Monday, January 11, 2010

Eating cows is not bad for the environment

A good friend and I recently had a discussion about the environment. We talked about the 100-mile diet, and the environmental impact of eating beef versus chicken or vegetables. I generally agreed with what he was saying, until he said something like, "raising cows to eat is terrible for the environment".

Now, I suspect I agree with the spirit of what he means. But I have an issue with how he's saying it. What does it mean for something to be terrible for the environment? I claim that the word "terrible", in this unqualified context, is subjective. Kind of like saying "Christianity is terrible for Canada".

Let me continue with a different example, taken from a similar debate I had with another friend years earlier. He said, "Sugar is bad for you." What does he mean by that? One interpretation is,
Compared to the host of other food choices we're blessed with, food containing refined sugar tends to have a higher glycemic index.

I expect that's along the lines of what he meant. But another interpretation is,
If given the choice to eat sugar or nothing at all, you will live longer if you eat nothing.

That, by the way, is false; sugar will save your life if you are severely energy starved.

My objection in this example is to the unqualified use of the word "bad". Last I checked, nature doesn't label things as good or bad. It's not written on their atoms. Consider a lion killing a zebra. Is that good or bad? Well, I suppose it depends on your perspective; it sucks for the zebra, and rocks for the lion. But outside of those perspectives, it's neither. Things just ARE.

If you want to use the word "bad", you have to qualify it with a purpose. That is, the lion killing the zebra is bad for the purpose of the zebra's survival. And it's good for the purpose of nourishing the lion's pride (social unit).

Getting back to "raising cows to eat is terrible for the environment". Again, the use of "terrible" should be qualified with a purpose. For example,
Raising cows to eat is terrible for the purpose of water conservation.

... terrible for the purpose of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

This takes the statement from a subjective judgement, to the realm of a specific and quantifiable claim.

OK, I can understand that some shortcuts are allowed for the sake of conversational economy; you might lose someone's interest if you take these technicalities too far. But for something as complex as the environment, how one factor impacts the big picture is anyone's guess. For those cases, a clear understanding of cause-effect is more useful than blanketing judgements. If nothing else, it cultivates an appreciation for how complex these issues really are.



  1. Thanks for writing about this Jeff. I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

    In response to your comment, I actually couldn't agree more.....

    "Raising cows to eat is terrible for the purpose of water conservation."

    "... terrible for the purpose of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions."

    Both of those examples are completely true.

    I think our difference in opinion appears to be around the term "environment" here. True, the environment is a hugely complex system. But as complex as it is, it relies on all parts to be an effective system. Being a closed system, if you affect one part of the system (either through contaminating/using up too much water or disrupting the natural cycles of atmospheric CO2 as in your examples) you affect the system as a whole. No water, no livable environment; no clean air to breathe, no livable environment.

    So, to split hairs, I don't think it's too much of a leap to say if it's bad for a part of the system, it's bad for the whole.

    So, if I may use your example of sugar, eating excessive sugar or having a high fat diet is not only bad for your weight, but also causes cancer, hardened arteries, can cause the whole system to shut down.

  2. I realize I completely forgot to respond to the "eating beef is bad for the environmenet."

    I don't think I used those exact words, and if I did, they were in error. What I believe I said was that eating too much beef (and I don't have the answer to how much "too much is") is bad for the environment. ;)

  3. Fair enough... I don't recall your exact statement either.

    I guess my take-home point is that there is no intrinsic good or bad. When one uses a word like "good", "bad", "terrible", or "wonderful", they should qualify it with a specific purpose (ie. something that could, in principle, be measured). At least, that's my understanding of the scientific outlook.

    Of course, that doesn't make the statement right. Indeed, it becomes harder to make accurate statements when you're held to this kind of standard.