Posts Tagged With: Environmentalism

Almond Milk (and Banana Pancakes)

Turns out that finding enough time for blogging during the schoolyear is a lot harder than during the summer. Who knew, right?

Anyway. The past month has been filled with a lot of personal achievements for me, but one of the most surprisingly easy was almond milk. Wait, you must be saying, what? Almond milk isn’t a personal achievement! No, but it is. For years now, I have been looking to entirely eliminate dairy from my diet, and I think, finally, I have.

A little backstory. I have been vegetarian since before I was born. Everyone in my family is vegetarian. I was raised without the option of eating meat, and I have never had the desire to take it up. People ask me if I feel angry at my parents for “depriving” me of the “choice” by raising me veggie. I’m not quite sure they understand. Growing up veggie, I tell them, didn’t deprive me of anything, except perhaps the air of self-satisfaction that comes with rebellion against the norms of one’s childhood. I think of eating meat as like getting tattooed: If an independent and informed adult decides to do it, well, that’s one thing, but parents have no business tattooing their children, or feeding them meat, before the child can decide for him- or herself.

But, of course, there is one respect in which eating meat is not like getting a tattoo: it is not a purely self-regarding action. If you’re eating meat, then there is an individual person—not a human person, perhaps, but a person nonetheless, with a conscious mind—who had to die to provide you with that meat. For me, it isn’t the eating, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the killing, and the infliction of pain that precedes it. This applies to both humans and nonhumans. If, upon my death, you were to eat my body, I would have no moral problem with that (though you might have a digestive problem with it). However, if you were to walk into my room and torture me to death, I would have a moral objection to that regardless of what happened to my body afterwards. I don’t care how hungry you might be, that would not be acceptable behavior.

The problem, though, for a vegetarian like myself, is that a whole slew of “animal product” foods, though they don’t intrinsically require cruelty and murder, are only available (to those of us living in cities, at any rate) through systems which do intrinsically require these moral atrocities. I have personally milked a cow on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, and while I doubt that I would enjoy the experience if I were a cow, I’m not sure the milking itself qualifies as cruelty. But  the milk available to me here in New York City is going to be, for the most part, coming from factory farms, from the kind of places Isaac Bashevis Singer was talking about when he wrote that “in relation to animals, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” And I can’t stand the thought of supporting those places, however indirectly.

Eliminating dairy has been easier for me than for most, I think. I never drank milk or ate cheese in the first place; I’ve always hated them. Ice cream…well, I needed to eliminate that from my diet anyway, dairy or no. So that basically left me with yogurt (which I ate a lot when I was younger, and since then have only really eaten as a way of weaning myself off ice cream) and foods with dairy ingredients. Since I live in a residence hall without a kitchen, eating my food from the communal dining hall, this hasn’t really been an issue, but once I am living elsewhere, and cooking my own food, it could be. In particular, I was worried about the breakfast foods: cereal (a staple of mine growing up) and pancakes (which I would have eaten every single day of my childhood, had it been up to me).

At the beginning of this month, I discovered banana pancakes. Caroliena, from Polyprotic Amory, was the one who taught me how to make them. They are virtually identical to “normal” pancakes, but the butter is replaced with bananas, which holds the batter together in much the same way. It’s also healthier, tastier, and, most importantly, dairy-free.

I was surprised by how easy it was to just strike the offending ingredients from the recipe. Banana pancakes have quickly become one of my favorite foods. But even after this, it came as a shock to me when I tried eating a bowl of cereal with almond milk.

At first, I thought it didn’t taste any different. After a couple of bowls, though, I started to realize that I preferred the taste of almond milk to dairy milk. If only I had known about it a decade and a half ago! I could have been eating much tastier cereal all these years! In fact, if I had been given this milk growing up, maybe I would actually have liked drinking milk, rather than finding it repulsive. It gets better, too: whereas something like soy milk requires quite a bit of processing apparatus to create, making almond milk takes nothing more complex than a bowl of water and some form of strainer. This is the kind of thing you could make without using anything more technologically advanced than pottery! Almond milk is amazing. I am never ever ever going back. And that means, finally, I am entirely dairy-free!

Once you start looking for alternatives to what you’ve been doing all your life, it’s amazing how quickly you can find something better.

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The Memories of Moths

Moths can remember things that happened to them as caterpillars. Seriously. Butterflies, too.

