Saving the World — The Right Way

Well meaning people have been championing against meat consumption using the argument that livestock is a major contributor to greenhouse gases (GHG). A key support for this argument, if you follow the trail of papers and references, is a United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) paper from 2006. It claimed that 18% of greenhouse gas emissions were the result of livestock. In 2009, the Worldwatch Institute asserted that 51% of global GHG emissions came livestock.

Then the FAO retracted their findings in 2010.

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The FAO was measuring the entire lifecycle of the livestock, from converting land to pastures to the animals themselves. When they looked at transportation, they only looked at exhaust from cars, trucks, trains and planes. They didn’t count the lifecycle of the vehicle, like manufacturing materials and parts, or constructing bridges and airports. In 2016, the EPA said animal agriculture counted for only 3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. By 2017, the National Academy of Sciences showed that if the United States eliminated all animal protein from its diet, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6%.

Finally, according to the FAO’s statistical database, total direct greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. livestock have declined 11.3 percent since 1961, while production of livestock meat has more than doubled.

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So, if livestock are not a major contributor to climate change, does it affect the strength of those well meaning people’s convictions? Maybe not. In a lot of cases, those people would turn to another argument to support their conviction. After all, a solid conviction shouldn’t rest on a single study or correlation, right?

One such argument is that livestock are turning grasslands into deserts. A counter argument to that point is Allan Savory’s work in reversing desertification. He argues that by increasing these herds’ sizes, and allowing them to graze and move as they used to, before domestication, we can restore balance to the ecosystem.

Both of these points, meat consumption and livestock management, have one thing in common. They are viewpoints into a larger systemic problem that won’t be easy to resolve. Humanity’s relationship with domesticated animals is a massively complex conundrum wrapped in fifteen layers of enigma. The kind of problem that has no easy answers, no glib solutions, no clear way to reach a resolution.

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Photo by Camille / Kmile on Unsplash

If you are strongly against meat consumption, the FAO’s retraction probably triggered a feeling of disbelief and anger. The opposite would be true for someone who was pro-meat consumption.

And that’s where we, as individuals, run into the problem of saving the world, the ‘right’ way.

How do we do it? Do we eat meat from larger herds that can push back desertification? Do we skip meat and make a tiny dent in the overall greenhouse emissions? How can we be sure we are doing the right thing?

The answer is that we can’t. We can’t be sure. All we can be sure of is that the world will continue to provide us with more information, if we go looking for it. And that we have to be willing to throw aside our current convictions in the face of new data. If all you wanted to do was support your convictions, the echo chamber of internet will be happy to oblige. You can run a query on any search engine and be comforted by the fact that you found the ‘right’ way.

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Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

The horrible truth is that there is no ‘right’ way. There never was. There are simply ways that seem right, given the information at hand. Rather than tying yourself up in knots, try to find a way that works for you, given what you know now. A stance that you feel comfortable with, but one you will gladly abandon given sufficient proof.

To paraphrase Stanford University professor Paul Saffo, you want to have strong convictions that are weakly held.

One thing that has gotten our species this far is cooperation. We worked together to hunt the mammoth. We worked together to create language and history and mythology and art. We worked together to create the steam engine and the airplane and the microprocessor. We solved the problems of the past together, and we will have to work together to solve them in the present.

In the end, we are all going to get to the future. That is inevitable. Fighting each other over strongly held convictions will ensure that when we get there, we will be broken, bloody, and impossibly alone.

Update 5/28:
Turns out making medicine is worse for the environment than making cars (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618336084?via%3Dihub)

Update 6/10:
Also, organic farming is just a fancy way to shoving more plastic into landfills (https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/06/07/729783773/organic-farming-has-a-plastic-problem-one-solution-is-controversial)

Update 8/9:
Just in case you thought the alternate meat, like Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods, were the ‘right’ way (https://phys.org/news/2019-08-vegan-food-sustainability-full-picture.html)

if i’m not optimizing some operations puzzle or the other, i’m probably reading (or writing, apparently)

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