An old friend of mine and I often needle each other about various things. Since I became vegan he will often try to find various things to change my mind. The latest was that he sent me a link to Allan Savory’s TED talk. I watched it through twice and read a couple of critiques of it. I also watched What’s Wrong with TED Talks?, but that’s another topic.
One thing I noted was the enthusiastic applause in the video and the love-fest in the YouTube comments. Why is that? And why did my friend forward this to me? Because he was telling them what they wanted to hear. The key point of his talk is that not only is it acceptable to eat that hamburger, but it is necessary as it is the only way to feed the world and reverse climate change.
But we should all know to be suspicious of people who tell us what we want to hear, whether they are salesmen, politicians, priests, or economists.
The problems we face, whether environmental, political, economic, personal or spiritual, will not be solved by doing things which are easy or comfortable. We aren’t going to fix anything by driving our SUV to Walmart to get some Chinese grown beef, to eat while we sit in our recliner watching reality TV or Fox News. But let’s narrow this discussion back to Allan Savory’s talk.
I would say there are only two points in his talk which are of value: 1) desertification is bad and 2) “mimic nature”. Though I would say the latter, while useful, is overly simplistic. Simply mimicing nature is not enough. We have created a set of problems which nature is not going to be able to solve except in geologic time scales. Rather, we need to look carefully at how nature works and, using the best design practices, put together new ecosystems which sequester carbon, provide food, retain water. Limiting ourselves to what nature has done in the past isn’t going to get us there.
There could well be circumstances where carefully managed livestock could be beneficial to the environment. However, I doubt there are many places where this is the only option, as he insists. I am further doubtful that there aren’t ways to carefully manage plant communities in ways which could be more beneficial and more water and energy efficient. Geoff Lawton’s efforts in Palestine come to mind.
Furthermore, he leaves out one big detail. Water. What are these cows drinking? A single cow needs 6-14 gallons of water per day. Where does all this water come from? You can grow a lot of plants with that much water.
And I noticed an interesting verbal sleight of hand near the end of his talk. When showing a map of all the arid areas of the planet, he claims that “only animals can feed people from about 95% of the land”. Given the context, I know that when he said “the land” he meant the arid land in his chart, not the whole earth. But, I suspect that some people, too busy salivating at the thought of being able to eat all the meat they want with a clear conscience, may hear it the other way. However, even in context that is quite a generalization. If we rephrase that statement we can see how ridiculous it is: “Of all the thousands of edible plant species there are none which can produce yields on 95% these arid lands.” Really?
Actually, there is a third key point of his talk: killing 40,000 elephants is a horrendously stupid act. While it’s possible he pulled his head out after that one, I’m not sticking around to find out.