HomeBiographyWritingsBook IntroductionsIn the MediaNews and EventsResourcesContact

The Coming Crisis: Environmental Disaster, The Global Meat Culture, And Your Health

"Where there is disharmony in the world, death follows," an ancient Navajo saying


I. The Dialectic Of Western Culture

In so many ways, western culture is the pinnacle of human civilization: it is without parallel in its scientific and technological achievements; it is home of the enlightenment and critical reason; it has borne a pantheon of philosophical geniuses from Plato and to Kant and Nietzsche; it spawned the tradition of democracy that grants every person, theoretically at least, basic rights regardless of race, color, gender, or creed.

But there is another aspect of western culture that we donít like to think about, another face that is ugly and scarred, a dark side of the light of reason; here we find a culture bent on the domination and exploitation of all forms of life.

Side by side with the bible, Greek philosophy, the discovery of new worlds, the declaration of independence, and brilliant medical and echnological advances we find slavery, authoritarianism, inquisitions, imperialism, genocide, an appalling abuse of animals, and the rape of the natural world.

This dark side of western culture has brought us to the brink of disaster -- ecologically, socially, economically, spiritually, and in our very bodies.

Ancient eastern cultures were founded on the principle of ahimsa -- the absence of desire to do harm; this entails a profound respect for life, a deep sense of connection with living processes, and a way of life in harmony with the world.

Western culture, however, especially in modern form, is founded on the desire to control; it is informed by an arrogance that separates human beings from everything natural; in fact, it is a nature-hating culture.

The western mind is built on a sharp distinction between culture and nature; culture is the domain of reason, to which men alone belong, and where they exercise rationality as a means of control; women, seen to be full of emotion and passion, but lacking reason, were relegated to the sphere of nature and hence, with animals and the natural world, were targeted as objects to be subdued and controlled.

The doubly unfortunate result of this dualism is that culture has been separated from natural history, as reason has been estranged from the emotions, while the living things of "nature," both animals and women, have been reduced to mere biology and denied a complex subjective life.

In a word, or maybe two, western culture is patriarchal and anthropocentric, male-dominated and human- centered; man, literally, is the measure of all things -- he alone deems what is of value and values accordingly; man places himself at the apex of creation, second only to god, and sees all other things as mere means to his ends, having only instrumental value, devoid of intrinsic value.

The Hebrew religion was the first world religion to create a sharp distinction between man and nature and to desacrilize nature; in the Christian religion, we find a value system that claims god created man in his image, and just as god is ruler of man, man is ruler of the earth and the animals.

These attitudes were passed on to the contemporary world through Greek humanism, medieval and renaissance philosophy, and modern science.

As Aristotle put the utilitarian ethos of western thought so well, "plants exist for the sake of animals, and brute beasts for the sake of man ... Since nature makes nothing purposeless or in vain, it is undeniably true that she has made all animals for the sake of man."

If everything was made for man, then he only need discover the laws of the universe to apply them toward the control of life; this was the vision of Bacon and Descartes at the dawn of the modern world; in Bacon's words, "let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest"; not surprisingly, his writings are filled with images of violence, conquest, and rape; Descartes rigidly separated mind from body, humans from animals, and saw the world as a vast machine; he urged men to become "lords and possessors of nature."

By desacrilizing nature, the western mind could exploit it without the qualms other cultures had in disturbing a living, evolving process; to cite another crucial figure in the early development of modern science, Robert Boyle: "the veneration wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of god."

Clearly, reverence for life is an impediment for domination over it; it is no wonder that a crucial part of the training of scientists is desensitization to life, the replacement of respect with "objectivity," all too often a mask for cruelty as in the case of animal experimentation.

Once the anthropocentric vision was implemented through the power of modern science and technology, within the context of a capitalist economy where nothing is sacred but profit itself, the western culture of death in very short order began to destroy everything in its path, premodern and nonwestern cultures, the animal kingdom, and the natural world.

We are now living in think in the final stages of this process; the current social order is recklessly tearing down the pillars of evolution that have taken nature billions of years to construct.

II. Apocalypse Now? The Environmental Crisis

In contrast to the visions of progress that prevailed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the last part of the twentieth century feels like a ride on the titanic or the U.S. Spaceship challenger.

