Next Monday, my graduate seminar wraps up its discussion of Silent Spring and related topics. They have been a great group--excited about discussing the issues of today and comparing them to Rachel Carson's issues and assessing how she reached out to the public to raise awareness and concern through a number of different literary techniques. I have been inspired by our discussions and readings, and of course by Ms. Carson's text itself. I have more to say about the final chapter, but for now I wanted to leave you with her last words in Silent Spring:
"The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth." --from "The Other Road" R Carson 1962
Thank you for your insight, passion, and reason, Rachel Carson.
Monday, October 1, 2012
“You cannot be an environmentalist and eat meat.” This was the first sentence uttered by a guest speaker for the Environmental Action Group at Furman University back around 1993 when I was an undergraduate. We were shocked and dismayed. HORRIFIED! Not the best opener for a bunch of young adults born and raised in SC, a state as red as a prime cut of beef. But her comment was provoking—I had never made the connection between my concern about the environment and my diet, although in retrospect the connection seems obvious. My friends and I decided we’d try a semester without beef and see what happened. For me, it was not a big deal. Two years later in graduate school I was taking a conservation biology class and somewhat spontaneously decided to go meatless for a six month trial. See what happened and how it felt. And it felt fine. My friend ordered me a subscription to Vegetarian Times and I was sucked into the propaganda of vegetarianism and never looked back or, at least, not often.
I don’t usually talk about the reasons that I became a vegetarian, because it could make me seem like I think I’m an environmental martyr; however, my life would give people plenty of reasons to point out that I have room for improvement: my addiction to the bath tub, my love affair with air conditioning at the slightest hint of humidity, my tendency to drive short distances for the sake of time. I could go on, but it pains me to point out my short-comings, so I will stop there. But giving up meat was one of those things that just wasn’t a big deal. I decided that 1) if I had to kill my own food, I probably wouldn’t do it, so maybe I should stick to vegetables; 2) it was easier on my rather slim pocketbook; and 3) there were environmental reasons for eating lower on the food chain (more on that below).
I don’t think everyone has to give up meat completely (I live with an opportunistic carnivore), even if I think all folks could try some vegetarian meals out during the week. Meat’s not mandatory at the dinner table. Sure, if you eat octopus (they’re too smart to eat) or a pig (delicious, but again, too smart) or a carnivore (we need them to keep the herbivores in check), I might feel the need to mention how I saw a pig play a song on horns on Letterman or how the wolves of Yellowstone are the cat’s pajamas. And, if you order farmed or Atlantic salmon when I’m around I may mention how daring it is of you to accumulate mercury so willingly. Wait, maybe I am a martyr! If, a bad one. I have been known to eat (and enjoy) chicken without comment when visiting friends for dinner and it was the meal they had prepared for my visit, and I went through a year of occasionally eating Alaskan salmon, which is allegedly a sustainable fishery.
It’s fine to eat meat, but there are a couple of reasons that make sense to eat lower on the food chain. One is basic energy transfer through food chains. Eating lower on the food chain means you can feed more people. Mammals are not very efficient at gaining mass, because most of our energy is burned up maintaining our body temperature, so we tend to be between 1-4% efficient, the Hummers of the animal kingdom. (I must be at the high end of mammal efficiency.) So a warm-blooded mammal that eats plants will use about 1-4% of the energy it takes in for growth and reproduction; most of the energy used for metabolism is lost as heat and isn’t available for other links in the chain. A mammal carnivore will use about 1-4% of the energy it takes in for growth and reproduction and again, most of the rest of the energy is burned up in metabolism and lost as heat. So, if we think in terms of Joules of energy, then 10,000 Joules of plant matter could build 100 Joules of herbivore matter (assuming 1% efficiency, for the sake of easy math), which could support 1 Joule of carnivore. If you are the carnivore in that scenario, the initial 10,000 J results in 1 J for you, because there is the middle man, er, cow—the herbivore. But if you are the herbivore, then it is 100 J for you--no energy loss through that middle man. So the same amount of energy in the plant matter can support 100X as much herbivore as carnivore. So, if you want to make the most of the energy at the base of the food web, eat plants. If all humans were vegetarians, the carrying capacity of the earth would be greater than if all humans were carnivores.
Today in my Silent Spring graduate seminar, the students selected some papers on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and some of the environmental impacts of this type of animal farming, as well as some footage from the movie Food Inc. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2006) found that animal agriculture results in more greenhouse gas production than the transportation sector—so raising meat isn’t doing anything good for us in the climate change department (not to even mention that forests, our carbon sinks, are cleared for cattle). And CAFOs produce huge amounts of waste that can contain antibiotic resistant bacteria, all of which can end up in local ecosystems. There have been a number of documentaries and books that address these operations, their impact on the local environment, and the psychological impacts they have on people who work there. Most people would probably be disturbed to see footage of the conditions under which their meat is raised. Eating meat isn’t inherently cruel, but changes in practices have made the conditions inhumane.
To conduct research with vertebrates, you have to meet federal animal care guidelines and the bar is set high to minimize or eliminate suffering; it’s unclear why the bar is set so low for animals that are being reared for food. These animals may be bred to be food, but that does not mean that they should be left standing in their waste unable to move or breathe fresh air. My grandfather had cows on his land; their fate was sealed at birth, just as a cow in a CAFO, but until that final day, my grandpa's cows lived a good life in the open air grazing on the grass of the field. This seems much more compassionate to the animals, the workers, and the environment in the surrounding areas. And, certainly, there are options to seek out meat that is grown locally and humanely. Hunting is another option—deer, squirrels, or rabbits living their lives in nature as they were meant to until the fateful hour when they are preyed upon by the human hunter, a part of nature to the very end.
Your trophic position, herbivore or carnivore, is not a decision that has to be black and white. But there are environmental benefits to embracing shades of gray (or green). There are reasons that we should treat all living things with respect for the miracle that life is, and it’s hard to see that current industrial farming is doing that. For me, a vegetarian diet is something I do because it is easier on my conscience, and there are many environmental benefits. But, there are many solutions to environmental problems, not just one, and we can each contribute where it makes sense for us because you can be an environmentalist, whether herbivorous or carnivorous.
I wanted to share with you a passage from Silent Spring. In the margin by this text I wrote "Love," because love it I do!
"The trouble is that we are seldom aware of the protection afforded by natural enemies until it fails. Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us. So it is that the activities of the insect predators and parasites are known to few. Perhaps we may have noticed an oddly shaped insect of ferocious mien on a bush in the garden and been dimly aware that the praying mantis lives at the expense of other insects. But we see with understanding eye only if we have walked in the garden at night stealthily creeping upon her prey. Then we sense something of the drama of the hunter and the hunted. Then we begin to feel something of that relentlessly pressing force by which nature controls her own.” –Rachel Carson in “Nature Fights Back” in Silent Spring 1962