Episode 71: Lab Meat and Electric Cars with Alicia Kennedy


Alicia Kennedy: People automatically assume that you’re scolding them, even if you’re just kind of talking about, you know, matter of fact things. [laughs] You know, people write to me about my newsletter all the time being like, “You make me very defensive,” and it’s like, I didn’t—that wasn’t my intention but, I don’t know, I’m sorry you feel that way. [laughs] And I don’t know what to say about that, because at the same time, it’s just, something has to give.

Sarah Goodyear: Hello, and welcome to The War on Cars, the podcast where we believe that something has got to give. I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah: The voice you heard there belongs to Alicia Kennedy, a food writer originally from Long Island, who is now based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Alicia has a weekly newsletter in which she writes about the way that food culture intersects with politics, media, labor rights and climate change. Which on the surface might not seem like it has much to do with The War on Cars, but it does. Because what Alicia is doing in her work is really similar to what we do here at the podcast: she tries to make the invisible visible.

Sarah: Alicia wants you to see the food world the way she does. She shares recipes, sure, they’re mostly vegan, and they are delicious. But Alicia also shines a light on how huge political and commercial forces are constantly manipulating our emotions about food for their own profit, with reckless disregard for the natural world and human health.

Sarah: It’s pretty much the same thing we see every day in transportation and urban planning. We talked with Alicia about what electric cars have in common with lab meat, and how to deal with people thinking you’re a joyless Puritan just because you don’t want our society to go up in flames. We’ll get to that interview in a minute, but first, a message from our sponsor Cleverhood.

Doug Gordon: Hey all, it’s Doug. By now you probably know that Cleverhood makes great rain gear for walking and cycling. But one of my favorite things about my Rover rain cape is when I use it to go grocery shopping. I basically just take my grocery bags and put them under the cape. And if it’s raining, they stay dry. No umbrella necessary. The other cool thing about Cleverhood is that they donate five percent of their profits to organizations working to make streets safer, more sustainable and more equitable. And now as part of their fall sale, Cleverhood is offering listeners of The War on Cars 20 percent off anything in their store through November 1. Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and enter code “bancars” at checkout. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and code “bancars.” Stay dry out there and enjoy the episode.

Sarah: All right. Alicia Kennedy, welcome to The War on Cars.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Sarah: You’re a little bit of a different kind of guest for us because you don’t write about transportation, you don’t write about streets or urban design or anything like that. You write about food. There are just so many parallels, I think, between the work that we each do, and that’s why I wanted to have you on, to get the perspective from somebody who is in a completely different field, but dealing with a lot of the same issues in terms of systems and public attitudes and entrenched preferences, and all of the despair that can come along with trying to fight against those things.

Sarah: So first of all, maybe you could just describe for us what it is that you do, and sort of how you identify yourself as a food writer these days.

Alicia Kennedy: Well, I have a weekly newsletter now that I’ve had since spring of 2020. And in that, I’ve really been able to keep an ongoing conversation going with my audience about the ways in which our personal and community decisions around food are both impacted by larger political systems, larger economic systems, larger geographic realities, as well as how those things, yeah, just intersect.

Alicia Kennedy: I do definitely focus a lot on our personal feelings about food. Our personal cultural gastronomies, because I do think that something specific to food is that it’s very, very tied up in nostalgia. And so trying to kind of untangle people’s nostalgia around various foods that might have detrimental impacts ecologically, on labor, on those sorts of things. So it’s a lot of, you know, that murky space of where the personal and the cultural meet our political realities.

Sarah: And you have written from a vegan perspective at times, and now I guess you’re writing from a vegetarian perspective. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Alicia Kennedy: Well, I used to be a vegan. Yeah, I was a strict vegan for about five years. My switch to vegetarianism was really influenced by personal things that happened in my family, as well as traveling a lot, going to farms, really seeing small agro-ecological farmers and how the animals were kind of a complementary part, you know, an equal part in their farming practices. You know, goats who were becoming pregnant on their own timetable, on their own schedule and using that milk—some of that milk for cheese. Or agro-ecological farmers who use chicken manure to plant their vegetables and to encourage growth so that they don’t use pesticides.

Alicia Kennedy: And so that really changed my thinking. Also, now I live in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I grew up on Long Island. I lived in Brooklyn. It’s a lot more difficult to be vegan here, especially if I ever wanted to go out to eat, which I do like to do. And so it’s about that sort of giving room, I think, to being able to live here, to being able to travel whenever I’m able to really do that again, to not be so rigid in my diet is why I made that change, yeah.

