Okay, it’s NOT about the Beef
David R. Weiss – August 14, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #37 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
It’s not really about eating beef—or using natural gas to cook with. (But, of course, at some level it is. I’ll come back to that.) If my last post felt a bit heavy on its handedness and light on its theology, I suppose it was. Anybody can have a long week that leaves them short on patience. It was my turn. So let me clarify a couple things and then get on with my point.
First, beef. Feeding America’s appetite for red meat is a threat to our future. Livestock production drives deforestation across the globe, decisively weakening the planet’s capacity to capture and hold carbon. It also diverts cropland into growing livestock feed rather than raising food to support plant-based human diets—a woefully inefficient tradeoff, because if we weren’t raising so much damn cattle feed some land being used for livestock production could be used for carbon capture, and we could feed all of humanity on the rest. And, of course, the methane produced by cows is far a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Clearly, beef is a bad deal for the planet today and a (much!) worse deal for those who inhabit the planet tomorrow.
That doesn’t mean that anyone who cares about the planet has to give up red meat. But it does mean—if they care about the planet and its inhabitants (human and more), they need to exercise real, tangible restraint in their meat-eating.
Second, natural gas. Yes, natural gas is a “cleaner” fuel source than coal or oil. And, unlike beef consumption, which, for nearly all of us is a matter of choice, meal by meal, most of us “inherit” our utility choices with the homes we buy. So the dimension of personal choice can be far less immediate, far more costly, and, in the case of home-heating, a real challenge in colder climes. Still, as demand for natural gas increases (precisely because it’s “cleaner”) so does its downside. In particular, as we exhaust the easiest access to natural gas and turn more and more to fracking, a whole unhappy host of health and geophysical risks arise, as well as the inevitable leakage of natural gas (mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more powerful in its contribution to global heating as CO2).
Natural gas is no innocent choice. The challenge has to be to reduce our fossil fuel use to a bare minimum as rapidly as possible. There is no other way to a tomorrow that does not willfully char Earth’s ecosystem than to get out of fossil fuels today. So, even as they are built into our structured homes and lives, as swiftly as we can make legitimate choices to move away from them, we should.
And choice is the doorway through which both ethics and theology enter. We face many choices as we navigate our personal and communal lives in response to global heating. I am not your expert on dietary decisions or utility option; I’m often not even my own. I muddle through those areas—and bumble bees, too!—as best I can for myself and/or with Margaret. But I am committed to making my own choices. And while one part of that is gaining the knowledge so I can make an informed choice, the bigger part is cultivating within myself (or within my marriage, or any other widening circle) the moral restlessness that makes choosing possible.
Cultivating this restlessness is a fundamentally human endeavor; I happen to believe that faith traditions (of many kinds) can assist in sowing and sustaining moral restlessness. But I also must admit that many religions harbor expressions (frequently among their most dominant/”successful” expressions—shit!) that promote a sense of morality that is primarily private (between me and God, or me and my immediate family and friends) and committed to simplistic certainty (a short list of rights and wrongs). In these instances the genuine moral restlessness that is the measure of authentic humanity is reached (if at all) in spite of, not because of religious faith.
Moral restlessness approaches the choices we face with a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” That’s “big-talk” for saying we should instinctively interrogate the choices we’re presented with by asking, “Who benefits if I choose this or that?—and who loses?” Without actively distrusting the world, moral restlessness takes very seriously the distortions (theologically, we might say, “sin”) present in both the people and (especially!) the systems around us. In a consumer capitalist society, where money speaks loudest—and where advertising money plays directly to our insecurities and deceptively to our deepest hungers—we need to be especially … suspicious … of who benefits and who loses in the choices we’re encouraged to make as consumers.
In fact, consumer capitalism, built on limitless choice of (endlessly cheaper) stuff and limitless economic growth, is wholly invested in eliminating moral restlessness—from every corner of our consciousness. The market works relentlessly to narrow the context in which we perceive ourselves until it’s simply me and mine, here and now. It wants us to measure the exhilarating range of our choices by our freedom to be indifferent to the consequences those choices have on other persons, other creatures, other places, even the entire planet and future generations. Our sense of choice becomes as big as our “moral community” is small: the fewer persons/creatures/ecosystems that really “matter” to us, the freer we are.
Within that shrunken moral community, not much beyond taste, allergy, convenience and price shape the choices I make about food … or oven. Across the entire range of household choices in front of me, the market says that only me and mine, here and now, matter. And that’s called freedom. No. This is the very antithesis of being human.
We are through others. Every deep faith tradition has a way of offering this truth. Non-theistic Buddhism asserts it no less than monotheistic Christianity. Most situate that “we” in a web that comprises an entire world of flora, fauna, and fellow beings—and stretching across time and place. It’s an ecological truth framed long before science conceived the field of ecology.
To be fully human is to act with moral responsibility in this context. When we fail to embrace the moral restlessness that considers this wider community we risk … being inhuman. That’s sounds like harsh moral judgment, but it’s more a profound existential lament. We’re so entangled in the cultural lie of individualism, that we hardly recognize the full interwoven dignity of which we are capable. To make our choices with care and concern for the whole web of life is not a “limit” to our freedom; it is, rather the very condition in which we discover it.
Finally, it’s not about the beef (or the gas oven) or any of the specific choices we make. It’s about making those choices—which may well differ from one person to the next—with moral intention and from a place of genuine moral restlessness. And—because the web of life is the context for that restlessness—it means making those choices in the generous company of the communities to which we belong. More than a matter of what’s on your plate, it truly a matter of who you recognize that you’re making the meal with. Our kitchens include the world.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 On fracking and natural gas: www.commondreams.org/news/2019/06/05/not-freedom-gas-failure-gas-first-its-kind-report-details-planetary-perils-us, www.commondreams.org/views/2019/06/23/growing-case-ban-fracking, www.commondreams.org/views/2019/07/31/research-stop-fracking-asap,
 Methane is 86 times more potent than CO2 in trapping the sun’s heat, but it stays in the atmosphere a shorter length of time before breaking down. The “30 times more powerful” is the official measure of its “global warming potential” over a 100-year window: www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials