Non Violent Civil Disobedience Against Climate Change: Refrain from Beef

Seven years ago, I fell in love and, relatedly, I stopped eating beef.

Like most Americans, until recently, I loved burgers and steak. But early in my courtship with my now-wife, a prix fixe dinner changed things. When the waiter presented us with a gorgeous-looking, perfectly cooked and seasoned medium well steak, it looked delicious. My new girlfriend, a Nepali-American (Newari descent) politely pointed out that, as a Hindu, she cannot eat beef. Whoops. A fish dish was quickly substituted, and she magnanimously overlooked the stumble.

Out of a respect for Sarju and her family, I vowed to never eat beef again. That decision was good for my heart — both literally with my cholesterol levels dropping and figuratively by bonding with her family heritage. But what I didn’t fully appreciate then was how the decision was consistent with protecting the planet.

Cyrus and his wife, Sarju, in Nepal

Over the weekend a deal was reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland to implement the Paris Agreement and keep the accord intact. It’s a good and necessary step. Last month, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released its latest report and, following in the footsteps of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report a month earlier, it painted a dire picture of an environment and economy in crisis.

The reports, and others in scientific journals, highlight the role of food production — livestock and grain-fed beef in particular — in accelerating climate change. The livestock industry, with beef the leading force, generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, planes, trains and ships combined. Beef used an exponentially bigger carbon footprint than other forms of livestock such as chicken or pork, let alone other sources of protein.

Recently, we found ourselves in Katmandu for a wedding. Visiting sacred places such as Boudhanath Stupa, Swayambhunath and the ancient city of Bhaktapur allowed for reflections on the magnitude of the climate change reports. The timelessness of these historic places in the wake of this well-documented existential threat to humanity made me consider my own journey abstaining from beef.

It also made me think of what advocates of non-violence over the centuries — Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — might say under present circumstances where the narrow interests of the powerful few imperil us all. I imagine they would treasure the courageous scientists who work diligently to document the accelerating effects of climate change, often sacrificing their careers doing so. Thankfully we are seeing a number of world leaders take a stand on climate change issues, including Pope Francis who made climate change a focal point of his papacy; President Barack Obama who initiated important, responsible climate change regulations; Prince Charles, an outspoken critic of climate change and author on the subject; the Dalai Lama who leads by example; Gov. Jerry Brown who enacted local laws to stem climate change effects; and former Vice President Al Gore, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But advocates of non-violence are at their best facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Boudhanath, a stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Boudhanath, a stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.

In the wake of these two landmark reports, and the extraordinary impact that beef production contributes to devastating climate change, we can count our blessings that Hindus, one billion members strong, refrain from eating beef for religious purposes.

It’s a lesson we all should take to heart: A major change in our collective diets and food production is now necessary to save the planet for our children and grandchildren. Not just possible, or wise, but absolutely essential. It’s a time for collective action.

While the planet seems to be literally on fire due to climate change, each of us can dramatically reduce our own carbon footprint with the simple act of disavowing beef in our diets. A mass movement could start small but take hold in communities around the globe. Students could demand that colleges and universities take grain-fed beef off of campus menus. Stakeholders could urge corporations to get behind the Cool Food Pledge and shareholders can divest from companies involved in disastrous modes of food production. Food producers, adjusting to market demands, would likely move to greener practices. We also need smart public policy solutions like a job-creating Green New Deal to modernize the economy.

The urgency to act cannot be overstated. From unprecedented wildfires out west to more frequent powerful hurricanes in the east, we are already seeing the effects of 1.0 degree increase in global temperatures from pre-Industrial levels. Scientists believe that levels at 2.0 and above pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic with flooded coastal areas, increased wildfires and drought, forced refugee crises and total destruction of all of the world’s coral reef and much more. Scientists say we are currently barreling ahead to temperatures rising to 3.5 levels by mid-century if extraordinary changes in human behavior do not happen.

Individual and collective choices can help buy time for long overdue policy choices to take hold. If the number of people who refrain from beef doubled from one billion to two billion we could buy significant time in the uphill battle to curtail catastrophic climate change. Whether for religious, moral or practical health reasons, now is the time to disavow beef. Whether or not you marry a Hindu, you can adopt a mindful diet and a non-violent approach to saving the planet. Namaste.

Cyrus Mehri is a civil rights attorney in Washington D.C.

Cyrus Mehri is the co-founder of Mehri & Skalet; Working IDEAL; & the Fritz Pollard Alliance @FindJusticeLaw