My meatless Mondays

A few weeks ago, I preached about the virtues of vegetarianism. I did so hypocritically, because I am not a vegetarian. I have been getting the vegetarian gospel from many sides lately. My friend Wendy likes to say she belongs to the Church of Vegetarianism. She points me to sites like Grist to encourage me to become one and educate me about environmental choices. I also have a sister who is a vegetarian of a quarter century standing. My new sister in law is also doing the vegetarian / all organic food thing. It is a very Boulder, Colorado-ish thing to do.

It seems unlikely to me that after fifty years of eating meat generally at least once a day that I could give it up forever. However, as an experiment I have been having Meatless Mondays. It is not much but if all Americans went meatless one day a week, we would cut our meat consumption by one seventh. Assuming a stable population, that would mean fewer feedlots and fewer animals consuming our nation’s grains. By redirecting these grains from animals and biofuel plants, more grains would be available for human consumption. This would be good news for much of the Third World. The high price of grains, driven by our need to direct so much of it to animals and biofuels, is putting basic carbohydrates out of reach for the poorest, meaning millions are malnourished who were not a few years ago. Some are starving to death because they cannot afford something as basic as a bag of rice. In addition, with fewer livestock there would be less animal waste, fewer pollutants and fewer greenhouse gases. It would be no panacea to global warming, but this strategy in conjunction with many other efforts could perhaps change the current global warming dynamic.

To my friend Wendy, the primary reason she is a vegetarian is because she believes that slaughtering any animal is inhumane. There is no way of knowing how an animal feels about being dismembered, although I suspect it is something far more abstract to them than it is to us with our large prefrontal cortexes. It strikes me as reasonable to assume that animals above a certain brain size probably have some idea of what is going on when they before they are slaughtered. If we must eat meat, then animals should be killed in a way that minimizes animal trauma and suffering. Most cattle are killed by having a bolt shot through their brain. This supposedly rapidly leads to the animal’s death, or at least allows it to be dismembered without being aware that it is happening. I suspect if I paid a visit to a slaughterhouse then I would suddenly find the wherewithal to become a vegetarian. If we were serious about global warming, we would send meat-eating students on slaughterhouse tours so they could see how it is done. Like most Americans, I prefer to have my animals killed far away where I cannot hear them complain.

Not eating meat with breakfast is not a problem for me since I typically do not eat meat with breakfast anyhow. Lunch is more challenging. I am used to a sandwich or some soup where meat is one of the ingredients. One can always have a salad with lunch. I know salads are very healthy but no matter how much I dress them up, they are never interesting to eat so I want to add something more substantial, which I equate with dense food. One can claim to be a vegetarian and have an egg or tuna salad sandwich with lunch. It seems like cheating somehow. Eggs come from chickens, which produce them by eating grain. Calorie for calorie, feeding a chicken is better for the environment than feeding a cow, but an egg salad sandwich defeats my modest goal of making more grain available for human consumption. I should really avoid any dairy or egg products on meatless Mondays. Eating tuna also feels like I am cheating. Logically there is virtually no connection between harvesting seafood and solving global warming and hunger, providing species are not over-harvested. If you are a sea creature, there is no humane way to die. Unless you are a very large creature like a whale, you are likely to die by being gorily dismembered by some other sea creature. Thus far, I have avoided both egg and tuna salad sandwiches on my meatless Mondays. More typically, a cheese sandwich with some lettuce and tomatoes suffices and feels filling. It is not perfect, but it demonstrates intent. If I feel like being bad, a slice of cheese pizza is another easy substitute.

For me, the only challenge comes at dinner. This is when my desire for consuming meat becomes almost Pavlovian. The first couple of weeks I found that I had to exercise mind over matter, because my body told me to eat meat. Meat substitutes help. If you buy the right veggie burgers, you will not feel denied. However, one can quickly get tired of veggie burgers. I am not much of a burger fan in general. It is rare that I consume more than one burger a month.

