Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: Farm Sanctuary

Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food by Gene Baur

Book description: Leading animal rights activist Gene Baur examines the real cost of the meat on our plates -- for both humans and animals alike -- in this provocative and thorough examination of the modern farm industry.

Baur has written a book that is part memoir and part exposé of the factory farm system's treatment of animals. It is short but packs a lot in. Not unexpectedly, the author has frequent forays into "preachiness" which if you are not of a like mind can get tiring. (To be honest, it can get tiring even if you are.) Unfortunately, I doubt that many who are not like-minded will ever read this book.

Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian. I am not a vegan. While this book made me carefully consider veganism, in the end I decided against it but vowed to buy my eggs and dairy carefully to minimize my support of factory farms.

Confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) are one of the truly despicable inventions of the industrialized agricultural system. It is absolutely appalling and the fact that the USDA not only subsidizes it but encourages it infuriates me. Animals are sentient beings. They feel pain, fear, loneliness, and anger as well as happiness. Anyone who has ever owned a pet can tell you that. Yet, for some reason, because these animals are used for food they do not deserve the basic dignities that should be their right.

Treat a dog or a horse the way pigs are treated and the Humane Society is called. Yet here are billions of animals who give their lives so that we may eat in the manner we want and we treat them not with respect, but without thinking at all. Humans have become so far removed from the food supply chain that it is very hard to connect what is on our plates to what occurs on the farm. The idyllic picture of the family farm, cows peacefully grazing in the field next to the vegetable garden, is unfortunately no longer the norm. Through careful advertising, though, largescale agriculture tries to perpetuate that image.

It has been said that if slaughterhouses were made of glass most people would stop eating meat. But due to the high security around such places (and other aspects of CAFOs) most will never see how the cows that became that hamburger died. My coworker had the misfortune to wander onto the kill floor of a slaughterhouse. She is now a vegetarian.

Why did I decide to not go vegan? I have known what occurs in CAFOs and in slaughterhouses for a long time. Nothing in this book shocked me, though it did touch me. I did not become vegetarian for moral reasons. I have no problems with killing invasive species that are damaging the environment. I do have a problem with the way we treat animals in this society. If every farm in the country was Polyface Farm, I might even eat meat again, but unfortunately they are not. There were some American Indian tribes that thanked the spirits of animals before they were killed because the animals gave their lives so the people could live. Perhaps we should return to that mentality. The sheer waste that occurs in industrial agriculture should make every environmentalist outraged -- not least, the waste in lives that are thrown away as acceptable losses to the system, and never even make it into the food supply.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: Stirring It Up

Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World by Gary Hirsberg

Book description: Gary Hirsberg is the founder and CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm, a company that proved it was profitable to operate sustainably. Hirsberg outlines his own journey in Stirring it Up and highlights other success stories, from Wal-mart to Patagonia, of companies who have embraced a sustainable product, production supply chain, work environment, and culture -- and made it profitable.

I scoffed when I reached the section where Hirsberg points to Wal-mart, the most hated of retail giants, as an example of a company that was working to "save the world." It took me a while to reconcile my view of Wal-mart -- the blight upon rural America and destroyer of the small mom-and-pop stores -- with the Wal-mart Hirsberg described. I had to remind myself there were two sides to every coin. I still find it very hard to believe that Wal-mart's journey to being green was motivated by anything other than . . . well, green, as in money.

And it is true -- being green can save you money. It goes back to the three 'R's of environmentalism we memorized all those years ago. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Those were the tenents of the do-it-yourself environmentalism. Unfortunately, the first two seem to have been forgotten. They were unpopular in that they reminded us of the need to change our gluttonous and spoiled lifestyles. But, as Hirsberg showed with examples throughout his book, reduce and reuse can sure conserve more than just raw materials. For a business, the bottom line is hugely important.

While I am a believer in green business, I doubt it can save the world because it ignores one of the root causes of most if not all environmental problems: consumption. Green business is still firmly rooted in the capitalist framework and in the free market economy. The belief that the free market can fix everything is somewhat of a sacred cow in the United States. I agree that the market is a very powerful entity but do not think it is the answer for all the ills in the world, mainly because the free market without government intervention will most likely not take into account the externalities into the price of the product. And the free market is still based on consumption. Whenever we buy something from the store, we are directly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, and landfill waste. Buying "green" should also mean buying less, and reusing what you can (either yourself and giving to others) in addition to recycling.

