Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Posts Tagged ‘environmentalism’

Consumerism and Diet: A New Case for Temperance

Posted by sanityinjection on May 27, 2009

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.

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Dirty dishes in Spokane: When “green” laws fail

Posted by sanityinjection on March 27, 2009

The Associated Press brings us the sad story of the people of Spokane County, Washington, who can’t get their dishes clean:

This is a classic example of how well-meaning “green” initiatives can backfire. Spokane County thought it was doing something great for the environment by enacting a local ordinance banning high-phosphate dish detergents. The good people of Spokane tried using the “green” detergents, but found they didn’t work as well, so they ended up just crossing the state line to Idaho to buy the polluting detergents again. The environment doesn’t benefit, just storeowners in Idaho, while both businesses and residents in Spokane are inconvenienced.

Low-phosphate detergents are a good idea, but this sort of regulation has to be broader than just one county, or else it will inevitably fail. The lesson for local governments is: Don’t try to save the world – stick to focusing on things you can control. If you must tackle larger issues, do so together with your neighbors, don’t try to go it alone.

The lesson for all of us is: It doesn’t matter how well-meaning you may be or how earnest your desire to preserve the environment. Anytime an environmental initiative – or any government initiative, really – is proposed, instead of moving forward on an ideological basis (“Clean water good, phosphates bad!”), you have to look forward and see what the practical consequences are going to be. What happened in Spokane was entirely predictable and could have been avoided if enough people had looked at the issue practically instead of emotionally.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How environmental regulations can hurt the economy

Posted by sanityinjection on January 30, 2009

Great item in the Pasadena Star-News about the impact of a new environmental regulation set to take effect in California in April. The purpose of the regulation is to cut down on gasoline vapor emissions, certainly a worthy goal. Gasoline pumps all over America already have equipment installed to reduce vapor emissions. California is now taking that process a step further by requiring all gas stations in the state to install a new generation of vapor recovery equipment.

So what’s the problem? The equipment is expensive, and the state is not chipping in anything to pay for it. Which means gas station owners will be forced to pay for it themselves, to the tune of some $35,000 in capital outlay. As a result, about 2.5% of gas stations in California are expected to go out of business rather than comply with the new regs.

You might argue that this is a necessary price to pay for cleaner air. But consider: In California at present, 2,322 tons of gasoline vapor emissions are produced each day. Once these new regulations are in effect and all gas stations have the new equipment, that number will be reduced by a total of – 7 tons. Do the math – that is a reduction of 0.3%! Even if the state of California were willing (or able) to pay for all or part of the cost, that seems like a negligible benefit for the money.

This is a perfect example of how the devil of environmental regulations is often in the details. When you say, “These regulations will make our air cleaner,” it sure sounds like a good idea – who doesn’t want cleaner air. But when you say, “These regulations will make our air only a tiny bit cleaner while driving family-owned gas stations out of business”, suddenly it doesn’t look like such a good idea anymore.

The state of California claims that gas station owners should be able to cover the cost of the new equipment by raising the price of their gas 68 cents per gallon – more for lower-volume sellers. Right, and how is the mom-and-pop operation that raises their prices going to compete with the wholly-owned Mobil or Shell station that can absorb the cost and not pass it on to consumers? Who’s going to pay the extra cost when they can just go to the gas station around the corner?

Again, reducing gasoline vapors is a good thing – they are a major contributor to smog, and we can all agree that smog is bad. But what we see here is a regulation being passed by people who aren’t looking at the whole picture, and believe that any means are justified in achieving the goal of a cleaner environment.

Posted in Domestic News, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Wind turbine syndrome” – the latest postmodern Luddite paranoia

Posted by sanityinjection on August 14, 2008

The funny thing about wind power is that everyone loves the idea of it but no one seems to like it in practice. Everyone talks about wind power as a renewable, environmentally friendly domestic energy source and how we should be devoting more resources to it. And yet, when someone actually tries to put up a wind farm, the very same people suddenly develop objections. The right wingers object to the effect of unsightly wind turbines on their property values and unspoiled vistas; the left-wingers scream that birds and fish will die in droves. For both groups, what it boils down to is, “We want wind power, we just don’t want it near us” – otherwise known as NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”.)

