Powered By Beef At 30 Thousand Feet

» August 29th, 2015


The fact that commercial airlines are preparing to use beef fat to help fuel aircraft is the kind of news that sends the eco-razzi into celebratory whirligigs.

It hardly matters that we’re looking at yet another meaningless example of “reduce, reuse, recycle” pomp to mask deeper problems that demand more systemic and radical solutions. It hardly matters that using beef fat (beef being one of the most ecologically damaging products on earth) to subsidize flying (flying being one of the most ecologically damaging services on earth) is like robbing Paul to pay Peter; at the end of the day it’s just another lovely, feel-good case of reducing waste, an act whose evidently inherent virtue makes the media go all loopy while obscuring the underlying, scolding question of why we rely so heavily on these goods and services (beef, flying) in the first place.

But that’s all high horse talk.  Down in the streets vegans have a new and difficult question to ask themselves: will vegans fly in planes fueled by the animals we claim to do everything in our power not to exploit? I couldn’t help but notice an ominous dearth of commentary on this heavily covered media issue in the vegan blogosphere. Although I can certainly understand the reticence. The prospect of every major airline supplementing fossil fuel with beefy bio-diesel is a real one, and if that possibility comes to fruition, vegans face yet another case of a terribly convenient aspect of first-world life—flying—that, while hardly necessary to existence, is something we’ll most likely never give up. Vegans, in other words, will routinely participate in yet another activity that harms animals when, realistically albeit very inconveniently, they could avoid but won’t.

As a result, they will further gut the meaning of vegan from within.

In 2013-2014 I flew 35 times to locations where I preached (in part) the ecological virtues of not eating meat. Absurd, of course, that I was flying hither and yon to do this, but what if my mile-high experience had been powered by beef?  Well, I’d have to be the first person to laugh my ass off at myself.

Readers, pipe up. What to do about beef-powered planes?

16 Responses to Powered By Beef At 30 Thousand Feet

  1. Eric Sundquist says:

    What were you sitting on during those mile-high experiences? Unless you know an airline that has cloth seats — and if so please share — you’re riding on animal skin. This, and the carbon emissions that are making human and nonhuman life less tenable, the millions of birds directly killed by planes and bird-clearance around runways, and the vast swaths of habitat taken over by airports makes my work travel — around sustainable transport! — absurd as well. Maybe we will meet on a plane one day, and over vegan meals we can laugh at each other and ouselves. Or weep.

  2. Anita Walsh says:

    Campaign and petition against this. If transportation currently produces LESS GHG emissions than animal agriculture, then this would be one way to pump up its score on emissions, sending them higher. This blindness to the damage of animal ag’s destructive contribution has to stop.

  3. “Vegans, in other words, will routinely participate in yet another activity that harms animals …”

    Unless someone is planning to raise cattle for the sole purpose of being turned into biofuel (which doesn’t sound cost-effective in the least), I think this statement could be further clarified. Cattle are raised in abusive environments and then killed because of consumer demand for meat, milk, and perhaps leather. The use of beef fat in fuel or tires or plastic bags or whatever is not a cause of harm to cattle, but a result of harm to cattle. It represents mere disposal of a by-product which (unfortunately) is already present in the industrial stream for other reasons. As long as somebody is eating beef, there will be beef by-products. The question then is whether it is permissible for a vegan to benefit from the disposal method of said by-products.

    Ideally we would avoid fueling (oops I made a pun) the animal-use industries in any way, so I would consider the following an important question: do the airlines pay the slaughterhouses for the privilege of using the beef fat, or do the slaughterhouses pay the airlines to get rid of it?

    If it so happens that the animal killers do not profit, the only remaining objection I can see is the idea that benefiting from the death of an animal in any way (even if we did not cause said death and the death is not essential to the nature of whatever benefit we derive) is morally dirty and undermines the vegan position that animals should not be used. In a society where completely avoiding any contact with animal by-products requires heroic efforts, I confess to feeling that this concern should be low on our list of things to worry about. Flying on a beef-fueled plane doesn’t mean you condone the slaughter of cattle; it means that, being unable for the moment to stop society’s excesses, you’re willing to take the nasty by-products of those excesses and do the best you can with them.

    • Anita Walsh says:

      It SEEMS like a by-product, but it looks like another need being created. If the airline industry is forward-looking, it would not choose to depend on what is hopefully a dying industry ( no pun intended ). Every new ‘use’ is a validation, and a new demand. You would think leather was a by-product, but it too, is its own ‘demand’. If they can’t get it cheaply and easily, they will help expand the ‘need’ for killing more animals. They need to find a sustainable solution, not one dependent on the destruction of the planet from a different sector than the one they currently employ.

