Picture the scene. Humanity is under threat. Corporate greed and irresponsibility, an all-powerful consumer culture, and government inaction has created a world on the brink. Rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are threatening to destabilise everything humanity takes for granted, as global food crises, extreme weather events, and land disappearing beneath the water line forces the hand of those who will be left to clean up the mess caused by those who were supposed to be in control: children and young people. As the old leaders flee to their bunkers and silos, the young people take over the role of guardians of the planet.

Sounds like it could be worth a view. However, it may be more than a little disturbing to realise that it’s not next year’s summer blockbuster, but a potential real-life scenario, if nations continue to fail to act on climate change and its contributing factors. While Flash Gordon famously had 14 hours to save the Earth, and David Bowie gave us five years, according to some reports we actually have only twelve years before things reach a tipping point, and start getting very hairy indeed. Professor Claire Parkinson and Dr Richard Twine of Edge Hill’s Centre for Human-Animal Studies want to know if they have your attention yet, if the summer 2018 global heatwaves haven’t yet triggered your fire alarm.

Film-maker and vegan James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic, Avatar) has suggested that one answer to the impending crisis is to just eat less meat. Is it really that simple, Claire?

“For anyone who does any research in this area, you know this is not an easy solution. An old friend of mine once said that it was easier nowadays to talk about politics and religion than what’s on the plate, and I think that’s true. We’ve become really well-schooled in the language of corporate neo-liberal consumer rights, and most people will say, ‘nobody tells me what I should and shouldn’t eat’.”

It’s as much a question, then, of how to package and deliver unpalatable messages to people, in a – ahem – digestible format. But who is – or should be – listening?

Claire and Richard are researching the relationships between the animal-industrial complex (the substantial part of the economy involved in the global breeding, production, slaughter and sale of farmed animals), climate change, and the potential role of children in addressing one of humanity’s biggest challenges. They are not claiming to have the answers yet, but feel open-minded dialogue is a vital part of the process. How we enable (or not) children within the debate, says Richard, could well be crucial in deciding whether we see large parts of Northern Europe sink beneath the waves or not:

“We have different ways of constructing children, and I would suggest these were co-existent in this culture.  We may view children as docile, perhaps, blank slates, or as innocent, or as in need of protection, or – and this is quite a different perspective – we may view them as ethical subjects or political agents, as having the ability to become engaged in a particular topic, to become empowered, and as bearers of rights.”

To illustrate the debate, Claire takes recent eco-movie Okja, the story of a young girl who discovers what happens to animals in the food industry, where one food multinational has developed a ‘superpig’, a genetically modified source of food which tastes, in the words of morally ambiguous CEO Lucy Mirando (played by Tilda Swinton), “f*cking good”.

Okja: Netflix, 2017

The film is a cautionary tale about corporate greed, GM foods, and it’s set against the background issues of environmental and global food poverty,” says Claire.

“As the director [Bong Joon-ho] says, ‘Films either show animals as soulmates or else we see them in documentaries being butchered. I wanted to merge these worlds. The division makes us comfortable, but the reality is that they are the same animal.’

“These complex and contradictory relationships that humans have with other animals are really offered back to viewers in a film that merges these kind of anthropomorphic fantasies of animals as friends and companions with the very brutal realities of animals as objects, exploited, sliced apart and packaged for consumption.”

On the surface the film is a Disneyesque exploration of a child and her pet friend, but this belies the darkness and seriousness within, which resulted in a 15 certificate, a rating which goes to the heart of Claire and Richard’s research: at what age is it appropriate to discuss these issues, especially given the small window of opportunity afforded us by the predictions of most climate change scientists?

Claire’s initial findings suggest that parents and children (aged 11-16) are at odds. No change, there, then. But seriously, Claire looked at the various responses from parents and children on the website www.commonsensemedia.com, and found that the majority of adults thought this film was too grisly, the truths it contained too disturbing for children. Typical comments: ‘this might make a vegetarian out of a sensitive child’ (would that be a bad thing? asks Claire), ‘this is a bad movie for any child who loves animals’. The young reviewers, conversely, were almost unanimous in their praise: ‘the film manages to show the horrors of the slaughterhouse and animal treatment without blood, gore or disturbing imagery…teenagers need to learn about animal cruelty and witness non-graphical examples’, and, ironically, ‘this film made me a firm vegetarian’.

