October 23, 2007

A Vegetarian World?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:49 pm

I believe that, by the end of this century, much of the developed world will go vegetarian. Perhaps not exclusively, but I predict that the amount of meat the average person consumes will drop dramatically.

I’m not advocating for vegetarianism. I don’t have a moral objection, particularly, to eating meat. I just think it’s likely that people will voluntarily stop eating meat regardless of what personal choices I might make.

I say this for several reasons, starting with the global political economics of meat. This Salon article talks about the environmental impact of meat-eating. First, there’s the contribution to global warming, which appears to be rather modest:

Six percent of our greenhouse gases come from livestock production, compared with 19 percent from cars, light trucks and airplanes.


[T]he difference between a vegan diet and one that includes cheeseburgers is less than 2 tons of greenhouse gases a year. That’s about the equivalent of switching from a Camry to a Prius. The average American is responsible for about 26 tons annually, so if the entire U.S. population went vegan, we’d reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by only 6 percent.

What bothers me about this calculation is that the bulk of greenhouse gas production is outside of the typical household’s control. We can change the car we drive, how efficiently we use electricity, and the food we eat, but not how our electricity is generated, for example. So it seems to me that the six percent of per capita greenhouse gases caused by livestock production is actually a much higher percentage of the greenhouse gas production over which we have direct control.

But there are other environmental impacts from eating meat. Again, from the Salon article:

According to the FAO, livestock production is a top cause of the world’s many environmental problems: deforestation, acid rain, dead zones in the ocean, land degradation, water pollution, species extinction…

If we continue to eat meat at the level we do today, and if the developing world adopts our meat-eating diet as their incomes rise, the environmental impacts will be more and more difficult to sustain. But my prediction of future vegetarianism isn’t based on an assumption of altruism and personal virtue on the part of mankind. I’m convinced that the economic externalities caused by unsustainable development will gradually become reflected in the prices we pay for what we buy. The world has no alternative. As poorer economies develop and begin polluting more, the world will have no choice but to enter into treaties that will enforce restrictions, regulations and costs on polluters. These measures will end up being reflected in prices for goods and services.

When, due to it’s higher environmental impact, the price of meat rises all out of proportion to other foods, we will all be inclined to eat less meat.

But there is also the health factor, which I am experiencing personally these days. When I turned 50 this year, I became serious about exercising and eating healthy. I looked at the FDA’s food pyramid, and lined my diet up against its guidelines. There was only one big discrepancy — I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. How to force myself to eat more fruits and vegetables? I decided to go vegetarian for lunch. I still eat meat as always for dinner, but have forced myself to find tasty, filling vegetarian meals for lunch. (I rarely if ever eat meat for breakfast.)

I’ve lost about a pound a week. And I haven’t felt “deprived” at all. I could do this for the rest of my life, and in fact I think I will.

We live in an obese society, and being overweight carries health risks. Regardless of whether we have private insurance or a national health care system, incentives will increasingly be in place to encourage us to lose weight. We are no longer hunter/gatherers relying on the heavy calorie density of meat to survive. Eating less meat just makes sense biologically. And this is to say nothing of the social pressure to be thin, which isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Lastly, there’s the moral issue. I’m not morally opposed to eating meat, mainly because on a hierarchy of moral wrongs, I place human suffering much higher than animal suffering, and there’s more human suffering going on today than I can wrap my brain around. I just don’t have any moral outrage left over after I get through thinking about all the human misery in the world.

But that’s not to say that I believe the treatment of animals in factory farms is morally benign. All things being equal, I’d rather all animals be treated humanely. I think most people probably feel the same way. It seems to me that morality progresses with economic prosperity — when a society can afford to stop a particular inhumane act, they will, even though it never thought it particularly immoral before.

Hence my long-term prediction of decreasing meat consumption, perhaps leading to meat only on special occasions, or perhaps a strictly vegetarian (vegan?) diet. It’s one of those things that just seems inevitable, even though I can’t say how it will come about or how long it will take.

But of course I could be wrong.

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