Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Fishy Practice

In this blog we have had some interesting debates about whether it is necessary to go completely vegan if one is really concerned about issues of animal cruelty. While acknowledging that veganism is the ideal diet for all those concerned about the welfare of animals, the well-being of the planet, and their own physical health, I argued that a vegan diet is far too difficult for most people to follow, and that a more viable option for most people would be to follow a low-fat vegetarian diet such as the one recommended by Dr. Dean Ornish that includes limited amounts of low- or non-fat dairy products (milk, egg whites, yogurt, and cheese), ideally from animals that have been raised humanely. I agree, however, that the goal of anyone even remotely concerned with issues of animal ethics would be to eat as much of their food as possible from plant-based sources and to dramatically reduce their consumption of all animals and animal products.

There are some confused individuals, however, who believe that they are following a vegetarian diet, even though they still eat fish regularly (they are technically referred to as pesco-vegetarians). It’s almost as though these people have convinced themselves that salmon, tuna, and Chilean sea bass are not really animals, and that the rules they follow with regard to the humane treatment of other species don’t really need to be applied to marine life. Let’s get this straight: (1) fish are sentient life-forms like all other animals and they feel as much pain as other animals when they are slaughtered, and, (2) if you are concerned about issues of animal cruelty, you will eat fish as regularly as you would a slab of cow flesh…which means not at all.

When one considers the health risks involved in eating fish loaded with mercury (e.g., tuna, swordfish, shark, etc) and other dangerous containments such as lead, industrial chemicals (e.g., PCBs) and pesticides, it becomes evident that—despite all of the propaganda issued by the USDA and their pimps in the corporate fish lobby—the risks involved in eating seafood very well may outweigh the benefits. And when one realizes that our current fishing practices are driving many of the world’s marine populations to extinction, there is even a greater moral argument for eliminating fish from one’s diet.

I would like to hear how our pesco-vegetarian friends justify the consumption of seafood while clearly having moral qualms about eating land-based animals. I may be a bit na├»ve, but I don’t really understand how it is any more ethical to chow-down on salmon steak than it would be to consume a hunk of cow, pig, or chicken. Could someone explain the logic of this to me?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tough Luck, Suckers

When I came cack to the United States after several years of studying in Belgium in the early 1990s, I was amazed by the number of Americans who had suddenly taken to driving SUVs. After all, in Europe people were more than content to get around in their small, fuel-efficient cars or to use mass transportation if they had to travel longer distances.

Because of the unsustainably low price of gas, however, Americans wanted to drive huge, gas-guzzling monstrosities that would allow them to dominate other drivers on the road (In some cases, the choice of an excessively large SUV may have also been an attempt by some insecure men to make up for inadequacies in other areas...but we can leave that sort of speculation to mental health professionals). In buying these idiotic vehicles, no one ever bothered to think for one moment about the impact that driving an SUV would have on the planet. Nor did many Americans reflect upon the fact that gas prices would eventually have to rise due to diminishing oil reserves and increasing demand for oil from other parts of the world (i.e., China and India). As in the case of the housing crisis, the shortsighted dolts who needed the drive these planet-killing machines deluded themselves into thinking that they could have it all, and that there were no personal or social consequences to be paid for their sheer stupidity and greed.

But now the hens have come home to roost. With gas prices hovering around $4.00 a gallon, all of a sudden soccer moms and their macho suburban husbands have come to realize that their prize SUVs, which in the past had given them such tremendous feelings of power on the road, are actually financial liabilities, threatening to bankrupt their already financially overextended families. And, try as they might, they can't sell these behemoths, because their less shallow countrymen are looking to buy hybrids and other smaller fuel-efficient vehicles in an age where gas prices can only keep increasing.

The one consolation that SUV owners still have, however, is that they will still have the biggest and most powerful toys on the road. And spending $100 to fill up your tank is a small price to pay to help SUV owners overcome the feelings of inferiority that led them to buy these idiotic vehicles in the first place. Sometimes size does matter. But that will be a small consolation when it comes to choosing between filling up your SUV at the pump and paying your mortgage. Life really is unfair, isn't it!

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Vegetarian Alternative

Two weeks ago I asked a few students, faculty and administrators at Molloy to participate in a little video project called, "The Vegetarian Alternative: Why Our Food Choices Matter." The idea was to see if we could put together a "documentary" on an important social topic using only inexpensive technology (we chose the $139 Flip video recorder) and free video editing software (Microsoft's Moviemaker). The result was not quite a masterpiece, but it does give campus carnivors and vegetarians the opportunity to talk about the significance of their daily food choices.

Many thanks to those students, faculty, and administrators who were generous enough to participate in this project.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Two Week Vegan

For the next two weeks I am going vegan...completely vegan. No animal products will touch my lips; no animals will have to be harmed to fill my belly.