Sarah: So let’s talk a little bit about rigidity and approaching what we do from an ideological purity standpoint. So people often say to me, “Wow! Like, sorry, I’m driving a car,” or assuming that I’m like this incredibly puritanical person who’s going to have this really rigid, doctrinaire view of transportation, and that I’ll be humorless about it and that I won’t be able to relate to anything that anybody enjoys about it. You must encounter similar things.

Alicia Kennedy: [laughs] Oh, one hundred percent. Like, people just preemptively apologizing, but in a sort of passive-aggressive way. Or even people who try to be maybe too nice and, you know, we’re out somewhere and they don’t want to eat meat in front of me because they feel bad even though I don’t—you know, I don’t care, I’m not eating it. They’re able to do what they want. And I understand that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’re going to have fewer options. So if you want to have that option, like, go for it. And people, it’s really hard, I think, and obviously you encounter this as well. It’s really hard to get people to understand that these don’t necessarily have to be rigid perspectives. They can be adaptable to the conditions, to the situations. It’s about making your baseline—the foundation of your decisions—something good for the planet, for your body, for all sorts of other matters, and going from there.

Alicia Kennedy: And it’s not about, you know, just constant rules, though I do suppose some people are very rigid. And so I do think that people are responding to an idea rather than to our precise energy, maybe, of what a person who cares about sustainability, like, does or thinks.

Sarah: But I think it’s also that they feel sometimes condemned by us because, you know, we are taking a personal action that is in line with our ideals and also maybe with their ideals, right? Like, most people we know are—you know, care about climate change. And I think all of them know that eating meat and driving a personal motor vehicle on a regular basis, that both of those things are contributors to climate change. And so if you’re sitting there and saying, “Well, I don’t eat meat. I don’t eat steak. You know, you have the steak,” they do feel sort of like you’re judging them. And so I think that they’re reacting to that. And I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with that. Like, how do you deal with it?

Alicia Kennedy: I mean, for me, I’m very, I think, compartmentalized about other people’s actions. I can’t control what they do. I do find it sometimes difficult to deal with that kind of dissonance when you know that someone does care about these issues but cannot change their actions to be in line with those concerns. Whereas I think in other aspects of their lives, they are probably really capable of doing that. I think, you know, this is probably a terrible analogy, but it’s what’s coming to mind right now. Whereas, you know, if someone finds out a word is hurtful to people, they’ll stop saying it, you know? Or if their friend changes their pronouns, they’ll be able to use their friend’s pronouns, and that’s not gonna be a big deal for them.

Alicia Kennedy: But when it comes to behavior, I think, rather than mindset, or it’s a change of—it’s a lot to do with that nostalgia thing. It’s a lot to do with the feeling that climate change isn’t a personal responsibility, which of course, you know, on a grand scale, it’s not each of our responsibilities, but on a smaller scale, things have to change about how we live. But it’s just something that’s really interesting because, yeah, like, I would—people who are very left-leaning and really care about workers’ rights on one level can’t really find it in their consciousness to change, to not eat meat, even though we know that the labor conditions for meat-processing workers are atrocious. Can’t change their consciousness around vegetables or fruits that are maybe, you know, imported or grown by big agribusiness conglomerates, even though we know that those conditions for workers are terrible, because it would just be more difficult, it would be more expensive, that maybe it wouldn’t be as easy.

Alicia Kennedy: In the United States, we’re taught that we can have any food at any time in the supermarket, and we don’t know where it comes from, but it doesn’t matter because it’s there and we can afford it. And so thus it’s edible, which, you know, instead of thinking a bit more holistically about these things, it’s a very difficult change to make, I think, of consciousness. And I think, I guess my whole work that I’m doing is about figuring out why that is. [laughs]

Sarah: And it also strikes me that both of our fields deal with something very physical. So as you were saying before, it’s not like, “Oh, I’m gonna change this superficial thing in my language.” It’s like, I have to change a behavior of my body, like, something that is literally in my muscles and my bones, that’s what I have to change. And I think that’s very, very hard to do. And obviously, it can be really frustrating. And then also, yeah, I think that the whole awareness that these are big systems that can only really be changed at scale by distant, huge corporations, sometimes I feel like that’s a way out for people, and I feel like that’s increased. I mean, I feel like that’s increasingly true. Like, not less true than it was 10 years ago, but it’s more true that people seem to immediately reach for that and say, “Well, you know, recycling is pointless,” or, you know, “Well, it doesn’t matter if I drive, because that’s not gonna take down the petroleum industry. So of course, you want to encourage people to think in systemic terms, but you can’t get out of it that easily, at least not in my book.

