Monday, August 06, 2007

Figuring Out Real Impacts

I'm going to bet many of you have seen this article, which came out today.

It will probably get major media airplay, simply because the media loves this sort of thing. And quite a few people will take the message to heart - oh, I don't have to stop driving or using plastic bags. Now there are some real virtues to doing counter-intuitive energy analyses, and I think this study has some (limited) merit. But let's take a closer look at it and its claims before we get all excited.

Goodall argues that walking to stores creates more carbon than driving there. The comparison he bases this on is this:

"The sums were done by Chris Goodall, campaigning author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, based on the greenhouse gases created by intensive beef production. “Driving a typical UK car for 3 miles [4.8km] adds about 0.9 kg [2lb] of CO2 to the atmosphere,” he said, a calculation based on the Government’s official fuel emission figures. “If you walked instead, it would use about 180 calories. You’d need about 100g of beef to replace those calories, resulting in 3.6kg of emissions, or four times as much as driving.

“The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better.”

Now what's wrong with this comparison? Well, among other things it is assuming that we get all our walking calories from the worst possible source for the environment - industrial beef production. The idea is that whenever I get up on my feet, I'm doing it powered by feedlot cows. But even the most relentless Atkinsite occasionally eats a salad, and most of us who care about the environment grasp that eating industrially produced meat is not ok.

So what happens if you power that with 180 calories of salad you grew organically in your yard? Or with 180 calories of beans and grains grown sustainably? With your CSA share? With grassfed lamb grown on land unsuitable for tillage? I haven't done that math, but the numbers would be considerably lower. The application of common sense to statistics can be surprisingly useful.

Chris Goodall seems to have taken the road of media attention but little nuance - that is, his goal is get attention for his book, not to offer real and useful information for people. By presenting this as an artificial dualism, you give people the impression that they might as well just go on doing what they were doing. But pointing out that both reducing industrial food consumption and reducing driving are necessary doesn't get as much publicity.

Let's also take a look at some of the other issues with this analysis. It looks to me from the study like Goodall is queering his data, by drawing a very small circle around the gasoline, and a big one around the cow. For example, Goodall seems to be considering only the energy impact of burning the gas - not of extraction, refining (actually refining is one of the largest chunks), transport, etc... But he's considering the whole impact of the cow, from the methane it emits when farting to its slaughter energy. One of the simple truths about EROEI calculations is that the only meaningful way to make them is to compare apples to apples - either compare whole life impacts of both subjects, or partial ones, but to make equal, fair comparisons. Goodall is cheating here for the purposes of making a point.

He's also using an assumption that troubles me. Now I respect vegetarians, and vegetarianism, although I'm not one. But when we talk about animal produced methane as though it is the same as our fossil fuel based carbon emissions, we're missing the point. All animals produce methane when they burp or fart - cows, people, apes, polar bears... some more than others. And it is absolutely true that feeding cows grain produces more methane than feeding them grass. There's no question that we absolutely need to stop industrial livestock production. But saying that "animals" are a major global warming problem is a way of distancing ourselves from our real responsibility. The world should be full of animal life farting and burping away - that's how it is meant to be. Before there were cows on the western plains, there were buffalo. Before there were 6 billion humans, there were a whole lot more polar bears and elephants and other animals busily making methane. The planet can handle the total methane emissions of every form of life but ours - that's because human beings are the problem. When we pass the problem off onto the animals - oh, the problem is cows, not us, we miss the point.

Now for all that I disagree with Goodall's analysis, his larger point about our diets - that we need to start at the most basic acts in our lives, is the right one. Food production has a tremendous impact on the environment, and it isn't just food miles that matter - what you eat, how it is grown, where it is grown, how long it takes to get there, how it is stored in the meantime and who grows it are all important factors. But Goodall again misses the point. He says,

"The ideal diet would consist of cereals and pulses. “This is a route which virtually nobody, apart from a vegan, is going to follow,” Mr Goodall said. But there are other ways to reduce the carbon footprint. “Don’t buy anything from the supermarket,” Mr Goodall said, “or anything that’s travelled too far."

He's right about the last part, but not about the ideal diet. The ideal diet would be the food we can grow sustainably ourselves *supplemented* with organically grown, local cereals and pulses. But as usual, Goodall has a rather low opinion of human beings - no one but vegans will do it, he says, and it doesn't even occur to him that we could vary that diet simply by producing things sustainably and locally *on our own.* Goodall, like a lot of environmentalists, buys into the notion that we won't change. At the extreme end of this is James Lovelock's claim that in fact, essentially human beings should be living stacked in cities in tiny spaces playing video games in a Matrix-like existence, simply because that's how we have the lowest possible impact. Lovelock thinks that the best thing we human beings can do is keep the hell away from nature and food production.