This two week trial period started out as a little wager in my Ethics class. I had come to the part in the class in which I discuss ethical issues related to animals and had just finished explaining about the horrors of factory farming and the benefits of a vegetarian diet, but was not really making much of an impact with the students (just wait until I show them PETA’s “Meat Your Meat”). As a wager, I told them that, if a few of them would agree to reduce their meat consumption even slightly for the next two weeks, I would adopt a vegan diet during that same period. I had only a few takers, but that was enough to compel me to follow through with my end of the bargain.

I had toyed with vegetarian and vegan diets on and off for the past few years and had always liked the feeling that I got from eating a more sustainable diet. The thing that did me in, believe it or not, was my three-month teaching gig at Rangsit University in Thailand last summer. Although Tai food is usually a good option for vegetarians, I found it very difficult to find a variety of food in the local restaurants to satisfy me; so I reverted to eating meat again and have continued to do so since then. Now it’s time to return to a heart-healthy, planet-loving, animal-friendly diet!

On Saturday night—the night before I had to begin my new vegan diet—I went to Pathmark, my depressing, overcrowded local supermarket, and began to scour the store for products that were animal-free. Although this supermarket chain is definitely not known for its alternative food options, I found a few items that would do the trick: pita and hummus, veggie burgers and buns, assorted fruits and vegetables, oatmeal (Irish Steel Cut), soymilk, veggie bouillon. Sometime this week, I also plan to go to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, two stores specializing in organic, locally grown, vegetarian, and vegan food items. When I go to these stores I will probably pick up some items that are more difficult to find in regular supermarkets: organic produce, beans, rice and other grains, tofu (firm only), some more vegan veggie burgers, and soy crumbles (great for making chili or “meat” sauce).

Although I recognize that a vegan diet is the most optimal one for personal and planetary health, I don’t plan to continue with it beyond the two-week period agreed upon with my students. Instead, I would like to revert to a mainly low-fat, vegetarian diet, such as the one recommended by Dr. Dean Ornish. I am well aware that, from an ecological perspective, vegetarianism is inferior to veganism and that it doesn’t completely resolve the issue of animal cruelty. It is a starting point to more sustainable living, however.

At the end of the two weeks, I will assess how well I was able to maintain a vegan diet and the benefits—if any—that I experienced as a result of this temporary change in my eating habits. It is my intention to show that, although it requires some thought and planning, it is neither overly difficult nor terribly onerous to live a vegan lifestyle.

The Vegan Food Pyramid

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Surge of Folly

This blog is supposed to be focused on environmental issues. We recognize, however, that environmental concerns cannot be viewed in isolation from other important political issues (war and peace, poverty and inequality, racism and race relations, ect). To allow for a more extensive discussion on these topics--without diluting the real focus of this blog--we will occasionally link to entries posted on the sites of some of our "bloggin' buddies."

"A Surge of Folly" is a pessimistic perspective on the possibilities for success in Iraq. You can read this entry on Dr. Peter Fallon's blog, In the Dark:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

American Dream, American Myth

Most of us have grown up with the belief that success in life is to be measured almost entirely in economic terms. Whether we have “made it” or not in life all depends upon factors like how large our home is, what sort of elaborate stuff we possess, and how many exotic vacations we can take in a given year. We have also been taught, directly or indirectly, that the greater our buying power, the more worth we have as human beings. Those who cannot—or will not—strive to become masters of capital are perceived as somehow morally deficient and missing out on what has come to be optimistically known as the “American Dream.” In fact, this dream is nothing more than a myth perpetuated by corporate-owned media to encourage the sort of excessive consumption that has driven the American economy to the point of inevitable collapse.

During the past few years, I have taken several trips to Southern Florida to visit family members living in Fort Lauderdale. Only two years ago, I remember being amazed at how opulent the lifestyle was in places like Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Ft. Lauderdale, even compared to the excesses of my native Long Island. Skyrocketing real estate prices had encouraged speculation in the housing market, and middle class entrepreneurs were buying up all the homes that they could get their hands on in order to capitalize on what seemed to be a golden ticket to easy riches. Expensive restaurants were filled to capacity, high-end stores in mammoth shopping malls were doing record business, and sales of luxury items like yachts and sporty convertibles (a must for men going through mid-life crises) were booming.

The situation changed dramatically when I returned for this year’s visit. For one thing, due to the inevitable housing crisis housing, prices have plummeted 15-20% and sales of existing homes have dropped 28%. Visiting a colleague in Boca Raton—one of the great meccas of conspicuous consumption in the United States—I was shocked to see foreclosure signs all over the city and million dollar homes sitting vacant with no one to buy them. The situation for middle class homeowners in Florida is even more precarious, since their consumption over the past three decades has been even more inextricably intertwined with the equity in their homes. In a Sun-Sentinel poll conducted on April 4th, one-third of respondents in Broward County, where the poll was conducted, reported being afraid of losing their jobs in the current economic downturn. In short, things are not looking good for the overall health of the economy of southern Florida.

