The Bovine Dilemma

September 2, 2007





by Nelson Harvey

Which of these is worse for the climate?(Photo credit:Flickr)

If you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, you’d do more by cutting beef from your diet than by giving up your car or swapping your SUV for a Prius, according to several leading animal rights organizations. The groups, which include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society, have recently launched an advertising blitz aimed at convincing the public that eating meat is worse for the environment than driving. But however true their assertions, these campaigns take the wrong approach, chooosing to evangelize people about personal choices rather than pushing a broad menu of reforms that would reduce the gloal impact of the livestock sector.

As evidence for their claims, the organizations cite a raft of studies that have emerged recently on the tremendous environmental impacts of livestock production. Perhaps the centerpiece of their evidentiary arsenal is an exhaustive report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released last November. The report claims that livestock production accounts for 9 percent of global anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions, most of that from deforestation for pastures and feedcrops. But the sector is responsible for a striking 34 percent of methane emissions, most of which comes from what the authors call “enteric fermentation by ruminants,” a phrase that can be roughly translated from the UNese into “cow poop and cow farts.”

Clearly, current livestock practices cannot be sustained, and something must be done. According to the animal rights groups behind the campaign, the solution is fairly simple: we should all become vegetarians. PETA has launched a bouquet of publicity stunts to push this point, including outfitting a Hummer with a driver in a chicken suit and manufacturing banners that read “Too chicken to be vegetarian?” and feature a caricatured Al Gore eating a chicken drumstick.

With their emphasis on personal vegetarianism, the animal rights groups miss two things. First, meat, like driving, isn’t going anywhere. Humans have been eating the stuff ever since they learned how to hunt, and just as many of our cityscapes are set up for driving, so are many of our cultural and dietary mores are oriented toward meat. It provides a third of the worlds protein, and consumption is projected to double by 2050 as global affluence increases, according to the UN Report.

In light of the fact that meat is here to stay, the vegetarian campaign fails to acknowledge another important reality: there are inumerable ways to reform the livestock industry and reduce its carbon footprint. The UN report outlines several of these, and a few include:

•introducing taxation schemes to reflect the true scarcity of grazing land, water, and feed, rather than distorting their cost through subsidies, as we do now.

•employing the “polluter pays” principle, where those responsible for sullying public air, land and water are required to clean it up.

•increasing the intensification of agriculture while reducing its environmental impact, for example by locating feedlots closer to cropland and using manure as fertilizer, or installing more biogas systems to generate power from cow waste.

As someone who considers himself an environmentalist, I have long struggled to limit my own meat consumption, and I know that I probably ought to give it up altogether in the interest of avoiding hypocrisy. But the recent campaign for vegetarianism by groups like PETA inspires the same emotion in me as Christian evangelism: distaste. That’s probably because their efforts share a similar tone: in addition to being shrill and moralistic, they both fail to acknowledge that there are many possible roads to our salvation.

The Magic Schoolbus

August 29, 2007

by Nelson Harvey

Piling into a bus with a bunch of friends and hitting the road is a quintessential American fantasy, particulary for young and restless college students. But with gas prices approaching $3 a gallon and fuel economy standards stagnant, can young environmentalists enjoy the freedom of the road without excessively damaging their wallets or the planet?

For more photos, click here

For 11 students at Dartmouth College, the answer appears to be yes. The students are wrapping up an 11 week tour of the U.S. in “The Big Green Bus,” an old schoolbus converted to run on Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) that they collect at restaurants along their route. I chatted with them last Sunday, when they stopped in NYC en route to Hanover, New Hampshire, for the start of school.

The bus was converted with grant money from sponsors, and most of their fuel is free, making the journey considerably less expensive than a petro-powered trip. At each stop, they hold events to spread the gospel about biofuels and show off their custom fueling system. The system takes waste vegetable oil from restaurants and uses a small, gas powered pump to run it through a custom onboard filtration system, which uses pillowcases and other filters to drain the largest impurities out of the oil before it is piped into a 120 gallon tank near the rear of the vehicle. The bus starts up and stops on petroleum diesel, and WVO is routed through lines near the engine to warm it up and lower its vicosity. The driver can switch from diesel to WVO manually at any time.

The journey has been far from problem free; mechanical glitches, mostly caused by low quality fuel, have plagued the students throughout the summer. Lucas, the student who completed the $7000 conversion of the bus, said they look for oil that is golden brown and contains little water, but they’ve had problems with a few sub-par batches.


The interior of the bus, and the filtration system

When I saw, them, their injection pump had recently failed, and leaky fuel lines have also been an issue. They once filled the bus with oil from McDonalds, but a chemical de-greaser that the restaurant uses in its fryers sparked a breakdown. Setbacks notwithstanding, the WVO is about as efficienct as diesel fuel when the system is running well.

