The 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.