Vegetarianism as a Sometimes Thing

I’m toiling away this summer writing a book about commitment contracts. And out of the blue, I received an email from an aspiring economist (who is planning to apply to PhD programs this fall), named Matt Johnson, who has an interesting new wrinkle. Matt writes:

I am a carnivorous being. I love all kinds of meat. However, in recent years I have become very sympathetic to the vegetarian cause. The environmental, ethical, and even economic issues with the world’s meat consumption are too compelling to ignore. My roommate was a vegetarian for a year last year, and during that time I found myself eating substantially less meat just from being around him. Having grown up believing that I had to have meat at least once a day to sustain myself, I now cook up delicious meat-free meals several days a week. But I still love a good cheeseburger.

Here is the idea. I figure there are many people out there who, like me a year or two ago, are sympathetic to the veggie cause but are just so used to eating meat that it is ingrained in their daily routine. But if you put several of these like-minded people together, perhaps something could come of it. This is where the commitment contract concept comes in.

The idea that occurred to me was: What if a group of people collectively signed a contract that said one of them would be vegetarian everyday of the year? More specifically, say a group of 7 people signed a contract saying that each of them would go meatless on an assigned day each week. Thus, within the group each member could eat meat 6 days a week, but there would be one vegetarian at all times. The group could be 7 good friends, or it could be 7 individuals matched by the “commitment store.” And of course 7 is an arbitrary number – more ambitious folks could form a team of 2 or 3.

The effect may seem marginal, but I have seen tons of sources which say that just a bit less meat consumption could have immense environmental benefits. Here is one: According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.

At first I was concerned of a selection bias, meaning that people who sign up are probably ones who are already eating less meat anyway. But maybe those people would make more stringent contracts – i.e. 2 or 3 of them could split up a week, rather than 7. And the core group it would target would be people motivated to eat less meat but who do not have an environment conducive to doing so.

Such an idea is in a way just an extension of the commitment contract, but it also introduces a social element to it. One is committing to achieve a goal, but that goal goes beyond the individual. Not only does it introduce the obligation one might feel to a team, but it also brings in a community of support of people sharing a common purpose. I believe this last idea is utilized in some micro-finance loan contracts in developing countries: several individuals who receive loans are grouped together, and each one is held accountable if another group member does not repay his or her loan.

I like Matt’s idea very much. I’ve heard of car-sharing and even pet-sharing, but I’d never thought of the idea of vegetarianism sharing. In fact, I like Matt’s idea so much that my spouse, Jennifer Brown and I have created contracts where we commit to “not knowingly eat meat on Wednesdays for the next 52 weeks.” I’ve backed up the commitment by putting $150 at stake each week. Plus, I’m offering a bounty. I am committing to pay a $100 to anyone who first catches me eating meat on any Wednesday. So if I fail on any particular Wednesday, I am out a total of $250 ($100 to the person who catches me and another $150 to a charity). It gives new meaning to the phrase, carrots and stickKs.

Anyone else care to join us? You can pick any day of the week.

Mike M

Do as you please, however please don't feel guilty about eating meat. This "Green" non-sense has gone too far. Carbon Dioxide has NOT been proven to cause climate change.

David Hayes

Seems kinda sensible to me but I only eat meat 1 or 2 meals a week anyway (if that most weeks). I'd probably switch to full vegatarianism but I like a good steak/burger/bacon sandwich from time to time. It's also way more flexible for the odd place that has no vegatarian meals on the menu. Nobody needs to eat meat in every meal


As far as eating chicken only once a week, how often do people eat chicken anyway?

For 7 people to make the committment, wouldn't we really need to know some historical average of their meat consumption? Maybe I over compensate on the 6 "meat" days and simply substitute more meat meals then. Example: I might eat PB&J for lunch most days, but since I "have" to eat that on my veggie day, maybe I eat a taco for lunch on the meat day.

Doesn't seem like this would have the desired outcome at all.

Oh, and Mike, you're about to get flamed. Good luck with that. I hope this thread remains "economic" and not "global warming." Regardless of the AGW reality, the economic question here is at least interesting.


I disagree with choosing not to eat meat as a environmental cause. I do agree with it as a moral or health choice. I've been veggie for the last month and a half in order to 1) try to break through a weight loss wall I hit, and 2) try new foods I wouln't have if I didn't try a diet change.
My wife helps because she is not only eating veg, but is trying to eat as raw as possible as well.
I've been successful at both goals and can see myslef being "mostly" veg in the future, enjoying a burger or some chicken two or three times a week.
BTW: We're not forcing this on our kids, but the fact is they would take tofu over chicken nuggets any day. Raw tofu. right out of the carton. They love it.


I have teeth that cut meat nicely. I have the forward facing eyes of an animal of prey.


You will probably always want that cheeseburger.. I will.

Forget feeling guilty. Steer your diet towards your goals. Don't give diet the helm.

