Mia MacDonald is the founder and executive director of Brighter Green, a public policy action tank that works to raise awareness of and encourage policy action on issues that span the environment, animals, and sustainability. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Mia about what led her to found Brighter Green and why the organization is needed.
HF: You’ve had an incredibly far-reaching career spanning the fields of environmentalism, sustainable development, women’s rights and gender equality, and animal protection. What brought you to found Brighter Green, and how has your prior work influenced the organization’s aims and approach?
MM: I decided to start Brighter Green because, as someone who cares deeply for nonhuman animals and the environment, I didn’t see a lot of organizations working across these two sets of concern that have many similar objectives and underpinnings. As a consultant for international environmental organizations, I also saw that animal agriculture was a key driver of biodiversity loss, deforestation, and other ecological damage, and, yet, it was so rarely acknowledged as a problem. That seemed very strange to me and like a big gap. With my background in international development and plenty of work in the civil society and United Nations (UN) space, as well as my commitments to animals, the environment, and social justice, I thought it might be a good idea to start a new organization. I didn’t really think of myself as an entrepreneur and still don’t, but I saw a need for this work and an urgency about it. (Remember that Livestock’s Long Shadow on the immense and wide-ranging impacts of animal agriculture had been published in 2006.) And, at least in the English language, I didn’t see a lot of work that Brighter Green would duplicate.
And, yes, to the second part of your question, I definitely think that my previous work, which was mainly global (as opposed to U.S.-focused), has had a significant effect on how Brighter Green works. For example, we bring a strong concern for equity to all our work—across species, genders, and regions of the world—and a commitment to working in non-hierarchical partnerships with colleagues in the global South, or the global majority. I think my previous work also informed how Brighter Green does its research, which is very cross-sectoral, and how it seeks to create or contribute to networks of people and organizations.
HF: As a professor within the human rights program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and the environmental studies department at New York University (NYU), have you observed whether your students increasingly see the connections between human, animal, and environmental rights, health, and wellbeing?
MM: Yes, very much so, especially among students who are studying environmental and food systems issues, and among many of the animal studies students as well. (NYU has a minor in this subject now, as well as a new one-year M.A. program.) Here, the “silos” that too often prevail around animals and the environment, domestic and global, north and south, are much less prevalent in the younger generations (and even among some of the professional students I’ve taught). This shift is really encouraging. I’ve actually seen this evolution in many parts of the world among young people. In the human rights space, probably less so, but then again I taught at Columbia’s SIPA grad school more than 10 years, so the situation has probably changed to more embrace of rights being broadly conceived. But when I did teach at SIPA, I developed courses on globalization and human rights and on human rights skills and advocacy, and, in each, I used case studies and readings that also focused on animals, and the students were receptive. There was no backlash, or at least not any that I heard about!
HF: Brighter Green is working globally, particularly in China and India. Tell me a bit about your efforts in Asia as they relate to food systems, climate change, public health, and animal welfare.
MM: Well, these efforts all started with research and examined the consequences of the growth of industrial animal agriculture and the livestock sector more broadly. (I don’t love the term “livestock” since it seems too mechanistic, but it is a term of global use, still, so I do refer to animal agriculture this way from time to time.) That research began with the entry point of climate change, but very quickly expanded to document the impacts of animal agriculture on natural resources, public health, food security, animal welfare and rights—of course, since this is a key concern of Brighter Green—and also on human livelihoods and issues of power and control in food and agricultural systems. That research helped us build contacts in China and India, and, later, in other parts of Asia when we completed a policy paper on the growth of “big dairy” in the region. From there, we’ve developed stronger alliances in India and a whole program of work in China. The China Initiative includes quite a number of programs and projects, but, for the sake of time, I’ll just list a few: research, film-making, information-sharing, capacity development, some advocacy, network development, media education, and outreach to academic institutions and the culinary world and chefs (a recent development).
