2026: Year Zero?
by Michelle Schaefer, MA
WE HAVE SEVEN YEARS BEFORE YEAR ZERO
Scientist and engineer Dr. Sailesh Rao, who achieved his PhD from Stanford, was instrumental in the development of the internet in the 1990s, is the founder of Climate Healers and an eminent vegan activist, aims to create a vegan world by 2026. The year of choice is not random. According to a Living Planet report from 2014, “Population sizes of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52% over the last 40 years.” Add to that some fancy calculations involving linear extrapolations, and you are looking at a prediction of 100% of wild vertebrates dying off by Year Zero: 2026. As in seven years from now. (For more details, see climatehealers.org/facts.) Though the ‘amphibian apocalypse’ is thought to be caused by the release of an ancient fungus, Dr. Rao says “Climate change is a threat multiplier, which makes other causes such as this ancient fungus more potent.”
Dr. Rao urgently reminds us that we are facing something that we, as humanity, have never faced before. He states, “Humans currently kill more animals in 4-12 hours than all the humans who ever died in wars throughout human history put together.” There is a huge ecological toll on all this killing, and it goes something like this: Industrial Animal Agriculture destroys land with over-grazing, deforestation, hyper-use of pesticides, antibiotics, and water use (the amount of water it takes to raise one cattle for beef could float a battleship). According to Scientific American, the poisons of Big Ag get into rivers and thus, the ocean, creating ‘dead zones,’ or oceanic zones so low in oxygen fish cannot survive. When oceanic life can’t survive, algae blooms, which the EPA says causes acid rain and potentially severe air pollution. Land degradation kills off wildlife and the lungs of our planet—trees. The Co2 that was sequestered by the trees gets released into the atmosphere, and the ozone layer becomes compromised .
Considering the startling redistribution of biomass in recent history, it’s fair to say that the loss of biodiversity on our planet should land at the top of our ‘things to worry about’ list.
WHAT IS BIODIVERISTY, AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
Biodiversity refers to the wide variety of life on earth—from phytoplankton to fungi to fish to wolves to humans. Though scientists have identified over 1.75 million species on Earth, most also believe that number to be about 0.01 percent of all species that have ever existed. In other words, species are dying off faster than we can discover them. Every living thing on earth depends on other living things to survive. This irrefutable interdependence of life on life is really what we mean when we use the term biodiversity. Megafauna refers to large animals (such as humans, livestock, and wild animals) weighing in at anywhere between about 100-22,00 pounds. What would happen if our planet’s biodiversity were to disappear? We would have no food, no clean water, no medicine, and no oxygen. Obviously, biodiversity does more than help us live happy, healthy lives. It’s directly responsible for Life-with-a-capital-L. Since every living thing on Earth requires water, it’s important to appreciate the role biodiversity plays in naturally cleaning water. Clean water would not exist without good soil, which traps particles as the water seeps deeper and deeper into the soil’s layers. Micro-organisms and bacteria further break down contaminants and nutrients, which naturally purifies water. Joseph Poore, a zoological research scientist at the University of Oxford, determined that the global land currently used for livestock production is about 1.3 times the size of Africa. According to a recent article in Forbes, Oxford researchers have determined that
animal agriculture is the number-one contributing factor to wildlife extinction worldwide. Given the prolific use of pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and pesticides, as well as ‘waste lagoons’ (literally leaking toxic lakes of feces and urine), it’s easy to see how compromised our usable water levels are, and how that alone may contribute to the tragedy of dozens of species going extinct every day. It’s also easy to see how important the goal of a global adoption of a plant-based diet truly is, and why Dr. Rao is earnest about his Vegan World 2026 goal.
ARE WE EXPERIENCING THE 6TH MASS EXTINCTION?
Many experts say yes.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, vanishing amphibians should be viewed as the canary in the global coal mine, signaling subtle yet radical ecosystem changes that could ultimately claim many other species, including humans.”
Since the creation of Earth about 4.5 billion years or so ago, there have been five mass extinctions. The most recent happened about 66 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died off (due to an asteroid that hit the Earth). For her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert (of The New Yorker) traveled the world and met with respected scientists who warily point to events such as the destruction of many coral reefs (including the Great Barrier Reef) due, at least in part, to agricultural runoff. Coral reefs are to the ocean what the Rainforest is to land. They are the lungs of the sea. And they’re dying—just as the Rainforest is. This does not bode well for the rest of the living creatures on this planet, including the most successful invasive species of Earth’s history: humans. In fact, the most terrifying and hope-giving aspect of what may very well be the 6th mass extinction is that humans are the direct cause of it. Does this mean humans may be the cure, too? Not if it’s true that the extinction is already underway.
