Dear Left Wondering,

Do individual choices to reduce consumption (i.e. eating a plant-based diet, switching to an electric vehicle, or taking fewer flights) have any ethical or moral value? I hear a lot that individual choices will not be enough, by far, to combat the climate crisis. Are these sorts of lifestyle changes just an empty form of virtue signaling and diversion of our attention from more meaningful targets — or could they be valuable in other ways that are more indirect?


Just Wondering

Dear Just Wondering,

As you’ve picked up on, this question is one of the driving forces behind this column. For the sake of not spoiling the whole game, I’ll focus on one query that’s come in from a few readers, on the ethics of switching to a plant-based diet. That’s also, in part, because the topic occupies a category of its own.

After fossil fuels, animal agriculture is the largest of humanity’s contributions to global warming. It produces not only tremendous amounts of methane (“cow farts” or — more significantly — burps) but is also a leading driver of deforestation, which saps biodiversity, the livelihoods of indigenous peoples who call the earth’s forests home, as well as the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.

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The industry brings other horrors, too. Slaughterhouses and other businesses that are part of commodity meat production are almost cartoonishly evil employers that have left farmers in eye-watering debt as the industry has figured out new and more efficient means of bringing meat to market. As it happens, a business model built on the systematic confinement and slaughter of billions of creatures doesn’t treat the people charged with carrying that out too well, either.

Food operates a bit differently than other drivers of global warming vis-a-vis personal choice, too. Take electricity: The primary thing people want from it is to be able to reliably turn on the lights. You don’t make a choice each time you plug in your laptop about where the power behind your Netflix binge comes from. But you do decide what to eat for lunch every day or pick up at the grocery store.

Such food choices are shaped by policy, almost to an absurd degree. Meat and dairy corporations in the U.S. receive on average $38 billion in subsidies each year, making animal products artificially cheap.

Beyond those market signals are a whole complicated set of questions about whether switching to a plant-based diet makes sense to you, personally. Do you happen to live near stores that offer fresh produce and an abundance of plant-based protein options? Do you know how to cook them, or (like many in the U.S.) did you grow up learning that meat and dairy were an essential part of a balanced diet, thanks to post-war industrial policy? Do you have the time to experiment with new recipes?

Contrary to popular belief, vegan diets are as much as 30 percent cheaper on average than today’s typical diets worldwide — and potentially even more so now that meat prices are on the rise. Still, there’s plenty of advertising in place to help make meat demand inelastic. Though economists have cast growing meat consumption worldwide as simply a function of rising incomes, it’s also a product of the U.S. exporting a particular development model premised on growing markets for the planet’s most polluting industries.

All that’s to say, if at some point you’ve experimented with going vegan or vegetarian and fallen off the wagon — don’t beat yourself up. There are factors at work beyond self-discipline.


So what role should individual choices about whether to eat meat play when all the cards seem to be stacked against you? Even on the left, making claims on what people eat is still seen as the province of fringe hippie lifestylists or (worse) vegan killjoys.

In an essay for Lux, Astra and Sanaura Taylor describe veganism as “an aspirational category, an acknowledgement of values that cannot be fully manifested in the world as it currently exists. Refusing to consume animal products is not an act of negation, but a proactive commitment to working to usher in a more emancipatory, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable society.”

That idea of veganism as aspirational praxis slots in alongside the push for structural changes to proliferate plant-based diets, from the “Green New Deal for legumes” suggested by political economist Jan Dutkiewicz — a federal effort to transform the public’s relationship to protein and its associated production chain — to public research funding for alternatives like cultivated meat.

The problem with fixating on lifestyle choices as the end-all-be-all of making the world a better place is ignoring the context in which people make those changes, emphasizing personal over societal transformation. But those needn’t be mutually exclusive. Nestled within a broader theory of change, going plant-based isn’t either empty virtue signaling or a counterproductive diversion from more meaningful goals.


Left Wondering

Dear Left Wondering,

I am planning a trip from Europe to the U.S. in the coming months. In the past, when I've visited family in the U.S., I've always gone by plane. This time, I have the time and flexibility to consider other modes of travel — namely, by sea. But what is the most environmentally friendly way to travel? I was leaning towards taking a freighter or a repositioning cruise, but have since been told that those are no better (or possibly even worse!) than flying. How do they really stack up?

And — this is perhaps the harder question — is traveling for pleasure, especially longer distances, defensible at all? As an expat, never traveling internationally isn't an option, and I try to limit flights to once a year. But I've also often wondered about the fallacy of putting too much weight on individual choices rather than on political and social change. On the other hand, the carbon footprint even for a single transatlantic flight is simply enormous. How to think about this?


Wondering at Sea

Dear Wondering at Sea,