It’s impossible

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (August 2019, “Climate Change and Land”) doesn’t come right out and say it, but the authors make a great show of dancing around the ethical mandate of the vegan lifestyle. Like the documentaries that pushed a wave of Americans into a new diet and new way of thinking about, e.g., carbon footprints and water conservation, this new IPCC report serves the purposes of laying bare what most of know is the underlying truth: It’s meat and dairy—and the attendant industry—that’s blocking the road to a harmonious future on this planet. I mean that on an individual level and in the sense that our self-aware species needs to consider the long game. I point to Americans in the specific here only because that’s where I’m coming from and—who are we kidding?—the U.S. marketplace is the scaffolding around our scourge. America’s diet is a calamity.

There’s more to it than that, but what a simple target! What a clear shot at a clarion call!

And yet.

“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” says Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

It’s impossible now to debate the social and environmental merits of a vegan diet. You take away the demand for meat, and you dismantle the livestock industry. You take away the demand for cheese, and you dismantle the dairy industry. (Being a bit reductive here.) Then, suddenly, you free up an immense amount of land, worldwide, that was once used for soybean and corn cultivation to feed those animals that we’d been ravenously eating. At that point, moving along now, in the perceivable future, you can set about a new mode of agriculture. Diminish the overall necessity for farmland, and let the natural Earth get back to growing itself. Let food chains revitalize themselves. We’ll have more than we’ll need for our ongoing crisis of world hunger among us humans; let the plants and the plains grow back to feed our animal neighbors.

Only then, as this line of thinking goes, will we have done anything meaningful to restore the health of the environment on a global scale. It all starts with letting go of the tired idea of “animals as food,” of “animals as lesser than humans.” Real novel shit.

Why is this so hard? That is one of the great and mindless questions of the 21st century, now that we’re forced through our own ignorance to reckon with it.

…The other reason that the animals-as-food debate is impossible is because it isn’t happening anywhere in mainstream civilized society. Nowhere! You ever notice that? So, with this opportunity, why does the IPCC report not just put its foot down with all the weight of scientific authority and say: Stop eating animals! Stop eating animals!

Burger King added the Impossible Burger to its menus across the U.S. last week. I follow a lot of vegan and vegetarian blogs/Facebook groups, unfortunately, and I was simply astonished at the rapacious obsession that this news engendered among the very crowd that would seem like the most receptive audience for the IPCC report. It’s a move toward the very direction I’m getting at here, but the ejaculatory praise seemed misplaced, right? People were falling over themselves to get in line at the nearest Burger King drive-thru (after calling ahead, of course, and making a great production of it online, or asking inane questions on Facebook to make sure that certain locations hadn’t yet sold out of this precious nectar). People who’d seemingly committed themselves already—done the hard mental gymnastics!—were going apeshit over soy-protein concentrate fashioned into the old, familiar friend to all: the Whopper. The Impossible Whopper.

“Getting mine now!!” gushed one Northeast Ohio resident in the “Vegans and Vegetarians of Cleveland, Ohio” Facebook group. “Had mine with a nice 2007 Bordeaux,” wrote another, improbably.

At a Midtown Burger King, an “Impossible Whopper-themed photo booth” beckoned satisfied defenders of the planet.

The real event, then, seems not part of a grander narrative about food security and environmental health. No, the plant-based meat story, which stretches far beyond Burger King, has more to do with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in relation to others. Much like the act of photography has become the more visceral goal than the photography itself, the idea of the vegan identity has become more visceral than the ethos behind it. It’s important to be seen ordering and eating plant-based meat products. It’s vital to tell others that you’ve had that experience.

For the fast food and grocery conglomerates? It is something to be co-opted, something outside of the present moment. A story. It can be taken up for specific purposes by a fast food business or a thirty-something looking for some way to explain what it’s like to live in a society with other human beings who also like hamburgers. It’s a device, in other words.

“Save some for all of us!!!”

“So jealous mine aren’t starting until tomorrow :(”

On face value, yes, it is an important mass media step toward the solution that many have suggested when confronting irredeemable climate change. But doesn’t the viral success of the Impossible Whopper and the regular-ass Impossible Burger (sold at select grocers) presuppose profits for multi-billion-dollar companies that otherwise dish out unhealthy fries and carb-rich Caesar salads at best? Burger King and its contemporaries are the villains in the climate change narrative—or, at least, a glaring and obvious portion of the horrific enemy of the planetary environment. Burger King is not to be celebrated for this savvy marketing move. Hasn’t the company’s stance been clear for the past few decades?

Well, I got myself an Impossible Whopper one night. Had to. For journalistic purposes. Of course, it was a clumsier moment that it would seem. Asking for an item called “The Impossible Whopper” through a funky speaker system is not an enjoyable process. Syllables get mangled. You’ve got to ask for a branded product, rather than a particular kind of food, and you’ve got to yell it at a disembodied voice. That said, I’d just seen Chuck Klosterman talk about the downfall of rock ‘n’ roll at a suburban library. There might not have been a more perfect moment to experiment with the 21st century’s cuisine.

Taste-wise, it was… fine. I’d picked up a few of these plant-based burgers from Whole Foods back in 2017 when they started really getting batshit popular with the social media crowd. Whether it was the Impossible Burger itself, I’ve got no clue. But I’d eaten the stuff before, and I just can’t say I was impressed then or now. It’s an odd behavioral tic to want the taste and texture of a burger so bad that you’ve got to resort to pea protein isolate. If you’re in the headspace of environmental sanctity or animal rights protection or whatever, what’s there to like in a burger simulacrum? Whether it tastes like a burger or not (and, sure, the Impossible Whopper mimics the regular-ass Whopper pretty well) doesn’t seem like an argument that’s relevant in the first place. It’s a cop-out. A distraction from the conversation that first got us talking about plant-based “meat,” the sort of global public discourse the IPCC is tickling in 2019. But being seeing having that conversation isn’t as important as partaking in the sensation of the day, the impossible ecstasy of corporate braggadocio.

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