Given all this, one would assume that people--like my dear extravagant sister living in Fort Lauderdale--would begin to dramatically decrease their levels of consumption and try to live a bit more frugally—at least until this current economic storm passes. If this is happening, I have not noticed it. The high priced malls in Boca and Fort Lauderdale seem to be as full of shoppers as ever, the waiting times to get into decent restaurants doesn’t seem to have diminished at all, and the lines for $5.00 frappuccinos at Starbucks hasn’t seemed to have gotten any shorter.

All this “data” is anecdotal, of course, but it is not at all dissimilar from what I have observed elsewhere. The economy is tanking, but Americans seem incapable of doing the logical and prudent thing, which would be to cut back—perhaps dramatically—on their bloated lifestyles. As mentioned earlier, the explanation for this paradox is quite simple: the identities of most Americans are so wrapped up with their ability to consume that any attempt to reduce consumption would create a massive sense of identity-loss (If we are not the stuff that we possess, then who or what are we?).

The corporate-owned media, of course, would like to maintain this link between human identity and consumption, so everything we see on television or in the movies, or read in our daily newspapers and magazines, reinforces the idea that happiness can only be attained by buying into the materialistic lifestyle that has come to dominate American culture. But we really shouldn’t cast all the blame on greedy corporations and their media stooges. The real fault lies primarily in us. We are the ones who refuse to recognize that happiness can’t come from owning a $300 pair of sunglasses or a $500 pocketbook. Until we start to accept this ridiculously simple fact, and to change our lives accordingly, we will continue to be consumed by the very items which we ourselves so lasciviously consume.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You!

There is little dispute any more that low-fat vegetarian or vegan diets are the healthiest eating programs on the planet. Scientific studies, like the extensive China Study, demonstrate fairly conclusively that, to the extent we remove animal products from our diet, will we also be reducing our risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. All of these problems currently plague Americans—right now we are one of the fattest nations on the planet—and yet we continue to consume animal products at an alarming rate.

This past week, Molloy College students and faculty began shooting and editing a simple documentary illuminating the eating habits of carnivores and vegetarians on campus. The final product will be called, “The Vegetarian Alternative,” and will also showcase the faculty and students who have made the transition from a meat-based to a plant-based diet and the health benefits that they received from this change in eating habits.

I look forward to sharing this documentary with all of you who contribute to this blog, and to starting a discussion about the benefits—and perhaps liabilities—of the vegetarian lifestyle.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Anti-Intellectualism of Denial

Now hear this, America:

"Liberal fascism" is behind the concern for global warming. This is what the right -- and many "Libertarians" -- would have you believe about anyone who is concerned that we Americans be responsible stewards of God's creation. We "liberals" who voice a concern about the quality of the environment are not Christians, but rather "fascists."

Wow. I'm a fascist. Far out.

Despite the fact, however, that in July 2001 President George W. Bush stated clearly that "my Administration’s climate change policy will be science-based," the record of his administration has been one of resisting science, obfuscating scientific facts, and denying the reality of climate change. Despite a report of the National Academy of Sciences (commissioned by the President) which affirmed and supported the findings of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Bush administration dug in its heels and denied the best science it had at its disposal. White House aides who were recruited from the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil industry, re-wrote US Government climate reports to obscure obvious links between fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas build-up.

Why? Simple: environmentalism is bad for business. So much for responsible Christian stewardship.

Federal agencies, under pressure by the Project for a New American Century and its functionaries in the Bush Administration have distorted science for political purposes. The Environmental Protection Agency’s main global warming website and its Global Change Research Program site have both been censored in recent years, even thought the US State Department's own website dealing with climate change has admitted that global warming is a real phenomenon caused by human consumption.

But after four years of internal censorship, the pressure of truth has overwhelmed the political pressure to lie about climate change, and the EPA has offered us some facts about global warming. Let me repeat this: the Environmental Protection Agency, right now, under the Bush regime is saying the following things about global warming:

- Human activities are changing the composition of Earth's atmosphere. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times are well-documented and understood.

- The atmospheric buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is largely the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.

- An “unequivocal” warming trend of about 1.0 to 1.7°F occurred from 1906-2005. Warming occurred in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and over the oceans (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007).

- The major greenhouse gases emitted by human activities remain in the atmosphere for periods ranging from decades to centuries. It is therefore virtually certain that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to rise over the next few decades.

- Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations tend to warm the planet.
Yet many on the right continue to deny the reality of global warming (and, I suspect, several conservative and "libertarian" contributors to this bog). What explains this craziness? Nothing new, actually, in American history; we've all seen this movie before. It's just good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism.

This is the same anti-ntellectualism that says creationism is a "science." The same anti-intellectualism that says (as David Horowitz says) that academia is a haven for left-wing, revolutionary rhetoric. The same anti-intellectualism that said, in 2000, Al Gore is a boring snob, and George W. Bush is "regular folk." The same anti-intellectualism that fuels our image-driven (and therefore money-driven) political system. The same anti-intellectualism that equates ciriticism with "crucifixion," and dissent with disloyalty.

