The Casual Blog

Tag: ag-gag laws

Starting to miss Antarctica and its animals

Looking back through the photographs I made on my Antarctic trip, I’m still reflecting on how challenging the voyage was.  But I’m starting to think about how much I want to go back.  It was uniquely beautiful, and thought provoking.

I came away with an enriched conception of non-human animals, and how humans can relate to them.  It reinforced my view that there’s no inherent right for us to use them without considering them as communities and individuals.  Even though it’s generally accepted, there’s something deeply misguided in our conception that non-human animals are inferior to humans such that they may be exploited as we see fit.

In rough Antarctic waters, the cooks and wait staff of the Ushuaia did a surprisingly good job of feeding us three meals a day, including providing something for the vegetarians on board.  Both lunch and dinner included dessert, which I and my shipmates ate, sometimes because it tasted so good, and sometimes just to pass the time.  

Anyhow, this all added up to a lot of desserts.  The result was that now, weeks after the end of the trip, I still have no interest in anything sweet.  My life-long sweet tooth has changed, which is probably a good thing. 

Eating involves a lot of choices.  I continue to think that a plant-based diet, involving little or no killing or exploiting animals, is best.  It seems self-evident to me that needlessly and cruelly killing other creatures is wrong – fatal to them, and also demeaning to us.  

The health benefits of a plant-based diet are also well documented. These include looking and feeling better, and lower risk of the common major diseases associated with eating animals, including heart disease, colon cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.  If decency and health weren’t reasons enough, it’s becoming more widely understood that animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming and all the destruction that comes with climate change.

These facts seem vitally pertinent to me, but most people manage to ignore them.  It’s strange, but then again, it’s extremely common for people to carry around beliefs that have no relation to reality, and to tolerate risks that seem to me very worrisome. Fortunately, most of the time, an individual’s ideas don’t do much harm to the individual or to others.

However, I think our ideas about eating animals are more consequential, which is why I think they’re worth discussing.  At the same time, I don’t want to pointlessly add to the general angst and feelings of hopelessness. Fortunately, the situation with animals is far from hopeless. In fact, moving away from eating animals and eating a healthier plant-based diet is not that hard. Lots of people are doing it.

Apropos of animals and food, this week I heard a new podcast with a focus on the lives of farm animals and industrialized farming. Leah Garces, president of Mercy for Animals, speaks with Ezra Klein about how the low cost of meat is not really such a good thing.  The system is extremely profitable for a few producers, subsidized by taxpayers and protected by law, miserable for most of the farmers involved, and of course, horrific for the animals.  

This food system seems fully entrenched, long supported by political and economic power.  But, as with our changing climate, the chickens are coming home to roost:  industrial animal agriculture is causing more deadly pollution, increased antibiotic resistance, animal-based pandemics, exhaustion of arable land, loss of rainforests, and of course, the psychological trauma of complicity in massive animal suffering.  Again, the word is getting around.  

On a different note, I’m continuing my project of reading “classic” novels that I encountered as a youth, and just finished one that intersects with issues of animals and food:   The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.  

This is a book some of us were forced to read in high school as one of the “great books.”  I finished it last week, and didn’t think it was exactly great. The writing was sometimes clunky, and the shape ungainly.  But it was undeniably powerful and brave in its account of industrialized animal slaughter in early 20th century, and the brutal exploitation of the immigrants who did most of the dirty work. 

Is The Jungle still relevant?   Well, the meat industry has gotten a number of states to pass “ag-gag” laws, which make it a crime to document what goes on in the slaughter houses that supply our grocery stores and restaurants.  It makes you wonder what they don’t want anyone to see.   I’d bet that they think, rightly, that a close up view of modern industrial slaughter operations would be very bad for business.

Of course, I very much doubt our modern slaughter houses are anywhere close to as filthy and disease-ridden as what Sinclair described, but, as Leah Garces explains in the recent podcast, they are still full of misery.  Garces’s organization is working to help animal farmers transition to growing other products.  She thinks (and I agree) that if we don’t like the system, criticizing it is not enough:  it’s important to find and support better alternatives.   

