Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret was released in 2014 and has since become an environmental lighting rod, perpetuating a new depth of questioning in regard to the factors behind climate change. Produced by Keegan Kuhn and Leonardo DiCaprio, the film questions whether environmental organizations are actually lobbying for the right types of changes. The narrative is humorous yet depressing, and blurs the line between high-budget and no-budget documentary films. The first-person narrative gives it a true revelatory feel, and even if the film itself doesn't convince you of anything, it'll definitely open your eyes enough for you to do additional research on the topic.
When I first remember seeing the film on Netflix, I looked right past it. I saw the title, yes, but anything with the word 'conspiracy' in the documentary section was off my radar entirely. If it were a legitimate conspiracy, I thought, they could go without putting it in the title. It seemed distasteful, so I ignored it for over a year, despite biking to work, using less water, and doing what I thought I could to for the environment. About a year later my wife recommended it and I obliged. From that evening on, my dietary choices would never be the same.
Narrated by Kip Anderson, the personal subject of the film, we learn about his heroic, yet generic attempts to limit his own carbon footprint. But after doing all he could do to limit his fossil fuel, water, and electricity usage, he realized he was barely making an impact and global conditions were worsening despite improvements in factors such as fuel economy. Around this time a UN News Centre article was published that used studies to indicate that rearing cattle produced more greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars. Upon reading it and doing further research, the revelation sent him on a mission to answer a question that he finds paramount to the climate change debate: is animal agriculture really causing more environmental destruction than fossil-fuels? And if so, why are no environmental groups talking about it?
Kip requests interviews with the heads of some of the world's leading environmental organizations, and the results are surprising. Despite the irrefutable studies he cites regarding the enormously high percentage of water usage going toward animal agriculture, water conservation experts seem befuddled when asked about whether they're targeting the issue. Similarly, heads of diversified environmental groups who supposedly pour millions of dollars annually into halting climate change simply deny that animal agriculture is an issue. Puzzled by the ignorance, Kip goes on to interview experts on both sides of the topic.
His findings are revelatory, and it's all complimented by a perfect blend of documentary styles. Aerial videography helps bring to scale the amount of land used by animal farming. Comprehensive infographics put it on a global scale. And it all becomes very personal again when we see Kip sitting at his laptop reading emails denying him interviews based on the content of his story.
The science behind the studies referenced in the film can't be refuted, but the points of study are still being debated. Joel Salatin, a well-known pundit for climate awareness and sustainable farming, attempted to discredit the film by bringing up the fact that more animals (bison, fowl, beavers) inhabited North America before Europeans arrived on the scene, and all groups of animals produce methane emissions. This does nothing to address factory farming and the deforestation that occurs as a necessity for grazing, but unfortunately, diversion tactics like this are confusing people enough to discredit the film as environmental pseudo-science in some circles.
I'd highly recommend you check out Cowspiracy for its educational content and quality. Once you've seen it, you can make your own decisions regarding the issue. All of the studies referenced in the film are available at cowspiracy.com/facts. There you can find a lot of information about the film, and about what has basically become an environmental organization in itself. Currently, the film is only streaming on Netflix, but you can download it on their site and elsewhere where it's for sale. If you're passionate about the environment and haven't seen it yet, bump it to the top of your watchlist.
Image Credit: Cowspiracy.com
Andrew Potter is a writer based in Portland, OR. He advocates for plant-based diets, natural foot health, and climate awareness.