-- George Bernard Shaw
It was a billboard on a crosstown Manhattan bus that got me thinking. The rolling PSA said something like this: "1 in 500 Americans have AIDS. Only 1 in 250 know." Instantly, my mind responded: 1 in 2 Americans will die of heart disease. And this: Every seven seconds, an American dies of cancer.
From there, the list grew to:
* Every 25 seconds an American has a heart attack
* Every 45 seconds, and American dies from a heart attack
* Risk of death by heart attack for average American male: 50%
* Risk of death by heart attack for average vegan: 4%
* Rise in blood cholesterol level from consuming one egg per day: 12%
* Associated rise in heart attack risk from consuming one egg per day: 24%
* $135 billion per year spent treating cardiovascular disease
* $70 billion per year spent treating cancer (hmm, imagine if health insurance was experiential like car insurance)
* 40% of all cancers are diet related
* Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said in 1988, "Eight out of the ten leading causes of death in America are what you are eating."
Need I go on? There's a self-induced health holocaust/mass suicide going on that dwarfs any other health crisis in America...and the fallout isn't only affecting our bodies, it's destroying our planet, funneling ever-more taxpayer dollars to multi-national corporations, and hijacking our humanity.
In this election year...in the midst of yet another illegal war, another tax giveaway to the rich, and various other bipartisan American pastimes...there are still far more rifts than connections on the Left. Such division leaves many asking what they can do-on a personal level-to make a difference in the meantime. Yet, the concept of veganism as activism- as direct action in its truest - is regularly ignored or mocked by narrow-minded progressives. A major disability rights activist once disparaged me via telephone as being naïve for suggesting that personal dietary changes could have global impact and I've heard a popular radical scholar publicly ridicule the same concept-with palpable delight.
As Dylan sang, "Don't criticize what you can't understand."
In a society crushed under the onerous weight of corporate dominance, eschewing the standard American meat- and dairy-based diet is indeed a revolutionary act along the lines of Che Guevara's credo that "the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love."
Which brings me to February 15 and March 20.
February 15, 2003 was an international day of peace...an unprecedented worldwide event that cannot be forgotten. March 20, 2003 was the day the US drastically escalated its 12-year assault on Iraq. Remarkably, International ANSWER and others have organized a massive anti-war rally not for February 15, 2004...but March 20, 2004. In one fell swoop, dedicated-but misguided-protestors have allowed the murderers to set the agenda and have validated the claim that the war "began" on that day. (Why spot at March 20, I wonder? Why not any number of days when any number of wars "started"?)
March 20 also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the annual Great American Meatout (http://www.meatout.org/) during which non-vegetarians are encouraged to "kick the meat habit (at least for a day) and explore a wholesome, nonviolent diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains."
Combining all of the above elements, I propose you don't wait until March 20 to perform the symbolic gesture of giving up meat for 24 hours and/or marching in a demonstration surrounded by "Bush-as-Hitler" posters. I
suggest, as a form of international direct action, you honor February 15 as a Day of Peace-a day of global solidarity-and go vegan on that day...and every day thereafter.
Sure, I can already hear the derisive laughter, the condescending monologues, and the typical excuses...that's why I've offered the info below for your perusal. I hope you'll read it as diligently and as open-mindedly as the latest Chomsky essay or Arundhati Roy interview or Anyone-but-Bush screed because if you wanna start making a difference ASAP...if you wanna start a personal revolution with the chance to spread...than this is giant step in the right direction. This is a step you can take on your own...an opportunity to lead by example.
There are three primary reasons why one might opt to abstain from the standard American diet (SAD): ethical, health, and environmental. In the name of provoking thought, here's a small taste of each. (There is so much more to say and share, but I'm hoping you'll take that on for yourselves.)
I've begun with the environmental aspect due to its obvious activist flavor.
Assessing the environmental cost of the meat- and dairy-based diet is a monumental and depressing task. For starters, consider Earthsave's (http://www.earthsave.org/) calculations on the "real" price of a hamburger.
* It takes 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of hamburger. This same 12 pounds of grain could make 8 loaves of bread or 24 plates of spaghetti.
