August 8, 2007

Do Not Walk


Well actually, the people in this newspaper article don't want you to do either. Apparently, they've studied the energy efficiency of food production and shown that there is more carbon emitted in creating the food your body needs to walk down the block than there is when you drive there. From what I've already heard about it, this seems right, especially when it comes to meat. I think that there is something like a 10 to 1 ratio of energy in to energy out when you are talking about beef. Plus there are all sorts of extras like shipping and refrigeration. So according to these folks, the best thing to do for the environment is simply to eat little and do nothing.

Food production is now so energy-intensive that more carbon is emitted providing a person with enough calories to walk to the shops than a car would emit over the same distance. The climate could benefit if people avoided exercise, ate less and became couch potatoes. Provided, of course, they remembered to switch off the TV rather than leaving it on standby.

The sums were done by Chris Goodall, campaigning author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, based on the greenhouse gases created by intensive beef production. “Driving a typical UK car for 3 miles [4.8km] adds about 0.9 kg [2lb] of CO2 to the atmosphere,” he said, a calculation based on the Government’s official fuel emission figures. “If you walked instead, it would use about 180 calories. You’d need about 100g of beef to replace those calories, resulting in 3.6kg of emissions, or four times as much as driving.

“The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better.”

This is stupid for several reasons. First of all, it assumes that people eat based on how much energy they are planning on using up in that day. Clearly this is not so. Most people eat too much as is, and getting slightly more exercise would not immediately alter how much they have for lunch that day.

Secondly, and more importantly, although food production is a huge carbon emitter, there is nothing significant that individuals can do about it. Changes of the magnitude required to have any impact have to come from the top down, not the bottom up. Getting everyone in your commune to use their NPR tote bags at the co-op won't do a thing. And unless there is some type of omnipresent emergency, people will not be inspired to miraculously start behaving in a better, but more inconvenient fashion.

But even if you did set out to personally reduce worldwide carbon emissions by a billionth of a fraction of one percent through lifestyle changes, you wouldn't accomplish anything by not consuming food that has already been made. It's like vegetarians -- it is fine if you just don't like meat or don't want to be personally involved in devouring animals, but if you think that the reduction in demand that you yourself create will save a single pig, you're wrong. The doritos are already on the shelf. At least, when it comes to gas, you can control how much carbon gets released over a certain period of time. After all, there is an amount of CO2 that may be reabsorbed every year. You can ration your own gasoline burning, but you can't stop supermarkets from cooking up those delicious space chickens. In short, you can't make a difference. If you want a clean conscience you can certainly follow all the wildly impractical suggestions in that article about avoiding supermarkets and only eating cereal, but don't expect it to matter, and don't expect other people to suddenly start subsisting entirely on beans and lentils that they grow in their backyard.


Valerie said...

I agree with most of what you are saying here, but there are those niggling little pieces that won't go away for me and that is this. First of all, it matters to the individual that they don't devour the animals. Secondly, it is the attitude that it won't make a difference that keeps everybody from not doing anything. Then, there is the memory of the 50's (okay, I'm ancient)of litter everywhere in the streets, until an effective education campaign about not littering made a huge impact, and voila, no more littering, or at least a whole lot less. People at that time said, one person putting their litter in the bin won't make a difference, but after a while, everybody started using the litter bins on the streets.