Two years ago, my wife and I were scheming for ways to eat healthier, and she challenged me to go vegetarian for a whole month. Pulling this off ended up being incredibly easy – other than, of course, the four times that month I caved and ate meat.
To be fair, I’m not the only one who struggles transitioning to a no-meat diet. Of the 320 million people in the US, only 7.3 million identify as vegetarian, and only 1 million of those are vegan. In fact, the average American eats more than 12 ounces of meat every single day – almost 50% more than the recommended daily amount. Despite all the benefits we know are associated with the vegetarian lifestyle, chicken nuggets and burgers are just damn hard to resist.
Growing up, I believed there were three motivations that caused people to cut meat from their palette – (1) taste preferences, (2) animal rights, and (3) health concerns – and at the very least, the last two strike me as reasons why we all probably should become vegetarian. It would arguably be more ethical, and unarguably more healthy. However, because liberty outweighs responsibility in this great nation of ours (see: the second amendment), we don’t have to. Not yet, anyway. But it won’t be that way for long.
You see, the argument for vegetarianism I find most compelling isn’t to prevent animal cruelty or to trim down my waist-line, but instead to opt-out of the supply and demand cycle for large-scale meat production. Honestly, me contributing to this dynamic at all is arguably immoral, not because eating beef is intrinsically wrong, but because of the horrible consequences that the macro-manufacturing of meat is having on our planet. Take, for instance, the following facts:
- We currently face a global water crisis – over 1.2 billion people today do not have access to clean drinking water.
- Nestle has estimated that if the whole world ate meat like Americans, global fresh water resources would be exhausted completely at a population level of 6 billion. However, the Earth’s population is currently 7 billion, and is expected to grow to 9 billion by the half-century.
- This population forecast prompted the UN to predict we need to increase food production by 70% by 2050.
- This is scary because animal agriculture, let’s just say, puts a decent strain on our planet’s resources:
- A single hamburger requires 660 gallons of water to produce – equivalent to two months of showering
- On a macro-scale, the meat and dairy industry uses 1/3 of the world’s fresh water, with that livestock already covering 45% of the Earth’s land
A calorie of meat requires ten times as much water as a calorie of crops, and so from just that perspective – not to mention the climate change, deforestation, or species-extinction issues – it seems obvious that we would be a lot better off removing animal products from our diet. I mean, looking out for the future of mankind seems like the more moral and practical thing to do, wouldn’t you agree?
Any number of superficial things prevent this from happening – low awareness of these environmental issues, lack of a compelling meat-alternative, etc. – but these can theoretically be overcome. The more challenging hurdle, though, is that not nearly enough people will care enough about these issues on their own to change their behavior. I’m guilty of this, for sure – I ate meat for lunch, and the next time I go to Chipotle, chicken is going in that bowl.
The reason I feel that way, and the one I view as the big obstacle we face, is the same one inherent in our elections: people feel their individual contributions have basically no influence on what ultimately happens. It’s a perfect case study of one of my commonly-cited theories: The Tragedy of the Commons, where:
- People feel their individual actions are insignificant, which helps them justify acting in their own self-interest – despite that being in direct opposition to the benefit of the larger community
- While they are right that each of those actions individually has no practical influence, their aggregate has a powerful effect
So, here’s the question: how do we change that self-interest? Developing a meat-substitute more appealing than tofu or tempeh might help, but would that really move the needle?
From the slums of Shaolin, Wu Tang Clan strikes again: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
In the short term, the move is probably for the government to stop subsidizing meat production, and instead start charging crazy taxes on anyone who wants to grill up a few sirloins. Make it so the 99%-ers can’t afford to buy meat. Basically, do the same thing to meat that was done with cigarettes, which now cost more than $14 a pack in New York City. This tax has contributed to a decline in smoking from 2005 (25%) to 2015 (15%), and I would imagine you’d see a similar trend line if you did the same thing to the price of meat, fish and poultry.
This move seems fairly practical, simple and realistic, so my guess is that (1) there are already truthers campaigning this very second to have this happen, and that (2) eventually food lobbyists will lose this fight and we see the price of McDoubles exceed twenty bucks. That seems pretty straightforward to me. Inevitable. What I think is more fun to consider, though, is the following unrealistic, impossible, totally never-going-to-happen-in-a-million-years premise:
What if, as an alternative to having you pay more to eat meat, the government paid you to not eat meat for a day? What about for a month? A year?
How much money would it take for you to never eat meat, of any kind, ever again?
Personally, if Chris Moneymaker offered that cash on the table I’d be all-in without hesitation, but my threshold is much lower. Ten grand doesn’t seem like enough – sushi is just too freaking delicious – but an untaxed $100k is definitely tempting. To me, at least.
Some people I’ve brought this up to would sign up for a much lower figure (I mean, vegetarians are already doing this for free! What suckers!). Some won’t even consider a number – they love meat too much to sell out for cash. Others point out how much this operation would cost, or how it’d be impossible to monitor whether people are keeping to their word or not, ruining the conversation. Feasibility is not the point.
What’s meat worth to you? $395,000? A million quid?