What Plant-Based Burgers Can Teach Us About Saving the Planet

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A seminal book from the heyday of anthropology touches explicitly on meat, flesh, and irrationality: The Raw and the Cooked (1964). Author Claude Lévi-Strauss investigated how cultures structure experience around contrived binary oppositions. The raw and the cooked is a tenacious one. Think about foodies’ obsession with the preparation of meat. Where cooked meat—fire, ovens, stoves—would seem to be more adaptive than raw, it’s meat prepared closer to raw that represents haute cuisine in the West, and the temperature one prefers for meat is a vital class signifier. To order meat well done might be to lose status in Paris; elsewhere, to order it raw, as steak tartare, might be deadly.

Anyone working to address climate change should be mindful of the anthropological notion of taboos. To scientists, the idea of ginning up a super race of mice or suffusing Earth’s atmosphere with aerosolized mirrors might seem promising; to many of the rest of us, these ideas trip bad wires. Most of the wildest, reverse-the-polarities ways that figures like Brown have proposed to forestall catastrophe tread on sensitive spots in the brain: flinch reflexes, squeamishness, areas of dizzying ignorance.

Kirsty Gogan, who advocates for expanding the use of nuclear power at Energy for Humanity, her NGO, has even identified gut revulsion from solutions perceived as taboos as a culprit in the climate crisis. In tandem, Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford, believes the planet is imperiled in part because we’re starting to leave a shared idea of reason behind and retreating into what Lin describes as “fantasy and rage.” To claim to be “paleo” or “anti-vax” is less to make an observation about reality and more to claim a personal and tribal affiliation, grounded in fantasy and rage, totem and taboo.

All of the most promising routes to decarbonization, every last one of them, require that humans change beliefs and behaviors with which they may identify. The modern imperative, if humans and our habitat are to survive, is to interrogate cultural idées fixes—about food, freedom, tribal identity, the body, water, even evidence and truth. Marketing, while useful for promoting coziness and self-indulgence, is crap at getting people to question their cherished beliefs.

Because of the force of human superstitions, more mighty than petroleum and more central to our survival than the internet, Gogan has also written, “All of our climate solutions must be impossible burgers.”

She means we need to think like Brown, whose research ultimately showed him that most fast-food consumers don’t think about the origin of their burgers, or the halo of eating plants, or even about health value. They care about taste, price, familiarity, and—to a lesser extent—novelty. Impossible and its rival, Beyond Meat, nailed these qualities, and neither bothered to hold symposia on DNA; lessons in biochemistry tend to kill the burger buzz—the highly ritualized consumption of cheap protein, generally in a colorful and sociable setting. Like Burger King. Last year, the sale of plant-based burgers went up 10 percent. Most importantly, the meat-from-plants was bought and consumed in richly appointed tribal settings that give comfort: Applebee’s, Hardee’s, TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Café, and Dunkin’.

Brown’s burger has won over consumers, in other words, without setting off alarms about altering DNA or eliminating cattle ranches. These days, Impossible’s site doesn’t mince words: “Genetic engineering is an essential part of our mission and our product. We’ve always embraced the responsible, constructive use of genetic engineering to solve critical environmental, health, safety, and food security problems.” In five years, the stigma on GMOs has lifted; roving panic about DNA moved on. Now that fake meat is everywhere and scientists have extolled its adoption, people tabled the GMO question, much the way we tabled “test tube baby” concerns when IVF became commonplace.

As a common noun, impossible burger may come to mean the thing that human systems of thought and practice would never accommodate—until they did. For her part, Gogan, in her quest to spread nuclear power against quasi-religious objections from all quarters, has closely tracked Brown’s audacity and success in introducing his burgers on a large scale—and, more astonishing still, getting the GMO- and even DNA-shy to relish them. This is the way the planet is saved.


VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN (@page88) is a regular contributor to WIRED.

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