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Friday, January 14, 2011

Tobin said sometimes it seems like I'm holding back when I write

For the last month or so, I’ve been working harder than I’ve worked in years to prepare for the Upo Wetlands English Ecology Camp, which was originally planned to take place this weekend. I was surprised, both pleasantly and not, by the amount of time and effort that one has to put into doing things that matter. The work has included: 3-plus-hour trips via train, bus, and car, sometimes all three in one morning, to reach the camp site; long and frustrating meetings with budget people from the government; lectures about why government funding is so complicated and why it might be reasonable that they refuse to buy us pastels rather than crayons; nights spent sleeping in rooms so cold that even my three layers on top weren’t enough, so I slept in my parka; and being so tired and busy and worn out that I even ate a grilled Wonderbread and Kraft Singles sandwich. Thankfully, I didn’t get to the point where I would eat cup ramen, but it wasn’t far off.

I don’t want to paint a negative picture of the camp, because I believe that, however short and whatever the effort put into it (actually, in all likelihood, because of that very effort), it will be one of the best things I’ve done in Korea, both for me and for others. It has given me lots to chew on regarding various incarnations of the environmentalist (farmer, conservationist, organizer, educator, bureaucrat, practitioner) and various obstacles to conservation, and has helped me to think about what kind of action makes me happy, what kind makes me feel useful, and what kind makes me frustrated. Most importantly, I’ve met several new and impressive people who are working in their own ways towards their own ends, which are necessary compliments to mine. I respect them greatly and look forward to networking, if not just plain working, with them again in the future.

This post was supposed to happen on Monday, and was supposed to be full of pictures of kids meditating in the “Secret Garden,” checking out displays and dioramas in the ecology center, biking around the wetland banks, and looking at constellations and making up their own stories. Instead, the post is happening today and will center on the evils and ironies of, surprise, modern meat production. Usually, I don’t write too much about these things, because I don’t think of myself as any more of an expert than anyone else. Perhaps I’ve read a little more (though some readers definitely have me beat here), but nothing in my particular experience makes me more affected by global warming or the Texas-sized plastic island in the middle of the Pacific than you.

But, this time, it’s personal.

While the point of the camp – not in the minds of those who conceived it, and not even to me – was never to convince kids to go vegetarian, I do think that hours spent:

- watching migratory birds go through one phase of their life cycle,
- learning all about wetland ecology and the complexity and multiplicity of relationships between land, climate, plants, animals, and people,
- seeing the conditions even of relatively fortunate livestock,
- talking with farmers,
- cooking sweet potatoes together over a fire,

and on other such activities that we had planned for the kids, could only have served to increase their feeling of connection to and responsibility for nature, both of which underly my dedication to conservation, which itself underlies my vegetarianism. Thus, it strikes me as ironic that the (most) recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Southern South Korea, which is almost certainly due to the ruthlessly cramped, unbelievably filthy, and inarguably inhumane (or shall we say “efficient?”) conditions that livestock are raised in, caused someone somewhere higher up to postpone the camp. It wouldn’t surprise me if the postponement eventually became a cancellation.

When reading environmental literature, one often sees discussions of feedback loops, where one cause’s effect affects the cause in turn, resulting in more of the same, perhaps ad infinitum, or perhaps just to the end, wherever that may be. (I don’t think I want to find out.) For example, increased air and ocean temperatures increase the rate at which the ice caps are melting; the resulting water, which as ice reflected a certain amount of the sun’s rays, now absorbs more of them, leading to further heating. Which leads to more melting. And more heating. And so forth. The foot-and-mouth outbreak (fiasco? travesty?) seems to me to be another, more human-centered version of the feedback loop. Because of said outbreak:

