"This Is Hope" is a crossover book for self-identified environmentalists, species rights advocates, vegans and vegetarians, those dedicated to true sustainability, fish and wildlife "management" professionals, students of deep ecology, and those who want to know the biocentric solutions for our dietary, consumer, and reproductive choices.
Will’s Blog

Part 2: The Most Important Dilemma / Flawed Choices

Here is part two of sixteen installments from “This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology” / How we find our way to a humane and environmentally sane future. Each installment will be posted at www.thisishopethebook.com.

Though “This Is Hope” covers many subject areas, these modified excerpts focus on Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and the damage it has done to our understanding of ecosystems and the food choices needed to protect them.

The Most Important Dilemma: Problems with Flawed Choices

A popular movement in food culture deserves attention from the perspective of human ecology. Its proponents describe themselves as omnivores. Like all omnivores, they choose to eat both plant- and animal-sourced food. However, these omnivores call for tweaking, not ending, carnism to make it acceptable. They oppose some critical excesses of industrial agricultural practices and ill-considered consumer behavior, but do not challenge the appropriateness of carnism itself. Switching to locally sourced, organic, grass-eating cattle meat over the grain-fed industrial animal product is the kind of change that leaves them satisfied. These reformed omnivores allege their dietary choices are environmentally sustainable and humane. There is no foundation to either claim.

Michael Pollan is perhaps the most popular omnivore reformer since his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published in 2006. A professor of journalism and skilled writer, he performs an important public service because he draws millions of people into thinking about agriculture and how we choose the food we eat.194 He brings more people to the table, so to speak. Tragically, he and the reformed omnivore movement that responded to his messages remain stuck in a current human ecology that is neither adaptable to ecosystems, thus unsustainable, nor moral in its treatment of individuals from other species. I will refer to them simply as omnivores from here on.

Pollan rallies us to consider our food choices. He shares his discoveries about the absurdities of industrial corn production and its connections to factory farming. He rallies to the dangers of monocultures and pesticides. This is great stuff. I recommend his books. But it is not long before his carnist worldview becomes evident in the aberrations and biases found in some of his most important presumptions and conclusions in Omnivore’s Dilemma. He falls short of doing justice to the great questions he raises about our food choices.

In Dilemma, Pollan uses inappropriately applied terms and unfounded concepts about ecology, ecosystems, animal behavior, the motivations of vegans and vegetarians, and the few philosophers he chose to represent them. And after a few perfunctory acknowledgments about their goodintentions, he becomes unpleasantly dismissive of vegans and vegetarians.

The first clue to the book’s conclusions arrives quickly on the initial pages. “But in the end,” Pollan writes, this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasures that are only deepened by knowing.… Many of these species have evolved expressly to gratify our desires, in the intricate dance of domestication that has allowed us and them to prosper together as we could never have prospered apart.”

With one broad stroke of his personal and deeply anthropocentric worldview, he dismisses humanity’s history of horrific treatment of billions upon billions of sentient beings and ecosystem losses long before factory farming existed. He asserts that this “intricate dance” has been beneficial to the sentient species farmed for their meat because they now exist in large numbers. This author considers they are “prospering” when we artificially induce their short productive lives that “gratify our desires” but gives no accounting of their innate value. Population equals good in this simple equation. He asks us to believe the absurdity that all of the suffering and abuse we have rained upon them would be—if choice were possible—the choice domesticated individuals from other species would make just so they could now exist in the billions.

Norm Phelps, author and founder of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, pulls back the curtain on similar unexamined worldview assumptions about our relationships with domesticated species. “Unsupported by evidence, the ‘volunteers for death’ theory is a self-serving justification for modern-day animal slavery and slaughter projected backward in time so it can masquerade as legitimate scholarship. It is the interspecies equivalent of claims that African slaves were happy in their servitude because it spared them the risks and uncertainties of freedom.”

