Soul Topics

Stories for environmentalism: Milk/dairy and its identifications (histories, politics, emotions)

Bottles of milk, nutrient packed

The significance of milk to human diets was boosted in the historical context of malnutrition and World War I.

Recognising opportunity, companies and science leveraged on the high nutrient content within dairy milk – consisting of protein, vitamins, calcium – to ascribe it a ‘SUPERFOOD‘ status at the time.

Therefore, dairy milk was marketed as an essential food for children, helping them to grow up and become strong. The rise of dairy milk in the past was attributed to factors of science, economics and politics.

We still like dairy in contemporary times

In today’s context of climate change, dairy is undisputedly one of the most environmentally detrimental everyday foods. Dairy products come from cows, which emit unsustainably high levels of greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide and methane.

Dairy milk and cows

Today, our unquestioned liking of milk persists – but this is because of a continuation of historical worldviews that had once served the human population.

Certain ideas – bolstering the status of dairy as an essential component of our diets – should no longer carry as much weight and significance.

Dairy has been known to cause inflammation, and excess dairy contributes to health issues. Besides, “superfoods” are aplenty and can be vibrantly found in all sorts of non-dairy, plant-based sources, such as chia seeds and nut milks.

To move into a sustainable future, what we need is a better understanding of where our unquestioned biases, likings and tastes came from, so that we can re-think them and come to better solutions. If we do understand the historical context of these (dominant) views, we find that different views may be appropriate for different times, and made valid due to the science, economics and politics of those times. Ultimately, we want to create better stories for our contemporary times and futures, and actively communicate them in the present.

To tell effective contemporary stories that would benefit us and our environments, we must unpack and destabilize old ones – the claims that keep our bodies in states of resistance and addiction.

Moving Forward With Stories


In recent years, the rise of plant-based milks demonstrated the consciousness of an increasingly health and environmentally conscious citizenry. Several noteworthy factors debunking the importance of dairy are:

  • the dairy consumption timeline of the human race only dates back to 10,000 years ago amongst the 4,000,000 years of human bipedal history (that’s roughly 25% of human history)
  • contemporary humans who consume dairy possess relatively lightly built skeletons compared to our ancestors (dispelling the brittle bones myth put forth by dairy companies)
  • the lack of bone fractures attributed to the non-consumption of dairy (our bones are not that brittle when we don’t consume dairy, after all)
  • global statistics that most people in the world are lactose intolerant.

How will people identify with stories for environmentalism? The crucial next step in storytelling is to go beyond factual information, as the logic of facts do not appeal more than the emotional tone and immediacy put forth in our storytelling.

When we tell stories of milk, we may consider how these stories would ‘clash’ with other stories, such as stories sold by companies that use milk. Milk (and dairy) has been commonly placed as an ingredient into food varieties today (e.g. the popularity of milk teas and coffees), appealing through a variety of brands and narratives.

In fact, the most effective stories are contextualised in our cultural contexts, those that can appeal to our intuition, win hearts (not just minds) and gain traction.

If we are infiltrate the consciousness of citizens with such a framing: “Would the majority of people in our planet be okay with destroying ourselves and the livelihoods of our future generations through our dietary choices?”, would there be sufficient political backing and industry clout for such a stance? It would be unlikely, as such a stance goes against our cultural norms. This framing, then, supports momentum generated for transformational discussions, interventions and institutional responsibility.

In communities of our everyday lives, stories that enable common ground and places of agency can inspire us to act.

A starting point is to communicate stories that portray clearer links between the perceived infinitesimal scale of our actions with the (felt) immediacies of impacts here or elsewhere.

Written: Feb 8, 2019.


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