The feeling of doom and ending that pervades contemporary life is not unique; in nearly all times different cultures found it difficult to imagine how the world could continue after their own demise.

In fact, the early origins of western culture in Judeo-Christian history are deeply rooted in the apocalyptic consciousness of the book of revelations, the notion of armageddon, and the vision of the second coming -- all of which are part of the catastrophic mindset of the extreme right, the survivalists, and militia movements sprouting all over the country today like poisonous weeds.

Yet, if these visions of apocalypse were once rooted in fantasies and paranoia, only in the last few decades, under the panoply of atomic mushroom clouds and punctured ozone holes, have they had any plausibility.

With the successful testing of the atom bomb in the New Mexican desert on July 16, 1945, and its devastating use on Hiroshima less than one month later, armageddon shifted from distant fantasy to impending possibility; while the threat of nuclear apocalypse has subsided somewhat for now (with the exception of nuclear terrorism), we are facing a new threat unthinkable to the cold war culture of the 1940s and 1950s -- the threat of systemic environmental collapse.

Consider a few facts:

*The natural resources that sustain life, such as air, water, and soil, are seriously poisoned or depleted.
The ozone layer is thinning and tearing, creating conditions of global warming; there is a mounting scientific consensus that we have indeed entered a greenhouse world; this is suggested by phenomena such as unprecedented levels of skin cancer in Argentina, unparalleled heat waves in Chicago and droughts in Spain, and the breaking up of a 48 by 22 mile chunk of the Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica; a greenhouse world with a surface temperature rise of 4-9 degrees in will be characterized by severe drought, flooding, super-ferocious hurricanes, environmental dislocation, economic crisis, and a massive cost to human life through heat and diseases like malaria.

*Global warming is worsened by the destruction of the rainforests, whereby living trees that give off oxygen instead release accumulated carbon dioxide when cut down; since 1945, half of the world's rainforests have been destroyed; 140,000 acres are demolished every day, 8 acres every few seconds; although only 7% of the earth's total area, the rainforests contain 50% of all animal and plant species, including the plants that may prove crucial one day to cure human diseases.

*The human population continues to rise at an alarming rate which is approaching four births per second, over fourteen thousand per hour, nearly one hundred million per year; the world population doubled in the past four decades and is projected to increase to between 11 and 15 billion by the middle of the twenty-first century; clearly, this will further the destruction of other species, the rainforests, vital resources, as well as causing more human suffering in the form of hunger, poverty, and disease.

*Animal species right now are facing the greatest extinction crisis since the dinosaur age 65 million years ago; we are losing species over 100 to 1000 times the normal rate of extinction; 1000 species a year are destroyed, a figure that is rapidly increasing; conservation biologists predict that within next few decades, over 1/3 of species will be destroyed; some have claimed that vertebrae evolution has come to a halt.
While some animals teeter on the brink of extinction, others are mass produced and slaughtered in a supply so abundant and pervasive that most people consider the natural order of things; billions of animals meet grisly deaths each year in the slaughterhouses of the U.S. alone -- 7 billion chickens and 53 million pigs

.
III. The Global Meat Culture

Let's face a basic fact: the main force driving the modern juggernaut of death is the capitalist economy acting out its lust for profit; whether our focus is the HMO industry, biomedical research, the mass media, the tobacco corporations, or the structure of research in the universities, the profit imperative always takes precedence over any moral imperative.

But the creme de la creme of corporate destruction are the meat and diary industries, or what I call the global meat culture; for example, the water pollution attributable to U.S. Agriculture is greater than all municipal and industrial sources combined; one third of all raw materials are consumed by the livestock industry; the great majority of rainforest destruction is caused by the livestock and feed-crop industries; and so on.

The global meat culture began in the 16th century as Spain sought to establish a profitable cattle complex in the Americas and West Indies; its epicenter moved across Europe three centuries later as the English people acquired an addictive taste for meat as both food and status symbol; they colonized Ireland and Scotland and turned their lands into grazing grounds, pushing the people off their land.

The dynamics of GMC shifted to the U.S. Just after the civil war, when American entrepreneurs colonized it for raising cattle, after slaughtering 4 million buffalo and disposing of the native Indians.

