Burger or Your Car? Human Addiction and Global Sustainability
Which addiction will be easier for us to give
up, meat or petroleum? This question, asked at a meeting in San
Francisco earlier this year defies easy answers. Yet it remains highly
relevant, not least due to the findings of a recent book by the Union
of Concerned Scientists. In the Consumers Guide to Effective Environmental
Choices (see Satya, September 1999), driving cars, mini-vans and gas-guzzling
sport utility vehicles (SUVs), along with eating red meat, are ranked
the two most damaging things consumers can do to the environment. Given
this sobering analysis, which of these addictions will we as individuals
and as a species give up first? Addiction, a strong word,
does seem to be the right one to use, given how little we are able to
rein in these desires. Those who are addicted, according
to my dictionary, are slaves to a habit or vice.
So, how might these addictions end, one or the other
or both? As part of the social struggle for environmental sustainability,
or as millions of individual epiphanies? And howby free will or
necessity? Will the supply of fossil fuels just dry up, or will the
economic and environmental costs of beef production get so high that
it will be untenable? Or will people end either or both addictions,
not because they have to, but because they want to? What happens in
an increasingly globalized world as American and European corporations
and governments seek new markets for beef and petroleum products, creating
new addicts across the planet? Firm answers are elusive, but a review
of global and U.S. data, an analysis of trends, and a poll
of several thoughtful individuals reveal a set of arresting facts, insights
When faced with the decision between petroleum and meat, it
was a no brainer, says cattle rancher turned vegan Howard Lyman,
author of Mad Cowboy. Quitting meat allowed me up to 15 years
longer [of] healthy life. For a person who travels 100,000 miles a year
I knew I could not afford that many shoes. The data seem to reflect,
in part, Lymans experience. According to Vital Signs 1999, the
Worldwatch Institutes annual compendium of data on trends shaping
the planets future, meat production and use of fossil fuels is
still growing, but the pace is slowing. Indeed, beef output remained
nearly the same in 1998 as in 1997, at 54 million tons, while global
meat production (including red and white meat)
grew slightly, to 16.5 pounds from 16.4 pounds per person. Still, the
increase since 1950 is vasta quintupling of beef production and
Future trends identified by the Worldwatch Institute
suggest that beef addicts may well be forced into rehab, if not by choice
then by natural limits. Rangelands are being pushed to or beyond their
ecological limits, meaning that more and more beef production is forced
to move to feedlots. As a result, Argentinas cattle herd in 1998
was the smallest in 25 years and Russia is undertaking a herd
liquidation. The international beef trade is down, due to the
economic difficulties of South Korea and Russiaboth major beef
The environmental costs of beef, though effectively
hidden from consumers, are sky high. To produce one pound of beef on
a feedlot, Worldwatch says, requires seven pounds of grain, which takes
7,000 pounds (3.5 tons) of water to grow. The water used to deliver
one hamburger to one plate equals the water used in 40 showers with
a low-flow nozzle. The wastemostly untreatedspewed by animals
confined in massive factory farms also astonishes. Livestock in the
U.S. now create 130 times as much waste as humans do, and just one hog
farm in Utah produces more sewage than all of Los Angeles. Then, of
course, there are the risks of a meat-rich diet for human health, including
cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer and obesity.
Despite these hard realities, and ecological limits,
Jim Mason, author of An Unnatural Order, believes that human beings
will find a way to shoehorn more cows into a crowded planet. Folks
will more easily give up petroleum than meat, he says. Meat
addiction is far older and more deeply ingrained.
There are additional forces working overtime to promote
a beef addiction, and to make it a global phenomenon. In 1998, global
spending on advertising, according to Vital Signs, grew to a historic
$413 billion, and is growing 33 percent faster than the global economy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, McDonalds is one of the top 10 global
advertisers. In 1997 alone, it opened five new restaurants a day and
now accounts for 60 percent of fast food sales around the world. The
negative consequences of the massive global marketing of diets high
in fat and cholesterol are not hard to find: more animals confined in
factory farms and more toxic run-off into rivers and oceans. In developing
countries, there is increasing incidence of obesity, hypertension and
coronary heart disease in urban areas, where fast food is common.
If a proposed international treaty on investment is
ratified, either in whole or in part (see Satya, November, 1999), countries
that might restrict beef or petroleum consumption on health or environmental
grounds could be sued by corporations for lost sales. Even now, the
U.S. is waging a trade war against the European Union for banning imports
of hormone-treated American beef on health grounds. What might the future
Fossil fuels: bottoming out or just heating up?
On fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), Vital Signs provides a complex
picture. Growth in their use fell in 1998 to the lowest levels seen
since the early 1990s, with coal use dropping 2.5 percent (mostly due
to cutbacks in China) and oil use rising only .8 percent over 1997 levels.
However, there are also worrying trends. European and North American
economies continue to increase their use of oil, especially the U.S.
where, as Worldwatch researchers write, ever-larger SUVs are driving
gasoline use up. Indeed, Americans use 150 billion gallons of
gasoline a year, which produce a colossal 3.3 trillion pounds of carbon
dioxide. Even though emissions into the atmosphere may be harder to
see and feel than a mound of trash, the mass of this CO2 is enormouseight
times larger than the waste generated each year by U.S. municipalities.
The U.S. is now home to at least 200 million carsthree quarters
of a car for every American man, woman, and child, from infant to nonegarian.
As a result of so many cars and so much driving, Houston has surpassed
Los Angeles as the U.S. city with the most polluted air. The U.S. still
leads the world in production of the greenhouse gases most responsible
for ozone depletion and a warming planet, and child asthma rates are
alarmingly high and rising in cities or parts of cities where dirty
air is commonplace.
A further worry: unlike meat, the uses humans find for
petroleum seem to have no limit. Petroleum is everywhere, to an
extent that most people arent even aware of, says Jennifer
Miller, development director for the environmental group Predator Conservation
Alliance (formerly Predator Project; see Satya, August 1999). As
much as meat is whats for dinner in the U.S. and part
of our food culture, she continues, mobility, independencethat
breezy, footloose-and-fancy-free lifestyle marketed on car commercialsis
an even bigger American myth. Giving up petroleum would require a radical
change in our culture.
Like beef, the production and consumption of fossil
fuels are heavily subsidized throughout the world, to the tune, estimates
suggest, of $145 billion. Perhaps not surprisingly, automobiles are
the most heavily marketed product on the planet (receiving 40 percent
of all ad dollars). According to the New York Times, a colossal $136.4
million worth was spent last year on the United States most advertised
automobile, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, an SUV. Ford Motor
Company is just launching one of the largest ad campaigns in the history
of the auto industry, to establish a common image for its
SUVs. General Motors, seeking a foothold in the largest consumer market
in the world, has brokered an agreement to produce 100,000 medium-sized
cars for sale in China, and may also build passenger vehicles that will
run only on highly polluting diesel fuel.
Air travel, which hit its highest level ever in 1998,
is also petroleum-intensive. Aviation accounts for at least five percent
of annual world oil consumption and air travel is the most polluting
form of human transport per kilometer traveled. A single DC 10-30 flight
from Los Angeles to Tokyo spews a whopping 266 tons of carbon dioxide
(a primary greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. That is 1.8 tons of
CO2 added to the atmosphere per passenger if 150 people are on board.
Cheap oil is also used to produce petroleum-based pesticides
and fertilizers and to fuel heavy farm equipment and long-distance transport
for beef products and vegetables alike. It is also essential for production
of computers and non-leather footwear. In most cases, either gas or
oil is used to produce the electricity that powers our appliances, air
conditioners and heaters. Viewed this way, our petroleum addiction shows
no signs of abating.
The counter for both addictions, says Davy Davidson, a vegan entrepreneur,
is access to alternatives. Whatever is supplied to people faster
that satisfies the same need as the addictive substance will be the
first transition. If meat analogues and flavor are supplied without
the meat and people perceive value, then they will begin a transition.
If solar and other fuel alternatives can replace petroleum and people
can continue the same basic habits, then this will make a quicker transition.
So, what is it going to be, your burger or your car?
The question has to be posed globally, as the American-invented consumer
lifestyle takes hold in more and more countries and as corporations
and other governments seeking new consumers increasingly challenge national
regulations on markets for goods and services. For Carol Adams, author
of The Sexual Politics of Meat, its a question that reinforces
the idea of an either/or worlda facet of human thinking
that has led us to the brink of global environmental catastrophe (Jobs
or the environment? People or animals? Nature or progress?). Adams recalls
that when she raised the issue of the environmental and ethical consequences
of seminaries serving meat at a recent conference, someone changed
the conversation immediately. This speaker said that she had heard that
the most important thing people could do for the environment is not
to forego meat but to bury their car in the backyard.
