Get a Dog

I’m so out of touch I didn’t even know that some people are claiming that driving an SUV is better for the environment than having a dog. Thanks to Tyler Cowen, now I do. (And those people aren’t even named Levitt and Dubner!) Thanks to Cowen and Clark Williams-Derry, I also know that the claim is nonsense based on wildly wrong assumptions.

One of the many sub-issues is how to account for the meat that dogs eat. One of the original claims (summarized here) is that dogs’ diets require a large amount of land to grow all the corn to feed all the cows who presumably end up in pet food. Williams-Derry points out that the meat in pet food is generally meat that humans do not eat, and hence demand from pets only has a small impact on the market-clearing quantity in the market for cows. Williams-Derry and Cowen both point out that this impact is not zero, since the existence of pet food suppliers as buyers of meat scraps increases the short-term profits from cows, and hence more cows will be supplied. But it’s a lot smaller than if you were growing entirely different cows for pet consumption than for human consumption.

I’ve been curious about this sort of thing because I am more or less a vegetarian (with one significant loophole) who continues to wear leather belts and shoes, which presents a similar issue. However, I’ve never claimed that being a vegetarian is necessarily logically consistent.

But there’s another sub-issue I’m interested in, which is what your alternatives are. For most people who drive SUVs, there is a reasonable alternative that gets higher gas mileage. What’s the reasonable alternative to a dog? A goldfish? Giving up a dog means having nothing. Giving up an Escalade means having a Subaru wagon or a Honda CR-V, which gets significantly higher gas mileage.

One of Cowen’s commenters points out that pets probably have environmentally-friendly externalities. I’m a great example of that; I am (largely) a vegetarian because of my dog, and the lifetime reduction in my meat consumption would pay for the ecological footprints of many dogs. (Especially if they were like my dog, who primarily ate vegetarian dog food.)

Finally, if you’re getting a dog from a shelter (which you should), the dog was already there; it’s not like you created a new energy-hogging mouth to feed. Should we simply be killing dogs because of their ecological footprints, or should we be adopting them? Unless you’re in favor of killing them, your decision to adopt a dog does not have any impact on the environment. Demand to adopt dogs from shelters does not affect supply of new puppies by breeders in any way that I can see. (I don’t think demand for puppies goes up because buyers know they can unload their dogs on the secondary “shelter market” when they tire of them.) The same cannot be said of buying a new SUV.

By James Kwak

60 thoughts on “Get a Dog

  1. I promise to only surrender my SUV to non-kill shelters. No matter how bad it is for the environment I couldn’t stand for it to be put down. :)

  2. Really, this is too gentle a treatment of what pet food contains. Often they contain meat from euthenized animals from shelters. This would
    make demand for dogs completely independent from demand for cattle.

  3. I got Levitt and Dubner’s new book from one of my closest relatives for Christmas (puke)….. I’m not sure what my facial expression was when I opened that gift, but if I convinced anyone in the room I was happy, I should get an honorary Oscar.

    You see, when you love someone, you can’t tell them they just bought you the worst “Econ” book published in years. That’s using the term “Econ” very liberally of course.

  4. Your point “I’ve never claimed that being a vegetarian is necessarily logically consistent” reminded me of something I’m fond of pointing out about hypocrisy. Namely, it’s the easiest thing in the world to not be a hypocrite. You just have to set low standards for yourself and others. If you’re not a hypocrite it probably means you’re setting the bar too low. Better to set a high standard and fall a bit short, imo.

  5. Hey James, because this post is one of your more humorous ones, and you need more human interest stories on this site (this one qualifies as human interest for sharing your personal habits), we’ve decided to let you off the hook for quoting Cowen here.
    Try not to let it happen again.

    Don’t be surprised if Glen Beck and his FOX pals quote the original New Scientist story in a serious, revered manner within the next week. They’ll be talking about that story at truckstops for years.

  6. Hey, I’m with you all the way. But, to be consistent, if the alternative to the big SUV is a smaller vehicle then the alternative to a large dog is a smaller dog. It’s up to you how small you want to go (in both cases).

  7. The next time you are in a grocery store, pick up a bag of dog food. Look at the ingredients. What are the first and/or second ingredients? Corn.

    Corn, and dogs, and corndogs for that matter have a big carbon footprint. A Yeti size footprint.

  8. I thought the alternative to a SUV was to move to a neighbourhood where one can walk everywhere.

    Given that, the alternative to a dog is, yes, no pet. It’s not like pets are necessary to live a full life.

