A Challenge

Filed in National by on August 31, 2009

I generally consider myself an optimist (a cynical, realistic, pragmatic optimist) but there is one subject that I’m a pessimist about. That subject is the environment. I’m not sure which of the multiple environmental disasters is going to strike first and I’m pessimistic about our ability to address them before it’s too late, if it’s not too late already. Will it be peak oil, peak coal or peak metals? Will it be collapse of the fisheries? How about rainforest deforestation? What about plain old global warming? I think it’s a race to see which environmental disaster will strike first.

The reason I think that the big environmental issues won’t be addressed is because of human nature. People generally tend to focus on the short-term rather than the long-term, the personal rather than the political, the concrete over the abstract and the simple over the complex. Environmental issues tend to fall into the long-term, abstract, complex category. It’s not that there isn’t a lot of people that care about the environment – there are, but it is definitely difficult to have much of a personal impact when the problem is so widespread and the society is configured in a way to encourage consumption and waste. It means you’re swimming upstream most of the time. However, I do think that our lifestyle will have to change – it’s not sustainable. As other countries with large populations develop rapidly, there’s going to be more and more competition for natural resource like oil. I think it’s going to take a crisis to get these issues addressed.

Is everything hopeless? Well, it isn’t but it’s frustrating when you feel that there’s not much you can do and whatever you do is just a drop in the bucket. But I don’t think that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. So here’s the challenge to myself – my husband and I are going to go completely vegetarian (not vegan) for at least two days each week. Our decision is being heavily influenced by reading a lot recently about our disfunctional food system, like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. (For a sample of Michael Pollan’s work, you can read this New York Times magazine piece from last month.) Pollan’s thesis is that Americans are eating less and less real food and this is responsible for a lot of problems, not only the epidemic of obesity but also environmental damage.

The American diet is starting to become a bigger topic of conversation lately, but usually not in the context of global warming. However, our diet is a big contributor. Here’s Ezra Klein on the subject:

According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Some of meat’s contribution to climate change is intuitive. It’s more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the contribution is gross. “Manure lagoons,” for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas — interestingly, it’s mainly burps, not farts — is a real player.

But the result isn’t funny at all: Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius (PDF). A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. “How convenient for him,” was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “He’s a vegetarian.”

Scientific American has also written on the subject. Here’s the bottom line:

  • Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken. For potatoes, the multiplier is 57.
  • Beef consumption is rising rapidly, both as population increases and as people eat more meat.
  • Producing the annual beef diet of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles.
  • I like meat as much as everyone else, but I feel I have to do something. My contribution will be small and I hope to discover great new recipes. My challenge begins this week. I’ll let everyone know how it’s going.

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    Opinionated chemist, troublemaker, blogger on national and Delaware politics.

    Comments (26)

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    1. callerRick says:

      I spend a lot of time worrying about the inevitable asteroid impact, similar to the one that created our satellite known as ‘moon.’ Did Nostradamus or Malthus warn of this?

      I was at the first ‘Earth Day,’ in Washington. The ‘experts’ with wrinkled clothes and beards warned us of the impending Ice Age or nuclear Armageddon with Russia. Many wept.

      “This fine ‘ol world
      It keeps spinnin’ around…”

    2. Geezer says:

      Thanks, cR, for illustrating UI’s point. And should I note that the world will keep spinning around even if there are no fish left in the oceans? What kind of dipshit do you have to be to prefer ignoring that to trying to prevent it — a special dipshit, or just a free-market conservative?

    3. The fisheries is what strikes me. I was ignorant to it many years ago. I loved swordfish growing up and into my twenties, until somewhere about 10 years ago or something, I suddenly couldn’t purchase it anymore. I later found out that there was a ban on harvesting swordfish by all the countries that had regulations on the industry (US being one of them). From that, I learned how incredibly over-fished the species had become. It’s available again now, but at a high price. Personally, I’ve lost interest in choosing it as a dish anymore. The thought that the species went endangered (or near-endangered) from consumption blew my mind away.

      The other concern about collapsing fisheries (this ought to get callerRick going) is the environment within the oceans. It’s a real good experience learning about ocean currents and the tie-in to the weather up here (on land and atmosphere).

      …but it’s frustrating when you feel that there’s not much you can do and whatever you do is just a drop in the bucket.

    4. Hey…UI…does any of this matter with 12/21/12 looming on the horizon? 😉

    5. wikwox says:

      As a child I read several books on population growth (this is the 60’s). I was quit alarmed and have never ceased to be.Population growth is simply unsustainable. Peak oil, I believe is here and now. As for fisheries nations using fishing as “free food” have already depleted the Grand Banks, at one time the greatest fishery on earth.Much like China and India the world is fast approaching it’s collective Too Many People Moment.

    6. Smitty,

      I’ll do what I can until 12/21/2012. I agree wikwox, population growth is a big issue for the planet. It’s a big question – how are we going to feed all these people?

    7. Mark H says:

      “how are we going to feed all these people?”

      Soyent Green

      But I’ll just vote for climate change as probably the biggest problem, But I notice IU, that you didn’t mention potable water, which is a pretty big problem in itself.

    8. callerRick says:

      So I suppose you ‘end-of-the-world’ers’ have stopped eating fish, right? Yeah, sure.

      Geezer, was that you standing next to the pontificating weird-beard at the original Earth Day, nodding in agreement as he prophesied the upcoming Ice Age?

      Beware the asteroid!

    9. cassandra_m says:

      One good thing about it being summer is that it can be pretty easy to go meatless a few times a week in a pretty tasty way. I don’t know of any local sustainable farms that grow chicken or beef in a lower impact way.

      I worry alot about us — there is so much that we know about the current course of life on earth and there seems to be little real effort to change that course. We seem to get to the edge — like Smitty’s swordfish example — then try to fix it. We may get to the edge and cross right over it and it may then be too late.

    10. nemski says:

      If it wasn’t for the environmentalists, places like The French Broad River in Tennessee and North Carolina would not have been saved.

    11. nemski says:

      God, I can’t believe we even have to have this argument today.

    12. …The French Broad River…
      Aw, crap. I thought you said French Toast. Is it wrong that I am becoming hungry with this thread?

      Gaah. Bad humor aside (y’all need a laugh, and you know it) …

      No, Rick, I haven’t stopped eating fish, but I have stopped swordfish, because of the fact that it almost went endangered due to consumption! Even if it’s as simple as being guilt-ridden (which, honestly, is part of the equation), I wouldn’t want to eat a species into oblivion. Hey, I’m a carnivore, much like you are, I don’t hide that fact. I will not, though, let a gluttonous attitude towards eating tell me that it does not matter what my habits are. Every action we take has some sort of consequence. EVERY ACTION. Just the simple motor function of exhaling could cause someone standing right next to you to get sick – a consequence of your breathing. I won’t tell you to stop breathing (not literally, anyway 😉 ), but if you were sick, I’d expect you to try to have some courtesy.

    13. You can get information on what fish are sustainably fished at the Monterey Bay Aquarium website. My husband and I try to use the pocket seafood guide they provide. There have been some real successes in fisheries in some areas. And they’ve found limiting fishing is a real win-win because you catch better fish and you get a better price.

      I’m not planning on eating fish on the two vegetarian days. Vegetarian means vegetables along with dairy and eggs. I’m not sure if I could go full vegan. Perhaps if we have success with this modest proposal we can try that.

    14. liberalgeek says:

      Sorry, but I intend to gorge myself on dead pig this weekend and will spend an inordinate amount of time on Saturday preparing for said feast. Perhaps I’ll take a day off of meat later on next week…

      Oh, and there will be much charcoal burned.

    15. pandora says:

      EMP is a HUGE threat, the environment… not so much.

    16. You and your God-damned Geek carbon footprints! Stop suffocating me, Geek!

    17. liberalgeek says:

      Stop breathing, Smitty.

    18. You’re right pandora. I forgot that bombing North Korea and Iran should be our first domestic priority.

    19. Geek,

      I hope that for your after-swine-feast, you are hooked up to a breathing mask that has tubes hooked up to you-know-where so your methane-filled flatulance is a harm to only you and no one else via your nasty greenhouse effects. By the way, I do truly hope you enjoy your culinary efforts (really, I do).

    20. Joanne Christian says:

      Smitty, Swordfish comes and go–enjoy it why you can. When I was a kid it was banned for a time because of mercury. Tilapia seems to be everyone’s eco-friendly fish these days. Maybe it will find the ubiquitous tuna market of Fridays and yesteryear. Tilapia subs?

    21. The earth cannot sustain 3 1/2 billion people. Remember the population bomb doctrine, that is until it sustained 6 billion better. I am all for better environmental management. I will support you in that, but I won’t support fear mongering extremism.

    22. LOL. Fear-mongering extremism. Death panels.

      Anyway, it’s scientific advancements that have allowed the population explosion. Better medicine and better farming techniques have helped sustain our population.

      To sustain even higher populations, we’re going to need another technological advance. I think humans are capable of doing that. I just think that we won’t until it’s a crisis and by then it may be too late. It’s not liberals that are arguing we can’t address these issues. There’s a lot of conservatives that say we can’t do anything.

    23. callerRick says:

      Let’s face it, as the world population continues to expand, become more affluent and live longer, food, especially seafood, is going to be in short supply. Even if the U.S. drastically regulated commercial fishing, China, Japan and a lot of SE Asia wouldn’t. In short, fairly soon, the only fish you’ll be able to buy will be farm-raised or $200.00-a-pound.

    24. Geezer says:

      “Even if the U.S. drastically regulated commercial fishing, China and a lot of SE Asia wouldn’t.”

      Is this your approach to every issue — throw up your hands and say, “Oh well, fuck it”? The conservative world view is a poor tool for solving problems, but seldom do its practitioners prove it so thoroughly.

    25. UI –
      Did you see this article pop up on Delaware Online today? It’s pertinent to this topic. As I was reading it, I swear I heard callerRick say, “Oh Eff it!”

    26. No Smitty, I didn’t see the article but thanks for linking it.

      Yeah, I guess one difference between callerRick and me is I see stuff like this I don’t think let’s just give up or wait to see what China does first.