Posted by & filed under Education, Food Philosophy.

Hello everybody. It’s been a little while since we had a new blog post, and I hope you have all enjoyed the holiday break as much as we did. It’s the New Year now, and it seems like everywhere you turn people are talking about their resolutions and what kinds of changes they want to make in their lives. Corey’s email last week about eating less meat talked about some really good reasons why that is a fantastic resolution to make for the new year. Deciding not to eat meat for personal reasons, like health or moral objections to industrial animal farming, are really excellent individual motivations for sticking to such a goal, but it got me thinking about one of the best reasons of all, one that affects each and every one of us: global sustainability.

Most folks have probably heard that livestock contributes a significant amount of methane to the planet’s greenhouse gas problem, but that is just of the tip of the environmental iceberg when it comes to meat production. One of the other huge impacts is water consumption, which is hidden or “embedded” in the meat via the massive amount of grain animals eat, so we never realize how much of this precious resource we are actually consuming.
For example, it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef; one pound of pork takes 576 gallons, and a pound of chicken takes about 470 gallons of water. Meanwhile, a single pound of wheat for direct human consumption needs only 25 gallons of water. Some 40 percent of all the fresh water in the United States currently goes to irrigate feed crops for livestock for our meat-heavy Western diet.

According to the website, “the water it takes to produce the average American diet alone—approximately 1,000 gallons per person per day—is more than the global average water footprint of 900 gallons per person per day for diet, household use, transportation, energy, and the consumption of material goods.”

In this context, letting yellow mellow or turning off the water when you brush your teeth is less than a drop in the proverbial conservation bucket. This is a truly unsustainable situation for the global population over the long-term, and eating less (or no) meat to significantly reduce our water consumption is an excellent example of how our individual, personal choices can reach beyond our own lives to have a positive impact on the whole planet.

This issue was brought into focus for me by a MOOC (massive open online course) that I took this past year through the web education company called Coursera. Taught by Professor Jonathan Tomkin at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, the (free!) 8-week class titled, “Introduction to Sustainability,” covered a lot of ground. It was an in-depth look at various factors that contribute to a sustainable future for our planet – or the lack thereof.

We studied everything from population demographics and Malthusian theories, to earth systems that regulate planetary temperature, to the science of climate change, to the politics and policy around ecosystem stewardship, energy use, pollution and agriculture, and finally the wide-ranging implications of how humans use the planet’s resources: air, water, soil, fossil fuels, and renewable energy sources. One especially valuable topic was the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons,” a paradigm for understanding how humans (mis)manage vital communal resources that we all depend on, such as ocean fisheries or the Earth’s atmosphere.

The course was surprisingly challenging and indeed I have been physically present for actual university courses that were much less of a commitment; all told, I invested about 10-12 hours a week watching video lectures, doing course readings, completing quizzes and writing peer-graded essays. But the best part of a MOOC is that you can participate at whatever level you want without any negative consequences. In that way, it can be a lot like auditing a university course, but the caveat is that you can only get as much out of it as you put into it.

More than 18,000 people worldwide participated in the sustainability class that I took, while about 5,000 of us received certificates of completion for fulfilling all of the formal course requirements. In the discussion forums, I interacted with people from all around the world, from Northern Ireland, to Tel Aviv to Tennessee, and it was incredibly heartening to see so many people from so many different backgrounds care enough about our global future to take their time to consider such complex issues.

I can’t recommend the class highly enough to anyone who wants to learn more about the prospects for our planet’s future. There is a new section of the course starting January 20; just go to and sign up for free.
May your personal choices this year be of benefit to all.