  9. This is a very funny subject. Just as it is quite easy to show how nonsensical the dog energy parameters are the SUV in America is even funnier.

    It is easy to point out that most uses of oil refining middle distillates are consumed in essential uses in our lives. Virtually all of our goods and product transportation involves uses of middle distillate. Then one must factor in home heating and industrial uses of middle distillates.

    All in all, middle distillates are required for us to live as we presently do. It would be very difficult to reduce our middle distillate uses for quite some time to come.

    What is interesting is that we derive about three gallons of light distillates for every two gallons of required middle distillates. Those three gallons of mostly gasoline are an absolute by product of the required two gallons of fuel oils.

    Thus the gasoline used in marginally lowered gas mileage of the SUV or any other discretionary gas guzzler is a free by product that if we did not burn it would require export for others to burn it so long as our middle distillate usage is a constant.

    Now that is frankly hilarious!

    So long as we heat 8 million houses with fuel oil the marginally produced gasoline is a non issue being burned in the SUV and recreational uses. Similarly, conversion of rail transport to effective non oil sourced electric power applications would further reduce the available by product gasolines. Eliminating these two sources of fuel oils consumption would reduce available gasoline by 150 % of the reduced fuel oils consumption. Accomplish this reduction and then we truly all will need to drive Trabant’s.

    Of course I do here ignore marginal consumer uses of middle distillates to make what I think is a very funny point.

    To reiterate, you produce the absolutely needed middle distillate you get 150 % more light distillates. You must burn it somewhere and right now that is in the consumer automobile aspect of our culture.

    So the SUV and other reprehensible uses of gasoline are really just an urban myth in the most general terms. Everyone harps on the SUV when the culprit is the family staying warm using heating oil?

    Of course, one may shift these distillation rations somewhat especially given the new methods of direct conversion of gas to high grade middle distillates. That is the future though we already understand how to do it. Syncrude eventually will get to a somewhat similar route.

    Right now though the SUV is blameless in a backhanded way.

    Even funnier is that we also get that 1 gallon of everything else which produces all kinds of miraculous products along with motor oils and odious bunker fuels.

    Get an SUV too ?

  10. Although I have both a Dog and an SUV, I have no opinion on this since I do not believe that Carbon Dioxide at 300 or 600 or 900 PPM is a significant contributor to global climate change. But then I don’t have a finance degree, I only have a degree in Chemical Engineering. I’d be interested to see if there is a correlation between blogging and vegetarianism, my guess would be that there are a disproportionate number of bloggers that are vegetarians.

  11. “A Yeti size footprint.” You’re being ironic, yes? A footprint from an abominable snowman? So you mean that corn has an imaginary carbon footprint? Or did you mean a Yeti-brand mountain bike? Is Yeti the name of some SUV I haven’t heard of before? I think I missed something.

  12. Using fossil fuels to heat buildings -rather than passive solar- is a huge waste of money, not to mention the totally unnecessary greenhouse gases.

    So, I guess your point is that we can rid of all the SUVs by converting our buildings to passive solar. ‘Cause then there won’t be any gasoline refined to run them.

  13. Have you missed something? Yes. The above author just posted on one of the most important and widely read economics blogs in the world without ever observing what he is writing about.

    Two or three, of the top three ingredients in most commercial dog foods are corn.

    How can intelligent people like the above author get swept away by a crazy idea without actually observing anything? I live in the Washington DC area and I have to drive 25 miles to get dog food that is meat based. And its CHICKEN based.

    Yeti? Carbon Footprints? Meat based dog food? Have you ever seen one? No. They are just ideas put in our minds by someone else, that we then turn around and put in other peoples minds without checking the facts.

    But then again how many of us actually observe anything anymore? I mean systematic observing, you know, back yard science? It used to be a lot more common. Be it counting the number of migratory birds and reporting that, or measuring the magnitude of variable stars, or even keeping a weather station and recording measurements in a weather journal. If we had, we would have observed that things have gotten a little chillier as of late.

    Here we are fretting about the whole planet based on what someone else has told us, based on what someone else told him, and we don’t even know whats happening in our own back yards.

    We are so easily seduced by the craziest ideas. We have been trained not only not to observe, but not to trust what we see when we do. Why should we? We’re not “experts.” Why should I read the back of a bag of dog food when instead I can go to the internet and listen to an “expert” tell me that dogs are destroying the world?!!!

  14. «Namely, it’s the easiest thing in the world to not be a hypocrite. You just have to set low standards for yourself and others.»

