When Did Cars Become The Yardstick For Measuring Pollution?

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Environmental Working Group 'Meat-Eater's Guide'

Environmental Working Group 'Meat-Eater's Guide'

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If you've ever visited a museum or a manufacturing plant, you've probably heard a tour guide say something like this: "And if you laid all these bottles end-to-end, they'd stretch clear across the state of Kansas!" 

Through time and repetition, certain comparisons have become standardized, so that we now measure square footage in football fields -- and we measure pollution with cars.

It's happened so slowly that we barely notice it anymore. But several of us sat bolt upright earlier this week, when an outfit called the Environmental Working Group published a report about the impact of food production on the environment. What got our attention? The group uses cars as its dirty yardstick to measure pollution.


Generally speaking, measuring things is easier when we compare them to other things. Saying that something is 1400 feet high doesn't make much of an impression on a listener other than, "Oh, that's probably really high." Saying that something is as tall as the Empire State Building, however, gives that same listener a reference point.

In this case, the Environmental Working Group has calculated the greenhouse-gas emissions that accumulate over the lifespan of certain agricultural products. And to drive home its points (no pun intended), the group measures out that pollution in auto emissions.

A serving of broccoli, for example, generates the same carbon-dioxide emissions as driving half a mile by car. Eating cheese, however, is like cruising more than 6.5 miles, and downing a four-ounce slab of lamb is equivalent to driving over seven miles.

What's the standard?

Right away, car fans can point out some flaws in the group's metrics -- the major one being that while the group takes great pains (63 pages, in fact) to explain its methodology for calculating agricultural pollution, we can't seem to find a straightforward explanation of how it established an average emissions rate for cars.

Is it relying on data from SUVs? Sedans? It's certainly not picking on the Toyota Prius.

How can the group do that? Because the car is an unquestioned stand-in for filth. Consider this statement from page 2: "IF YOU eat one less burger a week...it's like taking your car off the road for 320 miles, or line-drying your clothes half the time." Line-drying? Does anyone under 40 even know what that means? Stick with cars for reference points, please.

The big takeaway

We should point out that we're not attacking the Environmental Working Group. Clearly, it put a lot of effort into its data, and there's no reason to believe it's not sound.

For us, the big takeaway from this study has nothing to do with agriculture or the human diet. The big takeaway is that cars have become so thoroughly synonymous with pollution that we take the metaphor for granted.

Apart from proud owners of Leafs and Priuses (or Prii, if you must), few people are going to look at this report and object to the comparison. In fact, we'd wager that the equation of cars with pollution is so ingrained that people from all points along the political spectrum buy it

Then again, maybe we're getting too philosophical about this -- or too optimistic that everyone sees cars as pollutants. In the comments section below, feel free to share your opinions, as well as your own favorite metaphors for pollution. (But please leave line-drying out of it.)



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Comments (12)
  1. Nice article.I think cars are a good comparison. I just don't think that global warming has much to do with man made CO2, or CO2 period. Therefore CO2 is not really pollution. Without it there would be no plant life, and we wouldn't exist. CO 2 has a positive effect on plant life. CO2 is beneficial. It is not a pollutant, and should not be worried about. Read Slaying the Sky Dragon by John O'Sullivan. It fully explains the science of weather.

  2. Yes, without CO2 we couldn't exist but who says that the global warming agenda is about love for mankind? Note that this research is using the CO2 bogeyman to question human food. It's also interesting that exploding children are considered a funny way to promote the CO2 gospel (viewer discretion advised!): http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=210617

  3. Yes, Chris, it's amazing how thousands of scientists from over 100 countries seem to have found a general concensus on climate change despite having very differnt views on other subjects. Contrary to rumors, over 90% of scientists who believe in climate change do not financially benefit from research, etc.
    But please, cynically tell me that scientists are all lying and/or corrupt and only those who disagree with CO2-influenced climate change are honest and know what's going on.
    @Ron, are you kidding? Because CO2 is good for plants it automatically is good for the ozone layer, too? I've read O'Sullivan's book, too, and was completely unconvinced. Perhaps you might want to search a little more on O'Sullivan?

