Harvie has chosen the wrong target

In his column of 24 July 2023, Robin McAlpine attacks Patrick Harvie’s plan to get people to change their gas boilers for heat pumps, arguing, “We need a collective response to climate disaster, not punitive individualism”. My own quarrel with Harvie is about his target rather than his methods.

[You should read also this piece by DeSmog ‘Media Blitz Against Heat Pumps Funded by Gas Lobby Group’ – Ed]

He would do better to promote veganism, and propose both collective measures, such as Scottish Government subsidies for plant-based agriculture, and individualist measures, such as helping (not forcing) farmers to go stockfree and consumers to go vegan – the latter necessary if plant-based farming is to have customers. Individualist campaigning needn’t be punitive or bullying, but rather can point to the advantages to consumers and farmers themselves.

This isn’t “what-aboutery”: veganism isn’t just a neglected “something else” compared to heat pumps; it’s something better. Whether collective or individual in its implementation, a policy of changing from gas boilers offers one benefit – helping the environment; but going vegan offers two benefits – helping the environment and saving animals.

In supporting Harvie’s aims, though not his methods, McAlpine writes, “reducing our reliance on ‘dirty heat’ in our homes is crucial given that it is the fourth biggest source of emissions”. But the chart cited lists agriculture as the third greatest source of emissions, while, if the study mentioned in a Guardian report of 2021 is to be believed, “Meat accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production” – making it, together with dairy, at least a close rival of “dirty heat” as a source of emissions.
As for the benefit to animals of not killing them or taking their offspring, this should be obvious.

But would ex-vegetarian Harvie ever promote veganism? In 2017, having endured a week of it in 2017 as part of an environment-oriented initiative by some Green Party politicians, he wrote:

“I respect the view that it’s simply morally wrong for people to eat other animals, but I don’t share it… I know I’d be healthier eating less meat and dairy and … I can enjoy doing that. When I do buy animal products, I want to know that I’m buying them from responsible producers, local ones when possible, instead of supporting the intensive meat industry. … if that means viewing them as … an occasional treat, it probably means I’ll enjoy them more.”

From 2006 to 2009 I lived in a Bulgarian village where, during the slaughter season in late autumn, the streets literally ran with blood. It was all very responsible, local, non-intensive, and no doubt sustainable – Harvie would love it. If you think that environmentalism and animal rights go hand in hand, you need only reflect that the co-leader of the Scottish Green Party sees nothing wrong in killing animals.

But if he were to change his mind and decide to promote veganism, he would still need the bottle, and I hope he would have that bottle, to confront the prevailing view of it as extreme, faddish, and altogether pretty much a fate worse than death.

Even when veganism’s environmental advantages are acknowledged, there has been a rush to point out alternative ways of securing them. In 2019 a columnist for the National Sunday supplement began: “A new breed of farmers are redefining the rules of agriculture as they join the fight against climate change. Just don’t tell them we all have to go vegan”.

Nicola Sturgeon, likewise, dismissed the effect of animal agriculture on climate change, arguing that “meat and food production will always produce some greenhouse gas emissions. But by continuing to adopt efficient practices … we can reduce current levels”. She further stressed the “importance of increasing demand” for Scottish meat, described having done so during “Quality Meat Scotland’s lamb campaign”, which led to “a 27% increase in spend on Scottish lamb, per buyer”, and cited “our support for the Specially Selected Pork campaign, which … had similar positive results”.

Also in 2019, in a sympathetic article in Bella Caledonia, Rob Brown attacked the then SNP government and EU on animal welfare, but added: “there are also many of us who prefer to remain (at least for now) animal welfare-conscious omnivores”.

Why have we failed to move on from this position, with even the most conscientious people treating veganism as an impossibly challenging practice? What vegans find particularly maddening is that the cruelty of animal agriculture is so unnecessary, and giving it up is so un-challenging. We don’t live on salads. We don’t feel like self-sacrificing martyrs. We’re not wasting away or going bankrupt from the cost of artisanal ingredients. And if changing from omnivore to vegan requires a period of adjustment, after which food is enjoyed as much as before, it hardly equals being forced by the government to pay £15,000 for an air source heat pump, perhaps (as McAlpine observes) on pain of being unable to sell your house.

Of course, as witness Sturgeon’s statement quoted above, that failure lies partly in “the close political relationship between the farming lobby and the Scottish Government”, noted at the time by (vegan) Andy Wightman. But perhaps the aversion to veganism goes further, even exceeding the attachment to cheese and bacon: it may also stem from veganism’s status as a major part of the “extremist” animal-rights movement (hence the frequent preference of suppliers for the term “plant-based”).

