Archive for category Chemicals

Animal and Plant Cruelty

Are these chickens life forms, or just a commodity?

Are these chickens life forms, or just a commodity?

I’ve always had a very logical argument as to why I am not a vegetarian.   Vegetables are living entities just like animals.  They feel in different ways, experience the world in manners we cannot comprehend, but they are life forms just as we are.  Since in the animal kingdom it is natural for creatures to eat both plants and animals, there can’t be anything inherently wrong with eating meat.   A cat could never become a vegetarian and survive, for example.  As long as we do not over-indulge, eating other living entities, plant or animal, is natural.

Lately, though, I am rethinking my argument.   Not that I’m doubting the logic, but there is another factor to take into account: corporate farming.   Consider:  In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little House in the Big Woods, Pa butchers a pig that they have been raising for some time.   Every part of the pig is used, Laura and Mary even use the pig bladder as a balloon.   Plants are sown and reaped, tended to by the family.   In one book a locust attack ruins the harvest, such were the risks of life on the frontier.

In the US genetic modification has become standard for corporate farms

In the US genetic modification has become standard for corporate farms

That seems a healthy relationship between humans and nature.  You may eat the plants and animals you raise, but you raise them with care.   Certainly you should not be cruel to them.   The food tasted better too – most of us will never know just how good natural food tastes.

This year many things are changing in my life, I feel like I’m entering a year of personal transformation.  One change is to stop closing my eyes to ramifications of how I eat.   I plan to think about where the food comes from, buy local, and move away from fast foods and the chemical laden processed foods that are so easy and convenient.

Fed chemicals, special foods, these pigs may as well be cogs in a machine

Fed chemicals, these pigs may as well be cogs in a machine

I was thinking about this as I walked through my local grocery store, seeing the packages of meat and vegetables, processed and ready for sale.    Everything designed to entice you to buy; packages with idyllic farm scenes or products labeled “organic.”   The bananas had a sticker that said “no cholesterol.”   I’m glad they told me!   It’s all marketing.

Then I look at the shoppers, behaving much like I have always behaved.   Looking at different foods, picking them up, dropping in them in the cart.    The intercom switched to the song “King of Pain” by the Police.    I forced an ironic smile.

When I teach about the rise of fascism in Germany I try to explain it in a way that most people in the class end up admitting that if they lived in Germany in 1936 they’d probably have supported the Nazi government.   The reason you can get something like fascism is that the culture accepts as natural and mundane that which should be condemned.   It’s normal to eat genetically modified food.  It’s normal to eat animals who have lived in ghastly conditions, genetically manipulated to increase profits.   Assembly line cars, assembly line chickens.   The fact they are alive is irrelevant, profit comes first.

How cruel are we to the plant kingdom when we manipulate every crop, altering the very nature of the environment.   Farming itself is a violent act, taking the free form of nature and forcing an order to it in order to feed ourselves.   But that’s the same kind of violence that a lion undertakes when he cuts down and devours a zebra.   It’s part of who we are, it’s what we need to survive.   We have brains that make it natural for us to move beyond hunting and gathering.

Of course, if corporate farmers get their way images like these may be illegal

Of course, if corporate farmers get their way images like these may be illegal

I can’t help but think that in a generation or two people will look back and see us as barbaric and ignorant.   They’ll look at how factory farms treat animals, the way big corporations play with plant genetics and our penchant to not give a damn about nature if we can make money by manipulating it.     They’ll wonder how we could have been so brutal.

But to us it’s normal.   We don’t think about it.  We’re good consumers, programmed to spend and to believe that Monsanto’s main goal is to end world hunger and that the chickens who will make up our McNuggets are happily scampering around the coop as a loving farm girl throws them seeds.

So I’m going to shift towards farmers markets, local food, and try to stop my long running contribution to the cruelty being undertaken against plant and animal.    There are many family farms struggling to get by, working hard and treating their animals right.    I want to give them my business, as much as possible.

Ultimately, that cruelty is really directed at ourselves because everything is connected.

Such is our culture – close our eyes, mock those who think differently and see the world as full of objects to use for our own self-interest, no matter how much damage it does to the planet – to the humans, the animals, the plants, the atmosphere, the land and sea.   But I believe we are connected.   Every bit of cold cruelty that we engage in or enable comes back to bite.  And every bit of love we share or show returns in time to empower.

UPDATE:  The comment from La Kaiser below suggests that my post may read as too broad.    There are a lot of family farms here — the Daku dairy farm just up the road, Sandy River Farms that have their own store, and Marble Family farm, to name a few.  These are the good guys!   People struggling to produce quality food.  I’m concerned about the mega-corporations that look only at the bottom line and are removed from the process.   I hope that the practices shown in those images are more rare than common, but I fear that as the mega-corporations grow, it’ll be all about money.

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99% vs 1%

What treasures lie in our pre-history -- are there more Machu Picchus?

No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a post about human history.  I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.

