Can Demitarians Save the Planet?

By Jonathan Marshall

How much would you be willing to give up to help prevent the Earth from overheating? A couple of hamburgers a week, and most of your frequent-flyer miles?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn from a new study by three European researchers, published in Environmental Research Letters, that people will have to dramatically alter their consumption patterns to contain global warming to the harmful but not disastrous level of 2o C by 2050. Specifically, we’ll have to find a way to slash by a factor of five the greenhouse gas intensity (e.g. emissions per dollar, per acre, per pound) of consumer goods, services, shelter, travel and food.

The good news is that “in many cases, the climate targets on consumption level can be reached by choosing available products based on low-carbon technology.”

The bad news is that people seem to have an insatiable appetite for meat and air travel as they grow richer. Both are associated with tremendous greenhouse gas emissions, “and therefore structural changes in consumption patterns might be needed.”

As if heeding that call, the United Nations Environment Programme has just published a study, “Our Nutrient World,” calling attention to the serious ecological harm caused by meat production, ranging from toxic algal blooms fed by nitrogen pollution from manure, to the vast diversion of grain to feed mighty herds that will get ground up into patties.

Environmental physicist Mark Sutton, the report’s author, proposes sensibly that we all aim not for vegan perfectionism but for becoming “demitarians,” giving up half our normal meat consumption over time to limit the harm.

“Eat meat, but less often – make it special,” he recommends. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.’”

People also can reduce environmental harm by substituting chicken and pork for beef, and by seeking out more sustainable producers of meat products.

A big question mark will be the impact of what some entrepreneurs are calling “sustainable food tech innovation.” The idea behind this hot arena for venture-capital investing is to leverage advanced technology to create alternative foods, including fake meat, fake cheese, fake salt . . . Well, you get the idea. No less than Bill Gates has called this high-tech food movement “a huge thing” that “will confound the pessimists.” Stay tuned.

Email Jonathan Marshall at jonathan.marshall@pge.com.

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