  4. I wonder why so many people so readily buy into the anthropogenic climate change agenda. Maybe because many people feel there is something horribly wrong with the direction the world has taken and the climate/Gaia religion is the answer many people are looking for. It gives us a new universal value to believe in and adapt our lives to. It's like it fits into an empty space in our soul in a post Christian world. Non believers are branded sceptics (heretics really...) that must not even be debated and the notion to blow them up is a funny one isn't it? Too bad scientific facts aren't subject to the rules of democracy. Even if "many" or "most" "scientists" say that something is fact doesn't necessarily make it so....

  5. It always makes me cringe a little when I hear 99% of scientists agree with proposition X. While that certainly has merit, it also has serious limitations.

    There was a time when 99% doctors believed that HIV lay dormant after the initial infection. However, one doctor believed the virus was highly active from the moment of infection. That one doctor eventually proved his theory, became world renowned, well funded, changed everyone's mind, and revolutionized HIV treatment.

    So while it is nice to have 99% of scientist on one side, it doesn't necessarily mean they are right. Also, few of them are taking personal action to reduce CO2 emissions, but that is a different problem.

  6. And that is where you went horribly wrong - where you thought "I just don't think that global warming has much to do with..." had anything to do with reality. Global warming doesn't give care about your opinion. And neither does infrared scattering off of CO2 molecules. It just happens. In case you forgot, physics locks down how much infrared radiation in our blackbody spectrum a given concentration of CO2 throws back at us. If you could see infrared, you would see infrared of a certain color bounce off every source of CO2 in your world: CO2 would have a color. Its not transparent to certain wavelengths of infrared. But it is to visable light. So let me remind you, the Greenhouse Effect is what causes global warming, CO2 being the driver.

  7. It is really hard for me to see cars, particularly my Prius, as terribly polluting. The gasoline goes in, but I don't see it. The exhaust comes out, but I don't see that either. So I don't know how much better "miles driven" is compared to tons of CO2.

    One of my favorite comparisons is shown in a video called "Kilowatt Ours."
    This guy shows you standing next to a pile of coal adjusted to the size of the pollution, say incandescent vs CFL bulbs. This, to me, gives a great visual impression. Coal just looks nasty and if I can reduce the pile size by switching out a light bulb, I would do it.

    But "experts" keep telling me that positive messaging works better, so should we do "trees added"?

  8. Coal really is nasty. It is very expensive to "clean". What is "cleaned" out is toxic. Natural gas can supply all the energy we need while we further develop wind, solar and other more expensive sources. We need to promote natural gas as fuel, and electric cars simultaneously.

  9. I guess why people like me "buy in" is dependent on each person. In my case, it's from reading many books on the subject, including some of the better known books attacking climate change. And, no, it's not due to some need for a spiritual replacement in a post-Christian world, either... Seriously...
    You've missed the point completely, though, I'm not a complete believer, at least in scale, but I don't attack the credibility and honesty of those with whom I disagree. The constant attack on those scientists who believe in CC claims that they believe in it due only to money when most do not benefit from any research.
    No, not all scientists agree and they may be wrong, but the sceptics are getting fewer and more fringe, too.

  10. I guess I'm just fascinated by why people believe things and no doubt my little theory about the spiritual vacuum of post modernism sucking in new "big ideas" doesn't apply to every climate alarmist. I wonder what drove you to reading all those books though....

  11. @Chris O, "I wonder what drove you to "reading" all those books, though"... Uh, perhaps a desire to become more knowledgeable about a topic, perhaps? I wasn't aware that the reason people read books had become a mystery. Intellectual curiosity is an amazing thing even if one doesn't know where the journey will end.
    Instead of the ad hominem attacks on the climate "alarmists," perhaps you should read more books yourself. Again, I'm not tied closely to either side, but at least I take the time to read both sides instead of just calling names and attacking others' motivations without any basis in reality.

  12. Instead of worrying/arguing whether CO2 is so bad... why don't we all agree that pollution is bad, and as we work to eliminate pollution, we will as a byproduct reduce CO2. I think it is quite possible that changing the balance of our atmosphere would have at a minimum unforseen consequences. I suggest for this site we make a signature which we could include what we are doing individually to support our beliefs. I hate coal, I like free sunshine, I spent my hard earned cash to buy solar with NO rebates (I'm in Canada now, unbelievably they have no federal solar rebates) And I'm shopping for an electric vehicle that doesn't lose a third of battery life in winter which it seems like it lasts 7 months up here.

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