Fortunately, not everyone thinks it is. Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin points out that if we were in the middle of the 6th great extinction, it would truly be too late to do anything about it. Instead, he suggests we’re likely on the verge of a mass extinction, and a change in human activity could still prevent us from crashing and burning into non-existence. In an interview with Peter Brannen of The Atlantic, Erwin states, “I think that if we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon.”
Still, the time has more than come for we humans, as Earth’s stewards, to take global action. Saying we’ll wait until we have to go to war over water before we’ll trade cow-burgers for veggie burgers is like saying, “As soon as I’m diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, I’ll quit smoking.” Timing is everything.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It’s been said that vegetarians and meat eaters have more in common then vegetarians and vegans. Speaking as someone who’s been all three, this statement seems accurate. In fact, Cattle-rancher-turned-vegan-activist Howard Lyman says “Milk [and its derivatives] is just liquid meat.” So what would happen if we all significantly reduced our meat and dairy consumption? The truth is, without quantum computing and a dedicated team of well-funded scientists working on this question, we cannot truly answer it. However, scientists are able to take what is already known, especially about carbon sequestration and trees, and come up with reasonable hypotheticals. We know that 220 Mt (metric tons) of Co2 can, over time, accumulate in one acre of mature forest, and that each person on earth (average of 7.6 billion humans) generates about 4.7 tons of Co2 annually. Multiply 4.7 times 7.6 billion, and you have humans emitting 35.9 billion tons of Co2 collectively every year. This is not great news. However, Dr. Rao and his team showed that 292.7 billion tons of carbon can be sequestered in native forests on 19.6 million Km2 of land, which is very good news. There are almost 150,000,000 Km2 of land on Earth.
In addition to recharging ground water, supporting stream flow, providing wildlife habitats, and reducing soil erosion, trees also lower global temperatures by shading surfaces and transpiring water. Basically, trees trap Co2, preventing it from reaching the ozone layer.
Planting trees is still the most cost-effective, simplest ways of sequestering Co2 from the atmosphere. But we can’t plant trees on land that is dedicated to animal agriculture (CAFOs, grazing, and productions plants), which is why a global vegan diet and commitment to afforestation and reforestation are key to saving our planet. Author Keith Akers explains. “In turning land back to nature, a considerable amount of ‘idled’ land would revert to forests, which would suck carbon dioxide out of the air.” According to Dr. Sailesh Rao, the amount of carbon we could sequester [through afforestation and reforestation of land currently used for animal agriculture] would be approximately equal to the amount we’ve put into the atmosphere since 1800. This would exceed the expectations of even the Paris Climate Agreement, which sought to keep global temperatures under 2°C above, and no more than 1.5°C above, what they were before the Industrial Revolution.
Even Big Ag companies recognize how unsustainable the current industrial farming practices are and have invested millions in plant-based foods in order to stay relevant and turn a profit. For example, Tyson foods has invested in both Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats (clean meat, also known as lab-grown meat), and animal-feed company Cargill foods joined forces with PURIS, the largest pea-protein producer in North America.
In other words, not only is it not too late to slow down or even reverse the climate crisis, it’s time to speed up our slowing down game. We’re not at Stage 4—yet. Let’s make sure we don’t get there.
Lovingly remind all your friends who still order meat and buy chicken and eggs at the store purportedly ‘because those animals are already dead, and it would be a waste to have them die fore no reason’ that every time they put in an animal order at a restaurant or buy meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream, or eggs at the store, they are actively telling the store or restaurant manager, who tells the suppliers, who tell the farmers, who tell the cattle-grazing ‘developers,’ “Keep burning the Rainforest. Keep cutting down trees to make room for more cattle. Keep trawling the ocean and destroying the topsoil and obliterating wildlife habitats, because I want more of this food.” Many people still do not understand how what’s on their fork affects the future of children and grandchildren they care about. Help them understand, and keep more than just the frogs jumping for joy.
Activism can be a great antidote to feelings of helplessness, apathy, situational depression (as opposed to clinical), and vystopia. Don’t let anyone tell you to sit down and shut up like a good little vegan. Whenever possible, stand up and speak out like the magnificent vegan that you are. In the meantime, cherish the fact that as a dedicated vegan, you are already doing the single best thing you can do to improve the quality of our collective atmosphere—both literally and figuratively.
Michelle Schaefer has her BA in English, MA in Psychology, and is a certified vegan lifestyle coach & educator (VLCE). She is a freelance writer who has been featured in the USA Today network, bUneke magazine, Elevate Difference, on the Main Street Vegan Academy blog, and in American Vegan Society . VeggieChel.com