On meat, the environment, and data

This is huge. In his review of Simon Fairlie’s new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, British environmental journalist, climate campaigner and long-time vegan George Monbiot looks at the assumptions underlying the argument that eating meat is bad for the environment, and concludes with the author that many of them are false.

I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat…

[Current] idiocies [such as feeding grain to livestock], Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model.

Fairlie makes a bunch of points (or, as Monbiot says, “butchers a herd of sacred cows”):

  1. We’re using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. We should be looking not at the conversion rate of feed into meat, but on the amount of land required to grow meat, with the amount of land needed to grow plants of the same nutritional value to humans.
  2. Meat becomes an efficient means of food production if livestock are fed with food for which humans don’t compete – residues and waste for pigs, straw and grass from fallows and rangelands for cows. (Second-generation biofuels, anyone?)
  3. The commonly quoted claim that “it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef… is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.”
  4. Farmed animals produce about 10% of the world’s GHG emissions – not 18% or more than transport, as the FAO claimed based on such faulty assumptions as saying that “all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle: in reality it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging,” confusing “one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution” as well as gross and net production of methane and nitrous oxide.
  5. Many vegetable oils have a bigger footprint than animal fats.

Monbiot concludes by saying that those who advocate for veganism for environmental reasons are better off campaigning for meat, milk and egg-producing systems that are “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” (and, still, eating much less of it than we do).

Important reading, not just for the arguments (and note, I am not saying anything here about veganism as an animal rights choice, which I respect greatly) but as a larger reminder of the thin ice that many of our assumptions skate on, and the dangers of relying too much on data rather than principles to tell us where to go next in this complex world. It makes me think of Michael Pollan’s response to the endless debates over which nutrients and how much in what proportion from where: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat vegan if you believe it’s simply wrong to eat meat, otherwise go “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” – which, come to think of it, is a set of principles that makes sense for all forms of production.


  • “The age of nations is over. The new urban age has begun” (Parag Khanna in Foreign Policy, Sep/Oct 2010)
  • “China and India were the biggest economies in the world for almost all of the past 2000 years. Why they fell so far behind may be more of a mystery than why they are currently flourishing.” (A history of world GDP in The Economist)
  • Berkeley prof Michael O’Hare’s welcome letter to his freshman students says: “Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.”
  • Fascinating new search engine “for the past, present and future” from Yahoo! that enables review of old predictions and shows how topics evolve over time (Fast Company)
  • Australia’s New South Wales state gov’t is now discouraging development in certain coastal zones due to sea level rise caused by climate change (GreenBiz)


Why economic language has a lot to answer for

From the Economist’s cover piece on “The next China” a couple of weeks ago:

The strikes, stoppages and suicides that have afflicted foreign factories on China’s coast in recent months have shaken the popular image of the country’s workers as docile, diligent and dirt cheap. … As pay goes up the country’s domestic market will become more lucrative. Foreign firms that came for the workers will stay for the shoppers. China will become more of a workshop for itself and less of one for the world.

There’s been much in the news this year about how Chinese labor costs are rising, but for me this was a good reminder that “labor costs” – even those located in some far-off land – are also people with aspirations and needs.

I happened to read it around the same time as Bob Herbert’s NYT op-ed on how “the carnage that occurred in the workplace [during the recession] was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking.” How’s this for striking:

At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion. That kind of disconnect, said [economics professor Andrew] Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II… In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Obviously, this is what happens when you think about workers simply as “variable expenses.” I am trying to be a nuanced thinker, but sometimes you just have to get mad.

Scarcity and design

From Kevin Kelly’s interview with designer Fred Brooks in the August 2010 Wired:

The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.

Think locally, act globally

“I’m getting bored of global governance,” said my friend Vikrom to me today over late afternoon tea and mangoes.

We were catching up on the last seven years, and he was telling me about his doctoral research on perceptions of climate science and risk at Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (how much do I love their tagline “Wicked problems, clumsy solutions, uncomfortable knowledge”). 

“Global governance is fine for things like security and human rights. But I think meaningful environmental action is increasingly going to be taking place at the local level and not at the transnational level.”

This wasn’t a normative statement. He wasn’t saying that meaningful action on climate change or water or biodiversity shouldn’t be taking place at the transnational level. Only that he didn’t think it was going to happen.

This reminded me of a blog I read last week by Shoko Takemoto, an MIT grad student working on a project to understand how communities perceive climate risk. She writes fascinatingly about her work this summer with Laotian rice farmers (via David Hodgson):

Before coming to Khammouane, I was a little nervous to ask the villagers about climate change. For me, I have understood that climate change adaptation is about estimating the impacts of climate change using the best science, scenarios, and models available… I was worried about how to communicate such complex ideas to farmers and villagers who perhaps had very little knowledge of science or future projections.

However, as soon as I started talking with the farmers and community members, I was stunned by their wealth of knowledge, experience, and insights regarding how seasonal weather patterns, extreme events, and frequency and scale of disasters are changing, how that is impacting their lives, and what needs to be done to solve these issues.