Still, overall, a great thumbs-up to Hirsberg and other green business entrepreneurs out there.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Book Description: In 1993 a mountaineer named Greg Mortenson drifted into an impoverished Pakistan village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed attempt to climb K2. Moved by the inhabitants' kindness, he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of Tea is the story of that promise and its extraordinary outcome. Over the next decade Mortenson built not one but fifty-five schools--especially for girls--in the forbidding terrain that gave birth to the Taliban. His story is at once a riveting adventure and a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit. (from back cover)

I picked this book up on a whim before it made international best sellers lists and won the Kiriyama Prize, among other awards. It sat collecting dust for a little bit as I read another I had bought at the same time. I then sat down with Three Cups of Tea and I was blown away. The story of Mortenson's struggle, determination, and eventual successes held me captive and gave me hope that the world can be a better place for our children, and our children's children. After reading, I donated money to Mortenson's non-profit, The Central Asia Institute. CAI is my charity of choice now.

Mortenson's story proves that one man can make a difference in the world. He has dedicated his life to building schools in one of the most violent and dangerous regions of the world because he believes that education can truly improve the lives of people. This is something I believe myself, and I greatly admire Mortenson and others like him for promoting peace, alleviating poverty, and providing the chance for a better life through education.

This is a book that I believe everyone should read. In the world we live in full of prejudice, violence, and hate, a story of one man who set out to change the world for the better -- and did -- is a story that should be told often and shared as much as possible.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Book Review: Plundering Paradise

Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galápagos Islands by Michael D'Orso

Book description: Mention the Galápagos Islands to almost anyone, and the first things that spring to mind are iguanas, tortoises, volcanic beaches, and, of course, Charles Darwin. But there are people living there, too -- nearly 20,000 of them. A wild stew of nomads and grifters, dreamers and hermits, wealthy tour operators and desperately poor South American refugees, these inhabitants have brought crime, crowding, poaching, and pollution to the once-idyllic islands. In Plundering Paradise, Michael D'Orso explores the conflicts on land and at sea that now threaten to destroy this fabled "Eden of Evolution." (from back cover)

Most people, when they think of the Galápagos, do not realize that there is a lively and sizable human population sharing the Islands with the famous turtles, finches, and seals. D'Orso, who readily admits to being more interested in humans than flora and fauna -- no matter how unique or scientifically significant, sets out to explore the lives of these people who make their homes in one of the world's most famous naturalist spots.

The picture he paints is a bleak one. The Islands are owned by Ecuador, which is perpetually plagued by economic, political, and civil unrest. A banana and oil economy, the political leaders change frequently but the corruption stays consistent. The Galápagos faces internal and external pressures on its natural resources. The growing population who come from the mainland in search of a better life harvest the Islands' sea cucumbers. Fisherman, both Islanders and not, are drawn to the Islands' rich sea life. With an overworked and stretched-thin Park staff, enforcement is patchy and further hindered by a corrupt political system that refuses to prosecute poachers. Tourists, too, play their role - the growth of tourism to the Galápagos has led to the growth of the tourist industry, which while provides very welcome money to the islands, also promotes development and further migration from the mainland.

D'Orso provides stories on the lives and history of individuals who call the Galápagos home. There is desperation, hope, resentment, anger, and resignation at the state of life on the Islands.

Because it is written in 2003, much of the information is out of date. The organizational structure and writing style also leaves much to be desired. Despite these shortfalls, Plundering Paradise is as far as I know the only book to date about the humans of the the Galápagos, and invaluably places these near-mythical islands firmly in the real world and susceptible to politics, economics, greed, and desperation.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Book Review: Ecological Economics

Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications by Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley

Book Description: This is the definitive entry-level textbook for ecological economics, co-written by one of the leaders in the field, Herman Daly. This is a must read for anyone who is interested in the nexus between economics and the environment. Unlike neoclassical economics, ecological economics starts with the premise that the human economy exists in a finite world with limited resources and limited sinks.

