Vegetarianism and Climate Change Politics

"For every newly converted vegetarian, four poor humans start earning enough money to put beef on the table."

That bit of revelation is from Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, by James G. Workman.

For what it's worth, my relationship with vegetarianism is fraught. My sister spent much of high school dabbling in kosher vegetarianism and whenever I made a jibe about fake meat, she would launch into an impressive lecture about the cost of my meat-eating habit. Ditto my best friend. This put me in the awkward position of loving meat while acknowledging the soundness of their arguments -- the amount of water and food and land it takes to sustain one cow pre-slaughter is a staggering amount. Since vegetarianism is a healthy and viable choice for many Americans, it could also be considered a staggeringly wasteful amount.

Rather than use this post to rail on the ethics of eating meat (which, considering last night's Philly cheese steak, would be quite bold) I'd say this fact highlights one of the underlying problems of passing serious climate change acts. I still eat meat because, as powerful as the argument for vegetarianism is in my head, it's not nearly as palpable, or palatable, as my stomach when I see fillet on the menu. For a meat-lover to become a vegetarian requires a personal sacrifice for a gain -- "four poor humans [putting] beef of the table" -- that is both hypothetical and unseen by the person making the sacrifice.

And so it is with climate change laws. Even the most unpopular laws, like property taxes, have a tangible benefit. They pay for our schools -- the maintenance and teachers and textbooks -- and educate our children. But climate change laws are fundamentally different. They require millions of Americans to pay higher energy bills for a payoff that is both nearly invisible (Quick, point to the climate!) and far off into the future. That doesn't make the political arguments for climate change any less valid. But it does make them, well, fraught.

[Via Ezra Klein via Tyler Cowen]