I Give Up Quitting Beef
Yes, burgers rule. They’re one of America’s truly great exports. They’re also a symbol of ecological tone deafness.
For ten years, Portland, Oregon, has hosted Burger Week, our annual celebration of one of the world’s most popular, customizable sandwiches. Each August, participating businesses create a special one-of-a-kind version that they only sell during Burger Week, and they charge a measly eight dollars. Some use harissa. Some use gochujang. I can say from personal experience that most of the experiments are delicious.
I love burgers. My wife says I love them too much. I prefer them slathered in cheese. For the last three Burger Weeks, I’ve ventured out for at least three limited-edition cheeseburgers, sometimes two in a single day. When I saw the first poster in a store this month, I texted a friend: “Let’s eat!” Then the reality sank in: Should I eat that? I used to be a vegetarian and consider myself an environmentalist. Now I was celebrating one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters? “They’re only $8!” Portland Mercury said in its Burger Week coverage. “And you have an entire week to try all 48 of ’em! CAN LIFE GET ANY BETTER?!?” Yes, it can. Our heating planet has finally made it impossible for me to see beef as anything other than a delicious irresponsible luxury, so this year, I chose Burger Week as my time to quit beef.
Record heat waves in Europe, forest fires in California, reservoirs running dry in the American West—this summer has battered the world with climate-change emergencies, and news stories warn that they’ll get worse. Never mind that many critics consider the US’s recent $369 million dollar investment in climate and energy, our nation’s most sweeping climate-change legislation, inadequate. We have a five-year-old daughter. I fear for her future. We’re trying zero-waste stores. We’re buying more bulk goods, we bring our own bags grocery shopping, and we now only buy compostable disposable cutlery, never plastic. And now, I’ve given up beef.
Livestock production emits 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses annually—about the same amount of emissions as all planes, cars, ships, and trucks in the world’s transportation sector. That cheap burger is not carbon-cheap. It takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of grain-fed beef. Approximately 35 percent of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock for human consumption, rather than fed directly to people. That’s especially upsetting when you consider how much of that grain could help those who suffer malnutrition, starvation, and food inequality. Producing food requires natural resources; there’s no getting around that. The issue is the ratio of resource investment to protein yield. All industrially produced meats have a large carbon footprint, but since cattle require so much land, water, and resources to grow their grains and feed—because few entirely eat natural grass—beef and lamb have the largest carbon footprint per gram of protein. A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that beef production uses twenty-eight times more land, and eleven times more water, than pork or chicken. Then there’s cheese.
It takes an average of sixty-seven gallons of water to produce an 8.4 ounce glass of milk, and 144 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. Two and a half gallons of milk are required to produce 2.25 pounds of cheese. Slap that cheese on a beef patty, and you have what I’d call the Unjustifiable Late-Stage Capitalism Sandwich. Food that requires so much water, energy, and feed to produce is not a smart use of resources, especially while our species’ agricultural capabilities are being threatened by shifting climate patterns and prolonged resource mismanagement. Government subsidies artificially prop up American beef production, keeping water prices low and encouraging inefficient usage. And people continue to clear-cut the Amazon—the world’s largest carbon sink—to raise cattle and their feed for cheap beef.
That cheap burger is not carbon-cheap.
All summer I’ve been bumming myself out with stats like this. I saw so many seemingly happy people riding bikes to the bar and picnicking with friends in parks. Couldn’t I just coast like a cloud through these sunny months and keep the vibes chill? Yes, burgers rule. They are pure summer pleasure. They’re the essence of culinary equality and accessibility and one of America’s truly great exports, uniting people across cultural and economic lines. They’re also a symbol of ecological tone deafness.
Me quitting beef is a drop in the bucket in the bigger scheme, but as a parent, I need to model responsible climate behavior to my daughter. My wife and I need to show her that making certain decisions matters for the collective good, and that through our choices, we recognize that she matters. My decision to quit beef is part of an older journey I’ve been on, one in which I continue struggling to align my values with my lifestyle and career, because climate change has put us all on this journey whether we acknowledge it or not.
I grew up in the Arizona desert, surrounded by natural beauty. Mountains loomed in every direction. Colorful sunsets dazzled me. My parents often took me hiking, and my high school friends and I camped constantly. When lizards scurry on backyard walls and coyotes trot through your streets, it’s hard not to appreciate Nature. You also notice the engineered systems that keep you alive: Open-air canals deliver water to neighborhoods. Air-conditioning protects you from heat. My dad taught me to carry jugs of water in my car in case of emergencies. Recognizing your life’s fragility can make you care about the larger global systems humanity relies on. That was my foundation.
