Friday, April 20, 2012

Beyond Environmental Veganism

Earth day is Sunday, and we’re hearing all the annual awareness campaigns. Take shorter showers, drive a hybrid, change a light bulb, recycle… blah, blah, blah. What’s noticeably missing is perhaps the single most important thing one can do for the environment. Go vegan and stay vegan.

As Communications Director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, I sat down with every intention of writing a blog post extolling the virtues of environmental veganism. As an ethical vegan, however, I have a hard time making the case for veganism on strictly environmental grounds. Not that a compelling argument can’t be made from an environmental standpoint, or for purely health reasons for that matter. The environmental benefits of being vegan are tremendous. Even the most casual research about intensive animal agriculture will turn up a number of persuasive reasons to go vegan because of the environment. And that’s a good thing.

That got me thinking, however. Going vegan solely for environmental reasons is a basic misunderstanding of what veganism is at its core. I understand that with environmentalism enjoying the spotlight these days, and the green movement having it’s own cable channel and a whole array of ‘green’ products to consume, I might be quickly criticized to suggest that anything done for environmental reasons alone is not a legitimate enough reason. Fact is, I’m glad for the growing number of environmental vegans out there. If concern for the environment gets people thinking about and moving towards veganism, that is great. In the end however, those of us who are vegan because we respect the inherent sentience of animals must take an active role in moving environmental vegans beyond merely environmentalism and to see veganism for what it really is about: the rights of non-human animals.

From the moment Donald Watson first coined the term ‘vegan’ in 1944, veganism has been about the rights of animals to be given equal consideration. To this day, veganism continues to be the only cogent answer that gets at the heart of animal exploitation. Being vegan is your everyday statement that things are not right as they are, that you are one more person who is standing up to be counted in opposition to the exploitation of animals. It is a refusal of a system that produces enormous profits at the expense of animals who are just as sentient as the family dog or cat. Veganism is and has always been about animal rights.

I don’t want to be misunderstood so let me say this once again: I’m glad to have people go vegan for environmental reasons. My point is however; an environmental thrust alone is an insufficient basis for a long-term vegan position, or for a long-term movement seeking to gain animals important rights. To put it another way, going vegan for solely environmental reasons is quite like opposing the Holocaust because the trains to Auschwitz had a big carbon footprint. I know that is a provocative thing to say, but before getting up in arms, think about the central point I’m making. In both cases, yes the person is opposed to the holocaust. But all of us would argue that the person making an objection on environmental grounds is really failing to see the larger point. That is that genocide is profoundly disgusting and wrong because it violates the inherent rights that we think all human beings should have.

For ethical vegans, the point of veganism is recognizing the inherent value of animals as individual beings unto themselves. If ethical veganism is going to have any impact, it needs to be a movement that’s at its core is concerned about realizing rights for animals. Though the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals, and humans for that matter, are severe, disturbing and taking a growing toll on our ecosystems, we must however put these concerns within the larger framework of exploitation. One in which the environmental side effects of exploitation are recognized and understood, but not in which they are the central focus of concern.

That does not mean we need not be silent about the environmental benefits of veganism, but when we do address such benefits, we should point out that, while great, they are very much incidental to the grave moral wrong of exploiting and unnecessarily breeding and killing the innocent. I would be vegan even if it were bad for the environment, but it's good to know that I can be a good environmentalist and a good vegan simultaneously. 

Those of us who are seriously concerned about the environment should go vegan and take a strong animal rights position. No other food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on the environment and all life on earth than choosing to become vegan. If you’re not vegan – go vegan. It’s really easy. If you are vegan – stay vegan. It’s better for the planet, better for your health and most importantly it’s the ethically right thing to do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Contributor's Panel: Simple Steps

EcoBlog is very fortunate to have contributors who are quite knowledgeable on issues of environmental ethics and sustainability. To take advantage of this expertise, I've decided to start a new feature for this site called "Contributor's Panel." The idea is to pose an interesting and topical question to our contributors and let them share their insights.