Much of the growth of the program has been organic as we’ve come across people and institutions who have an interest in sustainable food systems, but from really varied entry points spanning veganism, ethics, food safety, healthy diets, climate change, and food security, to name some. By and large, issues around food and its impact on the environment and other species, and the growth and scale of factory farming, are not yet mainstream issues in China. We’re really working to help create a movement for sustainable food that’s plant-forward and that keeps problems with animal agriculture and the expansion of meat and dairy production, consumption, and imports very much central to the work. That’s still pretty rare. There is a lot of work to be done in China and so we really try to be helpful to others who are seeking to start or expand aspects of this work, both in China and globally.
HF: You’ve also been particularly active in international climate conferences. What could these summits be doing better and what has Brighter Green done to encourage policy action on the part of entities such as the Conference of the Parties?
MM: Very good question. Many people involved in UN climate work wonder how the process and the annual summits (called COP, or the Conference of the Parties) could be better organized in terms of concrete outcomes and raising ambition and action. A lot of the seeming lack of progress is a result of geopolitics and the global North—and now especially the U.S. in this hopefully very aberrant era we’re in—not wanting to interrupt the industries fueling the climate crisis or to help pay for the global South to “leapfrog” the dirty systems we’ve made central to our economies, or even to help these regions of the world adapt to the very real and devastating effects of climate change. So that’s a real dilemma. However, I can say I see some progress. Of course, we see the climate crisis rising up the list of priorities for people around the world. We see the fantastic youth-led climate action. We see new modes of framing and acting on climate change and biodiversity loss like Extinction Rebellion and Animal Rebellion.
But a real bottleneck is that food and agriculture are still relatively marginal to the climate talks, despite the really strong scientific case for how these issues are crucial to meeting the Paris goals and, within this framework, meat and dairy and animal feed are the real drivers of greenhouse gas production, forest loss, and land-use change that’s also contributing to the climate crisis. That being said, though, the issues are less marginal than they were before, and more groups and scientists have real concerns about the consequences of animal agriculture. So that’s good. The main ways we’ve tried to work so far include raising awareness through formal side events (panels) and exhibits, sharing our research and policy recommendations, contributing analysis to technical bodies within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that are open to civil society input, linking academics with policy processes, and forging links with other civil society organizations—including youth climate activists—around the world. The next several years are really crucial for concerted climate action, as scientists are telling us, and the next 10 to 11 years will really set the course for what we do or don’t do as human societies. So those of us who care about nonhuman animals and the natural world ought to find more ways to engage, at local and global levels.
HF: When few others were, Brighter Green began focusing especially on the globalization of industrial animal agriculture in places like Brazil, China, and India. Where do you think there is the greatest opportunity to reverse harmful trends in the globalization of industrial animal agriculture, and what do you anticipate for the future?
MM: This question is great but really big. I’d probably ask readers to visit the Brighter Green website and to look at our research and the policy recommendations we make there. But, briefly, I think the biggest opportunity is that the science is on our side, and the ethics are, too, and both make the case that industrial animal agriculture is the opposite of sustainable or desirable. I find real gaps in knowledge, still, in many places, including within the U.S. It’s a challenge to get accurate information out, for sure, but it is not insurmountable. As Greta Thunberg and her peers have said: it’s really about the science. The science is there; now it’s about acting on it. I’d say something similar in this case.
I’d also add that the public health aspect, about which you know far more than I do, is also likely a driver of change because the individual and societal costs of more Western-style diets are huge—really immense. And governments are concerned about that. I’d also say that a reawakening of humans’ connections to nonhuman animals is also crucial to change, and I see that happening in many parts of the world. What do I anticipate for the future? Well, on some days I see the glass as half full and believe we’ll wake up and do what’s needed; other days, I see it as half empty and think we’ll have to experience enormous losses; of course we already are. There’s an insanity to the fact that many of these losses already are due to industrial animal agriculture and it seems hard to believe that will continue. I think I’ll stop there, but would definitely welcome others’ feedback on these matters.
Photo: Mia MacDonald.