Most meat substitutes tend to be rather poor imitations of the real thing. They rarely come close to either the taste of meat or its texture, nor do they usually have meat’s heft and density. Perhaps if you eat them religiously your taste buds adapt. I suspect for most vegetarians meat substitutes are transitionary products. At some point, you do not want them anymore.

Other dinner meat substitutes are more prosaic. Peanut butter and grill cheese sandwiches qualify, with a peanut butter sandwich being the better substitute. After three weeks, going without meat one day a week no longer seems particularly difficult. I may well choose to try two meatless days a week soon, and see if that is as simple. All I have to do is be mindful not to eat meat that day. Nor do I feel the compunction to eat more meat on the other six days to make up for the day without meat.

My solitary actions do feel rather pointless. I am just one of 300 million Americans. Perhaps by blogging about it I can help start a trend. Less than 3% of Americans are vegetarians. I cannot claim to be one, but I have found cutting back on meat was simple and relatively painless. Going through this exercise once a week serves another important purpose: it keeps me mindful of my values. If like me you are concerned that your meat eating habit is indirectly causing people elsewhere to starve, you should not hesitate to try my approach of going without meat just one day a week. I suspect that you will find as I did that soon for that day you will not miss the meat at all.

Save a human life and eat less meat

Rising food and gas prices have been much on my mind lately. Unlike many Americans, rising gas prices do not bother me that much. I feel like we have been getting discount rates for gasoline for far too long. The effect has been counterproductive, encouraging urban sprawl and environmental degradation. I would like to see gas taxes raised to encourage conservation and to fund research into clean transportation solutions. It sure will not happen if we suspend federal gasoline taxes, a harebrained proposal that was endorsed by both presidential contenders John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

Rising food prices though do bother me. As I am one of the more economically fortunate Americans, I am not personally put out much by the rising cost of food. However, I do know that rising food prices are affecting many Americans. It has reached the point where some are going hungry who never went hungry before. Community food banks are running low, affected by both increased demand and fewer contributions. The drop in donations is due in part to the rising cost of food.

Cross our borders and the rising cost of food is not a minor cause for concern, but a major problem. In some poorer countries, it has morphed into full-blown crises. In Mexico, the cost of maize has increased 30% since the start of the year, making the simple corn tortilla almost a luxury item, and beyond the budget of many of Mexico’s poorest. Food riots in Haiti last month forced a change in government. The Washington Post documented the malnutrition and starvation occurring now in Mauritania, one of many poor countries with this problem. In Egypt, ten people died recently in fights in bread lines. The Philippines, which imports much of the rice it needs to feed its burgeoning population, is finding the supply of foreign rice scarce. What rice is available is far more expensive and unaffordable to many. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the rising price of food a global crisis.

What is driving up the cost of food? As you may know, there are two primary factors. One is that more of the world is becoming industrialized. With more money in their pockets, these newly emboldened consumers are consuming more food. Principally they are eating a lot more meat. In addition, rising oil prices are “fueling” the growth of renewable energy sources like ethanol. Biofuels that come from food sources mean that there is less food on the market to be consumed, which is contributes to the fast rising price of food. If these factors were not enough, rising oil prices are also contributing to the increased cost of growing food. It costs more for the gasoline to till the soil, plant and harvest crops. It also costs more to transport crops to market.

There may have been times in our past when food prices were this high, but I cannot recall them. In my memory, American farms have always produced far more food than could be consumed. Billions of metric tons are still shipped overseas to feed a growing world. The U.S. remains the world’s biggest food exporter, but that is changing. Now, with 6.5 billion humans across the world to feed even our surplus is not quite enough. Moreover, world demand for petroleum seems unstoppable. It appears that the world is in for a turbulent and hungry period, with hundreds of millions if not billions of people at risk of malnutrition or starvation.

