Which Is Worse: Eating Meat or Driving a Car?



One day last spring I happened across a cookout held by one of the many student groups at the University of Maine. I was there because they had set up the grills near the bus stop. I accepted a free burger, and turned to see a former student from one of my English classes, with whom I’d enjoyed several conversations on car-free living.

“If you really cared about your carbon footprint,” he said, as I took a bite of my hamburger, “you’d be a vegetarian.”

This is what I love about college students: their openness, and their willingness to challenge conventional thinking. Though there is a disturbing trend on college campuses to sanitize free expression both inside and outside the curriculum, that anti-knowledge impulse doesn’t represent the majority of undergraduates. Most of them are genuinely interested in ideas that run counter to their own experience.

As I’ve pointed out in this space before, rural residents burn more carbon than their urban counterparts do, and driving is much of the reason. But how many of us stop to think about the greenhouse gases that go into producing our food?

“Eating a burger or driving a car: which harms the planet more?” asks National Geographic writer Simon Worrell in a March 2015 article. The bulk of the piece is an interview with Seattle-based husband-and-wife team Dennis Hayes and Carol Boyer Hayes, authors of a book titled Cowed: the Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture and Environment. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Q: You write that eating a pound of beef has more impact on climate change than burning a gallon of gasoline. Explain.

A: That pound of beef grown on a confined animal feeding lot and fed grain is grown in huge tracts in the Midwest. If you throw in the amount of energy that is used in making the nitrogen fertilizer deposited on the cornfields; all the gasoline that goes into the tractors that plow the fields and harvesters that harvest the grain; the gas used to transport the corn to the feeding lots where the cows are slaughtered and refrigerated and moved off into the market; the gas people use in their two-ton SUVs to go down to the grocery store and buy the beef, bring it home and refrigerate it some more, and then cook it—by the time you’ve gone through all of that, the amount of carbon dioxide that is given off per pound of beef is, in fact, greater [than burning a gallon of gasoline].

Of course, the carbon footprint of the car goes far beyond the gasoline it burns in its operational lifetime. One must factor in the costs of manufacturing the car and delivering it to the dealership, the cost of parking over the car’s lifetime, the cost of manufacturing and distributing parts, the disposal of tires and used motor oil, and the costs of disposing of the vehicle once its lifetime is over.

There are some 255 million cars on the road in the United States – slightly less than three vehicles to every cow. There’s no denying that both motor vehicles and meat do massive damage to the environment. If renouncing car ownership represents one small step toward a more sustainable world, shouldn’t I stop eating meat, too?

I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism a few times in my life, though I never stopped eating seafood – I do live in Maine, after all. I’ve read Fast Food Nation. I eat bacon or beef or sausage or salami with a twinge of guilt. I wouldn’t work in a slaughterhouse. I don’t hunt, and I might balk at chopping the head off a chicken. On the other hand I’ve caught and gutted my share of fish, and dunked innumerable lobsters in pots of boiling water without a shred of empathy.

Similarly, as regular readers know, I renew my driver’s license when it comes up, and I sometimes borrow my girlfriend’s car, or rent one, and re-immerse myself into the American car culture. I’ll say it again: I’m not a purist, except maybe about the designated hitter.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t do my small part by not owning a car, and avoiding the worst abusers: the fast food restaurants that drive the industrial meat business and sell the product from drive-thru windows. I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in years. But I did go to Taco Bell after the World Series for my free taco. In a car. So sue me.

Cheap, Excessive Parking Causes Costly, Congestive Driving


The bus back from Orono was standing room only Wednesday afternoon, a sure sign that public transportation in the Bangor area is working and ought to be expanded. The route could easily support more frequent buses that run later into the evening.

The bus was full because the University of Maine charges for a limited number of parking spaces. In addition, the University provides free bus transportation for its students, faculty and staff. This makes sense, because not only are parking spaces more expensive than bus passes, but the availability of easy parking actually causes traffic congestion.

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that readers send you links to interesting items related to your topic. This latest bit comes from my friend Tim Morris, of the University of Texas at Arlington: statistical proof that the widespread availability of cheap or free parking encourages people to drive. According to a comprehensive study by a trio of University Connecticut scholars, as reported by urban planning reporter Eric Jaffe, the link between parking availability and increased traffic is as conclusive as the link between smoking and lung cancer.

