The End of Meat. And Driving. And Football.

9/7/12Follow @wroush

Americans are great at giving up things—in emergencies, anyway. Under World War II rationing plans, U.S. citizens cut way back on their use of gasoline, nylon stockings, coffee, sugar, and everything made of steel or rubber. In the 1970s, in response to the Middle East oil embargoes, the federal government imposed odd-even gasoline rationing in many areas and lowered the speed limit to 55 miles per hour. We survived.

But in the present day, we don’t show as much discipline. Despite decades of post-embargo talk about fuel efficiency and the dangers of dependence on foreign oil, for instance, U.S. demand for petroleum has increased by about 33 percent since 1970. It peaked in 2007 at 20.7 million barrels a day; only the Great Recession has slowed our consumption.

The right to a full tank of gas, cheaply purchased, is one of those givens of American culture that no politician dares to question. But I’m not a politician, and today I’m going to call for an end to three similar traditions that are at the very center of life for hundreds of millions of consumers.

These aren’t the kinds of opinions you’ll find in any campaign stump speech, or in any political party’s platform. They’re so completely at odds with our habits and expectations that you could rightly call them un-American. But with the data we’re getting thanks to modern science and technology, I don’t think we’ll be able to ignore the human and environmental costs of these three activities for much longer. It’s time to start acknowledging the facts—and investing in alternatives.

What are these three scourges? Driving. Eating meat. And football.

Robots on the Roads

First up, cars. They’re not going away. I don’t think we can or should abolish automobiles. I’m just saying humans should stop driving them.

We lose 30,000 to 40,000 Americans every year to motor vehicle crashes. Thankfully, the number has been going down lately thanks to safer cars, increased seat belt use, and campaigns against drunk driving. Fatalities peaked in 2005 at 43,510, and declined to 32,885 in 2010. That’s about 1.09 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

But 33,000 deaths per year is still a horrifying, wholly unacceptable figure. It’s more than four times the number of soldiers killed in the battle of Gettysburg, and more than five times the total U.S. fatalities in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If we lost even a tenth as many people in airplane crashes, the world fleet of passenger jets would be grounded until the problem was fixed.

Yet somehow, we’ve become inured to the outrageous riskiness of driving. If your rationale for taking this risk every day is that you’re a “good driver,” ask yourself whether you believe that everyone else is too. And then consider that only half of the people who died in traffic accidents in 2010 were behind the wheel. The rest were passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin pose with a Google robot car.

Google's robot car

Fortunately, a solution is on the way: robot cars. No one really suspected it until a few years ago, but it turns out that driving safely—which is mainly a matter of sensing the environment, avoiding obstacles, and obeying traffic laws—is a problem machines can handle. In fact, Google’s self-driving cars have now traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in California and Nevada without causing a single accident. (A fender-bender involving a robotic Prius attracted some press coverage last month, but Google said that one of its employees was in manual control at the time.)

Ford and other automakers are now rushing to put more sensors and automated intelligence into consumer models, and they say there’s no technological barrier to building fully autonomous vehicles. Using a combination of cameras, radar, digital maps, street-view image databases, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, path-planning software, and other technologies that are already available, these cars would zip down the road in a coordinated way that would ease congestion, increase fuel efficiency, and drastically reduce accident rates.

The big barrier, of course, is consumer acceptance. In a nation where wheels are equated with freedom and getting a driver’s license is seen as a major rite of passage, will travelers give up control in exchange for safety? I’m not sure it should be a choice. In my view, the Department of Transportation should set up a testing regime for robot cars. As soon as it can be established that computers are better drivers than humans, some level of automation should become mandatory, just as with seat belts, air bags, and child car seats.

We can’t expect people to drive safely all the time, but we can expect robots to. It may take a decade or two, but at some point, we’ll look back at the 20th and early 21st centuries and marvel at the fact that millions of vehicles once hurtled down our public streets under the control of frail, emotional, inattentive humans.

Mystery Meat

Next on my list of fashionable but doomed activities: eating meat from animals.