Very quickly, cattle raising became a major source of profit and a few U.S. Corporations monopolized the entire market which it began to export around the world; and today we see a disturbing pattern where one of the first things a developing country does is to replace a plant-based diet with a meat-based diet, and their health, environment, and social relations deteriorate accordingly.

The global beef culture is directly implicated in almost every major problem we face today (cf. handout and cf. Robbins handout for environmental stats).

Environmentally:

* Because of the impact of their hoofs and foraging, cattle are a prime force of destruction of the land and topsoil throughout the world; the 21 inches of topsoil the U.S. Had two centuries ago has eroded to a mere six inches, a coming crisis masked by chemical fertilizers.

* Much of the rainforest is cleared to provide grazing ground for cattle; this is the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, and throughout Central America.

* Ruminant animals contribute directly to the release of 3 out of 4 major ozone depleting gases: nitrous oxide (fertilizer), carbon dioxide (tree cutting), and methane; cow farts are potentially an amusing subject, but is also a very serious one: cows and other ruminant animals release 80 million tons of methane gas each year and animal waste at the feedlots and factory farms emits another 35 million tons; some see methane gas as becoming the primary global warming gas in the next 50 years.

* Animals outweigh human beings on the earth by a 3 to 1 ratio; a visitor to this planet from outer space would think that cattle are the dominant species of life; the 2 billion tons of animal waste products produced every year contaminate rivers, lakes, oceans, and underground water sources with nitrates and other deadly chemicals; nitrogen and phosphorous in manure over-fertilize algae and deplete oxygen levels in water, thereby choking all other forms of life; they can cause nervous system impairments, cancer, and blue baby syndrome.

* The GMC involves a tremendous waste of food, water, land, and energy: 80% of our corn and 95% of our oats supply goes to feed cattle rather than directly feeding human beings; 64% of agricultural land in the U.S. Is used to grow food for livestock, compared to only 2% for fruits and vegetables; over half of the water consumed is used to irrigate land for livestock food; almost half of the total energy expended in American agriculture is devoted to livestock production.

Human and economic costs:

* By wasting food, the global meat culture contributes directly to the world hunger problem: as livestock consumes half of the world's resources, 60 million people in the world starve to death every year, including 40,000 children who die of hunger every day.

* Third world countries gravitating toward a meat-based diet quickly become economically dependent on other countries for import of livestock food; the situation is exploited by international development agencies like the world bank who provide monetary loans with political strings attached.

* Once imported, the GMC always widens the gap between rich and poor as it shifts food production from staples to livestock, thus contributing to world hunger in yet another way.

* Since the beginnings of the GMC, governments have provided massive subsidies to various industries associated with meat production -- such as incredibly cheap land for lease and water for irrigation, government storage of food, tax credits, import levies, and product insurance; the total value of subsidized irrigation water used by animal feed growers, for instance, is $500 million to $1 billion every year.

Of course, we all foot the bill for this in our taxes; if U.S. Taxpayers did not heavily subsidize the water, land, and energy used by the meat industry, common hamburger meat would cost $35 a pound; people would therefore eat much less of it and the all of the problems caused by the GMC could be drastically reduced!
We also pay for the huge medical costs to treat the diseases caused by poor diet; meat eating is directly responsible for up to $61 billion dollars in health care costs that we all pay in taxes.

Health:

Diet is the major contributing factor to most of the diseases of advanced industrial cultures: colon, cervical, and breast cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases are directly the result of a diet laced with animal fat.

The correlation between disease and animal fat has been proven by many studies, but none as illustrious as the famous china project which tracked the diet of thousands of Chinese people in dozens of countries; it showed that as fat and protein consumption and blood cholesterol levels rise, so does the incidence of disease; Chinese villagers who lived off of low-fat, low meat diets, had far less diseases.

To give just two examples of the health risks of consuming animal fat: the average American man faces a 50% risk of heart attack, compared to the total vegetarian man who faces only as 4% risk; women who consume meat face a four times greater risk of developing breast cancer as women who eat little or no meat.
Americans eat more than twice the amount of protein they need, along with the excess saturated fat in meat; the excess protein alone causes osteoporosis and kidney disease.