But you don't have to believe the world is all sweetness and light to recognize that the curmudgeon's vision of environmentalism is not going to inspire anyone to action. And the notion that is impossible to get people to do this ignores the fact that "people" - you and me and thousands of others are doing it already. And unless you believe that somehow we're exceptional - different than everyone else - then we have to acknowledge the possibility that if we can do it, so can others. In fact you might get considerably more others to consider major dietary changes if you offered them something other than lentils - as long as they could grow it at home. The fact that it isn't what you eat, but what goes into what you eat that matters is the real truth here.

There are some other problems worth noting in this essay, and I point them out because people believe this stuff. The loss of our ability to reason worth a damn may be the thing that destroys us. The quantity of bullshit, half truths and poor reasoning here is pretty astounding - I won't be sending in my subscription dollars anytime soon. They say:

— Traditional nappies are as bad as disposables, a study by the Environment Agency found. While throwaway nappies make up 0.1 per cent of landfill waste, the cloth variety are a waste of energy, clean water and detergent

Ok, we've all seen this study referenced before. The problem is, first of all, the originators of the study were makers of disposable diapers, so they had every incentive to draw their circles conveniently. And what they compared was cloth diapers that were washed repeatedly in multiple hot water cycles, the way diaper service companies do it, with disposable diapers. But wash your diapers in cold water, or even one warm wash, and cloth comes out wildly ahead.

But also look carefully at the comparison made here - 0.1 percent of landfill waste vs. energy, water and detergent. We're not actually comparing the energy used to *make* the diapers, get the oil out of the ground, run the electricity on the equipment. Nor is there any evidence that impact of that plastic on methane production in landfills has been included. Disposable diapers are particularly nasty in that regard because they include plastic and organic material (poop) together - thus creating the perfect environment for methane production.

— Paper bags cause more global warming than plastic. They need much more space to store so require extra energy to transport them from manufacturers to shops

On the other hand, plastics hang around disrupting your endocrine system when they break up (but not down) into your soil and water. And we could note that both are a stupid idea - carry a cloth bag.

— Diesel trains in rural Britain are more polluting than 4x4 vehicles. Douglas Alexander, when Transport Secretary, said: “If ten or fewer people travel in a Sprinter [train], it would be less environmentally damaging to give them each a Land Rover Freelander and tell them to drive”

When was the last time you were on a train with fewer than 10 people in it? Of course giant trains are less efficient if they only have a couple of passengers than a car. The point is that ou can put several hundred people on them. This is just a big old "duh."

To be fair, however, Pat Muphy over at Community Solutions has found that if you include the energy costs of laying rail and building the system, even electric trains are less efficient than simply only going places in cars when the cars are full - that is, if the average 5 passenger car had five people in it, instead of 1.6, and we made our trips only when the cars were full, we would create far less of an impact than passenger rail. The Community Solutions "Smart Jitney" program creates a public transportation system using existing cars - now that makes sense, and can be applied anywhere. Check it out at

— Burning wood for fuel is better for the environment than recycling it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discovered

I can't find this study anywhere. But it would be useful to ask what their definition of "recycling" is - is it really true that my using old boards in a chicken tractor makes more carbon than burning it? I don't think so. I imagine that if what you are talking about is reducing wood to sawdust and making it into pressboard, that's certainly true. But let's assume we could use some common sense, and reuse wood in its extant form.

-Someone who installs a “green” lightbulb undoes a year’s worth of energy-saving by buying two bags of imported veg, as so much carbon is wasted flying the food to Britain

This is one of those dumb either/or constructions designed to make you think that you have to choose. Yes, you should cut the imported bags of veggies *and* use environmentally friendly lightbulbs. But the idea that you cancel out one impact is just silly - if you do both wasteful things, and then stop one, but not the other, you have manifestly used less oil. In trying to point out the impact of our food system, let's not convince people that the only project is dietary change.

-Trees, regarded as shields against global warming because they absorb carbon, were found by German scientists to be major producers of methane, a much more harmful greenhouse gas

Now this one is true, but it is misleading in the same way that the emphasis on cows is. We're not undergoing radical climate change because we have too many trees, folks. Again, the problem is human produced environmental impact. And when you talk about trees and airline tickets as though they are equally bad, you give people a really screwed up sense of the truth.

