Food will soon become the biggest crusade to purify the West from its prosperity and its pleasures.
The headlines said things like “Eat less meat to save the earth, urges UN”. So naturally the public will believe this is what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is saying in its latest report.
But is it, really? The report’s wording is guarded, preferring to speak about how “diversification in the food system”, including things like “coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds”, might help, rather than telling people to drop meat. Indeed, the title of the report is Climate Change and Land, with no mention of meat. If you google it under its correct name, up it comes, and no headlines about the eco-wickedness of meat appear. If you google it under variants of “IPCC report on meat”, you get headlines such as that above.
Why this difference? I think it is because of the power of those who set themselves up as interpreters of what they over-confidently call “the science”. The most powerful of these in Britain is Roger Harrabin. He is called the BBC’s Environment Analyst, but really he is their in-house evangelical preacher. Each day, the Reverend Roger announces the environmental news, turning it into a covert sermon. He is the even more slanted green equivalent of the BBC’s “reality check” correspondent on Brexit, Chris Morris, whose real job is to explain why the Leave side is wrong.
On Thursday morning, at six o’clock on Radio 4, the BBC news led with the IPCC story. Having quickly mentioned that the report was about land use, Harrabin then explained that because the panel is made up of “scientists and government representatives” and has a “need for UN consensus”, it “delivers messages in a lowest common denominator”.
The Reverend Roger, as keeper of the sacred mysteries, then explained what the boffins really meant: “Privately, some of the scientists say over-consumption of meat and dairy products in the West can’t go on.” Thus can some careful, rather colourless words by scientists about issues like “greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems” be turned into something we can all have an argument about. Farmers are disgusting! saith the preacher, Stop eating beef and sheep! We Westerners are much too fat!
In the Guardian, the green George Monbiot, who is not constrained by the thin veil of objectivity which Harrabin is forced to wear, was furious with the IPCC. It had been “nobbled”, he shouted. Its report was “pathetic”. He wanted us to know that “one kilo of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1,250 kg: that, incredibly, is roughly equal to driving a new car for a year.” “Incredibly” sounds the right word to me.
I do not know the inner workings of the IPCC. I cannot say whether the Reverend Mr Harrabin is giving an authentic account of its true thoughts, or whether he is preaching a more personal message, trying to shove the IPCC (and BBC licence-fee payers) in the direction which he favours. Are he and Mr Monbiot a soft-cop/hard-cop act, in which Mr Harrabin floats Monbiotic ideas in sanitised form and Mr Monbiot is freer to rave? I am not sure. But what is visible here is how climate-change stories are constructed.
It goes roughly like this. On rolls the vast bureaucracy of the IPCC, predicting, ever since its first report in 1990, that the end of the world is nigh, or nigh-ish. With that comes the super-bureaucracy of the Kyoto/Copenhagen/Paris etc accords which purport – but fail – to control the amount of CO2 the world produces. Running beside them always is a stream of stories – exhortations rather – about what we must be stopped from doing to avert the catastrophe which we are promised in a century, or 12 years’ time, or – if you want to be the greenest – in 18 months.
The essential theme of these stories is that it is axiomatically right for government to intervene to prevent people doing whatever is considered bad – driving, flying, burning coal, lighting fires, using plastic straws and now, eating meat and dairy.
Perhaps because there is some consumer-resistance, these interventions are not yet, except on the margins, outright bans. They take the form of punitive taxes, subsidies to make otherwise uneconomic forms of energy look viable, recycling obligations, codes of practice in industry, in schools and in the public services. Sometimes they cause environmental problems of their own, such as the pollution produced by the switch to diesel cars or the strain on scarce land from the growing of biofuels (an issue discussed in the IPCC report). The green evangelicals slide past these contradictions. The morality play must go on.
It is almost useless to raise objections to the narrative of doom, such as the fact that, according to a study in Nature last year, global tree cover has increased by seven per cent since 1982. Useless, too, to point out that the efforts of green activists to turn countries like Britain vegan will, even if successful, make almost no difference to the future of the planet because world meat production will, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation believes, have doubled by 2050.
Once-poor countries where poor people could only dream of eating meat are catching up with us fast and naturally want the pleasures (and health benefits) which we long ago secured for ourselves. Such wider considerations are irrelevant to the mission in which one must be seen to want to love the planet and hate the West.
The Harrabin classes have brilliantly grasped that climate change is the best means since the decline of religion to make people feel that they are bad or good. People who ask questions about the accuracy of climate-change predictions, or who raise doubts about whether government control, rather than technological development, is the best answer, are not people to be engaged with. They are bad people, often associated with bad organisations like “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma” and “Big Agro”. They must be stigmatised by good people, who recycle everything and never eat steaks.
Food will soon become the biggest development in the crusade to purify the West from its prosperity and its pleasures. It is a good subject to choose because, as religious fanatics have always understood, people can easily be made to feel guilty about food. Greens will be increasingly able to dictate their equivalents of the Muslim distinction between what is halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden).
They will do this through a culture war. Steakhouses will be picketed. Planning permission for shops selling meat will be objected to. School-children from carnivore homes will be re-educated. The Church Commissioners, the National Trust and Oxbridge colleges will gradually agree to stop dairy, beef and sheep-farming on all their land holdings. No one will be allowed to sit on rural public bodies such as Natural England, unless he or she is untainted by a connection with red meat. Jesus will no longer be the Good Shepherd, since the phrase will be seen as contradiction in terms. Who knows, it could even be that Margaret Thatcher, “milk-snatcher”, will now be hailed as a proto-green for taking planet-destroying milk out of the mouths of schoolchildren.