All hail the almighty cow.
Products of and by the cow are in our medicines, our sports equipment, cleaning supplies, snacks, books, magazines, and the materials that make our homes. It’s the animal that gave us the cowboy—symbol of the American spirit. And, of course, their meat and milk make up a prodigious portion of our diet.
The cow’s outsized role is the subject of a new book, Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment by Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the first Earth Day and a former Carter administration official, and his wife, Gail Boyer Hayes.
The books covers much of the ground tread in its acclaimed predecessors such as Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and his documentary, Food, Inc.
The Hayes’s book talks about the horrors of the meat industry and what they mean for the planet (the production of methane, for instance), for humans (the industry pollutes by dumping bovine waste in water), for the economy (corn subsidies), and the cows themselves (when the stunning of a cow for slaughter “is flubbed, the poor creature may be skinned and disassembled while still alive and conscious”). The purpose of the book, the authors write, is to get people to eat less meat, as that’s the only practical solution to the challenges raised.
But none of this is new to anybody who has come across this issue even tangentially.
Instead, what is fascinating about the book is that it is emblematic of an environmental movement that has largely found itself stuck in the American political sphere. Half the electorate and two branches of government are unsympathetic if not outright hostile, and the party that it supports (Democrats) often takes it for granted.
Things have gotten so bad that the most interesting issue talked about politically when it comes to environmentalists is what they can learn from the uber successful gay rights movement.
As the authors note throughout the book, they face opposition from conservatives on a lot of core issues. Yet when it comes to the nitty-gritty of political maneuvering, and how the environmental movement could make headway there, the authors seem to be living in an alternate reality. The 300-odd-page book is essentially a giant preaching to the choir.
There is, for instance, the part where the authors write, “If Congress ever places a price on carbon, as would be required by Senator Maria Cantwell’s CLEAR Act, market forces would make cow power economical without voluntary subsidies.” Even left-wing Think Progress labeled this idea “neither politically nor environmentally viable.” Or there’s the part when they lament that Representative Louise Slaughter’s proposed Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act “has been endorsed by 368 worthy organizations but by none of her Republican colleagues.” How is this shocking? Furthermore, how will a book catering only to people who care about those organizations move the dial?
The message is diluted by a lot of rants, akin to that well-meaning aunt or uncle who watched Current TV and just can’t stay on the topic at hand. (Essentially the left’s version of John Slattery’s character on 30 Rock). It might get a lot of amens from the authors’s friends, but it’s unlikely to sway libertarians who might be sympathetic to their priorities on corn. Instead, the authors pop off about whether or not corporations are people. Or whether or not milk “is an ideal transmitting agent for biological terrorism.” Or debating the minutiae on raw milk, perennials, and till farming. None of these screeds really contribute to the end goal, which is convincing people to eat less meat.
Also, if we want something to appeal to the mainstream, how about we don’t even bring up Malthus? “Ammonium nitrate fertilizer revolutionized agriculture, winning a temporary respite in Malthus’s race between human population growth and food limits,” the Hayeses write. “The world’s population today might be a third smaller but for the extra food made possible by this fertilizer.” Paging the academy.
Then there is the bizarre propaganda aspect of Cowed. Hedge-fund billionaire and Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, have an ode written to them in the book. The Hayes couple describes these underwriters of the environmental movement as “hardworking perfectionists who aren’t easily intimidated” and then ends the section with what can only be read as an advertisement for the billionaire’s farm’s product: “LeftCoast GrassFed Beef is 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished. The cows are given no hormones or antibiotics.” And so on.
All of this is unfortunate, because the Hayes couple both have led praise-worthy careers and are fighting for a just cause—to keep our planet healthy. But their book is just another reminder of how far the environmentalist movement has to go until their methods get the kind of traction necessary to foment actual action, and not just by the executive branch.