By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 12/11/2016

A documentary regurgitated into book format falls flat in Cowspiracy, which investigates the role of animal husbandry in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cowspiracy the sustainability secretWith its gripping image of a cow in dark colours staring out at you – the documentary Cowspiracy has been sitting unwatched on my Netflix queue for some time now.  I’ve been hesitant because anything that implies a conspiracy immediately puts me on high alert, but when a review copy of the accompanying book arrived I finally decided to leap in.

Documentary makers Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn have turned their 2014 film into a book, written by Anderson: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. It doesn’t translate well into text and overall is a poorly-written, poorly-referenced and unconvincing book.

Though at first blush the references appear lengthy enough, many are simply referring to websites, the same few books referred to over and over, news articles or reports written by advocacy groups. Peer-reviewed research is sparse, which is important given the misunderstanding Anderson and Kuhn appear to have of some key science.

Anderson kicks off with fear-mongering, unreferenced statements like “scientists are warning that unless we take drastic measures to correct our environmental footprint, our time on this planet may be limited to only fifty more years” [p12]. It’s a trend that continues unabated.

Doug Boucher from the Union of Concerned Scientists has already debunked one of the central “facts” to the documentary’s (and book’s) argument: that 51 per cent of greenhouse gases are caused by animal agriculture. This is based on a report by Worldwatch Institute and widely rejected by the scientific community.

And herein lies the problem. Anderson and Kuhn have chosen selected reports and facts to support their assertion of a “conspiracy” in what’s causing climate change. Armed with that misinformation, they then treat anyone who disagrees with them as being part of the conspiracy.

“When you notice something, but everyone around you is saying it’s not there, you can’t help but start to wonder whether you really saw it.” [p28]

The shame is that much of what they wind up concluding – that cutting back on consumption of animal products would allows us to all live more gently on the planet – is something many of us will agree with. But to have it framed in such poor understanding of main drivers of climate change, where emissions come from and long-term effects of different greenhouse gases – and a complete unwillingness to challenge their own assumptions and see where they’ve gone wrong – undermines the conclusions.

Once I’d found several instances of misinterpretation of scientific information, or over-reliance on blogs and reports from NGOs instead of peer-reviewed research, it was impossible to believe anything else they argued. They’ve scattered terrible graphs and diagrams throughout, most often unreferenced and poorly scaled.

Much of the writing is cringe-worthy, as Anderson has tried to translate over-wrought interviews from the film into text. Rather than try to write a book, he’s simply taken much of his narrative and interviews from the documentary and dumped it straight into text and it simply doesn’t work. Now that I’ve finally watched the film, it all makes a lot more sense. Anderson did most of his research online and talking to environmental authors – hence the heavy referencing of websites and a handful of books. The result is a disappointing product that misses the mark.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret
Insight Editions, Oct 2016, RRP $34.99

0 Responses to “Book review: Cowspiracy – The Sustainability Secret”

  • Actually, I think that if climate change is anthropogenic, one of the main causes is likely to be deforestation, especially in the tropics. Tropical rainforests are, by my understanding, the planet’s natural climate buffer (turning CO2 back into O2 on a large scale). Oddly, deforestation rarely gets much of a mention in climate change discussions. Deforestation likely worsens the effects of quite natural emissions like volcanic eruptions.