As Phelps is reminding us, if Pollan’s criteria were applied to human slaves, we would see it as racist. When it is applied to other species, it is called speciesism.

Next, part 3: Pollan’s Dance of Death

Part 1: Critique of Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma

Species rights, environmentalism, and our human ecology are entering a new era. We are connecting the dots between the necessities of a vegan new human ecology (see www.greenvegans dot org) and problems that include human overpopulation, environmentalism, destructive economic systems, the plight of the poor, species rights, and social and economic justice. What follows are sixteen installments from “This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology” / How we find our way to a humane and environmentally sane future. Each installment will be posted at www.thisishopethebook.com. Though “This Is Hope” covers many subject areas using 730 citations, these modified excerpts focus on Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and the damage it has done to our understanding of ecosystems and the food choices needed to protect them.

Part 1

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More than 70 percent of the Mississippi basin’s botanical agriculture yield, most being corn and soybeans, is grown to feed      livestock. It has destroyed 99 percent of the original prairie ecosystem. This watershed area extends from Montana to Minnesota to Ohio and Louisiana. Soil, livestock sewage, and manufactured fertilizer are transported off this land by rain, wind, and melting snow. Contaminants flow from stream to river to ocean from mile after square mile of corn and soybean fields and large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This pollution and eroded soil are transported down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, this excess nitrogen fertilizer and animal waste fuels explosions of plant life.

 

Eventually, algae growth explodes and along with other organisms die in massive numbers before sinking to the sea floor in the Gulf. As this organic matter decomposes, it depletes oxygen in the water. Bottom-dwelling fish and individuals from countless other species suffocate and a dead zone is created. Little if any life escapes death. This year, the dead zone is forecast to be the size of New Jersey.

 

Simon Dinner writes in the periodical “Global Environmental Change” that the dead-zone-producing nitrogen fertilizer flowing to the Gulf of Mexico would be cut by over half if humans adopted a vegan diet. He concluded that the dead zone in the Gulf would disappear. Imagine if we could test his conclusion and watch how much the land, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico would respond to our vegan human ecology. Certainly, the damage would be substantially reduced.

 

Earth is pockmarked with more than 400 oceanic dead zones of our doing. They affect 245,000 square kilometers and double in number every 10 years because of human activities usually related to agriculture. In 2006, a dead zone formed to cover 1,200 square miles of ocean off the coast of Oregon where 80 percent of the water column was affected. The seafloor was carpeted with dead fish and invertebrates. This is one of the few documented instances where a dead zone occurs naturally and cyclically.

 

But naturally does not take into account an important detail: Climate change is altering weather and wind patterns that strongly influence the strength and direction of oceanic currents. A change in the currents that bring oxygenated water into potential dead zones can be disastrous to marine life. Those currents also mix warm water at the surface with cold water upwelling from the depths and bring the appropriate nutrients for marine species. The distribution of temperature influences not only the amount of oxygen but also which species are present and the ratio of species to others of the entire food web.

 

This is just one way animal agriculture impacts ecosystems and the viability of our future. First, agricultural runoff creates dead zones that harm ecosystems. Second, animal agriculture’s greenhouse gasses (GHGs) add significantly (26 to 51%) to global warming. Global warming alters the wind and water currents that normally bring oxygenated water into dead zones. The same GHGs emitted from animal agriculture that warm the atmosphere melts glaciers and Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. This melted water is fresh, not salty. The added freshwater alters the ocean’s salinity, especially near shore. Because freshwater is less dense than saltwater, it lies on top. This increased layering of ocean water, combined with changes in weather and wind patterns, may further affect major oceanic currents.

 

Since these currents distribute cooler and warmer waters around the globe, they influence weather patterns that impact the yields of food crops. This cycle of destruction started in the agricultural fields and returns there. Animal agriculture is responsible because most of the world’s plant crops are fed to farmed individuals from other species. Animal agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global agricultural land used. Livestock graze 22 to 26 percent of Earth’s ice-free surface.

