I was in my 20s when I had my first encounter with where burgers really come from. Like most Americans, I had always purchased meat in neat, shrink-wrapped packages, so connection between the steak to the cow felt somewhat abstract. But while traveling in Vietnam, I happened upon a food market that had all of the meat products there for you to see, alive and in the flesh. I’m embarrassed to admit that it was a huge shock to face the very animals that would end up being dinner. For about three years after that, I was a vegetarian. But eventually, the shock wore off. I indulged in a delicious burger and I thought “what the fuck — people gotta eat, right?” More than 10 years later, I have decided to go vegetarian again. And it’s not necessarily because of animal rights or animal cruelty — though that is a concern, too — it’s because of the climate.
For as long as I can remember, I have grappled with a deep anxiety about the state of the planet, our environment, and the climate crisis. When I was a small child, I had a reoccurring nightmare where the Earth would suddenly explode. The noise would be deafening and I would be flung into outer space at warp speed, watching in powerless horror as pieces of the planet — houses, birds, trees, animals, my Teddy Ruxpin — would fly past my head. As I got sucked father out into the lonely, cold darkness of deep space, a crying blue whale would float by me. When I ask the whale why it was crying, it would explain that humans had destroyed the planet, that it was gone forever, and that it didn’t need to be that way. I’d usually wake up crying. I had this dream countless times. Details would change, but the planet exploding, outer space, and the crying whale would always be there.
The problems linked to climate change are so big, so entrenched, so systemic, I often feel like I did in my childhood dream — terrified but also overpowered by forces much larger than me. Sometimes I think I am doing something helpful, only to find out it’s actually not doing that much at all (here’s looking at you recycling). Making more conscious food choices can help toward decreasing your carbon footprint, and I do my best to be a conscious food shopper. But there has been a strain of the larger food-climate conversation I’ve tried to ignore – the connection of meat consumption to global warming. I’ve consistently made a thousand excuses not to give up my beloved burgers (“I don’t eat that much red meat”; “I’m anemic!”; “I really need the protein.”; “When I eat vegetarian, I’m hungry all of the time.”).
But as it becomes more and more clear that for every burger I eat I am one step closer to making whales cry, I have to admit that all of my excuses are just that: Excuses and avoidance. If I really give a shit about the state of the planet and climate, then I have to sacrifice my love of meat. Because meat, especially beef, is an energy and emissions intensive enterprise. The issues tangled up in our burgers and steaks encompass everything from deforestation and reckless water consumption to methane emissions. Pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer used to grow food (mostly water guzzling alfalfa) for livestock is also a major issue. And while many reports focus on beef as the primary offender, the role of pork, lamb, and poultry cannot be ignored. In fact, an increasing number of federal lawsuits are being filed against the livestock industry’s wasteful practices, citing negative effects on human health through water and air contamination.
These lawsuits bring up an important distinction that a lot of people point to in the meat debate: The role of small, family farms versus CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations). While I understand that there are farmers that raise meat in an environmentally conscious and humane way, I find it increasingly difficult as a consumer to ascertain when I am actually supporting those practices with my dollars. As food companies compete for market share, food labels have become obfuscated, green-washed, and sometimes totally meaningless. At the end of the day, the only recourse I have to buying the meat that matches my values is to trust the butcher, who – let’s be honest – doesn’t know me from Adam, might have no problem lying to me, or might not have any real idea where the products come from.
For the record, I am not saying this from a holier-than-thou place. I know there are lots of wonderful people out there who care deeply about the planet, but can’t or don’t want to give up meat. That’s totally fine. I am sure they are partaking in actions to do their part. This is mine. For me, it’s not about adopting some ethical hard line and expecting everyone to agree or even participate, it’s about living with myself. And I have tried the middle road – not cutting meat out completely, but just decreasing my consumption to just once or twice per week. It doesn’t work for me – I find meat so yummy and tempting that if I have it at all, it slowly starts to creep back into almost every single meal.
So, it is with both a heavy and a light heart that I say goodbye to the juicy burgers at my corner pub. and I’ll desperately miss my beloved roast chicken or baked salmon dinners, and Sunday morning bacon. From now on I’ll be “that guy” who shows up to the BBQ with some bean burgers. And I’ll probably stare a little too long at anyone who is sinking their teeth into a juicy, perfectly grilled burger or enjoying deliciously crisp chicken skin. But I’ve got to do something. Will it be enough to finally silence the crying whale? I don’t know. At the very least, the next time it shows up in my dreams, I will be able to say “I’m trying!” and really mean it.