Richard Oppenlander’s Comfortably Unaware is a book everyone on the planet should read. Unfortunately, the book’s biggest drawback is that it may not feel accessible to those who need to read it most.
In Comfortably Unaware, Oppenlander makes the case for why the planet needs us humans to adopt a plant-based diet in order to preserve the earth’s rapidly dwindling resources. His sources and statistics are compelling and spot-on—and yet they’re not nearly as well known among environmentalists as they should be. Without question, to be an environmentalist is to be a vegan; as Oppenlander highlights throughout this slender book, animal agriculture is the single biggest cause of our worst environmental problems. From the oceans (raising animals for food pollutes our waterways more than all other industries combined) to the rainforests (70 percent of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed to raise livestock) to the air (the farming of animals is responsible for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions), Oppenlander offers staggering statistics that should make all of us think about our diets.
And for those who feel they are not yet willing to give up meat, Oppenlander points out that the depletion caused by animal agriculture may leave us with nothing at all. Already, 55 percent of the world’s fresh water is being used to raise animals for food. In the U.S. alone, 70 percent of all grain feeds livestock instead of humans, while worldwide more than a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. He notes that “80 percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food surpluses are fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by more well-off individuals in developed countries.”
In addition to environmental concerns, the book highlights other reasons for adopting a plant-based diet and tackles some of the more popular myths about animal protein and osteoporosis (as one example: countries with the highest diary consumption have the highest incidences of osteoporosis). Oppenlander also notes the horrific conditions under which farmed animals suffer and writes of the sensitivity of pigs, the inquisitive intelligence of chickens, the personalities and emotions of turkeys. While the depletion of the earth’s resources is his main focus here, he paints a full picture of why the diet of the future needs to be plant-based. He is also ready with answers to the anticipated questions of how the loss of animal agriculture would affect the economy.
Despite the fact that, for most omnivores, becoming vegan is a change that usually happens gradually, Oppenlander doesn’t go easy on those who may want or need to move slowly toward a plant-based diet. Of the increasingly popular “Meatless Monday” campaign, he writes, “Good; that’s terrific. Now you will be contributing to global warming, pollution, and global depletion of our planet’s resources six days of the week instead of seven.” This isn’t likely to endear omnivores to the cause or inspire change; much more compelling are other statistics Oppenlander offers, such as the true cost of having a quarter-pound hamburger for lunch: It takes fifty-five square feet of rainforest to produce a quarter-pounder, which also requires 1,200 gallons of water.
Comfortably Unaware doesn’t tell stories—the book is more a collection of statistics and pleas to change our ways—but these facts do add up to a story, and it’s a tragic one: We are devastating the planet in ways that may soon be irreversible, and yet our culture, traditions, and habits have so far prevented us from making the necessary changes that could save the environment from the point of no return. Though the book may be difficult for some omnivores to digest, its message is important enough and urgent enough that I hope all will read it.