Reviews of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) and related work
- Spin-off: Seaspiracy (2021)
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)
Seen in 2021.
A vegan would-be underdog questions why some major environmental organizations are not touting veganism as the primary solution to climate, water-scarcity and biodiversity problems.
The impact of the meat industry on the environment is not a secret. The facts are readily available and widely discussed; I went flexitarian before this film was made, for most of the reasons listed in it, and learned nothing from it.
I appreciate the attempt to package the relevant facts for a wider audience, but Cowspiracy is not restricted to facts. The casting of the impact as a “secret”, of filmmaker Kip Andersen as a daring underdog, and of Greenpeace etc. as a corrupt grand conspiracy against the common good, is distasteful. Just to name a few points:
- Interviewee Will Tuttle claims that humans and their livestock constitute 98% of biomass. That’s false. According to YM Bar-On et al. (“The biomass distribution on Earth”, PNAS, 2018), humans and livestock together constitute about 80% of terrestrial animal biomass, 8% of animal biomass (including marine), and 0.03% of biomass (total).
- Interviewee Kirk R. Smith points out that methane is comparatively short-lived in the atmosphere. This is correct and intensely relevant. However, Andersen fails to mention how this factors into his own statement that “Methane gas from livestock is 86 times more destructive than carbon dioxide from vehicles.” This is undoubtedy a true statement, but only on a specific time scale that is arbitrary and not described. It does not in itself constitute a valid basis for shifting activist focus to individual diets; because CO₂ is more long-lived by two orders of magnitude, it is the greater long-term threat.
- It is not stated in Cowspiracy that about half of anthropogenic methane emissions come from animal agriculture and waste, combined. For some reason, that’s the half Andersen cares about.
- Interviewee Michael Klaper claims that dairy causes breasts and breast cancer. Renowned skeptic David Gorski (Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film) has identified Klaper as supporting pseudoscientific medical treatments, such as acupuncture, and from Klaper’s appearance here I am not surprised.
There’s not a lot of bashing GMOs, but of course, there is some of that too, in a complete non sequitur. All in all, Andersen marshals all the factoids he can to support his conclusion and cares little for anything else. He’s not far off the mark, but the occasional errors and misdirections really hurt.
Most surprisingly, when it comes to stating his case, Andersen does not motivate his position that personal abstinence like his and mine (cf. Soft drinks and ethical nihilism) should be prioritized above other environmental campaigns. Was it wrong, for example, for Swedish mainstream environmental organizations to campaign against the expansion of the oil refinery Preemraff Lysekil, thus halting a plan, in 2020, to double its capacity? Andersen does not convince me that those political resources should have gone into telling people to stop eating meat. He is apparently aware that such admonishments can provoke backlash (reactance), but he never discusses why this is, or why individual consumers should be held to account if bribe-happy agribusiness is indeed the villain.
Andersen prefers the conspiracy theory that major environmental advocacy groups are all in the pocket of the meat business. Implicit in this theory is that politicians are too corrupt to fix that problem, and that scientists have also covered up the truth. Doug Boucher, who reviewed the film for the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2016, pointed out that Andersen’s overall figure—51% of global greenhouse gases being caused by animal agriculture—is indeed not a product of peer-reviewed science, but of an unreviewed 2009 synthesis. The real figure is roughly 15%, with a reasonable choice of time scales for methane.
Crucially, Andersen never substantiates his accusations, which is irresponsible to the point of serious harm. He also never points out what environmental organizations actually do, which of course includes campaigns against excesses in animal husbandry, against the deforestation of the Amazon for farming, and so on.
As of 2021, the publisher’s IMDb blurb begins “Follow the shocking, yet humorous, journey”. That’s what the movie is. Although Andersen himself is notably humourless, the production is sold as entertainment. As Andersen says in his closing remarks, “Ecologically, it just feels better”, ignoring that ecology is a science. For something less speculative and more observational, prefer Our Daily Bread (2005).
‣ Seaspiracy (2021)
Seen in 2021.
Like Cowspiracy, this is a mix of Michael Moore’s formula of personal touch and cinematic editing with a more youthful environmental pathos. This production adds journalist George Monbiot, which is always a plus, but it also adds a stronger, counterproductive thriller aesthetic. The visit to Taiji, based on The Cove (2009), is particularly excessive because the film then reveals that dolphins are suffering far worse in less exotic France. Improved animations, again reminiscent of Moore’s techniques, are also thrillered up, bordering on fiction.
Unfortunately, the conspiracist mentality survives from the original film. In particular, it’s dumb to conclude that “Dolphin-Safe” certification is “a complete fabrication since it guaranteed nothing”. As spokesman Mark J. Palmer openly admits on camera, under no pressure, a literal guarantee that no dolphins have been harmed would be dishonest, because there is no way to check everything every boat does.
Compare novel medical treatments in the US. The useful ones eventually gain FDA approval, a virtual “Human-Safe” stamp equivalent to “Dolphin-Safe”, yet there is no actual guarantee that nobody is going to suffer from side effects, nor that everyone will be cured. It would be stupid to refuse medical treatment simply because there is no absolute guarantee in a complex, distributed system. It would also be stupid to stop testing drugs for safety, to stop drug companies from funding clinical trials, or to call medicine “a complete fabrication”.
Later, without proposing an alternative wording for the “Dolphin-Safe” label, the filmmakers admit that observers on ships do get murdered. This would not occur if the observers and their employers were all corrupt. Instead of acknowledging this point or quantifying corruption, the filmmakers emphasize their own personal hazard for drama.
More honest and more interesting are the connections drawn to slavery, the hatred of natural predators as competitors over declining stocks, and the lack of meaningfully protected areas of the sea. I believe it would be possible to make a better movie about all of those things, with better graphs. George Monbiot himself, in this Guardian column, summed it up:
The film gets some things wrong. It cites an outdated paper about the likely date of the global collapse of fisheries. Two of its figures about bycatch are incorrect. It confuses carbon stored by lifeforms with carbon stored in seawater. But the thrust of the film is correct: industrial fishing, an issue woefully neglected by the media and conservation groups, is driving many wildlife populations and ecosystems around the world towards collapse. Vast fishing ships from powerful nations deprive local people of their subsistence. Many “marine reserves” are a total farce, as industrial fishing is still allowed inside them. In the EU, the intensity of trawling in so-called protected areas is greater than in unprotected places. “Sustainable seafood” is often nothing of the kind. Commercial fishing is the greatest cause of the death and decline of marine animals.
As in Planet of the Humans (2019), the environmental movement here eats its own from an underdog topos. It is apparently easier and more dramatic to throw around unsubstantiated accusations of deep corruption in the movement than to target the commercial fishing industry itself. This is sad, and there is little to learn here if you already read good journalism, but in the end, Seaspiracy is a lot better than Cowspiracy. That is not because the cinematic production is more slick but because the facts, when they appear, are handled better.