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The Great Beef Boondoggle : BEYOND BEEF The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture By Jeremy Rifkin , (Dutton: $21; 304 pp.)

March 22, 1992|Charles C. Mann | Mann, a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, is the co-author, with Mark L. Plummer, of "The Aspirin Wars," runner-up for this year's PEN/West Nonfiction Award

In June, the world's nations will meet in Rio de Janeiro for a global summit on the environment. Hordes of diplomats will wrangle over conflicting approaches to saving the planet's ecosystems.

If Jeremy Rifkin is right, these people will be wasting their time. There's an easy way, he says, to restore Mother Earth to health: Stop eating beef.

Rifkin is best known for his campaign against genetic engineering, which he thinks will lead to Nazi-style eugenics programs. Recently, though, he has been concentrating on the environment, especially that part of it anywhere near the family Bovidae . "A curious silence surrounds the issue of cattle," he warns. His new book, "Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture," is intended to shatter that silence.

Beef-eaters, Rifkin thinks, have a lot to answer for. In his view, the West's uncontrollable fondness for steak is creating deserts, laying waste to forests, poisoning water systems, starving the poor, killing off native peoples, wrecking the atmosphere, expunging rare species, and abetting the forces of racism and sexism. It "might appear strange," Rifkin admits, to "suggest that a person is committing an evil act" by going to McDonald's and consuming a hamburger, but that's just what he is suggesting. Forget about the wasteful wrapping and all that; it's the burger that's bad news.

Long ago, Rifkin claims, many people lived in a spiritual relationship with their bovine companions. Agricultural societies were egalitarian, matrilineal and ecologically aware--PC before PC, as it were. Then a bad element sprang up on the Russian steppes. They were called Kurgans. The first to breed horses to carry people, Kurgans set up "the first nomadic cattle empire in world history." Ever in search of pastureland, Kurgans invaded Europe and the Mideast, introducing their cattle along with their utilitarian, capitalist mind set.

The Kurgans believed that "land was something to capture, possess, and exploit." Soon everyone else did, too. This was all 6,000 years ago. According to Rifkin, things haven't been right since.

The beef boondoggle didn't really go out of control, though, until the days of Wyatt Earp. "Few Americans are aware," says Rifkin, "that . . . Western ranchers conspired with British banking interests to colonize nearly 40 percent of the land mass of the United States for the creation of a powerful Euro-American cattle complex."

It happened like this. Around 1800, the British ruling class, suddenly wealthy from empire, began breeding ridiculously fat cattle "to embody (its) new sense of self." Lords and ladies ate the cows' well-marbled flesh, "symbolically consummating their role as rulers of the world." The masses slavishly adopted the upper classes' "peculiar British taste" for fatty beef, Rifkin says, as "a means of securing passage into the British aristocracy." (I swear I'm not making this up.)

To slake the demand for fatty beef, British bankers financed the extermination of the buffalo and the Native American, and their replacement by cattle. By 1900, Midwestern farmers, Western ranchers, British bankers and multinational corporations had formed a cattle cabal in what Rifkin calls "one of the greatest business transactions in world history." Similar arrangements in the rest of the world led to the present situation, in which 1.28 billion cattle are "swarming over the great landmasses of Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Australia like hoofed locusts."

This is all so enjoyable that it seems practically boorish to point out that early agricultural societies were just as territorial and violent as any other human group (and maybe more sexist--the women did all the hard agricultural work and the men did hardly anything); that fatty meat is loved not only by scheming British bankers but also by ecological good guys like the Eskimos; that in any case the Western penchant for well-marbled beef is due not to its anthropological significance as a rite of social passage but because diners think it is more tender and flavorful than tough, lean beef; and that most British funds were used to build railroads, with cattle being an afterthought, well down on the list.

More irritating is Rifkin's innumeracy. He says, for example, that 43,136 tons of U.S. beef were shipped to Britain between 1884 and 1886--an average of 28,760,000 a year. At that time the population of Britain was roughly 37 million, three-quarters of which was working-class and therefore, according to Rifkin, "largely excluded from the beef culture." A few stabs at a calculator shows that the beef-eating population thus numbered about 9.25 million, and that for them per-capita beef imports were at most three pounds a year, enough for a couple of big T-bones. In other words, Rifkin's own figures show that the vaunted Euro-American cattle complex played a tiny role in the British diet.

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