I thought that was interesting, Adams says.
The minute the group might have to deal with the issue of vegetarianism,
someone tries to trump it with the issue of cars. If our country stopped
subsidizing private travel and meat eating, maybe both of these addictions
would have to be dealt with as pocketbook and wallet issues, and people
would discover that they can live without these costly parts of their
The addictions are historically twinned, suggests Dave
Tilford of the Center for a New American Dream. In a recent article
in the Centers newsletter, he argues that cars and fast food hamburgers
evolved in what seems like a choreographed two-step. Beginning
in the late 1950s, he writes, when golden arches and oversized
red and white buckets began to proliferate across the landscape, they
did so along an ever expanding network of asphalt arteries. And,
in turn, as people drove more, they needed or wanted to stop en route
for a quick meal. With each new road/restaurant combo, life behind
the wheel became more convenient, Tilford writes, fast lanes
and fast food emerged together and now exist in a symbiotic relationship
that encourages the survival and expansion of both.
The effects are still with us, with cars and burgers
together still exerting an intense psychic pull, even as they exhort
an increasing toll on human health and the natural world. Perhaps, as
a result, the meat and petroleum addictions must be overcome together.
What if the question is not giving up meat or petroleum, as it was originally
asked, but kicking both meat and petroleum? I dont think
the question is which addiction will be easier to give up, Davidson
says, but rather which will be perceived as the most necessary
to give up for our individual and planetary survival.
The data are unequivocal: both addictions have to go
if the planet, with its growing human population, is to survive. One
major motivation for change may be a question of health as people become
more aware of how their meat-based diet affects their health, and learn
more about the connections being made between fuel emissions and respiratory
and heart diseases. But such data are based on the sum of a vast number
of individual actions and perceptions, in which it is often hard to
escape balancing one addiction against the other. Stacey Triplett, a
self-described lapsed rider of the Boston subway, explains: I
am sustaining vegetarianism since it is easy and the right thing to
do. When my car becomes inoperable, I will have the same choice.
An alternative scenario
Alternatives do exist, but the question remains whether they are
sufficient to quell peoples deep-seated desires for beef or petroleum.
Meat substitutes are increasingly making their way into
the mainstream. Solar and wind power industries are growing exponentially
around the world. Many cities and even regions are working to reduce
the primacy of the car, and the traffic jams and air pollution they
bring, through expanded and improved mass transit systems. The new Acela
train, soon to be operational between Boston and Washington, will be
considerably faster and smoother than the current Amtrak trains, and
will compete with cars and planes. In San Francisco, the NextBus
system is being tested as a way of increasing ridership on the citys
notoriously unreliable bus lines.
To Philip Goff, an urban planner and environmentalist,
the question is not which addiction can be kicked first, but where each
one plays outpersonally or in society at large. With meat,
personal addiction is easier to overcome, he explains,
but the inefficient land-use paradigm of the meat-based agricultural
system is an addiction that our economy will have far more
difficulty overcoming. Goff suggests that the addiction to petroleum
will be broken in the opposite directionfirst society will have
to change and individuals will follow. Due to the lack of transportation
alternatives, most people will continue their addiction to petroleum
until the price becomes so high that an automobile will become out of
reach for most working families and individuals.
That time certainly hasnt come yet. A strong economy,
low gas prices and ever-more ambitious and costly ad campaigns are driving
up car sales in the U.S. Car sales this past August rose significantly
over August 1998 levels, with SUVs the biggest sellers. Demand for SUVs
continues to outpace the auto industrys ability to make them.
One dealer, quoted recently in the New York Times, said that if Chrysler,
Plymouth or Jeep built an even larger SUV, like the Ford Expedition,
thered be another 30 or 40 sales [per month]man, wed
be eating caviar down here. And in heavily polluted Bangkok, where
daily commutes can take hours each way on roads already clogged with
traffic, car production before the Asian economic crisis could not keep
up with demand.
Which is it to be?
So its back to the question: meat or petroleum? Try asking
yourself which of the two human addictions you can or will give up.
And as you reflect, be realistic. If you really want to challenge yourself
and those around you, consider the question Carol Adams pushes us toward.
How do we go beyond either/or to arrive at the significant
and? In future years it is this question, of kicking meat
and petroleum addictions, that we as individuals and as a species must
askand find concrete ways to answer. So, what will your millennial