 

GHG-spewing hamburger-eating carnists (the people and culture behind the eating of animals, a term coined by Melanie Joy, author of “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows” are changing oceanic currents and weather patterns a hemisphere away. They determine crop yields, grain prices, and the prevalence of hunger. With dead, climate-ravaged soil, it will do little good to own or till land that is dry, hard-baked pan. From oil to meat to cars, a growing segment of humanity is enriched while ecosystem health and biodiversity declines. More and more of us gorge ourselves in midst of insufferable poverty where at least 48 percent of humanity lives on less than two dollars per day.

 

The neo-omnivore movement is proposing a wholly unsatisfactory and unworkable response to these issues. They deny the extent to which we must change our behavior and foolishly cling to the current human ecology that idolizes meat. They deserve special consideration. Next: Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”.

Ecologically Barren Animal Welfare Reforms

We must find a way to deepen our empathy and refine our campaigns and communication approaches. As we advocate for the end of animal agriculture and the entirety of carnism, we must respond as we would if these individuals from other species were from our immediate family. Their ability to suffer as we do demands the golden rule. That is the unchangeable sun in the sky. If we lose sight of that…. then we are lost.

     That we both failed and succeeded in past species rights and environmental campaigns reflects there are numerous peer-reviewed studies that clearly demonstrate how humans variably receive and act or do not act on information. We must understand and implement this knowledge in our communications with non-vegans and non-vegan environmentalists, among others. However, we also must not make this mistake: If we limit ourselves to the limitations we find today in people who are resisting change, we will end up forever trying to tweak animal agriculture, for instance, with welfare reforms instead of abolishing it. We need to find more effective ways to achieve abolition. Fortunately, human behavioral responses to compelling circumstances are not set in stone.

     Our external environments (ecosystems) and human consciousness are changing rapidly. We are in a head-on collision course with rock-solid evidence that we need to change our human ecology—our multiple behaviors that include dietary change. Climate change, acidic oceans, and the accelerating loss of biodiversity are threats to everyone. Animal agriculture is responsible for much of it. If we are to survive, we must adapt and to adapt we must change our behaviors. Oddly, this bodes well for a veganic (vegan organic) new human ecology because resistance to change will shrivel in proportion to the external dangers we face.

     If we can’t be moved quickly by the suffering of individuals from other species, perhaps our self-interest will be the self-compassion that lifts the lives of farmed animals out of animal agriculture. We already should be planning our abolitionist campaigns in anticipation of how much a deteriorating biosphere will motivate people to be more open to our messages. This requires us to approach abolitionism from a more biocentric platform; we are part of biodiversity, one species among many that need healthy ecosystems to not just survive, but also to avoid suffering. This is different than the anthropocentric (human-centered worldview) strategies we see coming from the largest organizations pushing animal welfare reforms. They apparently believe we have the time and right to create change slowly. They are stuck in the illusion that incremental welfare reforms are the practical and easier pathways workable with today’s human inflexibility. Though understandable, there’s one thing to never forget: Inflexibility is non-adaptive in a fast changing world. It leads directly to suffering and death that includes humanity. Can you see how this fatal foolishness is an asset for our abolitionist platform? Since animal welfare reforms leave both the cruelty and ecological destruction of animal agriculture intact, they are non-adaptive to today’s ecosystems. Animal welfare reforms are an ecologically indefensible position…and not survivable. 

     Species rightists must become deeper than deep ecologists and environmentalists must become veganic new human ecology advocates who don’t pee in their pants when addressing the human overpopulation debacle. We can do better than what is being done at this stage of human/other species relationships than modernizing the animal agriculture industry. We can do better than subsidize the killing of pigs and supporting retailers who will not change their animal agriculture business model in any reader’s lifetime. I will keep posting about this issue here as I do in my book to remind everyone that our comprehensive strategy has to be a reformation of our human ecologies. There are practices and human behaviors that must stop. What I ask at this point is that no one automatically accepts that what we’ve tried in the past, and the current incremental welfare strategies adopted by national organizations today, are the only paths to the future.