Because of deregulation practices begun in the Reagan years, the public has been eating increasingly unsafe meat; although the USDA gives these toxic corpses its stamp of approval (with red dye #5), most of it is not fit for dog food, which is not a very nice thing to say about dogs I know (cf. handout).

The contamination of meat and poultry with harmful bacteria kills more than 4,000 people a year in the U.S. And sickens as many as 5 million.

And now Americans face the real danger of mad cow disease since meat producers, to save as much money as possible, feed cows the remains of cows and other animals, the same practice which lead to occurrences of the disease in Britain.
By peddling their poisons through deception and propaganda, the meat and diary industries have caused major health problems; seizing on scientific data from 1914 that showed that rats grew larger through animal rather than plant-based protein, the meat and dairy industries have sold generations of Americans a huge lie.
Perhaps the most destructive myth of our time, more harmful that the red menace, more pervasive than the belief in Santa Claus, is the protein myth; the protein myth says (1) that we all need huge amounts of protein, and (2) that meat and dairy products are the best sources of this protein.

False on both counts -- have you ever asked yourself where do animals like cows get their protein? The healthiest sources of protein come from plant-based foods and a well-balanced diet automatically provides you with the protein you need.

We have all been victims of this propaganda through the posters in our grade-school classrooms that praised the blessings of the four food groups, telling us that half of our daily caloric intake should be animal fat!

The recently revised food pyramid is an improvement, but was approved by the government only through strong pressure from the meat and diary industries; the pyramid tells us that we should have 4-6 servings of meat and diary products a day, which is exactly 4-6 servings too many.

Animal fat is bad enough in itself, but it has been laced with powerful chemicals that cause disease; since the 1940s, the family farm has been taken over by large agricultural corporations that have transformed the open, sunlit farm into a dark prison where animals are confined and mass produced as commodities.

Under these conditions, animals are pumped full of drugs such as growth steroids for maximum weight and antibiotics to control the diseases that grow like a plague in these conditions.

55% of the total antibiotics used in the U.S. Are fed to livestock; the abuse of these drugs have caused serious health damage in human beings; until the early 1940s, people in the most advanced countries lived in fear of deadly plagues and diseases; but beginning in 1944, the era of antibiotics arrived and penicillin was hailed as a "miracle drug"; with vaccines soon available against polio, tuberculosis, smallpox, and other diseases, medical science believed it could "close the book on infectious diseases" (1967 surgeon general).
This complacency was shattered first in the late 1960s, with the return of yellow fever, meningitis, and other diseases.

Many diseases like malaria and tuberculosis have evolved into drug-resistant strains because of the overuse of antibiotics; indeed, almost all disease-causing bacteria today are on their way to complete drug resistance.

As if not bad enough, since 1973, 30 previously unknown diseases began to appear, such as Lyme Disease, Legionnaire's Disease, Toxic Shock Syndrome, and AIDS; deadly new viruses such as the Marburg virus, Ebola, and Lassa Fever also appeared during this time.

One important cause of new diseases like Ebola is environmental disruptions such as the decimation of the rain forests; the diversity of a healthy ecosystem keeps organisms and diseases in check; disturbing ecological balance creates opportunities for microbes to grow in number and strength.

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, provocatively suggests that through diseases like AIDS and Ebola, the earth is mounting an immune response to the increasing invasive human species, to the 5.4 billion parasites attacking its flesh and vital organs.

IV. Toward Sustainable Bodies And Cultures

The GMC is obviously unsustainable in its present form: supporting the world's current population of 6 billion on an American style, meat-based diet would require 2 1/2 times as much grain as the world's farmers can now produce for all purposes; to support a future world population of 8 to 14 billion people is impossible.

We can no longer base our society on a fetishization of growth and development; the new goal of human beings must now be to develop a sustainable culture that reduces human needs, many artificially generated by the media, and learns to live in harmony with the natural world; to accomplish this, of course, many changes need to be made -- changes in our economic, legal, and educational systems; changes in mass media and advertising.

These changes seem very difficult and distant indeed; yet there is one crucial change that we can all make immediately if we haven't yet, and that is a shift to a vegetarian diet.