I know that I will survive largely unaffected. I have the income to weather any food or energy crisis. Yet, my lifestyle also has the indirect effect of causing other people to go hungry. When I fill my gas tank with 5% ethanol, I am encouraging this industry. If people are going hungry, I would rather pay higher prices for gas without ethanol in it. I would prefer to divert these crops into food for consumption by my fellow human beings. If we are going to make the choice to use renewable fuels, then we must make sure these crops go to feed hungry people first. I have no problem with using open space that is currently not being farmed to grow non-food crops like switchgrass that can be made into renewal fuels. However, the lives of hungry people must first. If we need to expand food production in order to keep people from starving, we should choose this over cultivating crops for biofuels.

In addition, we in the developed world need to rethink our addiction to meat. I mentioned in an earlier post that vegetarianism is good for the planet. It is not only good for the planet; it is good for anyone who values human lives. The majority of corn and soy grown in our country goes not to feed humans, but animals, who we then slaughter for their meat. According to this New York Times story, it takes two to five times as much grain calories to fatten livestock for slaughter compared to humans consuming the grain directly. In the case of cattle on feedlots, the ratio goes as high as ten to one. While we need protein to survive, Americans typically consume about twice as much protein as they need. The protein we do need can just as easily come from plant sources as from meats. Despite high grain prices, grains are much cheaper per calorie than meat.

I do not plan to give up meat altogether, but I do feel the ethical imperative to start consuming less meat. My steaks, which are already rare treats, will be fewer and smaller. I plan to go without meat one day a week for a start, and then see if I can make it two days a week. Perhaps I can take some wisdom from my daughter, who eats comparatively little meat, but consumes plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There is ample protein in peanut butter, and it is loaded with the good kinds of unsaturated fats, not the bad ones. If I feel the need to consume an animal product, an egg or a slice of cheese is a better ethical choice.

Now I am more aware that by driving down the demand for meat, I am helping animals of all species. However, most importantly I am helping my fellow human beings survive. It is not much, but it is a start.

Some pragmatic ways you can help save the planet

It is one thing to say you are pro-environmental. It is another to change your life to minimize your impact on the planet. It is especially hard today because modern living tacitly requires you to be anti-environmental.

For example, most of us recognize that the cars we drive are major contributors to the global warming as well as foul the air. As a practical matter, we cannot give up our cars because to do so life becomes incredibly inconvenient. To give up a car you generally need to live in the city where the cost of living is typically higher. Even if you can settle in the city and live carless, lugging your groceries weekly by bus, often from supermarkets far away from where you live, gets tiresome rather quickly.

So of course, we tend toward pragmatism, which often means our environmental actions are half hearted. Nonetheless, short of living on a street corner there are things that you can do that will dramatically reduce your environmental impact. Here are some choices to ponder. I will broadly group these into long term, medium term, and short term.

On the macro level, the two biggest things you can do are to have fewer children and to become a vegetarian. By having fewer children, I mean you should strive to do what they do in China: have one child, not two or three. The planet needs fewer people. The maximum the planet can sustain and live comfortably with nature is about a billion humans. My wife and I made a choice to have just one child. I confess our reasons were only partially environmental. They were also selfish. One child is easier to manage than two. Whereas providing a college education for two children would be challenging, providing it for one is much easier. Family life in general is simpler in smaller families because there are fewer people who need care.

There is no question that vegetarianism is great for the planet. It is also very good for your health and longevity. I confess that I am not a vegetarian, however neither am I a rabid meat eater. I eat red meat rather infrequently and the meat I do consume tends to be 70% or more chicken. My friend Wendy is anxious to induct me into what she refers to as “The Church of Vegetarianism”. I suspect in my case a full conversion would require divorce, which in itself would not necessarily help the environment since two people living together is the more environmentally benign. Nonetheless, in part thanks to Wendy, I am more mindful of the meat that I do eat.

