This story appears in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Paul McCartney is leading the Meat Free Monday campaign, asking people to skip meat once a week to “help slow climate change, preserve precious natural resources, and improve their health.” We met in London recently for an interview.
Susan Goldberg: Should I call you Paul or Sir Paul or … ?
Paul McCartney: Paul.
SG: OK. I wasn’t sure. I’m American, so I don’t know about these things.
One thing I find so interesting about your Meat Free Monday campaign is that you’re just asking for one day a week. Why did you decide to ask for only that?
PM: I think if you say to people, “I’m a vegetarian. I think it’s great. I’ve been this way for 40 years. Now you should be a vegetarian,” it’s too much for them to take in. That means they’ve got to change their whole lifestyle. So what we find is, if you say to people, “Well, try one day,” they can do that. And they’re kind of willing to do that. And then some people go, “Oh. This is good.” Or “Maybe I’ll do two days.” Things like that, I don’t think you can approach with a sledgehammer. You’ve got to kind of just keep it gentle.
SG: Sometimes I see environmentalists with messages, and it sounds like moralistic scolding, and I don’t know that it’s terribly effective.
PM: That’s what I mean. You know, you have to realize when you leave the room, they’re going to talk about you, not necessarily in great terms. So I try and keep it something that I would’ve understood and I would’ve accepted before I was vegetarian.
SG: You’ve been vegetarian for a long time, right?
PM: Yeah. Years ago, Linda [his late wife] and I were on the farm, and the sheep had had lambs. It was the most beautiful time of the lambs’ life, full of energy—and at one meal, we happened to be eating a leg of lamb. We weren’t vegetarian then, so we made the connection. We said, “Should we try and not do this?” We did, and never looked back. It basically was compassion for these lambs that were in the first month of their lives and soon to have them ended. It didn’t seem right.
SG: How has it changed your life?
PM: I feel very healthy, and I do shows three hours long and I don’t feel knackered at the end of it. I still feel strong. So I think that’s been one of the things. But then more recently, people have started to draw this comparison between greenhouse gases and basically too much livestock on Earth. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just one or two on a farm, but when there’s billions, the way we now do it, it has a big effect on the atmosphere.
For me, the bottom line is we’re on this incredible planet, and there doesn’t appear to be another one in sight. And alongside us are these little dudes, these animals. We’ve all got the chance in life to survive, and I like the idea of giving them their best shot. I’m conscious of that now, whereas when I grew up, you never thought of it as meat. It was just some stuff that arrived from the supermarket, came all wrapped and packaged, and didn’t look like an animal. I think that’s how most people are.
SG: But you brought up your daughters very differently. Today your daughter Stella doesn’t use any animal products in the clothes she designs.
PM: That’s right. My kids are great, and they have always been vegetarian with the option that if they wanted to change, they could. But they never wanted to, and now they bring up their kids vegetarian. So the whole family is … and you know, nobody seems to be suffering.
SG: In a lot of parts of the world, though, there are people for whom raising livestock is their livelihood. Even having one pig or goat or cow is the road out of poverty.
PM: But I don’t think that’s the problem. I think the mass production is where the big problem starts to come in, where certain companies have billions of animals, often cramped in really cruel conditions.
I was brought up by my mom, who’s a nurse, a midwife, and my dad was a cotton salesman. Just ordinary people in Liverpool, and we just had ordinary food, the same as everyone in our street. But when I reached a certain age, I made a change. I just thought, “You know what? Maybe this isn’t what I want to do. I’ve got the free will to do something else.”
So I encourage people. I say, it’s actually quite fun when you look at what you do, what you eat, how you live, and think, “Is this what I’m going to do the rest of my life, or would it be interesting to try to make a change?” I think a lot of people do that these days.
SG: You’ve been one of the most famous people in the world for a very long time. You could support so many causes and have your voice heard by a lot of people. Why this cause, and why now?
PM: Well, this is personal. I do support a lot of other causes too—but this particular one, this is how I live. And I like the idea of this particular campaign because I can then say to people, “Just try it.” Nobody’s forcing anyone to do anything; you just try one day meat free, because it’s a good idea.
SG: So you think some of the main advantages here are personal health, health of the planet, and compassion for animals …
SG: What am I leaving out?
PM: Those are three pretty good ones. I’d go with those.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.