Moby Mobilizes

I’ve never been a big Moby fan, but I have unbounded respect for the way that he puts his music behind big moral causes.

This is one powerful way to confront the world on animal welfare:

And this cry for more connectedness and empathy in our global culture of distraction is heartbreaking.

A Beautiful Essay On Veganism

Writer David Macfarlane makes a gentle, thoughtful, and deeply persuasive case that veganism is a powerful and undeniable moral imperative.

Once these kinds of ethical arguments began to swirl around in what I like to think of as a reasonably fair-minded brain, and once I took the perilous state of the Earth into account, it became evident to me that eating a hot dog is as much a political act as not eating one. It’s a choice, and what I’m beginning to learn is that it’s a pretty clear one. You can be over there with the interesting looking young people who are enjoying a dinner of lentils, avocado and roasted yams. Or you can be with the multi-billion-dollar industry that pretty consistently put its own interests ahead of health, the environment, social and economic justice — and way, way ahead of the interests of animals.

Macfarlane hopes, riffing on John Stuart Mill (“Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption”), that (at least some segment of) human culture has moved from ridiculing veganism to grappling honestly with it and discussing the arguments. I’m with him on that, and hope that for the animals’ sake, and for the planet’s sake, that the discussion doesn’t last too long before we jump into the adoption phase.

Read the whole thing here.

Humanely-Raised Chickens Is An Oxymoron

Here’s what Jim Perdue says about the chickens he sells:

Here is what a chicken farm that follows Perdue’s guidelines to the letter looks like:

How can there be such a discrepancy? Well, industries spin the facts, of course. And more important, consumers misunderstand the labels used by the industry, and the standards that do exist are mostly set by the industry:

Perdue sells its chicken with a label that says both “humanely raised” and “raised cage free.” The former claim seems debatable, especially considering how nearly one million of its birds are being raised each year—whether within the company’s guidelines or not. And the latter is arguably misleading, because it applies to virtually all chicken meat sold in the United States. Egg-laying birds are often raised in cages, but broiler chickens—those raised for slaughter—are not. In that sense, marketing that chicken meat comes from chickens that were “raised cage free” isn’t all that different from touting the fact that coffee beans were not grown in Siberia (coffee beans, for the record, are not grown in Siberia).

The problem is that these claims, however misleading they might be, are actually pretty effective sales pitches. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consumers prefer cage-free “humanely raised” labels, according to Kristof.

Compassion in World Farming isn’t shy about placing some of the onus on the USDA. The government does have a list of labels that must meet certain requirements in order to be used by meat producers on their packaging, such as “organic,” “free range,” and “no antibiotics.” But the terms that Perdue is using, like “humanely raised” and “raised cage free” aren’t regulated by the government in the same way. Instead, they are based on The National Chicken Council’s animal welfare guidelines, an industry-created standard.

The USDA doesn’t approve the label so much as verify that it meets the standards the industry decided it should meet. Samuel Jones, a spokesperson for the USDA, confirmed the process. “Some companies pay the USDA to verify that they’re meeting specific processing points,” he said. “If it’s cage-free, and they want us to verify that they are meeting their set guidelines, that’s what we do.”

It would of course be nice if the USDA actually set much better and stricter standards for the raising and slaughter of livestock (while there is one decent independent certification, I don’t think any standard can actually make the process “humane”), instead of being a rubber stamp for the meat producers and processors.

But I mainly put the onus on consumers. These days, with all the video and reporting that repeatedly exposes the tortured lives of the animals the public consumes with such gusto, you have to be willfully blind to not be aware that if you are eating meat, eggs, or dairy you are almost certainly the last link in a very profitable chain of misery.  Or you have to be a person who DOES know the truth but somehow can’t bring yourself to the ethical and logical conclusion that you should stop eating meat.

Nick Kristof, for example, did indeed write a great op-ed about Perdue and the Perdue farmer who blew the whistle on how Perdue’s guidelines added up to chicken-abuse. But just when you think Kristof is about to bring his column to a logical conclusion and tell his millions of readers that chicken is now off his menu, he comes up with this:

Perdue’s methods for raising chickens are typical of industrial agriculture. So the conundrum is this. Big Ag has been stunningly successful in producing cheap food — the price of chicken has fallen by three-quarters in real terms since 1930. Yet there are huge external costs, such as antibiotic resistance and water pollution, as well as a routine cruelty that we tolerate only because it is mostly hidden.

Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.

I don’t know where to draw the lines. But when chickens have huge open bedsores on their undersides, I wonder if that isn’t less animal husbandry than animal abuse.