In a 2008 paper, researchers from Georgetown University demonstrated that when a caterpillar is trained to avoid a particular smell, the moth who was once that caterpillar will retain the memory of the training, and continue to avoid the scent. Caterpillars were treated with mild electric shocks while simultaneously being exposed to particular odors, conditioning them to avoid that smell. The caterpillars were then placed in tubes with a “fork” in their “road,” with the target smell emanating from one path but not the other. The caterpillars strongly preferred to head away from the smell, down the other direction. But here’s the crazy part: when these caterpillars became moths, the vast majority of those moths also avoided the smell, and took the other option. The researchers tried the same setup with caterpillars and moths who had not been exposed to the shock-training, and found that the avoidance behavior was not exhibited by these untrained individuals. In other words, caterpillars and moths don’t just avoid this smell on their own; that comes only with training. And the only training occurred during the caterpillar stage of the moths’ life cycle. Since the caterpillars avoided the smell, that means it worked. And since the moths did too, that means they remembered their caterpillar training. Which means that memories are preserved across the metamorphosis stage.

I found this research fascinating. It’s my kind of discovery: upending conventional wisdom by actually testing it against the real world, and finding it wanting. Like most folks out there, I grew up with the idea that butterfly and moth caterpillars are essentially liquefied during their metamorphosis. The pupal crucible breaks down everything the caterpillar is, and rebuilds it as a moth, or as a butterfly. When the caterpillar’s pupa breaks open, the moth who emerges is something quite new and different. This idea is the root of numerous metaphorical comparisons: When we feel that we are losing who we are, that our lives are being entirely upended and destabilized, we are reminded that “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly.” Except it turns out that even the caterpillars aren’t quite so prone to exaggeration. Perhaps the caterpillars are secretly Zen Masters themselves.

However, to me, the thing that jumped out at me wasn’t that caterpillars’ memories are retained by moths and butterflies, but rather that caterpillars have been proven to form memories in the first place. Of course, it comes as no surprise to me, but I imagine that most folks today think of caterpillars as mindless “eating machines,” with no psychological life at all. It would be “anthropomorphizing” to attribute mentation to caterpillars; how very unscientific! And yet the entire premise of this research is the tacit understanding that caterpillars form memories. There is something it is like to be a particular caterpillar, something different from what it’s like to be a different caterpillar. (Or a bat.) Caterpillars feel pain, just as we do, when zapped with an electric shock. (If you prick us, do we not bleed?) And it traumatizes them. During metamorphosis, caterpillars essentially takes their own bodies apart and start over from scratch, and even that is not enough for them to get over it. To put it in the words of John Locke (not the Lost character; I mean the O.G.), caterpillars have psychological continuity over time. In case you missed it, that’s Locke’s criterion for personhood, and the persistence of personal identity. When we speak of caterpillars, we should not say “the caterpillar that became a moth,” but rather “the caterpillar who became a moth.” It isn’t just something, it’s someone.

Remember that next time you are considering a silk scarf. Sericulture, the 5000-year-old practice of breeding and raising silkworm caterpillars in captivity, then tearing apart their cocoons when they enter into the metamorphosis phase, is lethal to the silkworm caterpillars involved. And although a single caterpillar produces as much as one thousand yards of raw silk, because the harvesting process is very inefficient, producing a single kilogram of silk fabric requires the murder of more than five thousand caterpillars. There’s a reason that Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi) was a vocal opponent of sericulture. If you believe that every living thing has a conscious self (a soul, if you will), then every single filament of silk ever worn is steeped in a five thousand year history of genocide.

And if you accept, as shown by this among other experiments, that a caterpillar forms associative memories of subjective experiences like pains and smells, memories written so deeply and indelibly into the caterpillar’s being that they survive even the near-death and winged resurrection of the caterpillar itself, then on what grounds can you deny that each of these caterpillars has a conscious self?

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“Removing Invasives”

I spent most of the day today doing volunteer work with Million Trees NYC.

The primary purpose of this group, as you might have guessed, is to plant one million trees in New York City. However, despite that, most of the work we did today was, in a sense, the opposite. The site I was volunteering at was a park area where new sapling trees had been planted several years ago, right when the project was starting. Our primary task today was, as the fellow from the parks department put it, “removing invasives.” Those saplings still aren’t full-grown trees yet. As such, they are still vulnerable to being strangled by vines and shaded out by other opportunistic non-native plants like burdock. So, to ensure that the trees survive to reach full growth, we had to prune back these invasive species.