- people tend to think of animals as dirty and dangerous; they want eggs that didn’t come out of a chicken’s butt*, pork chops that that didn’t come out of a pig’s side, and milk from a cow that isn’t pregnant, so...
- the government makes stricter laws regarding animal facilities, NOT to actually improve the health of animals or people [if this were the goal, the government could, say, limit the maximum number of animals a farm can raise to number it can keep healthy without drugs, or the number it can feed with its own grass, or the number of individual animals the CEO in question can identify] but rather to convince consumers (and perhaps themselves) that their meat will be clean and safe to ingest. I say this because compliance with these laws generally requires purchasing new equipment (e.g. for cleaner slaughter or processing) or using new technologies (e.g. antibiotics), both of which cost money and may not be viable options for small-scale farmers, so...
- Said small farmers go out of business, often ceding their land and customers to larger entities, which relate to customers through advertisements and images, not through direct contact. This means that people who already have little incentive to go see the condition of the animals from which, like it or not, animal products come from, now lack even the opportunity to do so...
- The gap between producer and consumer, both in terms of physical distance and in terms of knowledge about the origin and nature of the product, widens. The only thing supermarket shoppers know about meat is its price; this is all the producers want us to know, and mostly, we are content to know no more, so...
- Producers have undeniable economic incentive to treat the animals even worse (or shall we say, “more efficiently?”), cramming them into smaller cages and pens, feeding them even cheaper food (often waste products from the same or other operations), and pumping them full of other drugs, all of which practices devastate the animals’ health and reduce their capacity to resist pathogens, so...
- Outbreaks of diseases (if not Foot and Mouth, then perhaps Mad Cow or Avian Influenza) become more regular, and probably more serious, so...
- People tend to think of animals as dirty and dangerous; they want eggs that didn’t come out of a chicken’s butt, pork chops that that didn’t come out of a pig’s side, and milk from a cow that isn’t pregnant, so...
- You get the point.

The personal element is the following: in my humble opinion, the only way out of this cycle is for consumers to know more – ideally, everything – about what they’re consuming. Most of us, understandably, give up on this desire, if we ever feel it in the first place. How much can you explain about your plumbing, your TV, your car, your phone, your breakfast cereal, even your banana? Did you know bananas grow upside-down? Or maybe it's more sensible to say that we eat them upside-down?

The point is, the camp, or something like it, is a sine qua non; it may not in itself be a way out of our lifestyle of half-willful, half-imposed ignorance, but it is at least a start. Without it, without camps and other events like it, without the people who planned it and without people like them, I see little chance for change. We need more programs that take kids** away from their TVs, their Nintendos, their cell phones (did I mention that during the camp, there would have been no video games, no cell phones, no instant food, no paper cups, no plastic bottles or aluminum cans, and pretty much nothing else to throw out?), their bags of chips, their cans of Coke, and yes, even their school books. We spend our days living in an environment almost entirely of our own making. Even the trees and flowers we pass are decorative and not meaningful parts of an ecosystem. If not for the sky and wind, we might never have to confront nature at all. We all, and children in particular, need to break out of this cycle if we are to take seriously the limits that our environment places on us. Breaking out of this cycle requires spending time in nature, learning to learn with our eyes and ears and skin, not just with books. Spending time in nature gives us both the desire and the fortitude necessary to resist the forces that have brought us to such a precarious position. So, as much as I feared actually taking responsibility for my curriculum, my students, and my actions, I am infinitely more disappointed now that the chance has been taken away from me.

Of course the disease is a tragedy for consumers, who run the (quite small) risk of eating contaminated meat and facing side effects such as ____________. [I should admit: I wrote this without knowing the side effects, or much at all about the disease. Then I went to look up the side effects, so I could make the post more dramatic, only to find that "Humans are very rarely affected" and that "it is a much greater threat to the agriculture industry than to human health." Apparently, the most significant effect of the disease, from the human standpoint, is reduced milk production in cows and the death of pigs that could otherwise be turned into meat.] It’s also a tragedy for small farmers, who will find it much harder to recover from culling twelve percent of their stock than large corporations with other sources of income will. Let’s not forget to mention that it’s a tragedy for all the animals who suffer fevers, blisters, secretions, swollen testicles, and then, must be culled by being buried alive, since spilling their blood might spread the infection. It’s a tragedy for wild animals, who may catch the diseases in question, and therefore for other animals and plants that depend on those animals, and those that depend on those, and so on. It’s a tragedy for future generations of animals, who will likely grow up on farms even more dystopian than their parents’. The only people, the only beings, who may look at the outbreak as anything other than a tragedy, are those who caused it in the first place, since they are the ones who will comply with the government regulations, consolidate smaller enterprises, and continue progressing towards monopoly. On second thought, it’s probably also good for those who make the regulations, too. On third thought, I suppose it's good for the virus itself. Small comfort.

There is a line Jensen uses over and over throughout Endgame, as well as in other works. Like Jensen, if I may be forgiven for making the comparison, I use this line because I hardly even know what actions I should take myself, so I’m not going to pretend to know about anyone else’s capacities, beliefs, inclinations, etc. What’s best for me, and what’s necessary where I am, is not likely to be what’s best for you or for wherever you are. There’s no room for prescription. And there are enough problems that it’s not even necessary. The line is, the question is:

What are you going to do about it?


*I am pretty sure I’m stealing this image from Casaubon’s Book
** Adults, too.