Alicia Kennedy: No. And it’s funny, I was just reading Frances Moore Lappé, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet, which first came out in 1971, wrote—and I think this is applicable—”A change in diet is a way of saying simply, ‘I have a choice.’ That is the first step. For how can we take responsibility for the future unless we can make choices now that take us personally off the destructive path that has been set for us by our forebears?”

Alicia Kennedy: And I think that that’s so relevant. You know, that was relevant 50 years ago. It’s relevant now. You know, whenever a climate change report comes out, there’s really a response that is nihilistic, I think, around how much impact our own personal choices can have. But I’ve always seen our personal choices as a statement in resistance to these systemic forces that really are controlling and contributing the most greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing the most pain for people and for the planet. And so for me, it’s difficult to reconcile with people’s hesitance to take personal steps around these things, because it’s so important for me to, you know, get out of bed every day in a world that is rapidly warming and say, “I’m making choices that are in line with the world that I want to live in.”

Alicia Kennedy: And of course, that’s not the only thing we do, but I don’t see how you get really farther than that, when you don’t take that step to say, “I am making personal choices to exist in the world as I want it to be,” then how do you get to the place where we’re really taking, you know, these corporations to account for what they do? For me, it doesn’t compute. [laughs]

Sarah: Yeah. And I was reading one of your newsletters recently, and there’s a passage that I’m just gonna read that really resonated with me. You wrote, “I don’t doubt that many people are quite intentional about their meat consumption, but that’s not the vision that one gets online, and it occasionally drives me to climate despair.” You’re writing here about the way people are so sort of performative about their meat consumption, right? And you write, “What would convince people to openly be more vegetarian, more vegan, more—to use a dreaded term—plant-based? Why does being nonchalant about eating meat still have such high status, especially in the food world?”

Sarah: Like, how does performing responsible consumption become cool?

Alicia Kennedy: Right. And I don’t know. [laughs] I mean, I hope that it is changing a little bit. There’s a great food writer named Bettina Makalintal, who just moved from Vice to Bon Appétit, and she is great about these things. You know, she’s an omnivore, but all the time is eating tempeh or making tofu look cool, you know? And so that’s a really huge move, I think, for a big food magazine to hire someone who really is vegetable forward in their recipe creation, in what they write and what they post and what they do. But it’s really difficult because this has always been—they’ve made—I’m gonna say “They.” I’m like, the mainstream has really made not eating meat an alternative choice, and there are people I’ve seen who are a little bit more conservative commentators, I’d say, who are like, “I eat meat because of the social and cultural benefits of it.” Like, literally will say that, you know?

Alicia Kennedy: And I think that that social and cultural benefit is that you, I guess, can go to a dinner party and no one thinks you’re alternative or strange. And I think, I guess with the taking a—riding a bike, which when I was in New York, I rode a bike. I just ordered a bike to have here, finally. But riding a bike, people are always like, “Oh gosh, like, aren’t you afraid?” It’s still an alternative thing, and very few people are willing to be perceived in that way. People want to belong.

Alicia Kennedy: And that’s why I do think it’s so important for anyone who is in a position of authority around food or in climate change to be really forthright about the habits that they have that are, you know, mitigating their own personal impact. I don’t see why people wouldn’t be more forthright about that. I do think it’s changing a little bit in food. Tejal Rao, also at the New York Times, now has a vegetarian newsletter every week, so that’ll be really good. And as opposed to Sam Sifton’s, like, meat festival that he is always publishing. And so that’s a really huge change. And so I think that it’s happening, but it’s a big, big, big—it’s really a huge hill to climb, I think, because no one wants to not belong.

Sarah: Right. And even as those changes are happening, and again, I could point to similar changes where, you know, all the mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary said that they thought there should be more bike lanes. Like, 10 years ago that would have not been the case. Or, you know, the New York Times actually sometimes covers safer streets issues in a way that’s responsible and that I can get behind. That also was not true before. But at the same time—and this is another parallel—the forces, the corporate forces are hard at work trying to convince people that the solutions lie in just a different kind of mass consumption of manufactured things.

Sarah: And in your field, that lab meat, that’s fake meat. In my field, that’s electric cars, right? It’s like, “Oh, don’t worry, just drive an electric car. It’ll be fine.” Well, that doesn’t account for the fact that a lot of the pollution from cars comes from the tires. A lot of the danger from cars is obviously not mitigated if they’re electric. And the electricity has to come from somewhere, and the batteries are incredibly environmentally destructive to create. And so when people talk about electric cars, I don’t get very excited, and I know that you don’t get terribly excited when people talk about fake meat. So maybe you could—I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on lab meat or fake meat or whatever people call it.