What is true is that planting trees isn't a magic bullet - we should do it because it helps with soil erosion, improves air quality, provides shade, etc... But we can't "offset" our carbon emissions by planting trees. There's simply no real substitute for not making the emissions in the first place - period.

— Organic dairy cows are worse for the climate. They produce less milk so their methane emissions per litre are higher

There's some real truth in this one - even without the nitrous oxide produced in the fertilizer, grainfed dairy is a fairly energy intensive process. The reality is that if we are to continue to drink milk as a population, the most sustainable option would be grassfed, seasonal dairy. That is, you would graze cows only during the periods where there is lush, grazable land, and produce their milk mostly or entirely without human food (grain). That would mean different cow breeds, different practices and us all drinking a lot less milk.

Honestly, eating grassfed local beef is probably better for the environment than drinking milk, unless you raise it yourself or get it very, very locally from an organic dairy that raises their own grains. It seems counterintuitive, but if you think in terms of the most sustainable ways to raise animals (on grass no one else can eat, on land that is too rocky, hilly or otherwise unsuited for grain or vegetable production), the best animal products to eat would be grassfed and hayfed lamb, goat and beef. That's the exact opposite of the heirarchy that most semi-veg or veg folks have - first you give up red meat, then poultry, then eggs and milk. But in fact, probably the best use of resources would be grazing animals on land in grass anyway (lawns, parks, hilly land, crop protection land), then eggs and chicken raised on your own food scraps, and then a distant third, eggs and milk raised organically on grain.

But in this list there's a great deal more that is misleading than that is helpful. The myths that I think we need to undo are quite different. Here are the Great, Green Myths that I'm most concerned with.

1. That it is either/or. That is, that we have to make choices like "eat less meat" or "drive less." We have to do both - period.

2. That we can meaningfully offset our impact, and go on with life as usual. The reality is that right now, our emissions levels are so high that any offsetting we do has to compensate for past emissions. The only way to avoid catastrophic consequences are to stop emitting - and soon.

3. That the bad guys are plants and animals, not us. That this can somehow be passed off on cows or trees or polar bears, and thus, our own responsibility is diminished.

4. That we don't need good information - that is, that we can't honestly compare apples to apples. The simple truth is that if you can't be bothered to draw your circles and make your comparisons fairly, you should get out of the game. Just wanting attention isn't enough of an excuse.

5. That the solution is really anywhere other than "don't do it, stop, change." Most of us are still hanging on to the notion that the solution doesn't involve real change. Time to get over it, folks.




Weaseldog said...

So while driving, our metabolism ceases? We stop breathing? Our food stops digesting? We become lifeless zombies until we get out of our autos?

Well, maybe there's truth to it.

But his argument that you can subtract the beef when we're traveling by auto is patently false. so when driving, we have to add the beef and the oil together.

Squrrl said...

Agreed, agreed, and agreed!

Only one complaint--what's with the knock on lentils?! Everyone always loves my lentil soup, frequently including people who had never really eaten lentils before. Lentils rule!

Just sayin'. ;-)

Sue said...

And of course it should go without saying that for a disturbingly high proportion of us, we need that extra exercise WITHOUT increasing our caloric intake! If someone is so physiologically well-balanced that their walk requires them to increase their food intake, then he ought to also factor in the exercise time/equipment/cost that person is obviously spending to remain physically healthy, and then show the savings of such expense by walking for errands instead.

jewishfarmer said...

Squrrl, you are absolutely right about the lentils, of course. I love them - I just think Goodall's construction "cereals and pulses" gives the vision that food has to be bland and boring. But you are right about lentil soup being wonderful!


Phil said...

How much CO2 is released when creating all those straw men?

Anonymous said...

As I read Sharon's writings and others on the internet about global warming and peak oil, I find myself reflecting on what would be a good use of my energy stores at the moment. I am trying to wean myself off of going to the gym. If I am going to burn 300 calories at the gym, why not use that energy and time to de-carbonize another of my regular activities? I certainly could use the exercise. It is that kind of win-win synergy that would help me pursue the "theory of anyway." I have figured out some of these activities and do many of them.

On the other hand, I find that it is a long-term project adjusting my habits to turn this into reality. Some of this is due to old habits dying hard, some can be attributed to not wanting to start something that will at some point be come mandatory at inconvenient times (e.g. my nearly effortless backyard fruit trees versus a nearly non-existent vegetable garden). Unfortunately, another part of me is just self-conscious about appearing so different from my suburban neighbors.