* If the beef for your burger came from the rainforest, roughly 660 pounds of living matter is destroyed. This includes between 20 and 30 different plant species, over 100 insect species, and dozens of reptiles, birds, and mammals.
* One pound of hamburger requires 2,500 gallons of water, which could instead have been used to grow more than 50 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Fifty percent of all water consumed in the U.S. is used to grow feed and provide drinking water for cattle and other livestock.
* On a planet where a child starves to death every two seconds, fourteen times as many people could be fed by using the same land currently reserved for livestock grazing.
That Big Mac does more than just drain resources, it contributes to global warming. Two hundred gallons of fossil fuels are burned to produce the beef currently by the average U.S. family of four while 500 pounds of carbon dioxide are released in the atmosphere for every quarter pound of rainforest beef.
The SAD also pollutes the planet at an alarming rate. A 1997 Senate report declared that every year, U.S. livestock produce 10,000 pounds of solid manure for every U.S. citizen. "In central California," activist Pamela Rice (http://www.vivavegie.org) explains, "sixteen hundred dairies produce the feces and urine of a city of 21 million people." This is a problem from coast to coast as "surplus cow sludge" is seriously polluting waterways at the rate of 230,000 pounds per second. Thanks to run-off from animal agriculture, the EPA has found 700 different pollutants in U.S. drinking water. Since 1945, overall pesticide use has increased by 3,300 percent with 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides applied to American farmlands annually.
Despite the drastic increase in pesticide use, the USDA has found that prior to the 1950s, the overall annual crop loss due to "pest damage" was 7 percent. Today, it's 13 percent. The bug spray may not be killing bugs but it certainly has an impact on the human population. Studies have shown that 99 percent of non-vegetarian mothers in the U.S. had significant levels of DDT in their breast milk. (For vegetarian mothers, not incidentally, the number was 8 percent.)
To the polluted air, water, land, and bodies, add in the devastation of topsoil and ensuing desertification and species destruction:
* Pounds of topsoil lost in the production of one pound of feedlot steak: 35
* Time required for nature to form one inch of topsoil: 200 to 1000 years
* 29% of Earth's landmass is suffering from desertification
* Each year, 125,000 square miles of rainforest is permanently destroyed-that's a football field every second-often to make room for grazing cattle. In Central America, cattle ranching is the top reason for rainforest destruction and 90% of new cattle ranches last less than 8 year because their soil base is depleted from grazing.
* Current rate of species extinction due to tropical rainforest destruction: 1000 per year
Over-fishing is another diet-related environmental issue. A United Nations report stated that seventeen of the world's major fishing areas have reached or exceeded their natural limits. The World Conservation Union found 1,081 species of fish worldwide are threatened or endangered while 106 Pacific salmon stocks are already extinct. "Industrial innovations permit fishers to scoop an astounding 80 to 90 percent of a given fish population form the sea in any one year," says Earthsave's Steve Lustgarden who also reports of the "innocent bystanders" of the fishing industry. For example, for every pound of shrimp sold, roughly 20 pounds of other sea creatures are caught in the nets. "In just one generation, human demand for fish has increased by 50 percent," says Rice.
There's one more factor to consider when calculating the cost of a hamburger and that's the impact of corporate welfare of the planet. U.S. farmers receive $22 billion in direct federal payments and subsidy aid and the total value of subsidized irrigation water used by animal feed growers in the U.S. annually is $1 billion.
"In the U. S. we can buy a hamburger for 79 cents," explains cattle-rancher-turned-vegan, Howard Lyman (http://www.madcowboy.com). "If the American taxpayer was not involved in subsidizing the beef industry, the same hamburger meat would cost over $12. Meat in America today would cost $48 a pound if it were not for the American taxpayers subsidizing the grain, the irrigation water, the electricity, the grazing on public lands. How many people-even in America-would go and spend that amount of money on meat if it wasn't subsidized? We can't afford roads, or schools, or health care, and yet we are paying $11.21 for every $12 of something that is helping kill one out of every two Americans today."