My mom built on it when she suggested I take Geology 101, a class she’d found enlightening, my freshman year. The course revolutionized my worldview, casting the natural world and humanity’s place in it in an entirely new light. As the class taught us about igneous rocks and caldera complexes, I drove out into the desert to see examples firsthand, and when I saw the way newly cut roads, planned suburban housing developments, and trash spoiled the desert, it formalized my interest in the natural sciences and environmentalism. I traded my art major to study ecology, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, and my new life began.
College classes educated me, but they only held some of the answers, so I started systematically ditching school to search for knowledge in the wilderness. At the time, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing except indulging my interests. I had no professional plan, only curiosity and instinctive attractions, and I created my own course of study as a naturalist. Along with class assignments, I spent years reading John Muir, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Taoist texts, and John James Audubon’s journals. I was haunted by the “fierce green fire” that ecologist Aldo Leopold described leaving a dying wolf’s eyes in his famous book A Sand County Almanac . Civilization was robbing that fire from the whole world. Speeding commuters hit wild boars and left them on the side of the road. Hawks got electrocuted on power lines around town. Sometimes when I drove into the desert to hike, I found the native vegetation cleared to bare dirt and stakes set to mark the beginning of home construction. I was activated by a sense of loss, but I was still only learning. Exploring was easier and more fun than activism. I’d seen photos of people holding protest signs outside government buildings and images of people tied to trees. I had never paid attention to the details of what they objected to, though, or thought much about what it meant to care so deeply about something as big as what my teachers called “policy.” Nature drew a line from those people to me.
On weekends, I drove from Tucson to new parts of southeastern Arizona to hike, camp, and read. While my classmates watched football and ate chicken wings at sports bars, I cut trails up rugged scrubby hillsides and between prickly native oaks, learning the names of plants and animals. The peace I found outdoors was tempered by the anger I felt about Nature’s destruction . As my consciousness expanded, my parents pushed it open further by encouraging me to travel. One summer, my dad lent me his van so my best friend and I could spend an entire month camping up the West Coast, as far as northern British Columbia. The next summer, I drove all the way to Vancouver Island and back, alone. I wanted to see Clayoquot Sound and the ancient red cedars on Meares Island, which were slated to be clear-cut. First Nations and environmental activists had peacefully protested and blocked logging roads there during the 1980s and early ’90s. The battle to save the First Nations’ ancestral land got dubbed the War in the Woods, and the war became international news. I’d read a lot about it and wanted to see what a truly wild, endangered old-growth temperate rain forest looked like while I could. By the time I got there in 1996, a judge had stopped logging activity in favor of the Indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth people until their land claim could be resolved, but the lands hadn’t been permanently designated as a park or preserve yet. Things were still up in the air.
During my visit, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht group of the Nuu-chah-nulth took me on a boat to hike among the ancient red cedars. When I returned home to Arizona, I kept abreast of the sound’s preservation and was relieved to see that most of it was eventually saved from clear-cutting and was designated part of the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. It was revelatory for me. For the first time since I started paying attention, I saw activism’s capacity to move policymakers. Even though progress was slow and disappointing, some people actually did what mattered and could make a difference.
I spent nearly three years as a vegetarian, even trying veganism for one of them. In the early 1990s, health food was less sophisticated. Vegetarians didn’t have Field Roast or Soyrizo. Food science hadn’t yet created the wealth of cellular meat and dairy replacements, like Beyond Beef and Impossible Burger. Gardenburger topped with alfalfa sprouts ruled this primitive world. Things were so sad that some vegetarian high school friends used to go to Burger King and order a Whopper without the meat—just a vegetable sandwich on a cheap white bun.
Even when I resumed eating meat, I intentionally kept my beef consumption low and I still shopped at local co-ops and natural grocers. I bought bulk when I could, favored organic over conventional produce, and supported farmers and businesses who cared about the pressing issues that I did. And yet, as the years marched on, my beef intake increased.
Like many people, adulthood’s demands complicated my youthful ideals. I still cared about the planet and loved Nature, but I lived in the city. I hiked less, camped less, had a job and financial demands, cared more about going to concerts than into the outdoors, and I wanted things to require less time and energy. When I worked in publishing in New York City for one year, I tried to be more urbane. It didn’t suit me. Before work I often hid under the tall trees in Union Square Park, seeking refuge with the squirrels in one of the only patches of green natural land that lower Manhattan provided. My budget also required I cut corners. I relied on inexpensive foods: eggs, toast, refried beans from a can. Beef was cheap, so I ate carne asada tacos and beefy burgers. Conveniences like takeout seduced me. Cooking and washing dishes were a drag, especially in a tiny studio apartment with no dishwasher. I preferred spending my time elsewhere, like reading, writing, and building my career—meaning, indulging myself . But, since I still cared about the environment, I also bought tons of microwaveable vegetarian food from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and washed their recyclable plastic trays before tossing them in the proper bin. Many of these products were made by seemingly responsible companies like Amy’s Kitchen and MorningStar Farms. But I was deluding myself. I created waste by favoring convenience over the true labor of climate action, and buying the “right” brands at the “right” natural foods stores made me feel like I hadn’t compromised my ideals, when obviously I had. Whenever I sank that plastic straw through that fun plastic film on the top of my tall plastic cup of boba tea, I knew I had to revamp my wasteful, polluting life, but like so many of us, I kept postponing those changes, kept hoping I could say “better late than never,” whenever that would be.
