For over a year now, I’ve had to put up with this. From the moment I first read about it, I knew this couldn’t have been true. I’ve tried to ignore it, hoping that everyone will forget about this untruth and that it would ultimately disappear into the history of churnalism and piffle. But after last Friday’s episode of QI, I have no option but to vent the frustration that’s been brewing inside me for the last twelve months here on my own blog.
The QI episode “House and Home” from series H was first broadcast on BBC One on Friday 12th November 2010. The first topic up for discussion is “How could an environmentally concerned family legally reduce their ecological footprint the most?” Danny Baker suggests they stop driving and, predictably, gets klaxoned. Nope, it turns out they should eat the dog, or at least get rid of it. Apparently, “a dog is the equivalent to two Toyota Land Cruisers”, “a cat is equivalent to a Volkswagen Golf” and "two hamsters are equivalent to a plasma television". Justifiably, nobody believes Stephen Fry, so he goes on to claim that this is due to the amount of meat it eats. It takes 43 square metres of land to grow 1kg of chicken but only 13 to grow 1kg of cereal, so “someone” used these figures to find the footprint of various animals and this is what that "someone" found. By making such a counter-intuitive claim, it's no wonder it ultimately ended up on QI.
Ah yes, THAT argument that owning a dog does more damage to the environment than owning a large automobile. This is my most hated example of churnalism and I will get into long, heated arguments if anyone ever brings it up in my presence. On the plus side, I can now just direct them to this post! The Dogs vs. SUV meme originates from around November last year when two people published a book on environmentalism entitled “Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living”. The authors, Professor Brenda Vale and Doctor Robert Vale, are professors of architecture at Victoria University, New Zealand, who specialise in sustainability in buildings (rather than in lifestyle choices). The book’s main sensationalist argument was widely reported in the media at the time of its release, no doubt thanks to a PR release, and gained extra credibility when it received significant coverage in New Scientist, which not only repeated the books claims on several pages but also devoted the editorial to the matter (Issue 2731, 24 October 2009).
New Scientist is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is an international magazine covering recent developments in science and technology, as well as commentary and speculative features on a wide range of specialist areas. When it comes to reporting scientific news, New Scientist provides much greater depth and understanding compared to mainstream media outlets. Nevertheless, the publication is aimed mainly at the average layman with an interest in science, rather than those who actually have a professional scientific career. Like most publications, it is quite willing to “sex up” mundane stories in order to help sell the magazine, often by using a sensationalist front cover to get your attention. When I used to have a subscription, I often joked with my teachers that they’d probably publish a headline along the lines of “DARWIN WAS WRONG” just to sell more copies. And then, in January 2009, they actually did this. (Upon reading the article inside, it turned out that Darwin wasn’t actually “wrong”, but rather his “Tree of Life” theory was oversimplified and doesn’t take into account of recent evidence such as “horizontal” gene transfer between organisms – which Darwin couldn’t have possibly have known about at the time) Needless to say, evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers were not pleased. This wasn’t the first time New Scientist has been criticised by a prominent figure: back in 2006, science fiction writer Greg Egan complained about the amount of uncritical coverage it gave to Roger Shawyer's "electromagnetic drive" (which violates the conservation of momentum). Anyway, the point here is that, like QI, you shouldn’t automatically believe that New Scientist will be right about everything, or anything will be, for that matter.
Where was I? Oh yes, here is some extracts from the New Scientist article in question:
"a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.
It takes 43.3 square metres of land to generate 1 kilogram of chicken per year - far more for beef and lamb - and 13.4 square metres to generate a kilogram of cereals. So that gives him a footprint of 0.84 hectares. For a big dog such as a German shepherd, the figure is 1.1 hectares.
Meanwhile, an SUV - the Vales used a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser in their comparison - driven a modest 10,000 kilometres a year, uses 55.1 gigajoules, which includes the energy required both to fuel and to build it. One hectare of land can produce approximately 135 gigajoules of energy per year, so the Land Cruiser's eco-footprint is about 0.41 hectares - less than half that of a medium-sized dog."