Alicia Kennedy: Well, I’ve made this parallel before because Bill Gates, who invested in lab meat and tech meat—which I can explain the distinctions—but I think he told the New York Times or something that he was—that Elon, used only his first name, did the best thing ever for climate change with Tesla. And I was like, “Are you kidding me?”

Alicia Kennedy: And I think that that makes the parallels so clear between these little fixes that still make someone so rich, versus real fundamental changes that we can make, not just to our behaviors but to our infrastructure that would make real, lasting impacts. I called tech meat Impossible Burgers, Beyond Burgers, whatever any other company is coming up with to be like a burger replacement, because those are the ones that are—they’re not lab-cultured meat, they are just like veggie burgers, technically. Like, they have the composition that is much more closer to, like, a soy burger in the case of Impossible, or Beyond is made with pea protein almost like a seitan, I guess, burger, to compare it to something that already existed and had a lot less impact.

Alicia Kennedy: But, you know, there is one study I’ve seen out of Oxford where they have five times the carbon emissions of making a burger with black beans. They’re not really having the impact that they claim to have. It’s something called “the displacement paradox,” where people who eat meat maybe are eating an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger on occasion, but then they’re also eating tons of meat, still. Like, it’s not having a real impact on that. And people who don’t eat meat in general aren’t getting these products because they solve a problem that didn’t exist for us.

Alicia Kennedy: And so then you have lab meat, which people talk so much about. You know, the Good Food Institute is a non-profit that exists, like, literally just to promote lab meat, but it doesn’t actually exist on the market. It might never exist on the market. People talk about it like it will very imminently, but we don’t—it’s not actually going to happen. Even Bill Gates, who was a big booster of it initially, has said that we’re really far away from it really getting to anyone’s plates. I think in Singapore you can get a cultured chicken nugget, I think, and that’s it.

Alicia Kennedy: But, you know, these are things that are a distraction in my mind to the real problems, which are that the US government subsidizes industrial meat and dairy with $38 billion in tax money every year, whereas fruits and vegetables at a large scale, they get $17 million. Yeah, and so we’re just putting all this attention and all this money into the wrong place in my mind. And what we should be doing is really demanding an end to those subsidies for these wildly-destructive industries, specifically talking about industrial meat and dairy

Alicia Kennedy: There are so many ways that we get people to eat less meat, and especially less meat that has this huge ecological impact and has huge repercussions for labor. And it’s through policy. And so, you know, there are ways to get people to eat less meat. Of course, people are gonna be mad if their meat either disappears altogether, or the price goes up wildly in the supermarket. But this is absolutely a necessary change. And it can be gradual. It can be a gradual shift toward real animal welfare regulations, real environmental regulations, end of subsidies for these industries. And also, of course, these things have to be communicated clearly by the media, by our representatives, which I don’t have that much faith in.

Alicia Kennedy: But I do—you know, these things are possible without just creating a whole new industry that isn’t actually going to have an impact, but just has this smoke and mirrors approach to saying they’re solving climate change. Also, it’s like, how many people do you know really want to eat a steak that was cultivated in a lab, you know?

Sarah: I don’t know. That sounds so disgusting to me, frankly. [laughs]

Alicia Kennedy: Exactly. And like, I think that if you tell someone you can have a steak from a cow that was raised really well, like, once a year, or you get, like, a pig on Christmas, you know, the way people do eat in a lot of rural areas or in more traditional contexts, that’s the change that we have to get to.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s really interesting because one of the things that I think about a lot is the idea that, you know, okay, people will say you can’t raise a kid in New York without a car, you know, which is just hilarious because obviously millions of people in New York who have kids couldn’t afford to have a car anyway, and do raise kids without cars all the time. But then here I am. I’m like the kind of middle-class person they’re talking about, and I did raise my kid without a car. And yes, that meant that there were certain things that we didn’t do. You know, we decided we’re not gonna really encourage him to play baseball because baseball is all travel teams. You have to be driving all the time. But, you know, he ended up becoming passionate about basketball, which he can do by just walking a couple of blocks away by himself.

Sarah: So that kind of thing makes me always think, like, my own life has been different because I made these choices, but it hasn’t been diminished, I don’t think. We’ve had all sorts of adventures and fun times that we wouldn’t have had if we had had a car, and that’s okay. And what you’re talking about too, is this idea that if I eat in this conscientious way, then it’s true I’m not going to have certain gastronomic experiences, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna have fun. At a societal level, this idea that everything is just gonna have a wave of greenwash over it, and then it’s all gonna be all the exact same stuff that we’ve always known, except it’s gonna be magically green, you know, I think that’s really dangerous to encourage people in that thinking because that’s not how it’s gonna be. We are gonna have to change the way we live in order to face this crisis. And, you know, trying to find a way to talk to people about that that’s not terrifying to them, that’s not, you know, scolding or perceived as being scolding, I mean, that’s something I struggle with all the time.