Morningstar Farms, for example, is getting much better at creating vegetarian products for those used to meat. While they do not quite taste like meat, they are an acceptable substitute. Their Grillers imitation hamburgers, for example, are at least 50% of the way toward tasting like meat and have a similar texture. Particularly when I do not want to fuss with dinner and I am eating alone, a veggie burger makes for a reasonably tasty entrée. It takes huge amounts of plant food to fatten any animal so you can consume it. To say the least it is an inefficient process. Most farm animals also generate huge amounts of animal waste. Vegetarians will also rightly point out that there is no humane way to slaughter an animal.

In the medium term, we need to factor the environment into all our choices. Understandably, many people would not choose to live in the city if they have a choice. However, living in cities tends to be a good way for humans to minimally impact the environment. Living in denser communities means that there is less reason to develop new tracts of land. This leaves more open space for the many species that are already threatened by our population growth. If you can live in a city without a car, you are making perhaps the most significant contribution possible toward reducing your impact on the planet in a first world country.

Perhaps the most useful thing we can do as citizens is to relentlessly petition our legislators to vote for the environment. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, allows you to rate your legislators on how “green” they are. Grinning Planet maintains a site with links to organizations that keep environmental scorecards at the state level. If you are having problems determining the true environmentalist candidates from the faux environmentalists, many such organizations provide endorsements. Besides voting and lobbying your representatives to pass greener legislation, if you have extra time and or money these organizations also need your help.

Other things you can do: get permission to work from home one or more days a week. That takes one commuter off the roads and lets you sleep in later. When commuting, take public transportation if possible. If you happen to live close enough to work where driving is optional, do what I do and bike to work when the weather is seasonable. Likely, you need more exercise anyhow.

When choosing jobs, prefer jobs that are easily accessible to public transportation. Often commuting using public transportation is not practical. Consider a carpool or vanpool instead. I spent most of my career working in and around Washington D.C. while commuting from the suburbs. I took the Metro for a number of years. Mostly I commuted by carpool or by vanpool. Not only did I save time and money, but also my employer was generous enough to subsidize my vanpool expenses.

If you own your own home, there are many things that you can do. You can be environmentally friendly and save energy with new energy efficient windows or better insulation while reaping nice tax credits. Last year we replaced our windows and earned a $200 tax credit. Solar energy may seem so seventies, but tax credits are available if you install either solar panels or solar water heating, and it is unlikely your homeowner’s association can prohibit your from doing so. Many of these things are not just good for the environment, but good for your wallet. Another simple way to be kinder to the environment and your wallet is to install a programmable thermostat. Why heat or cool your house when you will not be there? In our house, we are aggressive in our use of ceiling fans. This allows us to keep the thermostat a bit higher in the summer without noticing the higher room temperature. While many people loathe heat pumps, in moderate climates they tend to be the most efficient way to heat or cool your home. A heat pump that extracts heat from your soil is better and more efficient than one that pulls it from the air. Of course, choose natural fertilizers and weed control techniques when possible. If your lawn is not too large, an electric mower is much more environmentally benign than a gas mower.

If you have not tried some short-term strategies, here are a few obvious ones. Replace your incandescent and halogen lamps with compact fluorescent lights. LED (light emitting diode) lights are even more energy efficient, but are just coming on to the market. Whenever you replace an appliance, look for the most energy efficient appliance. For example, front loading washers and dryers are more energy efficient than top loading models.

Consider buying used, even if you can afford new. Thrift stores have an unearned bad reputation. By buying used clothes there, you are being good to the environment. Of course where possible recycle and donate items you no longer use. It is particularly important to keep electronic items out of landfills. If you look for them, you can find places in your community that will recycle these items, often for a fee.

Perhaps the best way to help the planet is just to be environmentally mindful every day. In addition to trying to persuade your legislators to vote green, word of mouth can be often useful too. Make sure your friends and neighbors know about your environmental leanings and encourage (but don’t nag) them toward making better environmental choices.

Americans have been adept at ignoring the interdependent web of life. That time has passed. The effects of our reckless selfishness are now very clear. Like it or not, any action you take has a reaction. I hope you will join me and millions of others by making your actions better for the environment. In doing so, you are truly giving the gift of life.