Why I don’t eat meat: non-issue2: environment

December 20, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Fitness, Nature

Following up my series on liberating ourselves from moralists, meddlers, and others who want to impose their subjective values on us in the name of objective truth in the realm of food, let’s continue with environmental reasons since I listed it next on my list a few days ago.

People who don’t eat meat often point out that eating meat pollutes the environment significantly more than not eating meat. As far as I know the data overwhelmingly supports this conclusion.

I’ve heard people who eat meat argue that eating meat pollutes less, but I’ve never heard one of their arguments hold water in the least. They generally forget or neglect something obvious like that animals eat food too. I’m open to hearing something I missed, but so far nothing remotely credible.

Pointing out the subjectivity at the root of valuing reducing pollution can be subtle. I’m planning an extended series (book?) on the environment and our values. I’ll do my best to stay brief.

Life requires interacting with the environment. You can’t live without using energy ultimately coming from the Sun (perhaps some geothermal and nuclear, but not much today). The Sun’s finite output means the planet and its systems of life can support some maximum human population. Technology and people living more efficiently may increase that maximum, but never make it go away. Eating meat generally makes things less efficient, but quantitatively so, not qualitatively.

Making things more efficient can present its own problems. The more efficient a system, the more catastrophic the consequences of problems. If you run a factory at peak efficiency, any problem anywhere will shut down the whole factory. Operate below peak efficiency and you can fix problems without stopping everything. In today’s increasingly efficient markets, small hiccups in one region regularly have global  consequences.

As we make our food systems more efficient, we set ourselves up for increasingly catastrophic consequences to problems.

So greater efficiency alone doesn’t make the world a better place. It could result in other problems.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think we’re near peak efficiency so I value eating less meat, which generally means polluting less. Still, equating efficiency with good is a mistake.

My major point is that eating or not eating meat merely quantitatively changes ones effect on the world. The effect you have from eating only acquires meaning in the context of everything else you do that affects the environment, what others do, the total population, and so on. Then even if you do everything to optimize things today, you may create problems in the future. You can’t choose not to affect your environment. You can only choose how you affect it.

If you drive an SUV, take jet planes all the time, use air conditioning, and so on, you may be similar to someone who pours toxic sludge into a public stream. But if you don’t eat meat you may still be polluting more than many — maybe even more than the planet can sustain in the long term.

Personally, every time I eat I think about how much pollution I cause, contributing to me never eating meat, but no one can reach perfect efficiency. You have to choose where you pollute more and where you pollute less. The choices to have children and how many may dwarf most other decisions you make about how much you impact the planet.

Ultimately these choices depend on your values.

Bottom Line

Eating less meat pollutes less, but you can never pollute zero. You have to account for how all your other behavior affects the environment to give meaning to your contribution from food.

Since you can’t run at perfect efficiency, your values decide where you choose to pollute more or less.


All that said, I can see no justification for factory farming, as I’ve observed it in the movies and documentaries I’ve seen.

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1 response to “Why I don’t eat meat: non-issue2: environment

  1. Pingback: Wrapping up reasonable talk on eating | Joshua Spodek

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