Friday, October 29, 2010

Rise of the Herbivores

Could humans be evolving into a post-carnivorous stage? Get ready for Homo sapiens herbivora


The year is 2050.

The world's governments have failed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. In the last forty years, global warming has turned over 60% of the world’s farmland into desert, forcing 150 million “climate refugees” to relocate. With less arable land and hotter temperatures, there are fewer crops. There is not enough land to raise livestock. With the human population at 9 billion, there is a global food crisis -- 25 million more children have joined the ranks of the world's hungry.

In 2008, when the world food crisis pushed another 40 million people into hunger, the head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization Jacques Diouf warned world leaders that the global food production must double by 2050 to head off mass hunger. This did not happen. Scientists now predict that half of the world's human population will be malnourished by 2100.

The discrepancy between the rich and the poor has become more pointed. Walled, zero-carbon cities like Masdar in Abu Dhabi have cropped up around the globe, ironically fueled by oil money, which will run out when the world's oil reserves dry up in 2057. These walled "greenopolises" -- mostly located in new inland deserts formed by climate change-induced desertification -- have become oases for the rich, while the vast majority of the world's population gathers around the remaining few viable coastlines that haven't been eroded by the rise in sea level.

A lack of freshwater in inland communities in places like America's breadbasket and central Australia has forced out the lower and middle classes. The infrastructures of coastal megacities like Guangdong, China, are in danger of collapsing from overpopulation.

A new Dark Age has swept over undeveloped countries that cannot sustain population growth, global warming migration and a lack of resources. Global recession is the norm. Black markets thrive. Wars are fought over minerals, food and water. The underground desert living movement is rapidly growing.


The so called "Sixth Extinction" has come and gone. While humans continue to multiply at a rapid rate, a million species have been wiped out, including a third of non-human primates. Natural food chains around the globe are disrupted. The melting polar caps have caused a global sea level rise of several feet, causing the flooding of low level farmland with saltwater. Much land is rendered infertile. Grazing animals have died out. Large mammals no longer exist. Elephants, polar bears, bison, wild horses, lions and tigers have been extinct for two decades.

Almost all marine life is gone. Big fish like tuna and cod have long been overfished. Sharks have become extinct due to the increased demand for shark-fin soup, driven primarily by China, which is struggling to feed a fifth of the world's human population. Whales went extinct in 2045, finally succumbing to the whale meat industry, led primarily by consumer demand in Japan, as well as Iceland and Norway.

Wild salmon went extinct in 2030, succumbing to diseases brought by escaped farmed salmon, diseases that were borne out of unsanitary aquaculture conditions in fish farms off the coast of California, Scotland and Canada. As a result of the loss of wild salmon and of increased trophy hunting, North American black bears and grizzly bears have become extinct.

Oil spills have become common, as paleo-energy companies rush to derive the last bits of fossil fuel from the world's rapidly disappearing oil reserves. Many ocean-going migratory birds have gone extinct, trapped in oil slicks by the millions or dying from the lack of fish to eat. Ocean acidification, floating plastic garbage and oil gushing daily into open water have turned the global marine environment into a massive dead zone.

Borneo's rainforests are completely gone, replaced by palm oil plantations that support the packaged food and cosmetic industries. Because of this, orangutans went extinct in 2030. The 140 million people who used to live in rainforests are now "rainforest refugees," migrating to coastal megacities in New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Brazil and West Africa. The "Great Migration" in Africa has been completely disrupted. Thomson's gazelles, zebra and wildebeest are extinct.


The meat industry (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, veal and chicken) now serves primarily the wealthy class, as governments around the world have shut down large scale unsustainable animal agribusiness due to the fact that it once caused 51% of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. In 2010, the 1.5 billion cows that were on Earth produced two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents annually. Today, there are only a few million cows raised for food for the rich. Fast food chains like McDonald's have gone out of business. The average cost of a hamburger, made from beef sourced from the world's few remaining animal farms, is $50 USD.

Cultures in which insect-eating is normal see an increased insectivorism among poorer classes dealing with the food crisis. Dogs and cats are increasingly eaten throughout Africa, Asia and South America as they are readily available in large cities that do not have neutering programs. There is an increase in infectious bacterial diseases from the ingestion of sick street animals.

People are turning increasingly to plants for survival. There is a rapid rise in veganism. There are simply not enough animals to eat -- or to make animal-based food products. Additionally, diseases and health problems related to meat-based diets has turned the vast majority of people to plant-based diets. Diabetes, heart disease and other obesity-related problems have pushed carnivorism out of the mainstream. Due to the global recession, public health insurance plans no longer cover meat eaters. Carnivorism is now the diet of the rich, who can afford to buy meat and pay a premium for their own healthcare.

Though it is too late to reverse much of the environmental destruction that has ravaged the world, the majority of people are now finally aware that their dietary and consumer choices have a direct impact on the health of the planet, resulting in a widespread awareness of sustainability and biodiversity protection.


There is a growing socioeconomic divide between rich meat eaters living in walled, inland greenopolises and lower/middle class plant eaters living on coasts. Scientists consider the possibility that humans are approaching an evolutionary crossroads, a split into two distinct subspecies: Homo sapiens herbivora (plant eaters) and Homo sapiens carnivora (meat eaters). Due to disease related to meat-based diets, more carnivores are passing along metabolic dieases onto their progeny.

A 2010 study by the Harvard School of Public Health has found that eating processed meat like bacon, sausage and deli meats was linked to a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. In a 2009 study, published in the journal Thorax, scientists from Germany, Spain and England found that the consumption of three or more burgers a week may increase a child's asthma risk.

