Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret
AUM Films, First Spark Media
Our story opens with Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club expounding on rising carbon dioxide levels, rising sea levels, drought, famine, extinction, cats fornicating with dogs, etc. Well, he might not have mentioned that last one, but in a nutshell, according to Hamilton, we’re all shortly going to die horrible deaths. And then the movie gets really depressing.
Kip Andersen interviews a variety of environmental and health experts. Mr. Andersen came across an alarming piece of news from the UN that cows are responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined. When he talked to various environmental groups about this looming bovine ecological apocalypse he was disappointed at their responses. Greenpeace didn’t even want to talk to him. California government representatives talked to him but had no comment on how too many cows are going to do us all in. The Sierra Club spoke with him at length but didn’t see any reason to panic about this cow-tastrophy. One person somewhat bluntly disagreed with him, which he found bizarre. It’s not clear whether it was bizarre that someone would disagree with him or that the very idea that he might be wrong was bizarre.
Andersen eventually finds Will Anderson who is a former director of Greenpeace and will talk to him. Will Anderson starts out by saying that environmental organizations are not telling the truth about what the world needs from us as a species. Up to that point I agreed with him but he quickly lost me after that.
Kip Andersen has amassed a blizzard of factoids from his interviews, UN reports, Internet blurbs and Chicken Little. Highlights include these familiar items: Cows produce methane. It takes twenty-five hundred gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Rain forests are being torn down to graze cattle. Cattle overgraze the land, and cows produce enough manure to bury several large cities and a few small countries. He lists those cities and countries. He does not include Washington, DC, presumably because it is already covered. He admits that the amount of water associated with cattle raising is probably grossly overstated and assumes that water disappears from the planet forever once used. He looks at grass-based farming but concludes it is even less sustainable than the conventional model.
While he was looking at the over-grazing issue, he came across the name of Allan Savory, and for a brief moment I thought he might come to an intelligent conclusion about grazing. Silly me. Allan Savory made mistakes in his earlier years, some very unfortunate, but learned from those mistakes and went on to do some great work. Andersen fixated on the mistakes and decided he would not listen to anything said by someone who would make mistakes. If that is his standard, I’m not sure how he’s finding anyone to listen to. He went on to interview a sock puppet for the GMO industry but had the wisdom not to listen to the puppet.
There are more episodes of throwing dubious numbers around. For example, Andersen claims we can get fifteen times more protein from plants than animals. There is no thought given to what happens when that partial plant protein turns out not to be enough. Also no thought about all the nutrients you can’t get from plants. At one point he bemoans the killing of all those cows. At another point he recommends using all crops for humans and not feeding it to cows. I’m not sure what he thinks is going to happen when you stop feeding cows.
From a nutritional point of view this film is a disaster, but it goes well beyond that. It seems many people, in particular some environmentalists and those who bloviate about sustainability, are operating under false assumptions based on what the early white settlers (Europeanus ignoramus) found when they got here and their impressions of its provenance. They found a rich, fertile land unlike anything they had seen in Europe. Because their diseases wiped out much of the native population, the land superficially appeared to be untouched by human hands. This has led to the conclusion that good environmental stewardship means letting nature run its course with no human interference. I highly recommend reading the book 1491 to understand what really happened.
Before Columbus, the Western Hemisphere was about as well populated as the Eastern Hemisphere and those inhabitants were brilliant at managing land and resources. In the East, European colonists found savannahs and woods clear enough to ride a horse through. Woods untouched by human hands are choked with underbrush, fallen trees and debris. You can’t walk, let alone ride, through such woods. How did the ancient forests end up so clean? They were regularly groomed with fire by the residents of that time. According to some accounts those fires were really big. Healthy trees survived. Sick and dead trees and brush didn’t.
Further west the Europeans found the Great Plains with incredibly deep, fertile topsoil. It did not get that way by random forces of nature but by Plains Indians partnering with animals, namely bison. They had a lot of the big bovine, more than we have today. The West was not an untouched wilderness sparsely populated by a bunch of vegans.
All that fire and the resulting smoke, all those cattle, and all those people did not cause global warming, did not destroy the land, did not drive species to extinction and did not wreak general havoc on the environment. There was no Smokey the Bear to whine about fire. There was no dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The sky did not fall. It was sustainable and was sustained for centuries if not thousands of years. This movie repeatedly claims that we cannot support as many cattle as we have now. These claims were disproven five hundred years ago. I guess some people are a little slow to get it. Some vegans have been farming their own way for a few decades at most and claim that it is sustainable. Decades don’t mean diddly. Come back in a couple of centuries and show me. Then maybe I’ll be impressed.
The producer may have been well-intentioned. I don’t know. I try to be sensitive to people’s feelings and be nice and I’m trying now. This film is impressive—impressively dreadful, intellectually lightweight, and fear-mongering. It is a pile of steaming hot, USDA grade A, grain-fed, cow-phobic drivel. That is about as nice as I can be. Before he finished the film Andersen discovered he was in danger of losing all his funding. Apparently this movie was too pessimistic even for Chicken Little. Have you guessed yet that my thumb is DOWN for this thing?
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2015