Prairies, Corn, Wheat, and Soybeans

In the United States, 80 percent of the corn and 22 percent of wheat is grown for “livestock” food. Some 75 percent of the soybean crop in the U.S. goes to feed them. Corn and soybean crops occupy a combined 145.2 million acres of U.S. habitat but this varies year-to-year. More than 70 percent of the Mississippi basin’s botanical agriculture yield, most being corn and soybeans, is grown to feed livestock. This watershed area extends from Montana to Minnesota to Ohio and Louisiana. It is pockmarked by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) whose pollen spreads with the wind. Soil, livestock sewage, herbicides and pesticides, and manufactured fertilizer are transported off this land by rain, wind, and melting snow into the Gulf of Mexico where it creates a massive “dead zone”.

That is slowly becoming common knowledge. It’s more complicated than that as market conditions change and other uses for these crops come into play and produce their own byproducts that are fed to animal agriculture’s victims. And we know that livestock, including the egg and dairy food businesses at any scale, returns a small fraction of the corn’s energy and nutritional value as edible food. Still, we seem not to comprehend the extent to which ecosystems are obliterated by animal agriculture.

When we graze millions of non-native cattle and sheep who displace the original species, or feed them with fields of botanical crops that have the same effect, we cannot avoid profound outcomes for our human ecology, ecosystems, and wildlife management. Pretending we can make it work by killing wolves and coyotes, poisoning prairie dogs, and killing millions of native birds by chilling them to death with chemical sprays, the insanity of it all rolls on and on like a steamroller chasing you in a nightmare.

Some one to two percent of the Midwest prairie ecosystems remain. These two images show rough comparisons of where the original prairie ecosystems existed and now where the highest producing areas of corn and soybeans are grown instead.

 

Michael Pollan’s omnivores, “humane” organizations that partner with any form of animal agriculture and its retailers, the countless “environmental” organizations that refuse to acknowledge the issues of human overpopulation and deny we must end animal agriculture, and it must be said, good people who are stuck in vegetarianism as I was for 30 years, are responsible for needlessly destroying biodiversity and perpetuating the unfathomable suffering that remains unacknowledged by the majority of people on the planet.

But there is a grand possibility in all of this. We are the new response. As more of us use our power and switch to veganism and other environmental tenets, impacts upon ecosystems and species drops precipitously, and we do it more effectively than any mainstream environmental organization proposes. We end the harm to billions of individuals from other species, domesticated and wild, sentient and non-sentient, and the sacred ecosystems that enable all life.

Our Vegan Choices Increase the Odds of Ecosystem Recovery

We are searching for material sustainability and have not yet found it. Unwilling to distinguish between the excesses of what we think we want and deserve and our true needs, our predations upon the environment remain wildly out of control. Wildlife and ecosystem management agencies and NGOs cannot overcome the ferocious inertia of our unceasingly destructive human demands, beliefs, and practices. However, our vegan choices increase the odds of ecosystem recovery.

Ecosystems are energy-intensive, complex physical and biological behemoths. As human ecologist Garrett Hardin noted, “The basic insight of the ecolate citizen is that the world is a complex of systems so intricately interconnected that we can seldom be very confident that a proposed intervention in this system of systems will produce the consequences we want.”[Hardin, Garrett. “An Ecolate View of the Human Predicament.” From a talk later developed into his book, Filters Against Folly. 1985.] With a great deal of time and effort, we can disrupt ecosystems, and we can influence and alter them to favor us over all other species. But we do not have the ability to replicate them nor control the multitude of fluctuating biosphere variables. We are inept in managing their infinite minutiae, the environmental wealth we inherited.