The hidden ingredient in all animal-derived food, clothing, and entertainment is cruelty. Whether it's chickens, horses, pigs, cattle, insects, deer, or any other exploited creature, the brutality inflicted by humans upon these creatures is seemingly without limit. Here's a very brief sampling:
Inside the hatchery, each chicken is confined to about 48 to 86 square inches of space (smaller than the page you're reading right now) and these cages are piled tier upon tier. Due to the severe crowding, layer hens are kept in semi-darkness. The stressed birds are de-beaked using hot irons (without anesthetics) to prevent them from pecking each other to death. The wire cages rub off their feathers and the mesh floor cripples their feet. Still, production proceeds apace. In 1888, the typical hen laid 100 eggs per year. By 1998, that number was 256.
To some, the sight of a duck invokes images of foie gras. To produce this alleged delicacy, male ducks are force-fed 6 to 7 pounds of grain three times a day with an air-driven feeder tube for 28 days. At that point, the ducks' livers, from with the pate is made, will have bloated to 6 to 12 times their normal size. "About 10 percent of the ducks don't make it to slaughter," says vegetarian activist, Pamela Rice, "They die when their stomachs burst."
The abhorrent treatment of cattle within the factory farm paradigm involves more than can be covered in an article. The castrating of bulls without anesthesia, the transporting of cattle in both extreme heat and cold, the butchering of cows that are still alive and conscious, and the rampant administration of antibiotics and hormones are just the beginning. The viciousness of the slaughterhouse industry has reached staggering proportions.
While sheep are yet another animal doomed to the slaughterhouse, they also face exploitation via the wool industry. The heavy, wool-bearing sheep that we see today are products of selective breeding over many generations. These "mutants" produce far more wool than they were designed to produce. Then, when this unnatural coat is shorn, the denuded sheep suffer from the cold. "Sometimes on the big runs of Australia," says Freda Dinsha of the American Vegan Society, "thousands of newly-shorn sheep die of cold in one night when the weather turns unexpectedly cold." The wool industry comes full circle back to the slaughterhouse because the huge profit made from wool encourages further domestic breeding, which ultimately results in the butchery of animals for food. As a final component to this equation, the sizeable herds of sheep bred by the wool industry eventually make the land they graze on unfit for cultivation.
There are two methods of slaughtering fur-bearing creatures. Almost three million of them (usually minks, foxes, chinchillas, and raccoons) are raised on so-called fur farms where they are imprisoned in cages often as small as 2.5 square feet for four animals. Since no federal law protects the animals on these farms, the conditions are predictably horrifying. The animals display the behavior of any creature under incredible duress: pacing, climbing, self-mutilating, cannibalism. After a life of misery, death does not come swiftly. The preferred method of execution is anal or genital electrocution. Described as experiencing "the intense pain of a heart attack while fully conscious," the animals literally are burned from the inside out...to prevent damage to the coat, of course. Alternate fur farm approaches include suffocation or neck-breaking however, this often results in the animals only being stunned and therefore skinned alive. It gets worse (or at least just as despicable but in a different way). Not all animals can be raised and confined in cages. Raccoons and foxes, for example, are trapped in the wild. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website (http://www.peta.org) describes the practice of trapping:
"Animals...caught in steel-jaw leghold trap- the most widely used trap-endure excruciating pain from the steel bars clamped onto their legs, paws, and bodies. Some animals, especially mothers desperate to return to their young, will struggle to get loose, even chewing or twisting off their own legs to escape. Animals suffer for hours or even days in traps before trappers arrive to stomp on their chests or break their necks. The trapped animal is left to suffer blood loss, infection, gangrene, exhaustion, exposure, frostbite, shock, or attack by nonhuman predators. Other animals, such as beavers and muskrats, caught in underwater traps can struggle for up to 20 minutes before drowning."
This is but a minute example of human behavior towards animals. I didn't touch upon leather, silk, or down; so-called entertainment or sports like circuses, rodeos, horse and dog racing, zoos, and hunting; the scientifically fraudulent and morally bankrupt animal experimentation industry; and the ever-expanding car culture (i.e. one million wild animals per week killed on U.S. highways; anti-freeze, bio-diesel fuel, hydraulic brake fluid, and asphalt binder are all made with ingredients culled from the carcasses of departed animals).
There is no such thing as a vegetarian refrigerator. Try opening the nearest fridge and you'll find an egg rack along with a clearly marked butter tray and meat drawer. Eating animals and animal by-products is not just accepted, it's expected. Yet, contrary to popular opinion (and refrigerator manufacturers), human beings were not designed to consume animals.