Scientists predict that Homo sapiens carnivora will not survive into the 22nd century.

Whether or not there is an evolutionary shift based on diet -- and the distinct geographic distribution and isolation of the two type of humans -- there is a sharp rise in herbivorism, a phenomenon that has led to the question: Is meat-eating a natural "human" activity? Perhaps it's not just a dietary choice of necessity. Maybe there is a moral shift that accompanies it.


Eating plants is not just better for the planet and for individual health -- apparently it's more empathetic, too. According to a 2010 fMRI brain scan study by a team of neuroscientists from Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the brains of vegans and vegetarians had higher activations in areas related to empathy than those of meat eaters.

"Assuming that vegetarians and vegans -- because of their underlying moral philosophies -- show greater empathy towards animal suffering," writes social psychologist Daniel R. Hawes in Psychology Today, "it is very well possible that these differences in empathy extend beyond the animal domain and show up as general differences in the degree of empathy felt towards other humans also; even at a neurological level."

"All things considered," Hawes adds, "the study suggests that vegetarians are more empathetic to the suffering of others, but as I contemplate the well-documented health benefits of a vegetarian diet, as well as the environmental and social hazards of current meat-eating habits and production practices, I think it is obvious that reducing your meat consumption will first and foremost be an act of compassion towards yourself." This neurological shift may give support the evolutionary shift paradigm.


"Why kill animals for food when it isn’t necessary?" asks New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, in a 2008 blog post.

"The defense is this: it may be inhumane, but it isn’t un-human," Bittman argues. "It’s traditional. It’s mainstream, and almost everyone alive who can eat meat does so. (Converted vegetarians, meaning those who were born in a meat-eating tradition but rejected it, are relatively few, certainly less than five percent of the U.S. population.) At the end of the day, it’s almost a religious decision to stop."

"Humans do not tread lightly on this planet (understatement of the year, I know). Many of us agree we need to minimize our footprint. I’d rather argue against unnecessary cruelty, against overconsumption, for better human and planetary health, than for a strict regimen that the majority of the earth’s citizens will reject outright. I think people can hear “eat less meat,” and I can say it. But “eat no meat?” Few people are listening, nor will they."

It seemed that the United Nations was listening, because in 2010, it released a report that says basically that, citing the 2006 report "Environment impacts of products: A detailed review of studies" published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology that found that "the consumption of meat and dairy products (within food consumption)...cause[s] a disproportionately large share of environmental impacts."

At a 2008 press conference in Paris, the head of the United Nation's Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Rajendra Pachauri said that producing 2.2 pounds of meat causes the emissions equivalent of 36.4 kilos (80 pounds) of carbon dioxide. In addition, raising and transporting that amount of beef, lamb or pork consumes the same energy as keeping a 100-watt bulb lit for three weeks.

Pauchauri, an Indian economist and vegetarian, said, "Please eat less meat -- meat is a very carbon intensive commodity." Indeed, Pauchauri is one of a growing number of experts who see that the switch to a plant-based diet is the single most important behavioral change that humans can do to help save the planet.

"In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity," he said. Pachauri advised the world's omnivores to "give up meat for one day [per week] initially, and decrease it from there."


A Harris Interactive Service Bureau survey conducted in 2008 found that 11.9 million people are "definitely interested" in pursuing a vegetarian diet in the future. They could be joining the ranks of the over 7 million Americans who are vegetarians, according to a study by Vegetarian Times, including former president Bill Clinton, who recently changed his diet to near-vegan.

According to a 2005-2006 survey by Bon App├ętit (a dining facilities firm that manages more than 4,000 corporate, college and university accounts), 8 percent of college students said that they were vegetarian, and less than 1 percent identified themselves as vegan. The same survey, taken again in 2009-2010 survey, showed that 12 percent identified as vegetarian and 2 percent said that they follow a vegan diet. Great Britain saw a 50% increase in top-range vegetarian restaurants from 2007 to 2010.

October 31, 2010, marked the last day of the 5th annual World Go Vegan Week. Now, forty years later, humans wish that more people had switched their diets back then. The year is 2050. And though things look bleak, the world is emerging from the new Dark Age into a new "Eco-moral Age," led by ethically-minded, biodiversity-supporting plant eaters. Carnivorism -- long proven to be unsustainable, unhealthy and immoral -- is quickly dying out. The daunting task of re-greening planet Earth has begun.

The Victorian author Samuel Butler once said, "Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them." In 2050, that is no longer true, as the rise of the herbivores marks the next evolutionary step in the history of mankind.

Non-human animals are now humans' friends -- for life.

  • Pledge to vote for the environment on Election Day, November 2
  • Join Emily Deschanel and take the Vegan Pledge to try veganism during World Go Vegan Week, ending on October 31
  • See a list of restaurants participating in World Go Vegan Week
  • Learn more about transitioning to an animal-friendly and earth-friendly vegan diet
  • Read a list of famous vegetarians
  • Download a free vegetarian starter kit from FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement)
  • Check out Meatout
  • Read about the HBO documentary "Death on a Factory Farm"
  • Read PETA's "The Hidden Life of Pigs"
  • Read the Yale College Vegetarian Society's "Top 10 Reasons to Become Vegetarian"
  • Purchase Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals
  • Follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter
[Editor's note: October was food month on 13.7 Billion Years. Daily posts presented a different morsel to chew on and offered a moment to think about what we eat, how our food gets to our plates and how our gastronomical choices and habits affect our bodies, our fellow planetary inhabitants and the environment. To get involved with action alerts, follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter.]

image: vegan food pyramid (credit: glue&glitter)

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