Consumer demand fuelled the growth of the GMC and it can also deflate it; if this demand was increased through propaganda, then it can be decreased through effective public education.

Indeed, despite the propaganda of the GMC, there is a growing consensus that the healthiest diet is a vegetarian diet, preferably a vegan diet; even the AMA and U.S. Dept. Of agriculture have been forced to admit this recently.

The good news is that since 1976, the average meat consumption per person in the U.S. Has fallen 14%, and similar declines can be found in countries like England, Australia, and New Zealand.

The bad news is that developing third world countries and traditional second world countries like china are shifting increasingly toward a meat-based diet.

But the revolution starts at home, one meal at a time; by greatly reducing or eliminating the amount of animal fat in our diet we not only help ourselves, we also help the animals and the environment.

Imagine a truly new world order, a new global vegetarian culture; this culture, rather than wasting 90% of the protein in grains, 96% of calories, 100% of fiber, and 100% of carbohydrates, instead of squandering so much of its land, water, and energy, it would put its resources to the most rational and efficient use, as it respected the entire process of life.

If Americans reduced their meat consumption by only 10%, 100 million more people could be fed with the available land, water, and energy freed from growing livestock feed; with the land no longer used to grow feed, the forests could be regrown and the animals could return.

With a new sustainable culture would come new sustainable bodies; in our current post-antibiotic environment, we must reexamine our basic assumptions about health; the prevailing medical system and mentality is clearly a disaster.

In 1995 alone, the U.S.. spent over 1.4 trillion dollars in "health care." Health care costs are increasing around 180 billion dollars a year and will hit the 2 trillion dollar mark by the year 2000, as Medicaid and Medicare now plunge into bankruptcy. The department of health and human services estimates that by the year 2030, as America's baby boomers reach their seventies and eighties, health care expenditures will top 16 trillion annually.

Moreover, after 100 years of intensive animal-based research we are losing ground in the war against disease rather than finding solid cures. Since president Nixon launched the "war on cancer" in 1971, the rate of cancer incidence has risen 18% and the rate of cancer death has increased by 7%.

For society to make true progress in the control of disease, it must abandon its Cartesian outlook which denies the unity of the mindbody field and shift emphasis toward a more holistic vision. It must shift from faith in the technological "fix" of the body through drugs and surgery to a preventative outlook that places the burden of health responsibility on each individual. If we are now under attack by deadly diseases, old and new, we must all do what we can to strengthen our immune systems, a goal greatly enhanced by a vegetarian diet.

As if by karmic justice, our medical problems directly relate to the exploitation of animals: we experiment on animals to find cures for the very diseases that largely stem from our consumption of animal products in the first place; and because animal research is misleading, fraudulent, and blocks superior alternatives such as clinic research, we are again harming and killing ourselves through our misguided relation to animals.

Perhaps the most basic changes that need to be made are changes in our morals, values, and ways we relate to the natural world. We have to decisively overcome the poisoned legacy of anthropocentrism; we can no longer see the world in terms of us vs. them, human beings separate from animals and the natural world; cows are cows, not hamburgers; trees are trees, not timber; we need to relearn the nature and meaning if intrinsic value.

We need to abandon the old atomistic mode of thinking which says that we can isolate one part of the world from another in order to control it and replace it with a new holistic or ecological approach which sees everything as interconnected in ways so complex we can never fully comprehend them and we best not disturb the world too much.

The next step in human evolution must not be in science and technology, but in our moral and spiritual life; the gap between our technological evolution and moral evolution is as dangerous as it is wide. We live in conditions where, in Martin Luther King's words, "misguided men employ guided missiles."

To evolve as human beings, we must attain a viewpoint of profound compassion and respect for life; this entails embracing an ethic of non-violence. To be consistent, we cannot limit this ethic to human beings, but must extend it to animals to; and we must exemplify it in all our actions, beginning with our food choices and diet; no one can rightly claim to love animals at the same time they eat them and perpetuate their painful slaughter.

In the words of Thomas Edison, "non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution; until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."

Vegetarianism will never be a sufficient condition to change the world, but it is a necessary condition, an idea whose time has clearly come. With Henry David Thoreau, i believe that "it is part of the destiny of the human race in its gradual development to leave off the eating of animals."

Back to Essays page