    No, that is one of the bravest, hardest things in the world. Nobody likes to be in touch with that they really feel and think. Also, it might set you on the path to actually improving what you feel and think, instead of just increasing your hypocrisy.

    «If you’re not a hypocrite it probably means you’re setting the bar too low. Better to set a high standard and fall a bit short, imo.»

    Unfortunately hypocrisy is the very essence of corruption and it is addictive; once you give in to it everything becomes much easier and it leads to further corruption.

    I am talking about self-hypocrisy in the above; hypocrisy to other of course remains the most effective tool for social and business success :-).

    Too bad it nearly always leads to corrupting self-hypocrisy.

  15. «Two or three, of the top three ingredients in most commercial dog foods are corn.»

    That’s just like for human food. Corn is cheap, and food companies can boost their profits by processing corn into something that tastes like something else, which is almost always more expensive, and consumers don’t read or understand food labels.

    «Two or three, of the top three ingredients in most commercial dog foods are corn.»

    That’s just like for human food. Corn is cheap, and food companies can boost their profits by processing corn into something that tastes like something else, which is almost always more expensive, and consumers don’t read or understand food labels.

    Some guy calculated that the result is that 30-40% of what Usians eat is processed corn.

    I was horrified to see that some bread is made with a significant percentage of corn too (and tastes much worse because of that).

  16. Unfortunatley its not as easy as that either. If you refine ANY amount of crude oil you will end up with gasoline (and heating fuels). Changing the type of oil and the refining technology will allow you to fine tune the amount of product produced, but it wont eliminate the production of gasoline (or heating fuel). So unless you’re giving up everything made with an oil by product (including jet fuel and the asphalt we drive on) you can’t get rid of the gasoline as a by product.

  17. Cooking without meat is creating with one hand tied behind your back. By saying this I do not believe in having meat in everything. I am essentially onmivorous.

  18. Yes , the product may be fine tuned within the characteristics of the crude oil being refined. This is a quite limited result and I was commenting on the general rule.

    My point is that within the parameters of what we do now and will continue to do for a very long time gasoline production is a function of more essential present uses for middle distillate products.

    Simplistically, if we reduced personal consumption of light distillates and did not also reduce the need for middle distillates the extra gasolines would need to be exported or used in industrial uses. The gasoline would be burned anyway because it was automatically produced by the refining process.

    A simple comparison. Automobile gasoline production would be guaranteed to decline if home heating were replaced with LNG in the Northeast ( terminals are already being built) and if rail power were switched over to electric locomotives with gas generated power.

    The gas guzzler argument requires a balanced enforceable long term policy to work which we do not have.

  19. Funny you should mention killing dogs to eliminate their “carbon footprint” (not that you’re advocating it).

    Many rabid environmentalists suggest we do the same thing to humans – via various population reduction schemes.

    Just sayin’.

  20. For most people who drive SUVs, there is a reasonable alternative that gets higher gas mileage.

    Not really. Those higher mpg models stand a lower chance of murdering people in non-SUVs in collisions. Furthermore, higher mpg models probably do less to block the vision of drivers behind them, and thus result in less gridlock (as a major determinant of gridlock is the following distance between vehicles in intersections, which function as choke points).

    In short, those higher mpg models would do nothing to satisfy the sociopathic tendencies of those who would otherwise choose a big, heavy SUV.

  21. I don’t know about correlation, because it might not work in both directions, but apparently engineers are overrepresented among creationists and AGW denialists.

  22. As a vegan runner, and consequently a dog-hater, I was wondering if I were to run over a dog, accidentally of course, with my Honda Fit would the act be carbon neutral?

  23. This is totally meant to be taken in fun, but is a serious question:

    I have always wanted to ask this of you plant eating only people: If you don’t eat meat then how do you expect your plants to get fertilized? More petroleum based fertilizers?

    Local wolves and coyotes agree, “Vynhall Lamb taste great”. Bring out the Carnivore in you — Eat Vynhall lamb and Highland Beef. (One of my side jobs owner of Vynhall Farms)

    Owners of Volkswagens and Mazdas and four dogs to guard and move the sheep and cows.

  24. I have an SUV, in part to carry around my large dog. :-)

    Given that government budget issues will result in crumbling roadways and minimal police protection, an SUV and a large dog (or two) will soon be a necessity for both mobility and security.

  25. I thought dogs WERE the alternative, to having kids. Kids have a much greater footprint than my little 35 pound dog. Also, don’t vegetarians neutralize the impact of their carnivorous dogs?

