The Casual Blog

Tag: vegan

The worst idea in history: animals and us

Canada geese at Shelley Lake near sunrise

I’m recovering just fine from my neck surgery, and the weather turned nicer, too.  For a couple of days, it felt like spring, though after that, it cooled off.  In the pleasant interval, I took my camera out to see the birds at Jordan Lake, and also stopped in to check on the bald eagles nesting at Shelley Lake.  These are some of the pictures I took.  

Spending some time with the animals, or even just standing by the water hoping they’ll show up, is very therapeutic.  Walt Whitman got it right in his famous poem; being with them is moving and soothing.  When I get out around sunrise or sunset, I’m always a little surprised when there are few or no other people looking at them, but not sorry.

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake near sunset

Apropos, there was a lively short essay in the NY Times this week on something I’ve hoped others were thinking about:  the disconnect between what we know about animals and how we treat animals.  Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College, wrote that western philosophy has labored mightily to establish that humans are different from and superior to animals, and failed.  Perhaps this is starting to be noticed.     

Everyone who stayed awake through high-school biology learned that homo sapiens are animals, with close physical similarities to many other animals.  But most of us still think of ourselves as not actually animals, but rather, better than animals.  

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is untitled-6143.jpg

As Sartwell notes, we’ve also been taught to regard humans as distinctive and superior on account of their consciousness, reasoning abilities, and moral systems. Comparisons of humans and other animals generally focused on the things humans did best, such as human language, rather than areas where animals outperformed us, such as sight, hearing, smell, strength, speed, endurance, and memory.  Where animals showed sophistication in their communications and culture, we learned to avoid thinking about it.  

The essential lesson pounded into all of us was that human intellectual qualities justified treating other animals as mere objects to be dominated and exploited.  This idea is so familiar and deeply entrenched that it is hard to see it clearly as an idea subject to discussion.  

Bald eagle at Jordan Lake

In my student days at Oberlin College, we used to debate the extent to which ideas could affect human history.  We were thinking about whether the philosophies of canonic thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, or Marx were primary drivers of cultural change.  

We didn’t even think to consider the effects of the idea that humans are separate from, and far superior to, animals.  The idea has no known author and no supporting reasoning.  If examined with any seriousness, it falls apart as nonsense.  Yet, as Sartwell suggests, it is almost certainly the most important idea in human history. 

Sartwell raises the issue of how thinking of humans as fundamentally superior to other animals relates to other hierarchies. To justify slavery, colonialism, or other violent oppression, the groups to be dominated are characterized as beastly, wild, savage, brutal, fierce, primitive, uncivilized, inhuman, and so on — in short, “like animals.”    

Even today, discrimination follows this same basic pattern in addressing people with African ancesters, other disfavored nationalties, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.  That is, these groups are defined as something less than fully human, and therefore not entitled to the highest degree of privilege. 

The hierarchies that stem from treating animals as inferior have caused enormous harm to the humans who are denied full human status.  Slavery is a dramatic example from our past, but there are many others that are very much still with us, like suppressing the votes of minorities, lower pay for women, and violence against LBGTQ people.  

As Sartwell notes, this hierarchical, exploitative way of thinking divides us both from each other and from nature.  Indeed, it has led to an existential crisis for nature.  A couple of articles this week highlighted aspects of this.

According to a new study, about one third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction.  Climate change, habitat loss, and pollution caused by humans accounts for much of this dire threat.  Meanwhile due to these same factors, the populations of large animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish) have fallen by 68 percent since 1970.  More than two-thirds of these animals.  Gone.  Since 1970.  Holy camoly!

Part of our unfolding catastrophe has to do with our view that animals are so inferior that they can properly be treated as food.  A new piece by Jenny Splitter in Vox sums up some of what’s happening.    Meat production through factory farming — that is, raising and slaughtering billions of animals each year — accounts for more than 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and also for vast losses of habitat for wild animals.  This food system is raising the threat of extinction for thousands of species.  

Our meat-based food system is not only deeply immoral, but unsustainable.  To continue along this path likely means ecological and human disaster.  Splitter’s piece notes that we may get help from technology, like lab grown meat, and from requiring more responsible farming practices.  But cutting back on eating meat and moving toward a plant-based diet is something we as a species will have to do eventually.  And we as individuals can do it now. 

If you are either on board with plant-based eating or interested in experimenting, or even if not, I recommend trying Guasaca Arepa on Hillsborough Street.  They have some outdoor picnic tables, where I ate my first ever arepa this week.  It’s a Columbian speciality that involves putting various fillings in a sort of cornmeal cake.  Guasaca has many fillings on offer, but I tried the vegan.  Though a bit messy, it was delicious!   

Pied-billed grebe at Shelley Lake near sunrise

Precancerousness, Eno hiking, Dolci paintings, some Debussy and Liszt, and support for a plant-based diet

The Eno River, by the Eno Trace trail

This week I got a one page report that said the polyp removed during my recent colonoscopy was precancerous.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  It sounds better than cancerous, but definitely not as good as non-cancerous.  Do they really know when something will become cancerous, or is it more like, we aren’t exactly sure, and don’t want to say there’s nothing to worry about?  The net seemed to be, it’s good they removed it, because it might not have been harmless.  In any case, it’s gone.  But instead of the usual ten-year interval for the next colonoscopy, they want me to come back in five.  So I’m twice as valuable as the usual  patient.   

