Now’s the Time to Shift to a Plant-Based Diet

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A research paper that can only be called stunning, published by a group at Oxford University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, modeled the health, environmental and economic impacts of alternative dietary practices between now and 2050. Just like 1984 for Orwell, 2001 for Kubrick and Miami in 2016 – when those dates were all first chosen – 2050 is currently hazy over the time horizon of our easy perception, but will get here in a hurry. Orwell and Kubrick have seen their futures become the past – it will be 2016 in Miami, as elsewhere, in nine months. We may hope the lights on Broadway stay on.

So it is that 2050 will get here, too, and maybe in the time it takes for us to blink, or turn around. The world of 2050 is not a remote or mythical proposition. It’s where those of us in the middle of the demographic curve now will be looking on at children in the middle of the demographic curve then. Our grandchildren will be young adults, or even adolescents. It’s a world far too few degrees of separation away for us to be complacent about it.

The 3 Week Diet

That stunning analysis by Marco Springmann and colleagues models alternative versions of 2050 for us, based on the dietary choices we make between now and then. The paper, in all its glory and the grisly arcana of its methods, is available for you here. A sanitized, pop culture synopsis, here.

In brief, the analysis reveals mind-bogglingly massive benefits to human health, the climate and environment, and the global economy with a major, worldwide shift to more plant-based eating. The impact is the greatest in developing countries with huge populations where, at present, the trend is ominously in the wrong direction. Meat intake is rising in India and China.

 

Compelling as this paper is on its own, it is that much more so in the context of two other noteworthy and contemporaneous provocations. The first is a new model of climate change, described in the New York Times, suggesting that all the dire consequences projected for centuries and evoking yawns, may play out over mere decades instead. This model is admittedly controversial, although anyone looking around has cause to consider that things do seem to be changing visibly fast. We have already had initial introductions to New England without winter. It’s very disquieting.

Finally, there was a thoughtful commentary by the unfailingly thoughtful Nicholas Kristof,  again in the New York Times. Kristof’s ruminations were on the topic of risk distortion, an abiding concern to those of us in preventive medicine.  While sharing our collective dismay over the terrorist toll in Brussels, Kristof points out the vastly greater threat to that city of climate change. Like so many of the world’s great cities, Brussels is coastal. According to the script ever more indelibly on the wall, that means it will be under water in a future foreseeable to anyone with eyes open and maybe, even, in mere decades.


I have friends in Brussels. No one is contesting the gravity of terrorism. But the reality is that terrorism is terrible, but a low-order risk to any one of us on any given day, and life goes on. When most of the world’s major cities are drowning at the same time, life as we know it will not go on – it will go away. It will give way to almost unfathomable misery and mayhem. The very course of civilization, and perhaps the fate of humanity, will be recast accordingly.

Like those of the suicide bombers, that fuse, too, has been lit. Kristof quotes the former NASA scientist responsible for the accelerated climate change model, James E. Hansen: “The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.” Admittedly, we didn’t ask for a fate so fraught with far-reaching ramification, but here we are, and it’s ours.

Connecting these dots, then, we have some rather important decisions to make, and little, if any, time left to chew before we swallow. Across the full expanse of uncertainties in the Oxford model, it is nonetheless certain that a concerted, global shift to more plant-based diets offers a partial solution to the existential threats both clearest, and most omnipresent. Chronic disease is increasingly ubiquitous, and the world’s great drain of years from life, and life from years. That calamitous, continuous human cost is overwhelmingly preventable by the application of knowledge long at our disposal, applied to lifestyle. Diet is salient in the mix.

 

Environmental change is slightly less immediate in its impositions, but will prove the greater peril in time. The only remaining questions pertain to how much time, and the most worrisome answers imply all too little.

We should, obviously then, for the sake of what we know for sure, and the sake of what we just robustly suspect, change how we eat. What stands in the way?

Complacency, for one. Change is never easy – not for individuals, and not for cultures. But change is not a choice in this instance. The choice is between changing while we still have choices or changing in response to the fact that we no longer do. Individuals who can’t find time to exercise always manage to find time for their coronary bypass. Cities lacking the political will for policies, practices and programs favorable to the health of people and planet alike will find a way to evacuate when the waters rise.

For another, cost. Keeping up is expensive – just often less so than failure to do so. Look to New Orleans for some relevant lessons.

Mostly, though, we are obnubilated by a culture that implies that how things are is how they ought to be. Perception is reality, and our perception is blinkered.

Last night, my wife and I had dinner at what passes for a Mediterranean-style restaurant in our neighborhood. I had a vegetarian dinner; my wife, mostly so, but for some shrimp. But the litany of specials was a study in carnivory – up to and including a pork chop entree with a side of “bacon fries,” whatever exactly those are. Whatever the appeal of such a lineup – if we do not conjure images of the cows, pigs and sheep raised for slaughter; if we do not consider the consumption of water, and the emission of greenhouse gases – we are not merely dining on denial. We are dining on our children’s blighted future.

 

Doing what needs doing will be disruptive and difficult. But frankly, that’s just too damn bad. Once, the earth was flat, and reorienting the understanding of all of humanity to make it spherical was monumentally disruptive. But consider the stunted condition endowed to us by ancestors who found reality too hard, and renounced it.

Once, the sun revolved around the earth. There has perhaps never been a mandate more disruptive, or on a relative scale more costly, than repositioning the planet in the solar system. The only thing potentially more disruptive and costly still would have been failure to accommodate the truth.

So it is for us. Culture conspires against what we need. Complacency conspires against what we need. Human nature and the time horizons that bound our primate brains conspire against what we need. The economic arguments of immediate reward and instant gratification conspire against our need. But how pernicious and toxic to the very character of progress for us to acquiesce.

All great advances, all great accommodations of urgent need and updated reality have been disruptive. So, too, will be the essential shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. So, too, will be the stunningly, diversely beneficial shift to diets of mostly minimally-processed plants.

Or, we can live on diets of baloney and denial that consign to our grandchildren whatever is left. They can enjoy it while rowing their boats down the streets of Brussels and Tokyo and Manhattan, careful not to go over edge of the world, watching the sun go round.

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