He makes a point in the book that gives me pause.   The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history.   The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet).    That means that 99% of history is hidden from us.   Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived.   Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.

That raises two contradictory puzzles.  First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”?   Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions?  Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell?  Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?

There are other oddities.   Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering.   Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else.   Corn is not natural, it was a human creation.  This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs.   The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.

We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption.   We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff.  We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating.   We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors.   Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat.  A product that just happens to be a biological life form.

We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path.   We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!)   Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.

We live disconnected from nature and community

On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms.  Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life.   We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments?   As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”   We just don’t recognize the chains.

So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded?    The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.

What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use?  Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world?    What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?

Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun.   Animals would be part of the community.   People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature.  The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves.  Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.

A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia  without leaving a trace for us to find.   Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed.   Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them.  Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!

In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd.  Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created.   Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease.   We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.

Our lifestyle does us harm

Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage.  I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history.   As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others.  Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.

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The New Pepper Spray Craze!

If you were in charge of marketing the “occupy” protests and wanted an image to elicit the maximum sympathy for the protesters and most animosity towards the police, this image would win, it’s a marketer’s dream.   The officer nonchalantly springs the painful chemical into the eyes of waiting youth, crouched and docile.    The STATE will not be challenged by mere youth!

Yet even as pepper spray images proliferate via Facebook and other social networking sites, the use of pepper spray seems to be turning into a national craze.   First, you get the inevitable humor:

Pepper spray at the Macy's parade! (What - you say it's been photoshopped?)

If King George III had had pepper spray

Of course, good ideas spread fast.  If it’s good enough for the state, then it should be useful for the private sector.   One shopper took that message to heart as she expressed the Christmas spirit by pepper spraying twenty other shoppers, many of whom had to be hospitalized, so she could get her Xbox game system.

Successful shopping with credit cards and pepper spray!

Of course, why should anyone be bothered.    After all, pepper spray is, at least according to FOX news, a food product.

Why, if you listen to this bimb…I mean, anchor, it’s sort of like throwing rice at a wedding, it’s just a food product!  Despite FOX news’ efforts to try to make it seem like pepper spray is essentially harmless (perhaps one reason shoppers might think it OK to bring to a competitive shopping match like Black Friday), it’s not that simple.   There have been deaths associated with pepper spray, it can cause temporary blindness, and is an inflammatory agent irritating the eyes and making it difficult for people to offer resistance.

Even the Pentagon had reservations about approving it for widespread use, and besides death it has been associated with a number of potentially severe reactions.     It might have been messier to arrest the protesters, but that would have been a smarter choice (though the smartest choice would have been to let them be).

The occupy movements are not going to continue forever.  They’ve made a huge impact on the political conversation in the country and have publicized the rather dramatic shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest over the last 30 years.    The have been successful at job one — shift the agenda, shape the conversation, and get attention.   Job two, turning that into political results, requires them to organize and act politically on multiple levels.

Most protesters are workers and students who take time from their otherwise busy schedules to participate.   Most pay taxes.   Their dedication is inspiring; they’re willing to undertake considerable effort to try to bring about change they think is good for the country, and that demonstrates true patriotism .   I get a sense that a political change is starting.    Images like that of the police spraying docile protesters helps them far more than having to move off a square hurts; such a movement is less about occupying territory than about ideas.

I still hope they call a “global day of protest” and move the “Occupy” movement to stage two, I think they’ve achieved all they set out to achieve in stage one — and probably beyond their wildest expectations.     The “pepper spray moment” may be remembered as one of those iconic images that helps define the issue — and gives us some humor at the same time.

Under the sink next to the Pam and the Olive Oil

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Changing Habits

My garage is full of chemicals.  I can kill wasps, ants, and weeds.   I can kill weeds but keep the grass alive.  I can weed and feed, I can fertilize, I can clean.   I can clean grease, stains, and various surfaces of my car.

I have spent most of my life under the illusion that most of these materials sold to make life easier are relatively safe.   I know you shouldn’t mix various cleaning materials, with some you should wear gloves (something I’ve generally neglected to do), and that too much could be bad.   Yet certainly the companies that make all these things for home and garden have tested them out.   And even if the market couldn’t prevent dangerous items from being made available, government regulations must focus on safety.

I’ve been using speed stick deodorant, Nivea shaving cream and moisturizer, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, and the kids have enjoyed yummy smelling colorful soaps, and plastic tub toys.   We’ve been cooking with no stick pans, and drinking sodas from plastic bottles, even if they’ve been sitting in the car on hot days.   It’s just life.   We don’t smoke, we try to have healthy habits, but plastics, chemicals and additives are ubiquitous.    The idea I should have a lush green lawn not marred by clover and crab grass seems normal.   Everybody, save a few old hippies, lives this way.