  4. Hana Low says:

    Should vegans fly in beef-powered airplanes? Rather, the question should be, how can we end this exploitation so that remnants of the superfluously killed (“animal byproducts”) are not even available for selfish human purposes.

  5. Denise says:

    Even without being beef-powered, flying is not to my thinking a very vegan activity because of the severe damage it does to the planet (the habitat of the animals vegans wish to protect), in a similar way to consuming palm oil products not being such a very ‘vegan’ thing to do because of the destruction of animals’ habitat.

  6. TYR says:

    There’s animal products in tyres, computers, sidewalks, chairs, buildings etc. Animal use is pervasive. Short of living in a cave and living on nettles, it’s impossible to avoid animal products in everyday items. Many buildings, roads etc were built by nonhuman slaves and human slaves. It’s impossible to avoid benefiting from slavery.

    There’s intentional harm and unintentional harm. Eating, wearing and using animals is intentional harm. We can avoid it. If we are walking on sidewalks or using chairs which contain animal glue, that’s unintentional participation in animal use. It’s hard to avoid it.

    Avoiding intentional animal use is quite easy, much easier than people think.

  7. Rebecca Allen says:

    I fly seldom now, the last time was to a funeral. If animal fat is used, I think that would be the final straw to flying. Although, the oil fuel maybe ought to be enough to say, no more flying for me.

  8. Les Roberts says:

    Being a committed vegan for the past 3+ years, using beef fat for airplane fuel upsets me very much. Frankly I HATE to fly, now—it was much more pleasant thirty years ago, with NO TSA humiliation at the airport, more leg room, much better service by the flight attendants. (Airplane food was ALWAYS awful, even in first class.) However, I live in NE Ohio, and both my grown children live in North Carolina—and in my “golden years,” a ten-hour drive to see them is a bit too much for me, so I’m SCREWED into flying.

  9. Karen Harris says:

    To be honest, I just don’t understand why you are focusing more and more these days on these peripheral issues which seem designed to add more and more roadblocks to a choice to become vegan. Have one too many self-righteous or uncritical vegans gotten under your skin or something? Anyway, I do think you have to draw a distinction between the choices one makes as an individual not to do harm, and choices made by the culture at large that do harm to animals in which one participates. For example, if I need surgery or prescription drugs, these necessarily involved animal experimentation in their development – that is the law. We all know this, yet we all see doctors and benefit from medical procedures if deemed necessary. Does this negate my personal choice not to eat animals or wear them – of course not.
    I use a bank. That bank probably has investments in corporations that do harm and that I do not personally invest in. Does that minimize the importance of my decision not to wear wool – of course not. I could go on but you get the point.
    I think we all agree that by dint of being alive we do harm, no doubt exacerbated by living in the so called first-world.
    To maintain that this participation renders meaningless or problematic at best the daily decisions of a vegan not to consume animals or participate directly in their commodification in so many ways is bogus.

    • soren says:

      i was initially very confused by the comments here so as a public service i am providing a glossary for non-deontic vegans:

      “animal byproduct”: an animal product that it’s ok for ethical vegans to use.

      “animal product”: an animal product that it’s not ok for ethical vegans to use.

  10. Eric Sundquist says:

    Disagree. If the goal is lessening nonhuman animal suffering, not simply making people feel good about being vegan (though that is fine), then issues like moving to a “clean energy” society that creates more suffering are not at all peripheral. There are plenty of writers giving recipes and other tips and affirmations for vegan living. I value Dr. McWilliams’ broader take, even though I don’t always agree with him.

  11. Adam Barber says:

    I had the same thoughts as Karen regarding some of your recent posts. It sounds like you are struggling. Then again, you are here to provoke thought and conversation.
    The by product argument to beef fat fuel has been well stated in previous comments. The major downside I can see, other then knowing from where that fuel comes, is that if the airlines or any other industry become too dependent on these “by products” you’re gonna have another dog in the fight when it comes to animal rights.

  12. Anita Walsh says:

    I think it’s inevitable that they’ll become too dependent on the ‘by-products’ and create a new demand. Personally, I have no need of air travel. If I had a real need, I suppose it would be that inadvertent participation in something repugnant. I think a big fuss should be made against it, before it even starts.

  13. Eric Sundquist says:

    Disagree. If the goal is lessening nonhuman animal suffering, not simply making people feel good about being vegan (though that is fine), then issues like moving to a “clean energy” society that creates more suffering are not at all peripheral. There are plenty of writers giving recipes and other tips and affirmations for vegan living. I value Dr. McWilliams’ broader take, even though I don’t always agree with him.

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