There is a lot more to the field of ecological economics than can every be explained in one tiny blog post. I had the wonderful opportunity to take a class with Herman Daly. His ideas will one day revolutionize the entire economics field, I believe. Ecological economics is first and foremost an interdisciplinary field, taking not just economics, but sociology, policy, philosophy, and biology, to create something that is realistic and makes sense.

Daly and Farley critique neoclassical economics, the economic theory that is most taught today. They argue that economics should follow basic physical laws like the law of thermodynamics, and that an economic system should be both equitable and efficient, and that efficiency should take into account social values.

A basic knowledge of economic theory is necessary to fully understand some of the book's concepts, but the majority of it can be read by the layman, in my opinion. Give it a try -- you might find you like it. This is economics as it should be.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Book Review: Priceless

Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing by Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling

Book description: As heartless as it sounds to express in dollars and cents the value of human lives, health, or the environment, cost-benefit analysis requires it. More disturbingly, this approach is being embraced by a growing number of politicians and conservative pundits as the most reasonable way to make a variety of policy decisions regarding public health and the environment. By systematically refuting the ill-advised economic algorithms and illogical assumptions that cost-benefit analysts flaunt as fact, Priceless tells a "gripping story about how solid science has been shoved to the backburner by bean counters with ideological blinders" (In These Times).

I have to thank Herman Daly for assigning this book for his class. I doubt I ever would have discovered it without him. In their book, Ackerman and Heinzerling critique the political and economic impetus to assign a price tag to everything -- even a human life (which is, incidentally, $6.1 million, according to the U.S. EPA).

The problem with our current system is the fact that "money talks." In order to play on the same field as the business interests, environmentalists and advocates have been forced to place economic value to things that should be without price. The wonderful institution in the Executive Branch, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) demands it, even. In order to leverage political change, a number must be given. And you can be sure that the people on the other side of the debate have their own numbers to wave about -- though it seems that lately, they have been relying on the ambiguous "it will hurt the economy" argument.

So this had led to a system in which things that have infinite value are given a price tag. The authors note this phenomenon with not only a human life, which extends to human health, but natural resources and safety. So if the price tag associated with an action is more than the price tag given to the benefits, then said action is not cost effective and OMB can say it should not be done.

Pretty handy way of arguing what not to do, ain't it? Who cares about health, safety, and the environment anyway, when it's not cost effective to do so?

Something else to ponder -- if a human life is worth 6.1 million dollars, then theoretically, a murderer could pay $6.1 million and get off scot free.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Book description: Michael Pollan takes readers through the history of four different meals from farm to table: industrialized fast-food, industrialized organic, local, and one he obtained himself through hunting and gathering.

The more industrialized, urbanized, and commercialized a society is, the greater is the disconnect between the consumer and where exactly his food comes from. In the Western world, the majority of us get our food from a grocery store where the meat is handily dismembered and sealed in slick plastic, milk is delivered in cartons, and we can buy entire meals in a box. We never see the animals that provide us with the milk, eggs, and steak we consume and we never harvest our own fruits and vegetables. It really is no wonder that when I was a child I could not connect the chicken on the TV with the chicken nuggets I loved -- in fact, I still have trouble with that today.

Pollan's journey to discover the origins of what we eat was at times horrifying, at times inspirational, and completely fascinating. As a vegetarian I felt I already had a fairly decent understanding of what exactly enters our food supply chain. I knew about the cruelty of factory farms and the overabundance of corn in our processed foods. As an environmentalist I understand the reasons for wanting to eat lower down on the food chain and more locally. Pollan's book reaffirmed this, as well as adding previously unseen facets to my understanding.

The book lays out the facts and what he saw with, in my opinion, very little pushing toward any one conclusion. (That he saves for his next book, In Defense of Food.) But I came away with a much deeper respect for food in general and the realization that if I wanted to be socially and ecologically conscious with my diet, perhaps even Whole Foods wasn't the way to go because while organic, it is by no means local.

