The War on Meat Is Only Just Beginning

As we grapple with how to deal with climate change, expect a lot more conservatives to yell about prime rib.

Welcome back to What Went Wrong?, a newsletter about the failures, inefficiencies, and screw-ups that define 21st-century American life, written by Harry Cheadle.

Close up, the steak looks like the surface of a planet, a dark-brown landscape streaked with glistening fat and black carbon. It’s a comically large piece of meat, as thick as a textbook and nearly too big to fit on the plate. It’s accompanied by a bundle of asparagus held together by bacon cooked just long enough so that it glistens pinkly. There is also a caesar salad on the side—it’s been pushed away so that the diner can focus on the steak—and, incongruously, a bottle Michelob Ultra. Is the beer really the place where you decide to count calories? Yes it is, if you are Matt Couch, a right-winger who runs the ad-cluttered and conspiracy-brained site The DC Patriot, who on Saturday posted his “official response” to Joe Biden supposedly saying that “we can have four pounds of red meat per year”:

Couch was one of many conservative figures who reacted with shock and outrage to the president’s proposal to limit Americans’ red meat consumption, a proposal that I hope you don’t need me to tell you is entirely fictional. Biden has never said he even wants to reduce the amount of meat the country consumes, and as a rule the government does not ration food. (How would that even work?) Still, Fox News displayed graphics of “Biden’s climate requirements” that said there would be “max 4 lbs per year”, and the governor of Texas promised bravely to resist this nonexistent threat to meat.

What appears to have happened, according to Snopes, is that Biden gave a speech in which he promised to cut US greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, and the Daily Mail wrote an article speculating that such a promise would involve everyone being forced to not eat meat and buy a $55,000 electric car. (The British tabloid got the meat stuff from a study that Biden never referenced.) This idea spread rapidly around the right-wing media world until dudes like Couch were posting photos of their steaks as a show of defiance. 

As absurd as the Great Republican Meat Panic of 2021 was, it’s worth digging into why this thing Biden didn’t say spread so quickly, because meat is now a flashpoint in our politics. As stupid as it sounds, it also could be a focus of the debate over climate policy.

The power of meat

Americans eat more meat than almost any other country in the world—a 2013 study found that the average American consumes 100 kilograms a year—but we’re not uniquely carnivorous; most wealthy Western countries eat around 80 or 90 kgs per person. Globally, easy access to meat is a mark of wealth, and in the US and other places eating meat, especially red meat, is a traditional signifier of masculinity. Cutting into a big bloody steak is manly. I wish I could tell you why. Meat is also festive, sometimes even patriotic: When the Washington Post published a recipe for “hot dogs” made of carrots just in time for summer grilling season, it was met with a wave of surprisingly intense bipartisan outrage

A lot of people talk these days about reducing meat consumption, but only 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian, according to Gallup, and only 2 percent of conservatives. For many, meat represents a kind of everyday luxury. If you’ve had a shitty shift at work and don’t want to cook, there are few things more satisfying than going down the street for a cheap, calorie-filled hamburger. And you’re telling me the government wants to deprive me of that pleasure?

Conservatives last used this “Democrats want to steal your meat” line in 2019, when they seized on a line from an FAQ on the Green New Deal about how a goal was to “fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes.” That was supposedly a draft version of the FAQ that was never meant to be released (it’s archived here), but Republicans were happy to accuse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies of trying to take your burger away. It was cynical and deceptive—AOC objected to factory farming, not meat itself, she would later clarify —but it allowed the right to raise the specter of the left trying to make life worse. 

The politics of scarcity

Historically, Republicans have been known for their eagerness to cut government spending on social programs and their denunciations of high taxes. But they talk less these days about how liberals want to tax you, and more about how liberals want to literally take away the things you love. 

The most obvious example of this is guns, which Democrats have long  been accused of wanting to seize en masse. At least there’s an element of truth to that charge—many liberals would like to ban “assault weapons” and limit gun ownership in various ways. But things have gotten weirder as the GOP got Trumpified. In 2020, Donald Trump claimed Biden would take away your electricity, abolish police and prisons, drive god from the public square, and get rid of Social Security, Medicare, and protections allowing people with pre-existing health problems to buy insurance.

