What a current ‘debate’ about the ecological benefits of cows and cattle grazing tells us about dealing with Deniers and effective climate action
You can be forgiven for missing it, but amongst all the headlines about the hottest week in our planet’s recorded history while Big Oil retreats on its climate pledges – and the other headlines discussing anything other than this jaw-dropping reality – a cow-related eco-debate has been rumbling on.
This good cow/bad cow spat was triggered by an Oxford University debate titled ‘Is livestock grazing essential to mitigation climate change?. It billed itself as:
A key debate on this controversial topic between a founder and leading proponent of Holistic Management (Allan Savory) and a prominent critic (George Monbiot).
Chaired by an Oxford University Professor of Biodiversity, the event had top academic chops, and declared its intent to be focused on empirical evidence. If you have time and interest, the debate is worth watching, but not necessarily for the reasons advertised.
This debate was all about cows, but goes well beyond cows. Its head-to-head adversarial format has its merits, but demands taking extreme positions. Instead of a like-minded exploration of ‘sustainable farming v. what we’re now doing’, we got ‘Good cow v Bad cow‘. Asking whether grazing cattle is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for ‘the planet’’ is a very crude, binary way or expressing a multifaceted problem in an astonishingly complex system. It does, however, makes a better headline than ‘a discussion between well-informed and experienced experts about the environmental impact of how we feed ourselves’.
It required Savory and Monbiot to amplify their differences, to focus on their narrow band of disagreement rather than the broad swathes on which they presumably agree. Despite everyone’s best efforts to invoke facts and evidence, and explore the weeds of regenerative farming, carbon auditing calculations, and the complex cost-benefits trade-offs you might expect from anything involving humans, farming, and ecological impact, it was the intellectual equivalent of a slugging match.
Any intervention humans have on an ecosystem as complex as Earth’s generates a heap of evidence, requiring carefully examination and understanding before coming to any conclusions.
We urge you to inform yourselves about the critical issue of food production, and the Oxford debate might be a good start, but this article isn’t about the particular cow issue they were discussing (a more nuanced version of the methane-burping issue you might be thinking of). This article concerns the lessons of how this good cow/bad cow ding-dong was publicly debated, reported and consumed.
This article is about the other hot air – the public debate generated by the debate, not the methane emanating from the cows.
It’s not about the story, but about the storytelling, whether public or private fact-battering ‘opponents’ is an effective form of climate action, and what other options are available.
A Tale of Two Georges
George Monbiot’s passionate, expert, science-based advocacy for urgent climate action over decades has won him the Orwell Prize for ‘making political writing into an art’.
His views are consistently concise, coherent, factful and well researched – but how effective is he as an activist?
The answer is nuanced. Monbiot has distinct modes. When appearing with like-minded activists, like in this 30 minute interview with Novara News on COP26, he appears as Weary George. Weary George collegially shares his dismay with the forces of inaction, but pulls back just short of Despair. Weary George is Disappointed Dad, shaking his head when errant offspring stand before him, eyes downcast and hands behind their back.
Like all campaigners, Monbiot is also passionate. Like many, he has a combative side to his personality, which gains prominence the more he feels he’s in a fight. In taking on Savory, he appears happy to grab the cow by the horns.
In this Oxford debate and his more polemical pieces, Monbiot’s alter-ego, Angry George, tends to emerge. Angry George’s criticism can be withering, dismissive, demonising. Angry George is Didactic Dad, pointing and raising his voice to his combative kids.
Even for his supporters, this can sometimes be hard to take. Like some atheists watching Richard Dawkins, or campaigners watching Greta Thunberg, climate activists can agree with everything Monbiot says, while wincing at the way he says it.
Both Georges can be effective for different audiences, but to be effective, climate activists should measure themselves not by how many deniers they ‘own’, or by the amount of social media engagement they induce, but by how many minds they change.
George The Third
We’d suggest that Monbiot – and all activists – are least effective when they preach to the choir or troll the bad guys, and most effective when they sway the undecided. Or in See Through News parlance, move Unwilling Inactivists from Inaction to Action.
Take this Monbiot appearance from 2005, when even responsible news shows still felt the need to ‘balance’ the climate debate. Channel 4 News pitched Monbiot against a celebrity biologist, David Bellamy. At this stage, Bellamy’s long career as an enthusiastic TV scientist, and academic credentials, had earned him substantial credibility as a climate sceptic. When Bellamy publicly quoted ‘scientific research’ that claimed glaciers were advancing, not retreating, his influence on public opinion was significant.
Many of us claim to ‘do our own research’ on climate issues, but most of us outsource our climate research to celebrity champions, be they David Attenborough, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg or David Bellamy. This makes public climate-change deniers powerful amplifiers to those hearing what they want to hear, and Bellamy’s glacier nonsense had recently hit the headlines.
Given the opportunity to take Bellamy on head-to-head, Monbiot accepted the challenge and hit the right balance – let’s call him ‘Wearangry George’.
We’d suggest his gentle but comprehensive dismantling of the pseudoscience Bellamy was regurgitating is a more effective approach most of the time than Weary or Angry George. It’s admirable that after decades of such campaigning, Monbiot is still prepared to enter the bullring – or in this case cow ring – even when the the premise of the debate is as polarised and simplistic as Good/Bad Cows. His view, legitimately, is that any public debate is an opportunity to better inform an ignorant public.
He may be right, up to a point, but pragmatically speaking, what are the metrics by which we can know? How many minds do such debates change? Does this kind of activism lead to more or less carbon being emitted?
Does it promote net action and reduce net inaction?
Should I stay or should I go?
When to engage, and when to withdraw from climate debate?
Climate activists have finite energy, time and resources. Blunderbuss opponents indiscriminately, and you risk either misdirecting your energy on people already entrenched on one or other side of the debate, or burnout.
