Monday, November 30, 2009

Reading your way to a better life by eating better through what you read

A new class has emerged at Penn State that I want to encourage all PSU undergraduates reading this post to take. Eat Your Ecology: Food Writing and Environmentalism - English 297C taught by Kimberly Andrews. As a big proponent of understanding where our food comes from, how it's grown, slaughtered, processed, etc. I can only say that the reading list alone makes me wish I were an undergraduate again. Wendell Berry's Unsettling of America, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, numerous other hot readings, and some great experiential learning. Check it!

The course is described as follows:

This course aims to bring you closer to your food — intellectually, literally, and ecologically. Over the course of a semester, we will tackle questions such as: What, exactly, are we eating? Where does it come from? What are the environmental impacts of the current dietary culture of this country? How do our eating habits map onto other American (or, more generally, Western) ways of life — urbanism, corporatization, consumerism, capitalism? How can we use food, and narratives about food, to look at community development, local and national politics, spiritual enrichment, and ethics? Lastly, what do farmers really do, anyway?

There will be multiple experiential aspects of this class. You will travel to and work on farms. Every day, you will take note of the kinds of foods you choose to eat and occasionally expand upon those choices in a journal. We’ll take a day one weekend to go foraging — hopefully, we’ll have learned enough to go about finding some beneficial wild foods. Finally, we’ll of course cook a meal together (and we’ll share food constantly in class), using only local, sustainably produced food. Good nourishment for body and mind: that’s the goal of this course.

Come on. Take it. You get to go foraging. I hope I can just go on one of the weekend trips. Maybe they can join our club for a farm trip or to visit Stone Meadow Farm to make cheese.

For more contact information, go here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The wombat knows

It knows that we are part of something much larger than ourselves - Earth. But we have only one Earth. So let's take care of it.

This video comes from the Foundation for a Global Community, a group that currently works with Global Mindshift. Together they are trying to make the shift to a global community "unstoppable." Whether you agree with this mission or not, the message of the wombat is unavoidable. To truly live sustainably, we must share equitably with those here now and with those who are yet to come.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Unholy sh**! Pork and groundwater

What do pigs have to do with groundwater? Well (no pun intended), maybe a lot.

Rolling Stone reports that if you live in North Carolina, Utah, or a few other states, your water's health is compromised by the enormous amount of hog feces routinely spilled into it. Millions of gallons of it, untreated, flows into watersheds where it can make people sick, wreak havoc and reek of putrefaction, wreck local ecosystems, and potentially flow out to sea to compromise sea life. And one company in particular, Smithfield Pork, is the worst of them all.

How bad? I think the only appropriate term might be catastrophically sh**ty. Check it:

Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company treated its effluvia as big-city governments do -- even if it came marginally close to that standard -- it would lose money. So many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield's business model.

A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That's a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

All of this has been tacitly okay'd by governmental inaction over the years. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that this should be criminal. It should not be within one company's or industry's purview to compromise the health and welfare of thousands of people and billions of plants and animals at limited expense for the sake of lining the pockets of a few and providing you or me with a cheap pulled pork sandwich, side of ham, sausages, or hot dogs.

And you don't need to be a vegetarian to recognize how insane this system of production is when it comes to total health. However, if you are inclined you might want to see the previous post on Peter Singer. But the industrial system pumps pigs full of drugs to prevent diseases necessarily thrust on them by their living conditions. They literally live encased in their own diseases and are held up in abject misery by antibiotics. Of course, these diseases and the drugs run into water tables. Anyone who has followed this blog for the last couple of months will have seen other pieces that deal with agriculture. A few months ago, I posted on chickens and their mass production following a Johns Hopkins study. Similarly, we did a posting on cows in Wisconsin from the New York Times.

Most of you reading this are current or future teachers. Our schools buy from these companies. What is the message there? What is the lesson to be learned? What does where our food comes from, how it's produced, what its costs are, how those costs accrue, how some costs are hidden, and what we read and don't read on those packages tell us about what we value? Would you be willing to show 11-year-olds this process and then ask them to eat it?