You think? And I think the line is pretty easy to draw: stop eating chicken. James McWilliams wrote a brutal and scathing takedown of Kristof’s lack of moral courage, that is well worth reading. I’d only add that if the facts can’t get a smart, thoughtful columnist like Nick Kristof to stop eating abused animals it’s a pretty discouraging indicator of how meat-eating and the meat-eating culture somehow detaches us from ordinary moral calculation. And that’s a bad thing for billions of animals.

Cory Booker Takes Out A Trial Membership In The The Vegan Club

Photo: The Daily Beast

 

A long-time vegetarian, Booker says he’s trying veganism through the end of they year. He tried and failed once before. Hopefully, this time it will stick. Because he knows that vegetarianism doesn’t quite resolve the moral issues involved in animal production:

There’s tension in vegetarianism, though, since many of the reasons we have to give up meat—the animal death and suffering, the negative environmental impact, the health consequences—are still problems when we look at milk or eggs. The milk industry tacitly supports veal production, since lactation requires frequent pregnancies and something has to be done with the calves. The egg industry, too, takes a staggering number of lives—every male chick is killed shortly after it hatches, and egg-laying hens are killed at around a quarter or fifth of their natural lifespan. Even more, animal agriculture produces a startling proportion of our greenhouse gas emissions (by some accounts nearly 20 percent) and consumes ashocking amount of water. The environmental consequences of animal agriculture don’t change whether a cow is grown for dairy or meat nor whether a chicken is raised for poultry or eggs.

Booker also expressed concern about his own health. “African-American males have some of the worst health data out of any sort of gender-race combination in our country,” he said. “Do I want to be an exemplar of good health and health outcomes, or do I want to participate in things that are making me unhealthy?”

Hard to argue with that. And if he sneaks some Ben & Jerry’s every once in a while, no one should think the worse of him.

Veganism: it’s a wave that’s building…

The Mystery Of Mark Bittman

I am a fan of Mark Bittman’s thoughtful columns in the new York Times. He often writes about animal welfare and the impact of livestock on climate, and understands better than most the connection between factory-farming, meat-eating, and these issues.

What I find puzzling is that, knowing as much as he does about the catastrophic impact of meat and livestock on both the planet and well-being of animals, he can’t quite bring himself to advocate a vegan diet. Sure, he urges readers to eat less meat, and to avoid factory-farmed meat. But he can’t quite quit meat himself, or make the case for a plant-based diet to his readers.

I know, I know, eating less meat is much better than eating lots of meat. And, yes, Bittman is a proponent of a Vegan Before 6 diet. But just because you don’t eat animal protein before 6 doesn’t really mean you can’t–or won’t–eat plenty of meat. You could have a steak per night on that diet. To me, a Vegan Before 6 approach is a little like advocating to an alcoholic a “Teetotaler before 6” strategy. How do you think that would work?

The impact of this failure to really go where his logic takes him permeates Bittman’s writing, and it makes it kind of frustrating to read. There are few people more eloquent about the negative consequences of our meat addiction for the planet, for animals, and for human health. But he takes himself and his logic right up to the edge of the obvious conclusion (we, the planet, and billions of animals would be much better off if humans transitioned away from animal protein and toward a plant-based diet) and….stops.

A good example is Bittman’s (almost) excellent recent column on last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March.” Once again, Bittman does an excellent job, referencing the views of George Monbiot and the incisive new book by Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” explaining how humanity must address climate change and the scope of the unfolding disaster demands that we change the way our economies and our politics works.

I agree with that. But Bittman also uses the column and the scale of the People’s Climate March to riff on the importance of grassroots action, and the power of the individual. I also agree with that. Then Bittman outlines the various responses the planet can adopt to climate change:

There remain several possible responses to climate change. One is stupidity: “There is no crisis.” (A subset of this is to acknowledge the crisis privately, but deny it or choose to ignore it publicly.) A second is hopelessness: “It’s all over.” (Sadly, many of my friends fall into this category.) A third is blind faith in technology, as if it were easier to modify the power of nature than to change a system that resists not only radical change but even tinkering.

But a fourth is action, a fight to regain democracy (a.k.a. “who is government for?”) and begin to remember quaint little slogans like “the greatest good for the greatest number,” to recognize that the payoff for seriously fighting climate change is not only the survival of our species (and others) but a better society. As Naomi Klein says, “Climate change isn’t just a disaster. It’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world.”

Notice what is missing (again)? Confronting the power of corporations in our politics and changing capitalism would be great. And it is necessary. But what is the single most powerful choice an individual can make right now to address climate change? Yep, you got it. Choosing not to eat meat. You don’t need legislation. You don’t need international treaties. You don’t need a revolution. You just need to make one basic change in your lifestyle. And if enough people had the courage and awareness to make that change, the climate disaster would be dramatically reduced. That seems like a sacrifice worth making.

I plan to get a lot deeper into this argument in the near future. But it is surprising and frustrating to me that even someone like Mark Bittman, who knows these issues inside out, cannot quite bring himsefl to draw the obvious conclusion.

