Wednesday, May 23, 2012

One thing we can all do, and ought to do, but don’t do…and here’s why.

The planet we live on is in danger of being completely swallowed up by our love affair with plastic.  Our landfills are overflowing with the stuff, our wildlife is choking to death on it, and our seas contain islands the size of Texas, swirling vortexes of—you guessed it—plastic. 

Plastic was developed with the best of intentions.  It was a product that could be used over and over again and thus save our forests from being decimated and our natural resources from being wasted to create consumer products.  At first, plastic was almost an environmentalist’s dream: you could create products out of it in virtually any shape and size, for almost any purpose, and it was all magically synthetic.  And no animals had to be killed and no trees had to be felled to make these plastic wonder products.
But what no one ever envisioned was that we would one day create plastic products that would be used only once and then discarded at whim.  I’m talking, of course, about the plastic shopping bag that we all use to pack our supermarket food and the retail items we buy at the shopping mall.  It’s estimated that between 500 billion and 1 trillion of these plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year.  Most of us tend to bring these bags home, empty out their contents, and then throw them in the garbage pail without a further thought.  

From our garbage, these bags are then transported to the local landfill.  Approximately 20-25% of a typical landfill weight is made up of plastics (not just garbage bags, of course) and, since most landfills lack adequate moisture and air circulation to encourage decomposition, the plastic we put into landfills remains there almost indefinitely. 

Millions of these bags actually won’t even make it as far as the landfill.    They flutter in the wind, get flushed into river and streams, and pollute our local communities.  Once in the environment, it still takes the average plastic bag  several months to hundreds of years to break down, and when they do, the effects are, if anything, even more problematic than if they remained in landfills.   Toxic chemicals from these plastic bags seep into our soil, lakes, rivers, and oceans.  Tiny bits of plastic the size of plankton are consumed by sea animals, and these chemicals enter their bloodstreams.  And when we consume these animals, they enter our own as well, contributing to cancer and other nasty human ailments.

If you think that paper shopping bags are the solution, they’re not.  Paper shopping bags require more energy to create, produce even more solid waste, and generate even more atmospheric emissions than plastic bags do.

But there is a very easy solution to the shopping bag dilemma:  carry reusable shopping bags with you when you go shopping.  They’re cheap, come in assorted styles, and are extremely compact. 

So why don’t more people bring reusable bags with them when they go shopping?  It seems like a no brainer, doesn’t it?  And yet, if anything, Americans in particular are using more plastic bags than ever before.  So what’s the source of the disconnect between social good and human behavior?

As a matter of full disclosure, I have to confess that I am a person who very often uses plastic bags when I go shopping.  It’s not that I don’t have any reusable bags: I have a bunch that I got for free last year in the trunk of my car.  It’s just that I often forget to take them out of the trunk when I go shopping.  So they sit there while I contribute to the environmental havoc reaped by our nasty plastic habits. 

From my own experience, then, I think that habit gets in the way of changing human behaviors.  We’re all in the habit of jumping out of our cars without anything but our keys and wallets when we go to the supermarket and shopping malls.  What we’ve got to do—what I’ve got to do—is create a new habit of exiting the car, locking it, opening the trunk, taking out the reusable bags, filling them with the items I purchase, emptying the bags of these items when I get home, and then putting the bags back in the trunk of the car for their next use.  If this sounds overly complex, it really isn’t in practice. We just have to create a new habit to replace the old one that is destroying our planet.  It’s quite simple, actually.

The best part is that, as more of us begin to develop the habit of using reusable shopping bags, they’ll become more common and other people will feel more comfortable using them.   We may not completely eradicate the plastic shopping bag in this way, but we can dramatically reduce the number of them that are produced each year. 

And that, my friends, would be a very good thing for this wounded planet of ours!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ethics of Meat Eating

There was an interesting competition in last week’s New York Times Magazine in which readers were asked to respond to the question, “Is Meat Eating Ethical?”  It’s a question that doesn’t get asked often enough on this blog, where most of the contributors are either vegans or vegan sympathizers.   Although I’m nowhere near as ethical in my eating habits as some of my colleagues, as a result of teaching environmental ethics over the past 15 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the use of animals for food is ethically unjustified.   

Still, I was greatly impressed by the thoughtfulness that went into some of the reader’s responses to the question posed in the Times.  These were not crass libertarians who were arguing that we can do whatever the hell we want with animals because they have no moral status.   The finalists were mostly serious environmentalists who made some interesting arguments  supporting the idea that in certain specific circumstances (if the meat is grown in a laboratory, if plant-based options are not viable, if the animals are raised humanly and killed painlessly) eating animals would be morally acceptable. 
None of the arguments of the finalists in the end, however, persuaded me to change my views on this issue.  I’m convinced that we human beings can live healthy lives without chowing down on hamburgers or chicken wings.  In fact, all the evidence that I’ve come across over the years seems to indicate that, as a species, we’d actually be considerably healthier if we gave up eating animals and animal products entirely.   When one considers the pain and suffering that animals raised for food experience, even when those animals are raised in otherwise humane environments, I don’t think that meat-eating can ever be considered anything other than a moral evil. 

But I certainly am more than willing to enter into a dialogue with those who sincerely feel otherwise.   And who knows: there may be someone out there who will come up with a justification for eating animals that will make me change my own moral position.  The arguments, however, are going to have to be a heck of a lot more persuasive than those I read in the Times last week.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Most Despicable Human Beings on the Planet

I hate people who thrive on causing pain and suffering to others.  That's why I hate rapists, pedophile priests, and child abusers.  But these folks are practically saint-like compared to another group that has it in, not just for specific individuals, but for entire generations of human beings not even born yet. 

