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Vegetarians and the BP Oil Spill

June 20, 2010

Every time some predictable environmental disaster befalls us, I think to myself: "This is it! Finally, people will understand what 'limits to growth' means. And then they'll think about what they're eating." I thought that about Hurricane Katrina (climate change), as well as the 2008 oil shock (oil supplies) and resultant financial meltdown (finite planet meets infinite financial system: who wins?). I’m thinking similar thoughts now about deepwater oil drilling and the BP oil spill, certainly one of the worst environmental disasters in U. S. history and not over yet.

Of course, like Lucy pulling the football away, it never happens. After that hope is dashed, I say to myself, "well, at least the vegetarians will get it."  But it's not clear to me that even most vegetarians understand the connection between fossil fuel and food.  Vegetarian publications are fond of statements like "Veg is the New Green," but live in a world of "eco-travel."  The message seems to be, "go vegetarian, put up a few solar panels, and make sure your flight is direct, and we can continue with business as usual." 

The oil spill is a symptom of our reliance on fossil fuels. No industry, not even transportation, is more connected to fossil fuels than agriculture. Industrialized agriculture, with artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation, quadrupled corn yields in the U. S. in less than 50 years. These huge grain yields made factory farming plausible, and also explain why we are able to feed nearly 7 billion people.

The problem is not an imminent shortage of food. Oil supplies may be declining, but there’s still a lot left; we could always, with sufficient political will, divert fossil fuels from other sectors into agriculture.

The problem is economic. If the price of oil goes up, the price of food goes up in lockstep. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 together triggered the worst food price inflation of the second half of the 20th century. For those in the West, this was an annoyance; but for the poor living on less than $1 per day, it was a catastrophe, and put "world hunger" on the map as a political issue. And, an important historical note for vegetarians: the food price inflation of the 1970's was a key factor responsible for the modern vegetarian movement.

As the oil shock of 2008 unfolded, rising oil prices propelled food prices up as well, with food riots breaking out in Mexico, Indonesia, Bolivia, Pakistan, and elsewhere. People who can’t afford food are not predisposed to lie down quietly and die in a corner — not if they can help it.

Yes, BP is at fault here and yes, we shouldn’t stop until they’ve paid every last penny of the damage they’ve done. But why do you suppose that anyone is drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, in 5000 feet of water, in the first place? Maybe for the challenge, out of boredom, or for the sense of adventure?

No. It’s because that’s where the oil is. The easy oil, at least in quantities sufficient for our so-called needs, is gone. We have to do deepwater oil drilling offshore, or we have to change our whole way of life right now. (Guess which is more likely?)

The same thing can be said about natural gas and coal.  We have exploited the easy, high-quality reserves and are being forced to do stranger and stranger things to get what we need (like mountain-top removal). 

Vegetarians are doing the right thing — they just don't connect it with the idea that there are basic limits on economic growth, and don't realize that this is a "teachable moment" for the public.  The environmental crisis has become the most important argument for vegetarianism. Food isn’t the only area of our lives affected by our reliance on fossil fuels. But it is the most essential. In a pinch, we could probably do without cars. However, it's a lot more difficult to go without food.