Don't buy into this, folks. Read the science, which even the Bush administration has been forced to concede is real. Global warming is actually happening. So what do we do about it?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Economic Collapse: A Golden Opportunity?

In a bipartisan effort to stem the tide of home foreclosures that are threatening to bring down the American economy, members from both parties in Congress are working on new legislation to assist struggling homeowners. Some ideas being tossed around are:
  • 200 million dollars to expand counseling programs for those at risk of foreclosure
  • 10 billion dollars in tax-exempt bonds for local housing authorities to refinance subprime loans.
  • 4 billion dollars in grants to local governments to buy foreclosed properties.
  • 15,000 in tax credits for the purchase of foreclosed homes currently sitting vacant on the market. (NYT 4/2/08].

My basic problem with legislation of this sort is that I question whether it will really help those who deserve assistance the most - poor and working class families that were suckered into taking on mortgages that they really couldn't afford. Instead, it seems like a gift to the irresponsible banks and mortgage companies that pushed subprime loans in the first place, since they are not really being asked to take serious losses for their risky behavior.

With the exception of the first proposal, which has some merits, the legislation being offered will ultimately do nothing more than fuel another round of speculation in the housing market. Haven't we had enough gambling already in the housing market? Do we really need vulturous housing speculators to try to profit yet again from the misery of beleaguered homeowners? Aren't these many of the same people who brought on the housing crisis in the first place?

I have two additional - and prehaps more fundamental - problems with legislation of this sort: first, it makes prudent taxpayers, who have done the right thing by living within their means, foot the bill for those who were reckless and irresponsible in their behavior. Most Americans are hardworking and live fairly frugal lives, usually purchasing homes that they can reasonably afford given their levels of income. Many of these noble creatures probably would have loved to have been able to move into more spacious homes in more attractive communities, but recognized the imprudence of stretching their resources too thin. In short, these people, who ought to be rewarded for their fiscal responsibility, would actually be punished by having to bail out their recklessly selfish neighbors.

Second, the legislation being proposed fails to recognize a basic problem with the American economy that everyone is afraid to acknowledge--namely, that it is fundamentally unsound and needs to be dramatically reformed if it is to survive in the 21st century. The kind of freemarket capitalism that we advocate here in the U.S. is almost exclusively focused on short-term (i.e., quarterly) growth at the expense of long-term economic sustainability. In order to achieve the exorbident levels of growth that corporations have come to expect, Americans since the 1970s have been conned into spending more and more of their disposible income on crap they don't really need. Once Americans went though all of their savings to buy bigger homes, flashier cars, and more stylish refrigerators, multinational corporations had to figure out a way to keep them consuming when the logical thing for Americans to have done would have been to reduce consumption and pay off their debt.

This is where cheap credit came into play - mainly in the form of easily attainable credit cards and home equity loans. But now Americans have been driven into the highest levels of personal debt since the depression, and they can't tap into the equity in their homes because they are worth less than they paid for them.

In short, the "hens have come home to roost," and the result must inevitably be a collapse of our finacial systems, one of the most severe recessions that we have seen in some time, and large-scale suffering for the most vulnerable Americans. The very nature of American free-market capitalism necessitates this end. Pray to whatever gods you worship for deliverance, but nothing short of a miracle will save our economy.

I am convinced that there will be an economic melt-down during the next few years. But that doesn't mean that everyone need suffer equally. Those Americans who have practiced the art of voluntary simplicity already know how to survive in a world where goods become more expensive, jobs more scarce, and earning more meager. Those who know how to live happily with less will do just fine. And one positive thing that could come out of this economic crisis is that even more Americans will come to the realization that the consumptive lifestyle neither brings happiness nor peace. Rather than looking at the housing crisis as an unmitigated disaster, then, we should perhaps begin to see it for what it really is: a golden opportunity for all of us to reconsider how we our living our lives and take the necessary steps to live more simply and sanely.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This week scientists from the British Antarctic Survey announced that the Wilkins ice sheet—a body of ice roughly the size of Connecticut—has begun to break up. The collapse of this ice sheet now seems likely within the next few years. Discussing the importance of the break up of this ice sheet, David Wilson, a member of the survey team said, “We predicted it would happen, but it's happened twice as fast as we predicted...The importance of it is it's further south than any ice shelf we've seen retreating before, it's bigger than any ice shelf we've seen retreating before and in the long term it could be a taste of other things to come if climate change continues in the Antarctic. ''

This unfortunate occurrence is hardly surprising, since scientists have been warning for some time that global warming trends are eroding the western ice sheets of Antarctica much faster than was previously expected. Indeed, Antarctica has experience an unprecedented warming over the past thirty years that have caused seven ice sheets—Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and the Jones Ice Shelf—to collapse completely.

