What's the Difference Between Eating Cows and Eating Whales?

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading Sailesh Rao’s excellent book Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies. Rao tells a story worth repeating about Dr. Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, who recounts a meeting with Kuzno Shima, the head of the Japanese delegation to the International Whaling Commission during the 1990s.

Shima challenged Dr. Earle with this question: “'Americans eat beef, right? What’s the difference between eating steak from a cow and eating whale meat?’ Dr. Earle responded earnestly, contrasting the agricultural production of cows with the wild life of a whale and arguing that there were a billion plus cows on the planet, whereas there were only a few thousand whales left. Shima listened patiently but was not moved, which Dr. Earle couldn’t fathom.”

As Rao read about this encounter in Dr. Earle’s book, The World is Blue, he realized that Dr. Earle was missing a key point. “After all,” Rao writes, “to raise a billion plus cows and other livestock on the planet, humans have appropriated nearly one-third of the ice-free land area of the planet, displacing numerous other species and decimating their numbers. While Americans may not have eaten all the mountain lions, the Indians may not have eaten all the tigers and the Chinese may not have eaten all the Giant Pandas, directly, they all might as well have done so. They certainly caused the habitat losses that have resulted in the near extinction of these magnificent animals through their appetites for beef, milk and pork, respectively. It is these second-order effects on Life of our ever-increasing ecological footprints on the planet that even great scientists such as Dr. Earle have failed to grasp and articulate.”

Rao goes on to say:
“Most Hindus venerate the cow and do not eat beef, but they drink milk and eat cheese. In Western countries, the dairy cow is ruthlessly chopped up into hamburgers as soon as its [sic] milk production declines at the age of four, while the typical Indian cow lives out to an old age of 20 plus years, grazing on forest and other pasture land. This grazing reduces food for the sambhar deer and other wild ruminants which decline in population, putting a downward pressure on the tiger population. And the whole ecosystem suffers. This is why I realized that if I drink milk, then I must be prepared to eat the beef when the dairy cow ceases to be productive and I must be prepared to eat the veal from the male calves of cows in order to optimize my ecological impact. Otherwise, there would be an order of magnitude more cows alive for a given level of milk production, which does happen to be true in India. And as I drink milk in India, I’m effectively eating the tiger and the sambhar deer, etc. Once this realization dawned, I became vegan instantly.”

Given that animal agriculture and meat-eating contribute more to global warming than any other human activity, and given that it causes more habitat destruction as well, diet is perhaps the single most important choice an individual can make. If we don’t want the Japanese to continue whaling, are we prepared to discontinue our destructive habits too?

~ Zoe

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxConejo talk: "Solutionaries"
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

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