The first question that I posed was something of a "softball" just to get the conversation rolling. My question was: "What are three simple steps that everyone can take to live more

And here are the responses from our panel:

Frank Morris  [Ecological Advisors]

1. Get Informed.  Human Societies are driven by 4 main variables -- Policy, Investment, Competition, and Education. Present societies were born of past policies, past investments, past educational decisions and the competition between local human sub-cultures and the greater nation-state.  Global Sustainable Society represents different policies, investments, and education-and a culture of sustainability will need to effectively compete with a presently dominant culture of exploitation. The 1987 BrundtlandReport -- Our Common Future -- developed the initial framework for global sustainability.

2. Get Connected. There are many groups involved with Sustainability. Even the Catholic Church has called for an ecological conversion in the cause of sustainability. Millions of Americans, and citizens around the world, belong to environmental organizations. What's missing presently is an aggregation of those members, and a clear game plan to drive policy, investment, and education to engage the present dominant culture of exploitation. By connecting, individuals within sustainable society can aggregate and demand policy, investment, and education in sustainable solutions. And those solutions will need to compete with a culture of exploitation.  

3. Get Motivated. Sustainability provides without pollution. Sustainability effectively engages a culture of exploitation. Sustainability represents realistic hope for a better life for Earth's global citizens. Sustainability is great stuff.

Demosthenes Maratos [Sustainability Institute]

1.   Go vegan. It has never been easier. There are alternatives in virtually every grocery store in North America, Web sites, discussion forums, books, magazines, videos and more all available to help you make the transition. It’s better for your health and for the planet. Most important, it’s the morally right thing to do.  Being vegan is your everyday statement that things are not right as they are, that you are one more person who is standing up to be counted in opposition to the exploitation of animals. It is a refusal of a system that produces enormous profits at the expense of animals who are just as sentient as the family dog or cat.

2.  Resist the cultural cues to desire unnecessary things. Consume less. Ask yourself: "Do I really need it?" Learn to be happy with less, you just may find that so many possessions were only complicating your life. You may find that fewer (but more special or unique) things trump many ordinary things. Sure, some material objects do make our lives easier, but they can't bring us happiness. That must be found from within.
"We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered. A nation can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy." (Dr. Martin Luther King, April, 1967)
3. Understand finite resources and look beyond yourself. Consider the sustainability of your everyday activities. Sustainability as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, (and perhaps the most popular definition) is "meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs". Know with confidence that your daily actions, choices and decisions pass muster.

Nicole Giambalvo [Activist]

1.  If you want to go green, go vegan.  Or, at least limit your consumption of animal-based products. A plant-based diet isn't just good for animals and your health--it also has a positive impact on the environment. Reducing or eliminating animal-based products is one of the most powerful ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. Farmed animals and their byproducts are responsible for 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to

2. Share.  The amount of food products discarded by supermarkets and restaurants in the US is astonishing. There are locally based organizations that make a point to share discarded food products with those in need. The reflexive relationship between food waste and the social, economical and environmental oppressions within our society can be addressed through individual awareness and actions to eradicate poverty within low-income communities.

3. Recognize your accountability. Support reproductive justice.  Industrialized countries with 20% of the world’s population are actually responsible for 80% of the accumulated carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere while Africa was only responsible for 2.5% according to Supporting safe and ethical reproductive health options in the Global South is important when addressing issues of world population increases. However, laying blame on nations which are much less responsible for carbon-dioxide buildup eschews the US and other industrialized nations' environmental responsibility.

Edward J. Thompson [Founder, Sustainability Institute]

1. Use a non-pesticide weed killer/fertilizer for your lawn. This saves money, promotes deeper root systems (which save water) and doesn't dump poison into our groundwater.

2. Stop buying bottled water. The plastic bottles are made with petroleum and are then shipped around the world using more petroleum.

3. Give more, expect less. With this motto, you will derive happiness from life itself, and not from consumption.

Peter Fallon [Professor, Media Ecology]

1. Humility. The overwhelming majority of what we consume, we don't really need. We eat more than we need. We buy things we don't use. We use things to fulfill "needs" that never existed until created and suggested to us by advertising. We throw things away rather than repairing them. We want a lot but even as we get what we want we want more. Our advertising industry puts us directly at the center of a very small universe created in our own image. We are Gods. And we should get over this.