  26. I realize this is a bit off the immediate subject, but here it is: SUV’s are ethically objectionable not only due to their inefficient use of resources, but also because they create serious safety issues for drivers who use normal-sized vehicles. People who buy SUV’s without a compelling practical reason – that is, the vast majority of them – value their right to a bit more comfort or ego reassurance more highly than the safety of their fellow citizens. Public roads are one of the few common areas that necessity compels most of us to share. The fact that so many of my fellow citizens are perfectly content to take up a disproportionate amount of public space, while simultaneously creating a less safe driving environment for those of us who use normal-sized vehicles that meet practical, not ego-based requirements, is indicative of the overweening self-absorption and contempt for others that is in the process of destroying our political and economic systems. SUV’s are a class of vehicle born out of government import loopholes and the creative and technical failures of an automotive industry on its last legs. The fact that so many Americans choose, for no practical reason, to drive them, is just one of the signs of a populace so practiced in willful self-deception that even the most mundane decisions are skewed towards ethical and economic idiocy.

  27. Interesting hypothesis. FWIW, I am not a creationist. But I think you were trying to make a broader point, which IMO is 180 degrees off target. The point of the hypothesis you site, at least the most commonly accepted part of the hypothesis which is supported by even the most modest research, is that Engineers with training not in biological sciences make creationist arguments and assert scientific authority because they have an Engineering degree, but said degrees are essentially irrelevant to the Evolutionary debate since they have nothing remotely to do with the subject of Evolution or biological sciences. My degree in Chemical Engineering is precisely relevant to the global Warming debate, I would even argue that my degree and experience, though not in climatology, make me more qualified to discuss the effect of Carbon Dioxide concentrations on global warming than the average meteorologist.

  28. Since we are all being ironical, can I recommend we solve manmade global obesity with a carbo tax? Perhaps cap and trade?

  29. One of my two dogs cannot eat grain. So we feed her commercial food made from a base of sweet potatoes and potatoes. That is, with a base that has a low carbon footprint.

  30. IMHO the broader question is:

    Is a dog a man’s best friend? Or is a gas-guzzling SUV a man’s best friend? (The latter as Carson Gross seems to be suggesting.)

  31. No problem… My buddy and I just go out and a few birds and pass ’em out to the pups! We get all sorts of birds, quail, duck, heck, we even got a turkey or two awhile back! Who knows, maybe I’ll hit deer … We’d be set for weeks! No realenvironmental impact, lead from the shotguns, a little sulfur from the shell??

    I am feeling kind of bad heating with wood. We ‘ll have figure that one out!

  32. That music was so long I thought it was a Moby music video. That song from the end credits of the Bourne movie. 1 or 2……..maybe I’m crazy. “oh baby, oh baby, then it fell apart……it fell apart………”

  33. In response to JD, I am a vegetarian blogger. Maybe there indeed is a correlation, and that would be good, as bloggers are obviously of superior intelligence in addition to having superior morals. :)

    I have no pet and no SUV I also drive my cars till they are very old. Let us not forget the resource intensity of producing a new vehicle.

  34. Oh ye of little faith, read on :)

    we have dogs (2), cat (1), horses (3), that’s our carbon footprint. what do all these furries eat? Well, the horses eat hay and a kibble supplement of micro-nutrients. The dogs eat a small handful of something called Beneful which hopefully is made of some form of foodstuff, but who knows? And the cat, to my knowledge, eats little mice and shrews and lizards when he can.

    What do we eat? Home-made food from veggies and (sigh) a bit of meat. I think the last time we had eggs was in the summer. Unless you are a carrot – hugger, we aren’t really destroying the world.

    What do we drive? This gets dicey. Our cars are sort of gas hogs, one is a Jeep gol darn it. But I only drive it about 500 miles a month if that. Beatin the breast here, but I can’t afford to sell it, it’s worth nothing.

    Sooo… how about grass eating pets, varmint eating household pets, and little bitty dogs who go through about 20 LB of commercial kibbles a year? And driving around real slow, and not too far? And wood burning stoves, and cold houses (think sweaters), and recycling everything, and avoiding packaged ANYTHING like the plague, and learning to do WITHOUT ( if this isn’t anti-American, I’ll eat my (recycled) hat.

    Faithfully yours,

  35. Most people food contains corn byproducts. Do we get rid of ourselves? This is a ridiculous argument. Saving an animal from death is worth whatever it takes.

  36. Nice analysis. My one quibble: if we are going to criticize SUVs but not cars in general, then it might be interesting to look at the difference between an SUV’s carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of a more economical car. In most parts of our country, going without a car altogether would be a major sacrifice, but swapping an SUV for a small car would not be a big deal.