The last line of attack is bizarre on its face: It was Democratic politicians who gave us those programs in the first place, and Republican politicians who wanted to cut them. But as studies of the Tea Party have shown, conservative voters actually like government benefits when they get them, they just don’t think all Americans deserve to have a piece of the pie (especially not immigrants and Black people). This shows how the conservative worldview is fixated on scarcity: There’s only so much to go around, the country’s prosperity is shrinking, we have to hold on to what’s ours. If you imagine the American dream to be a fixed, limited commodity, left-wing proposals to make the country more equal sound terrifying. They’re going to take your stuff—your Medicare, your wealth, your meat—and redistribute it to people you don’t know, and who you assume don’t work as hard as you. 

Republican messaging is in essence about defending the status quo from people who would take it away. This can sometimes be disconnected from policy or even politics in the normal sense—it was only a few weeks ago that conservatives were angry that Dr. Seuss’s estate decided to stop publishing a few obscure books that had racist images in them. Any change from any direction is a threat to your way of life. 

The fear of a warming planet

Meat offers exciting new possibilities for this discourse. Democrats aren’t anti-meat, of course—when they talk about fighting climate change, they don’t talk about giving things up, but about building new infrastructure and creating high-paying jobs. There’s a faction of lefties who talk about fighting climate change through “degrowth,” i.e. shrinking the economy, but they are pretty far outside the mainstream. In the speech that kicked off the meat panic, Biden referred to climate change as an “opportunity.” Democratic messaging, in contrast to the GOP’s, emphasizes that there is enough for everyone, that making life less bad for the poor doesn’t mean that everyone will be a little worse off. 

But this sits a little awkwardly next to the realities of climate change and what must be done to effectively combat it. The truth is that life will have to change in ways large and small, some of which will not benefit everyone. If coal mining becomes obsolete and fracking is banned, workers will have to find new jobs. Maybe they will be able to get gigs helping build that new green infrastructure or expanding renewable energy capacity, but disruption always entails a certain amount of pain. As the world cracks down on emissions, it’s only natural that certain high-carbon activities like air travel will become more expensive. Meat could become less common too. As the climate journalist Emily Atkin wrote in 2019, during the last online meat war, cows are actually a pretty big problem: 

Any comprehensive climate plan must take cows into account, with one obvious solution being to reduce their population. That doesn’t mean taking away people’s hamburgers, but it does mean making it a rarer, and thus more expensive, product. This is hardly the greatest sacrifice that will be required to prevent a civilizational catastrophe. But if the world’s population simply reduced its meat and dairy consumption, scientists say the effect would be massive.

Democratic politicians may avoid saying this sort of thing because it makes them sound like the socialist scolds of the conservative imagination. But progressives may increasingly see meat, and in particular red meat, as suspect. One sign of this is that the recipe website Epicurious hasn’t published a new beef recipe in over a year, a decision it says is motivated by the carbon footprint of the cattle industry.

Republicans will likely welcome shifting the conversation from climate change to meat. The GOP has long been hostile to fighting climate change, partly as a means to support the oil and gas industry that donates heavily to it, and maybe partly as a knee-jerk fuck-you to liberals. But the party can no longer simply deny the planet is warming, as increasing numbers of Americans believe climate change is real and should be met with a government response. Instead, they can portray proposed solutions to climate change as being too costly, too burdensome, or simply ridiculous. Instead of saying whether climate change is real, or what can be done about it, Republicans are more comfortable whingeing about the evil plot to take your bacon.  

The conservative politics of meat is really no different from conservative politics writ large. The overriding demand is for nothing to ever change, for no one to suggest things should change, and for us all to squeeze our eyes shut tight enough so that the world stops moving. Whatever way we happen to be living our lives right now is the best way things have ever been done, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a communist brainwashed by critical race theory. The Republican plan is for us to go on like this until the seas rise and the fields wither in drought and the bodies of climate refugees wash up on our shores. They’ll refuse to acknowledge that climate change requires us to make hard choices, much less actually make those choices, until wildfires and blizzards shut down our electrical grids and leave us huddled in the dark. But at least when we die, the last taste in our mouths will be meat.  

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