I’ve now come to the realization that how we live with chemicals is analogous to how the Romans lived with lead poisoning.   We’re poisoning ourselves and our children (look how autism and ADHD rates have skyrocketed) by injecting massive amounts of under tested chemicals in every aspect of our lives.    I’m not sure how much poison we’re getting.   People still live long, but chemicals seem to play a role in making us fatter and creating expensive health problems.    Rates of cancer are up, so are a variety of other health problems.    Moreover, the generation now in their 20s and 30s are far more affected by these chemicals than people my age, since widespread usage really got going in the 80s and 90s.   We may not know the real impact for quite some time.

This creates a perfect storm.   There is a danger that seems obvious, but it can’t be verified with certainty, and the exact impact is unknown.   Moreover, studies can always be criticized (and a very well oiled chemical industry lobbying machine responds to everything) and it may be decades before we know for sure just what the impact of all this is.   Humans tend to ignore issues like that — if the problems aren’t obvious, why bother?

That’s been me for years.   I’ve known the chemicals in our lives are dangerous and under tested.   I’ve had suspicions that my use of them was probably not all that wise.   But those have been fleeting thoughts at the back of my head.   They haven’t been strong enough to get me to actually dig into the science and think about changing my ways.   There are classes to teach, kids to take care of, things to do.   So it’s grab what’s at Walmart and whether in cleaning or lawn care, take the easy route.

In May I read What’s Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins, a book that gave an excellent and well supported overview of the scope of the problem, showing clearly how little we know, how studies are often hidden and attacked, and just how powerful the chemical lobby is in the US.   In the EU there are far stricter regulations (so I’m going to keep using my made in Germany Nivea skin care products), here the burden of proof is not on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe, but for others to give definitive proof that there are dangers.

My wife read the book as well, and was convinced.    She replaced most of our household cleaning and personal hygiene materials with Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine, or Burt’s Bees.   I went along with it, figuring that at the very least this is the kind of thing that companies will pay attention to — if the market shifted towards low chemical alternatives businesses would have to follow.   But I was still skeptical.   The thing about books with a mission — and Jenkins’ clearly is convinced of his argument and has a desire to open peoples’ eyes — is that they are prone to overstatement.   The book cited science, but the author is not a scientist.   So I’ve been investigating further.

But the more I read the more convinced I am that not only is there a lot of uncertainty on what these chemicals are doing to us, but that the massive increase in chemical use and our exposure, especially children, is by definition extremely risky.     Chemicals are powerful, they have side effects that often aren’t understood.    The websites and blogs criticizing those concerned about chemicals tend to have weak arguments.   They either deride/ridicue “anti-chemical” folk for being too alarmist and blaming things on chemicals that might be caused by something else.

Both of those points may be true, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that chemicals aren’t a problem.   Same for the statement that ‘just because it’s not natural doesn’t make it bad.’   That’s true.  But it doesn’t mean they are good or harmless either.  Defenders of chemical usage rest on the arguments that: a) they are beneficial in helping us achieve our goals; and b) studies haven’t definitively shown the specific harm being done.   Most of the evidence against chemicals is circumstantial.

OK.  Consider this chart:

This rapid and alarming rate of increased obesity corresponds to the rise of chemical additives in food, many of which affect hormones and other aspects of the anatomy that influence fat retention.   Is this circumstantial?   Yes.   The causes of increased obesity are many, despite many links connecting the two (see: The Body Restoration Plan by Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton for a good argument on this issue), definitive proof remains elusive.

The same goes for the rapidly growing rates of autism (and other neurological disorders) in children, increases in depression and psychological problems in adults, hyper sensitivity issues, increased allergies, and increased incidences of cancer (even if medical science is much better at curing it).   If I demanded total proof that these chemicals are harmful before deciding not to use them, I could find arguments that cast doubt on every claim of harm made.

But my health is at stake.   The lives and health of my children are at stake.  And the evidence that harm is likely is very persuasive, even if absolute proof is elusive (it was also elusive for cigarette smoking for decades, where another powerful lobby tried to fight making such a connection).  Simply the fact that chemical usage has risen so dramatically is enough to get me to realize it is irrational for me not to be concerned — throw that much new artificial under tested chemicals into our bodies and homes and its clear no one knows exactly what the result will be.

So my habits are changing.   Some changes are gradual, others are instantaneous.   I’ll not try to get a perfect lawn, so no more weed and feed.  I will finish my Speed Stick before using the natural (no aluminum) deodorant.    I’ll try to hit the Farmers’ Market more frequently and buy organic/local as much as possible, but now and then we’ll still get some fast food.   Most importantly I’m going to start thinking about these things, investigating the products we use and the food we eat.   Big agribusiness doesn’t care about us.   Regulators lack staff and the politicians listen to the lobbyists of big money more than they listen to scientists or citizens.     We have to educate ourselves and hope that enough people see the danger that we can have an impact on the market.

Chemicals are everywhere, no matter how much I change at home our world is defined by chemical usage at work, by local governments, stores, and other people.   This is something we have to live with.   But making some different choices at home can’t hurt — and may yield long term benefits.

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