Wednesday, May 2, 2007

What Becomes of the Cows?

Slate, it seems, has joined the ranks of the environmentalists. To this end, they're running a series called "The Green Challenge," with help from some bunch called, who seem to get off on buying carbon offsets. Episode 3 in the Green Challenge: "Green Diet."

I've never been a fan of activism, in large part because activists tend to view the world in terms of getting people to act, rather than giving them actionable information. Okay, I'll accept that as a omnivore, I have a larger "Carbon Footprint" than the average herbivore. But do I really CAUSE "a ton and a half more carbon dioxide emissions for food production than the average vegetarian?" (And over what time frame is this being measured? A lifetime? If I only live to be 60, that comes out to 150 pounds a year. Is that a lot?)

The answer to that is "Yes," only, it seems, if you assume that none of the animals I eat would exist if they weren't destined to be food. My becoming a vegetarian won't make a ton and a half of CO2 go (ahem) up in smoke, unless every animal that I would have eaten magically disappears from existence. I will admit that I OWN a larger share of the United States' carbon emissions than the vegetarian crowd. But if I and a few thousand of my closest friends decided to give up meat tomorrow, it would still take some time for that "ton and a half" of carbon savings to materialize. And as long as people wear leather, it might never be completely realized. And if I'm the only one to make the change, all that I've done is shift the carbon footprint from me to someone else.

But let's say that a large number of people did make the switch. Where would the now-unemployed animals go? This is important because with large-scale shifts in the American diet, how long would it take for the food production sector to catch up? If 5% of omnivores went herbivore this year (or if everyone cut back by 5%), what would the overall reduction in the carbon footprint be, and how long would it take for you to really see it? Certainly, it wouldn't be overnight. And would it require killing off large segments of former farm animals to prevent them from living and breeding? How would we dispose of them? Who would pay for it? And what would happen to the farmers and ranchers? Do we care?

I don't know. But before I give up the occasional fillet mignon, I'd like to find out.

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