Then I had a kid. Parenting makes convenient, disposable goods even more attractive. You’re tired. You’re busy. You’re overwhelmed. You tend to seek the path of least resistance, and resistance is what environmental activism is all about. Prioritizing convenience streamlines certain parts of your life, but it also locks you into a wasteful pattern where you give into disposable crap like plastic-based diapers because you have so much other stuff to do that you can’t bear the thought of washing cloth diapers when you’re already washing dishes and nipples and bottles over and over. Cost trumps sustainable choices when your budget is limited or you’re economically disadvantaged. Environmentalism is an economic privilege; it’s true. But for a white middle-class bohemian like me, convenience trumps environmental values when you prioritize yourself over the collective good, though damn, it can make you feel so bad, and you’re grateful when your kid outgrows diapers and the guilt that goes with them.
Now that my daughter’s five, I have to refocus. Sustainable choices are not a youthful ideal. They’re a global necessity. So what’s my generation doing to help younger generations?
The main things I’ve done so far are raising her to love animals and insects; to respect the fragile order of Nature; to know wild edible plants; to empathize with the creatures who need a helping hand; and to feel both confident in, and curious about, the natural world. Just as my mom’s suggestion to take geology changed my life, I hope that cultivating her interest in Nature changes her too. She’s received the message: Her bed is covered with stuffed animals. She catches garden snails and cradles worms and helps me move house spiders outside.
In her short life, our daughter has experienced two local heat waves and two massive forest fires, one whose smoke covered Portland’s sky for ten straight days. When you wake up to forest-fire smoke blotting the sun, you wonder if the end of the world is closer than you realize. So far, she doesn’t know what climate change is, because I don’t believe discussing the potential end of our species is developmentally appropriate for a five-year-old. Kids need lots of time to play, and it’s vital to their healthy development, but I keep wondering at what age it becomes irresponsible to let them indulge in climate cluelessness instead of preparing them for the hard news to come.
Removing too many obstacles from our kids’ paths seems loving, but it can actually ruin their resiliency. Climate change is one of those obstacles—it’s a psychological reality that every person must reckon with emotionally, just as it’s an environmental reality humanity must mitigate and adapt to technologically. I just haven’t figured out when to let some of that dark stuff in so our daughter can learn to live with it in her own way. When she does learn more about climate change, she may grow to hate us adults for all the stuff we didn’t do, as youth activists like Greta Thunberg did before her. Like, really, you couldn’t have stopped using single-use plastic? Or even quit eating beef sooner? How could your own children matter so little that you just kept dining out and staring at your stupid phones instead of doing something?
My daughter, the news, lingering guilt—it all converged to make something in me click this summer, at age forty-seven, and return to the enviro mode that defined me as a college kid. I started writing articles about issues like water conservation and plastic pollution, because writing about the environment forces me to read deeply about the environment, and I can’t write accurately if I don’t understand it. So far, the water experts and policy analysts I’ve interviewed have educated me and filled me with more hope than dread. The more of the dark stuff that I let in, the less I’m able to remain inactive.
Sustainable choices are not a youthful ideal. They’re a global necessity. So what’s my generation doing to help younger generations?
Policy must revamp industry and infrastructure to make the biggest impact on climate change, but we citizens play a role too. And action doesn’t have to be major. In 2019, food systems produced 25 to 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If millions of people changed their diets to favor low-carbon-footprint foods and changed how they spent their money, we could literally change the world. But doing the right thing isn’t the easy thing. New modes of existence challenge us with inconvenience and discomfort . I should have quit beef years ago. Quitting now is ideal, but I worry that I no longer have the fortitude of my idealistic youth.
Obviously a vegan diet lowers your carbon footprint more than any other, but eating less meat and dairy and adding more low-emission plant foods substantially reduces your footprint too. Some call this a “flexitarian” diet. A 2016 World Resources Institute report calculated that the average American would reduce their carbon footprint by 13 percent if they replaced a third of the beef they ate with chicken, legumes, and even pork.
Another option is what author Brian Kateman called a “reducetarian” diet, which finds a practical halfway point between carnivorism and veganism by reducing the consumption of animal products rather than eliminating them. Part of reduction’s appeal is the way it essentially lets us off the hook while providing excuses: Look, I can still eat a little beef. I didn’t have to completely give it up!
