It’s the morning after the 2020 Oscars. My newsfeed is buzzing with views about Joaquin Phoenix and his heartfelt and unconventional Best Actor acceptance speech for his role in Joker. Someone calls him a “kook”. Someone says he should “just say thank you, sit down and shut-up”. Another describes his “crazy rambling.” Despite these criticisms, Joaquin’s speech might just be the most important and sensible speech delivered this year.
Animal Rights Matter
The world is an imperfect place. It’s rife with inequality and injustice. What surprised many is that Joaquin mentioned animal rights as a cause worth championing. While we condemn dog-fighting, bull-fighting and trophy hunting, we don’t often consider the animals we eat. Their suffering is mostly hidden from our view.
Fact is there are 7 billion humans living on the planet and, each day close to 3 billion animals are killed to feed us. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics informs us that we don’t need to eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy to survive and thrive. So these animals’ pain and suffering is unnecessary. Joaquin speaks out about this injustice and reminds us that there is commonality in the causes we champion. “Whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.”
Dairy is Relevant
We don’t often think of suffering in the dairy industry. We don’t often discuss it. This is perhaps why Joaquin’s description of cows seems a little “crazy” and out of left field. Consider this. Like us, cows are mammals. And also like us, they don’t lactate without first being pregnant. Artificial insemination, pregnancy, birth, and then separation is an essential part of the commercial milk production cycle. Lactation will not occur otherwise. He tells us we “artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby.” Why do we do that? Business as usual.
Calves drink profits. Soon after a baby calf is born, a farm hand, often waiting until the mother is sleeping, takes the calf away, separating the baby permanently from its mother. The cow and calf’s time together ends but maternal-child bonds are not easily broken. Cows lament the separation from their babies and Joaquin reminds us that “her cries of anguish are unmistakable.” Gates are locked to ensure the cow is securely penned. Left to their own devices, mothers have been known to trek for miles in search of their calves.
We don’t need the calf’s mother’s milk for calcium or to be healthy. What is our best justification, then, for this suffering? This is the way it is done. This is normal. It tastes good.
Joaquin tells us “We put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.” Joaquin also reminds us that we are “creative and ingenious”. This is certainly clear when you see how many innovative plant-based dairy, ice cream, yogurt and cheese companies have become part of the solution.
Animal Exploitation is Linked to Our Survival
Our exploitation of animals is not without consequence to the planet. Climate catastrophe is looming with impending flooding, famine, and accelerated species extinction. The livestock sector is a large part of the problem. It generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector (planes, trains and automobiles) combined. It is also a major source of land and water degradation. In a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Henning Steinfeld says, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”
One of the most impactful things we as individuals can do to address climate change is to eat a plant-based diet. Perhaps this doesn’t sound easy. I can assure you it’s doable. I’ve performed research surveying or interviewing almost 1000 people to pinpoint the factors associated with successfully transitioning to and sustaining a plant based diet. Joaquin describes so many of these factors. We should stop judging ourselves and others, focus on progress not perfection, be open to change and support each other. He says “when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption, that is the best of community.”
Joaquin could have used his platform, in front of 23 million viewers, to thank a few dozen people for the role they played in his acting success. Rather he did something unconventional, at the risk of looking kooky. He used his platform to give us hope and remind us how wonderful humans can be when we work together towards a solution. “When we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.” I’ll trust that he also sent some pretty appreciative and effusive thank you notes the next day too.
Diana Goldman is a plant-based chef and vegan lifestyle coach who received a B.S. from Cornell University in Nutritional Science and an Ed.M. from Harvard University. Sign up for free weekly recipes and wellness tips for living a purposeful, connected and joyful life on her website www.beantownkitchen.com.