CLIMATE, VIOLENCE, ENVIRONMENT, HEALTH—these are among the issues that many prominent environmental groups have taken on. We are familiar with many terms associated with these issues, because the sobering statistics and ominous predictions are everywhere. From this activist’s perspective, problems regarding climate, violence, environment, and health are intertwined not only in how they come about, but also in solutions. In this article, I will attempt to expose my perspective and engage your imagination.
INFORMATION ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH
Accurate information is essential, but for changing behaviors the information needs to touch our hearts. The day that I abandoned the practice of eating animals, was a day when my heart broke open to the information that had surrounded me for a long time. We need to feel connected to the problem and to the proposed solutions.
Consider this: as a practicing physician, I can attest that there is widespread awareness and agreement that eating more plants and less or no animals is associated with living longer without disability, yet it has not altered beef, bacon, cheese, or chicken consumption in many of my colleagues. This is in part the result of absent any nutrition education in medical school— nutrition is not valued during our professional formative years. Once graduated, physicians rely on marketing and ads, just like the rest. It is also that when taught nutrition is taught separate from how it is connected to preserving our health or to the direct long term effects on disease progression or to the role it plays in reversing established disease; it is treated in isolation.
“Similarly, conservation scientists are not found to have lower environmental footprint than other professionals despite their greater environmental knowledge”. Our consumer culture all but devalues conservation of our natural resources. We do not connect consumerism with the consumption of the planet.
Many of us remember the decades it took to alter public behavior with respect to tobacco, even after we knew it caused lung cancer and witnessed its unquestionable association with heart attacks, our number one killer. Socialized to associate cigarettes with glamour and relaxation, not with disease, we could turn an addiction into accepted behavior.
Information is important, essential even, but frequently not enough. Especially since the parties benefiting from our habits mount significant and expensive campaigns that only they can afford, to keep us consuming their products for life. The Dairy Industry never paid a cent to any of the people that lined up to gladly appear in the Got Milk? public ads. Meats; eggs; oil; and cigarettes are all backed by big bucks.
ADD CONTEXT—MAKE SUCCESS THE DEFAULT
Positive change is manifest when we materialize valuable information, when we don’t keep it inside our heads. Take this example, as more plant based items were added to a cafeteria menu, the opportunity to make poor choice was diluted and the consumption of plant food increased exponentially. Imagine intervening one step earlier as when a child is asked to choose between a carrot and an orange (expressly eliminating candy from the mix). We put in practice what we know—that children are not consuming the 5-a-Day recommended amount of fruits and vegetables—and narrow their choices to only acceptable healthy ones. Of course in this case, you are the adult at home charged with providing excellent nutrition for your child. Schools should support parents in this mission.
Changing our adult habits is more complicated, it takes connecting accurate information with will power and self discipline, especially at the beginning. When it comes to food, we are told to use our will power wisely by making the decision at the point of purchase. We are warned that if we delay the decision to after we have brought the item home, we will be required to decide many more times (do I eat it or do I not?), quickly exhausting our limited supply of will power. In spite of this smart advice, which has helped many of my patients make sustainable lifestyle changes, our processed fried food environment is a huge hurdle that few can overcome by themselves.
Another example that comes to mind is with grocery bags—if there are no plastics available at the cash register, only durable inexpensive cloth bags; customers without their own and not willing to buy must ask for paper bags kept inconveniently out of sight under the counter. We can smartly plan for success when dealing with many other habits this way. Companies can help make the sought behavior be the default.
Personal decisions often use external cues as guidance. That is where our valued organizations come in—providing reasoned positions/ opinions as guideposts.
We’ve learned from current research that people who follow plant-based diets have 73% lower odds of suffering moderate-to-severe COVID-19. Ignoring this powerful information and focusing on vaccines as our only assigned public health strategy is reductionistic and likely to be ineffective—since one virus follows the next.
Paying exclusive attention to deaths due to the COVID pandemic and ignoring over 700,000 deadly heart attacks annually—is an exercise in tunnel vision—especially as many studies show that we can reduce our risks for dying of either with better food and lifestyle choices.
