Over the past week, I've been getting back in touch with one of my favorite childhood TV shows — the science-fiction adventure drama SeaQuest DSV. Essentially Star Trek in a submarine, the 1993-1996 series takes place in the year 2018, in a world where humanity has colonized the sea and the giant "deep submurgence vehicle" SeaQuest is responsible for keeping the sub-marine peace. It was on when I was seven or eight years old, and contributed to a phase where I wanted to grow up to be an admiral in the Navy. (I eventually abandoned this goal when I figured out you couldn't start at the top and had to actually work your way up.)
On Monday morning, I watched the episode "Whale Song." The main plot of that episode concerned a radical environmentalist attacking whaling vessels while the SeaQuest and its captain — who sympathized with the cause of ending illegal whaling but opposed the environmentalist's vigilante methods — tried to hunt him down. But the subplot involved the ship's greedy supply officer, Lt. Benjamin Krieg, and his attempt to eat a hamburger.
Writing a show set 25 years into the future, the writers of SeaQuest made a lot of predictions about what the world would be like. Some of this ends up being typically wrong — powerful computers with 1993-era graphics. Others look highly unlikely to be true — nuclear fusion reactors, livable long-term deep-sea habitats.
But some of the show's predictions seem eerily resonant with where we are in the year 2009. Visionaries are right now proposing plans for giant sea-based structures. Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have people reassessing the role of women in the military — a reassessment that would have had to occur in order for Lt. Commander Katherine Hitchcock to be allowed to serve on board a submarine, where most modern navies (including ours) prohibit women from serving. And most pressingly, environmental concerns are causing some thinkers to eye America's large beef industry — opening a possible path to the SeaQuest subplot where most nations have outlawed beef.
But the very credible evidence that the earth's climate is changing and the generally accepted belief among scientists that man-made emissions are contributing to a lot of this has policymakers looking for a way to curb emissions of greenhouse gases — chiefly carbon dioxide and methane. These gases trap heat in the earth's atmosphere, contributing to generally rising temperatures and such disturbing phenomenon as the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps.
Much of the attention in the debate so far has focused on coal-burning power plants and factories which dump industrial amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. But some thinkers believe we're overlooking another significant source of greenhouse gas emissions — right in our back pasture.
Ezra Klein (a writer and thinker Politico.com journalist Ben Smith identifies as being part of the "wonky left") wrote a controversial piece in the Washington Post in July that provides a good explanation of the debate here. Titled "The Meat of the Problem," Klein cites a United Nations report estimating that livestock emissions account for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and a University of Chicago study claiming "switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius."
This may or may not be true; let's assume for the sake of argument that it is. It is certainly true that raising plants to feed to livestock takes far more energy than just raising plants to eat does — a fact that is arguably one of the luxuries our advanced economy permits us.
If this is all true, the best way to protect the environment might be to attack America's beef industry — which is the basis of livelihoods, directly and indirectly, for tens of thousands of South Dakotans and hundreds of thousands more across the country. Even assuming the environmental benefit of shifting American agriculture towards plants and away from livestock, what about the economic costs?
Economists right now are debating whether the costs of reducing greenhouse emissions outweigh the costs of global climate change. On a national or worldwide level, that's still debatable. But on a local level in South Dakota, I think it's almost certain that slashing the beef industry would have devastating consequences far outweighing any cost South Dakota might suffer from climate change — which could be severe. The disruption to established patterns of life would be drastic, and much of the land currently used for livestock just isn't very suitable for growing crops.
All year, South Dakota's Congressional delegation — and most vocally by far, Republican Sen. John Thune — have tried to fight off attempts to put a price on the methane emissions by livestock. As early as March 12 I wrote an article highlighting Thune's opposition to a feared EPA attempt to impose fees on livestock farmers as high as $85 for a beef cow and $175 for a dairy cow.
Local ranchers said then the cost would put them out of business.
"To say the least, I'm against it," said Mack Wyly. "These cows aren't making any money right now. They're probably losing money on today's prices. You stick another $80 on there and I don't think anybody would survive."
Thune found bipartisan support for a bill banning the EPA from imposing such a fee — termed a "cow tax." Liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined with Thune to oppose the bill. The two succeeded in passing a measure banning any such fee for one year. But this battle is far from over.
