As the campaign of Bernie Sanders continues to gain (an albeit fragile) viability, along with the equally fragile yet increasingly necessary enactment of a Green New Deal, Donald Trump is inoculating his base.
“The Green New Deal … would crush our farms, destroy our wonderful cows,” President Donald Trump told a gathering at an Iowa rally, shortly before the botched caucus night. “They want to kill our cows. You know why, right? You know why? Don’t say it. They want to kill our cows. That means you’re next.”
By “kill our cows,” of course, Trump is not talking about the lives of actual cows — he’s attempting to build alarm, positioning the Green New Deal as a threat to the meat industry. And yet he adds, “you’re next,” as if “your” very life is inextricably bound to the well-being of industrial meat production.
Everyone who looks at the ecological crisis agrees that the meat industry is a problem. A plant-rich diet ranks number four in solutions to the climate crisis, according to Project Drawdown which lists the 80 areas we might address immediately to begin reversing global warming. In fact, eight of the top 20 solutions concern agriculture, food production and consumption —including for the wealthy nations, elimination of food waste. Meat sits at the top of the food chain. A cow has to consume a lot of grain before being slaughtered for beef. Feeding livestock on grain is an extremely inefficient means of calorie production, George Monbiot explains. Cows fart methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2, though it stays in the atmosphere less long. Worse, manure piles up on industrial meat and dairy farms, exuding methane and polluting fresh water during the increasing floods attributable in part to climate change, instead of being returned to the soil as fertilizer, as regenerative farming does, actually capturing carbon while increasing the health of the land. Industrial agriculture is a big contributor to global heating. “Together, the world’s top five meat and dairy corporations are now responsible for more annual greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell or BP,” GRAIN reports.
The Green New Deal recognizes that “eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural industries” and “investing in local-scale agriculture” must be part of any plan adequately addressing climate change. While the plan-in-progress doesn’t get more specific yet, it gestures toward the need to turn away from industrial agriculture and meat production and instead focus on local, organic and regenerative farming systems — systems that work to sequester carbon in the soil instead of adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The supposed raid on “our wonderful cows” of which Trump warns comes to stand for a Green New Deal attack on carbon-intensive industrial agriculture, and, also, the enormous government subsidies delivered to Big Ag. The more successful the idea of a Green New Deal becomes, the more such incitement to violence may intensify.
The meat industry is tightly interlaced with the defense of U.S. colonialism. Plains Native Americans lived off the buffalo, carefully killing only those they needed to survive, while protecting the health of the herd. It was the white settlers who could not stop themselves and — drugged on the seemingly inexhaustible excess of the giant animals thundering across the plains — hunted the buffalo to extinction. The first ecological war on American soil was waged against the locally managed food supply of the buffalo-hunting tribes. The white settlers slaughtered the buffalo for their hides, leaving much of the meat to rot, and thereby depriving the Indigenous people who depended on the buffalo for a crucial source of sustenance. This scorched earth tactic served the broader colonial aim of stealing Native land and forcing Indigenous people onto reservations.
The wild buffalo were then replaced with beef cattle in large herds and the cowboys who looked after them. American culture tells us in a thousand different films what to do when the other rides against your cows. Pick up your guns and resist. Form a posse. Hire a sheriff. Mobilize. There’s a certain bravado, an enduring thrill, an assertion of rugged individual justice as we saw when Ammon Bundy and his followers occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, demanding the federally protected land be turned over to the state so ranchers could graze their cows.
People who buy burgers at the drive-through or at the supermarket are removed from the realities of meat-intensive diets (including the suffering of the animals as they go to slaughter) in a way that is impossible for those who raise the animals for sale. Americans consume large quantities of meat, in part because, for many, fresh food is inaccessible, many don’t have the time or knowledge to cook fresh food, or fast food is all they can afford.
A meat-intensive diet is putting many people at risk of earlier death because most cows are doused with antibiotics and other drugs, and fed grain that has been doused with carcinogenic chemicals like glyphosate, red meat consumption increases the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity.
This trend comes as no surprise because cheap meat is readily available in many neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables are not. We must not blame people whose neighborhoods have been disinvested in, but should instead challenge the way in which our economy favors the meat industry and deprioritizes public health and ecological sustainability.
Implicit in the idea of a Green New Deal is local control of food sources: a focus on small organic farms using regenerative farming techniques and on food distribution systems that target urban food deserts by creating food coops and farmers markets to supply locally produced organic food. Because the Green New Deal is a plan-in-progress, it asks for many imaginative, community-building solutions (neighbors gardening on roofs, in yards and on vacant land, for example) to address the glut of mass-marketed fast food produced by Big Ag.
We shall defend “our wonderful cows” the president says. Your lifestyle depends upon it. Vote for me.
Meanwhile, Trump claims he is “winding down” our wars (although he sends troops and jets to Saudi Arabia to protect their oil fields, threatens war with Iran, and has dropped more bombs on Afghanistan than either of his predecessors did). We have the finest military the world has known, he brags. We can take them out with drones, even storied generals landing in civilian airports on diplomatic missions. Now, though, he implies, we need bring the fight home. Because if the radicals win, they will take away your cows, and your cars. They will destroy your way of life. They’ll limit the amount of water that flows through your toilet, and make you use LED lights. They will not let you fly. They will make us into a “hermit nation” like North Korea. He has said all that.
Like most of us, when it comes to catastrophic climate change, Trump engages in magical thinking. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. So, this year, the hottest January in recorded history, no one speaks of winter anymore. As if winter never was. Trump mentioned nothing of rising seas or melting ice, or of forest fires in his State of the Union address. His sop to the environmental movement was his pledge to join the One Trillian Tree Initiative. Doubtful that he’ll actually do it, but even so The New York Times reports that to plant enough trees to offset the 5.8 billion tons of carbon we produced in 2019, we’d need “about 372 million acres — about four times the area of California.”
Trump also bragged the U.S. is now “energy independent,” omitting the fact that energy independence was actually achieved by the Obama administration. The U.S. exports fossil fuels. We don’t any longer need that foreign oil. Of course, more oil is always nice.
Now, there is a new Space Force, and Trump touts the glorious goal of planting the American flag on Mars alongside reminiscence about our glorious frontier past: the names of Wyatt Earp, and other cowboys of old, were invoked in his State of the Union address. A frontier myth of boundless expansionism, all the way to Mars, (with the added irony of a Southern border wall) is but a metaphor for a regulation-free boundless exploitation of the U.S.’s resources, including depletion of the soil.
Speaking of the Green New Deal shortly after the unveiling of the initial plan, Trump said: “I will not stand for it. We will defend the environment, but we will also defend American sovereignty, American prosperity, and we will defend American jobs.” American “sovereignty” one wonders, over what, but natural resources, the reserves of fossil fuel hidden under land and sea, the ability to extract it at will, to treat the earth much like a meat or dairy cow, for sale and devourable, must be defended against “left-wing radicals.”
Noam Chomsky is fond of calling the Republican Party the “most dangerous organization in human history,” and perhaps we’ve seen nothing yet. Trump’s re-election campaign, previewed in his State of the Union address, and his incendiary comments in Iowa the week before, appears to be readying the nation for an all-out battle to defend an America gone — indeed, a war over oil on this land.
But perhaps this battle need not be lethal. We can oppose Trump’s incitement with a Green New Deal. We can embrace the ecological consciousness implicit in an effective climate and food policy that takes our terrifying situation literally and immediately begins to implement solutions. We can join with the activists who are massing to replace the myths of extractivism and slaughter with policies and actions that protect our land, our creatures, our lives and our future.