Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What does an environmentalist look like?

Gene Pool, New York City's "Can Man." He also has an outfit of plastic bottles and cutlery. His fashion mission is to make us aware of our wasteful way of living.

A couple of weeks ago at the Farmers Market I walked by a leafleteer. I don’t know what group, but the heading said something like, “You can’t eat meat and be an environmentalist.”

I didn’t take one, so I don’t know the context, but it did get me thinking. My first thought was, gee, Wendell Berry isn’t an environmentalist? Or Barbara Kingsolver?

Subsistence hunters and fishers can’t be environmentalists? Tibetans herders living above the tree line can’t be environmentalists? Surely their carbon footprint is a whole lot smaller than mine no matter how much more meat they eat.

Is environmentalism about a particular set of “don’ts,” or about our use of resources? If I get my protein from a giant soybean farm, is that more environmentally responsible than getting it from a calf I raised in the back pasture, whose manure nourished our garden and whose mama gave milk for our family and friends? Well, ok, I don’t do that anymore, and homesteading is not an option for most people, but what about the grass-fed beef I pay extra for once every month or two?

For me those aren’t rhetorical questions. And maybe the leafleteer is right. I just read a piece in Discover Magazine that surely falls into the “no good deed goes unpunished” category. It turns out that grass-fed cattle (and, I suppose, bison) emit more methane per belch than their feedlot counterparts. Cows and other cud chewers belch a lot, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so this is not just a random factoid. Evidently the reason is that grass has more fiber than grain and the other less savory stuff that goes into feedlot mixtures, so the digestive process produces more gas.

But wait! Scientists have come up with a solution. You guessed it; they found a way to genetically modify grass to make it more digestible to bovine stomachs. Stay tuned, no doubt, for a later issue of Discover, where we will find out the unintended consequences of that bit of tinkering.

I’m assuming, perhaps mistakenly, that the leafleteer was promoting veganism. If you are a less restrictive vegetarian, presumably you have to come to terms with the idea that meat eating is an intrinsic link in the chain that brings us eggs and dairy products, and wool for that matter. Those chickens, no matter how happy their free-range lives, will eventually get too old to lay. Cows and goats need to give birth to produce milk, and something has to be done with those calves and kids eventually. There could be a lot less of it, it could be produced much more responsibly, the animals could be treated as fellow beings instead of pricing units, but there still will be chicken stew, ground beef, and mutton somewhere along the line. The individual choices of millions of vegetarians can help push these practices in a healthier direction, but only a complete avoidance of animal products would make them go away.

So then I wonder what the theorists behind that pamphlet have planned for the Northwest Washington acreage now devoted to dairy, for example, and what surprises the law of unintended consequences would have for us if we followed our environmentalism to that particular logical conclusion.

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