The questions are, "Should we eat this way? Why? What can you do about it?"

But this is something we have to face. If we want clean water and want bottled water to go away, then we have to confront the entrenched web of our industrialized economic habits that pollute. They say they pollute on our behalf. Is that really true?

I want to be unequivocal here. I believe that our diets unnecessarily hurt other animals and poison our water. I think that anyone who reads this post and continues to buy a Smithfield pork chop is deciding to poison someone else's water and water that sustains non-human life.

I want to say that I am someone like to Smithfield's president's caricature:

"The animal-rights people," he once said, "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S. Most vegetarians I know are neurotic." When the Environmental Protection Agency cited Smithfield for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, Luter responded by comparing what he claimed were the number of violations the company could theoretically have been charged with (2.5 million, by his calculation) to the number of documented violations up to that point (seventy-four). "A very, very small percent," he said.

I don't "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S." But I do think that we must confront these issues. 2.5 million violations of the Clean Water Act? As I said earlier, this is criminal. Absolutely criminal.

They have outsourced their responsibility to a corporation that wants to keep us blind because its methods are so reprehensible that people hate living near them (see The Way We Eat). That is my position.

What's yours?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A poem by Mary Oliver

The Summer Day
By Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Teaching evolution in American classes. What's it have to do with ecological literacy?

This Thursday, November 19th marks the 150th anniversary release date of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The day will be marked by a number of events across the globe and at Penn State. The Education Policy Studies Association is hosting a talk by political science professors and researchers Erik Plutzer and Michael Berkman called "Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle for America's Classrooms." It will be hosted at 12 am this Thursday in 403 Rackley Building (note the room change from the flier at right). This post will briefly introduce this topic and hopefully show you why the ecologically minded person ought to consider evolution's importance in science and schools. Without evolution, ecology makes much less sense.

A huge number of people in the United States deny the reality of evolution. Sadly, many of them are creationists and Biblical literalists who push a religious and anti-science agenda in public press and in our public schools. They exert pressure from the top down and the bottom up greatly affecting what can happen in a high school biology classrooms. How?

In 2004, George Bush sounded off on teaching evolution after a school board instituted a policy that advocated teaching so-called "intelligent design" (ID) creationism in Dover, Pennsylvania. Bush advocated teaching "both sides" (evolution and ID) as if ID were a tenable scientific theory.

What happened? Nine Dover residents with the help of the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Pepper Hamilton law firm took the school board to the federal Middle District of the Pennsylvania. That ended in December 2005 with Judge John E. Jones III ruling that ID unconstitutional.

Why? It is A) a form of creationism which makes it b) unconstitutional. Creationism, as court Edwards v. Aguillard and McLean v. Arkansas both found, is a form of religion. Because of the First Amendment's "establishment clause" prohibition on state-supported religion and the "Lemon test" (which states that policies must have a secular purpose, cannot advance nor hinder religion, and cannot entangle the state with religion) Judge Jones found that Dover School District could not teach ID. Finally, Jones found that ID is not science but is rather a form of religiously-based pseudoscience.

Jones is not alone in this. As my other blog, Forms Most Beautiful, shows extensively here and here, there is no scientific credibility in ID. The overwhelming majority of scientists in biological and geological sciences recognize evolution as the central theory of biology. Based on the domain-specific agreement and consensus we might think that science teachers teach evolution right?

Sort of. That's Berkman and Plutzer's work comes in. They published an article in PLoS Biology two summers ago titled "Evolution and Creationism in America's Schools: A National Portrait." It was perhaps the first really nationally representative look at what biology teachers actually teach in U.S. public schools. They write:
Our survey of biology teachers is the first nationally representative, scientific sample survey to examine evolution and creationism in the classroom. Three different survey questions all suggest that between 12% and 16% of the nation's biology teachers are creationist in orientation. Roughly one sixth of all teachers professed a “young earth” personal belief, and about one in eight reported that they teach creationism or intelligent design in a positive light. The number of hours devoted to these alternative theories is typically low—but this nevertheless must surely convey to students that these theories should be accorded respect as scientific perspectives.
Their talk today is on this topic.

