A Tale of Two Vegans

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Al Gore keeps a low profile while James Cameron gets in your face

By Syd Baumel

No sooner had Al Gore rocked the world with An Inconvenient Truth than the sniping began.

There was an inconvenient truth about global warming that even Gore was ignoring, vegan activists were quick to point out: Our meat habit is warming the planet more than all the planes, trains, cars and other gas-guzzling automobiles combined.

Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said so that same year (2006) in their landmark report, Livestock’s Long Shadow.

Eventually, Gore began to acknowledge the meat-heat connection and that he’d cut down on the climate-wrecking food fare himself.

Fast forward to March 2014. After a year of speculation that the world’s most high-profile climate activist had cut down 100 percent, Gore confirmed it during an interview on Medscape.com about his new book, The Future. When interviewer Eric J. Topol, Medscape’s editor-in-chief, rather maladroitly commented, “I know you’ve been on a vegan kick – a diet,” Gore finally filled in some of the blanks:

“Over a year ago I changed my diet, really just to experiment to see what it was like, and I felt better, so I continued with it. Now, for many people, that choice is connected to environmental ethics and health issues and all this stuff. I just wanted to try it to see what it was like. And in a visceral way, I felt better, so I’ve continued with it and I’m likely to continue it for the rest of my life.”

It’s curious that Gore has been quiet about his radically climate-friendly dietary change for so long and  almost diffident about it in his recent spur-of-the-moment explanation. It would have been easy for him to declare a year ago: “I’m now following a vegan diet because it’s one of the most powerful things a person can do to combat climate change.”

That’s exactly how another outspoken environmentalist has played it. Canadian director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar; co-producer of Showtime’s new climate change blockbuster “Years of Living Dangerously”), who went vegan a couple years ago, has been outspoken about it. In-your-face outspoken.

Last year, when the National Geographic Society conferred its “Explorer of the Year” award on him at a scientist-, celebrity- and explorer-studded gala, Cameron was outspoken in his acceptance speech. Between the shrimp appetizer and the bison entrée, he likened his recent dietary “epiphany” to “waking up from a long sleepwalk”:

“I believe we are all sleepwalking off a cliff if we don’t do this,” he continued. “I want to challenge all of you as people of deep conscience, people who are environment stewards of the earth and oceans. . . .By changing what you eat, you will change the entire contract between the human species and the natural world.”

And in a Calgary Herald interview, describing how the dietary shift is playing out at home, Cameron observed, “the kids want hamburgers and Coke because they’re kids. But all of human consciousness is five years old emotionally. It’s not a requirement to eat animals, we just choose to do it, so it becomes a moral choice and one that is having a huge impact on the planet, using up resources and destroying the biosphere.”

Gore and Cameron

Al Gore (right) has been low profile about his adoption of a vegan diet. James Cameron (left) has been positively evangelical.

The first sign Al Gore had adopted a vegan diet was in February of last year. Word got out that on a promotional tour his staff asked a local restaurant to cater a supper for the Gore entourage with a “vegan, nut-free and oil-free menu.” That’s the kind of very low-fat vegan diet (low fat isn’t a “requirement” for vegans) that Gore’s old comrade-in-arms Bill Clinton had adopted a few years earlier for his health. It’s the type of diet prescribed by cardiologist Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic and featured in the viral documentary Forks Over Knives. Clinton (who occasionally eats fish and omega-3 fortified eggs – making him a “flexivegan” – and recently, at least, has included plenty of nuts and other good fats in his diet) is a follower of the vegan and near-vegan dietary prescriptions of Esselstyn, Dean Ornish and T. Colin Campbell. One wonders if Gore is too. That might explain his reticence to go public. In effect, he would have gone vegan not, ironically, to save the planet but to save his health. And because his motive was selfish, he might have planned to switch back to his old diet if the experiment didn’t work out. Better not to publicize it and risk a public backlash.

Not that there’s anything wrong with going vegan for your health (assuming that’s Gore’s reason). Ironically, watching Forks Over Knives is what Cameron attributes his own abrupt change of diet to. (The ironies pile up. In an Aquarian column two years ago – “Forks Over Knives, or Hype Over Facts?” – vegan activist David Steele faulted the documentary for using subpar science to oversell the health benefits of a vegan diet.) People become vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or flexivegan (have I covered all the bases?) for all kinds of reasons, as Gore notes in the Medscape interview (which you can view online). Elsewhere in the interview – most of which has nothing to do with diet – Gore touches on a couple of good ones.

He argues that it’s because big money has become so dominant a force in American politics that 80 percent of antibiotics are legally fed to livestock (to make them grow faster; not for their health). In some cases, Gore says, this has been documented as a cause of antibiotic resistance to human illnesses (as health authorities have long warned).

Right on cue, a month after the Gore interview the World Health Organization released a terrifying report citing “the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry” as one of the causes of an imminent, global antibiotic crisis. “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders,” warned WHO official Keiji Fukuda, “the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.”

Watering down our antibiotic arsenal to prop up factory farming, Gore argues in the Medscape interview, is a harebrained policy that could only exist in a toxic political environment where corporate interest trumps public good.

In a similar swipe, Gore decries the recent “passage of a farm bill [in the U.S.] that funnels billions of dollars in unneeded, unwise, counterproductive mass subsidies to factory farmers and industrial agriculture operations that hurt the environment and that hurt the health of the American people.”

For now, at least, it’s good to know Al Gore is a big step closer to walking his talk as an environmentalist – whatever the reason. He’s even lost a few pounds.

Aquarian contributing editor Syd Baumel blogs about ethical eating at eatkind.blogspot.ca

 
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One Response

  1. Bettie M.

    December 2, 2015 11:32 am

    It would have been easy for him to declare a year ago: “I’m now following a vegan diet because it’s one of the most powerful things a person can do to combat climate change.”

    Vegetarianism & veganism underaken for sensible reasons like personal health, countless negative effects on the environment of raising animals, etc. don’t work as well as a deep feeling of horror at the cruelty involved to animals. When push comes to shove, nobody really gives a hoot about climate change, it’s just another feel-good, top-down project for some sectors of the population and tomorrow they could change their mind if the right scientists came along and told them to. Same with diets followed for “health”; the world is not lacking in ex-vegans. But most normal humans can’t detach themselves so easily from knowledge of the torture of animals.

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