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Breaking the Chains: Liberating Ourselves and the Planet from Meat Addiction

From the time we are six months old we are fed meat. By the time we are adults we can’t imagine living without it. How do we re-imagine our meat addiction as radical climate abundance?

No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.” – Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Meat Addiction Is Real

Let’s say, by way of a thought experiment, that you are an average American meat eater. You could be anyone. Rich or poor. Religious or atheist. Democrat or Republican. Young or old. You were doing it long before you knew you were doing it. Indeed, you were probably doing it before you were born. On the advice of your pediatrician, or from any number of popular baby websites, your parents began feeding you liquid meat at the recommended six months of age. By the time you were eight, when it perhaps first occurred to you to ask where the meat on your plate came from, you would have already been eating meat for 94% of your life. You would already be associating meat with such happy memories as birthdays, holidays, sleepovers, pizza parties, and every other celebratory child event imaginable. You cannot make the meals. Your protest will be short-lived. 

None of us are born in a vacuum. We burst screaming into an America where 90% of Americans eat meat. Meat-eating is one of our most widely shared habits. Only 15% of Americans will have an alcoholic beverage this month (62% of Americans have at least one drink per year). Only 12% of us still smoke. As much as 74% of Americans eat red meat daily.

Let’s do a second thought experiment. Imagine if tomorrow, G20 nations, whose citizens currently eat far more meat per person than the rest of the world, announced they were going to follow climate science guidelines and were immediately implementing meat rationing. Our political leaders stand together at the United Nations (UN) and admit the democratic process has been entirely unable to address the climate crisis and therefore you will now receive only 25% of the meat you currently eat (which is the medically recommended amount). They tell you this will improve your personal health and the health of the planet. What would your reaction be? Your anger will likely be directly proportional to the hold meat has on you.

When someone has a two-pack-a-day smoking habit that leads to a premature heart attack, we understand this as addiction. Opioids are the number 1 killer of young people in the US. This, we understand, is an addiction. But is meat really so different?

The UN reported in 2022 that if we were to cut our meat consumption by 75%, we would immediately reduce global carbon emissions by 68% and would open up at least half of all agricultural lands to reforestation as 60% of global crop production is used to feed cattle. No mainstream American media outlet reported this story.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) report that the over-consumption of red meat is the number 3 cause of cancer in the US after alcohol and smoking. Meat is directly implicated in our top 20 diseases. Numerous studies reveal that the average vegetarian lives longer than the meat eater, has fewer health issues, is more active, and will enjoy more sex. Again, there has been very little media coverage of these findings. Americans continue to eat more meat per person than any other nation. 

Two girls eating hotdogs outdoors

Many kids in the US associate meat with happy memories such as birthdays, holidays, sleepovers, pizza parties, and every other celebratory child event imaginable.

President Trump understood the gravity of our meat situation. Democracy is understood as thirty cuts of beef, twenty ways to cook chicken, entire freezer isles filled with frozen pizzas and meat-based pre-cooked meals. President Trump passed an Executive Order legislating that not only would the slaughterhouses remain running during the pandemic, but they would also run faster, despite them becoming super-spreaders of the infection. A flu pandemic was thought more reasonable than possible widespread meat riots.

An addiction is the inability to stop using a substance even though we know it is causing harm. When we repeatedly choose the harmful course of action over reason, we have an addiction. One only has to stand before the vast array of meat options in your local supermarket to realize that we are taught to consume meat as if this bounty was spontaneous and self-producing. There are no dead animals, factory farms, or hellish and dangerous slaughterhouses in a supermarket. We do not think of the environmental consequences of having meat shipped from Argentina, China, Brazil, India (now the single largest exporter of beef in the world), or Germany. We only think of our happy meat expectations and look only at the best before dates.

In a 2022 Fortune Magazine interview, Bill Gates dismissed asking people to eat less meat as a waste of time.

Further blocking our understanding of meat as an addiction is the fact that we have been taught to see addiction as an individualistic morality play. Addiction expert and bestselling writer Gabor Maté lectures widely against the mistaken belief that “addicts” are selfish, weak, amoral, or criminals. Nevertheless, we still widely understand the addict as weak, as lacking character, perhaps even as a villain. The word itself is understood as a pejorative. Giving into or resisting addictive tendencies is considered a matter of individual responsibility. This is why we are so reluctant to face our addictions. It is a form of narcissistic self-protection.

But this narrow view of addiction blinds us to the systemic ills fueling our collective addiction: a global meat industry that receives hundreds of billions in government subsidies to keep meat as cheap as possible, a fast-food industry that floods children’s television with advertising, neighborhood rezoning to allow drive-thru ordering, a medical community who historically spent decades informing us that meat was good for us. Christian religion condones eating meat (Gen 9:3) and philosophers have traditionally dispensed with animals because they do not really exist as we do. Many marginalized communities are forced to live in food deserts, where cheap processed meats are one of their few protein options.

When we are expected to act this way, what does “addiction” mean?

Meat Addiction

How big is this addiction? Humans ate 66 billion chickens and 15 billion cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, goats, and rabbits last year. We are on track to increase global meat consumption by 9% in 2024. The meat industry’s goal is to double global meat consumption by 2050.

Thanksgiving meal; Turkey

According to US Department of Agriculture estimates, Americans consume more than 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day each year.

