Forest fires in Altamira, Para state, Brazil … ‘Our meat habit is the leading cause of deforestation, which releases carbon when trees are burned’ Photograph: João Laet/AFP/Getty Images
Climate change is a crisis that will always be simultaneously addressed together and faced alone. The four highest impact things an individual can do to tackle the planetary crisis are: have fewer children; live car-free; avoid air travel; and eat a plant-based diet. Most people are not in the process of deciding whether to have a baby. Few drivers can simply decide to stop using their cars. A sizable portion of air travel is unavoidable. But everyone will eat a meal relatively soon and can immediately participate in the reversal of climate change. Furthermore, of those four high-impact actions, only plant-based eating immediately addresses methane and nitrous oxide, the most urgently important greenhouse gases.
Some argue that plant-based eating is elitist. They are either misinformed, or knowingly taking the favourite emergency exit of privileged, performatively thoughtful people who don’t want to change what they eat. It is true that a healthy traditional diet is more expensive than an unhealthy one – about $550 (£440) more expensive over the course of a year. And everyone should, as a right, have access to affordable healthy food. But a healthy vegetarian diet is, on average, about $750 (£600) less expensive per year than a healthy meat-based diet. In other words, it is about $200 (£160) cheaper per year to eat a healthy vegetarian diet than an unhealthy traditional diet. Not to mention the money saved by preventing diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer – all associated with the consumption of animal products. Nine per cent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year identify as vegetarian, whereas only 4% of those making more than $75,000 are. People of colour are disproportionately vegetarian. It is not elitist to suggest that a cheaper, healthier, more environmentally sustainable diet is better. But what does strike me as elitist? When someone uses the existence of people without access to healthy food as an excuse not to change, rather than as a motivation to help those people.
Different studies suggest different dietary changes in response to climate change, but the ballpark is pretty clear. The most comprehensive assessment of the livestock industry’s environmental impact was published in Nature in October 2018. After analysing food-production systems from every country around the world, the authors concluded that while undernourished people living in poverty across the globe could actually eat a little more meat and dairy, the average world citizen needs to shift to a plant-based diet in order to prevent catastrophic, irreversible environmental damage. The average US and UK citizen must consume 90% less beef and 60% less dairy.
No animal products for breakfast or lunch would come close to achieving that. It might not amount to precisely the reductions that are asked for, but it’s about right, and easy to remember.
It would be both disingenuous and counterproductive to pretend that eating only plant-based foods before dinner won’t require some adjusting. But I bet that if most people think back over their favourite meals of the past few years – the meals that brought them the most culinary and social pleasure, that meant the most culturally or religiously – virtually all of them would be dinners.
And we have to acknowledge that change is inevitable. We can choose to make changes, or we can be subject to other changes – mass migration of climate refugees, disease, armed conflict, a greatly diminished quality of life – but there is no future without change. The luxury of choosing which changes we prefer has an expiration date.
Doing what needs to be done will involve invention (such as creating veggie burgers that are indistinguishable from beef burgers), and legislation (such as adjusting farm subsidies and holding animal agriculture responsible for its environmental destruction), and bottom-up advocacy (such as college students demanding their cafeterias do not serve animal products before dinner), and top-down advocacy (such as celebrities spreading the message that we cannot save the planet without changing how we eat).
Emphasising individual responsibility doesn’t need to distract from corporate and federal responsibility. We absolutely need structural change – we need a global shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. We need to enforce something akin to a carbon tax, mandate environmental-impact labels for products, replace plastic with sustainable solutions and build walkable cities. We need to end subsidies to the factory farming industry, and hold it accountable for the environmental destruction it incurs. We need to ethically address the west’s relationship to the global south. We might even need a political revolution. These changes will require shifts that individuals alone cannot realise. But putting aside the fact that collective revolutions are made up of individuals, led by individuals, and reinforced by thousands of individual revolutions, we would have no chance of achieving our goal of limiting environmental destruction if individuals don’t make the very individual decision to live differently.
Every time we say “crisis”, we are also saying “decision”. The word “decision” derives from the Latin decidere, which means “to cut off”. Every decision requires loss, not only of what we might have done otherwise but of the world to which our alternative action would have contributed. Often that loss feels too small to notice; sometimes it feels too large to bear. Usually, we just don’t think about our decisions in those terms. We live in a culture of historically unprecedented acquisition. We are prompted to define ourselves by what we have: possessions, dollars, views and likes. But we are revealed by what we release.
Climate change is the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced, and it is one that will always be simultaneously addressed together and faced alone. We cannot keep eating the kinds of meals we have known and also keep the planet we have known. We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is that straightforward, and that fraught.
• We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer is published on 10 October by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.