But it seems likely that high performance was never the chief objective of the Green Bus project. And despite the purported environmental benefits of WVO over diesel, the value of the project isn’t chiefly about environmental impact either. Like any demonstration effort, the real payoff is educational. Making biofuel commonplace and working out the kinks will require continuing to spread the word, telling as many people as we can that another fuel is possible.

By Adam Brock

With the exceptions of dedicated gardeners and the 6-to-10-year-old set, worms generally aren’t something we spend much time thinking about. But they’re as valuable to healthy plants as water and sunlight – their constant burrowing keeps the soil airy, while their droppings (or “castings”) make wonderful fertilizer. So wonderful, in fact, that Princeton dropout Tom Szaky and his company TerraCycle have made a killing selling the stuff out of reused soda bottles.

While away in Arizona, I developed a worm plan, as well – though my own ambitions were somewhat more modest. I wanted to cut down on my house’s landfill waste, while rejuvenating the soil in our little Brooklyn yard. Worms seemed like a good choice over a traditional compost bin: they munch through scraps much faster than bacteria can break it down, meaning that you get your fertilizer in about two months, rather than a full year. They’re also smaller, and the end product is richer in nutrients. And so, with the help of a few handy guides, I channeled my inner 3rd grader and dove in to the rich and slimy world of vermicomposting.

The first step was finding a suitable box. I didn’t want to have to buy anything new, and making one out of old wooden pallets – an abundant resource in Williamsburg – seemed like too much work. So I settled on a big plastic storage bin we had sitting around, and drilled holes around the edges for ventilation. Next, I tore up some newspapers (black and white only – color ink is bad for the worms) into 1-inch strips for bedding. I got the strips moist and put them in the bin, fluffing them up till they gave a 6 inch cover. Finally, I needed to buy worms – specifically Lumbricus Rubellus, or Red Wrigglers. I got these from the Lower East Side Ecology Center stall at the Union Square Greenmarket, for $18.50 for a pound.

And that was it. Three hours of work and $18.50 was all it took to get a living, writhing decomposition machine going in my yard. A week after setting up the bin, it seems to be working great: the worms are wriggling away, the bedding is warding off flies and smells, and there’s a growing layer of rich brown stuff at the bottom of the bin. The only issue: my house, full of hungry 21-year-old boys, seems to be making more food waste than the box can handle. With the amount of scraps we’re generating, getting into the fertilizer business might not be such a bad idea, after all…

Carry That Waste

May 11, 2007

Carry That Waste

On my way from Arizona to Brooklyn, I’m spending a week in my hometown of Denver, giving me a chance to practice low-impact living in a medium city before taking it on in the swarming mass of consumption that is New York. I’ve started taking “navy showers”, turning off the water when I lather up. I’m also resisting the chiding comments of my family and friends and avoiding driving and riding in cars whenever possible, instead relying on my bike, longboard and public transit to get around.

The most interesting experiment, though, has been carrying around my trash. Rather than simply tossing stuff into the nearest trashcan/recycling bin, I’ve been stuffing all my waste into a big plastic bag that I try to take wherever I go… though I forget more often than I’d like to admit. The idea is that by making myself directly responsible for the waste I create, I’ll be less likely to create it in the first place.

After four days, it’s been working even better than I could’ve hoped. I’m constantly aware of how much I’ve accumulated – so far, a few yogurt cups, a bunch of newspaper clippings on sustainability (courtesy of my well-meaning parents), a broken clothes hanger, random napkins, envelopes, and junk mail, an aluminum can, a plastic fork, and some banana peels.

Even better, all the little thoughtful things I could never seem to remember before just come naturally. I used to be an awful reuseable-cup-user, but now the idea of having to haul around a bunch of paper cups for a week makes me think twice before I leave for the coffee house. Instead of grabbing a new sheet of paper to write a to-do list, I just reach in the bag and tear off a clean scrap of paper. And because I don’t want to know what week-old salmon smells like, I find myself finishing the all food on my plate (if there was compost around, I’d be okay dumping food scraps, but there’s not).

So far it’s officially a one-week experiment, though it’s been so successful, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing it more regularly. Not only would it be good for my own footprint, but it would send a powerful message wherever I go – I could even come up with a catchy phrase to scrawl on the bag (any ideas?). There’s some definite issues I’d have to work out: separating garbage and recyclables, dealing with inevitable odors, and finding/making a more permanent bag that I can easily carry around and wash out. But as they say, every designer loves a good challenge, and if it brings me that much closer to one-planet living, I just might be up for it.


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