Alicia Kennedy: Yeah. No, absolutely. Because people automatically assume that you’re scolding them, even if you’re just kind of talking about, you know, matter-of-fact things. [laughs] You know, people write to me about my newsletter all the time being like, “You know, you make me very defensive,” and it’s like, “I didn’t—that wasn’t my intention. But I don’t know. I’m sorry you feel that way.” [laughs] And I don’t know what to say about that, because at the same time it’s just something has to give, and people really are attached to this idea that—and to go back to it, yeah, that it’s like, “Oh, it’s 71 percent of emissions are caused by, you know, whatever corporations,” or whatever. And it’s like, people are really grasping onto that as the thing that’ll keep them from having to change anything about their lives. And it’s like, well, if we fix the situation, your life will change by necessity. It’s like, how do you want it to change, is the question.

Alicia Kennedy: And I think it’s really scary to people that they have to be an active participant in their lives in a way that maybe they haven’t been before, which does sound scolding and it does sound a bit paternalistic and condescending of me. [laughs] That does sound condescending, but you know what I mean? You have to actually live these ideas that you have about the world, and if you don’t have those ideas yet about what the world will look like when we have our emissions under control, then it’s time to start envisioning that world.

Alicia Kennedy: It’s about changing this mindset, and I think you just have to sound like a broken record. And some people are gonna be really turned off by it and think that you’re scolding them, but other people are going to get the message and understand that if you sound really intense about it it’s because it’s an intense situation that we find ourselves in.

Sarah: Yeah, for sure. And isn’t it weird? This is so weird to me that people find it easier to envision a totally apocalyptic world with a red sky and, you know, us all shuffling along in rags through rubble. They find that easier to imagine than a world in which they don’t drive to the big box store a mile and a half away to buy their 10 pound freezer pack of cheap beef. Like, they can’t see that there might be something in between those two realities that might actually be really fun to build and really interesting to build and really gratifying, and that would put us into a different kind of contact with the people in our community to build something healthy.

Alicia Kennedy: Right.

Sarah: I’m gonna be very truthful, and I am an omnivore and I do try my best to have the meat that I eat be sustainably raised or humanely raised. You know, I try to buy it at the farmers’ market, but I don’t do that 100 percent of the time. And so I’m going to take this conversation to heart myself, and try to figure out how I can make the better choice more of the time, because it is in line with my values. I’m very glad to hear that you’re gonna be getting a bike down there, although I will say having spent some time in Puerto Rico, the infrastructure down there is not really conducive to a car-free or even a car-light existence.

Alicia Kennedy: [laughs] Yeah, we don’t own a car, but my fiancé also just got a bicycle, and he used to live in Barcelona. So both of us have lived in cities where we biked most of the time. So it’s been definitely an adjustment to be so car-centric. We don’t own a car, but we take Ubers everywhere, which is like the worst. And it just—it’s really depressing for me. Like, it’s been like, you know, I’m really excited to get a bicycle because I don’t know how people live like this with cars. [laughs] Like, it’s really, really—and I mean, I’m from Long Island, so I’m from such a car-centric place but, like, I used to take the train and, you know, you have options for public transportation. Like, having no options for public transportation, it’s been a real, like, mental health struggle for me, honestly. And so I’m excited for my bicycle. [laughs]

Sarah: Alicia, thank you so much for this conversation. I really have been wanting to do this for a long time.

Alicia Kennedy: Thank you.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. You can find out more about Alicia and subscribe to her newsletter at AliciaKennedy.news. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Sarah: If you’re in the New York area, come by and check out our first live show in our hometown on Tuesday, November 2 at 7 p.m. We’ll be appearing with special guest Choire Sicha, an editor-at-large for New York magazine, at Caveat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Knowing Choire, this is gonna be a lot of fun. And if you aren’t in New York, you can buy a ticket for the livestream. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

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Sarah: Special thanks also to our friends at Cleverhood. For 20 percent off on the best rain gear for bicycling and walking, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter coupon code “bancars”—that’s one word, “bancars” when you check out. The fall sale runs through November 1.

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Sarah: Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. This episode was produced and edited by me. I’m Sarah Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, this is The War on Cars.