WIRED Magazine: What Plant-Based Burgers Can Teach Us About Saving the Planet

Implementing radical climate solutions is less a technological project than an anthropological one—one that goes all the way down into our beliefs about food.
As a common noun, impossible burger may come to mean the thing that human systems of thought and practice would never accommodate—until they did. For her part, Gogan, in her quest to spread nuclear power against quasi-religious objections from all quarters, has closely tracked Brown’s audacity and success in introducing his burgers on a large scale—and, more astonishing still, getting the GMO- and even DNA-shy to relish them. This is the way the planet is saved.

Anyone working to address climate change should be mindful of the anthropological notion of taboos. To scientists, the idea of ginning up a super race of mice or suffusing Earth’s atmosphere with aerosolized mirrors might seem promising; to many of the rest of us, these ideas trip bad wires. Most of the wildest, reverse-the-polarities ways that figures like Brown have proposed to forestall catastrophe tread on sensitive spots in the brain: flinch reflexes, squeamishness, areas of dizzying ignorance.

Kirsty Gogan, who advocates for expanding the use of nuclear power at Energy for Humanity, her NGO, has even identified gut revulsion from solutions perceived as taboos as a culprit in the climate crisis. In tandem, Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford, believes the planet is imperiled in part because we’re starting to leave a shared idea of reason behind and retreating into what Lin describes as “fantasy and rage.” To claim to be “paleo” or “anti-vax” is less to make an observation about reality and more to claim a personal and tribal affiliation, grounded in fantasy and rage, totem and taboo.

All of the most promising routes to decarbonization, every last one of them, require that humans change beliefs and behaviors with which they may identify. The modern imperative, if humans and our habitat are to survive, is to interrogate cultural idées fixes—about food, freedom, tribal identity, the body, water, even evidence and truth. Marketing, while useful for promoting coziness and self-indulgence, is crap at getting people to question their cherished beliefs.

Because of the force of human superstitions, more mighty than petroleum and more central to our survival than the internet, Gogan has also written, “All of our climate solutions must be impossible burgers.”

Earth represented as hamburger buns
62%: The portion of global agriculture emissions generated by cattle.ILLUSTRATIRead about Energy for Humanity’s Impossible Burger analogy in WIRED Magazine’s Climate Issue (April 2020).

WIRED 28.04 April Issue cover showing the Earth with words We have one Earthand the technology to save it. Go