In late 2019, Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, founder and executive director of The Climate Mobilization, basically blew our minds with a radical—yet liberating—suggestion. She said that climate anxiety (described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”) is actually a good thing, because it has the power to spur individual action that creates a notable difference in making the Earth a healthier place to live.
It’s a good thing, too, because environmental studies professor Dale Jamieson, PhD, of New York University, says that in his experience, the emotional connection to the planet (one brought on by climate anxiety) is only growing stronger. “About three or four years ago, I noticed that sometimes I would just be speaking at a university, and I would see people sobbing in the back of the auditorium,” he says. “Very recently, some line has been crossed from climate change being an important intellectual issue to being a real issue of the heart.”
There are so many ways to act on, and thus mitigate, this extremely-2020 “chronic fear,” but what we choose to eat has come to the forefront of the conversation in the last decade. Google searches for “plant-based eating”—the term used to describe a diet sourced mainly from plants—have been consistently on the rise as people become more aware of the environmental repercussions of the meat industry. (Notably, the UN reports that an estimated 23 percent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture, livestock, and the land needed to raise them, and it takes 460 gallons of water to create a quarter-pound hamburger.)
“Very recently, some line has been crossed from climate change being an important intellectual issue to being a real issue of the heart.” —Dale Jamieson, PhD
Eating a plant-forward diet does more than help soften the ecological blow of the meat industry; it allows the modern eater to cope with the mental weight of climate anxiety by helping them feel that they’re actively working to ameliorate the planet’s condition.
Why do people go plant-based?
To be clear, people chose to follow plant-based diets long before Google existed. People like Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, and even John Harvey Kellogg all advocated for a vegetarian diet—not for the sake of climate anxiety, but because they believed it had genuine health advantages. (A belief that is now backed by a wide variety of research.)
Animal rights arguments for plant-based eating also have a long, historical lineage. The American Vegetarian Society, which argued in 1850 that “cruelty, in any form, for the mere purpose of procuring unnecessary food…is obnoxious to the pure human soul, and repugnant to the noblest attributes of our being,” drew many activists of the day, including suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Horace Greeley. Civil rights activists, including Dick Gregory and Coretta Scott King, also believed that eating animals was antithetical to their beliefs in the dignity of every life.
Today, however, research from the University of California, Davis, shows that the estimated 5 percent of Americans who are vegetarian still mostly make the dietary leap for their health. But a closer look reveals that those more likely to stick with the diet don’t do so to protect themselves against cancer or heart disease; they lessened their meat consumption for environmental or ethical reasons. Suggesting that, yes, the psychological validation they received from doing something good for the environment was enough to keep them eating meat-free week after week.
How the plant-based movement and environmentalism became connected
It makes a lot of sense that those who care about the environment would want to change their diets. In 2018, Joseph Poore, MPhil, of the University of Oxford, told The Guardian that avoiding animal products is “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth,” after studying 40,000 farms in 119 countries to determine the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries.
Poore’s research largely focused on the production side of the meat industry, but through a purely individual lens, it’s clear why eating plant-based is a better dietary choice for the environment. If you think of what winds up on your plate in terms of the amount of water, carbon emissions, and farmland it takes to get that food there, it’s obvious that most plants require far fewer resources than cows, chicken, and pigs. For example, the “water footprint” (aka amount of water required to produce a food item) per gram of protein of chicken, eggs, and milk is 1.5 times larger than that of pulses like chickpeas; for beef, that number is six times as high. And while all farming produces greenhouse gases, 58 percent of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions come from animal products specifically—making those foods an obvious place for us to target our efforts.
This clear link between our personal diets and the environment has sparked many leaders in the climate change conversation to become plant-based eaters themselves. Climate activist Greta Thunberg is one example of someone who has publicly associated her veganism with her moral imperative to combat climate change. Leonardo DiCaprio went vegetarian shortly before producing Cowspiracy, and former Vice President Al Gore publicly announced his veganism in 2013 after receiving criticism for not mentioning his diet in his sustainably-minded book, An Inconvenient Truth.
With this connection made, there’s a clear and present way forward for anyone who feels the state of the climate is negatively affecting their mental health.
What this means for climate anxiety
“One of the key things that makes people feel climate anxiety is helplessness: they don’t think there’s anything they can do,” says Susan Clayton, PhD, a teacher of environmental psychology at The College of Wooster in Ohio. Plant-based eating directly challenges that feeling of powerlessness by presenting a clear and present action. Going meat-free is, as Poore stated, the single biggest way to reduce your individual impact on planet Earth—and, by extension, it’s also the most accessible way to quell your climate anxiety.
As devastating as it is, many of the other factors impacting climate change are sadly out of the individual’s control. While people can certainly cut back on how much they travel by plane and how much food they waste (two other large drivers of emissions), we can’t control whether the United States re-signs the Paris climate accords. We can’t directly or immediately control who lobbies for policies that directly hurt the environment, or the 14,800 miles of trees that are cut down each year. One of the few things we can control is what we put on our plates. And given that food has such a demonstrable impact on the environment—from diminishing GHGs to slowing ocean degradation—it is one of the few solutions that the individual can take full ownership over.
“Eating is the most personal thing that you can do in many ways,” says Dr. Clayton. “Plant-based eating is a way to feel like you have a bit more power against climate change, and that’s going to be good for your mental health as well as your physical health.” And thus, those eating herbivorous diets—or even diets containing less meat—are making the biggest individual contribution possible to the environment for their own psychological gain.