Ninety-five percent of the people in Nonbok are rice farmers… they must survive through damages from flood and drought almost every year. [Adaptation] to climate change and reducing the risk of disaster is not a matter of science or predicting what might happen in the future; instead it is an issue that impacts their well-being and their everyday lives, and needs to be dealt with today.

…I began to understand that at the community level, the terms disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation may be too limited to capture and address the villagers’ concerns.  In vulnerable communities… it is difficult to isolate and identify whether a disaster is due to climate change, [poverty] or natural hazards.  From the perspective of the communities, such differentiation seems irrelevant, if not confusing.

There’s something here fascinating here about language. One of the things that we continually bump up against is making the complex, long-term, global nature of sustainability challenges meaningful to each of us in our daily lives as individual citizens, consumers and professionals. Ironically, the language of sustainability – as increasingly abstract and sanitized as it has become  (think “overnutrition” or “350 ppm” or “stakeholder” or, indeed, “climate change adaptation and mitigation”) – serves to distance us from a gut understanding – and therefore, from acting.

There’s something, too, about an over-reliance on modeling at a global or corporate or non-individual level without attention to what this means on the ground today – whether that’s in a village or a corporate meeting room. Of course, it often seems like there isn’t anything to care about on the ground today (that’s why it’s a sustainability challenge) but I’m increasingly thinking that we have to try harder to find those connections, rather than railing against the cognitive limitations of all of us humans to grasp what’s happening in the long-term or the broader sphere and asking “why they don’t just look at the data.” Perception is not to be dismissed. We need to meet people where they are.

Hence – again – why stories and the one-to-one model (as Tom’s Shoes says) are so important. And just yesterday, my colleague Kyle forwarded me a project he’d come across to tell stories that personalize the Millennium Development Goals.

Need to keep thinking about this a bit more.

Footprinting myself – and my country

If everyone lived like me, we’d need 4.6 Earths to sustain our lifestyles.

This revelation, using the Global Footprint Network’s online calculator, was a punch in the gut.

I’d always assumed my footprint was reasonably small (“other than my air travel, of course, which obviously is a human right”). I don’t own a car. I eat meat extremely rarely. I don’t own a home or appliances or furniture. I seem to be buying less and less in the way of consumer goods than ever before.

Still, turns out I’m the environmental equivalent of the children in Lake Wobegon – suffering from delusions of above average-ness.

“Wow,” I thought. “Is my air travel really that bad? I don’t even fly as much as a lot of people I know.” (Lesson 1: Cognitive biases, like resetting your standards based on what your immediate circle is doing, apply to all of us.)

But when I sadly took my flights down to zero (because I have family and close friends spread over three continents, inexpensive air travel has become the glue of my life), I was “only” down to 3.6 Earths.

“Hmm. I thought air travel was supposed to be by far the worst… Maybe if I never got in a car or bus again?”

But no effect. Wow.

I tried cutting out all dairy (goodbye cheese…) – and increased my percentage of locally sourced, fresh and unprocessed food to “most” (I’d estimated “half”, which I think is probably on the higher side for many people in developed countries). Here came a significant effect – I was down to 3.3 Earths. (Going 100% local and fresh didn’t help, which was good news to me from a behavioral change perspective. Even moderate changes help.)

Another good cut, taking me down to 3 Earths, was never buying another book, magazine or other print publication again (sigh), being scrupulous not only about recycling but also buying only recycled paper, plastic and aluminum, and eliminating purchases of electronics (good thing I returned the iPad then).

But still at 3 Earths. What now?

“I know. It’s my house. How about if I move to an eco-friendly house and buy 100% renewable electricity and don’t use much of it?”

Again, surprise – very little effect – likely because my housing footprint was already calculated as quite low since I rent and live in a dense urban area. But in general, housing, and energy and fuel use in particular, is without question a major consumer of global resources.

In desperation, I unplugged myself from the grid. I stopped eating and moving altogether. Okay – that last wasn’t really an option – but if it had been, I would have taken it. What to do?

And still 3 Earths.

It turns out that one single thing is enough, on its own, to mean I use three times my fair share of the world’s resources. That is the fact that I live in the United States.*

In other words. most of my footprint decisions have already been made by sheer accident of birth. And I continue to support these as I pay taxes and make use of the wonderful and resource-intensive array of public and private services available to me in the U.S. of A. – from highways to national parks, to bookstores to restaurants.

And it’s this stark realization that made it clearer to me than anything else how important policy is – and why the U.S. Senate’s refusal to take a global leadership position on climate change is so very disappointing – and frightening.

*At the time of taking the quiz and writing much of this – back in the UK now, which is slightly but not much better.

The blessing and the curse of choice

Earlier this year, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. This was in part because I’d stopped eating beef for good, and it felt like the right companion thing to do. But I have to admit, what motivated me most powerfully was what for me was the immense relief of reducing possible choices, or as I thought of it, “bounding my consumption universe.” 