Both results lead to Inaction. Given that Inaction is the desired outcome of Big Oil, the Deniers, and those who profit from the status quo, this counts as a defeat.
So how best to keep your powder dry? How do you know when to walk away, when to square up, and when to engage?
Knowing when to walk away is important. Face-to-face fact shouting, name calling or slogan chanting has its place, but rapidly loses impact. Like non-violent protest, we know the results of too little, but too much risks alienating the undecided.
For anyone looking for excuses for Inaction, being inconvenienced by protestors blocking roads or disrupting events is a gift.
Withdrawing to pasture
Simply walking away and saving your energy for a more promising engagement is prudent. Returning to the Good Cow/Bad Cow debate, there are few more qualified commentators than the weekly newsletter published by the UK’s Riverford Organic Farmers.
Riverford has a decades-long, and pretty unimpeachable, history of sustainable practice and innovation. After scaling up a local veg box scheme to a multi-million pound national franchise, winning copious awards for organic integrity, business ethics and customer satisfaction, its founder transferred ownership 100% to its employees.
Impressively pragmatic and un-ideological, Riverford spends a great deal of time and energy in engaging its customers by explaining the realities of farming. When criticised for raising prices, it explains exactly why, saying that in order to be sustainable, food should reflect the real cost of production.
Early in Riverford’s history, there was a lot of noise about Food Miles and the carbon benefits of buying locally-grown produce. This instinct made intuitive sense, but lacked any scientific rigour. Riverford commissioned university research which produced some unexpected findings -trucking tomatoes from Spain proved to be way less carbon intensive than growing them in local polytunnels.
Rather than bury such inconvenient truths, Riverford embraced them, taking the time and care to explain the science to their customers in accessible, non-alienating terms, even though their entire business model minimised food miles.
The most sustainable thing is to eat local produce in season, Riverford made plain to its customers, but if you really want tomatoes year round, it’s less carbon-intensive to import them by truck from Spain than grow them here…
What would Wicked Leeks say?
So readers of Riverford’s excellent, and wittily-titled weekly newsletter Wicked Leeks, must have looked forward to which side they took in this binary debate.
As suppliers of organic veg and meat/dairy, few farmers have more expertise and hands-on experience. Unlike many ineffective green activists, who focus entirely on changing individual behaviour, Wicked Leeks promotes influencing government regulation. What, then, did they make of the Savory/Monbiot debate?
Their editorial was brief, and a model of walking away from ineffective debate. It noted the
‘fake polarisation and binary decision forced upon us’
and pointed out one of the more gaping holes, that of ignoring
‘the absolute wild west show that is soil carbon accounting at the moment’.
Most critically, it thought it wasn’t worth the effort because:
In any case, no one I’ve spoken to seemed to have learnt anything new or even reaffirmed their no doubt already rigidly held beliefs.
Knowing when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em, is a key aspect of effective climate action. Fighting on all fronts simultaneously is a poor – and unsustainable – use of resources, but also poor strategy.
Spend all your time an energy shouting at people whose opinions grow more entrenched with every killer fact and gotcha slogan, and you’ve not changed anything. Your efforts haven’t reduced a single molecule of carbon, and if you’re not using that as your yardstick, what are you actually hoping to achieve?
We’ve written extensively elsewhere about the critical power of storytelling in shifting ordinary people from climate inactivity to activity. See Through News has a wide range of projects, from podcasts to community filmmaking projects that use an arsenal of storytelling tricks to re-frame carbon drawdown’ arguments’ in agreeable, engaging, fun, friendly and factful clothes.
Futerra, an international non-profit ‘change agency’ set up by media professionals, takes a similar approach. Its ‘Stories To Save The World’ guide (free to download) is well worth examining. It outlines ten familiar ‘story frames’, such as:
- The Frankenstein Story of ‘Earned Dystopia’
- The Hunger Games Story of ‘youth mutiny’
- The Iron Man Story of ‘techno saviour’
- The The Modern Family Story of ‘Normalising Sustainable Activity’
- The Erin Brokovich Story of ‘Character-Lead Climate Action’
For each scenario, it explains the connections to climate action and activity, and how they can be adapted to promote rapid transition to a sustainable future.
This deep dive in to the behavioural psychology that underpins the advertising industry’s ability to get us to consume more, isn’t for everyone. We’re all consumers, but only a few of us are professional media manipulators. Much simpler to sign an online petition, make a banner, or shout a slogan, and such fancy-pants storytelling approaches are not going to ‘save the planet’ on their own.
Effective climate action – learn from the best
For decades, Big Oil has successfully used these same storytelling tricks to retard change, so when it come to changing minds, why not learn from the best?
We’d guess that everyone involved in the Oxford University good cow/bad cow debate sincerely wants to measurably reduce carbon – both protagonists, the chair, the organisers, the audience in the room and online. But how much closer did all that hot air get us to a more sustainable future?
Critically, if your answer involves phrases like ‘educating’, ‘raising awareness’ and ‘shifting public debate’, that may or may not be true, but how can you measure the connection between such benefits and reversing the parts-per-million of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere?
Every day, people who consider themselves sustainability activists hold gratuitously disruptive protests, flight-shame celebrities and friends, litter-pick, pick internecine fights with fellow-sustainability advocates on minor differences of approach, or indulge in other forms of ineffective activism.
Big Oil and the beneficiaries of inaction are happy for them to do such things until the cows come home. These ineffective actions may have beneficial side-effects – personal mental health, a sense of solidarity, being in nature, a sense of purpose in a crazy world – but don’t confuse these with effective climate action.
If you can’t measure how much carbon your activities reduce, how can you claim to be effective? Why not consider more effective alternatives, that can be measured?