  37. Just look at the weight and the mpg. Nothing magical about an SUV except for it’s being designed to get around the regulated fleet mpg standards by being a “truck” i.e. an SUV is a car built on a truck frame so exempt from mpg standards…

  38. Dogs are not meant to eat corn or grains …all dogs should be fed raw meat ! ….would a wolf eat berries or corn ? ..only after he ate his last cub !

  39. Whilst I am finding the fun of this posting getting a bit dull (I hope each of you will read to the end, which to me was the point of the post), as I am now being forced to defend dog food makers due to the ignorance of those who claim to know carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. I will quote page 70, Peterson Field Guide: Mammals (1980). “Coyote will eat almost anything animal or vegetable.” Under wolves same page, “Feeds on anything available, primarily birds and mammals: deer and caribou….” Canidae need plant matter in addition to meat. Herbivores eat insects and other aquatic bugs depending on where they are eating and what species, plus other forms of protein if they can get it like ground nesting baby birds.

    Economics should teach us that moderation and not taking more of scarce recourses then we honestly need are key. Given that we have free will, it is our job to determine for ourselves, based on our ethics, what the economic needs for ourselves are. Too many do not listen to their own voice for what their ethics should be or we would not have bubbles, excess, etc. An SUV might not make sense for a person who drives to and from work and then goes on an occasional golf outing, but for those who haul a boat or snowmobiles to a cabin every weekend they might. When I am not writing, farming or working as a Town Planner, I canoe and cross-country ski. My VW and Mazda can handle what I need them to haul. About six times a year I need a truck to haul “farm” things, the cost of owning a truck vs. the cost of hiring someone else with a truck to deliver what I need or to take my livestock to market does not justify the cost of owning to me at this time. This though is my choice based on my own economic needs just as others should make their own choices.

    Many here say they are vegans. As it is winter, what do you eat? Local plant stuffs that have been preserved for the winter or fresh fruits and veggies that comes from another state or country? Do those areas have a good “natural” water supply in the form of rain or do they have to heavily irrigate? Do they use local fertilizers or do they use petroleum based? IF you can eat locally preserved foods, does the cost make sense for those who would have to put a higher percentage of wages into food costs to follow your example?. Do factory type food farms make sense for that part of the population where oak grove swine would be cost prohibitive? Does shipping by water when it is cheaper and more can be carried outweigh the cost of hauling across land?

    Which is honestly more economic — the paper bag, the plastic bag, or the reusable tote bag? The paper needs trees to be cut disturbing an existing ecosystem; opening woodlands and for other ecosystems and allowing young trees to capture carbon better then older trees. These trees then need to be hauled to paper mills consuming additional fuel and water for the process of making pulp into paper. The bags may be made there or the paper maybe hauled to a factory, which makes bags and then sent to a distributor, who in turn sells them to stores. The plastic bag is made from petroleum hauled in from somewhere usually an area that is often destabilized or has a gross difference between those who have and those who have not, refined and then sold to make the bags, then follows the same route as the paper bag. The tote can be made of a number of fabrics some petroleum based others natural fibers grown by farmers who have to plough the fields, plant the fields, harvest, possibly irrigate and fertilize, then harvest the crop. The crop is then sold and shipped all over the world to be made into fabric which is then sold to factories who makes totes most likely in some third world country where there are few environment restrictions or even humanitarian rights to then be sold to those who think they are helping the environment without knowing what is really better. Which bag provides the most wages per cost and should this be factored in?

    Does or should economics outweigh social ethics? Who determines those social ethics and are our standards worth placing on others who have not come from the same development stage or background? Do we have any rights beyond the end of our fist and that space that keeps us from hitting another or placing our desires on the backs of others?

    Happy New Year and may each of us think not only in terms of numbers, but the ethical costs in economics to ourselves without hitting the face of others.

    Brenda Vinall-Mogel

  40. “Given that, the alternative to a dog is, yes, no pet. It’s not like pets are necessary to live a full life.”

    That is a matter of opinion.

  41. Dog owners feeding their animals super-processed food-like pellets and then complain it’s mostly corn?

    The reality is you don’t want to pay for food without fillers in it. It’s more expensive. It’s out there, but none of you are willing to pay for it. Do you see how selfish (America personified) that is?

    The Right Brigade feeds their dogs a variety of raw meat products with mixed vegetables/grains included. Any quality pet store carries raw foods these days.

    Cue the excuses!

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