This week I was in Baltimore helping my daughter move into her new life as a Johns Hopkins grad student in international health. Their school of public health is named after its most generous donor, former New York City mayor and Hopkins graduate Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg is also co-author with Carl Pope of a recent book on climate change, Climate of Hope, (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
In their book the authors admit that our dietary habits have a profound effect on humanity’s climate footprint and curbing meat-eating can be an obvious solution to controlling intolerable levels of carbon dioxide emissions. A study done by Oceana, a philanthropy that Bloomberg also supports financially, found that eating beef produces 4.5 times more carbon emissions than eating wild fish. (What this study doesn’t include is that commercial fishing contributes significant greenhouse gas emissions as well, mainly from boat fuel, and is also the biggest contributor to the collapse of all fisheries and the loss of ocean biodiversity.)
Even though co-author Carl Pope admits that our eating habits have a big impact on the climate, he does not envision a switch away from meat-eating to be a likely part of any conceivable climate campaign. He doesn’t think people will change. This, he explains, has been influenced by his experience in the Peace Corps serving in India, where he saw many victims succumb to cholera, including a devout Brahmin who refused millet and wheat when there was no rice during the previous famine. He chose to starve himself. This experience showed Pope “how profoundly irrational and inflexible human dietary preferences are.” Is it true that people simply refuse to change their habits even when facing a threat to their survival? This one Brahmin gentleman did.
But Bloomberg clarifies in an interview that “if people can change their behavior they can stop the problem and change the world.”1 I agree. We see it all the time. For instance people facing mortality and disease have chosen to take control of their health through diet and exercise. A diet based on whole plant foods–vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit, can literally reverse chronic diseases including cardiovascular. But in order to be successful in behavior change one must have several elements in place, including the motivation for change, alongside the information needed to fill the void of old habits, as well as support from loved ones. Without all these factors in place, success is hard. Not only do we face the discomfort and inconvenience of change, but also the addictive parts of food—excessive fat, sugar and protein. This takes more than willpower to ween off of. It takes physiological change, which comes with time.
Like Bloomberg and Pope, I have hope for our ability to control the worst effects of climate change, because humans are adaptable. They are the most adaptable species on the planet, planting themselves in the most harsh and inhospitable environments around the globe, and surviving in spite of it. We are now faced with a choice to live within our best interests of survival—ours and that of all species. For those of us who have the comfort of such a choice, it is our duty to take on this behavior change. You go Michael Bloomberg! Thanks for a climate of hope, and for my daughter’s education.