But where does the threatening image of animal rights come from? There is public disapproval of militant environmental campaigns and their sometimes illegal actions, but none of the deep-rooted aversion felt for the idea of animal rights. It’s as if people were afraid of losing their humanity if they empathized with animals to the extent of refusing to harm and kill them for food.

Yet, looking at it objectively, as an anti-climate change policy to be promoted both collectively and individually, there is no contest between heat pumps and veganism, since animals and the environment alike are set to gain from veganism at no cost to human well-being.

Harvie has got it wrong.

Note: there are different understandings of veganism, perhaps most commonly as a diet omitting all animal ingredients, such as meat, fish, cheese, or eggs, and followed for various reasons. Non-animal sources of protein, most commonly soya or other legumes, may be supplied in processed or home-cooked form. But to campaigners, veganism is a policy of avoiding all products of animal exploitation, extending to fur, wool, and leather, zoos and animal circuses, and anything else considered to harm animals. In this article, which is about Scottish environmental policy, the term refers to non-animal food production and consumption.

Comments (15)

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  1. MacGilleRuadh says:

    The SNP have always been very concerned about upsetting the commercial farming/forestry sectors. These concerns had a fierce champion in Fergus Ewing of course. The SNP will never back anything that will scare these particular horses. That’s the reality of it, animal cruelty and sustainability can go hang.

  2. Andrew Wilson says:

    Robin McAlpine is the one who needs to criticise the right people, not the ones doing their best to make Scotland a better place.

  3. Roddie MacLennan says:

    That would make 18% of greenhouse gases attributable to intensive, “global” meat production methods, NOT the Scottish, grass-fed variety.

  4. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Recent political campaigns have highlighted the need for us to keep people on board in responding to the climate crisis. We seem to be missing showing the attractiveness of environment protecting measures – contrast a quiet moment in a green space contemplating our world in contrast to the annual trauma of mass departures on overcrowded, sweaty aircraft or in long lines of traffic congestion. Etched on my memory is a film by JL Godard ‘Weekend’ which culminated in a semi permanent traffic jam. We need to hold out a vision for a more egalitarian, quieter contemplation of the world around us, and to provide the means to enjoy this in our cities. For me, like many others, veganism though admirable is a step too far, but a more careful approach to consumption is very attractive. There has to be a way to make green policies beguiling and to connect with means of restraining people’s existing ways of being. We’ve seen this relatively successful in the anti-smoking campaign and that to limit plastic bags in shops. Best to take a cue from what we know works rather than push people to adopt what seems to be a step too far.

    1. Thanks Cathie – I think there’s also real questions about what kind of veganism we mean and that we shape diets and food cultures according to place. In Scotland (as elsewhere) we need to eat what our land, soil and climate best provides.

      1. WT says:

        So veganism is a step too far? Listen to yourselves. As I said in response to another article on here targeting air flight, people want to talk about the climate not do anything about it that adversely affects their way of life. To say ‘what kind of veganism we mean’ is crazy, there is only one kind of veganism and really, if you can’t stop stuffing an animal in your face to save the world then you are not serious about doing it. Ideas about what Scotland or the UK should do to get to net zero might be interesting but if you only want to pen a list of things we could do while stuffing a burger in your moosh then fair enough, but don’t go preaching to others about what they should do. Look at yourself first.

  5. Chris Ballance says:

    Harvie is Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings and tenants’ rights – not Minister for Agriculture (a Sturgeon appointment, not his). The article puts forward the excellent arguments for veganism – but to blame Harvie for doing his day job is a complete misunderstanding of government. The rules of ministerial collective responsibility mean that he would be sacked for speaking out against another minister’s policies. Let him stick to heat pumps, please.

  6. Gavin says:

    https://greens.scot/ourfuture/protecting-scotlands-animals says:
    ‘The Scottish Greens recognise that animals are sentient beings that experience feelings, including contentment, joy, pain and suffering, and we believe this key principle should be enshrined in law.
    We are committed to ending animal suffering at the hands of people, and to promoting a new relationship with all animals that is based on respect and compassion.
    We will work towards ending all bloodsports, and to rooting out and ending animal cruelty in any aspect of our society, including in farming, sport and medical research.’

    That should rule out support for – at least – all intensive farming.
    However, the SNP-Green coalition haven’t shown any willingness to challenge the violent status quo.

