Something a little different for you all today. For the first time at SanityInjection, I offer you a guest column, written by “tubby”, who regular readers may recognize from his many thoughtful comments here. I am neither endorsing nor opposing the opinions “tubby” presents – in fact, I’ll probably post a comment of my own in response. But I will say that I think his post is an interesting springboard for discussion, and that’s why I wanted to present it here.
Without further ado, here’s “tubby”:
The current economic climate has brought with it a kind of “green revolution”; an age when the ideas of conservation and environmentalism are no longer confined to hippie communes and San Francisco head shops. We’re concerned – about the banks who guard our hard-earned assets, about politicians who don’t have our interests at heart, and about nature’s seemingly increasing chaotic temper. Every day we see the effects of corporate greed, climate change, urban sprawl, and irreversible ecological damage. To some, these events lead to a moderation in lifestyle choices; to others, they lead to a necessary adjustment of their priorities. This “age of circumspection”, as it were, has led me recently to ponder certain lifestyle choices.
Since moving to New England I have met many people who have made me question the choices I face every day. For full disclosure: I chose to remain here after college in part because the Southern back-slapping, beer-chugging, good ol’ boy mentality never quite suited me. I’ve always been one who places a certain emphasis on reason, balance, and conservation. (Heck, I was a Philosophy major – I have formal training!) So after a while, life in New England started feeling right. Recycling became a way of life. A friend’s gift of a plastic yard bin got me started composting. I try to reuse as many household items and containers as I can. At the same time, there are ways in which I, as everyone, fall short. During renovations, I could have required environmentally-friendly disposal of old equipment and cabinetry. I could have insisted on buying only new “green” materials. Instead of throwing stuff out, I could “freecycle” or simply have more yard sales.
But the basic lifestyle choice I’d like to address now – one that we must satisfy every day in order to live – is our diet. Since I moved up east, I’ve come to know a few vegetarians. I must confess that all too often, I’ve not fully understood (or simply failed to ask) why each one chose his or her dietary preference. In most cases, I chalked it up to the animal-rights movement. I find this cause to be a noble one, providing a necessary counterweight to the thoughtless treatment of animals in our age of industry, whose mechanized efficiency has eclipsed sound judgment. Factory farms are a tragic reminder of the contemptible actions taken by big business on its inexorable march to meet consumer demand while reaping a profit. Some take the argument further, saying human beings possess no real moral superiority over other animals, that their lives are just as precious as ours. I’m not prepared to say that animals below us on the food chain are bound by the same moral framework on which we pride modern civilizations. From an evolutionary point of view, our species is blessed with opposable thumbs, advanced brain function, the ability to perceive time, and self-awareness. Is it not natural that we use these faculties to our advantage, in order to preserve our species the best that we can?
To the environmental point, the impacts of business practices will have effects lasting far beyond the expiration of a single human life. Cattle farms and intensive pig farms produce inordinate amounts of ammonia and methane, the latter of which contributes greatly to the greenhouse effect currently warming our planet. The overfishing of blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean has caused that fish group to become a near-endangered species. Pesticide-ridden crop runoff has created Gulf of Mexico dead zones, where algal bloom has choked off many other types of life. Over and over, we see the ugly effects of a species trying to sustain itself within the bounds of capitalism. Isn’t it reasonable – economically and sentimentally – that we balance good business with a long-term consideration of our surroundings? As a dominant species using our higher faculties to maintain a respectable quality of life, we should aim to so in ways which humanely and responsibly preserve the habitats of our neighboring plants and animals.
Many vegetarians assert that health is the main reasoning behind their lifestyle. They have understood that a disproportionately heavy diet of red meat and animal fat can lead to heart disease, so they wisely avoid these foods. However, non-“vegan” vegetarians also consume dairy products and often foods high in refined sugar – both of which can lead to heart disease and diabetes when overused. The vegetarian diet offers inherent health benefits, but should be followed judiciously: It implicitly eliminates many foods rich in protein, a fundamental building block for muscle repair and basic cellular function. Vegetarians must exercise additional, often creative, effort to assemble meals which offer not only ample “good fats” and protein, but also a regulated portion of carbohydrates.
My personal dietary lifestyle choice incorporates all of these concerns, and is one based upon food group balance and portion moderation. The credo “everything in moderation” has become a cliché, but if you pause and think, applying this idea to our daily consumer ritual could address some of our pressing environmental concerns. A blanket “no meat” policy is a respectable, principled view. Yet couldn’t an equally principled position endure in a policy of dietary temperance? By sourcing meat from animals raised on local, sustainable farms, a consumer is supporting the virtues of health, environmental stewardship, and sound ethics – by listening to the Earth, his health, and his conscience. Moreover, when I buy grains and veggies from my local farmer, I am paying respect to my land and community, and (perhaps most importantly) shunning monolithic agribusiness, which in the name of profit begets environmental pollution, large-scale waste, and political influence.
In closing, I would like to individually address each dietary lifestyle group.
To the die-hard carnivores: I urge you to consume your substance in greater moderation. The Wendy’s sandwich you had for lunch was about ten percent of a chicken which in all likelihood was raised in a 2′ x 2′ cage and mistreated until its slaughter. A single cow grazing for a year can produce up to 200 cubic meters of greenhouse-gas producing methane, requires over two acres of cleared land, and consumes 14 tons of single-use grain which could have landed on the plate of a starving third-world child. The 16-oz steak you ordered at your Friday night restaurant ritual is a non-trivial portion of that cow, and let’s face it – probably gave you heartburn. What is more, you couldn’t finish it all, so a third of it went to waste!
For the vegetarians: Consider not only the sentiment, but also the rationale behind your dietary choice. If it is primarily for ethical reasons, consider the irony that the dairy and egg products you crave for your protein intake portends the same cattle and poultry abuse we typically associate with the consumption of meat. If your reasons are politically or environmentally-driven, consider that large farming conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland, who provide your wheat and corn products, are significant polluters of our waterways and a key reason the persistent Farm Bill drains billions of our tax dollars every election season. Last (but not least), if you cite health reasons, think of all the valuable nutrients of which you are depriving your body. Consider a wild-caught salmon: it poses no major ethical or environmental questions, and provides valuable protein and essential fatty acids – the latter of which offer brain function and immune system benefits found to prevent or mitigate the advancement of several diseases.
Maybe certain aspects of human nature can’t be changed. There will always been businessmen who think of themselves before their fellow man, as will there be companies that abandon principles of environmental stewardship in the name of profit. Nature will always bestow on us disasters for which we must prepare. Yet lest we forget, there are individual and communal needs we dare not compromise. Love, joy, and physical health are and should remain essential elements of a balanced life. Perhaps the best way we can cherish them is by striving to preserve the natural balance around us. My humble hope is that a tempered consumer lifestyle can accomplish just that.