The New Environmental Battleground

by Bill Reagan

19 August 2007

Bart Simpson urges, “Don’t have a cow!” As the climate warms, I beg to differ.

I’m regularly fascinated with politicians who passionately thump the dais while pontificating on issues that have overwhelming public or party support, but whose voices go silent when a difficult and divisive issue requires their attention. Political opportunism being the delicate matter that it is, most professional pols don’t want to come down on the wrong side of a controversial issue (I suspect no-longer-surging Senator McCain will grudgingly acknowledge the political value to such hesitation), so rather than address a contentious concern, they reserve their ire for items that won’t come back to bite them during election season. (If it can be called a “season” at all anymore.)

Global warming is this year’s hot-button issue, and perennial House and Senate squatters are lining up to for their 30-second sound bytes, eager to assure the American public that they understand the urgency of the dilemma, lashing out against easy targets like gas guzzling SUVs because they know that no one is going to come to the defense of a tank-like vehicle that’s larger than their parent’s first house. Since no one in Washington, DC wants to be credited with helping to convert New York City to the American Venice, they flaunt environmental baby steps such as requiring Detroit to improve the SUV’s fuel consumption from 22 to 24 MPG over a five-year period and encourage American’s to trade in their Yukons and Expeditions for tiny Fisher-Price cars that offer the same safety features as the modern shopping cart, all the while ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.

Actually, that’s not an elephant. It’s a cow.

That’s right, Bos Taurus, the ubiquitous Bovine: Championed by American industry, defended by the Meat-is-Murder crowd, and generally given free reign to destroy life as we know it. Barely a week goes by without the news reporting some fresh horror that these reprobate ruminants have inflicting upon our environment, yet the bigwigs in DC turn a blind eye to the damage being done. Here is just a sampling of the eco-terrorism that the modern cow is waging upon the United States:

America’s Other “Meth” Problem
In California’s San Joaquin Valley (like most places), cows are causing more smog than cars. The cow’s digestive system produces methane, a gas 23 times more damaging than a car’s carbon dioxide emissions, and their four-stomach system requires more belching than a well-attended sausage eating contest. (While the similar-sonic that emanates from the other end of the cow gets most of the punch lines, burping is the real trouble.) While some scientists and farmers are exploring methods of utilizing the methane from cattle excrement as a power source, the bovine belch remains a major and unregulated source of greenhouse gases.

Watered-Down Facts
Contrary to popular belief, water is not an unlimited resource: The UN predicts that in 50 years, half of humanity will be threatened with water shortages, though much of that population already suffers a dearth of potable water. Yet look at the enormous amount that is required to produce just one pound of beef: Estimates of water usage (including direct consumption, irrigation of pastures and crops, and carcass processing) range from 441 gallons per pound of beef (according to the cow apologists at the National Cattleman’s Beef Association) to 5,214 gallons per pound (according to the University of California Agricultural Extension.) Figuring the average yield of take-home meat from a single cow at 569 lbs, and the actual water usage as midway between the two unlikely figures listed above, it requires 1.6 million gallons of water to raise a single cow from birth to grill.

Popeye’s Lament
Remember in the autumn of 2006 when your spinach salad looked like it had been cut with arugula and butter lettuce? The
E.coli outbreak
that caused a national run on romaine-heavy Caesars was traced to bacteria from cow waste seeping into waterways that were used for irrigating spinach crops. Had it been a Dow Chemical plant dumping deadly germs into the river, the EPA would have had them shut down faster than you can say Escherichia coli; yet I bet not one cow lost its job as a result of that massive health scare. That’s how much clout cattle have on Capitol Hill.

