Carbon hoofprints: should we have a vegetarian campus?

Following the University of Sydney’s latest commitment to reducing the uni’s carbon footprint, Fiona Probyn-Rapsey asks us to consider the environmental impacts of our diet.

Image by Ryan Thompson

This week the University of Sydney announced that it is setting itself a goal to reduce its carbon footprint in three years to a level that is ‘20 percent lower than the average blended emission rate of the markets’. Our Vice Principal of Operations wrote to us to explain that the University is taking a ‘whole of portfolio’ view of the University’s investments; it will introduce carbon footprint reporting into its investment selection, has become a signatory to the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), joined the UN-Led Portfolio Decarbonisation Coalition, and it will expand its ‘Environment, Social and Governance’ framework to consider the economic and social rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are very often at the coal face of fossil fuel industry activities.

The email went on to say that we, as staff members, can also help to reduce our Campus carbon footprint by consulting a list of ‘handy tips’ put together by Campus Infrastructure and Services. Their list is fairly uncontroversial, probably matched by countless other institutions and includes welcome recommendations on recycling, low carbon travelling options (public transport, cycling or walking), energy efficient equipment and the use of reusable coffee cups and water bottles.

Those ‘handy tips’ tell us that the way we get to work, what we do at work and what sorts of containers we drink from at work are all part of how we can ‘help achieve better standards’ and ‘cut your own footprint’ . It’s the coffee and the water drinking that caught my attention on this list, because it’s a recognition of sorts that food consumption on campus is also on the radar. The thing is, we don’t just drink coffee and water on campus, we also eat together at Department/school/Faculty meetings (squeezed into our lunchtimes), and at University events (squeezed into our dinner times). Because eating meals together at University events has become as common an event as many of the other items listed in our ‘daily routines’, we should also be looking at the carbon footprint and, in this case, carbon hoofprints, of what (and who) we consume at those events.

‘Going Veg’ could indeed be added to that list of handy tips. And a note for those whose eyes are starting to roll – I’m not talking here about Sydney Uni staff having to ‘go veg’ all the time, but why not ‘go veg’ in the workplace if indeed the workplace is committed to reducing its carbon footprint-that-includes-many-hoofprints?

The effects of animal agriculture on the environment and on climate change is perhaps less well known or accepted than the effects of using non-recyclable paper (oh the shame) or using our cars to get to work (scandalous!). The UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options provides an overview of the environmental impact of the livestock sector, while recognising that policy trends in this area are dominated by economic, social, health and food security concerns. That is why concerns about animal welfare (let alone animal rights, or feminist care tradition) are sometimes pitched along these lines in order to be part of the ‘conversation’. Sufffice it to say my own reasons for ‘going veg’ are not restricted to environmental concerns but also include concerns about the industrialization and commodization of animals themselves.

But back to the ‘yous’ on Campus. If we were, as the Vice Principal of Operations encourages us, ‘to consider how you can help reduce the University’s emissions as a workplace’ then it seems to me that divesting from ingesting meat based products at University events is a sensible suggestion, even a ‘handy tip’ worth taking up. Livestock’s Long Shadow makes the following salient points that are relevant to the University’s plan to reduce our carbon foot-hoof-print:

1. The livestock sector contributes to 9% of total carbon dioxide emissions, 36% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide. That means that overall, the livestock sector contributes around 18% of the ‘global warming effect’, ‘even larger contribution than the transportation sector worldwide’. The ‘handy tips’ mention transportation twice, but meat eating doesn’t rate a mention. It seems to me that if we are asked to consider cycling to work, or use public transport, we might also be asked if we’d mind having a salad sandwich rather than an animal based one.

2. The Livestock sector represents ‘the largest of all anthropogenic land uses’, 30% of all ‘ice free terrestrial surface of the planet’ and 70% of all agricultural land. In some areas, livestock expansion represents the primary reason for deforestation.

3. The Livestock sector is a ‘key player’ in increasing water use and water depletion and water pollution (for instance, through pesticides for feed crops, 30 million tonnes of ammonia emitted by livestock waste etc). So, as well as drinking water from a tap rather than a plastic bottle, we might also be encouraged to think about the amount of water that goes into producing animals for meat.

Because the demand for meat is set to grow over the coming decades, then all the problems associated with the livestock sector are also expected to grow. Livestock’s long shadow warns against the ‘business as usual’ trend because this will result in an increase in anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, a continuation of land degradation and deforestation, more CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) or factory farms with higher concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, toxins that pollute water and ‘destroy terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity’. The report also gestures towards vegetarianism as one ‘reason for optimism’.

