Is a Meat-Eating Cyclist a Contradiction?

(Photo: Sarah Gilbert)

In response to James McWilliams‘s still-reverberating post about why more environmentalists don’t promote veganism, a reader named Mary writes:

I have always wondered why environmentalists are so reluctant to promote veganism, but eager to promote alternative transportation. Many residents of the U.S. are currently locked in to their car-dependent lifestyle, with large mortgages in suburbs with no safe sidewalks or bike lanes and inefficient transit. Ditching their car is logistically much more difficult to do than buying beans instead of meat at the grocery store. Currently, the infrastructure for reducing car use is lacking in many communities, though vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained.

It’s an interesting point. A few related thoughts come to mind:

  • One reason that “vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained” is because of our transportation network.
  • When we did a recent podcast about the perils of drunk walking, there was pushback from a quadrant I hadn’t anticipated: the anti-car movement. Their argument was essentially that pedestrians shouldn’t be blamed for vehicular accidents because they (even when drunk) are essentially innocent bystanders, whereas cars are essentially weapons.
  • As we explored in another podcast, about personal biases, human beings are pretty good at lining up the facts that fit our personal preferences, even if our preferences are sometimes contradictory. In other words, if I hate cars because of their pollution but love meat, I may find a clever cognitive twist that allows me to keep loving the latter while slamming the former. In fact, the smarter you are, the better you may be at living with these contradictions. Like Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

What do you have to add?

If nothing else, Mary should be reading James Howard Kunstler and watching Portlandia .

Weston Tanner

Why does every cyclist story have to be about making a statement? Can't we just ride bike because their fun?


While it is the case that "“vegan foods, like beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, are much more easily obtained” is because of our transportation network," is it not also the case that when acquiring foods through this transportation network that one can make better or worse choices? Are you suggesting that because they both were delivered to your local grocery store on a truck that somehow washes out the environmental differences between meats and beans?

As you warned, it's important to watch out for personal biases that might help you order the facts in such a way so that "the facts that fit our personal preferences, even if our preferences are sometimes contradictory."


Veganism (in America) is much more tied in to morality than is bicycling. I know a lot of bicyclists who essentially fell into it -- "Oh, I found this great apartment only a few miles from my office, and the streets are really good between it, so I figured, what the heck..."

On the other hand, I've never met a single vegan who wasn't doing it at as a distinctly moral choice. While there are certainly bicyclists who are as evangelical and self-righteous as any vegan, it doesn't seem as tied in to the lifestyle.

I will admit that many people get into _vegetarianism_ generally for personal health reasons, but even among "merely" vegetarians, I've never met one who didn't eventually point out that meat was bad for the environment or that animals had feelings too or somesuch.

Because of the moral dimension, veganism is something you essentially have to do all the time -- there's not nearly as much advocacy for simply reducing meat intake -- while being a bicyclist and still keeping a car in the garage for trips out of town doesn't make you less of a bicyclist (at least, not to nearly the same extent). It's a lot easier to convince people to ride a bike to work or the movie theater every now and then than it is to convince people to change their entire eating regimen.


Mike B

It's a moral choice because Vegan foods are almost always awful than foods that actually cater to human biology and evolutionary preferences. Remember, Humans do not have a biologic need to drive whereas they do have a biologic need to eat meat. Veganism is basically liberal abstinence. It's a personal choice that goes way against nature and results in a lot of foregone utility with little practical gain. Morality and other soft reasons are the only tools that people have to justify the decision.

Cycling on the other hand has many direct benefits including better health, lower costs and lower stress. I personally hate driving and only do so where other modes are impractical or too time consuming. having increased transportation options means more personal freedom and more choice. Being vegan means much much less personal freedom and personal choice.

Swanky Cyclist

Veganism not necessarily greener anyway:

Anyway, I'm not an enviromentalist just because I ride a bike. I'm a bit of a bastard, truth be told.

Brian L

This is 80 pages. Whats the gist?


There is a 3 -page summary in the document.

Dr. Dave

I will repeat my comment that I wrote before: The vegan diet is not biologically sustainable. Humans require B12 in our diet--a compound that our digestive system can obtain exclusively from animal products.

The ethnic vegans historically did not acquire B12 deficiency (dementia, neuropathy, combined systems degeneration) because of insect particles in their imperfect grain processing. When some immigrated to countries such as the UK, they began to develop the above diseases. The liver can store enough B12 for years, even decades, but eventually the biological reality caught up to them--they got sick.

This is not the point of your post, I know, but how can we adopt a lifestyle that concludes with morbidity and mortality? That is the inevitable conclusion of veganism.

Holly M

B12 is bacteria-based, not animal product-based.

Dr. Dave

Do your research before posting an ignorant comment. Yes, the bacteria are at the bottom of the B12 food chain, but the only way we can get it is by eating eggs, mild, meat, or other animal products. Somewhere in the chain is an ruminant or some other such concentrator of B12.

Brian L

Very rough estimate for MPG equivalents with average food production energy estimate included: 18–34 MPG of oil equivalent, and biking comes in at 70–130 MPG.

This ignores all externalities such as increased health resulting in lower use and thus impact of the medical industry, lower road wear, lower embodied energy of the transportation infrastructure (roads and cars) etc, as well as any resulting in higher energy use such as medical costs after being hit etc.

If one were to get their daily calories from a lower energy food source (local, vegetarian, etc) then this efficiency most likely sky rockets.


Not eating meat is a bigger deal. Humans are social predators. Switching to biking doesn't require us to go against our basic nature.

I know this doesn't counter the article's basic point, but I'm pretty sure it's an important part of the reason for the difference.

Mike Pudelwitts

Biking is fun. Eating vegan not so much.

Michael Young

Probably says something that I stared at the title for a bit just utterly confused and not at all seeing how the two were related. And after a few moment's thought, clicked the link thinking that I'd perhaps see an article about exercise, diet, and obesity. Maybe some claim by the vegetarian crowd that meat is unhealthy and exercise is healthy, so cycling and meat-eating were a contradiction.

Never would have imagined to think of the two as contrary to an environmentalist. Cycling and diet/taste choices in my mind are so linked to HEALTH issues, that environmental concerns simply don't occur to me.

Are there really people who adopt veganism purely because of worry over their carbon footprint, instead of worrying about mortality/illness rates? Would they still maintain their veganism if it were demonstrated that while veganism is better for the environment, it'll also reduce your life expectancy?

I can imagine a large proportion of people going the opposite way. If it were demonstrated that an environment-unfriendly diet actually extended your life, a good chunk of people would switch to it, environment be damned. Or am I wrong?



Why do you assume all bikers are environmentalists?

I don't ride my bike to be green. I ride my bike (in Chicago) because:
-You arrive at your destination faster
-You get free parking right in front of your destination every time
-You get to run red lights and cut to the front of the line
-Your stomach is your gas tank
-You flip your commute from the worst part of your day to the best
-It's free, your bike pays for itself after one season of commuting ($2.25/CTA trip*10 trips/week*10 weeks = $225)
-The CTA doesn't go from Wicker Park to Lincoln Park (1.15 hours by public trans, 15m by bike)


Mike McD

Nothing we humans do is "good" for the environment. So you're a bike rider or a vegan....that just means you're destroying the environment a little less than some others. Self righteous indignation appears to be alive and well.