I’m among the tiny fraction of Americans who are strict vegetarians or vegans. (The Vegetarian Resource Group claims this fraction is as high as 2 or 3 percent, but one Yale study says it’s closer to 0.1 percent.) I’m a veg-head mainly for ethical reasons. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to ignore the moral issues around the treatment of animals and focus on meat’s environmental impact.

Let’s look first at the demand side. As a nation, we’re more carnivorous than ever. Between 1975 and 2007, annual consumption of red meat and poultry increased from 178 pounds per capita to 222 pounds. Total consumption of animals and animal byproducts has been steady lately at around 930 pounds per person per year, according to the Humane Research Council.

This national lust for meat comes at an enormous cost, and we have remade the American landscape to pay it. First, there’s the land itself—both the land given over to grazing, and the acreage used to grow grain for animal feed. In pre-industrial times, tall-grass prairies covered 170 million acres in North America. Now 71 percent of that land has been converted to cropland—and one-third of that is used to grow feed crops, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The All-American meal--a hamburger, fries, and a Coke

The All-American meal

The problem is that growing corn and other crops to feed cows, chickens, and pigs is an amazingly indirect and inefficient way to make protein for human consumption. To produce just one pound of beef, farmers have to grow seven pounds of grain. (Chickens aren’t quite as inefficient: thanks to modern breeding, it only takes two pounds of feed to make one pound of chicken.)

Then there’s the water. Feed crops are thirsty, consuming about 60 percent of all irrigation water in the United States every year, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. When you add it all up, producing one pound of raw beef requires 18,000 gallons of rain and irrigation water. That’s roughly the amount of water in a 16-by-32-foot swimming pool—to make just four Quarter Pounders.

A full accounting of meat’s environmental impact would also have to include the fertilizer and fuel needed to raise feed crops, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned, the additional carbon dioxide released through deforestation to clear land for grazing and feed crop production, and the methane and nitrous oxide released by decomposing animal waste. The U.N. estimates that about 9 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emissions come from raising livestock. So, in a nutshell, the more meat we eat, the warmer the planet gets.

But here, too, technology offers alternatives. First, there are new meat substitutes like Beyond Meat, which is made from soy protein and pea protein and comes in strips resembling chicken cutlets. I haven’t tried it yet—it’s not widely stocked, and when I went to the local Whole Foods to get some, they hadn’t yet thawed out their latest shipment. But Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, a non-vegetarian who’s “tried every fake meat there is,” says it’s tender and moist, and that he’s “never tasted anything as realistic.”

Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown told Manjoo that the company’s long-term goal is to change the way people think about the category, replacing meat from animals with food produced more sustainably. “Instead of having it be called ‘meat,’ it would just be called ‘protein,’ whether it’s protein coming from a cow or chicken or from soy, pea, quinoa, or other plant-based sources,” Brown said.

Then there’s an even more radical concept: real meat harvested not from animals, but from petri dishes. Scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands made a splash this spring with reports that they’d grown muscle from stem cells. Making in vitro meat is still extremely expensive—a single hamburger made the Maastricht way would cost several hundred thousand dollars. And the end product doesn’t look too appetizing: the BBC compared it to calamari. But if the process can be scaled up, growing meat in labs might eventually be cheaper and more efficient than raising animals for slaughter. And once that happens, eating real animals might become the province of the rich—or might even be banned as unnecessarily cruel and wasteful.

Football In Sudden Death Overtime

As long as I’m listing cherished American institutions that deserve to be swept away on a mounting tide of scientific evidence, I might as well mention football.

The most arresting magazine article I’ve read in months is J.R. Moehringer’s “Football is Dead. Long Live Football,” which appears in the September 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine. It’s a poetic, sad, clear-eyed look at a sport that Moehringer obviously loves. His status as a passionate yet worried believer makes the article far more damning than recent, more clinical critiques from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger.

Moehringer is convinced that the nation needs football at some primal level—in his mind it has something to do with post-industrialism, the wounds left by the Civil War, how men prove their masculinity, and our taste for gladiatorial spectacles. But try as he might to find reasons to stay hopeful about the game’s survival, Moehringer keeps coming back to the unavoidable physiological facts.