"Doing similar calculations for a variety of pets and their foods, the Vales found that cats have an eco-footprint of about 0.15 hectares (slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf), hamsters come in at 0.014 hectares apiece (buy two, and you might as well have bought a plasma TV) ..."
Have you got déjà vu yet? That right, these figures are identical to those Stephen Fry read out on QI. They even compare each animal’s carbon footprint to the same items and vehicles. Presumably, one of the “QI Elves” stumbled across this precise article (quite possibly via fark.com) and they decided it was perfect trivia to put into the next series. So now we know where they got the stats from, we have to decide whether they actually stand up to scrutiny.
This was the only article which I could find online which (rubbish dog puns aside) actually analyses the claims made in the book, rather than simply repeating the PR release that was obviously sent out to all the news websites. I strongly suggest reading this article as it goes into great detail pointing out all the flaws in the calculations and data used in the New Scientist article, and debunks this unlikely meme once and for all (I once tried to get one of my friends to read this article to convince him the story was bogus, but he refused to do so, claiming that he had never heard of grist.org before and that it therefore “wasn’t as reliable” as New Scientist. Because obviously, you’re supposed to dismiss arguments by judging the website it’s hosted on, rather than whether the arguments themselves stand up to scrutiny.)
The main problem here is the authors have assumed that dogs eat the same “meat and cereals” that us humans eat. Unless you’re a rich, posh twit who only feeds his hounds sirloin steaks every dinner time, this assumption is completely incorrect and actually undermines their entire argument. We do NOT grow crops and raise livestock exclusively for canine consumption. Instead, dog food consists mostly of animal by-products – that is, all the internal organs, bones, feet, skulls and crap which can’t be eaten by humans anyway. In fact, dogs are performing a useful service here because otherwise, all this waste would go straight to landfill, where they will decompose and release methane into the atmosphere. I dare say that pet food is just a by-product of production of human food, which minimises its environmental impact to just the energy used to process, pack and transport the containers. And of course, humans eat a lot more meat than dogs anyway, so I don’t see why we should throw stones at our pets from inside our glass houses.
Furthermore, the authors have completely ignored the advantages of owning a dog compared to a large car. The health benefits of pet ownership have been well documented over the years; you get more exercise from walking it compared to driving and spend less time staying indoors watching the TV. You’ll also feel happier and less stressed or lonely from having a loving companion to look after. Some researchers have even claimed that owning a dog can reduce the likelihood of allergies and illnesses.
The reason why I find this all so frustrating because it distracts us from the more serious driving forces behind global warming and environmental degradation: overpopulation and the non-renewable infrastructure our entire civilisation is built on. There’s just too many people on this planet who all want to live in luxury, consuming resources and food faster than we can produce them and at great cost to the planet. Almost every action we take is powered by finite fossiI fuels and humanity releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere non-stop. If you want to make a real difference to the world, just don’t reproduce; don’t have children and make sure you use contraception every time you have sex. If you must have children, either stick to having one or two, or consider adoption instead. You might also want to consider going vegetarian, even if it’s just once a week. At the very least, you’ll be a bit healthier and might even live a little longer. Finally, put pressure on the Government to switch the country to a low-carbon economy powered by renewable sources of electricity. They probably won’t listen to you because most politicians are in the pocket of the industry/oil companies and don’t care about the environment, but someone will have to do this eventually once the fossil fuels start running out and prices start shooting up.
But thanks to QI, the Dog/Suv myth has now officially become what Nick Davies calls in his book of the same name, “Flat Earth News” - that is, “a story which appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is now true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.” This might appear to be an overreaction to you, but I’m genuinely frustrated and disappointed by one of my favourite TV programmes. Millions of people watch QI every week, not to mention the repeats on Dave, automatically assuming that whatever Stephen Fry says is true (even though all he does is read whatever’s on the autocue and laugh at Alan Davies’ silly comments). With the amount of truth and respect the QI brand commands, you’d think “the QI Elves” would put more effort into tracking down the source of unusual claims and would know better.