"During 56 million years of primate evolution, the predecessors of man became bigger, smarter, and increasingly vegetarian, exploiting the fruits and leaves of their arboreal habitat," explains William Harris, M.D., in this book The Scientific Basis for Vegetarianism. Thus, Harris sees diet as an issue of kinetic energy. (For example, a gorilla would expend far more energy chasing, catching, and eating an insect that it would recover by eating it.)
"Since no nutrients essential to man or any of his likely predecessors are synthesized by animals, the use of animal foods [by predecessors] must reflect other priorities," Harris continues. Under conditions of scarcity, omnivorism may become necessary despite the fact that, unlike a true carnivore, Homo sapiens lack sharp teeth to tear through flesh, hide, and bones, and the human digestive tract is quite long-22 feet-which means animal protein can sit for as much as 14 days to putrefy and release dangerous carcinogens.
I could go on for pages (and I have elsewhere) about the deleterious health effects of eating meat and dairy, but instead will focus on one, very recent meat-related concern: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). BSE has earned the caustic nickname "mad cow disease" thanks to the invidious symptoms presented in affected cattle, i.e. staggering, tremors, involuntary muscle spasms, bewilderment, hypersensitivity to auditory and tactile stimuli, and other examples of seemingly "mad" behavior.
Cases of BSE have been reported across the globe in France, Switzerland, Ireland, Portugal, Denmark, Canada, Italy, Oman, and the Falkland Islands. In the U.S., other forms of transmissable spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) have occurred in sheep (scrapie), mink (transmissible mink encephalopathy), and deer and elk (chronic wasting disease).
Because they contain no genetic material of their own, TSEs are not viruses, but are instead hypothesized to be infections proteins known as prions. Perhaps what is most disquieting about this hypothesis is the fact that, unlike viruses and bacteria, prions remain infectious even after being:
baked at 680° F for one hour (enough to melt lead)
"Cooking infected meat does not completely eliminate its infectivity," states environmentalist Peter Montague. Of course, this also means that forks, spoons, knives, or any other eating or cooking utensil cannot be sterilized. "BSE represents a big risk to the health of the [human] population," warns Stephen Dealler, a British microbiologist specializing in mad cow disease. "It is no use pretending that the danger is not there." Edward L. Menning, DVM, editor of the Journal of Federal Veterinarians, agrees: "Potentially, this is one of the most frightening diseases the world has ever known."
"The plethora of degenerative diseases in the high animal food countries reflects the failure of humans to adapt their 57-million-year vegetarian bodies to animal source food in the relatively short two to three million years since the hominids began to eat it," says Dr. Harris.
In light of this self-inflicted health holocaust of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and more, can we expect anything of value in terms of help from the American medical community? There are125 medical schools in the United States of which only 30 require a nutrition course. As a result, the average physician receives 2.5 hours of nutrition training during their four years in medical school. Perhaps the answer lies in the words of vaccination activist, Sharon Kimmelman: "We are biologically accountable for our behavior."
FEAR OF A VEGAN PLANET
Like so many other aspects of American life, we've relinquished control of our eating habits to the corporate pirates and their well-paid indoctrination, eating animals is as "normal" as breathing while the consequent animal cruelty required to sustain this lifestyle is, at worst, considered a necessary evil on all sides of the political spectrum.
It's quite a psychological quantum leap to no longer perceive that cow as a soulless source of protein, but this is precisely the type of emotional and cultural advance that may spur further introspection into our other illogical habits, i.e. operating health facilities on a for-profit basis, renting oneself out as a wage slave eight hours a day, and believing there's a difference between Republicans and Democrats. The choice is ours.
Veganism welcomes all and requires no political label or pedigree. When you go vegan, we each make a difference (at least) three times a day.
As Dylan sang: "I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours."
(Portions of this article were originally published in Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies. (c) 2002 The Disinformation Company. Reprinted with permission.)
Mickey Z. is the author of two upcoming books: A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense (Prime Books) and Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda (Common Courage Press). His most recent book is The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet. He has been a vegan for nearly nine years and can be reached at email@example.com.
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