Compromise is important. But for me, there’s no longer a place for industrial beef in my life. I’ve quit talking to friends who were toxic. I’ve quit drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and doing drugs that are toxic. Unless it’s fully raised on natural grasses, I am determined to regard beef as no different.
Before I gave up beef entirely, I searched for the most indulgent, fatty burgers on the Burger Week list to enjoy one last go-round .
This year, a Lebanese restaurant had created the Beef Shawarma Burger, featuring shawarma-spiced beef, harissa burger sauce, and a brioche bun. A beer hall designed the Messy Joseph Burger, which slathered sloppy joe mix on a beef patty. A patty made from brisket grabbed my attention, and I almost went for a burger covered with Korean bulgogi sauce and pickled daikon. Instead, I settled on the Rosa LuxemBurger, which turned an expensive Wagyu beef patty into a smash burger with Swiss cheese, bacon sauerkraut, and beet horseradish aioli. That sounded sufficiently last-days-of-Pompeii decadent to me, so I piled into my gas-guzzling van on Friday night to acquire it.
The shaded interior of the restaurant felt cool, its low light taking the sting out of the eighty-eight-degree day. The waiter handed me my sloppy stacked burger in a take-out box. In classic American style, it was big. It required two hands.
“This is my last hamburger with beef in it,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m sorry.” I explained why all the great fake meats made ditching beef no biggie, but it felt like a lie when I said it out loud.
He agreed. “Back in the day it was like, ‘Here’s your fake patty,’ and you were like, ‘No, that’s just grass!” We laughed.
What was also funny was that I hadn’t told anyone that I’d already eaten a spicy pimento cheeseburger for lunch.
I took a seat outside and considered the day’s climate news: “More water cuts are coming as the nation’s largest reservoirs continue to dry up in the worst drought in 1,200 years.” “Glaciers in Europe are experiencing the most severe melting on record.” Behind the “Burger Week Official Location” poster in the restaurant’s window, people ate their burgers and drank their beer. They looked so serene, like everything was normal, but what were they supposed to do, run in panic? A local children’s musician was performing in the adjoining space—the same musician I’d taken my daughter to see three years ago. He was singing “We Are the Dinosaurs,” one of my girl’s favorite kids’ songs.
Like the ice caps, my burger started shrinking.
Bite after bite, I whittled it away, wetting my wrists with Wagyu grease and sauerkraut . I slowly turned the burger in my hands, assessing the way my bites exposed its interior, and I adjusted the toppings to get a bit of every ingredient in each mouthful. With each bite, I could feel my relationship with beef shrinking too. I won’t miss burgers the way I’d miss poke and hamachi if I gave up fish, but I will miss other beefy things like phở, like Thai noodle soup, like sukiyaki and my beloved gyūdon, where thinly sliced fatty beef is simmered in sweet dashi and served over steaming rice. I could care less about steaks; they’re a one-note song. Whenever I eat steak, I inevitably think: This doesn’t taste good enough to sacrifice the world for . Being from Arizona, I prefer my beef cubed and simmered in red chili sauce, served in a flour tortilla, with a side of refried beans. I’ll miss that nostalgic flavor, along with the taste of seasoned ground beef inside a hard-shell crunchy taco, which reminds me of childhood.
I ate until the burger fit in one hand. Soon the remaining piece fit between my thumb and index finger like a cookie. I took my third-to-last bite, then my second-to-last. I studied that last bite, looking for ways to turn it into two bites, which was when I knew it had gotten ridiculous. I popped it in my mouth. The fatty salty flavor exploded, then faded. It was delicious but not close to my favorite flavor. It’s too heavy. Burgers weigh you down. They weigh my conscience down too.
One day our daughter may ask why we birthed her into a world of increasing droughts, water wars, and food shortages. She will have every right to be angry. I don’t want to look back on my life and see all the ways I should have cared more and tried harder, ways which might resemble not loving her enough to bother. I don’t want to look her future self in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry I did so little.” I want to say, “I tried, girl. I tried.”
She is already making sophisticated connections between her behavior and her world. When she learned what sausage and pepperoni were made from, she grew uncomfortable. One night, when a waiter asked what kind of meat she wanted on her arepa, she told him, “I’m a pescatarian. I only eat fish.” My wife and I are not pescatarians. She came to this solution herself at age four and a half, deciding that empathy trumped taste, so she quit eating all meat except for fish—whose flavor she loved too much and you didn’t get to pet anyway. I believe she will make other informed, complex decisions in the years to come.
Information is power. It’s also a burden.
With that, I tossed my paper to-go box into the trash, wiped the grease off my hands with a paper napkin—made of recycled material, I assume—and drove into my new beef-free life, which was still rapidly heating, and which I may have waited too long to address. At least I felt better about my place in it.