Animal Oil? – No thanks.

Would you like a cow with that oil change?

I recently had an interesting email conversation with some friends about green solutions and the gray areas that often accompany them. First, a little background. One powerful, economical and healthy method I use to reduce my carbon footprint is a vegetarian diet. I like our meat-free home and the wonderfully diverse, delicious and delightful meals we cook in our kitchen! I’ve written before about the impact of a meat-based diet as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Now along comes an email from a friend who is also committed to living lighter on the planet. He asked what I thought about a new product that replaces conventional oil with a new “green” product made from animal fat using nanotechnology. We’ll call it animal-oil. The company markets this substance as a very green product.

I read the company’s website and came to the conclusion that I would rather continue using convention oil in my car’s crankcase, for a number of reasons. My friend is trying the new product. The green choice is in a gray area when two people with the same goal of sustainability choose two different approaches.

Part of it is personal preference. Animal fat is used in many products and I avoid them as much as possible (it’s difficult since most are not labeled truthfully).

“What is at stake today is enormous; it is the destiny of life on Earth. At such a time, walking a path of honoring ourselves and the living planet is our responsibility as citizens of the planet, but it is something more, as well. It is also a joy, and a privilege.” – John Robbins

I’m also leery of nanotechnology. Although it holds great promise, it could also result in unforeseen problems. When asked to explain, the company was reticent. Perhaps they were being lazy, but it could also indicate a desire to avoid discussing the issue in detail, or even worse, a lack of understanding of the potential dangers of untested technology. I am a fan of the Precautionary Principle.

In our ongoing email exchange, the case was made that it is unlikely most people will give up eating meat therefore animal-oil might as well be used. I think this is precisely the reason we are failing to address big issues like climate change. Few of us will forego reproduction, eating what we want, driving what we want, and wasting what we want, as long as it feels good and we can afford it (and often even if we can’t).

For me, eschewing meat (no pun intended) is a rational, beneficial choice – not a sacrifice. But even if it were, I would still gladly do it knowing its negative and unsustainable effect on our biosphere (i.e. loss of rainforest, GHG emissions, water intensity, toxic byproducts, social inequity, disease, etc.). Compassion and empathy play a role here too, but most choose to avoid thinking about our violence toward animals since it is too painful to face that reality. If you think you can, watch the movie Earthlings, available in its entirety online.

In our society, and life in general I suppose, it’s impossible to make perfect choices. My approach to reducing oil consumption includes ten years of hybrid vehicles, reducing the need to drive by working at home, taking local vacations and riding e-bikes. Choosing a childless path is perhaps our greatest personal contribution to reduced consumption.

But the real bottom line for me regarding animal-oil is this: The idea of lubricating my car’s crankcase with parts of recently-slaughtered sentient beings gives me the creeps as much as putting them in my mouth does.

To each his own. Ultimately, many share the goal of sustainability. Whether we achieve it or not, especially without great suffering on a massive scale, remains to be seen. I think we can spare the animals, live green and still make it happen.

I will close with a quote from a man I admire greatly, John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution: “What is at stake today is enormous; it is the destiny of life on Earth. At such a time, walking a path of honoring ourselves and the living planet is our responsibility as citizens of the planet, but it is something more, as well. It is also a joy, and a privilege.”


Green Living column for Thursday, January 28, 2010, published in the Las Vegas Review Journal: “Daily choices reflect vegetarian lifestyle”