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January 2000
Your Burger or Your Car? Human Addiction and Global Sustainability

By Mia MacDonald


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 Consumer’s 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 how—by 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 and possibilities.

“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, Lyman’s experience. According to Vital Signs 1999, the Worldwatch Institute’s annual compendium of data on trends shaping the planet’s 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 vast—a quintupling of beef production and consumption.

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, Argentina’s 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 Russia—both major beef importers.

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 waste—mostly untreated—spewed 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, McDonald’s 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 hold?

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 enormous—eight times larger than the waste generated each year by U.S. municipalities. The U.S. is now home to at least 200 million cars—three 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 aren’t 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 ‘what’s for dinner’ in the U.S. and part of our food culture,” she continues, “mobility, independence—that breezy, footloose-and-fancy-free lifestyle marketed on car commercials—is 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, it’s a question that reinforces the idea of an “either/or” world—a 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 lives.”

The addictions are historically twinned, suggests Dave Tilford of the Center for a New American Dream. In a recent article in the Center’s 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 don’t 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 people’s 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 city’s 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 out—personally 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 direction—first 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 hasn’t 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 industry’s 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, “there’d be another 30 or 40 sales [per month]—man, we’d 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 it’s 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 ask—and find concrete ways to answer. So, what will your millennial resolution(s) be?


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