You see, I really enjoy shoes. My high school yearbook referenced Imelda Marcos and me in the same sentence, and while I’m very far from that now, I still retain a love of interesting (yet practical) footwear. And faced with the bounties of artsy shoes on San Francisco’s Hayes Street, I decided once and for all that having a rule that instantly placed some 95% of the possible options out of bounds would be a relief to both me and my pocketbook.

I’m by no means alone in my longing for a simpler decision space, and I was reminded by this by an NYT piece a couple of days ago. “Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy,” describes two Web challenges to go on “clothing diets,” started by women who were tired of the time and money they were spending on deciding what to wear each day. 

One, Six Items or Less, asked participants to go for a month wearing only six items (or less) – not including underwear or accessories or sports gear, but definitely including shirts, dresses, trousers, jeans and all of the other staples of the modern wardrobe. The other, the Great American Apparel Diet, asks participants to go for a year without buying any clothing.

2004’s The Paradox of Choice, by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, was one of the first books to popularize the growing understanding that reducing or eliminating consumer choice actually leads to greater happiness. As one participant in the Six Items or Less challenge noted, “Anything that removes complexity or cycles from your day is really valuable. I have freed a lot of bandwidth in my head.” 

Now, obviously: this is what the Twitterverse would call a #firstworldproblem. Too many of the 6.6 billion of us sharing this planet don’t have these choices in the first place. Amartya Sen described human development as freedom: freedom to choose how to think and to live.

But this does not mean that “overchoice” – a term I’ve just made up, playing on the trend to talk about “overnutrition” versus “undernutrition”- is not a problem. Quite the contrary – I’m coming to think that “overchoice” and “underchoice” together capture what lies behind two of the most pressing issues of our future as a society: environmental sustainability and inequity.

[To be continued… I’m posting this partially written, as have committed to a dear friend to post whether done or not and she will scold if I do not. Will come back to this – more to say!]

Sunlight & stories for Congo

Here’s what I’d love to see companies doing with their sustainability reporting:

  • Be ready for Pull: Disclose a set of minimally processed data that professional analysts can crunch and compare.
  • Get ready to Push: Communicate selected data in ways that will resonate with a company’s key stakeholder groups, placed where they are most likely to see and use it.

In other words, Sunlight + Stories.

Nowadays, disclosure – the act of releasing information – can feel a little unexciting. Now that a sizeable majority of Fortune 500 companies are engaging in some form of sustainability reporting, much of which isn’t being read by anyone other than professional report readers, discussions in sustainability circles are moving towards how data can be used not simply made public – in order to influence thinking and behavior.

But none of that changes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous statement that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  Yesterday, we got a reminder of just how groundbreaking disclosure can be: Congress’s Wall Street reform bill includes a provision that requires companies to report whether they source conflict minerals from Congo or countries in the region, and what steps they are taking to exclude these from their supply chains. (Minerals such as coltan, tin, and tungsten are key to making the electronic parts of our laptops, mobile phones, cameras and other digital goodies, and profits from their sales seem to be financing the warlords.

Tremendous news. Is this one of the first mandatory requirements in the US for human rights disclosure in the supply chain? In any case, it comes a decade after activists such the Enough Project first began pressuring companies on this issue, a decade in which demand for consumer electronics worldwide has surely skyrocketed. Congratulations to everyone who fought hard for this.

The numbers are bad enough: according to the International Rescue Committee, some five and half million people have died from causes related to the fighting in Congo since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. A woman is raped every 30 minutes.

But what’s brought these numbers to terrible life for me are stories: for example, playwright Eve Ensler’s monologues written from the point of view of girls and women who have been repeatedly, brutally raped in one of the most terrible weapons of war imaginable, which I saw performed as part of Congo Now!, a campaign organized by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region that uses photography, music, interviews and readings to raise awareness and push for action. Or the stories quietly told by the NYT’s Nick Kristof, who’s been writing about Congo since 1997. Women for Women International tells the stories of women rebuilding their lives and lets ‘sponsors’ connect with these women with financial and emotional support on a one-to-one basis.

Sunlight + Stories. A powerful combination.

What ICT does for sustainable development

Jeffrey Sachs counts “eight distinct contributions of ICT to sustainable development.” From Chapter 13 of his 2008 book, Common Wealth:

  1. Connectivity: “Regions once separated from the flow of information are now instantly connected.”
  2. Division of labor: “Connectivity to information means the ability to participate in finely divided production chains.”
  3. Scale: “Messages go out over vast networks.”
  4. Replication: “Standardized processes can reach distant outlets instantaneously.”
  5. Accountability: “A technical platform for auditing, monitoring & evaluation.”
  6. Matching: “Bringing together remote buyers and sellers.”
  7. Bringing together communities of interest: “Group activities, social activism, coalition building and peer monitoring unimaginable just a few years ago.”
  8. Education & training: “Distance learning is now ubiquitous in countless informal ways, and will become the standard for much formal education and training as well.”

And he hasn’t even specifically referenced the smart grid stuff here yet.