2. Awareness. It is far too easy to be -- and to remain -- completely oblivious to the rest of the world in the information environment we've created for ourselves. It is too easy to be ignorant of both the suffering, exploitation, and deprivation of the developing world, and of our role in the creation and maintenance of that suffering. In order to become and remain aware it is necessary that we achieve a certain level of disconnection from the digital distractions and electric entertainments of our culture of commotion, confusion, and chaos.

3. Give a shit. The world's resources are not infinite. They are not evenly distributed across the Earth. Human societies have not developed at the same rates for reasons not necessarily of a given society's choosing. Powerful societies can, have, and do exploit weaker ones. People do suffer as we lead pretty fat and happy lives. Think about that. And let it bother you. Because it really should.

Sara Kline [Environmental Activist]
1.  Support Campaign Finance Reform.  Real environmental change is impossible as long as our government is being hijacked by corporate interests.  But as long as our elected officials need to raise millions of dollars to run an effective campaign, they will continue to sell their votes to the highest bidders—and that usually means multinational corporations like Exxon and Monsanto that have a vested interest in blocking environmental legislation.  Unless we remove the corrupting influence that big money has on our election, everything else that environmental activists try to do will be in vain.

2.  Eat fewer animals and animal products.  I’m not saying that we all have to go vegan, but even if we all made the pledge to eat less meat and dairy (Meatless Mondays, anyone?), the benefits to the planet would be extraordinary. 
3.  Teach Your Children Well.  If future generations don’t have the experience of actually being in nature, they’ll never come to an appreciation for protecting natural resources.  That’s why I think that one of the most important things we can do is get urban children in particular out of the house and into the wild.  And you don’t have to take them to Yellowstone or Yosemite either.  Start by finding a local preserve or state park and bring your kids there for a hike; or take them on a camping expedition for vacation instead of to Disney. 

Elyssa Hopkins [Environmentalist]

1. Reuse/Upcycle everything. Avoid food packaging when you can, but when you can't, find other uses for it. For example, keep sauce jars to store leftovers instead of buying tupperware, and keep the plastic containers that salad greens and strawberries come in to bring baked goods to the next friend or family get together.

2. Invest in reusable shopping bags. Come on, they're less than a dollar and they pay for themselves in no time since most grocery stores give you a discount for using them. You have no excuse not to. Make the transition away from plastic!

3. Buy used. Furniture is a great example of something you can buy used. It'll be cheaper and even if it's not in perfect shape you can say it's "antique" or "rustic". You'll be conserving numerous resources, and if it's a wood piece it most likely has outgassed most of the formaldehyde that most wood furniture contains.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Save Seals by Eating Non-Canadian Seafood?

The annual Canadian Seal Hunt is well underway in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and off Newfoundland. Hundreds of thousands of seals are being shot or clubbed to death. It's barbaric, pure and simple. With the hunt comes the Humane Society of the United States' curious annual call to boycott Canadian seafood until Canada ends seal hunting. The Humane Society doesn't care if you continue to eat seafood from other countries. And you can even resume eating Canadian seafood once their seal killing ends.

The Humane Society's message is clear. Some animals, seals in this case, deserve greater moral consideration than others. And by appealing to supporters with pictures of cute, baby seals they can rake in millions in donations. Sure, humans find seals cuter than say... fish, shrimp and lobsters, but which animals we perceive as cute should have no bearing on our ethical consideration of their interests. It is, of course, terrible that the seals are being killed. But it is also terrible that some use this tragedy to rake in donations, while encouraging the public to consume the less-favored animals in order to benefit the more-favored ones.

Too many animal protection organizations are promoting these sort of campaigns that actually encourage animal exploitation. Since 2003 for example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called for a boycott of Kentucky Fried Chicken until KFC purchases chickens from producers that utilize controlled atmospheric killing (CAK). A method that amounts to gassing birds to death and one that PETA promotes as more "humane" and more profitable for chicken producers. When Kentucky Fried Chicken in Canada agreed to gassing chickens, PETA called off their boycott (in Canada). They then claimed a "historic victory" for chickens in their fundraising materials. The message they sent is clear: It is ethically acceptable to eat chickens that have been gassed to death.