The latest ammunition for the NIMBYs comes from the people who always want to terrify you that all new forms of technology are quietly killing you. These people are a modern manifestation of a historical group in Britain called Luddites, who opposed the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution by trying to smash the machinery. In modern America, they are usually to be found within the environmental movement, as a significant segment of environmentalists seem to be perennially susceptible to the idea that evil corporations are plotting to kill us all in our sleep. I was first exposed to Luddite paranoia as a youth when a study came out in 1979 suggesting that living to close to power lines could cause childhood leukemia. Needless to say, parents everywhere, including mine, were frightened. I had attended a day camp where we used to play in a field adjacent to huge power lines, but not after that, although I remained healthy as a horse. Since then, many studies have been done on this, and no causal link between power lines and cancer has been demonstrated, yet a sizable percentage of Americans still believe they do.

Next it was cell phones – we are all giving ourselves cancer, or decreasing our fertility, or something, by using our cell phones. This one has had a harder time taking hold, because cell phones are so ubiquitous and so beloved by their owners that many people will still use them even if they think they’ll get cancer.

So the Luddites needed a new bogeyman, and they have found it in wind turbines. The slow-turning wind turbines, you see, emit a constant, low-frequency hum – sometimes audible, sometimes not depending on how close you are. The newly coined “wind turbine syndrome” rests on the idea that these low frequency vibrations are picked up by the inner ear and cause “headaches; difficulty sleeping; tinnitus, or ringing in the ears; learning and mood disorders; panic attacks; irritability; disruption of equilibrium, concentration and memory; and childhood behavior problems. ” Hell, I can have all those symptoms just from my morning commute.

Like power lines and cell phones, the notion that anything that emits radiation could have an effect on the human body is not inherently impossible. However, most people forget that we are subject to all kinds of radiation in our daily lives from radios, lights, televisions, computers, etc., none of which seem to be killing us. Because there has not been a great deal of research done on the effect of low-frequency vibrations, I can’t state categorically that there might not be a possibility of harmful effects. But I find it shockingly irresponsible that members of the scientific community, aided and abetted by a dimwitted and irresponsible press, are only too happy to terrify the public with half-assed conclusions based on little evidence.

Thus I present exhibit A: One Dr. Nina Pierpont, who began reseraching this issue after (surprise) a wind farm was built near her home. To give Dr. Pierpont her due, she is a board certified pediatrician and a graduate of Johns Hopkins, was a professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia, and holds a PhD from Princeton in “population biology”, which sounds relevant but actually isn’t. She’s also an aging hippie environmentalist who once lived with Eskimos in Alaska. Anyway, Dr. Pierpont began studying the health of families who lived near wind turbines and came up with the idea of “wind turbine syndrome” based on her findings.

Now, what a good doctor or scientist would do would be to publish a paper in a respected journal, so that her findings could be reviewed and perhaps duplicated by others. If subsequent studies confirmed her work, she would be hailed as a pioneer. Instead, Pierpont decided to write a book for commercial sale, presenting her work as established scientific fact to an uncritical audience ready to be terrified by her conclusion, that it is unsafe to live within the totally arbitrary distance of two miles of a wind turbine. Her most likely reason for doing so was her knowledge that her research was sloppy and that she had assumed her conclusions before she even began.

I haven’t examined Pierpont’s research in detail, but she studied 10 families who live near wind turbines – an extremely small sample size and statistically meaningless. It does not appear that she studied a control group that did not live near turbines, or even factored in the possible psychosomatic effect (if you *think* the wind turbine is going to make you sick, you will get sick.) Pierpont actually suggests with a straight face that the wind turbines appear to cause headaches in people with “pre-existing migraines”. In other words, if you suffered from migraines to begin with, you will continue to get them if you live near a wind turbine! There’s a shock.

I don’t blame anybody for disliking the idea of living near a wind turbine. But spreading paranoia is reprehensible. The wind companies deny that “wind turbine syndrome” exists, and they have a financial motive to do so. But Pierpont has a financial motive – sales of her book – to insist that it does. Currently there are a couple of other scientists studying the issue, which she frequently mentions to prove she’s not a crackpot. But in fact it is the very plausibility of the idea that makes it so dangerous.

The result of all this is articles like this one, which even if they are trying to be objective, end up stirring up more panic among those who do not read critically – and incidentally, help Dr. Pierpont’s book sales:

Posted in Current Events, Domestic News | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »