Cowspiracy takes environmental NGOs to task for inaction on animal agriculture

While not a perfect film, Cowspiracy does show us something fascinating: a plethora of Non-Governmental Organizations that claim to champion environmental causes when they are in fact either under-informed in regards to or have simply chosen not to focus on the connection between widespread meat consumption and deforestation. 

The film starts with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." It plays a bit abstract without the context that follows, but what the filmmakers are referring to is what they frame as an abundance of misinformed and somewhat impotent NGOs and activist organizations. These, one can infer, are our silent friends. 

In the opening sequence, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club lists off an abundance of numbers and statistics proving our headlong plunge into an increasingly unsustainable future, but when asked about the role of livestock, he appears flummoxed, merely asking, "uh, well.... what about it? I mean...."

The film reacts to the disturbing statistic that "livestock and their byproducts" (such as environmental degradation resulting from feed production) are responsible for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for 18% of emissions, while the oft-maligned transportation sector can be held accountable for 13%.

After making us painfully aware of what these numbers look like through the liberal use of bar graphs, Cowspiracy goes on to point fingers at such famous environmental hard-hitters as Greenpeace, the NRDC, Amazon Watch, the Climate Reality Project, Oceana, 350.org, Surfrider Foundation, the Rainforest Action Network, the WWF, and the Sierra Club. Greenpeace appears in a particularly unfortunate light, although the organization offers little provocation other than a request not to be filmed and an email declining further involvement in the project.

Nevertheless, the narrator uses context to make less than savory implications about why Greenpeace does not wish to speak with him. I certainly do not envy the spokespeople featured, who, for the most part, seemed embarrassingly ill-informed. If the majority of NGO employees really are so ignorant, that's the deepest offense perpetrated. I'll explain.

NGOs often find themselves between a rock and a hard place in trying to defend the environment, while simultaneously procuring enough money to do just that. They form relationships with corporations, an arguably necessary move in a globalized world, through which they 1. procure funding, and 2. gain the opportunity to influence, or at least be heard, in the formation of corporate practices and strategies.

While the makers of Cowspiracy may not like to believe that NGOs have long been sullied by the realities of a complex global economy, they have. Multinational corporations have lots of money and far-reaching influence, and those are two things that NGOs have to really fight for. In comparison, NGOs have limited financial resources and a business model that is by definition, without procuring funding, unsustainable. Challenges arise when NGOs work with corporations, but opportunities arise as well.

The effectiveness of an NGO/corporate partnership in supporting the environment often comes down to the individual people involved, how good they are at their jobs, and how well they understand the complex playing field of stakeholders and challenges. And one of the most disturbing realities this film reveals is that the people we've hired don't have a full picture of what challenges we're facing or how they're interlinked. But then again, if we consider the failure of Cowspiracy's makers to contextualize the tensions NGO employees face, they don't get it either.  

Of course, maybe NGOs are in fact conspiring to look the other way when it comes to animal agriculture, as the title suggests.

While I personally found the narrator's failure to remove his hat in interview settings to be obnoxious, the film showcases a fascinating degree of confusion, avoidance, or yes - maybe even conspiracy - when it comes to the drivers of environmental degradation. It's very much worth an hour and a half of your time. Perhaps with wider awareness of how deeply the impact of unsustainable (unmaintainable) meat consumption is felt, consumers will start considering their consumption habits in a bigger global framework. Maybe we'll even develop enough collective awareness to push environmental NGOs into putting their energy where it's needed - defending the environment and society in the face of increasingly powerful meat and soy industries.