The Meat Powered Bicycle

a guy drinking gasThe bicycle is a fantastic piece of human invention. It represents simplicity, freedom, reliability and an economical way to get from point A to point B. Worldwide it reigns supreme as the most common form of personal transportation and estimates show there to be almost 1 billion of them around. Besides walking, bicycles are the most environmentally friendly way to get around. They produce no emissions (maybe a little more CO2 from heavy breathing while going up hills), and the fuel needed to power them comes from the people riding them.

You may see where this is going….If the “fuel” powering the person riding the bike consists mostly of meat, the environmentally friendliness factor goes down quite a bit depending on how much meat the rider eats and where the meat comes from (local vs. distance).

It is actually quite astounding how much energy is wasted by the standard American diet-style. Even driving many gas-guzzling luxury cars can conserve energy over walking — that is, when the calories you burn walking come from the standard American diet! This is because the energy needed to produce the food you would burn in walking a given distance is greater than the energy needed to fuel your car to travel the same distance, assuming that the car gets 24 miles per gallon or better. (1)

So what does all this mean?

It means that the amount of gas you use isn’t just related to how you get from place to place, it’s also related to what you eat. Meatless diets require half as much fuel to produce than the standard American diet. Pimentel calculated that if the entire world ate the way the U.S. does, the planet’s entire petroleum reserves would be exhausted in 13 years. The typical American could save almost as much gas by going vegetarian as by not driving. (2)

So, fine….I’m not going to walk, what about the bike?

The same is not true of bicycling vs. driving, because bicycling is more than twice as efficient as walking (calories consumed per distance traveled) — bicycling uses less fossil energy than driving even if the cyclist were eating nothing but beef. But to focus on this misses the point. It’s no bombshell that cycling uses less fossil energy than driving. What’s important is that meat-eaters use twice as much fossil energy as pure vegetarians — whether they’re bicycling or not. (3)

While bicycling and walking may reduce tailpipe emissions, overall if your diet is “meat heavy” you are using twice as much energy just reading this post. On the most basic level, it’s actually better to be a vegetarian that drives a Chevy Tahoe, than to be a meat eater that bikes or walks everywhere. Even going vegetarian one day a week has a pretty good impact to reducing fossil fuel consumption. And while I’m not advocating that vegetarians run out and buy Hummers and meat eaters throw their bikes away, I am trying to demonstrate in real terms the impact of what a meat centered diet has on our environment.

(1,2,3) These quotes are excerpted from “Bicycling Wastes Gas?” by Michael Bluejay for more detailed information, including the research on how this was calculated, please visit his website above.

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Comment by Michael Bluejay Subscribed to comments via email
2007-07-06 04:46:43

Thanks for covering this important issue. I wish I had more time to devote to further study of this issue, but hopefully others will pick up my slack. What prompted me to write is the great photo you use to illustrate this story. Thanks again, -MBJ-

Comment by eric
2007-07-06 09:19:48

Thanks for your comment. I like the work you’ve done so far with this topic. I have used it previously to figure out a couple of statistics with our “go vegetarian one day a week” mission (check out the site’s mission, if you haven’t already).

I am not sure if you’ve see this article yet, but it also presents some good information. Much of which I think is similar to your work.

As far as that image goes. I buy these images from a website and they always have a “pic of the day” listed when you login to make a purchase. It just so happens that this image was the “pic of the day” yesterday…I figured it was meant to be! :)

Comment by Anthony Subscribed to comments via email
2007-10-23 10:31:32

Having read this article as well as Michael Bluejay’s one and also another by a British MP, I have issue with the science and math. I don’t dispute that we eat too much meat these days in the “West” (to use an improper term); I do though dispute from a common sense perspective the idea that eating meat and walking/biking around is more environmentally harmful than eating the same food and driving. By driving and by extension (this is a leap possibly) going to the gym, you are using more energy on a daily basis than would someone using their bike/or walking to and from work (assuming the average distance is within city limits). Also, I would postulate that cycling will get you there faster, with less stress and in the process provide you with a workout (thereby improving your health); whereas in a vehicle, you will be idling in traffic, dealing with increased pollutant levels caused by said vehicle and causing greater damage in the overall scheme of things, than by simply walking/cycling to work/the shop.
I believe that though your argument’s point maybe valid, the overall impact of it will be seen as faulty and will cause more harm than good in not breaking [North America & the “West”] of our addiction to fossil fuels and the car.

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