right now, this is the one we noticed. That’s what PETA set out to achieve, and they achieved it.