Why should we care? As ecologically-minded people, we recognize our interrelationships with other organisms. This of course includes the air we breathe every day being shared with countless other organisms, the water we drink and expel coming through processes that involve billions of other organisms, and the soil we till and cultivate to grow our food being complex thermodynamic and organic processes that we interact with. All of life is a system. It is a coevolutionary system through deep time. The DNA that makes up my body is the same set of biochemicals in every organism on the planet. As the "tree of life" pic here shows, we not only share our current space but our lineage with all of those organisms.

We share with them. As such, we ought to consider how we treat them. How do we use the resources they use? What do we owe them if anything at all?

As teachers in a world that must come to a more sustainable future, we don't have the luxury of indulging in falsehoods about how we modern humans have come to be where we are. Part of this understanding entails our evolved natural history. To be ecologically literate means seeing the patterns before us today, the patterns that have shaped us, and what patterns we weave for the future. The science of evolution is part of this. It is worth defending.

Perhaps Darwin said it best in the closing sentences from The Origin of Species. "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Come to today's lecture. 12 pm in 403 Rackley.

Penn State's Energy Future

If you can make it, please do!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The impact of "No Impact Man"

This is a guest post by Penn State Environmental Society president, John Stevenson. John involves himself in the major sustainability and natural environmental justice initiatives at Penn State. He is also an extant member of 3E-COE. Enjoy


I think that No Impact Man by Colin Beavan is the most important environmental book of our generation.

Other books offer critiques of our current way of life, tackling the lack of community and active citizenship, the gospel of consumption or the way we work. Beavan writes with knowledge of these histories and focused studies, but I think he knew that we needed something else. We needed a personal, accessible, honest narrative about a different way to live, and that’s what he wrote. Upon starting the project, he was not an expert in anything environmental but simply a liberal who complained a lot and did little.

No Impact Man is not a how-to guide. There are other books out there on how to cook and find local food, reduce your waste and use low-carbon transportation. This is the story of a family’s journey towards reducing their impact on the world, one step at a time.

Beavan describes his personal strategy and experiences such as the frustration of washing clothes in their bathtub, getting his wife off coffee and having limited hours to work from solar electricity. He also recounts the joys of no-TV, the meditative benefits of bread baking, spending more time with his family and becoming a social hub for his friends. The Beavans break their own rules sometimes, deal with the guilt, and have family disputes, but these only add to their humanity and make it easier to identify with them.

Beavan also offers up concise descriptions of issues which involve all consumers. These essentially outline his motivation for various lifestyle changes and cover a number of key points about where the American herd is going. The most striking fact to me was that Americans spend 5 work-months per year either in their cars or paying for them. Is this love affair satisfying? Or worth that much time? He covers externalities, the urgency of the environmental crisis and questions the typical definitions of progress and growth, not in an academic way, but in a very tangible oh-my-god-we-need-to-change-the-status-quo-rapidly way.

I can’t emphasis enough how accessible and straight forward this book is compared to every other environmental or lifestyle book I’ve read. He recognizes complexities and difficult issues like nuclear power, political change and the job transition necessary in coal towns, but he doesn’t get bogged down in them. He goes straight for the heart in discussing the difficulty of individual behavior change and examining our life priorities. Beavan suggests that, “It feels better, we think, to go in the wrong direction than to feel we don't understand our true direction.”

I would highly-recommend this book to people at every stage of environmental awareness and action. It will teach you something, it’s well documented and it’s a good kick in the rear for us to take the world situation seriously and recognize our personal power. 25 pages of it are available for preview on Google Books. Check it out.

