For today’s post, Stephen asked us to reflect on our consumptive habits and on how those habits demonstrate addictive tendencies. In an earlier post, I highlighted my recreation pursuits, especially skiing, as emblematic of both a personal and a structural/cultural addiction to oil. I also suggested a few constructive responses: bringing open space and recreation closer to the city, improving transportation options to the Wasatch Mountains, and learning to reuse and repair ski gear, rather than replacing it.
Today I’m focused on a different consumption pattern – eating meat, and the water footprint inherent in doing so. To begin, I did a Google image search for the phrase “American meal.” Here’s a screenshot of the results:
Clearly, our definition of “eating” means “eating meat,” and especially cow. Is this indicative of a structural addiction? Imagine, by comparison, if a search for “American beverage” returned nothing but pictures of beer, wine, and bourbon (it doesn’t) – if our definition of “drinking” meant “drinking alcohol.” It would be time for an intervention.
If Americans have a cultural addiction to meat – and it certainly seems that we do – then am I individually a meat addict? I want to come at this question by way of a personal side-story.
I ate mostly vegetarian for about two years, from 2008 to 2010, and entirely vegetarian for the second of those years. I quit eating meat not because of animal rights, but because of the high environmental costs of industrial meat production: the devastation to soil, plant, air, climate, and water resources.
During that time, I was an avid ski mountaineer. I climbed and skied off of Utah’s highest peaks. Here’s me catching a little air on the north face of Mount Superior:
I was training hard and burning calories like crazy. As long as I planned my diet carefully, I found that I could tromp around at 11,000 feet multiple times per week with as much strength and stamina as the rest of my meat-eating ski crew. Being a veggie was no big deal.
That all changed when I started graduate school in the fall of 2010. Suddenly, my energy level dropped. My thoughts seemed fuzzy. It took a full semester for me to wonder: do I need meat more for thinking than I do for exercising? I decided it was worth finding out, and reintroduced meat into my diet. My energy and clarity immediately improved.
I’ve been in graduate school ever since, moving straight from masters to PhD work in 2012, and I’ve also been been a consistent meat eater ever since. My body and brain seem to need it. Fair enough.
But, over time, I see that I have stopped considering my meat consumption in a critical way. I eat it regularly, not because I really feel the need, but because it tastes good, it’s readily available, it’s cheap, and it’s easy to cook. Over time, in other words, my definition of “eating” has shifted toward the American standard. Difficult though it is to admit, the habitual, addictive behavior is all too clear.
For me, this really strikes home on the issue of water. I’ve been researching progressive water policy and management for years, and have been helping advocates like the Utah Rivers Council protect and defend our water resources. I know full well that the embodied water footprint of meat is higher than any other food product – that in the arid western US, in particular, over 80% of our water goes to agriculture, and most of that to alfalfa for cows. I’m careful to conserve water at home, but the reality is that I could let the faucet run through dinner, put the hamburger down, and see a net conservation gain.
I do a lot to reduce the impact. I buy local, grass fed, free range. I’m learning to hunt. I can tell you now, I’m not going to quit the meat cold turkey (ha ha). But I also don’t want to be an addict. So it’s time to be more conscious, more careful, more discerning. It’s time to put my mouth where my research money is.
Wish me luck!