I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. But this year, I am stepping out of my long-held resolution hiatus and finding the courage to end a relationship that hasn’t served me for a while – my deep attachment to red meat.
I’m not going to lie, I love red meat (and beef in particular). For years, my family and friends have celebrated special occasions at steakhouses, and my summer barbecue menus were centered around the delicious simplicity of a perfectly cooked burger on the grill. But this year, all of that changes. I am breaking up with red meat for good and embracing change. And, oddly, I have never been so resolute in ending a relationship – even one so passionate. Yes, we have such a long history and I know my family isn’t ready to say goodbye, but my children’s future and the future of our planet is far more valuable than this juicy love affair.
I think the reaction of my social circle will be split right down the middle. Many of my colleagues will wonder what in the world took me so long, while my friends and relatives will dismiss it as a short-term break and anticipate that this will quickly fade away like other New Year’s resolutions.
But 2020 will be different, because last year was different. As someone who works daily on climate change solutions, I’ve known we’ve needed to act, but I can no longer deny that we are facing a dire climate emergency. So many species, including our own, are at risk of extinction. Embarrassingly, it should not have taken me so long, and like many toxic relationships, I lingered far too long in denial and avoidance.
I owe my recent epiphany to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and their relentless roll out of alarming reports chock-full of undeniable science alerting us to the now-imminent and catastrophic future that awaits us if we don’t make drastic changes immediately to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The fires raging now in Australia driven by drought and heat are just one more ominous sign of the IPCC’s science-based prophesy. And while I am but one person, and we desperately need comprehensive climate change policy in this country, I can no longer be complicit in our rapid march towards existential disaster.
So why am I picking red meat? Emissions from all global livestock production are believed to represent only about 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The remainder and vast majority come almost entirely from burning fossil fuels to transport people and goods, heat and cool buildings (commercial and residential), and operate factories. Why not focus on those other sources, particularly when it feels un-American to forego your right to a flame-charred T-bone? Like most things, it’s far more complicated than it may seem on the surface, and for me, it’s a two-part answer.
So, let’s start with the science. According to the United Nations, cattle production is responsible for a majority of those livestock emissions (about 65 percent of total livestock-related emissions), while pig production and chicken and egg production are responsible for about 9 and 8 percent, respectively.
Cattle lead this tally for multiple reasons. When many people think about cows and climate change, our 7th grade brains re-emerge, and we impulsively giggle about cow farts . While it is true that cows do release methane (a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide) through their ruminant digestion processes (and much more methane is released though belching than by flatulence), this is only about part of the picture. Emissions also result from growing feed and clearing forests for livestock pasture that could have otherwise served as a carbon sink. Cattle require approximately 1.8 acres of wet pastureland annually in the Southeast —or dozens of acres per animal per year on arid rangelands in the West! And these numbers can increase depending on growing conditions and climate (steadily increasing heat and drought aren’t great conditions for growing grass). Cattle production is responsible for the conversion of huge expanses of forested or otherwise natural areas. Remember the devastating pictures of the Amazon burning this past summer? Those were cattle growers burning rainforest to clear the way for pastureland to feed an ever-growing world demand for red meat.
Beef consumption is growing far faster than the global human population. The average per capita meat consumption has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, and the United Nations predicts that beef consumption will increase by 69 percent by mid-century. If these predictions hold true, emissions from agriculture alone “could eat through the majority of our emissions budget for keeping global warming below 2°Celsius–the point at which climate-change effects would create wide-scale devastation” according to the World Resources Institute.
So now comes the social piece. You may still be wondering why I am choosing to make such a big deal over this one small sacrifice given all of the other sources of greenhouse gas emissions and the billions of people I have no control or influence over. The whole situation appears pretty bleak and hopeless. And you’re right it is, and I often want to throw up my hands and bury my head back in the sand. Yet for me it all comes down to my desperate need for hope and Lao Tzu’s wisdom that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
And you may also be wondering why I’m not giving up all meat? The reason there has to do with what I have learned about goal setting and the importance of taking incremental steps and the model I want to be for my family and friends. I think we are all personally familiar with the intention-action gap. When we say we are going to make a drastic change, and quickly fall back to old patterns and habits. Behavioral scientists tell us goals are best achieved when they are broken down into doable sub-goals. These incremental successes drive a sense of attainability and helps shrink that gap. Hopefully my friends will see how easy this break up truly was and how happy I am with my decision. And it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that if all Americans just started with small changes like giving up beef, it would result in a real and measurable change that should not be discounted.
So however futile it may seem, I can no longer recklessly and negligently sit and watch my children’s future disappear. What seems even more pointless for me is to sit alongside my children each day, helping them with their homework under the false pretense that they will have the same opportunities I did for a stable career and family under the status quo. Indeed, it is in these quiet, mundane moments when I am most acutely aware of what is at stake. We need to wake up and embrace a new paradigm. One that prioritizes what matters and rightly puts our children’s future over a momentary hankering for a burger.
While this may just be my first small step, it represents so much more, and I will be making many more changes in the next 12 months. I am committing to doing my part to protect my planet, the wildlife we share it with, and future generations. It’s a new decade, and I am choosing action and hope, to combat the solitary and futile feelings of dealing with a massive emergency like global climate change. Join me in making a climate change-mitigating resolution.