On a daily basis, America’s meat industry (from feed to meat) consumes more freshwater than all US households combined. At current consumption levels the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the fresh water supply to parts of seven states stretching from South Dakota to north Texas, and is used to irrigate $20 billion in crops and is the water source 30 million Americans, will run dry by 2050. Factory farms are rife with the diseases of overcrowding. The meat industry consumes 70% of all pharmaceuticals in the US. The cheapest way to grow animal feed is through monocropping, which destroys the soil, so ever-larger applications of chemical fertilizers must be added. Monocropping also exposes plants to disease and therefore must be sprayed with various herbicides and pesticides. The WHO warns that this over-application of pharmaceuticals and chemicals creates drug resistant diseases. All these pharmaceuticals, pesticides and chemical fertilizers can now be measured in our children’s blood and in our water supplies. Yet, we eat twice as much meat per person today than we did fifty years ago.  

On top of this, conditions in factory farms and in slaughterhouses are so bad that twenty-two states have passed legislation making it illegal for journalists to report on them. The First Amendment means little in the face of our meat desire.

This is addiction by design.

For more than 100 years, psychologists, the advertising industry, trade agreements, animal scientists, chemists, economists, and advances in technology have all worked with the goal of making meat cheaper, more widely accessible, and understood as necessary for our health. In a growth-based consumer economy, we forgot about the idea of limitations. A healthy meat balance becomes inverted.

Twenty-four-hour fast-food restaurants and cheap home food delivery services, microwavable frozen dinners, pre-cooked dinners, processed meats, pre-sliced packaging, and on-line menus are all designed to provide an obstacle-free meat-eating experience. This surplus production and convenience of purchase allows us to believe in the transcendence of constraint. This convenience not only feeds our addiction; it becomes part of it. Without conscious intervention, we become consumer puppets, as machine-like in our meat-eating as the slaughterhouse is in its production. We are born into a consumer culture. We have been raised not to repress our desires. 

Burger King menu; fast food menu

A Burger King Menu. Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr.

Lastly, how we think about and treat animals also opens a space for how we think about and treat other people. To have meat, even to think of the word “meat,” requires that there already be a dead animal, and a requisite indifference to the value of that animal’s life. Judith Butler notes that during the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described Muslim men being held at Guantanamo Bay (without charges or access to lawyers) as “dangerous animals” who “deserved no rights.” Reducing these people to the status of “animals” was an easy conceptual jump to the idea that they therefore deserved no rights. They were, after all, animals. When we say “animals have no rights,” we are making an emphatic statement about our relationship to the other billion species of life who inhabit this planet beside us. Butler noted that even the New York Times agreed with Rumsfeld.


But there is a quiet revolution emerging. A revolution that challenges all aspects of this addictive behavior. A 2023 study by the Western Washington University found that 80% of college-aged students have “habitual ecological worry.” Young people – quite rightly – have a very real fear of a destructive environmental future that is closing in fast. One in four Americans are responding by experimenting with some form of a meat-reduced diet. Half of Europeans are doing the same. Climate writer Paige Curtis highlights that young Black Americans are currently three times more likely to be vegan than non-Blacks.

Animal rights and environmental rights challenges all our assumptions about how we should live in this world.

This response to meat as an addiction becomes an awakening, and unburdening, and a striving for change. That same 2022 UN Report noted above also highlighted that, while meat-eating is still far too high, vegetarianism, veganism, and meat-reduced diets are the fastest growing culture movements in the world.

McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC are taking note. Who would have guessed, 25 years ago, that these fast-food giants would have plant-based options on their menus? For the first time, Canada, and the US’ national “food guide” calls for eating less meat.

Addiction research reveals that attempting to end an addiction “cold turkey” only works for about 5% of people (and will take an average of seven attempts). A harm reduction approach has shown itself to be the far more effective form of change. One begins by replacing one meat meal a week with a plant-based alternative. It does not sound like much, yet having every American replace one meat meal a week would mean that the equivalent of the agricultural capacity of Idaho no longer needs to make meat. People are beginning to understand that eating less meat changes the very parameters of the possible.

The following month, you skip two meat meals a week. In six months, you are eating the American Medical Association’s recommended two meat meals a week. Should you continue, in a year you could be either a vegetarian or vegan.

Final Thoughts

Do not misunderstand. This conversation is not simply about having less. It is also about abundance. An abundance of cleaner air, safer drinking water, more organic farming, less preventable diseases, better soils, more biosphere, healthier living. Charles Darwin observed that it is not the strongest or the most intelligent that are most likely to survive, but those who are most adaptable.

In addiction therapy, if you believe you can change, if you are supported in this desire to change, and if there are real rewards for changing, you are much more likely to try. This is the core approach of what is known as a self-efficacy strategy. When we got serious about tackling smoking, beginning in the mid-1960’s, we reduced smoking from 60% of the population to today’s 12%.

A harm reduction approach to eating less meat is the art of throwing ourselves a life raft. If we believe we have to act now, we are more inclined to act now. If we are supported in making that change, we are more likely to succeed. Imagine if the $59 billion in annual US meat industry subsidies were re-directed towards lowering the cost of local organic foods, expanding community gardening programs, transitioning beef farmers into solar farmers.

Meat response-ability is a gift we can re-learn to give back to the world. This “gift” would be a gift in the true sense of the gifting idea – something given that returns to the giver. Gift as revolution.

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