Emissions &

July 26, 2015

So I’m afraid that this is one of those weeks when I’m going to send you backwards to catch up. Like to last week when I couldn’t get started because the whole thing was just too confusing, or to a few weeks ago when we were all giving out a big shout-out to Pope Francis. But while it would be wholly within the spirit of the Thornapple Blog to go around in circles two or three times before moving on to the subject at hand, this week I’ll just point out quietly that I do in fact regard these two context-setting-blogs as important provisos for what comes next. So if you were about to quote me out of context on Fox News or some other outlet like The Review of Metaphysics, just be advised that you have been warned in advance!

What I thought I was going to get around to last week was a conversation I had had about the surprising number of people who say confusing, head twisting things about climate change, and then end up with an amazing simple statement like “The biggest thing that you could do to address climate change is to give up eating meat.” There is a rationale behind this recommendation, as a rather surprising amount of the methane currently being emitted into the atmosphere comes from ruminants. And if it’s not crystal clear yet, I’ll go on to concede that, indeed, cattle are ruminants. Of course, not all the meat you might eat is beef, so you might be wondering whether there’s a bit of overgeneralization going on, so I’ll further ‘splain that a surprising amount of our industrial agriculture production (which uses a not massive [hence not surprising] but still significant portion of our fossil fuel) is for animal feeds.

So with those concessions off my chest, let me be slightly serious here for a bit and say why this is confusing to me. In the spirit of calling out the overgeneralization alluded to above, I could start by noting that ‘meat’ is kind of ambiguous in this context. Does it include fish? Does it include eggs? And most importantly due to the fact that we are (recall) mainly talkin’ bout cows when the word ‘methane’ comes up in conversation—does it include milk, cheese, yogurt and other assorted dairy products? If you are going to be consistent in applying your dietary climate ethic, you should include all of those things. We are, in fact, talking vegan, here.

I’ll hasten to add two things. First, far be it from me to insist on consistency in matters of diet. I’ve sworn that particular philosopher’s vice off long, long ago. And second, if you are in fact inclined to go vegan, by all means, do it. At least give it a try. The last thing I sat down to do this morning was to try and dissuade any of those heroic vegans out there of their dietary regimen. I was just trying to point out the bigger picture behind a superficially simple recommendation.

But more significantly, let me focus like a laserbeam on the methane thing. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, which means that it aggravates the nasty processes that are causing all the problems we associate with that bland term “climate change”. But this methane does not “stay up there” all that long, and as I see it (this is my blog, you know) the much larger problem is the longevity of carbon dioxide emissions. When we burn stuff like coal, gasoline or jet fuel, most of that stuff is going to be around for thousands of years. Even our grandchildren’s grandchildren won’t be able to do much about it. If we stopped raising cows, close to 90% of the methane might be gone in 20 years. Heck, even I might live to see that!

In short, pushing really hard to figure out some way to stop burning stuff when you go from place to place, when you need to heat or cool your house, and when you need electricity to make toast—that would be the most important thing that you could do to address climate change. This thing about saving the world with better eating is overselling a moderately good idea that should probably be considered solely on its own merits.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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