It was good, hard work, and I understand why it had to be done. I’ll admit, though, it felt a little weird to me to be volunteering with an organization whose specific mission is to plant things…then spending most of the time actively killing plants. Yes, invasive species are a threat to native ones. But part of me couldn’t help feeling like we had something backwards here. There we were, killing the plants we didn’t like because they were outcompeting the ones we did. That seemed eerily like the kind of attitude that got us into the current environmental crisis in the first place, including the problems of non-native species invading and disrupting the balance of the ecosystem.

And it would have made sense to me if not for the fact that we were working right at the edge of a highway. Why is that relevant? Because, seriously, how can we pretend to care about the disruption to the ecosystem caused by invasive species when we don’t prune back the one invasive species that started these problems in the first place: ourselves? Instead of spending our effort fighting with these invasive plants about what the species composition of the green areas will be, isn’t it more important to fight for larger green areas, and reductions in the concrete deserts? Are we planting these trees because we actually care about trees, or just because we think trees are pretty? It seems a little weird to care about oak trees, but think that burdock is nothing but a nuisance to be chopped down.

Here’s the important question, as I see it: are we just planting these trees to beautify already green areas, or are we planting trees to expand the green areas and push back against the grey? Now, to be fair, I don’t know what that area looked like before Million Trees NYC got there a few years ago. But what worries me is that environmentally-minded people might be spending their efforts on things that marginally improve human quality of life within the city, through increasing the aesthetic appeal of our surroundings, instead of focusing on driving back the concrete and replacing it with ecologically viable land.

Again, I’m not saying that invasive species shouldn’t be fought. What I’m saying is that the most dangerous and high-profile invasive species is ourselves. If we win the fight against every other invasive species, but continue to allow our own sprawl of life-crushing concrete to go unchecked, then none of those other victories means anything, not in the long run. If we want the ecosystems to stabilize, then we need to stop fragmenting them into little bits and pieces, stop paving them over just to make our economy more convenient (in other words, to make our system designed for destroying the world more efficient, so that a tiny number of humans can get even more money at the expense of the long-term survival of the entire species). I felt that I was doing good work today, making sure that the invasive species introduced by globalization, and colonial imperialism before it, don’t gain a foothold in disrupting the new ecosystem that Million Trees NYC was creating here. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that even a giant morass of nothing but weeds and mugwort would be infinitely preferable to a paved concrete road. Yes, I’d rather have a healthy ecosystem with thriving local plants, obviously. But the difference between a stable ecosystem and one rich in invasive species seems less important than the difference between having an ecosystem at all and being a concrete wasteland.

It’s the concrete wastelands we should be pruning back first, not the invasive plants. Suppose all the invasive species take over. Yes, the ecosystem will never be the same; but in time, in will achieve a new equilibrium, if we leave it be. Even an invasive plant is still a plant, still a living thing, and where there is life, there is hope.  Where there is concrete, there is nothing but despair.

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Daily Prompt: Fly on the Wall

If you could be a “fly on the wall” anywhere and at any time in history, where and when would you choose?

At first, I thought this one would be a no-brainer for me: the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution. Despite being only a few months away from an honors degree in anthropology, with a specific focus on archaeology, it never ceases to perplex me. Why in the world did anyone ever think it would be a good idea to transition away from a leisurely, healthy, socially equitable way of life and replace it with a labor-intensive, physically degenerative, and incredibly hierarchical substitute? Of course, I know that these changes didn’t happen overnight, all at once. But even incremental changes shouldn’t have gone unnoticed, especially when they were all changes for the worse. Let’s even stipulate that agriculture’s toxic effects on the rest of society (such as the emergence of social inequality, which you’d think would be a pretty obvious red flag) took thousands of years to develop, and the only immediately apparent changes were the massive (though possibly incremental) increases in labor-intensity. You would think each successive generation would notice that they were working harder than the previous generation, but not getting much for their efforts other than more disease, worse nutrition, and shorter life expectancy.

It’s a bit of a mystery that any group of sane people wouldn’t just look around one day, say “bugger this,” and go back to the healthier and happier way of life that the other groups around them were still practicing. I have a theory as to why they didn’t, but, like any such theory, it’s fantastically hard to prove, and rather involved, so I’ll set that aside for now. The point is, it would be nice to know why the agricultural revolution ever got off the ground at all, since right from the outset it should have been obvious to everyone involved that it was not just bad for the land around them (and remember, this was at a time in human history when basically everyone still revered the land as a literal God), but even worse for the agriculturalists themselves. I’ve always wished I could see how it happened, so I thought it would be easy to answer today’s daily prompt.