- John T. Stevenson

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

That silly continent of trash

I just want to follow up on what the news from the North Pacific Gyre garbage "patch." As we've posted here a few times before, a raft of garbage twice the size of the state of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean. Innumerable organisms live, feed, and breed there and are affected by the consequences of our actions every day. They are "externalities" to our economy and its waste stream or, in a less pleasant term, "collateral damage" to "business as usual."

The New York Times has a good piece up on it called "Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash." It's a solid piece that will fill in what we've learned here. Not to make that silly little garbage landscape feel alone:
Scientists say the garbage patch is just one of five that may be caught in giant gyres scattered around the world’s oceans. Abandoned fishing gear like buoys, fishing line and nets account for some of the waste, but other items come from land after washing into storm drains and out to sea.

I know that sometimes we are faced with insurmountable circumstances and wonder, "How will nature survive?" This is a good question and it indicates our ecological consciousness. But we should also note that non-human life adapts. Consider the Trigger Fish that has used a caulking tube for its habitat. It lives now.

But will it thrive? Can it sustain?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why SHOULD you eat what you eat?

This friday, November 13th, Peter Singer will speak at Penn State on "The Ethics of What We Eat" at 4 pm in 10 Sparks. This presentation will likely flow from his decades of work as a utilitarian philosopher who has focused on how we treat animals. As a utilitarian, he argues that many of the animals that we eat are entitled the rights that many humans are, or perhaps more, because of their capacities as sentient beings.

To give a simple (but hopefully not simplistic) example, pigs have more developed senses of self than infant humans. Pigs remember who they are from moment to moment, experience intense desires, develop social relationships, play games, can deceive one another, and even use mirrors to find objects. Infants have do not have these capacities. As Flowing from his work in Practical Ethics, Singer argues that a pig might well fulfill John Locke's definition of a person: "A thinking intelligent being that has some reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places." Note: a human is not de facto a person though If we are not to kill persons, we should not kill pigs.

But this is where things get ethically difficult. Neonatal infant humans lack the sense of personhood that adult pigs do. However, we outlaw infanticide. Surely we wouldn't coop infants, allow them to wallow in their own feces, inject them or feed them massive amounts of antibiotics because we force them to live in their own feces. Were such a place discovered, there would be a trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But if we use Singer's criteria, factory farms constitute, if not crimes against humanity, crimes against personhood.

Why should we continue to kill pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens the way that we do? If we do that, then why must infanticide be deemed unethical? To make this even less comfortable, why are the mentally retarded given rights when gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are not? Why is an unborn fetus granted more standing than a living dolphin or orca in a pod? He would argue that at the base of our preferences for humans over other animals is a kind of chauvanism he calls "speciesism" that lacks good reasons and perpetuates suffering on an unacceptable scale. his conclusions naturally lead to vegetarianism and veganism.

Perhaps from this all-too-brief entry you can see why some have called him "the architect of the culture of death." He pushes buttons effectively. However, he is also one of the world's most vocal advocates for the world's impoverished people because they suffer, in part, because of the exploitation and neglect of wealthy people, nations, and their global organizations. Because we know that billions of people are suffering, Singer argues that we should do much more for them and much less for ourselves by redistributing wealth and resources. To read more on that you can read "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," One World, his newest book The Life You Can Save, a recent interview with D.J. Grothe on Point of Inquiry (listen to others here), and lots of YouTube videos about poverty and cooperation (see two videos below).

Singer wants us to consider our choices' ramifications in the real world. His philosophy lives in the real world and puts everything in front of us. Why do we eat the way that we do? What are its effects on ourselves and on others, including non-human animals? How does my dinner affect the economic, social, and ecological health of where I live and where I don't? What are the ecological ramifications of eating a $24 steak dinner instead of the same on butternut squash ravioli and a salad? What if I made that butternut squash ravioli and salad from a local farmer's produce and made that dinner at home and gave the extra money to an organization like Oxfam? Which is the better decision. The Way We Eat matters.

