One of the common questions I get asked is from people who want to remove part of the meat from their diet, but not all of it. They ask what animals they should give up eating. My usual response is that they are best of all not eating any animals, second best is to reduce eating animals. Promise to not eat any animals during, say, breakfast, and go from there. But usually there is a desire to remove eating a kind of animal, rather than meat reduction. And so I ask, "Well, do you care about reducing suffering to animals, or about reducing environmental destruction?"
That is because the more concentrated and industrial the treatment of other animals, the less environmental destruction. And also because the animals that spend the least amount of time in factory farms are cows, which are also, by far, the most environmentally destructive form of livestock we produce (somewhere between 15% and 20% of greenhouse gases are produced by animal agriculture, of which cows take the, err, lions share of greenhouse gases). So if you care about the environment, and you still insist on eating other animals, eat chickens and fish from aquaculture.
( From J. Raganthan et al. 2016. “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.” Working Paper, Installment 11 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute; Figure ES-2. Which I took from this blog post).
Of course, those lives are the ones that are the most horribly, and graphically, awful. As some of you know, most male chickens are killed at birth, and most female chickens are separated into two groups: broilers, which are the chickens we eat, and layers, which are the chickens that lay eggs (Foer's Eating Animals is still probably the best on what it means to live as a chicken in the modern factory farm system, and this article is interesting if you want to just know more about how the chicken came to be so central in our diet). Both lives are terrible beyond imagination.
So, eating as much as possible a plant-based diet solves both of these problems. You manage to both reduce, often significantly, your greenhouse gas emissions, while also decreasing the amount of animal cruelty in this world. But there are a lot of people who have made themselves very rich and famous by arguing the exact opposite, that by eating the least industrially produced animals, we also decrease global warming. Often even more than if we ate a plant-based diet. People like Michael Pollan and Nicolette Hahn Niman fall into this later category.
Here is the thing, I don't think either are particularly liars or bullshit artist (cowshit artist?). Harry Frankfurt, in his On Bullshit, famously distinguishes between the two. Liars are interested in hiding the truth, bullshitters just don't care about the truth, and are interested in persuasion regardless of the truth. And there are plenty of bullshit artists in the humane meat movement. I think at this point it is hard to believe that Allan Savory, who argues that his holistic cattle management system restores dead land, is almost certainly a bullshitter. But I am less sure about some of the other. My brother famously took down Michael Pollan years ago in his "Green Eggs and Ham," and Hahn Niman's book gets a more sympathetic, but still thorough debunking, in this blog post from the Union of Concerned Scientists. What seems clear to me about both Pollan and Hahn Niman is that they are involved in bullshitting themselves as much as they are bullshitting the audience. They are involved in motivated reasoning. Being smart does not protect you from motivated reasoning, because the smarter you are, the better you are at coming up with believable accounts for your opinions, and researching people who agree with you. This is why we must learn to cultivate fallibilism. It is not easy to practice the Socratic Wisdom, or knowing what you do not know. So Pollan and Hahn Niman and others engaged in journeys to convince themselves as much as the reader. They believe the bullshit artists. They come up with just so theories. They figure out why the dominate scientific consensus on animal agriculture and climate change is fundamentally wrong. And because they are smart, and good writers, and the world is filled with people who also want the same excuses to forgive their own behavior, their books become huge bestsellers and they become important "thought leaders." Motivated reasoning and disavowal are solid terms, but I think we need something even better to describe the desire to bullshit yourself, first and most of all. This great disavowal is what continues to be so central is so many articles and books. A desire to simply refuse to confront the basic fact that we make millions of animals suffer, and we contribute significantly to the destruction of our own planet, and the only solution is to stop doing that.