But here’s the thing about being a “fly on the wall,” as the prompt puts it: you can watch things unfold all you like, but you’re powerless to stop them. To me, that would be worse than not knowing for certain. To watch the first domino fall, to be there at the moment when everything went wrong, and to be unable to act…that would be torture. I wish I could have been there, in that time period, sure, but not just to watch and come back home; what would be the point? I don’t want to be present at the moment the Agricultural Revolution began just to watch, I would be there to stop it. To prevent the destruction of the natural world by human civilization before it even began. If I were just there to watch, it would be the worst thing I could possibly imagine. It would be like what happens to Harry Potter when he is exposed to the Dementors: being forced to relive the horrific tragedy that started the whole story in the first place, over and over, utterly powerless to change it.

So instead, here’s my answer: I would want to be a fly on the wall at any point in human history during the hundreds of thousands of years before that moment, before it all went wrong in Mesopotamia. (And in a couple other places, like Mesoamerica, China, and maybe India, but mainly Mesopotamia.) If that can’t be done, then let me see any human culture in the past ten thousand years untouched by agricultural civilization. Give me the hunter-fisher-gatherers of Mesolithic Europe, or the indigenous Ainu of the Japanese islands, or the Woodlands cultures that inhabited Manhattan island less than five hundred years ago. For that matter, give me a modern culture living in an ecologically responsible way, if you can find one. Most of them have been exterminated or assimilated by the monumentally destructive force that is global modern industrial capitalism, but there are still a few pockets of sustainable human culture left. Give me that. Show me a human culture in harmony with their environment. Let me watch, and learn, so that I can do my part to try to steer my own culture back towards something similar. Something sustainable, responsible, and sane.

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Peak Water

This weekend, while I was working on my three introductory posts, I came across a sobering article from the Guardian: According to Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, three of the world’s largest grain-producing countries (the United States, India, and China) are approaching “peak water.” Seriously. Industrial agriculture requires a lot of water to irrigate its vast, single-crop fields—far more water than can be reliably captured and stored through Permaculture techniques like swales. This isn’t because industrial agriculture is doing more with the water, but rather because it is less efficient at managing its resources, so it requires more water to do the same job. This extra water has to come from somewhere to make up the difference. That “somewhere,” for most places, is the ground: aquifers, vast subterranean water deposits, are tapped for wells to irrigate the farmland. But here’s the catch: like most of the Earth’s many natural resources, aquifers can be used either sustainably or unsustainably.

Simply put, a certain amount of water accumulates in an aquifer each year, mostly as a result of rain seeping through the soil and down into the water table. At the same time, industrial agriculture removes a certain amount of water from the aquifer each year, then spews it out of contraptions like those giant rotating sprinklers that have become a familiar sight on American farmlands. Much of this water does not end up returned to the aquifer. It is absorbed by the plants and shipped off to supermarkets halfway around the world, for one thing, but a significant amount of it simply evaporates under the significant sunlight that most good farmland gets. (That’s part of why it’s good farmland.) As a result, if more water is being pumped out of the aquifer than is trickling in, the aquifer starts to get depleted. And there are some aquifers that simply don’t refill—like the one that provides irrigation water to most of the farmland in the American midwest. Once the water starts running out, industrial agriculture can’t sustain itself, and the food system collapses.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that industrial agriculture is “suicidally unsustainable.” What kind of reasonable person, even one acting purely out of rational self-interest, would intentionally and knowingly burn through their water faster than it will replenish itself? It’s not as though we desperately need the extra grain yields; there is plenty of food to go around if we want to solve world hunger, we just need to distribute it properly. In fact, in the United States, overproduction of grain is a major economic problem; farmers (well, mostly agribusiness corporations) are financed with special subsidies on the American taxpayers’ dime because they produce so much more wheat than they can sell, and a substantial amount of it goes to waste, rotting in grain silos. Meanwhile, grain prices are so low (which is good for people who buy grain, in other words most of us, but bad for the folks trying to make a living selling it) that the farmers can’t support themselves on the income they get from selling what doesn’t get wasted. We don’t need to try to increase grain yields every year. Especially if it means that our grain yields are going to suddenly collapse because we overtaxed our aquifers.

This is why ecological responsibility matters. This is why we need Permaculture. We all need to eat; there’s no getting around it. And there are more of us every year. If we want to have any hope of sustaining the human population at anything close to its current level (or even anything nonzero) in the long term, we are going to need to stop actively bringing about our own destruction. Sustainability isn’t some bleeding-heart environmentalist hippie problem. Though I proudly call myself a bleeding-heart environmentalist hippie, I think my friends in the bleeding-heart environmentalist hippie community have sometimes really misrepresented sustainability as a kind of “save the whales” project. And, in a sense, it is. But the project isn’t “save the Earth.” This culture is driving many species extinct with its horrifically irresponsible behavior, but the Earth will recover. It has survived much worse things than us and kept going, kept maintaining a habitable biosphere. What’s really at stake when we talk about sustainability is “save the humans.” Because while the Earth will be fine (and in fact much better off) if our massively destructive industrial food system collapses, almost all of us won’t be. We will starve.