The newest front is international. A British lord and climate change expert told the London Times that "eat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better."
Read the story here.
The response from the beef industry — and Thune — was swift.
"A week doesn't go by without an attack on the livestock sector," said Alasatair Mackintosh, an official with the British National Farmer's Union, condemning the measure and calling for alternative solutions to climate change.
Thune pulled no punches to the U.S. News and World Report blog Washington Whispers.
"With falling beef prices, higher costs of production, and onerous cap-and-trade legislation looming, the last thing ranchers and employees of America's meat industry need right now is elitist lecturing and misinformation from Lord Stern — a reported meat eater," Thune said. "Fortunately, we've been grilling the cow tax efforts here in D.C. but need to keep the fire on these extremist views from across the pond."
In the SeaQuest universe, environmental concerns had caused cattle raising to be banned some time before 2018. It wasn't climate change — not a big issue in 1993 — that caused the ban, but an issue that was big at the time: holes in the ozone layer.
"This is a freeze-dried protein patty," complains Lt. Krieg as he and fellow SeaQuest officers eat their breakfast of processed food. "A look-alike beef product."
"Raising cattle was outlawed because their methane gas was deteriorating the ozone," replied Lt. JG Tim O'Neill, the ship's communications officer.
"So some cow passes air and I can't eat a cheeseburger?" replies a disgusted Krieg.
In the episode, Krieg succeeded in smuggling a frozen patty of the banned beef onto the submarine and cooked himself up a delicious cheeseburger (pictured, above) — only to have SeaQuest Captain Nathan Bridger walk in on him and confiscate the contraband. Bridger, nostalgic for the long-gone taste, took a bite of the burger before throwing it into the garbage receptacle and walking away.
Poor Krieg wasn't allowed to eat his delicious hamburger, but that's not likely to be the case in the real world in 2018. Only the most radical environmentalists are calling for any sort of ban on beef. What most policy thinkers venturing down this path are suggesting is that we should eat LESS beef.
"It was left to Professor Robert Watson, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to set the record straight and make clear that stopping people eating meat was not on the government agenda. The professor, who eats meat, fish and cheese but admits that he consumes more fruit and vegetables these days, made clear that eating a balanced diet that was good for health and the environment was the key. However, he did not flinch from Lord Stern’s view that the nation had to reduce its carbon emissions.
"'There’s no question we need to reduce greeenhouse gas emissions, not only the way we produce energy and use energy, but also from avoiding deforestation and our agricultural sector. Livestock globally could account for as much as 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
“'When you look at the livestock industry, it’s not just the cows burping methane, it’s transporting the meat, it’s cooking the meat, it’s storing the meat. It’s not stopping eating meat. It’s how do we get a balanced diet that reduces the environmental footprint.'”
But as in most cases where the most extreme solution may be a fantasy, even a more moderate approach would still have considerable impact. If people consumed less meat, there'd be less demand — probably forcing many cattle ranchers out of business. Not all would be forced out — the lowered supply would raise prices back up again until the market achieved equilibrium at a lower volume — but the impact would still be severe on cattle-raising areas like West River.
Towns already shrinking would depopulate further or disappear entirely. More family ranchers would probably be forced to sell off to agribusiness operations. A Western way of life already dealt severe blows by modern life would be driven closer to extinction.
Is it worth it? Almost all South Dakotans would say no, and people living in urban areas shouldn't disregard the points of view of residents of what they sometimes term "flyover states" when formulating policy. But other economically and culturally vital traditions have also been discarded in past centuries, and environmentalists do raise some interesting points about the energy-intensive nature of the modern American diet. Their proposed remedies may not be workable — especially not for residents of rural states — but agricultural advocates should offer alternatives and be part of the conversation.
Take Mr. Mackintosh, the British livestock advocate so fiercely opposed to calls to abandon meat: "Agriculture and farming are part of the solution to climate change, it’s not the problem. We have a challenge going forward, but we are up to it. One area of work is whether we can trap methane and reuse it. If the technology is there we need to do it.”
Mackintosh's proposed methods might or might not work. But it's preferable to a world where a poor submarine supply officer can't get himself a nice, juicy cheeseburger from time to time.