It is probably too late to save the Wilkins ice sheet from collapsing. But this event should be a wakeup call for all of us to start taking the threat of global warming seriously. Although the breakup of the Wilson ice sheet won’t cause sea levels to rise because it is already floating, the melting of land-based glaciers in southern Antarctica and Greenland could have profound consequences for low-lying areas of the world and possibly even for the future climate of Europe.

As I have argued repeatedly, if we want to mitigate the more harmful effects of global warming, we have to start taking dramatic action NOW. This will inevitably mean having to DRAMATICALLY alter our way of living in the United States so that our actions have less of a negative impact on the environment. I will try to spell out in more concrete terms what I think a new model of ecological living might look like in the United States in future blogs.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Bit of Libertarian Sanity

I would like to thank the folks at EcoBlog for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this blog. Although I am a libertarian at heart, I am also concerned about the state of the environment. Thus, while I like what this blog is basically trying to do, I have some big problems with its emphasis.

My first thought is that far too many of the blog entries here are little more than leftest propaganda. There is too much time spent complaining about George Bush, the war in Iraq, and greedy American corporations. How about talking about solutions to our eco problems rather than simply setting up straw men to bash.

My second thought is that there is no talk at all in this blog about market-based solutions to threats like global warming. We have seen that government regulations and heavy-handed approaches simply don't work. Let capitalism work the way it's supposed to and you will see American businesses embrace green technology. Government, as Ronald Regan said, is the problem, not the solution.

I looking forward to contributing to this blog in the future and adding a sane voice to some of these discussions.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Iraq War...Five Years Old and Still Going Strong

This blog is supposed to be about environmental issues--sustainable living, development, and economics, voluntary simplicity, vegetarianism, and the like. It is not supposed to be a venue to spew partisan political venom (as Publius so frequently reminds us). Protests around the country, however, commemorating the fifth anniversary of our occupation of Iraq have compelled me to bring up this contentious issue yet again.

Yesterday, in a speech delivered at the Pentagon, President Bush confidently assured the American people that the nation is at the brink of a great "strategic victory in Iraq." If this great victory is anything like the previous "victories" that we have had in this war, then we are in serious trouble indeed. Let's just look at some of the fruits that this war has borne:

  • According to recent estimates, the total costs for the Iraq war could be as high as 3 trillion dollars--funds, as we have already seen, that could be put to much better use right here in the United States.
  • Almost 4000 American soldiers have been killed since the war began and 29,395 have been wounded.
  • Over 1 million Iraqis--many of them children and teenagers--have died as a result of this war. 2.4 million Iraqis (approximately 20% of Iraq's prewar population) are now refugees to more "stable" countries like Jordan and Syria. So much for making life better for the average Iraqi!
  • Our failure to succeed in Iraq has emboldened our enemies around the world. Iran now is poised to be a major player in Middle Eastern politics, and Islamic extremist groups are gaining power in Egypt, Palestine, and Pakistan.
  • The Bush administration's incompetent prosecution of the war has made us seem like a "paper tiger" to many nations, like Iran, who previously would have been unwilling to thwart our global interests.
  • Our all too facile use of torture and "extraordinary rendition" has caused us to lose our credibility and moral standing among our allies in Europe and around the world.

With "successes" like these, I would hate to see what failure in Iraq would look like....

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

There is another aspect of this war that is rarely discussed. Our tolerance for specific culturally sanctioned types of violence--whether it is the violence of an unjustifiable war in Iraq, the violence of the mass slaughter houses that "produce" our meat, or the environmental violence caused by programs like mountaintop removal--does nothing more than create a climate in our society in which people ultimately become completely desensitized to violence in general. Only by rejecting violence in all its forms, and adopting an ethic of peacefulness--the kind of ethic that comes right out of the Gospels--can we hope to create a world in which human beings can live sanely with one another.

Stopping the war in Iraq would be the first step towards this end. But it is only a first step. As Will Tuttle writes in his new book, The World Peace Diet, we also need to consider the impact of things like our food choices on the levels of violence in our society. If we are willing to cram animals into filthy feeding lots, pump them full of antibiotics and growth hormones, and then brutally butcher them just so we can have the satisfaction of being able to enjoy a juicy steak or piece of chicken, is it any wonder that we have so little trouble killing innocent women and children in Iraq?

...And Let's Not Forget Tibet Either

The crackdown against protestors in Tibet has led to the deaths of over 100 Tibetans, at the same time that the U.S. government has removed China from its list of top 10 human rights violators.

Tibet was illegally invaded and taken over by China in 1951. In 1959, The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, was forced to flee to India to escape impending imprisonment. Since then, the Chinese government has systematically closed Tibetan monasteries, pillaged the once pristine Tibetan countryside, and impose its own poiltical, cultural, and economic order upon the country.

What China has been doing in Tibet over the past 50 years is nothing short of cultural genocide. And yet, the world community--and the U.S government in particular--remains strangely silent. When it won the bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics, China made a promise to the world community to improve its human rights record. They clearly have reneged on this promise.