Come out this Friday, November 13th at 4 pm to 10 Sparks and dig into these issues. If you have a Facebook account you can register that you are coming!

Note in the following his stance on bottled water. Love it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Al Gore on NPR today

We should credit Al Gore for changing the tone, message, and acceptance of climate change's reality in the American popular imagination and zeitgeist. Without An Inconvenient Truth, we might still be shucked with and shackled by the power broker arguments of Exxon-Mobil and Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). Some powerful interests, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, still try engage in denialism of the worst sort and that's a great shame. But Gore changed that and he deserves credit.

Today, in an NPR interview, Gore called on Obama to be a leader at the Copenhagen Climate Summit this December.

They feature some material from his new book if you're interested. Here is an excerpt:

"I know that we waited too long. I wish we had acted sooner. But the outlook for your future is now bright. The wounds we inflicted on the atmosphere and the earth's ecological system are healing.

"It seems ironic now that our commitment during the Great Transformation to a low-carbon economy was what restored economic prosperity. Once the world embarked on the journey to heal our world and save your future, tens of millions of new jobs — including whole new professions — began to emerge.

"I ask only one thing of you in return for what we have done on your behalf: pass on to your children the courage and resolve to act boldly and wisely whenever the future is at risk. You will be challenged, as we were. But I know that you will not fail those who come after you, as we did not fail you.

"The choice is awesome and potentially eternal. It is in the hands of the present generation: a decision we cannot escape, and a choice to be mourned or celebrated through all the generations that follow."

I applaud Gore for his leadership and his fight. And yes, I think that he should have won the Nobel Prize with the IPCC.

But I should note that Gore thinks that we "consumers" can make the difference in the "greening" of our "choices," those being consumption choices. I doubt that very much. So long as we are hitched to a "consumer" market that supports a growth economy we are committing ecocide (outlined nicely in Jared Diamond's Collapse, Speth's Bridge at the Edge of the World, or in the writings of Illich, Sachs, and others) which is, to my mind, collective suicide. The alleged efficiency shifts in lightbulbs, faucets, and cars are not enough. They're good.

But unless Americans change our diets, where and how often we travel and how we get there, what we think is acceptable lighting in the first place, what we think our fair share is, and too many other things to list here, talking about consumers as consumers might not be helpful unless we deliberately make this culture about consuming less. And all that can yield a more abundant and flourishing life for more people.


If you are interested, Newsweek features Gore on its cover and in a long article in the latest issue. They call him "the thinking man's thinking man." We report. You decide.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Eight Reasons

We usually stay away from the usual updates on the schooling headlines. Race to the Top gets enough press in EdWeek and big media. But you should consider this question.

The Century Foundation asks, "Should teachers be judged by how well their students perform on standardized test?"

Take a moment and think about this: If you are a you think it's a fair or worthwhile to asses your pedagogical skills, your content knowledge, and your relationship with your students based on how well they do on standardized tests? Walk yourself around in that for a while. Go read about No Child Left Behind or the PSSAs. Think about being rewarded even more for teaching to the test. Watch the curriculum narrow more.

You got it. The Century Foundation answers the previous question of whether teachers should be rewarded for student standardized test scores in "Eight Reasons Not to Tie Teacher Pay to Standardized Test Results."
The U.S. Department of Education has determined that the answer is “yes.” In the proposed rules for the Race to the Top Fund—the federal program that is seeking to distribute $4.3 billion in aid to states that are implementing innovative and ambitious plans for increasing student achievement—Education Secretary Arne Duncan insists that in order to receive these funds, states should be ready evaluate and compensate teachers based in part on how well their students perform on standardized tests.
For all of Obama's talk last year that indicated he didn't like "bubble tests" he sure seems to be aligning himself with them more and more. Where is place-based education in this? Where is the possibility for rewards for teachers who create good lessons about what matters to their communities and develops real skills?

If you want to read all of the Eight Reasons click here for the .pdf.