Sometimes when my mind wanders, I make top-10 lists. Or more accurately, I start top-10 lists that I partially finish.
In high school, I started simple: top 10 musicians, top 10 novels, top 10 superheroes. Just your average Billboard magazine stuff. Now that I’m supposedly a smarter, more sophisticated college student, my lists have gotten more obscure and much more nerdy: top 10 U.S. Supreme Court justices, top 10 dictators, top 10 most famous U.S. prisons.
There’s something introspective about the habit. It lets me know what interests me and what I care about. It makes me think about how I value those things. And, frankly, the desire to rank who or what is the best at even the most trivial things is written into my all-American DNA.
That brings me to my latest list: The top 10 most environmentally destructive man-made things on the planet — those companies, products or habits that lay so much waste to Mother Earth that you would like to incinerate them on the surface of the Sun.
No. 1 was a no-brainer for me: The Dow Chemical Company. Google this Michigan-based company sometime, it has it all: haphazard respect for people’s health and the environment, a greed-driven callous disregard for cleaning up its mistakes and some questionable dealings in between. You’ll be embarrassed that it’s a big-money donor to the University and that Herbert Dow, the company’s founder, has a building on campus named after him.
But No. 2 on the list was where I got stuck. My first inclination was to go with cars. Now in vogue to hate, the car is an easy target as the carbon dioxide-spewing cause of global climate change. And rightfully so.
Then I got to thinking about another beast behind global warming: the cow.
Cows aren’t among your garden-variety environmentalist’s usual targets. They’re kind of cute in the barnyard-animal sort of way. Unlike cars, most people aren’t keeping cows out in front of their houses so we don’t get reminded everyday of their impact. And there’s little mainstream awareness about the problem they are causing.
But here’s the thing: Livestock is a bigger greenhouse gas contributor than cars. While livestock only emits 9 percent of our human-related global carbon dioxide emissions, it emits 37 percent of our human-related methane and 65 percent of the human-related nitrous oxide, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Both of those gases have much higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide.
The impact goes beyond hazardous farts, too. Livestock needs land for feeding. It takes trucks to transport to stores once it’s butchered. It takes refrigerators to keep it cool. All that stuff leaves a pretty big carbon footprint. More than 33 percent of the arable land on Earth is used for livestock. Roughly 70 percent of the deforested Amazon rainforest is grazing land now.
Driving the destructiveness is the fact that people love meat products — myself included. With more people in the world able to afford what was once a luxury and simply more people in the world, meat production has skyrocketed. In 1950, only 44 million tons of meat was produced each year. Today, roughly 253 million tons are produced. By 2050, the United Nations expects we will produce 465 million tons of meat.
But don’t fear — like few problems nowadays — there is a simple, obvious solution: Eat less meat.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this as a snob-nosed vegan who wants to guilt you into keeping animals off the chopping block. I respect people who are able to cut animal products out of their diets. I’m not one of those people. I like bacon cheeseburgers, and I’m pretty fond of milk, eggs and cheese.
I could do without a hamburger or two, though, if it keeps Florida from being covered in ocean and protects some ice for the polar bears. If other people knew it would be helpful to make that simple sacrifice, I’m sure most of them wouldn’t find it that difficult either. Besides, it’s healthier to cut down on your red meat anyway. It’s a win-win.
So ditch that steak for a salad. Or, if you don’t like salad, brainstorm the top-10 replacement foods for steak.
Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.