Just last night I was with friends who stay close to a vegetarian plan. Well, the previous day they had stopped at a place that featured the "Butter Burger" and other things you can imagine. A pig-fest followed.

We laughed at our weaknesses. But today my breakfast will be a couple of bananas. And tea.

Yet as certain as sunrise, sooner of later a Butter Burger will get me too.


Mike M - have you read any scientific papers by actual scientists studying the issue (i.e. climatologists)? Because basically every single one disagrees with your (likely politically motivated) assertion.

Moreover, it is not merely CO2 that is produced by meat production. Methane is an enormous (and unavoidable) by-product of the millions of cows needed to sustain meat eating. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2

Katrin DT

Although this seems like a good idea at first, it is likely that it cannot be operational beyond a minority of possibily such open-minded people as those who would not mind turning vegetarian for a day a week in the first place. If it was enforced regionally or nationally, the likelyhood would be that people would slip and have less incentive to stick to the commitment because they would they think "oh, other people will be doing it, I don't have to". Moreover, something as basic an instinct as preference for certain types of food would mean people may feel like eating meat on the day they were supposed to be vegetarian and - deprived of their craving - may grow to resent the scheme, associating it negatively in their minds until they give up.
It is similar to the scheme used in Austria which was used to reduce congestion and pollution on the roads by enforcing a ban on car usage on a particular day: people felt their rights were restricted and resented the scheme, cheating or rejecting it outright and causing it to crumble in the long run.



Like many people I know, I find the actual preparation of raw meat an unpleasant experience. We have recently decided not to use any meat or meat products in the house. We still eat meat in restaurants, just not at home. We pack lunches most days, so we are now eating meat at most once or twice a week. I am really enjoying my almost-meat-free existence and I haven't had to clean a piece of chicken in six weeks!


As a meat eater who's also sympathetic to arguments for vegetarianism (or at least reduced meat consumption)I don't think this strategy is going to work, inasmuch as it likely will not have the economic or health benefits Matt suggests.

The problem is that, for most people (I imagine), not every meal involves meat, and this strategy is likely to just re-arrange people's patterns of consumption to create one meat-less day. For instance, if my day were Wednesday, and I were thinking about having cheese pizza Tuesday night, I might say, "Nah, let's have burgers tonight, we'll have pizza tomorrow when I can't eat meat." Or, if I normally alternate between a meat sandwich and a meat-less salad for lunch (my actual consumption habits), I'd just schedule accordingly to make sure I had the meat-less salad on my assigned day.

So, if two or three or seven people joined forces to try to create one (statistical) vegetarian, they'd fail to do so, and would likely create only a small fraction of a vegetarian. That's not a bad thing, but it seems like the more effective strategy would be for two or three or seven people, either through bonds of friendship or commitment contracts, to work together to actually reduce their meat consumption across the week, rather than re-arrange their pattern of consumption to create a meat-less day.


Kim Siever

It's called ‘flexitarianism'.

Eric M. Jones

"I've backed up the commitment by putting $150 at stake each week."

I've backed up the commitment by putting $150 at steak each week.


I just virtually cut out all beef from my diet instead. Beef seems to be particularly bad for some reason.

Max Penfold UK

Wow there are some really serous claims here and no supporting data, so please fogive me if I am sceptical about the claims of eating less chickens means less CO2. As the man said in "Bad Science" show me the data. On a more light hearted note don't vegetarians produce more methane?


An excellent idea! I'd love to see more folks get on board with this. As an almost-vegetarian is ridiculous how small your food choices shrink up when you choose to exclude meat from your diet :(

Pat G.

I'd love to see people trading days and bartering over this. Can I have your Friday? I got a date that night and she's vegetarian on Saturdays.


why negative reinforcements for forgetting elimination and wouldn't you want to reward trying to eat more variety of vegetables? would this not create demand for parsley root or celeriac or chayote to bring their price down so i can have my weirdo vegetables available outside of big city markets and eat them, too.


@ Mike M

You're entitled to your opinion regarding carbon dioxide's role in climate change. However, the issue with meat consumption is not CO2; it's methane and nitrous oxide. For further reading, see:

Moreover, as Matt points out in his e-mail, climate change is not the only reason to consider eating less meat--or no meat at all.


Eat meat on 6/7 days and you'll be 6/7x times as healthy as if you ate meat on 7/7 days. The simple fact is that meat is an evolutionary necessity. If you have ethical qualms with meat consumption, vegetarianism is a fine option, as long as you accept the long term health degradation that goes along with it. Of course, now that I'm going to end up paying for your heathcare, maybe I should have to sign off on that decision, but I didn't sign on to the farm subsidies that cause rampant metabolic syndrome, so I guess it's a small concession.


Mark Bittman (see NY TIme Blog 'Bitten' and column 'The Minimalist') is 'Vegan after 6'. He's lost 35 lbs doing it (it's healthy!)

My husband and I try to make half our dinners vegetarian each week. As it our dinner leftovers are our lunches during the week, it carries over. Also, to be healthier.