Lately we've been talking a lot about supply chains, about food, and about the collision course we're on with the ceiling of our food production on the planet. I'd like to expand on this subject a bit by talking about our relationship with consumption in order to clarify what exactly it means to be, well, a person living in these times.
Consumption in this context (in most contexts, really) refers to the using up of a resource. In particular, we're talking food, water, energy, and to a lesser extent, our carbon budget. And before you click away, this newsletter is not meant to blame you for eating what you eat or driving what you drive. It's meant only to shine a light on some of the wrongheaded things we do. In order to do so, we're going to take a somewhat-close look at a particular sector of American consumption, in order to put our position into relief.
A couple million years ago, give or take, the American Midwest, South-Midwest, and Lonesome Crowded West started depositing materials that would form enormous underground aquifers–stores of subterranean fresh water. These aquifers were discovered in the late 1800s, and came to be extremely useful to farmers and ranchers in the area once they were able to access it. These aquifers filled with water over millennia, and they do not get restored by a single rainy season. Despite that, our usage of these aquifers has nearly drained them dry in under two hundred years. This is sounding a little familiar, right?
In the Texas Panhandle, most cattle are bound, eventually if not immediately, for feedlots before they are processed in a large-scale facility. If you've never been in this region, the experience of driving past a feedlot can be a troubling one. A feedlot is meant to maximize weight put on by cattle and minimize cost and movement. In order to do that, they are crammed in bare dirt pens and fed hay and various grains. They do not graze, as there is little grass to be had in the region and, again, none in the feedlot. Most lots are "small," at around 1,000 head, while some of the largest hold well over 100,000 animals.
I worked in this area, briefly, at a processing plant where these cattle were eventually slaughtered. I drove past a couple feedlots on my way to work every day. The cattle are extremely crowded, the stench is overpowering, and depending on the weather conditions, a miasma of gases can literally flow across the landscape. As you can imagine, the waste produced by these animals is problematic. It can pollute both the area groundwater as well as the very air. These cattle, once ready for slaughter, are shipped out in great caravans of tractor-trailers, dumped at a processing plant like mine, where they are slaughtered and butchered in a factory setting.
Everything about this process is extremely resource-intensive. The above linked article states that a typical feedlot can use up millions of gallons of water in a single day. Working at my plant, I saw beef bound for markets across the country and beyond. The beef and dairy industry alone accounts for over 7% of anthropogenic CO2 output. That is one species, raised for our consumption, accounting for nearly 1/10th of our entire carbon emissions annually.
For the Panhandle, raising beef is a way of life, and one of the main employers in the region. But this way of life, like many across the globe, is fast becoming incompatible with the realities of climate change and dwindling resources. As the aquifers drain, farmers and ranchers must dig deeper and deeper wells, and what was once a resource available to everyone becomes one hoarded by a few. As the planet heats up, pressures on this area (let alone the greater Southwest and Plains region) will mount, and this way of life will be harder and harder to continue. Eventually it will come to either people, or the cattle, going without. And since the people aren't being sold for billions of dollars, I kinda think I know where this is going.
Currently, not only is a quarter of our arable land used to graze animals, but a full third of farmland is used to feed them–and most of that, probably, being animals stuffed into feedlots and not allowed to graze. So what we have, briefly, in the meat industry is a for-extreme-profit model that is hogging land, water, and crops to cram animals into inhumane conditions so that they can be slaughtered for human consumption. As noted in the link above, as quality of life improves in other corners of the world, so too does demand for meat. While we emphatically do not have the resources to give the world the kind of living most Americans enjoy, the market is going to see that demand and attempt to supply it. Which means the industry's share of these resources is increasing, too.
Several weeks ago, we talked about the energy cost inherent in certain products, such as meat. This cost is not what we've run our economy on–we've managed, through wheeling, and stealing, to "put off" paying those energy costs. That bill is coming due, though, in the form of climate change and increasingly scarce resources. The energy cost of beef is extremely high for very little caloric payoff, as it stands in the industry.
But, as with all things under capitalism, there is a better way. And though I will suggest these actions as ones that we can take individually, I don't do so as a means of resolving the issue, or pinning that resolution on us–this is a means of building resilience. We can't vegan our way out of this as individuals.
Local, Less, L-eat More Efficiently
The solutions, insofar as they are solutions, to resource scarcity and overconsumption when it comes to meat are not new ideas.
- Find locally-sourced food–of all kinds, not just meat–so that the energy cost inherent in the transportation of these products is diminished (and so that a resource near to you is strengthened by your consumption).
- Be eco-friendly when thinking about how these animals were raised: are they free-range, grass-fed, or penned up? I'm not here to moralize at you about this, and I know the cost of these products rises quickly with their kindness to animals, but the environmental impacts scale with them; an animal that grazes is not being fed corn shipped from 500 miles away that was grown by Big Ag using pesticides that get into the water system that turn the frickin' frogs dead. It matters.
- Eat less meat. I don't mean none, though that is an option for some of us. Just less. There are plenty of cheap sources of protein out there–you might have heard me mention beans once or twice. But, again, I want to be emphatic here: some of us cannot do this for reasons well beyond our control, and that does not make you guilty of propping up the system or sinking the ship. If meat, its availability, and its relative cheapness are what's between you and hunger? Eat. You're more important to us alive and healthy than hungry for the cause.
- Eat more efficiently. I picked on beef in this letter because it is the most egregious culprit on all fronts. Cows need the most water, the most food, and they produce the most waste. The energy cost of a pound of beef is over twice what it is for a pound of pork. It's nearly ten times the cost of a pound of chicken.
- Finally, and most importantly, these solutions scale. In fact, they matter far more at scale than they do at the individual level. Last week we talked about dual power, and that, really, is what I'm talking about when I'm talking solutions to consumption. Most of your local mutual aid organizations are already doing this work in this way–simply because it makes far more sense to get donated goods from a local restaurant than it does to go to Burger King. Local produce is found at farmers markets, etc., so that most of these supply chains are relatively short. If these organizations are also choosing fewer meat dishes, more responsible meat dishes, and more ethically-raised meat? They're making a big difference for their community and doing so in a sustainable way.
So while these are fixes that we can do ourselves, or in our homes, they are also principles that we can apply to larger endeavors. We can begin, as belts and pursestrings tighten, to build a system that values life on this planet more than it does money. As we do so, we create a way of life that conveniently allows for our continued existence despite, it might seem, the efforts of those who govern us.