Intact, healthy ecosystems have within them the abilities to harness inputs from solar energy, biochemical processes, the required physical structure, biological communities, nutrient cycles, and the results of all these factors interacting with one another. The innate abilities of Earth dwarf our efforts to control with confidence her reactions to what we have done. We live for the hope that ecosystems have enough remaining function to heal sufficiently.

Restoration can be done successfully, as long as we remember what successful means in this context. In one telling study that reviewed 240 projects to restore ecosystems, the authors found that 83 recovered by meeting 94 different criteria, 90 had partial recovery, and 67 showed no recovery at all. [Jones, H.P., Schmitz, O.J. 2009. Rapid Recovery of Damaged Ecosystems] The authors cautioned that defining recovery was an elusive goal. It does not necessarily mean a state of pre-human exploitation with all of the original species and relationships returned. Some of the restoration may only have achieved a past state of human alteration.

Optimistically, there could be more recovery coming if the studies had run long enough to find it. The authors expressed optimism: “The message of our paper is that recovery is possible and can be rapid for many ecosystems, giving much hope for humankind to transition to sustainable management of global ecosystems.” However, as their media release notes, “… if societies choose to become sustainable, ecosystems will recover …” That is the key. If we choose to become sustainable. The current human ecology is not sustainable; the new human ecology has a chance at becoming so. No chance—or a chance. (From This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology)

 

CITES and Veganism

Whatever our initial reasons for stepping onto the vegetarian or vegan pathway, we grow over time into a broader and deeper understanding of the reasons to improve and expand our efforts. Veganism is a product of my past vegetarianism, for instance. Because food choices are at the center of our relationships with family, friends, individuals from other species, ecosystems—and as we eventually learn—social and economic justice for the poor, our vegetarian and vegan choices are visibly connected to other issues.

The CITES conference that opened three days ago in Bangkok, Thailand is one example. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The fates of many species and individuals from those species are deliberated in this forum. Here, too, is an arena for vegans to prevent suffering and needless death. This was the case when a three-person delegation returned to the International Whaling Commission meeting last year in Panama. At every meeting we stated our names and our organization, Green Vegans. Whenever we spoke, when others saw the placards at our tables, and on everything we wrote, we were there audibly and visibly repeated as “Green Vegans, Green Vegans, Green Vegans.” A first, I think.

Thanks to undercover investigations, numerous books, and the work of many people, consumers are at minimum vaguely aware of animal welfare issues and growing towards at least the idea of species rights without specifics. Science is expanding our awareness of the physical and psychological needs of individuals from other species as well as the environmental impacts caused by our food choices. Still, human behavior is not changing quickly enough to avoid more tragedies. As a result, a relatively small vanguard of professional environmentalists is trying to stem the loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat, and in some cases stop wanton cruelty (whaling and sealing, for example). As at CITES, their opponents are global economic systems that do not know the value of a life or ecosystem—something we are already familiar with in animal agriculture. They serve the minority of humanity that can afford to buy an unequal and unsustainable portion of resources while the impoverished struggle without.

What is our lesson in this? We cannot afford simply to “be vegan” and then rest. The same reasons for our becoming vegans and vegetarians also compel us to become knowledgeable environmentalists, advocates for reduced human populations, and social and economic justice. While we may not be able to cover personally all areas equally, we must act on the reason that these issues also cause grievous harm to individuals of other species and people, harm our health, and make sustainability impossible.

Increasing human populations increase the harms done to both domesticated and wild individuals from other species and their ecosystems. The decline of ecosystems and free-falling to extinction cause excruciating physical and psychological pain, misery, and bewildering homelessness during the process. These are calls for vegans to act.

As vegans, we must expand into other causes where we find the same issues that reside within the vegan belief system. Environmentalism is an easy spot to jump over the false barrier of these social movements. Instead of a slow introduction into front-line environmentalism, and to those of you who already are there, I’m asking you to jump into the deeper end of the pool now. Get your feet wet.