If we continue down this path, senselessly destroying everything we need to survive on this planet, we will inevitably destroy ourselves. Acting destructively is always, ultimately, self-destructive. So even if all you care about is humanity’s interests, or even just your own country’s interests, sustainability should be your number one priority. It should be everyone‘s number one priority.

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What Is Permaculture?

This post is the second in a three-part introductory series in which I elaborate upon the central topics of this blog, and the central tenets of my worldview. This post, as you may have guessed from the title, is about Permaculture. Yesterday, I posted about Panpsychism. A post about Polyamory will be forthcoming.

Permaculture. The word was originally coined as a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” but this is rather ironic in retrospect. Permaculture, in a sense, is the opposite of modern agriculture: it is what you might call ecologically responsible horticulture. I say “horticulture” because there really is no such thing as ecologically responsible agriculture, not if you use the word to mean what it actually says: the cultivation (“culture“) of fields (“agri-,” from the Latin ager, which means “field”). Razing an ecosystem, leveling the land, and planting single crops in martial rows . . . there isn’t really a way to do that responsibly. That way of treating the Earth can’t even be made sustainable, let alone beneficial. You might as well ask where to buy healthy fast food, or how to assault someone respectfully. Horticulture, on the other hand, is about the care and sustaining of gardens (“horti-” from the Latin hortus, “garden”), not fields. Simply put, agriculture is what happens in a field, while horticulture is what happens in a garden. Permaculture is a way of life in which ecologically beneficial gardening is the primary means of subsistence. Where the agriculturalist tills the soil, the Permaculturist plants by hand. Where the agriculturalist seeks imposed order and homogeneity, the Permaculturist revels in diversity and the emergent order of the natural world.

Permaculture is rooted in the recognition of a human culture’s three central responsibilities: caring for the world, caring for human beings, and returning the surplus. Though these are not hierarchically ordered, it is worth noting that caring for the world necessarily has lexical priority over caring for human beings—good luck providing for all humans without a healthy planet to sustain them. It is possible to care for the Earth without caring for humans, but any attempt to care for humans without caring for the Earth will ultimately fail. Humans could not survive without a healthy Earth, though the Earth has shown itself perfectly capable of doing just fine for billions of years without humans. That is not to say that humans have nothing to offer, or that humans are bad; on the contrary, humans have the capacity to be tremendously ecologically beneficial. The goal of Permaculture is to realize that capacity. When we take more than we need, instead of keeping it for ourselves and modifying our definition of “need,” we should return the extra, using it to improve the welfare of the Earth and of our fellow human beings. These two goals—human quality of life and ecological responsibility—are not opposed, but necessarily interdependent.

There is nothing more important or definitive about a society than how it finds its food. Though generalizations have a tendency to be misleading (well, generally), the most useful way of differentiating one society from another is by looking at how they make sure they have enough to eat. Whereas human cultures lived for hundreds of thousands of years in ways that did not destroy their world, modern industrial agriculture threatens to besmirch that record at every point along what we have come to think of as the “food production line.” Everything about our culture’s means of subsistence, from the eradication of crops’ genetic diversity to the toxic chemicals spewed all over them in a self-defeating war against pests, from the mechanization of farming techniques to the increased centralization of control in a few powerful corporations, from the billions of tons of lost topsoil every year to the very language we use to talk about food—every single aspect of our culture’s food system is destructive, totalitarian, and borderline pathological. It speaks volumes about our modern, globalized, industrial-capitalist society that we obtain our food in such an ecologically corrosive, suicidally unsustainable way. Instead of the ecological imperialism of agriculture, particularly modern industrial agriculture, Permaculture is committed to the idea that the organization of the ecosystem should determine the organization of the society, and not the other way around.

Permaculture is about listening to the land, and entering into a relationship with the place and its ecosystem. About living on the land like a respectful, responsible tenant, and not like a vindictive, tyrannical landlord. About valuing the local and the diverse, rather than imposing homogeneity in an attempt at a unilateral, one-plant-fits-all solution to the most important philosophical question in the world: what’s for dinner?

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