The individuals I'm referring to are those who, out of purely ideological motivations or because they are whores for corporate interests, continue to spread the idea that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by rabid environmental wackos who hate our beautiful American way of life.  What these folks typically do is find some fringe, right-leaning "scientist" who has "hard data" that proves either that global warming is not really happening at all or that it is not caused by human activity.

Of course, there's virtually unanimous agreement among serious scientists that global warming is real, that it is caused mainly by the spewing of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and that the consequences, if we don't get a handle on this problem, are dire for our species and for the planet as a whole. 


End of story. 

There is no real debate about global warming.  There's only the truth that we are screwing up the planet because of our selfish, short-sighted, materialistic human activities and there's the reality that, if we want future generations to inherit a planet that is not completely inhospitable to human life, we'd better act now, before it's too late.   This means living far more sustainably, consuming much less, and radically reducing our global CO2 emissions.

But global-warming deniers will do all they can to prevent us from changing our lifestyles in any way that will cut into fat corporate profits.  The more we consume and the more we use fossil fuels to heat our homes and drive our cars, the more profits there are for multinational corporations like Exxon and General Motors.  And the way our economy is set up, just about the only thing that really matters is nice, bloated profits.  The well-being of future generations is a luxury that a corporation can't afford to consider.

The global warming deniers, however, may finally have gone too far.  Recently, the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank funded by - you guessed it - corporations interested in spreading doubts about the reality of global warming, created an ad campaign comparing those "who still believe in global warming" to some of the world's most notorious murderers, like Theodore J. Kaczynski (aka The Unibomber) and Charles Manson.  According to the Institute, "what these murderers and and madmen have done differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the 'mainstream media' and liberal politicians say about global warming."

After receiving a torrent of criticism from liberals as well as conservatives, the Heartland Institute suspended its nasty campaign.  You can be quite sure, however, that this won't be the end of their attempts to spread misinformation and raise doubts about the legitimacy of global warming.  It's the same strategy that the tobacco industry used to try to cause confusion about the health risks of cigarette smoking.

But just as this misinformation spread by the tobacco industry created a backlash against cigarette smoking, so too will global warming deniers, like those at the Heartland Institute, eventually go too far with their malicious lies.   All right-wing ideologues, after all, share a similar contempt for the intelligence of the average person.  That will ultimately prove to be their down-fall.  The more extreme they get in spreading their propaganda, the more attention they draw to the issue of climate change, and the more they ultimately help those of us on the left to get the truth out.

In the meanwhile, feel free to let the Heartland Institute know exactly how you feel about their campaign of lies!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Why Being Vegetarian is Not Enough

More and more people are becoming vegetarian as a result of their belief that animals shouldn’t be mistreated on factory farms, or that they simply should not be killed and consumed for food. However, many individuals who avoid meat out of concern for the interests of animals, continue to consume and use other animal products. Many vegetarians, in fact, upon eliminating flesh from their diet, actually increase their consumption of eggs and dairy, two products that are the result of tremendous animal abuse. 

It is a common belief among vegetarians that drinking milk and eating eggs does not kill animals, but nothing could be further from the truth. Commercially raised cows and egg-laying chickens, whether factory-farmed, or "free-range" are slaughtered when their production rates decline and they are no longer a valuable "commodity".

Vegetarians who eat eggs contribute to the death of 200 million male chicks each year. Since there is no such thing as a "layer rooster," these animals serve no purpose in the egg industry and are killed moments after hatching. Each year, millions of male chicks are gassed, crushed, ground up, or thrown into garbage bins to die of dehydration or asphyxiation. Most layer hens are kept five to a tiny battery cage, where they must stand and sleep on a wire floor 24 hours a day. Living under these horrendous conditions, a hen needs about 30 hours just to lay one egg. Even though a chicken can live five years, most hens are killed before their second birthday, because their egg production declines with age.

With cows, the story is similar. Just as hens lay fewer eggs as they age, dairy cows produce less milk, as they get older. Even though a cow can live twenty years, most dairy cows are sent to the slaughterhouse at age five. Additionally, the veal industry could never exist in its present form without the existence of the dairy industry. Each dairy cow produces about five calves during her lifetime, only one of which on average will become a dairy calf and replace her mother in the milking herd. The rest, (mostly male calves, since they can not become dairy cows) are taken from their mothers, sold for $5.00 each, and to be turned into veal. Imagine having each of your newborn baby stolen, only to have them chained inside a tiny crate for a few months before being slaughtered and eaten, all so that another species could consume milk and cheese from your lactation.

The flood of cheap calves created by the dairy industry allows the veal industry to survive in its current form. It may seem counterintuitive that milk, which is associated with birth and life, is also so connected to slaughter and death. The animal agriculture industry, however, is not in the business of feeding and housing animals who are not profitable. Many vegetarians are not aware of these facts. Once you become aware of the truth, it's hard to justify consuming animal by-products even if you do not eat the animals themselves.

Unfortunately, eating milk and eggs, and using animal by-products all comes down to the same thing: cruelty, exploitation, and death for animals. A compassionate person, who does not eat meat because of an ethical concern for animals, can not avoid the reality of their other choices or the consequences they have on the lives of animals. By refusing to purchase or use these products, we send a strong economic message that profiting at the expense of our health, our environment, and the lives of animals will not be tolerated.

If you're vegetarian because you care about nonhuman animals, you must stop eating, wearing, or using them and products made from them. If animals matter morally, we can not justify treating them as resources. Becoming vegan must be the moral baseline for taking those interests seriously. It's the only way to align your values for justice and fairness.

Vegetarians: Don't hide from the truth. Becoming vegan is the next step in your personal liberation, and it is a source of joy to spend your life living up to its ideal. 

By the way, pictured up top are male chicks falling into a grinder. Representing no monetary value to the egg industry, they only lived for a few moments, but they were not trash. 

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