Here are two links related to the CITES meeting now underway. From a guest blog by Dr. Margi Prideaux at the Shiftingvalues website is a summary of the difficulties wildlife advocates face. You will also see between the lines indications that without our vegan new human ecology message in this and similar forums, they will not succeed in saving biodiversity and abundance. They will not be able to stop the harm we care so deeply about as vegans. http://www.shiftingvalues.com/cites-conference-risks-driving-a-split-in-international-efforts-on-the-conservation-of-elephants-manatees-and-polar-bears. You can then follow the conference here, http://www.cites.org/

This isn’t more work for us. These are opportunities to help effectively BECAUSE we are vegans. In doing this we improve and complete the characteristics of veganism.

Wolves Are Slaughtered By Our Human Ecology

We accept that predation in nature is real. It can be difficult to watch. However, the ongoing (and increasing) slaughter of wolves by various state and federal agencies is simply wrong. The agencies are serving hunters (5.5% of the U.S. population) and animal agriculture that grazes livestock on public land. The agencies promote the status quo human ecology, our behavior.

Hunters do not replace natural selection pressures. Ecologically and genetically, not all wolves are created equal. Aside from the tragic physical and psychological terror these agencies, ranchers, and hunters promote, the genetic composition and behavior of surviving wolf populations will be altered. Our duty is to bear witness to these acts, the photos, and news stories about the indiscriminate slaughter of wolves that seem to never end. Though it may feel futile at times, do not turn away. We must oppose however and whenever we can the archaic human ecology that turns ecosystems into cattle pastures and vast landscapes of monoculture GMO corn and soy.

A few weeks ago, I attended a public informational presentation on the state of wolves, mostly those in the northwest U.S. and Washington State in particular. There were agency speakers representing a wide variety of experience with wolf reintroduction (wolves returned to Washington without human reintroduction) and being the go-between livestock interests, hunters, and wolves. Though there were some shouts “what about hunters” from the back of the room, the audience of at least a few hundred people was docile. The speakers were not challenged. One U.S Fish and Wildlife speaker spoke to the resiliency of wolves under heavy hunting pressures and implied we didn’t have to worry—something to the effect that they just spring back. No mention of genetics, behavior, or the methods of killing. Suffering is not a consideration.

While I sensed that one of the speakers who had retired from his job was not entirely happy with grazing on public lands (just my impression, not his statements), there seemed to be little concern about what will happen both ecologically and politically (policy) in Washington when wolf numbers reach stated management goals. There was no mention of ending private ranching that usurps the ecosystems of public lands for any state. Hunters were appeased, though.

In a handout, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) included this part of their management plan guidelines: “If any ungulate population falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years, and/or if hunter harvest decreases by 25 percent below the 10-year average harvest rate for two consecutive years, WDFW may consider reducing wolf abundance in affected areas, where applicable with federal law.” There have been over 1,000 wolves killed in the U.S. in the past five months, several in Washington. I suggest you visit the blog Howling for Justice for updates https://howlingforjustice.wordpress.com/.

I witnessed this process play out in Alaska decades ago. Get ready for wolf hunting seasons that look more like deer hunting every year. One thing is certain, wildlife management agencies are stuck in a human ecology that is no longer adaptive to ecosystems. In the midst of losing the war to stop biodiversity loss, we will see sincere efforts to return an unnaturally low number of wolves to ecosystems whose genetic selection is always being hunted. The minority hunter and rancher interests rule ecosystems. That will not change until we do.

The most powerful tool and comprehensive approach to reform we have is the vegan new human ecology. Those who self-identify as environmentalists must understand that this war on wolves will not be won otherwise.

Why Human Ecology?

It took time to build the title of my book, This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology. I’ve long understood the connections between my meals, the suffering of nonhuman animals, and environmental impacts. And I was already aware of the field of study called human ecology. But it was during the research aspect of my writing I fully understood that my vegan human ecology alone would not accomplish enough. What was and is needed is a thoroughly reformed new human ecology. Read more ›

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