Tim is a baseball geek, like me – long before we met through our membership in the Sport Literature Association, he wrote a nice review of my novel, Tartabull’s Throw, which is set during the 1967 baseball season. Baseball geeks like numbers, and the UConn study provides plenty of numbers to show the correlation between parking availability and traffic congestion.

The piece is full of graphs and analyses that may seem esoteric to the general reader, but the mathematical inference is clear. For those fond of statistics and statistical analysis, I’ve provided a link to the entire article.

Tim tells me that Arlington, where the Texas Rangers play their home games, has the distinction of being the largest city in the United States without a bus system. There are bare-bones transportation services for disabled people, and an infrequent bus to the Dallas-Forth Worth airport. But the city has no transit authority and no intracity public lines of any kind – for 380,000 people, more than ten times the population of Bangor.

Not surprisingly, Arlington also has some of the nation’s worst traffic. The simple truth that public transportation benefits everyone seems to have been lost on Texan city planners.

I’ll never run out of things to write about in this blog as long as my faithful readers keep calling my attention to this kind of stuff.

Here’s another piece, from Vancouver writer Chris Bruntlett in HUSH magazine, titled “Driving is the New Smoking,” from 2013. In the article, Bruntlett, only partially tongue-in-cheek, calls for printed warnings on the sides of cars, similar to those on cigarette packages, alerting consumers to the health hazards of driving.

“As with smoking in the late 20th century,” he writes, “our society’s challenge for the early 21st century is to address the cancerous act of driving, and stigmatize it into obscurity.”

Few car owners are aware of the true cost of their driving, and the automobile industry wants to keep it that way. From hidden government subsidies, to all-time low gas taxes, to zoning and parking regulations that favor the car over every other form of transportation, the automobile industry assures itself a continuing stream of customers by creating more car addicts.

But things are, slowly, changing.

“Millennials,” Bruntlett notes, “are already opting out of car ownership in droves, realizing it no longer represents the status and freedom it once did.”

On the same day that I stood on the bus most of the way back to Bangor, an above-the-fold headline on the front page of USA Today shouted a similar message: “No drive to drive: Millennials spurn licenses.”

You can’t get away from the subject. The very next day, a Bangor Daily News editorial admonished downtown business owners and their employees about using parking spaces that might otherwise be available for customers. “The solution to this conundrum is simple,” the unsigned editorial pleaded. “Business owners should leave the prime spots for their customers and ensure their employees do the same.”

Well, a better solution might be to expand bus routes and schedules. If a significant number of those owners and employees can get to and from work without a car, the problem becomes a whole lot less severe. A downtown shuttle, similar to the Black Bear Express in Orono, would alleviate the need for additional parking even more.

Public transportation is the future, and smart cities are investing in it.

Letting Go of Your Teenage Driver


One from the vault: February 11, 2004

Winter is the season for tragic death on Maine’s weather-slicked highways. The engine of commerce must go on, and we live in an economy that depends on people being able to get to their jobs by automobile, no matter what the weather. Schools have the good sense to close down when road conditions become dangerous, but most businesses don’t.

Is there anything – short of catastrophic illness – more frightening to a parent than teaching a kid to drive? A car or truck is the most powerful piece of machinery many people will operate in their lives. We put cars in the hands of teenagers because the only way for them to learn is by doing, and because, at least in rural Maine, the mobility afforded by the private automobile is a near necessity.

This doesn’t make it any less scary. We lose a few kids every year. We accept the carnage on our highways (43,005 fatalities in the U.S. in 2002*) as the price we pay for this individual mobility. We don’t shut down the roads every time there’s a tragedy.

I’ve been though this twice now. Both my kids are now licensed drivers, and both breezed through driver’s ed and the test more easily than I did. Still, there’s nothing like the feeling of handing your kid the keys for the first time and putting your life in their hands as you buckle into the passenger seat. And nothing matches the lump in your throat the first time they take the car out solo, leaving you to watch from the driveway or the front window with an outward show of confidence and your fingers crossed behind your back. Every time there’s an accident involving a teenager, you die a little bit inside, knowing that it only takes a second of inattention, a patch of ice, or a bit of bad luck to send your kid to the hospital or the graveyard.

