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Vegetarianism as a Sometimes Thing—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on June 19, 2009.

Vegetarianism as a Sometimes Thing
By Ian Ayres ’86

I’m toiling away this summer writing a book about commitment contracts. And out of the blue, I received an email from an aspiring economist (who is planning to apply to PhD programs this fall), named Matt Johnson, who has an interesting new wrinkle. Matt writes:

I am a carnivorous being. I love all kinds of meat. However, in recent years I have become very sympathetic to the vegetarian cause. The environmental, ethical, and even economic issues with the world’s meat consumption are too compelling to ignore. My roommate was a vegetarian for a year last year, and during that time I found myself eating substantially less meat just from being around him. Having grown up believing that I had to have meat at least once a day to sustain myself, I now cook up delicious meat-free meals several days a week. But I still love a good cheeseburger.

Here is the idea. I figure there are many people out there who, like me a year or two ago, are sympathetic to the veggie cause but are just so used to eating meat that it is ingrained in their daily routine. But if you put several of these like-minded people together, perhaps something could come of it. This is where the commitment contract concept comes in.

The idea that occurred to me was: What if a group of people collectively signed a contract that said one of them would be vegetarian everyday of the year? More specifically, say a group of 7 people signed a contract saying that each of them would go meatless on an assigned day each week. Thus, within the group each member could eat meat 6 days a week, but there would be one vegetarian at all times. The group could be 7 good friends, or it could be 7 individuals matched by the “commitment store.” And of course 7 is an arbitrary number - more ambitious folks could form a team of 2 or 3.

The effect may seem marginal, but I have seen tons of sources which say that just a bit less meat consumption could have immense environmental benefits. Here is one: According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.

At first I was concerned of a selection bias, meaning that people who sign up are probably ones who are already eating less meat anyway. But maybe those people would make more stringent contracts - i.e. 2 or 3 of them could split up a week, rather than 7. And the core group it would target would be people motivated to eat less meat but who do not have an environment conducive to doing so.

Such an idea is in a way just an extension of the commitment contract, but it also introduces a social element to it. One is committing to achieve a goal, but that goal goes beyond the individual. Not only does it introduce the obligation one might feel to a team, but it also brings in a community of support of people sharing a common purpose. I believe this last idea is utilized in some micro-finance loan contracts in developing countries: several individuals who receive loans are grouped together, and each one is held accountable if another group member does not repay his or her loan.

I like Matt’s idea very much. I’ve heard of car-sharing and even pet-sharing, but I’d never thought of the idea of vegetarianism sharing. In fact, I like Matt’s idea so much that my spouse, Jennifer Brown and I have created stickK.com contracts where we commit to “not knowingly eat meat on Wednesdays for the next 52 weeks.” I’ve backed up the commitment by putting $150 at stake each week. Plus, I’m offering a bounty. I am committing to pay a $100 to anyone who first catches me eating meat on any Wednesday. So if I fail on any particular Wednesday, I am out a total of $250 ($100 to the person who catches me and another $150 to a charity). It gives new meaning to the phrase, carrots and stickKs.

Anyone else care to join us? You can pick any day of the week.