How to save Earth? Kip Andersen seeks answers. He’s your average Joe, whose classic American childhood gave way to a determination to make a dent on Armageddon. What he learns may surprise you: the animal agriculture industry is the greatest force behind Earth’s destruction today.
Though the documentary “Cowspiracy” was created by both Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, Andersen is the one who appears in and guides the film. Their documentary, simple, inductive, exploratory, is one of logic. According to a U.N. article, animal agriculture contributes to more greenhouse gases (51 percent) than all of human transportation, combined (13 percent). Andersen was speechless. If this is true, then why isn’t anybody talking about it?
Andersen e-mails, calls, and travels to the headquarters of groups like Greenpeace, Oceana, and Amazon Watch, though few grant him an interview about the subject. Some even ask him to turn off his camera upon entering the lobby, and as the screen grows dark, the issue is suddenly frighteningly real. Andersen comes to learn that Brazilian activists have historically been assassinated for speaking out against the animal agriculture industry. American ones too. It got to a point where Andersen debated whether to finish the film at all, his financial backing dropped, and his life was almost certainly in danger. It’s clear that nobody’s talking about this. Nobody wants to.
Andersen discovers the cultivation of meat and meat products is quite literally gobbling up Earth. He visits farms at every level of the food chain: industrial penthouses so crowded they barely let in the sun, “sustainable meat farming” ranches with open acres and poster American families, even the backyard of a man who raises his own chickens for food. There’s no way around it. Andersen looks at the facts, does the math, and realizes animal agriculture is the loudest, messiest pollutant on Earth – contributing to everything from deforestation, where whole forests (especially the Amazon, “the planet’s lungs”) are being cleared at an acre per second, either to raise animals or crops for them to eat; water pollution, as poorly resolved animal waste “deadens” water sources; air pollution, in the release of gases like methane, which is about 30 times more potent than the gas we give the bad rep, carbon dioxide. And that’s not even considering the ethical cost of the way most agricultural animals are raised.
Most people will feel uncomfortable, watching – only a fraction of the world’s population abstains from eating meat. Eating is so important, such a basic need, that as you watch these truths spill out about animal products (from land and sea), one can’t help but feel guilty. One statistic that struck me was that one hamburger requires 660 gallons of water to produce. I can’t even count the number of burgers I’ve eaten! Likewise, Andersen concludes that all his short-short showers and fervent recycling can’t even come close to the impact of cutting meat products from his diet. So how do we change?
Andersen explores different avenues, such as “sustainable meat farming.” For those inclined to try vegetarianism, it turns out that every reproducing hen and cow (think eggs and milk) eventually goes to the slaughterhouse, meaning every dollop of butter, ice cream, egg, yogurt, and milk still adds to the damage. There’s only one conclusion we can make – veganism – and one of the film’s strengths as a documentary is not coming off too preachy.
Andersen is the millennial we want to see – open and intelligent and very driven, looking for answers and weighing options. He interviews experts on the issue, from book authors to food gurus to political activists. We learn the easiest way to make a difference is to simply not participate: ergo, go vegan. Indeed, former cattle ranch owner Howard Lyman says bluntly, “You can’t call yourself an environmentalist and eat meat. Period.” Or, at the very least, we need to switch to a more plant-based diet. Not only are we inefficiently using land for our food’s food, which we could give to people who don’t have food to eat at all (corn is the #1 feed for cultivated cattle), but the American diet is also grossly out of proportion when it comes to meat. We’re eating up the planet like there’s a second course coming. As of now, there isn’t.
Which sparks the inevitable response – no way! People can’t change, not that much. The truth is, we might not have a choice. We’re nearing the dreaded point on Earth’s biological clock of No Return, where “runaway” climate change will accelerate beyond our reach. Think increasingly extreme natural disasters, whole regions going underwater, areas of the earth becoming so hot they can’t be used for farmland. The list goes on. And whether or not you believe veganism is the answer, it’s essential to watch this film. “Cowspiracy” is a light in the dark, and it’s not badly made, either. Andersen is easygoing and genuine, and that allows the film its greatest credit. He just wants to make a difference. And because the film primarily appeals to Americans – what’s more American than that? There’s a cowspiracy going on.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.