In his column, Bittman quotes Monbiot as saying that with regard to addressing climate change governments “propose everything except the obvious solution.” I kind of feel the same way about Bittman and any number of prominent leaders in the climate and environmental movements.

Documentary Watchlist: Cows, Pipelines and Dams

One of the interesting insights I came to through my involvement in Blackfish, is that in the age of infotainment and cable-news superficiality, documentaries are filling an increasingly important niche. They are increasingly the best format to learn about almost any subject you choose. Not only are documentaries proliferating as film-making technology becomes more affordable and sophisticated, and as platforms on which to stream and view documentaries proliferate (making documentaries more accessible). But other news sources are becoming increasingly trivial, celebrified, and irrelevant.

So if you want facts, engagement, and inspiration, documentaries are where you should turn.

That’s what I have been doing, and I want to flag three documentaries I have recently seen that are worth seeking out and watching.

The first is Cowspiracy. It tackles an issue that is almost inexplicable, and that is the degree to which environmental organizations and nonprofits avoid educating their communities about the single most powerful choice an individual can make to protect the planet: stop eating meat.

Cowspiracy does a really nice job both explaining why this is so and calling the environmental movement out on this failure of courage. That makes for sometimes humorous, sometimes intriguing, but always enraging and enlightening viewing.

Here’s the trailer:

Cowspiracy Official Trailer from First Spark Media on Vimeo.

And here’s how you can find a local screening. I’m hoping to take my kids to the Sept. 23 screening in DC.

The second is Above All Else, which was recently screened here in DC as part of the long-running and invaluable Environmental Film Festival.

Above All Else is ostensibly about the Keystone pipeline, and the fight put up by some east Texas families whose private property was seized under the principle of “eminent domain” so the pipeline could cross their lands. But it is not really a film about climate change (though that hovers in the background, and helps makes the fight worth fighting) so much as it is a devastating exegesis on corporate power, and all the ways in which a large, multi-billion dollar entity can marshall all the resources of the legal system, the political system, and even local law enforcement to crush the rights and privacy of the individual.

If you don’t already think we live in a corporate oligarchy then this movie will slap you awake. And even if you do, the way in which the film builds your empathy for the families and individuals who painfully and inevitably get run over by the Keystone project and the corporate power behind it will hopefully sharpen your desire to take a stand against the growing imbalance between corporate power and individual rights.

And maybe the twenty-somethings who converge on east Texas to sit in trees and try to stop the shockingly efficient industrial process which clears them will both inspire you and maybe even motivate you to go sit in a tree somewhere too.

Here’s the trailer:

ABOVE ALL ELSE Trailer from John Fiege on Vimeo.

And here’s info about screenings.

Finally, make sure you also find time to check out Dam Nation. It’s a powerful film about how the relentless damming of America’s rivers during the growth of industrialization had devastating consequences for the fish (especially salmon)  and other species that happened to, um, live in and and rely on the rivers. It’s also about the inspiring movement to undo at least some of that damage.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s info about screenings.

All three of these movies will inform you, inspire you, and (hopefully) energize you. The thing I love about the documentaries that are being made these days is that they are SUPPOSED to do all those things to you. Gone are the days of droning presentation of fact, with a tedious voice-over.

Film is such a powerful medium, it is so increasingly central to how we view our lives and the planet, and we are in such crisis that it is exciting and reassuring to see film-makers everywhere trying to shock and move audiences that are being narcotized and distracted by the pablum and consumerism being spoon-fed by the corporate media.

No one should have any qualms about film-making that aspires to motivate audiences to change how they live, and take action to try and change the world around them. That’s exactly what documentary film-making should be about in this era.

Can Test Tube Meat Replace Dead Cows?

James McWilliams has his doubts:

David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

You know the meat industry will jump on that infection and allergy point, and scare the bejesus out of any consumer who is tempted to try lab meat.

But I think McWilliams’ point that processed lab meat is not really that different from processed soy gets to the most fundamental point, which I raised yesterday: if the choice it to simply move on from meat and cultivate a new diet and culture around delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine,  or contort oneself in all sorts of complicated ways to try and find complicated and highly processed (and dubious) substitutes for meat, isn’t it um, easier, to simply go for the veggies?

I know, people will say meat is culture, our bodies crave animal fat, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And that it is not that easy to simply move humanity past meat. But what if eating test tube meat leaves you with a craving for the real thing? What if test tube meat has other health and environmental side-effects? That doesn’t sound like an easy solution either.

To me, the simplest approach–just stop thinking about meat and meat substitutes as food–is the most promising approach. I am amazed at how quickly my body and mind stopped craving meat. And in fact I now, through some strange evolution of my body and its senses, find meat actively unappealing. It just wasn’t that hard.