Can we afford to ignore a truth because it is inconvenient? Al Gore ignored his most inconvenient truth and wasted precious publicity. I remember questioning why food and agribusiness were not on the graph.
ACTIVISTS OF ALL SIZES
We face dire consequences which require the engagement of us all: consumers, policy makers, leaders in the private sector, plus small and large non for profit organizations. While “no one” in a silo by themselves can revert the current situation, “any one” can set a tone, start the ball rolling.
I would submit that we each should take action independently without waiting for others. I like to tell my patients, “you do not need health insurance or permission from anyone to eat more legumes, grains, mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables”. However, when you are bigger your
strategic move will force the other players of equal size to carefully calculate their next step to stay relevant.
Speaking of all sizes, children exposed to food through a curriculum that engages all the senses, become savvy creators, from the ground up, of a world in which we all could live long and healthy lives.
Let’s be honest, our meat centered diet depends on violence. Inside a slaughterhouse, hundreds of healthy animals are killed every hour—in an atmosphere of blood, feces, and the indescribable deafening sounds made by thrashing sentient beings, cold machines, and their human operators. This daily institutionalized violent ritual is hidden from public view—an attempt to keep our insatiable taste for animal flesh unquestioned.
Five hundred thousand poorly paid workers nationwide perform this burdensome task earning an average of $26k a year. Slaughterhouse work is not only identified as the most physically dangerous, but it is psychologically traumatizing like no other. The term perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS) refers to when people with otherwise good moral character are the ones causing the injury (in this case the killing) exposing them “to the risk that their pathologically un-empathetic work selves will slip into their community lives”. Should it surprise us that “Slaughterhouses outstripped all other work in the effect they had on crime” in their communities?
As much as agribusiness and associated parties try, this violence does not stay behind closed doors or escape our consciousness—have you ever watched a child make the connection between the meat on their plate and the animal they just petted at the sanctuary or zoo? When during a farm trip she asks, why won’t the handler let the calf nurse? Answer the question honestly, “so that we can drink her mom’s milk”.
Imagine yourself wriggling as you try to provide a more sanitized answer. How would you circle around the dozen eggs that are tossed in play and watch splat on the ground—after so much animal pain and suffering. A picture is worth a thousand words. We form our children’s attitudes with our expressed actions, something that even the most convincing words can never undo. In fact, we know that children often need to be taught to ignore their natural empathy (much like soldiers) in order to put a worm on a hook, fish, or participate in a “traditional” family hunt.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
I have tried to expose how climate, violence, environment, and health are intertwined. I have tried to express that we cannot afford to silo ourselves and pretend that the issues are so separate; that we cannot pick and choose issues when we know they are so intertwined; that no matter how small an organization, it has members who look up to its public positions and opinions to take bold steps while feeling supported.
KNOW BETTER, DO BETTER
It is obvious that while we must always strive to study and learn more, we already know a lot— in fact, we know more than enough. Do we dare to personally transition to a sustainable lifestyle and publicly defend it? Could our respected organizations publish a position statement denouncing our reliance on animals as food? Short of this, could events acquire a universal tone and be therefore plant based? Not only are meat and dairy unnecessary, but they contribute to climate destruction, disease, and relentless unspeakable violence—something that as a society we are constantly trying to curb and against which many organizations work so diligently.
When we know better, we are expected to do better. Education is essential, but history shows that it is hardly ever sufficient. It takes a change of heart—something that cannot be legislated, but can surely be modeled. Me first.
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Ana M. Negrón, MD is a Board certified practicing bilingual family physician from Puerto Rico living in Philadelphia since the 1970s; thirty years vegan plant based; mother, teacher, volunteer, mentor, writer, author of Nourishing the Body and Recovering Health: The Positive Science of Food published by Sunstone Press; her home runs on a geothermal system since 2003; she drives a fully electric car since 2015; and serves on the board of The Center for Nutrition Studies T Colin Campbell.