I think that the only thing that could possibly get the Chinese to grant a greater degree of autonomy to the Tibetan people is the threat of a boycott of this year's Olympics. I for one have
already contacted my elected officials in Congress and told them that I demand that the U.S. withdraw from the 2008 Olympics unless human rights abuses in Tibet are stopped immediately. If enough of us do this, the U.S. government might eventually be shamed into taking action on this extremely important issue.

Free Tibet Campaign

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Eleventh Commandment

I have recently become convinced that protection of the environment is the most important issue confronting us in the 21st century…more important than the war in Iraq, more important than the sagging global economy, and even more important than world poverty. All these other problems will work themselves out one way or another, but the damage to threatened ecosystems around the world is potentially irreversible. Just today the New York Times reported that the king salmon that run in the Sacramento River have all but disappeared. Although this will be a hardship for the salmon fishing industry in California, it is a disaster for the entire Sacramento River watershed. One California official called the collapse of salmon stocks “unprecedented.” Interestingly, this is the same term that experts have used to describe many of the other ecological problems that we have witnessed in recent years—the severity of hurricanes, regional droughts and forest fires, the bleaching of coral reefs around the world, and the melting of Arctic glaciers. All are unprecedented in their scope and magnitude. And, if we don’t start taking decisive action now to correct these problems, we may very well be dooming ourselves as a species (I know; I’m becoming hysterical again).

The solution to our environmental problems—if there is a solution at this point—is to completely transform our relationship to the natural world. We need to begin taking care of the environment in the same way that we take care of our bank accounts (actually we need to do even better than that when one considers that American savings accounts are all but depleted). We need to begin recognizing—as the Vatican recently did—that ecological callousness is as much of a “deadly sin” as greed or envy. We also need to feel as guilty about wasting water or electricity, using chemical fertilizers on our lawns, buying stuff we don’t need, or throwing recyclable bottles into the garbage as we do about breaking any of the traditional Ten Commandments.

In fact, I would argue that we need to add an eleventh commandment to the list:

"I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not piss me off by destroying my beautiful planet."


Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Positive Side of Inflation

Over the past ten years prices on consumer goods have increased at a manageable rate of 2-3.5%. This year, however, prices have risen at a rate of 7.4%. With oil at $111.00 a barrel, it is going to become increasingly more difficult for American families to heat their homes, drive their gas-guzzling cars, and still have enough money left to pay their mortgages, taxes, health insurance premiums, and credit card balances.

If wages had also been rising steadily, this wouldn't be a problem, but in fact the wages of working Americans have been declining in real terms since the 1970s. And now many poor and middle-class Americans are faced with stagnant or declining wages at the same time that inflation is on the rise and credit is being tightened. To make matters even worse, Americans have taken on record debt and have the lowest level of savings--the numbers now are in the negative regions--since the Great Depression. In short, things are bad, and they are probably going to get much worse during the next few years.

Although it may not be a comfort to those folks who will lose their jobs and be driven out of their homes during the economic meltdown that we are about to experience, there is something positive that can come out of this economic mess. During the past 35 years, American consumption has exploded thanks to cheap oil and easy credit. We live in bigger homes, drive fancier cars, eat out more often, and take more vacations than any other human beings on the planet. If we are forced to dramatically reduce our levels of consumption, this would actually be a good thing for our souls and for the state of the planet. It would be good for our souls because, as the ancients understood, mindless consumption necessarily leads to misery and discontent. It would be good for the planet because less consumption necessarily means less waste.

The solution, then, to our spiritual malaise and to our ecological crisis is to follow the wisdom of that great philosopher, Paris Hilton, and start living...

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. For the past thirty years, we Americans have lived like bloated pigs at the trough (the trough, of course, representing the world's resouces, which we have been depleating at an alarming rate). Now circumstance rather than moral wisdom will necessitate that we dramatically reduce our standard of living. Depending upon how bad things get, Americans may have to start getting used to living like our parents did in the 1950s...eating at home more often, using public transportation more frequently, cutting out coupons from the Sunday newspaper to reduce costs at the supermarket, and traveling to the Catskills for vacation rather than to Europe or the Caribbean. For many Americans who have gotten use to the fat life, this sort of existence will represent nothing short of a living hell. There are others, though, who will probably do just fine during, what James Howard Kunstler has prophetically called, "The Long Emergency." Sure, we won't be able to go out for lattes at Starbucks any more, but we may actually start to value those intangible goods that make life worth living--more time with our family and friends, opportunities for personal growth and spiritual enrichment, and a more intimate connection with the natural world.

If that doesn't sound appetizing, you can always find a large building to jump off of. Just make sure that no one is standing beneath you when you take the plunge!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why even conservatives should be concerned about the state of the planet!

Sure, global warming could be a big hoax...a nasty myth perpetuated by pinko environmentalists who hate capitalism. I am well aware that climate change skeptics—many of whom are funded by the gas and oil industry—continually make the case that the dramatic changes in global climate that we have recently seen are a natural phenomenon and not necessarily the result of human activity.