In India, the cow is sacred; in America, we just act like it is. With an estimated 100 million head of US cattle, these problems won’t go away on their own, yet where is the leadership on this issue? Presidential campaigners, beholden to the powerful Beef and Dairy industries, have remained notably silent on the topic of cow burping; The Ad Council, which rallied to make fuel conservation a public concern in the ‘70s, sits idle while Madison Avenue not only portrays the cow as a charming and adorable creature, they have even taken to using the very cow itself as an advertising device; Corporate America has also manipulated the cow’s image to its own benefit, with Gateway Computers and Ben & Jerry’s mooing all the way to the bank.

While I chastise our politicians for inaction, the recent domestic successes demonstrated by the US Government, including…hang on, something will come to me…well, let’s just say that the days of government as a problem-solving organization may be over. Fact is, if we insist that Congress genuinely address these bovine concerns, they’ll likely comply with our demand by setting up a fact-finding committee to examine the parameters of the threat; two years and $31 million later, they will issue a report indicating that perhaps the cow is a menace to society, spawning several subcommittees to examine the issue from a health perspective, an industry perspective, an economic perspective, and an environmental perspective. Do you think the cows aren’t going to notice a bunch of Washingtonians in three-piece suits walking through the nation’s pastures and stables? They’re smart enough to recognize these visits as a clerical salvo for an impending war, and when they do, the manure is going to hit the fan.

Since the issue isn’t being addressed at the bargaining table, I’ve been taking matters into my own hands, solving the bovine brouhaha at the dining room table: Steak and eggs for breakfast where I once ate granola; carne asada burritos for lunch (because I’m also sensitive to immigration issues); sirloins on the grill for dinner, forgoing the side of potato salad for a side of hamburger patty. My cholesterol has shot through the roof, but sacrifices must be made.  Remember Kennedy’s directive that we “Ask not what our country can do for us, but ask what we can do for out country?” A steady diet of T-Bones and Chateaubriand is the least I can do to help.

But I can’t do it alone. I need for my fellow Americans to recognize this crisis, and part of recognizing the crisis is recognizing the enemy. I admit, there was a time when, if asked to name the breed of cow in a particular photograph, my response would have been a string of meaningless crossword puzzle answers: Holstein? Guernsey? Jersey? Frankly, they all looked alike to me. With dogs, there are so many visual clues: different tails, different ears, different head shapes, different heights; but with cows, they all look like the same cold-eyed, cold-hearted creature wearing different colored overcoats. (And occasionally, a novelty hat like they sell at Minnesota Viking games.)

To help the nation put a face on the enemy, I’ve taken a page from the Department of Defense playbook and created a special deck of playing cards as part of my activist propaganda. The face cards feature, obviously, the disquieting faces of the beasts: the king of spades displays the fearsome Black Angus, the queen of diamonds portrays the common dairy cow (don’t let the marketing fool you, folks, these cutesy heifers are just as dangerous as the rest of them.) The rest of the deck will feature various cuts of meat, from flank steak (on the two, and still overvalued) to kabobs (six chunks skewered on the “six” card) to Filet Mignon on the ace. The four suits are differentiated by cooking preferences, from hearts (rare) to spades (well done.)

Everyone will need to do their part, so when my fellow carnivores have played enough rounds of canasta to confidently talk shop with their local butcher, please pass the cards on to your vegetarian friends. Vegetarians have long claimed the moral high ground for their finicky dietary choices, but their callous disregard of this looming environmental tragedy threatens us all. (I don’t want to accuse anyone of not being patriotic, but as I see it, you’re either with us, or you’re against us.) When I walk though a restaurant and pass a table full of folks eating salads and tofu, I have to resist the urge to spatter them with beet juice and yell, “By saving the cow, you’re killing yourselves!”

So I beseech you, dear readers, for the good of the country: Let’s fire up the hibachis and get to work! As the smell of barbecue spreads across the nation, our politicians will recognize that once again, the people are leading the way, and once again, they have to follow. The day we see one of the presidential candidates eating a Philly cheesesteak sandwich during a televised debate, mumbling with a half-full mouth, “Pardon me, busy doing my part to help the environment,” we’ll know our leaders are, at last, with us.

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