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Will Fear for Our Imperiled Planet Be Enough to Make Me Turn Vegetarian?

The impact of the meat industry upon our environment really should induce the kind of sleepless terror that forces people to give up their worst habits.

Photo Credit: Robyn Mackenzie/ Shutterstock.com


Fear is a great driver of resolve. New Year resolutions rarely see out February because they're born in a much less frightened spirit, a wishy-washy sort of hope, too weak to resist the seduction of old habits. Fear, on the other hand, keeps you on the straight and narrow. "I shall stop smoking this year," is no more than a pious aspiration uttered at the midnight bell. Only when the words become: "I must stop smoking," spoken in the sleepless hours between three and five when premature death seems a more solid prospect – only then is there a real chance that smoking will actually cease.

I gave up eight years ago. It seems alarming and slightly disgusting to me now that I smoked for so long and in such a variety of ways – cigarettes, pipes, cheroots, cigars, Piccadilly Tipped, Balkan Sobranie, Wills' Whiffs. Smoking was my generation's inheritance. My grandfather smoked Thick Black, brought out of jars and weighed in ounces on the tobacconist's scales, while my father preferred Walnut Plug, which came in tins and needed to be sliced from its dense little block and rubbed between the palms of his hands before it was fit to be tapped down into his pipe and lit with a match and a suck. Or perhaps lit with a spill, those brightly dyed splinters that had a jar by the fireside all to themselves: they were part of smoking's intriguing paraphernalia – cigarette holders and cigarette cases, ashtrays, humidors, pipe cleaners and cigar-cutters – that turned nicotine addiction into something richer and nobler, the companionship of tobacco.

The fall was very quick. I remember a satirical piece by the anti-smoker Michael Frayn that substituted the word "spit" for "smoke" in an imaginary dinner party conversation. "Do you mind if I spit?" "Shall we share a spit?" "Can you pass me the spit-tray?" In 1990, it seemed dangerously provocative. Smoking by then had been abolished in cinemas and the London Tube and on most aircraft, but it still clouded pubs, restaurants and offices, while (pace Frayn) anyone who asked: "Do you mind if I smoke?" expected the answer: "No, not at all, go ahead." A few remnants from that age lie around me as I write. A cherrywood pipe made by Peterson of Dublin, as dead as an extinct volcano; a pretty little matchbox holder; a marquetry cigarette box circa 1920; a pottery ashtray that now accumulates the chewing gum that replaced the cigarettes. Stripped of this kind of ornament, smoking looks much less fun – a matter of addicts gathering on the pavement in the cold.

As a revolution in behaviour, its completeness has been astonishing. That California outlawed smoking in public parks was predictable, but few of us imagined that similar bans would one day be just as calmly accepted inside Spanish bars and Indian hotels. Money accounts for part of this turnaround – the cost, say, of legal claims arising from passive smoking – but at bottom lies the fear of disease and death. The question then arising, in this week of promises to ourselves, is why the same fear prompts so little behavioural change when it comes to the project loosely known as saving the planet. Why, to consider another example of personal ingesting, do we continue to follow patterns of  foodconsumption – in fact, to expand them globally – when that will mean nothing but trouble, if not for us then certainly for our grandchildren?

An academic paper in the new issue of Nature magazine's Climate Change journal warns of the consequences of eating red  meat, not in terms of cholesterol levels and heart attacks but for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Domesticated ruminants are the largest source of anthropogenic methane and account for 11.6% of greenhouse gases that can be attributed to human activity. In 2011, they numbered approximately 1.4bn cattle, 1.1bn sheep. 0.9bn goats and 0.2bn buffalo, an animal population that was growing at the rate of roughly 2m a month. Their grazing and feeding takes up a greater area than any other land use: 26% of the world's land surface is devoted to grazing, while feed crops command a third of the total arable land – land that might more usefully grow cereals, pulses and vegetables for human consumption or biomass for energy production.

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