In reality, however, there is little scientific debate that concentrations of greenhouse gases—mostly in the form of carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of coal, oil and gas—are to blame for the warming trends that we are now seeing. In fact, hundreds of scientific studies point to some alarming trends that should cause us all grave concern:

  • During the past decade, as a result of global warming, heat waves have become much more intense. In 2003 an extreme heatwave in Europe took the lives of nearly 35,000 people. In 2005 many cities in the United States broke all-time records for high temperatures and for the number of consecutive days with temperatures of 100 degrees or more. Indeed, the year 2005 was the hottest year recorded since 1860. Just a coincidence?
  • Climate change has caused severe droughts throughout the world. It is predicted that 1.8 billion people will face water shortages by 2025.
  • The warming of the earth’s oceans has increased the severity of hurricanes, making them much more damaging to humans and property than they were in the past. There is a consensus among scientists that global warming will lead to an increase in the number of hurricanes hitting the United States in the future. Insurance companies have already begun to deny homeowners in costal areas flood insurance because even they are beginning to understand the potential impact of global warming on their "bottom lines."
  • Climate change has already caused glaciers to retreat at an unprecedented rate. Simulations project that a 2-3 degree celsius increase in temperature could cause the meltdown of Greenland’s icesheets. Continued melting of glaciers during this century will inevitably cause sea levels to rise, flooding low lying areas such as Bangladesh and causing a potential wave of refugees into neighboring countries. If sea levels rise as significantly as some scientists predict, much of Long Island and lower Manhattan could be covered in water.
  • Climate change has the potential to lead to the mass extinction of animal species. In a 2004 issue of Nature, scientists studying the world’s diverse hotspots have predicted that by 2050 a quarter of the world’s species could be on the path to extinction as a result of global warming. Subsequent studies seem to bear out these findings, leading scientists to warn that catastrophic species loss could occur across the planet.

Even if only some of these predictions come true, it would mean that the world our children will inhabit in the future will be significantly less hospitable than it is now. This should inspire us all--whether we are liberals or conservatives--to work together to solve the grave environmental problems currently facing the planet.

One positive trend to note is that the three major candidates running for president--four if you count my hero, Ralph Nader--have fairly solid environmental records. So, even if John McCain becomes the next president, we will probably see some bipartisan efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and stem the tide of global warming. And this, of course, is in everybody's best interest.

- Mike

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Gospel of Consumption

In the New York Times (3/11/08) Bob Herbert reports that, out of a total population of 300 million, 37 million Americans live in poverty. An additional 60 million are just above the poverty line, living with household incomes that range from $20,000-$40,000 annually for a family of four. In the current economic crisis in which we find ourselves, these are the people who are going to suffer most from the rising prices of oil and food, the plummeting housing market, and the decline in jobs that pay a minimum wage.

Of course, the middle class in the United States—those making less than $200,000 a year—are not much less vulnerable during an economic downturn like this one. Many of these Americans, buying into the consumptive mentality that drives our society, have taken on an enormous amount of debt since the 1970s, have virtually no savings, and have seen the equity in their homes plummet like a middle-aged man’s saggy midsection.

Since 70 % of the American economy is consumption driven, the prophets of mass consumerism—led by its head cheerleader, George Bush—have told us time and again to do our patriotic duty and spend, spend, spend. In the past, Americans have duly submitted to this philosophy using easily attainable credit to buy tons of stuff they really didn’t need.

But now the hens have come home to roost. Personal and national debt is the highest it has been since World War II and banks are tightening up on the loans they make. Furthermore, unemployment levels have been increasing and middle class wages have been fairly stagnant at the same time that inflation seems to be on rise. And yet, despite all this Americans continue to drive themselves further into debt through their endless consumption.

The solution to our economic crisis is not to consume more, but to consume less. To live simpler, more ecologically sustainable lives. Americans would certainly benefit if they adopted some of the basic principles of the voluntary simplicity movement...most notably the recognition that human happiness can not be attained through ever-increasing levels of consumption

Of course, if we suddenly stop our mindless consumption, this will make Wall Street and the White House extremely unhappy. But that’s their problem. The job of each individual during an economic meltdown, such as the one that is inevitably coming, is to get his or her own house in order by reducing consumption and increasing savings.

Fortunately, the Voluntary Simplicity movement has a number of web sites available to help overspent and overworked Americans live simpler and more fiscally responsible lives. Here are two of the most popular of these sites:

The Simple Living Network
The Simplicity Resource Guide

Reasonable and Humane Enviornmentalism

I was very glad to be asked to contribute to this blog since I am generally an opponent of its goals and tenor. Hopefully, a fair and charitable discussion of the issues at stake can lead to a consensus - on at least some things.

First, some points of disagreement:

The very motto of the site speaks to an excessiveness and apocalypticism that is not only irrational, but by its radicalness, keeps people from wanting to be associated with environmental responsibility. It only preaches to the choir.

