Cultured Meat and the Genealogy of the Environmental Movement

Apparently it tasted a little dry, but on the up-side, this hamburger could help save the world.

Hamburgers, tasty though they may be, are rarely newsworthy. Last week, however, there was a fairly interesting exception to that rule in the form of the first ever completely synthetic hamburger. That means that no cattle were harmed in the production of the burger’s patty; it was made of tissue grown from cow stem cells in a lab. There’s been speculation about this kind of process before, but this is the first time anybody has turned the idea into something you can actually put on a bun with lettuce and serve with a plate of chips.

While we should probably admit that using biotechnology to grow animal parts independent of the animals that sustain them is normally the subject of some very pessimistic science fiction,  we shouldn’t let these misgivings stop us from appreciating the potential of this technology. The meat industry, which this technology could reform or completely replace, is one of the most resource-intensive on the planet. The meat industry is the source of a significant percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other forms of pollution such as manure. It also takes up enormous amounts of land, and it is the site of some of the most barbaric cruelties we human beings inflict on any other creature. It seems obvious that our consumption of meat is a significant threat to the environment.

That being said, the dream of a purely vegetarian or vegan society is likely to remain just that for at least another century. PETA campaigns may be convincing more and more people to eliminate animal products from their diets, but the vast majority of the population still eats meat and seems largely unconcerned with the ethical and environmental problems of the meat industry. While some of these people might be persuaded to adopt a less radical dietary change such as Meatless Mondays, it seems likely that people will continue to eat meat for some time to come.

Given that, this artificial burger seems almost too good to be true. If high quality artificial meat can be produced on a large enough scale, then we can enjoy steaks that require no cruelty to produce. It’s also probably fair to speculate that the environmental impacts of such an industry will be considerably less than those of the meat industry it would replace. Bio-industrial facilities can be stacked to take up less land, and can be built locally to save on transportation costs. Furthermore, I suspect that it will be much easier to control the emissions of a vat of proteins than of a one ton animal with legs and free will.

That being said, I think there’s a very large potential obstacle in the way of this technology that comes from a somewhat unlikely place. I am referring to the environmental movement. On the face of it, one would not expect environmental activists to oppose a technology with such obvious environmental benefits, but it’s important to consider the ideological background of modern environmentalism. The contemporary environmental movement originated in the 1960s and 1970s, and is grounded in a fairly legitimate reaction to the growing centralizing technocracy and consumer society that was existed at the time. The environmental movement thus has genealogical ties to the 1960s peace movement, the antinuclear proliferation movement, and a whole host of other activist traditions originating from the hippie generation. This can be seen in some of their political positions. Nuclear power, genetically modified crops, and industrial agriculture are opposed partly because these technologies are best suited to a centralized, expert-driven technocracy that environmentalism grew up in opposition to. Conversely, things like organic food and small-scale wind power are promoted by environmentalists because they are relatively low-tech solutions that promote resiliency, self-sufficiency and democracy.

It’s unlikely that anybody will figure out how you can grow your own meat at home. Even if the necessary expertise could be somehow developed in a radical permaculture commune, there is still the question of where they would get bovine stem cells. These complications mean that synthetic meat is likely to take the form of a centralized, expert-driven industry for the foreseeable future. And that doesn’t fit in very well with the visions promoted by environmentalist organizations. I don’t mean to suggest that all the objections these organizations might have are inherently wrong. Indeed, their skepticism might allow them to uncover some environmental danger or health threat associated with fake meat that gets missed by others. But as we negotiate the kinds of new technologies that could make our food system more sustainable, we need to think critically about why activists take the positions they do, keeping in mind that everybody has their own little dogmas and irrational biases. There is no such thing as a purely rational political actor.

I could end this post there, but I think there’s one other trend I should note that could be relevant to this debate. As I’ve said, mainstream environmentalism takes the positions it does because of its roots in the social movements of our parents’ generation. While younger people have internalized those values, mainstream environmentalism remains in one sense a baby boomer’s movement. But as milennials begin to assert themselves in activist circles, we’re starting to see them developing an alternative perspective, which is informed by the political importance of the internet-itself a fairly technocratic space that requires the central provision of some crucial resources. While the hippies generally seek to simplify the world by avoiding and opposing centralized technocracy, adherents to this new philosophy are better described as “hackers”, who seek to directly engage with complex systems, subvert them, and bend them to their will. This, I suspect, will lead to a different set of environmental values, under which fake meat could very well be seen enthusiastically as an environmentally beneficial bio-hack.

When one can talk about generational activist infighting over fake meat, it becomes obvious that we live in a very strange and exciting world indeed.