In the aftermath of catastrophic climate events, most recently the fires in the Amazon rainforest, it is common to see an upswing in discussions, particularly on social media, about the role our individual lifestyle choices played in said events. A recent viral Facebook post linked meat consumption to the fires, and claimed that veganism could have prevented the events. 

It is admirable people feel compelled to make a difference. But given the vast amount of misinformation spread across the internet on a daily basis, it seems worth scrutinising these claims. Are lifestyle changes really the most effective thing we can do to tackle climate change, or is there something more?

It certainly seems the case that the meat industry had a role to play in the Amazon fires as they were likely started by cattle ranchers clearing the land for pasture. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world, supplying one quarter of the global market. We have seen in recent years how companies respond to consumer’s ethical concerns by providing vegan alternatives, or going plastic free.

By individuals giving up meat, the logic is Brazilian beef farmers will cease to destroy the forests due to a lack of demand for pasture space. However, supply chains are difficult to trace. As such, it is tricky to prove a clear link between stopping eating beef and preventing disasters such as the Amazon fires.

Whilst lifestyle changes undoubtedly play a role in the fight against climate change, it is important that these changes are supported by a shift in the political landscape both nationally and internationally. This is especially true of the situation in Brazil. The President, Jair Bolsonaro, prioritises economic growth over climate policy, apparently seeing little point in protecting the Amazon for its own sake.

He’s appointed climate change deniers to prominent roles and encouraged the clearing of the Amazon for use in cattle farming. Thus, beyond personal choices, there are other ways that individuals can and must do ‘their bit’ to tackle climate change; by political participation. Given the huge corporations and powerful governments prop up the current status quo, little is going to change whilst the political will to take actions lacks.

The fact remains however, there is a distinct link between agriculture, the fires in the Amazon and climate change more generally. Whether you feel comfortable eating produce that perhaps played a role in the devastating fires in the Amazon has to be a personal choice, but what is clear is that institutional political change is needed to tackle the issue of climate change. This won’t be simple or easy, but it is the most effective thing we can do. To quote climate change journalist Rob Law: “to be empowered is to be fearless and take action. One of the most important ways to take action is to vote for what matters most and to vote for parties which have clear policies to address climate change.” 

Image: Jay Cantroot

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