In California I used to take my daughter and son out to the desert and let them drive on sandy trails when they were around 11 or 12. The worst thing they could do was run over a cactus and flatten a tire. That never happened.

I learned to drive on an island in Maine in a Jeep with a standard-H shift and bad brakes. To stop, you coasted uphill, turned the key and popped the clutch, or ran into something – preferably something soft, like a bush.

But a lot of kids have had no driving experience when they get into the driver’s ed vehicle. They don’t learn how to drive a manual shift. And they don’t see the gory films my generation did, from what my kids tell me. My friends and I joked about those films, but on some level they served their purpose, which was to remind us that driving is a dangerous activity that can snuff out your life in a second.

On the day of my son’s test, we drove around and around downtown Belfast as he practiced parallel parking. As the hour approached, my son grew more and more apprehensive with each botched attempt. “I’m going to fail,” he moaned.

Now, parallel parking happens to be one of my few strengths as a driver. I can’t see well at night, I sometimes forget to buckle my seat belt, I drive about 10 mph above the speed limit, and I’ve rolled through more stop signs than General Sherman did on his march through Georgia. But I’m a superb parallel parker. So I tried to offer some fatherly words of encouragement.

“This isn’t that hard,” I told him. “I aced parallel parking all three times I took my driving test.”

Somehow, this nugget of parental wisdom didn’t send him into the test brimming with confidence. But he must have done it right, because they gave him his license the very first time, like his sister before him.

A few weeks later he took the car to Bangor by himself. I tried not to be nervous. Eventually I had stopped being nervous when his sister drove to school every day. I told him to be careful. It was all I could do. It’s all any of us can do.


Originally published in the Village Soup Times.

* — Happily, fatal accidents have decreased since then, as Americans have begun to drive less. The figure for 2013 was 32,719. Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

My Three-Day Foray into the American Car Culture


Once or twice a year, I travel from my home in Bangor, Maine to Danbury, Connecticut. I teach in the low-residency MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University, which convenes in January and August.

Getting there, for one who does not own a car, requires some thinking. Last year we combined the trip with a visit to Lisa’s family in New Jersey. We took her car and shared the driving. This year she was unable to accompany me, and I had to decide whether to rent a car or take a longer route by bus.

There is no good way to get from Bangor to Danbury by bus. I guess that’s the price you pay for living in the hinterlands. The Concord Coach leaves Bangor at 7 every morning, and gets you into Boston’s South Station by 11:30. The only bus that runs anything like a direct route to Danbury leaves Boston at 11:15. The next best option is to take the bus to New York City and grab a bus to Danbury from there. Total trip time: Twelve and a half hours. It’s a seven-hour drive.

And Danbury doesn’t much lend itself to walking. It’s quintessential suburbia. Everything is two miles from everything else. The campus is on the top of a steep hill with nothing around it. You need a car just to go out to dinner.

Still, I dreaded spending fourteen hours alone behind the wheel. It seemed like a colossal waste of time. In the end, I chose door number three: I bused to Boston and rented a car from there. The bus ride enabled me to work on the way down and relax on the way home. But for 48 hours, I plunged into the American car culture.

I took possession of a white Nissan Sentra with a Pennsylvania plate, and promptly got lost getting out of Boston. In Connecticut, Interstate 84 points southwest, directly into the setting winter sun. Hartford brought rush hour stop-and-go traffic that reminded me of the years I spent in San Diego, cursing silently at other drivers as I drove my kids to school.

It’s one of the reasons I moved back to Maine. “This is no way to live,” I muttered to myself on many of those mornings. Whenever I drive, I have to remind myself that this is an everyday experience for most Americans. No wonder we’re all so frazzled and angry at one another.

And on the return trip, stuck in another Hartford traffic jam, I heard myself vent some of that anger aloud inside the sealed space of the car. I’d left Danbury early, planning a leisurely breakfast at the Traveler Restaurant and Bookstore on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, where you get three free books with your meal. My self-imposed schedule had already been set back when I’d found the car covered with a thick layer of frost at first light, and the scraper provided by the rental car company as inefficient as a line of cars stalled in traffic. For the thousandth time, I thanked my lucky stars that these small but cumulative annoyances are no longer a daily part of my life.

