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More on Meat and Carbon

Speaking of meat and climate change, Tom Philpott kindly defends me from the attacks of the American Meat Institute. As he explains, one of the key issues here is the use of percentages. Meat production makes up a large percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. But it's not a very large source of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. In part, that's just because America's denominator is much larger: We have a huge transportation sector, and a lot of industry, and a lot more emissions in general. That makes a burger quite small as a share of our total emissions, but still quite large in comparison to, say, pasta.

But this gets to one of the arguments I made in my column on the subject: Curbing meat consumption a bit is actually the low-hanging fruit on cutting carbon emissions. It's politically scary, of course. And no one wants to do it. But attacking SUVs wasn't popular either. And unlike trading your SUV for a Prius, or weatherizing your whole home, swapping a roast beef sandwich for a PB&J doesn't require a large up-front investment. It's not a move reserved for the rich. Nor is it a big hassle, as biking 10 miles to the market would be. It's easy. That's true whether you're talking about individual choice or a world where carbon is priced into products. But it's one of the things we talk about least.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 7, 2009; 4:28 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Isn't the real problem too many people?

We keep saying all we need to do is less of this or that. We wouldn't need to do that if there were fewer people.

We need that health care plan to get passed so we can start killing old people.

Posted by: SteveCA1 | August 7, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

It is silly to equate a steak with a PBJ. There are tons of great veg-meats out there, foods that even my non-sympathetic father will eat (e.g., Gimme Lean) that doesn't cause such obscene suffering.

Posted by: AZProgressive | August 7, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

We've been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years. It's a healthy thing to eat, and it's what our bodies are designed for. Just because we reason that we should eat less meat, doesn't mean our bodies will thrive on that kind of diet. Over the last 30 years we've decreased our meat consumption and increased our grain consumption, and obesity and diabetes and heart disease have skyrocketed. That ain't a coincidence.

Posted by: sbguy | August 8, 2009 12:47 AM | Report abuse

sbguy: Actually, our bodies are not designed to eat meat. Here's a simple test. Look at your teeth. Now look at your dog's teeth. See a difference?

This one is much harder, but you can probably google it: Look at your intestine. Then look at your dog's intestine. Which one is longer? Hint: Yours is. That's because yours is designed to have food travel more slowly through your system, whereas a meat eater needs to get rid of the meat very quickly, otherwise the toxins that are in meat will linger too long. (Yes, meat has toxins. So does broccoli. But imagine the cow eating broccoli every day for its 7 year lifespan. Toxins, including environmental toxins, build up in meat over time and are finally consumed by you.) This is, btw, likely the reason you are much more likely to have colon cancer if you eat red meat.

And we have vastly increased our meat consumption in the last hundred years. Americans used to eat one chicken a year, and meat sparingly.

I haven't had meat in about 20 years, and am very healthy. I'll match my numbers, including B12 and iron levels, with you any day.

Posted by: KathyF | August 8, 2009 2:24 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, still not gonna happen. You're anti-meat thing quixotic at best, distracting neo-culture war fodder at worst. Focus on pricing carbon correctly (and perhaps methane) and let consumers decide where to spend their scarce resources.

Posted by: sfmandrew | August 8, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Greenhouse-gas emissions are only part of the problem. Factor in the meat industry's huge contribution to water and air pollution, disease, water shortages, ocean dead zones, rainforest destruction, wildlife-habitat loss, species extinction, world hunger through inefficient use of agricultural resources, etc., and you have an all-round environmental/social catastrophe. Then add to that the moral atrocity of (unnecessarily) brutalizing and killing billions upon billions of sentient creatures each year.

I believe that a sustainable planetary human civilization would be predominantly vegetarian/vegan, would have a population of under two billion people, and would be intensely post-carbon and ecological in its production processes. Anything less is likely to lead to environmental and societal collapse.

Posted by: mijnheer | August 8, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

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