Oct 5 Note: I posted this two weeks ago on Peter Beinart’s Writing Politics class blog. UPDATE: Obama has decided to put solar panels on the White House.

See here.

Sept 25th, 2010

by Lucia Green-Weiskel

This week, as I roamed the halls of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, I heard a rumor that Bill Clinton has adopted a vegan diet. Many observers of the meeting noted he was looking healthy and  slim.

At my home computer that night I confirmed the rumor. He described his diet as essentially vegan except for fish on rare occasions. His reason? First it was to lose weight for his daughter Chelsea’s wedding in August, but in an interview with Larry King, he said it was also a response to his bypass surgery.  He said, 82% of the people since 1996 who have gone on plant-based diets have broken up the calcium deposit around their hearts and reduced their cholesterol, putting them at less risk for future life-threatening heart problems. In short, like most people, he wants to be around for the grandkids.

But we can also place Clinton’s food habits in a larger context. According to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, meat eating causes nearly one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Meat production in general is very energy-intensive. Producing animal feed requires lots of water and nitrogen fertilizer and the animals (especially cows) release methane gas, which is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a climate-warming gas. Like the chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Dr Rajendra Pachauri – an outspoken vegetarian primarily for environmental reasons, Clinton’s dietary change can set an example about how to be a more ecologically-friendly citizen.

Lifestyle qualities of the rich and powerful in this country have had significant influence on its population. Take for example, the business-casual fad brought in by Steve Jobs or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who defined woman’s style for more than a decade.

Attractive, young and confident, the Obama’s are perfect candidates for setting lifestyle trends that are underpinned by larger causes. Early in the administration, Michelle planted an organic garden with 55 varieties of vegetables on the White House lawn with the hope that it would teach families and especially children about the importance of eating organic, locally-grown vegetables, both for health and environmental reasons.

President Obama could set his own precedent on sustainable lifestyle choices. Environmental activist, Bill McKibben, and his organization, 350.org, have launched a campaign to install solar panels on the White House. Jimmy Carter had them installed during his administration, but then they were torn down by Ronald Reagan. So far, President Obama has said “no” to solar panels. Perhaps Obama can learn a lesson from Clinton and set an example by making environmentally-friendly changes to his lifestyle.