Maaaaaybe We Have Too Much Free Time If We’re Fighting About The Environment…..

Gawd.  Melvin and I got into it about factory farming and the environment–I even busted out a college paper from 2008, so of course, if Melvin had to suffer through it, welp, so do you 🙂

Introduction to Environmental Studies                                                   Jessica Kenley



Sustainability Versus Entitlement

Americans are obsessed with a meat-based diet.  The average American eats meat at every meal, and thousands of ways have been painstakingly devised to process meat to produce an insane amount of variation to what are essentially three basic categories: beef, pork, and poultry.  We have done away with and celebrated the demise of small pastoral farms in only fifty years, and gleefully replaced them with the “factory farm.”  As the name implies, factory farms are monstrous automated contraptions designed to produce mass quantities of food without regard for environmental impact, sustainability, or individual life.  The animals in these concentrated animal food operations are simply machinery and the only concern for those who manage them is the production of enormous quantities of inexpensive meat.

Do Americans deserve to eat like kings every day while others around the world, mostly children, starve to death?  Eight-hundred-twenty million people on the planet are undernourished (Food and Agriculture Organization).  Animal rights groups and ethicists have argued in the recent past that the beef cattle in America are better fed than hundreds of thousands of people across the globe.  When does entitlement and gluttony cross the line into manifest exploitative apathy?  The presence of an unlimited amount of food in this country is so expected and undervalued that Tom Philpott, a food-politics writer, says that, “…food [has become] banalized into minimal rituals of ingestion, digestion, and expulsion,” due to “food production tak[ing] place in such abstraction.”  When the only effort required for a meat-based meal to drive around the corner to the nearest grocer and pick from rows upon rows of neatly plastic-wrapped Styrofoam containers, the value and meaning that eating meat should evoke is entirely absent.  The enormous amount of hard work and generations of expertise that went into the farming of the past is completely lost on most Americans today.  Wendell Berry, described as “one of America’s profound ecological thinkers,” declares that the results of today’s “get big or get out” farming mentality is that, “…the ideals of workmanship and thrift have been replaced by the goals of leisure, comfort, and entertainment.”  The bottom line is that when people have no idea how their food is made or the relative expense, globally, of producing it is, the value they place on it is minimal save for how much they enjoy the taste.  Factory farming has made it absurdly easy for most Americans to dismiss entirely the issue of how their diet affects the rest of the world.

The preceding begs the question: what exactly is the cost of Americans eating so much meat?    Wendell Berry calls factory farming “community killing agriculture, with its monomania of bigness.”  David Pimentel, professor of agriculture and life sciences, writes that, “…runoff of soil and nitrogen fertilizer from agricultural production in the Corn Belt has contributed to the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico.”  Statistics include:

  • Nearly 70% of the 268 million acres of U.S. public land used for grazing livestock has been damaged by overgrazing (Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry).  Overgrazing causes erosion, which leads to water loss and contributes to flooding and droughts, and the overall increase in severe weather.
  • Sixteen percent of the world’s annual production of methane is emitted by livestock (Happier Meals).  In the face of the recognized crises of global warming, severely cutting back on dependence on an animal based diet could literally save the planet from mass extinction due to uninhabitable conditions.
  • A calorie of beef takes 33 percent more fossil fuel energy to produce than a calorie of energy from potatoes would (Happier Meals).  Another recognized but widely ignored crisis is that of dwindling fossil fuel supplies and the lack of alternative energy sources.  Yet Americans are squandering it because of a sense of entitlement to convenience and personal taste.
  • The quantity of waste produced by farm animals in the U.S. is more than 130 times greater than that produced by humans (Farm Sanctuary).
  • Agricultural runoff has killed millions of fish, and is the main reason why 60% of America’s rivers and streams are “impaired” (Farm Sanctuary).  Furthermore, it is predicted that by the year 2050, the oceans will have no fish left as a direct result of human activity.
  • The average American consumes 660,430 gallons of water per year.  To put this into perspective, the average Japanese person consumes 303,798 gallons per year, and the average Chinese person, only 184,920 (Colin Dunn, Is a Big Hunk of Steak Worth Almost 2,000 Gallons of Water?).

Because of the wasteful methods of farming across the world, a worldwide water shortage has been predicted, led by the United States, China, and India—the three countries that collectively account for about half of the world grain harvest (Brown, 141).  Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, asserts that the only reserve that can be tapped in the event of a worldwide food shortage is the grain used as livestock feed.  Indeed, according to the World Watch Institute, 150 million tons of grain are fed to U.S. livestock annually, resulting in only 20 million tons of meat products.  Obviously, this is an incredible waste of resources.  It takes an estimated hundred times as much water to produce a pound of beef as it does a pound of wheat.  In some countries, water is the new currency of war, and Americans are spending it in huge quantities seemingly without a care.  Furthermore, also from the World Watch Institute, if it takes ten pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, then eating meat is roughly ten times as fertilizer-consumptive and pesticide-polluting as eating grains.  Wendell Berry writes, “An agriculture cannot survive long at the expense of the natural systems that support it and that provide it with models.  A culture cannot survive long at the expense of either its agricultural or its natural sources.  To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal.”

Looking objectively at the environmental crises that the Earth is facing, people everywhere should be terrified and scrambling to do all that they can to reverse them in an effort to self-preserve.  Instead, Americans have been collectively sitting on their hands, doing their best not to learn anything about how they can help in order to avoid guilty feelings of personal responsibility for their wasteful ways of living.  Thomas Friedman said of Americans collectively in an interview, “[We’ll be] as dumb as we wanna be and we’ll get to it when we get to it.”  Wendell Berry says, “To know anything at all becomes a moral predicament,” and implores people to value morality and ask, “How can I be responsible for what I know?”  What I would like to know is: If Americans don’t care now, on the verge of mass ecosystem and global economic collapse, is there really any hope that they’re going to start?  In our culture of mass desensitization and obsession with self-pleasure, are Americans even capable of caring?

What do you think?


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