And the facts are these: The human brain is basically made of jelly. Modern football is played in a way that guarantees players will be regularly concussed. It’s not possible to invent a helmet that will prevent the jelly from sloshing around inside a player’s skull when this happens. In short, if you wanted to create a way to inflict insidious, cumulative, irreversible brain injuries on athletes, you could not come up with a better system than American football. (Well, maybe boxing.)

The B.C. Lions football team in a scrimmage game

Waiting for the snap...and a concussion

Through modern brain imaging and autopsies (yes, there is a growing collection of brains from deceased football players; Boston University has 60 of them), it’s becoming clear that repeated “subconcussive” injuries like those that occur when players head-bang each other can lead to a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Signs of the syndrome include confusion, memory loss, depression, aggression, and dementia. Six former NFL players have committed suicide in the past two years, and all six were reported to be suffering from some combination of these symptoms.

To be fair, the condition isn’t limited to football players—it’s also common among boxers, wrestlers, hockey players, and military personnel exposed to explosive blasts. But a group of 3,000 former professional players thinks the NFL knows all about the link between concussions and CTE, and it’s suing the league for allegedly ignoring and hiding the evidence.

Moehringer thinks the litigation will eventually be settled—there’s too much money at stake, mostly in the form of TV broadcast contracts, for the NFL to let the issue balloon out of control. But he’s more worried about kids. He notes that 175,000 children wind up in emergency rooms each year for sports-related brain injuries, many of them from football. (I guess there is something riskier than driving after all.)

Moehringer thinks this toll, combined with a drumbeat of stories about suffering ex-NFL players, may already be causing parents to steer their kids into less violent sports. And the exodus, he writes, “might soon become a stampede as the latest bad news becomes more widely known—concussions are far, far more dangerous for children than adults.”

If you take young people out of high school and college football programs (which both Bissinger and Taylor Branch have excoriated for undermining the academic mission of American universities), football will gradually die. Or at least, it will be forced to turn elsewhere for recruits.

* * *

So there you have it. If I were campaigning for office this fall, I’d promise to take away your SUV, your steak, and your Sunday pastime. (And your gun, but I’ll save my opportunity to offend that group for another day.) It wouldn’t mean the death of the tailgate party, but in my proposed future we’d be partying from the back of the robot car, with soy protein on the grill, before the soccer game.

Somehow I don’t think these promises would get me elected—not even here in San Francisco. But we’ll still have to come to terms with the realities behind them. Eventually, we always do.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://twitter.com/jonbierer Jon Bierer

    I would concur with each of those, but not the gun control.

  • Alice

    At the risk of further offending… I can’t help but imagine how much gentler and kinder 50% of the population would be without cars, meat, and football. ;-)
    Signed, a woman

  • http://www.facebook.com/robofhood Robert Hammond

    very interesting read. at the very least, i would love to have my car drive myself and my bbq back from the tailgate :)

  • http://twitter.com/charlie_joslin Charlie Joslin

    Maybe lacrosse would grow in popularity. Not as severely physical as football, but just as fun to play and watch.

  • BW

    Well, let’s see. Oil consumption dropped due to the economy,sure, but now it’s natural gas that is replacing those BTU’s, not staying warm with a hair shirt. And you want to do away with meat? I gotta say, beans give me gas. You can grow my steak in an algae vat, but don’t try to argue that killing chickens and cows is evil. Have you ever tried living with one? Work on an egg farm for awhile, and trust me, fried chicken starts to look like a solution, not a problem. And as for football, what’s wrong with football? OH, you mean American football? I thought you meant the Beautiful Game. Never mind, you can flush football.

  • Jerry Jeff

    I haven’t looked deeply into the synthetic meat issue, but I tend to wonder about manufacturing and quality control. As I understand it, even for high cost specialty products like biological therapeutics it is hard to keep viruses and contaminants out of large-scale tissue culture. Once you are trying to make a product that (1) uses all of the cell mass rather than throwing it away, and (2) costs $10/lb or so, it will be a real challenge to keep all of the cultures clean. As for football, maybe the answer is to play with no helmets–the game would adjust, and the level of concussions would be similar to soccer or basketball.