    1. Chris Ballance says:

      Don’t overestimate what can be achieved by just 6 members in a parliament of 123. I would have loved it if our entire policy programme and manifesto were included in the government programme – but that’s never going to happen while the Greens are a minority to the SNP. Don’t forget that almost half the SNP membership voted for a candidate who opposes LGBT rights and abortion, and advocated ditching all Green policies. And that the modest demands to increase the number of Highly Protected Marine areas – despite being SNP, Tory and Labour policy – were ditched by the SNP leadership following protests.
      Don’t get me wrong – I would love it if we can do more to root out animal cruelty – but political power rests in the number of votes/seats you get – and at the moment Greens get enough to have some influence but not enough to have real power.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    From a reference in another Bella article on indigenous languages, I bought and played the video game Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa. The cultural insights video clips included many references to hunting animals, eating meat, using skins and other animal parts. While veganism may be largely possible and desirable (given sourcing of some key nutrients locally and sustainably) in Scotland, I disagree with the absolutist and universalist viewpoint that all predation on animals is wrong. It seems another form of colonialism to insist that hunter societies (which may be particularly respectful of animals and nature) are ethically inferior to civilised vegans. In fact, much of modern veganism appears to be another humanist hierarchy.

    The aim of books like Half-Earth Socialism, though again somewhat humanist, is to make approaches like veganism serve the wider purpose of rewilding, but forms of vegetarianism might be acceptable trade-offs: indeed the authors suggest that modern vegans may be largely uncritical supporters of capitalism.

  8. Niemand says:

    Having any kind of expectation that the majority will become vegans is naive in the extreme and a pointless aim as it is totally pie in the sky. I don’t eat meat but what I notice about those who do is that they mostly have meat every meal and there is a sense something is missing if not. Helping and persuading this majority to eat less meat, even considerably less, *is* possible and to some extent pushing at an open door, so will have far more of an impact because it can actually be achieved.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Niemand, our lifestyles have change vastly during the lifetimes of people alive today, sometimes change has been exponential (like consumer product choice) or non-linear (like the appearance of the Internet). A better and more realistic way would be to look at how generational (and shorter span) differences lead to changed behaviour, sometimes within a few short years. Meat-eating is culturally conditioned and can be unconditioned. Whole industries and government agencies are dedicated to behavioural modification (what would happen if they just stopped?).

      Of course, if survivors will shortly be reduced to hunting rats over baking garbage islands floating in rivers of turds, we might have to rethink our policies on veganism. And just as Lord Woolton was honoured during WW2 rationing, perhaps we’ll name our garbage-rat casserole Harvie Pie, an occasional and enjoyable treat harvested from local sources not intensively farmed, because we trusted our governing eejits to solve our problems for us, or just couldn’t be bothered coming up with a better system of government that places the living world always as the top priority. #biocracynow

      1. Niemand says:

        Is meat eating culturally conditioned? If it is then it has been a cultural condition since the evolution of human society. Some cultures are vegetarian but how many are vegan? I am all in favour of a more plant-based diet and I try to exercise it several days a week. But the ‘isms’ of veganism encourage an all or nothing approach that is exclusionary. I joked with a vegan friend that I cooked an 80% vegan meal which he understandably scoffed at, but there is an underlying point. There is a difference between a total vegan diet as an ideology and a partial one as a practical solution to various problems.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Niemand, well, how many people eat raw meat from an animal they have just caught and killed themselves with teeth and fingernails, the tools of animals? I agree there are substantial differences between ideological and practical veganism. I just think that behaviour will and can change very quickly in the face of phase shifts in our complex societies (for instance, people’s diet tended to change very quickly during World War 2, and in some curious cases for the better, though mass starvation sadly featured). Even addictions like tobacco smoking can quickly wane. Rationing may be accepted surprisingly quickly, given sufficient justification. What does look like happening in our world, however, is ditching of the pretence of collectivism by some elites which at the moment seems paralysing rather than polarising, but that could swiftly change, such is the nature of our polycrisis.

          One problem with ideological veganism, I suspect, is that it imagines a distinction between humans and other animals that necessarily makes humans elevated, as the only moral animal, capable of seeing that killing is wrong. I view that as speciesist bigotry. Other social animals have social codes and senses of fairness, taboos and culture, grief and cross-species altruism, for example. If our core ethics comes from our biology, as I believe it does, then that ethics of a fox might differ from the ethics of a goose, but ethics nevertheless. In the game I mentioned, the indigenous people explained that in their beliefs there is no such hierarchy in nature as ‘civilised’ humanists imagine. I think the indigenous viewpoint is more scientific in that sense.

          1. WT says:

            Very interesting point about the “distinction between humans and other animals…that makes humans elevated”. Absolutely correct. Really the only difference between humans and animals are those created by humans to make them feel superior. Most vegans I know do not feel that superiority, we all share the planet, it’s just that we humans destroy it.

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