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8162X: On the virtue of signaling
Local skirmishes over the issue of flatulent cattle

This column is about vegetarians, for reasons that will be made clear later.

Let’s start with some taxonomy. Based on my informal observation, the various species of vegetarians arrive at that dietary preference via ethics, health, or taste. The ethical branch includes don’t-eat-anything-with-a-face folks; motivated by a Buddhist-style reverence for all life, and animal rights activists boycotting the conditions in factory feedlots, along with don’t-look-behind-the-curtain vegetarians, who were exposed to the reality of meat processing at a vulnerable age. Additionally, there are diet-watchers, who limit their fat and cholesterol for heart health, weight loss or athletic performance. Finally, there are texture vegetarians, who just don’t like the feel or taste of meat.

Being a meat eater, when I first joined my wife’s family for holiday meals, I tilted the family’s herbivore-carnivore ratio back into balance. As a result, meat became a bigger fixture than it had previously, a disruptive service that I was happy to provide, especially at Thanksgiving, over which we enjoy an annual re-telling of the story of the Great Quinoa Stuffed Pumpkin Debacle.

My wife was a texture vegetarian for much of her life, until the physical demands of pregnancy led her to crave easy access to iron. We eased her back over to the dark side with a baked chicken dish. She has since partaken in turkey and even hamburgers. She still won’t eat pork or steak though, and, oddly, has no interest in bacon.

Bacon is of course the Great Exception for some vegetarians. It’s just too irresistible. Bacon is fun, and pairs well with any dish. A BLT, prepared with proper ingredients, remains one of the finest developments of human civilization.

I am not at risk of becoming a vegetarian. I was paleo before paleo was cool. I could explain about being raised in the Midwest, about growing up hunting, about how my mouth just tells me “this is so right,” but I will simply leave it at this: how can you explain love?

Recently, there’s been an additional species of vegetarian added to the typology: climate activists. Agriculture is a major industrial activity, and as such, it is a major component of global resource and energy use. Livestock raising, depending on whose numbers you believe and what activities one includes, is alleged to be a major climate culprit. J’accuse la vache!

There is a sub-debate within this argument as to whether grass-finishing of meat on pasture follows a different calculus than grain-finishing done in feedlots. There is disagreement whether grass farming, done properly, provides other important environmental services, such as soil regeneration and carbon sequestration. Indeed, the practices of grain- versus grass-finishing are substantially different in character and inputs. More so when grass-finishing is coupled with restorative pasture practices.

There’s a lot of debate within the industry, and dueling studies being waved around, in a finger-pointing exercise over what’s worse for the planet, grass or corn. I won’t try to resolve that here. But I will point out that a substantial portion of the high (i.e. “bad”) climate score for beef derives not from the cattle themselves but from the land-clearing practices of global cattle producers. The local producers I know do their best to be ethical and responsible stewards of the land, within the rigors of a competitive and demanding market, regardless of the finishing method they choose.

Grass-finishing livestock has its challenges; it requires more land directly for the cattle, it is expensive to do because it takes longer, and it’s hard to do well in terms of delivering the type of consistent quality end-product that American consumers expect from beef.

This whole grass-versus-grain debate reminds me of the cloth or disposable diapers conundrum we navigated as new parents. I read somewhere that the Chinese do not use either, opting instead to go diaperless and toilet-train early. We decided not to get that far ahead of the mainstream culture.

I don’t mean to trivialize vegetarianism, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize the climate crisis. But I’ll confess to surveying our vast systems of industrial, residential and transportation energy use and abuse, and am having a hard time wrapping my mind around cow belches as the Big Problem. Hmm, does that make me a climate skeptic? In any case, I want to make clear that you can have my grass-fed T-bone steak when you pry it from my cold dead hands. 

Do we eat too much beef collectively? Perhaps. We certainly eat too much corn, especially when you include all the processed food products and sweeteners that are derived from corn. We surely should eat more vegetables.

This all comes to mind because the Town of Basalt has banned meat products in its public meeting meal service, apparently as an act of solidarity with the climate. Now then, as I’ve already described, there’s an earnest debate underway about the climate impact of livestock production. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable for elected officials to consider the issue in the context of what can they do to react to this concern. (Although it raises a question of why not also hold the meetings by candlelight?)

This proposal by the town drew the ire of an upvalley gadfly who dismissed the entire idea as empty “virtue signaling.” Boy, I really dislike that term; it’s a cheap shot created to hide the lack of a meaningful rebuttal. It’s psycho-babble sophistry at its worst.

Although I am not ready to turn my back on cattle and cattle producers, I fully defend the town’s prerogative to consider actions that signal virtue. One hopes such acts are well thought-out, including the financial impact and message conveyed, in this case regarding the region’s cultural and economic connection to cattle production.

Carbondale’s plastic bag ban, which was derided at the time from the usual quarters, is a model of proactive municipal leadership. Although there are complexities in the details of implementation, it remains an act ahead of its time, one that much of the nation will eventually copy. While some similar acts misfire, like a ban on large soda drinks, others cannot come soon enough, such as the move to push vaping products out of the candy aisle.

Virtue signaling is another word for leadership, which includes symbolic gestures and moral leadership – one person’s empty gesture is another’s principled stand. Gandhi walked around barefoot, and he changed a nation. 

Big changes start with small steps, whereby gestures of defiance and pioneering forays into establishing new paradigms are acts of courage. Symbolic acts should be judged on the merits of the idea, not the impact of the act. There is a value in awareness-raising in and of itself, which is an important step toward incremental change, and as a result, cannot be easily dismissed merely as “empty” simply because its immediate impact is small, or its cost to the actor is perceived to be low.

Early pioneers of solar energy were virtue signalers too I suppose; Jimmy Carter’s symbolic installation of solar panels on the White House in 1979 were subsequently symbolically removed by his successor Ronald Reagan – both signaling a message to their supporters from the bully pulpit.

So rave on Basalt, enjoy your Impossible Burgers by candlelight if you want. You were elected by the local citizens, and so if they don’t like what you do, they can vote you out next time, and choose representative more in line with their own virtues.

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. He needs to disclose that some of his clients are beef producers, and he suspects that if reincarnation is true, he hopes to come back as a cheeseburger in paradise.