This raises the question of why the ‘handy tips’ for helping to make the campus more ‘environmentally minded’ does not also include the option of vegetarianism? I wonder if there was a concern that it would be going too far and that ‘legislating’ about the dinner table is akin to ‘legislating’ in the bedroom; cut to hand wringing/eye rolling/here she goes again groaning/murmurings of vegan killjoy. Meat eating is sometimes stereotyped as a ‘personal’ thing, as opposed to a political choice and those who have decided to ‘go veg’ have complicated this assumption. Suddenly, with a vegetarian at the dinner table, (we often don’t even have to say anything!) the politics of meat become uncomfortably present.

From my experience on and off Campus, it’s rare to meet a meat eater who is passionately committed to eating meat at every meal. I’m one of the ones at the meeting table who gets to eat from the labeled plate, the one marked VEGETARIAN or VEGAN. Usually this single platter of sandwiches marked VEGETARIAN or VEGAN means that I also sit next to other ‘vegos’. And sometimes things get complicated. Sometimes a ‘meat eater’ will accidentally take one of ‘our’ sandwiches, eat it and then realizing their misidentification (they do not identify as ‘vegos’), will apologise for eating ‘our’ sandwich. The next sandwich they take will be from the ‘meat sandwiches’ platter that is not marked in any way (the privilege of occupying the norm is to be unlabelled). At this point the meat eater who has taken one of ‘ours’ (and feels bad for taking from our restricted pile), has to then take a chicken or beef sandwich next, even though they would probably have been just as happy to eat from the same platter as the vegetarians. I imagine that many meat eaters turn reluctantly, even sheepishly, towards the unlabelled meat eaters sandwich platter. An event like this, a little fracture in the ‘rules’ of eating together while eating very much apart, happens on such a regular basis that I wonder if ordering separate platters is really worth it in the end. My sense is that meat eaters would not really mind if the catering was vegetarian and vegan. Indeed, they may not even notice given that they don’t eat meat for every possible meal, and don’t need to ‘check’ whether meat is in or out of the sandwich.

But the labeling of the exception – vegetarian and vegan – functions to hide and perform the operation of ‘the rule’, which is that meat eating is the norm. And being a meat eater is complicated, as Erica Fudge has pointed out . Meat eaters have to learn the cultural conventions around which animals they are allowed to eat (rabbit but not cat, pig but not dog, cow but not horse etc) and which parts they are supposed to eat (tongue or rib? Steak, eye or sinew?). And there are all sorts of conventions regarding being ‘polite’ in the presence of meat eaters by not mentioning the animal whose leg that once was.

Meat eaters are a notoriously easy bunch to make nervous. Sometimes all it takes is the presence of a vegetarian to make meat eaters uncomfortably aware of the fleshiness of their choices: are you looking at me? No, but your steak would have, once. As countless Animal studies scholars have argued, the delicate rituals of meat eating require a careful and deliberate obscuring of the associations between meat and the animal that it is/was. This occurs through language (cattle becomes ‘beef’, pig becomes ‘pork’), through caricature (all those happy cows and pigs in the supermarkets) and through the displacement of slaughterhouses away from sight. Australia’s perennially scandalized Live Export industry is a part of this displacement and the rituals of concealment that meat production relies on. Sending them ‘off shore’ is an extension of the logic of distributed and dispersed responsibility that we see in the slaughterhouse itself, where so many hands disassemble the cattle into body parts that it seems difficult to pinpoint exactly where responsibility for the animal’s death lies (see Vialles 1994). And as Timothy Pachirat points out in his recent ethnography of an American slaughterhouse – Every Twelve Seconds, the racial stratification of the slaughterhouse is itself another way of organising and dispersing responsibility for the ‘dirty job’ of killing; keeping it away from white hands, making sure they can stay clean and away from the ‘madness’ of butchers, marked by the burden of keeping meat eater’s nerves from jangling. (I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying all these moments of nerve jangling. But that doesn’t get us very far).

What might move the ‘conversation’ along a bit is if we recognized that these issues are circulating every time we sit down and eat together, at work. When it comes to the University’s carbon footprint, it’d be good if we recognized that hoofprints are part of it too, that’s it not just about cars, paper and coffee cups. For every carbon footprint on campus, there are herds of carbon hoofprints and ever more ‘handy tips’ to be considered with them.