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.

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