By the time I got back to Boston, I was eager to shed the car and feel the freedom of my feet. But first, I had to get gas, and I managed to get lost again. Boston is a whole lot easier and more pleasant to navigate on foot and by public transportation than it is by car. There, a car is an encumbrance – as it is in many lives.

On the bus back to Bangor, I read a terrific short novel: Bronx Bound, by my friend and colleague John Roche. “Hank: Don’t read and drive,” he wrote in his inscription. It’s good advice, and it illustrates a point.

I had split the trip nearly down the middle between public transportation and the car culture – eight hours by bus, eight hours by car. On the bus I worked with my computer and read John’s book. I relaxed. But it took several hours for my neck to stop feeling stiff from the stress of dealing with common American car traffic.

Every time I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I think: If even a third of these people, or a quarter, or a tenth, were on a bus or a train, relaxing and reading a book, we’d all be happier. America would be happier.

The Only New Year’s Resolution I’ve Ever Kept


Nine years.

It’s been nine years since my name has appeared on a car registration, a car insurance policy, or an application for an auto loan. A one-year experiment has become a way of life.

Two years ago, I penned a piece for the Bangor Daily News that was published on New Year’s Day. I thought about simply re-using the piece here, as I’m busy over the holidays with two teaching gigs and other writing, but that struck me as lazy, when readers can simply link to it here.

Instead, I started thinking about the past nine years since the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept: what’s changed, and what has stayed the same.

What’s changed is that it no longer seems weird not to own a car. I’ve connected with many people, in Maine and elsewhere, who have made the same sensible lifestyle choice. Many people can improve their lives, as I have, by giving up car ownership. It’s a growing movement that pays dividends to the individual and to the world.

What hasn’t changed much is the infrastructure. Bus routes in and around Bangor haven’t expanded; bicycle infrastructure remains spotty. Some areas of town remain nearly inaccessible except by car.

Plans are in the works to improve one of the worst of these spots: the Hogan Road bridge over Interstate 95. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote six years ago that illustrates the problem:

Sam’s Club is out on Hogan Road, diagonally across that major traffic artery and Interstate 95 from the Bangor Mall and the sprawling shopping complex around it. Best Buy, where I bought my computer and have it serviced when it crashes, is out there, too, as is Staples, where I get ink cartridges for my printer. The bridge over the Interstate has four lanes of traffic — two each way — but no bicycle lanes or sidewalks. You take your life into your hands when crossing it in anything but a motor vehicle.

On the last day of 2009 I went to Sam’s Club to pick up a prescription — it’s cheap there, but I may switch pharmacies since it’s an ordeal to get to and from Sam’s without a car. (The bus will drop you there at your request, but you have to walk back out to Hogan Road to flag it down.) I also had a coupon for Staples that expired at the end of the year. The stores are in plain sight of one another, separated by two interconnecting rivers of vehicular traffic. To drive from one store to the other means negotiating four sets of traffic lights. It’s still easier than walking. The direct route is blocked not only by roads, but also by chain-link fences and plowed piles of snow at the back edges of parking lots.

It took me half an hour. There was no place to walk except on the side of the road, hard against the snow bank. Sidewalks and pedestrian paths are nowhere in evidence; even in good weather I would have been walking on a narrow strip of roadside dirt. Drivers slowed to make room for me; a few of them shot me dirty looks. “How the hell am I supposed to walk here?” I muttered as I trudged along, always ready to quickly jump out of the way into the snow. A few impatient shoppers honked their horns.

The answer couldn’t have been clearer. You aren’t supposed to walk there. You’re supposed to drive.

Even with its excessive packaging, an ink cartridge fits inside a coat pocket. A bottle of pills is smaller still. Yet the infrastructure in which I live encourages — almost requires — the use of a 3,000-pound vehicle to gather a few ounces of supplies. Everything about Staples discourages reaching it on foot. The parking lot is sunk below the level of the street, and barricaded from it by a high embankment, which in the winter is covered with snow. The only access point is the entrance for cars. The parking lot is large and rarely even half-filled.

If more people walked as a matter of routine, and if municipalities encouraged walking instead of putting obstacles in the way, perhaps there would be an easier way to get around.

Update: I let my Sam’s Club membership expire and changed pharmacies, and I now get my ink cartridges at the University of Maine, which is pedestrian-friendly and well served by the bus.