So, is reality for children, or do we need to shield them from the more unpleasant aspects of life? It’s an interesting ethical question, says Richard, given that our children are the ones who may have to deal with the consequences of climate change:

“I teach a second year module, Children, Food and Sustainability, and the level of knowledge on climate change is poor. I don’t think we embed questions to do with climate change particularly well into the curriculum in this country. We view children as in need of protection. However the urgency of climate change requires the exact opposite. I think children are empowered when they become politically involved in their own future.”

But how do we make environmentally-friendly messages audible amidst competing noise, given, for example, that modest online interest in a global food crisis was dwarfed by the global interest in The Dark Knight when it opened in 2008? Embedding the argument within popular culture, eg Okja, is one option:

“The fact that someone could watch Okja and decide to become vegetarian or vegan, we should embrace that as progressive, given the contribution of meat and dairy consumption to climate change,” suggests Richard.

(It’s interesting to note that Okja received a 15 classification from the British Board of Film Classification, with the warning ‘Strong language’, while The Dark Knight received a 12, alerting us to the ‘strong fantasy violence and sustained threat’. Revealing home truths is considered dangerous, it seems).

But, says Richard, a more effective, and less coy, approach would be a commitment to climate change education, and, therefore, a commitment to empowering future generations, giving them a heads up in the fight against a potentially existential threat to humanity:

“We need to take seriously that children have a right to know about climate change, even if it is a scary topic. It needs to be embedded. Children also have a right to know about dominant cultural practices which lead to high greenhouse gas emissions, so this includes things like animal consumption, and how we’re not reflecting upon the expansion of our high carbon practices, such as flying or power generation. We could lower the voting age. I think we live in a gerontocracy where there is a kind of ageism in political power. There’s a lot of resistance to that and it’s been debated quite recently.”

And Claire and Richard acknowledge that universities are places which could – should? – lead the way in terms of pragmatic approaches to reducing emissions with sustainability commitments, and improving knowledge. Knowledge is power, after all.

Richard admits he’s “as guilty as anyone of grabbing a cheap flight to somewhere warm”, changing ingrained cultural and social behaviour is difficult. So he and Claire prefer to focus on what can still be done. Which, in their eyes, is exploring ways in which they can educate and empower children and young people, so they can make the right decisions at the right time, and don’t end up as, in the words of one climate change commentator, simply ‘the janitors of the future’, cleaning up and trying to live with the mess of climate crisis, created by earlier generations. They believe we have an ethical duty to do this, and that research suggests we do children a disservice by over-protecting them from this particular reality.

As a University with its own commitment to making this information accessible to as many people as possible, we believe that young people are more than ready to listen. So, even though we are definitely not just making a film, I guess it’s time for ‘Action!’

Some food for thought

  • Between 1977 and 2005, 16% of the Amazon forest formations were eliminated, an area greater than France. Cattle ranching has been the driving force behind deforestation in Brazil, even now it accounts for 80% of the destruction of the Amazon, making Brazil one of the world’s largest beef exporters. (Luiz Marques, Histories of Nations, Peter Furtado)
  • Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 27% of the land surface of the planet. In 2013, livestock accounted for 14% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, resulting in amongst others, degradation of the coral reefs.
  • The emergence of antibiotic resistance has been linked to animal agriculture practices.
  • A 4°c global temperature rise, compared with pre-industrial levels, actually means heatwave effects of 10-12°c above average. We’re currently involved in attempts to try to reduce down to 2°c above pre-industrial levels.
  • If we look at the 16 warmest years between 1880 and 2015, they all took place between 1998 and 2015.
  • Biggest three areas, in terms of greenhouse emissions: transport, energy, agriculture. Animal agriculture contributes 1 in 7 of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Over the past 50 years global meat production has quadrupled from 78m tonnes in 1963, to 314m tonnes per year in 2014. The Food and Agriculture Organisation at the United Nations forecasts that global meat production will increase further to 455m tonnes. In the UK alone in 2014, meat and dairy production was worth £12.6b. Every year over 70b land animals are killed for human consumption.
  • If all the ice covering Antarctica and Greenland, as well as mountain glaciers around the world, were to melt, the seas would rise about 70 metres, the ocean would cover all the coastal cities.