"Saving Humanity - One Planet at a Time" is both melodramatic - and nonsensical. Humanity is not in danger of extinction. Claims to the contrary are unscientific and frankly - scaremongering. It would be enough to state that modernization harms the natural world in certain ways. And human beings thrive best in a healthy environment. A beautiful and robust natural world makes life more beautiful and enjoyable.

Instead, environmentalism is always trying to avoid planetary destruction and extinction. It's unserious.

Evidence of this continues here on this blog with calls for vegetarianism, media blackouts, bemoaning the Iraq War - undoubtedly to be followed by cries against capitalism, corporate America, the Republican Party, and apple pie.

Other than my disagreement on some of these matters themselves, I'm disappointed because many people react to this political theatre by throwing the environmental baby out with the left-wing bath water.

People have a good and natural disgust for environmental destruction. Oil slicks on pristine waters, animals covered in crude, hillsides stripped bare, poisoned fish, smog and grime in city air, lakes and rivers and oceans closed to swimmers and fishing, animals extinct forever - all these things repel your average person and the environmental movement can do much if it appeals to sense and common decency.

But people also generally have a disinclination to apocalypticism and conspiracy theory. Human experience and history has shown them that it is usually a kind of hysteria to some real, but manageable problem. They also have a revolutionary hatred of having others opinions imposed upon them by governmental - or non-governmental - force.

The nature of our problem in the modern world is human ingenuity - it is also part of the solution. We have the greatest command of natural fores and productivity in the history of the world. There are more people in the modern age than have even existed for most of history put together. And so we have new problems - one of which is not spoiling the natural world we live in.

I, and many people can get behind that goal. But seeing as how there is a new environmental crisis every few years (nuclear fallout, new ice age, the ozone layer, acid rain, rain forests, whales, global warming, etc. etc) the environmental movement is destroying its credibility year by year. The global cooling trend that emerged in 2007, if it continues, (as scientists who believe solar activity causes global temperature cycles say it will) it could be another deadly blow to the current environmental movement.

An environmental movement tied to general left-wing politics is an environmental movement doomed to spectacular failure. Unless the real goal is left-wing politics and a blind insistence that the two are inseperable, the environmental movement needs to unhitch itself from these other problems.

We need a strong environmental movement. One that has room for all people, with differing opinions. One that puts human beings first. Human beings that need and thrive in a healthy and beautiful natural world.

Simple living and a love and care of nature is an environmental movement that is built for all people.

And built to last for centuries.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Post-Materialism in a Nutshell

Here is one of the most interesting pieces that I have seen on voluntary simplicity. A bit artsy, perhaps, but it explains in a nutshell exactly why you would want to opt out of the Western materialistic rat race:

Consume less, make art, live free!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The High Cost of Home Heating

I was a bit dismayed when I discovered that my energy bill for the past month was over $300 dollars. I don't know about you, but I can think of many more interesting things to do with my hard-earned money than to contribute it to the already over-flowing coffers of the local utility company.

Then it struck me that I myself was partially to blame for the high costs of my energy bill. While I have made some efforts over the previous two years to make my home more energy efficient, I still have a long way to go. The problem is that, being a rather impractical academic, I really didn't know where to begin to conserve energy in my home.

That's when I came across a government site that provided the opportunity to perform a home energy audit on-line. The site is located at http://hes.lbl.gov/ and I, for one, found it extremely useful.

Like me, if you are seriously interested in living a more sustainable lifestyle, give this site a try. If nothing else, it may save you a few dollars that you can probably put to much better use.

Mike Russo

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why the Networks Won't Let You See This One

Sure I eat meat. Maybe not as much as the guy down the street, but a heck of a lot more than my friends at PETA. That wacky, wild organization put out a commercial starring Casey Affleck that has been banned by TV Networks nationwide. PETA tried to buy time on the air, but Madison Avenue apparently does not want people like you to know what goes into making your tasty Big Macs.

Don't watch this banned commercial if you are squeemish!

"When people ask me why I don’t eat meat or any other animal products, I say, ‘Because they’re unhealthy, and they’re the product of a violent and inhumane industry...Chickens, cows, and pigs in factory farms spend their whole lives in filthy, cramped conditions—only to die a prolonged and painful death. Their bodies are then turned into food products proven to contribute to heart disease and cancer. To eat that is to eat poison."

Mike Russo

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

And this is what you want to put in your mouth?

Video footage shot by the Humane Society have shown sick cows at the Hallmark Meat Packaging Company in Chino, California being prodded, jabbed with forklift blades, kicked, and sprayed in the face with powerful jets of water. "The attempt was to make them so distressed, to cause them so much suffering that these animals would get up and walk into the slaughterhouse," Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle told CBS News. Meat Industry officials have no way of knowing whether meat from the sick cows enter the food supply.

For an insight into just what kind of horrific practices are routinely enagaged in by the Meat Industry, watch this report from CBS News.

If this doesn't make you think about becoming a vegan, I don't know what will!

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