I will definitely be picking up In Defense of Food because I am very interested in Pollan's thoughts on this subject. In the meantime, my community is finally getting a farmers market so I can now buy local without even getting into a car!

(As an aside, I had the great fortune to hear Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, who featured heavily in the eating local section of The Omnivore's Dilemma, comment at a federal advisory committee. He was extremely passionate as well as a very nice man to speak to.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Musings on Speculative Fiction

I am a science fiction fan. I even have an annual convention I attend. Until very recently, my for-pleasure reading list consisted almost entirely of space ships and aliens, dragons and magic. Science fiction and fantasy are two very different genres that are often lumped together in readers' heads because they are found in the same section of bookstores and libraries. Authors will often go back and forth between the two as well. However, they generally fall on two ends of the extreme on the environmental spectrum.

Fantasy stories, with some very notable exceptions, tend to feature in lands that are agrarian, forested, and with a pre-Industrial Revolution level of technology: a environmental utopia, if you will, before humanity invented the steam engine. Also interesting to note is that most fantasy novels take place in wholly imaginary worlds with fanciful names and elaborate maps that, while having attributes that might resemble Earth, are not found anywhere on this planet.

Science fiction, on the other hand, tends to exist in the realm of what could be: advanced technology and different planets and races that are discovered through the use of space travel. Where fantasy takes place in a vibrant world whose natural resources are largely untouched, science fiction occurs in a (no less vibrant) world that is metal and machines.

Both settings, if used widely, can be wonderful mediums for conveying green-tinged messages. Perhaps the most famous fantasy story of all, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is also one of the most environmentally-themed but done so subtly that most do not notice. In science fiction, the comparisons between a green world and one that is full of cities and technology can be highly effective. The settlers in Anne McCaffrey's Doona trilogy leave Earth, which has been developed to the point where there is only one-square mile of open green space, to eke out a life on a (supposedly) uninhabited planet.

Because science fiction tends to focus on the what-ifs associated with outer space, the planet Earth tends not to play a major role, mentioned only in passing if at all. This has led to a tendency, I believe, for science fiction fans to forget the importance of Earth in the drive to reach out there via the space program, a space elevator, or colonies on the Moon or Mars. But how productive is that? By looking outward to where we cannot yet go, are we turning our backs on where we are now? At my science fiction convention, there is a heavy science program, mainly focused on some aspect of space exploration. It seems slightly... off to me to put so much effort and attention on something that may not ever be, when there is so much to fix right here on good old Terra.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book Review: The Lorax

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Book Description:
Long before saving the earth became a global concern, Dr. Seuss, speaking through his character the Lorax, warned against mindless progress and the danger it posed to the earth's natural beauty.

Let's start this off with an oldie but goodie. Believe it or not, I did not read The Lorax until I was well in college, and I was first introduced to the animated cartoon before the book. I actually found a used copy at a library book sale for nearly a song and snapped it up. It sure came in handy when I started teaching summer camp and I ran out of nature-related lesson plans partway through the season. It turns out that you can read The Lorax outloud and do a quick and dirty mini-lesson in just about the time period each group had with me.

The campers loved it. There something about Dr. Suess that makes you want to be read aloud to. The funny thing was, the counselors loved it too. Here were high school and college students who were usually "too cool for school" and I had to coerce, beg, or plain out tell them to participate or at least put on the front they were paying attention.

This was environmental education at its finest. Throughout the summer, I tried to hammer home the basics to this group of entitled children (and they were entitled -- it was a very expensive camp) whose parents dropped them off in SUVs and trucks and saw no problem with waiting in line in their cars for half an hour to pick up their children. But with this one book, the concepts hit home. With Dr. Suess's brightly colored illustrations, rhyming prose and fanciful creatures, the kids got it -- for a little bit at least. Dr. Suess published The Lorax in 1971 at the height of the environmental movement in the U.S. The simple message still hold true today: care for nature because if you don't, who will?

Start them early and start them young. I can't tell what, if any, impact my reading The Lorax to my campers did to their long-term environmentalistic ideals. Still, if you plant enough seeds one will germinate and grow, right? Because, after all, "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.