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Time to wok the dog?

A lot of people were upset to learn that their best friend was a major global warming culprit. According to the 23 October issue of the New Scientist, pet owners can no longer look down on SUV owners as if they alone belonged in the eco-criminal doghouse.

New Zealand/Aotearoa green architects Brenda and Robert Vale did the maths on their pet theory of global warming. They show that feeding pets requires as much land and energy – taken as an indicator of greenhouse gas emissions – as cars. A large dog has a pawprint of 1.1 hectares, about the same as the tyre print of an SUV, while a smaller dog consumes the output of 0.84 hectares and a cat 0.15.

Based on the number of pets in 10 affluent countries, the Vales estimate that cats require the output from more than 400,000 square kilometers a year, about the size of one and a half New Zealands, while dogs require the equivalent of five New Zealands.

To give their findings stunt value, the Vales titled their full-length book Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living. Turns out, however, that the Vales don’t really want to wok your dog. Their pet peeve is that no-one is getting up close and personal enough with their serious responsibilities in managing their output of global warming emissions.

Too many people think they can get off light in their climate responsibilities by changing a few light bulbs or taking a cloth bag to the supermarket, the Vales say. The real choices, given the energy reductions that have to be made, have to cut a lot deeper, to the point that they reach serious trade-offs ‘which are as difficult as eating your dog,’ they say. ‘You might decide to have the cat, but not also to have the two cars and the three bathrooms and be a meat eater yourself.’

Like many environmentalists, the Vales depict the path to a green economy and lifestyle as one that must go through a veil of tears; their vision of the future is a gruesome one, where heart-wrenching variations on eating pets are the only option to catastrophe.

I think their shaggy dog story confirms a totally different approach. The reason why the average person living in the Global North consumes the output of six hectares, six times more than the average person in the Global South, is that Northerners enjoy a lot more non-essentials, or luxuries. To put their sins of emissions behind them, most Northerners only have to give up a few of their more useless or harmful luxuries, without cutting into the basics of survival or enjoyment.

In lieu of the Vales’ footprint approach to measuring how many acres people with different lifestyles trample on, I concocted a pawprint model based on the hectare used up by a large dog. One luxury imposing a heavy burden on the planet would be one pawprint, two luxuries two pawprints, and so on. If all the typical Northerners each commit to eliminating two pawprints’ worth of luxurious expenditures, and pet-owners did penance by doing three, we could do what governments and businesses can’t; and as the show at Copenhagen surely shows, the ball is in our court if anything positive is going to happen.

The average Northerner should be able to get rid of two or three pawprints’ worth of global warming emissions with their eyes shut, simply by dumping bad food habits. Most garbage surveys show that the average person in the Global North throws out over 30 per cent of the groceries they bought at the supermarket. An unnecessary pawprint of emissions went into growing, processing and delivering that food on land that could have hosted trees that sucked carbon out of the atmosphere. Another pawprint went into trucking that waste to landfills, where it will rot and produce methane, over 20 times more powerful a global warming gas than carbon dioxide. Someone else might choose to earn their pawprint reduction badge by reducing the amount of grain-based meat – the most expensive, luxurious and fat-of-the-land form of protein, and also the most taxing on water and energy use. A few servings a week of meat from grassfed livestock would not only be heart-healthier, it would transform meat from a product that increased global warming to one that sucked up carbon in perennial grasses. Home composting is arguably worth another pawprint reduction badge, by virtue of garbage truck miles eliminated as well as by eliminating the need for fossil fuel-based fertilizers and soil conditioners. Growing food in the backyard instead of grass turf, one of the most resource-intensive and environmentally-negative uses land was ever put to, earns another pawprint reduction badge.
It’s so easy to earn pawprint reduction badges by eliminating luxuries that pet-owners can easily earn their pawprint reduction badge by cutting back on another luxury they’re less emotionally attached to.

The Vales might like stunts that dramatize the difficult trade-offs facing people, but as far as I can see, their bark is a lot worse than their bite needs to be.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, November 19-25, 2009

Wayne Roberts is the author of the No Nonsense Guide to World Food

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