Lacrosse, seeing things, and ag-gag laws

Looking west at sunrise, April 13, 2013

Looking west at sunrise, April 13, 2013

Friday evening was supposed to be rainy, but instead was sunny and mild, and the dogwoods had just blossomed. Looking out over Raleigh from our apartment, the deciduous trees are leafing in nicely, lots of pretty green. The pine pollen season is also here, with the yellow powder coating our cars, and causing woe to allergies.

Sally and I drove over to Durham with Sally’s mom to see the Duke lacrosse team take on Virginia. Diane, at age 82, has become a big lacrosse fan, and bought us tickets as a gift.

It was a good contest. The score was 9-9 at the half. Virginia scored three unanswered points in the first five minutes of the third period, but Duke worked its way back to a 14-all tie with eight minutes to go. The final score was 19-16, Duke.


The sport is fast and exciting, and combines some of the best things about soccer (strategy, cunning) and hockey (speed and physicality). But we’re neophytes, and still trying to figure out why some outrageous things are penalized and other outrageous things aren’t. Are they really allowed to beat each other with those hard sticks?

During timeout, I enjoyed looking at the athletes and the fans in their summer clothes. I’m still very much in recovery mode after the second surgery on my left retina a few weeks back, and conscious at times of struggling to see, and at other times conscious of how extraordinary it is to see.

Tulips outside Diane's apartment

Tulips outside Diane’s apartment

At my appointment this week with Dr. M, my eye doc and new hero, he declared that he liked what he was seeing, and that things were coming along nicely. The retina was still attached, the scar tissue was settling down, and the hole in the macula showed signs of healing. I did not, however, do well on the eye test: the best I could do with the left eye was identify where the chart was — no letters. Dr. M said that this could improve after the next surgery in four or five months to remove the silicone gel (isn’t that a strange thing?) and probably remove the cataract that is probably forming.

This eye injury has been a reminder of how provisional the visual world is. At times I see things I know are not there, like bizarre floaters, and at times I see double images (one very blurry and one not). My depth perception is imprecise, so that tasks like putting a key in a lock are tricky. It’s harder to find things in the dishwasher, and easier to lose things most anywhere.

Of course, I’m not the only one with imperfect vision. Apparently we all (with normal vision) have a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, but our interpretive consciousness smooths out this problem and makes the visual field seem uninterrupted. Vision involves photons and neurons in an unbelievably complex process. Our ordinary sensation of a smooth continuous visual world is both a gift and an illusion.

This is one of the many interesting points in Bruce Hood titled The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press 2012), which I’m currently reading. It’s a lively assemblage of neuroscience and philosophy organized around the issue of the nature of consciousness. The brain is an amazing thing, with billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, but we’re just starting to understand the correspondence between the biological processes and perceived experience. Still, the evidence is accumulating that our understanding of conscious experience as a literal reflection of reality is quite wrong. Hood’s book also builds on the work of Gazzaniga (which I wrote a bit about here) and Kahneman (whose fine recent book I noted here), and takes some of their ideas a bit further.

Hood may be right that when we think of ourselves we are thinking about a thing that doesn’t really exist, at least in the way we normally thing about it. But he also seems to think that we can’t possibly completely dispense with our conventional notions of the self. Even with his throughgoing scientific perspective, he admits that part of him still cannot let go of the notion that his self is a thing. It does shake things up to try to think otherwise.

Speaking of shaking, I was dismayed to learn this week that several states have enacted or worked on making it illegal to expose animal cruelty at slaughterhouses with “ag-gag” laws. I thought that this was an issue that almost everyone agreed on: it’s just wrong to wantonly abuse farm animals. The corollary would be, it’s a good thing to expose and prevent such abuse. Videos and reports of such conduct are disturbing, to be sure, but they help correct the system. Why would we want to make that illegal?

There is, of course, an opposing argument, which posits that secret videos distort the truth, and those unused to the sight of ordinary animal killing may misinterpret what they see. That seems pretty weak — not entirely false, but not a justification for limiting free speech and insulating unspeakable behavior. In a brilliant little op ed piece in the Times, Jedidiah Purdy, a Duke law professor, agreed to take it at face value, and proposed a solution: let’s put webcams in all the slaughterhouses. This radical transparency approach would be educational and probably discourage some abuse.

Pine pollen

Pine pollen