Which Is Worse: Eating Meat or Driving a Car?


One day last spring I happened across a cookout held by one of the many student groups at the University of Maine. I was there because they had set up the grills near the bus stop. I accepted a free burger, and turned to see a former student from one of my English classes, with whom I’d enjoyed several conversations on car-free living.

“If you really cared about your carbon footprint,” he said, as I took a bite of my hamburger, “you’d be a vegetarian.”

This is what I love about college students: their openness, and their willingness to challenge conventional thinking. Though there is a disturbing trend on college campuses to sanitize free expression both inside and outside the curriculum, that anti-knowledge impulse doesn’t represent the majority of undergraduates. Most of them are genuinely interested in ideas that run counter to their own experience.

As I’ve pointed out in this space before, rural residents burn more carbon than their urban counterparts do, and driving is much of the reason. But how many of us stop to think about the greenhouse gases that go into producing our food?

“Eating a burger or driving a car: which harms the planet more?” asks National Geographic writer Simon Worrell in a March 2015 article. The bulk of the piece is an interview with Seattle-based husband-and-wife team Dennis Hayes and Carol Boyer Hayes, authors of a book titled Cowed: the Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture and Environment. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Q: You write that eating a pound of beef has more impact on climate change than burning a gallon of gasoline. Explain.

A: That pound of beef grown on a confined animal feeding lot and fed grain is grown in huge tracts in the Midwest. If you throw in the amount of energy that is used in making the nitrogen fertilizer deposited on the cornfields; all the gasoline that goes into the tractors that plow the fields and harvesters that harvest the grain; the gas used to transport the corn to the feeding lots where the cows are slaughtered and refrigerated and moved off into the market; the gas people use in their two-ton SUVs to go down to the grocery store and buy the beef, bring it home and refrigerate it some more, and then cook it—by the time you’ve gone through all of that, the amount of carbon dioxide that is given off per pound of beef is, in fact, greater [than burning a gallon of gasoline].

Of course, the carbon footprint of the car goes far beyond the gasoline it burns in its operational lifetime. One must factor in the costs of manufacturing the car and delivering it to the dealership, the cost of parking over the car’s lifetime, the cost of manufacturing and distributing parts, the disposal of tires and used motor oil, and the costs of disposing of the vehicle once its lifetime is over.

There are some 255 million cars on the road in the United States – slightly less than three vehicles to every cow. There’s no denying that both motor vehicles and meat do massive damage to the environment. If renouncing car ownership represents one small step toward a more sustainable world, shouldn’t I stop eating meat, too?

I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism a few times in my life, though I never stopped eating seafood – I do live in Maine, after all. I’ve read Fast Food Nation. I eat bacon or beef or sausage or salami with a twinge of guilt. I wouldn’t work in a slaughterhouse. I don’t hunt, and I might balk at chopping the head off a chicken. On the other hand I’ve caught and gutted my share of fish, and dunked innumerable lobsters in pots of boiling water without a shred of empathy.

Similarly, as regular readers know, I renew my driver’s license when it comes up, and I sometimes borrow my girlfriend’s car, or rent one, and re-immerse myself into the American car culture. I’ll say it again: I’m not a purist, except maybe about the designated hitter.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t do my small part by not owning a car, and avoiding the worst abusers: the fast food restaurants that drive the industrial meat business and sell the product from drive-thru windows. I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in years. But I did go to Taco Bell after the World Series for my free taco. In a car. So sue me.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.