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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Ethicist column: Environmentalists that eat meat?

Any Carls probably know by now, last Spring Carleton was named one of the ten greenest colleges in America by Forbes Magazine. For anyone familiar with the student body this is not surprising, as Carleton students have consistently shown great concern for environmental issues ranging from climate change to the proliferation of invasive species. To further encourage this philosophy the school offers both curricular and extracurricular programs that actively encourage environmentalism. The question is, how can we do better? We can of course make efforts to conserve more energy, waste less plastic and pull more buckthorn. All of that is commendable, and few would deny that we should strive to lower our environmental footprint when given the chance. Yet, when the majority of people sit down to eat, they pass on the chance to lower their environmental impact by choosing to eat meat. Exactly how many resources are consumed to supply a particular piece of meat for consumption varies with how and where the providing animal was raised. What is universally true of meat is that it is more inefficient, and therefore has a greater environmental impact than calorically equivalent vegetarian options. According to many experts, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, adopting a vegetarian diet is the single most effective thing that most people can do to reduce their carbon footprint. This is a result of the fact that animals do not efficiently pass on all the energy that they consume when they eat the plants that we give them. So when you eat a steak, you are not only eating all of the work and resources it took to raise that animal, you are also eating all of the resources it took to cultivate and harvest all of the plants that that animal ate. If you eat just plants, you take out the inherently inefficient conversion of plant matter into meat matter. It really is that simple: if you reduce your meat consumption, you have taken the biggest personal step possible towards reducing your carbon output. But even more than that you’ve also reduced your water consumption (animals have to drink), your waste production (animals have to defecate) and your effective land consumption (animals have to live somewhere). So why, then, do we eat meat? The argument which I have outlined here is quite clearly utilitarian, just as the counterargument is, with one considerable difference. While I argue that the enjoyment you get out of eating meat is almost certainly not worth the resource consumption (not to mention the suffering you indirectly inflict upon the livestock, but that’s an argument for another column), others argue that it most certainly is. As Stephen Colbert responded to a prominent bioethicist in an interview, “If we shouldn’t eat [animals], why are they so delicious?” There is something to be said for that argument. Animals are indeed delicious. But being delicious is by no means the only criteria for consumption. From a utilitarian perspective, all significant utility-relevant variables must be considered, the good and the bad. The deliciousness of meat is simply not enough to justify all of the negatives that go with its production and consumption. With that in mind, does it not seem odd that the majority of us, a student body of environmentally conscientious young people still consume meat? Some might respond by saying they “do what they can” or they “do a lot of other things” to help the environment. Certainly no one denies this. However, we can always do better, and the fact that we excel in most areas does not justify apathy in others. The truth is that the environmental movement has been and will always be about people making a positive difference in their everyday lives. If we are to be true to the ideas we espouse, if we are to live up to the title of “one of the ten greenest colleges in America,” we must reinforce our already good efforts with even better efforts. So perhaps it is time, if you call yourself an environmentalist, to take another look at vegetarianism.The Ethicist welcomes writers, column ideas or specific ethics questions from all members of the Carleton community. Contact the Ethicist at [email protected].

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