Still, it is essential that I not only discover but also engage in these synergistic activities because by winning on multiple fronts, I will keep them going instead of pushing myself out of guilt. Letting someone else constrain the choices in absurd ways that Sharon cited is the opposite strategy. We cannot afford to let others define the debate this way.


Anonymous said...

Tiny comment about railroad - even to build one it can't be much more expensive than building a _real_ road. Then maintaining it in $/kilo of freight terms has got to be a LOT cheaper.
I would not bother with comparing energy of building a steel road to a concrete one - the obvious durability of rail makes it unnecessary.

And if you were to "give" people landrovers to dispense with building roads, that would be just lovely - all the land turned into mud as they go around the mud they made yesterday :)

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I cannot tell you how valuable your writing is to me personally and to the cause. You have an amazing ability to synthesize information, see clearly to the point of a problem, and formulate concrete, sensible solutions, in a way that I can't even dream of. I look forward to each time you pop up in Bloglines, because every time you write, I learn new things.

Did you send your post or link to the author of this thing? Sounds like he could use it.

--Shana in Missouri

Anonymous said...

I am beginning to take a less sanguine view of writings like this one by Goodall. I think that he is part and parcel of the effort by corporate interests to convince the populace to do nothing about global warming.

Many studies have shown that when people are confused as to the right action to take by conflicting advice, they usually opt to do nothing. And that's somewhat reasonable if they are not in a position to determine which set of advice is actually true.

When someone who styles himself a "Green" environmentalist publishes a tract as full of holes as this one by Goodall and as slanted toward the status quo, one has to look particularly hard at his motivation.

Even if he is sincere, the effect of his propagandizing is such that he might as well be in the employ of ExxonMobil, just like most of the other global warming deniers.

Corporate and government interests have been placing "agents provocateur" inside movements for change for at least the last 100 years. Is there any reason to think they would not stoop to this tactic in the face of a situation which threatens to completely undermine corporate control of our society?

Kiashu said...

My first point is that even with his selective picking of figures, his figures are wrong. 180 kilocalories for 100 grammes of beef? No. Pure protein is 4 kcal/g, and pure fat 8 kcal/g, for an average for most meat of about 5 kcal/g, or 500 kcal for 100g. So in fact 36g of beef would be required to give you 180kcal, generating 1.3kg of emissions. This starts to look comparable to his 0.9kg of emissions from the car, especially when we add in the emissions from the car's production, as you noted.

Secondly, are you plagiarising me, or do we just have the same way of thinking? See here. ;)

jewishfarmer said...

Hey Kyle - Good point about the calories of beef. And I didn't see your article until after I wrote this one - too bad, or I would have just linked to you ;-).


Anonymous said...


Not sure where you are getting your beef calorie figures. Check this out:
and enter "Ground beef, raw" (22% fat)
It gets you 2.76 kcals/gram for raw meat, 2.86 for cooked.


Kiashu said...

Does it matter? 2.76 kcal/g would be 276 kcal for 100g - rather than the 180kcal that drongo Goodall gave us.

It's the most minor point. The major point is that he compares

Apples (running costs) with
Oranges (production costs + running costs)

and unsurprisingly concludes that apples are cheaper than oranges.

Whether the oranges typically have 180, 276 or 500 kcal is really not that important. He's still comparing apples and oranges. Which makes him either incompetent or dishonest.

Greenpa said...

Sharon- bless you for taking the time to parse and dissect this nonsense. It would drive me crazy to have to; and it IS valuable to everyone to have this kind of detailed response. Goodall's "anaysis" is woefully incomplete and warped; and there's been a lot of that going around. It won't go away, alas. Thanks!

Greenpa said...

Kiashu- "either incompetent or dishonest"

sigh. I'm afraid we cannot rule out either. I ran onto this article a bit ago, in the NYT. Myth/Math

Your understanding of statisics seems good. I was appalled, aghast, horrified at the total incompetence regarding statistics reflected in this article. They've got math professors spouting nonsense. Basically they're stating that median numbers from 2 different populations must be equal, because the populations are almost equal. Um. What? This kind of loud incompetence among people with education seems to be increasing. Or I'm just getting older and crankier, who knows. :-)

MovieMasher said...

A story at HuffPo about parents avoiding diapers altogether!

Diaper-Free Babies

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Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I find that it is a long-term project adjusting my habits to turn this into reality.---------- ---------------------------when we're traveling by auto is patently false. so when driving, we have to add the beef and the oil together.

Anonymous said...

Is there any reason to think they would not stoop to this tactic in the face of a situation which threatens to completely undermine corporate control of our society?--------------------------------------

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