Is it clear to anyone else that these mainstream groups are exploiting animals as a business model and none of it has anything to do with shifting the paradigm from animals as exploitable things to animals as sentient beings worthy of our ethical consideration?

Getting back to the seal hunt - the campaign against it has been going on for decades. It has not ended yet. Many mainstream groups, however, have made millions from the campaign over those decades.

Don't be misled. You can't make moral distinctions about different forms of exploitation and killing. There is no difference between seal fur or the skin of another animal. The Humane Society of the United States purports to be an animal protection organization. If they were truly interested in protecting animals, they should use their considerable resources and wealth to do something they have never done in all their 58 years in existence - make an unequivocal single message. That message should be:

Go vegan. Stop eating, wearing, consuming and otherwise using animals.

If you believe in promoting a peaceful, healthier, more sustainable and just world without the use of animals, support organizations who take a firm abolitionist stand against animal exploitation. Here are just a few:

Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary

Boston Vegan Association

Open The Cages Alliance

Peace Advocacy Network

Alice Springs Vegan Society

Animal Freedom

What's For Lunch?

One of the things that we try to promote on this site is the adoption of voluntary simplicity as a way of life.  Our goal is not to try to make you feel so guilty that you deprive yourself, but simply to be a bit more conscious about your consumption patters.

For many of us, what we eat and where we eat is a big issue.  Fast food restaurants are all around us, offering the prospect of seemingly cheap food to fill our hungry stomachs.  But is fast food really all that cheap?  How much do you spend on eating out for lunch each day and what could you be doing instead with the money that you spend?

These are the questions that the Lunch Calculator seeks to answer.  It's actually quite easy: just go to the site, plug in the numbers and see what your own results are.  Then share your reflections with the rest of us!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Environmental Implications of the Meat Industry

Sure, being a vegan/vegetarian has loads of personal health benefits. Vegetarians and vegans are generally at a lower risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. I've even read studies swearing that people who avoid animal products have slimmer waistlines and an overall lower BMI than meat eaters. I could go on about the other health and beauty plusses of eliminating meat and such, but I'm thinking on a more global level. 

Have you ever thought about how environmentally taxing your dinner is? Global climate change, deforestation, pollution and water waste can all be attributed to the meat industry. More than a quarter of Earth's land is used for raising livestock. To keep up with demand, countless acres of land have been deforested worldwide to make room for animals headed for slaughter. Even more land has been cleared to grow feed for the animals. Oh the pesticides and fertilizers! These chemicals end up in places you don't even want to think about, like your drinking water. 

In addition to all the land cleared, think of all the water needed to raise the animals that end up on your plate. Half of the water used in the U.S. supplies the livestock and the feed crops. Half! That 16 oz. steak you're gorging on? It took hundreds of gallons of water to end up in your stomach. That's 15 times more water than required for an equal amount of plant protein. Consider where all that water ends up. I'm reminded of a documentary I saw years ago on the poultry industry. Poultry on the Potomac alleged that the Potomac River was on the list of the 10 most endangered rivers in North America due to pollution from the poultry industry. It claimed runoff from the numerous poultry farms into the river was responsible for outbreaks of toxic microbes that make the river intolerable for some aquatic life.   

Plenty of people eliminate animal products to avoid antibiotics and hormones that are administered to the animals from entering their bodies, but even with a plant based diet they may still be exposed. Antibiotics have been found in crops such as potatoes, lettuce, spinach and corn that have been grown in manure. Ninety percent of drugs given to livestock end up in their manure, polluting not only the crops that may grow in it, but also the surrounding environment when absorbed by the soil or washed into surrounding aquatic ecosystems. 

