fossil-fuel vegetarianism

The book I credit most in my decision to go vegetarian is Bloodties by Ted Kerasote.  In a way that’s funny, since Kerasote himself hunts (and eats) elk, and doesn’t even advocate vegetarianism; but he offers a deeper way of thinking about food than most philosophers’ treatments, which tend to focus only on the harms suffered by nonhuman animals.1

One fulcrum in Kerasote’s reasoning is the concept of fossil-fuel vegetarianism, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a vegetarian diet that’s heavily reliant on fossil fuels.  Kerasote points out that, for most Americans, a no-animal diet is founded on a serious fossil-fuel infrastructure—fossil fuels are burned on trips to and from the supermarket, by the trucking supply chains that deliver produce, by agricultural machinery like combines, by the oil industry’s own supply and transport vehicles, and even by the machinery deployed in resource wars.  (We might also add: the energy needed for supermarkets’ overhead (including refrigeration), for processing popular vegetarian foods like veggie burgers, and of course the massive application of synthetic fertilizers.)

Some time before writing Bloodties, Kerasote had a hunch that his own diet—consisting of one hunted elk per year plus vegetables from his own garden and the grocery store—consumed less fossil fuel than the average U.S. vegetarian.  So he consulted David Pimentel at Cornell University to make some calculations, and got the following results:

- 150 lbs elk meat: 79,000 kcal fossil fuel energy

- equivalent in Idaho potatoes: 151,000 kcal fossil fuel energy

- equivalent in California rice and pintos: 477,000 kcal fossil fuel energy

… which is decent evidence for the correctness of the hunch.2

Of course, this hasn’t caused me to take up hunting, but it did make me think about the huge industrial infrastructure behind my dinner, and threw some choices into relief.  If fossil-fuel vegetarianism is problematic, then how much more so is the standard meat-based American diet?  This isn’t the place to enumerate the evils of meat production, but even without running the numbers it’s clear that the fossil fuel cost of meat is strictly greater than that of plant food.  Going vegetarian seemed (and still seems!) like the least a person can do.

The food movement of the late ’00s has in some ways noticed the fossil-fuel infrastructure.  We now have ‘locavore’ and ‘food miles’ in our vocabulary alongside ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ and ‘grass-fed’ and so on.  When I visit a certain grocery store, I’m shown photos of the local farmers who grew the vegetables piled high in the bins, and treated to signs advertising the number of local products each aisle contains.  This is a great step forward, I think, but Kerasote’s influence keeps me looking deeper—distance is not the only thing that matters, because fossil fuels can be used in fertilization, refrigeration, and other distance-irrelevant ways.  Even my own gardening, which incurs zero fossil fuel cost from harvest to dinner plate, still relies on a variety of fossil fuel inputs: in the delivery of seeds, soil, and compost; in the production of pots, tools, and plastic fences; and so on.

In fact, the food movement, presently a rather piecemeal enterprise, could use a deep and unified approach.3 But perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

1 This might be surprising, but it’s understandable.  The majority of philosophical treatments of vegetarianism come from people who are doing moral theory (Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Mark Rowlands), the home question of which is “How should we treat other people?”  Indeed, Singer’s approach is self-consciously about extending moral thought to nonhuman animals.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that philosophers who come from the perspective of environmental ethics treat food ethics in a deeper way.  (Kerasote himself is inspired by Aldo Leopold.)

2 These figures are quite specific to Kerasote—they take into account (among other things) the costs of transporting food to his home in the Grand Tetons, the kind of rifle and shells used in hunting, and so on.  Also, Bloodties was published in 1993, and I don’t know exactly how the numbers have changed in the meantime, so we shouldn’t assume that his figures hold true for anyone else who hunts some of their food.  Still, the figures show that some (perhaps many) hunters are doing less damage (in fossil-fuel or animal-life terms) than some vegetarians.

3 Food—both in its production and consumption—touches on so many things that the ethical questions get complicated fast.  Among the values in play are: avoiding pollution, conserving topsoil, reducing CO2 emissions, eliminating toxic pest- and herbicides, leaving ecosystems intact, reducing suffering, providing farmers a reasonable income, maintaining reasonable farm labor protections, and of course keeping people fed, which includes such things as eliminating food deserts and reducing stress on the healthcare system.


Things to Pursue:

J. Claude Evans – With Respect for Nature (pdf here)

Ted Kerasote – Bloodties (especially pp. 184–186, 233–235, and 254)

Environmental Ethics

Peter Singer and Jim Mason – The Way We Eat

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