Raising livestock contributes more greenhouse gasses than even transportation. Transportation is a necessary part of most lives, but eating meat? It doesn't have to be. By making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you help yourself, the environment, and countless animals. I know this is easier said than done, but any reduction in animal product will have significance. There's a plethora of animal friendly recipes on the internet, like Resolution Kitchen (yes, that's a shameless plug), to help you get started, or to continue your veggie lifestyle. To those of you who think it can't be done, I challenge you to start by eliminating animal product from your meals just once a week. Now imagine doing that for every meal. Not so hard, is it?


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ecological Conversion and the Common Good

If the devil is in the details, does that mean God is in the big picture?

I've been intrigued recently by the notion of "ecological conversion and the common good."  I took a moment and googled those 5 words, in quotes, "ecological conversion and the common good".

One hit came up.

A friend asked me to present at Molloy College on alternative economic systems, and I offered the ideas of "the common good" from Rerum Novarum.  I introduced to those present distributism, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the newest entry-ecology...I think I made a legitimate-reasonable presentation. 

One of the students offered, "What are the odds of this actually happening."

I respect that question.

I told him, the odds change with what you do.

It's Easter week.  Holy week.  A week that should have changed the world completely....And yet, how much has the world really changed?  Often, but not always, the wolf still hunts and eats the sheep.  The strong still exploit the weak.  God's Peaceful Kingdom of love and forgiveness, can seem illusive.  In many places, it can seem a myth.

What I like about the idea of "ecological conversion" is that it could be embraced by all people.  Solar roofs can be installed, energy can be used much more efficiently, materials can be recycled,  the inestimable power of the wind can be cultivated,  intermittent energy can be stored, water can be made clean and fresh with the energy from concentrated wind and solar energy, land can be remediated...Truly, a new means of provision could be born.

I think theirs an inherent logic and goodness to transitioning an economy from ecologic exploitation to ecologic cultivation. 

But what are the odds?
To me, changing the odds are about 3 things...Ecologic policy, ecologic investment, and ecologic education.

Nature provides the example of symbiotic reciprocity.  Flowers need bees, bees need flowers, and they both thrive for the existence of the other.  But in the real world, their are predators, scavengers, and destructive parasites.  Nature can be an unforgiving master.

So we as people have a choice.  If their is individual knowledge, than people have their choices.

Cultivation or exploitation. Symbiosis or some other means of provision.

The Saddest Show on Earth

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is making its way around the east coast at the moment. Having recently come through the New York area on their 11-month tour of the United States. It may be coming to a town near you very soon. Before you even consider buying a ticket to any animal circus, understand the magnitude of cruelty, exploitation and disregard for the interests of animals necessary to have them "perform" for your entertainment.

Tigers, lions, bears, elephants, and other animals do not willingly or happily ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire. This isn’t their natural behavior, nor do they perform these and other tricks because they want to; they perform them because they're afraid of what will happen if they don't.

Unsuspecting parents planning a family trip to the circus don't know about the constant confinement and violent training sessions with ropes, chains, whips, bullhooks, and electric shock prods that animals endure. Undercover footage and heartbreaking photos obtained from even a casual Google search demonstrate the reality of what circus animals experience. In addition, as recently as November 2011, the Ringling Brothers Circus was fined $270,000 by the United States Department of Agriculture for violating the Animal Welfare Act on at least 27 different occasions between 2007 and 2011.

Even if reformed, however, the treatment of animals in entertainment by itself, does not address the underlying circumstances in which such forms of animal exploitation are considered acceptable. Circuses and other forms of animal “entertainment” exist because human consumers persist in creating demand for such things. To an industry that views sentient creatures as economic units – it is inevitable that such exploitation and violence will be viewed as acceptable. In a system where animals are considered the property of humans, even their most significant interests can (and are) eclipsed by the comparably trivial human interest of profit. Trying to "balance" the interests of a piece of property against the interests of a property owner is like playing in a rigged card game. Because the mechanisms in place are fundamentally unfair, it simply can’t be done.

It's 2012, and entertainment for children or adults need not come at the expense of animals, so don’t take part in it. Refuse to support animal circuses and the use of animals in entertainment. And while you're at it... if you believe in taking the interests of animals as seriously as say... the family dog or cat, then go vegan. Animals are not our property to use, abuse or consume.

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