On Saturday morning I drove over to Eno River State Park and hiked in the Fews Ford area.  There was frost on the grass, and some ice on the river, but it was sunny and calm.  A flock of robins was hunting for breakfast.  I stepped carefully on the rocks and didn’t get wet or twist an ankle, and got these pictures.  

Afterwards I stopped in Durham at the Nasher Museum to see the Carlo Dolci exhibit.  Dolci was a favored court painter for the Medicis in Florence in the 1600s.  Apparently he fell out of favor among art critics in the 19th century, and this is the first major exhibit of his work.  Dolci apparently was a pious Catholic, and in his work mostly focused on the popular religious subjects of the time, usually with close attention to two or three figures.  He had a great color sense, and fanatical attention to detail. And amazing commitment and endurance:  some of these paintings took several years to paint.    

Self portrait of Carlo Dolci

The Nasher also had a fascinating exhibit of the large bird’s eye view of Venice made in 1500 by Jacopo de’ Barbari.  The general accuracy of the aerial view has been confirmed by satellite imagery, so we know this work as a stunning feat of imagination and technical wizardry.  The Nasher did a state-of-the-art presentation using several large touch screens that allowed further exploration and play.  

Dolci’s St. Matthew Writing His Gospel (1640s)

That afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga.  At her suggestion, I’ve been working on Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and contrary to her suggestion, I’ve continued working on Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude.  The Debussy work is about atmospheres, and has some unusual technical challenges, but I can already see that with practice it can be played.  The Liszt piece is a labor of love — lots of labor that could only be justified by love.  The harmonies are deliciously rich and full of surprises, but it requires a big investment of practice time.   

It being the holiday season, we’ve been eating more with friends recently, and the subject of why we’re eating a plant-based diet comes up regularly.  It’s always a bit awkward to discuss this at meal time, since the background facts are likely to produce a less cheery vibe for the animal eaters in the group.

But I continue to think a lot about the relation between our food, our ethics, and our health, and I’m always glad to find others willing to discuss those issues.  There seems to be growing awareness of the extreme cruelty of industrial animal farming, of the enormous environmental damage this system causes, and of the damage that eating animals and animal products does to human bodies.  We recently saw two documentaries on these issues on Netflix, and found them well worth watching.  Live and Let Live is a pithy overview of the ethical and health issues involved in eating animals.    What the Health focuses on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and the seemingly willful silence of mainstream health organizations regarding the health problems associated with animal products.  

Sorry to be difficult, but — why I’m going vegan

14 12 07_3799
While I’ve been a vegetarian for going on 20 years, I’ve been fine tuning my approach over time, and getting my habits aligned with my health needs and values is still a work in progress. Cutting out eating animals, starting with cows and pigs, was a significant step, but only part of the story. Just as important, for health purposes, was cutting out foods that taste good but are actually bad for you, like sodas and chips. More challenging has been increasing the percentage of foods that are really nourishing, including some that I’ve long resisted.

From persistent testing and trying, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with some healthy foods I used to detest, like beets, peas, and Brussels sprouts. I’m eating lots of dark green veggies (like kale, spinach, chard, turnip greens, and dandelion greens) and fruit in my breakfast smoothies, and I’ve been getting vitamin rich cold pressed juices to sip for snacks. My repertoire of tastes has expanded.

Recently I made the shift from vegetarian to aspiring vegan. So it’s goodbye to dairy and eggs (with the understanding that there will be occasional emergencies and slips). This is partly a matter of getting healthier, but even more a matter of values. The more I learn about factory farming, the more persuaded I am that we can’t go on like this.

It is truly horrific for the farm animals, to our great shame. It’s also sickening for us (E. coli, salmonella, antibiotics, steroids). Cutting cheese from the lineup is especially challenging, both because it’s tasty and it’s everywhere. And I will miss the wonderfulness of ice cream. But I will also feel better not supporting this unconscionable cruelty and heedlessness.

Our individual eating choices may seem trivial compared to our epic social problems, like global warming, but I think they are related in a couple of ways. Industrial farming of animals is a major part element of global warming, because of the huge emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane), not to mention pollution of surface and groundwater and other environmental problems. To the extent we don’t support factory farming, we’re working on those problems. In addition, by getting ourselves healthier, we improve the chances of having the clarity of thought and strength to take on our big social and environmental problems.
14 12 07_3798

So I don’t think it’s completely self-centered to focus on the physical self. But I admit my own motives are not purely altruistic. I’m also interested in feeling good now and functioning well for a long time to come. Exercise is also an important part of this, of course. So I’ll report briefly on my current cross-training system, which I’d say is working well. I feel good.

This week I’ve done two long gym work outs (cardio and resistance), lap swimming, two yoga classes, a spin class, a visit to my personal trainer, and outdoor running. For gym cardio, I’ve done the elliptical machine, rowing, treadmill running, stairs, and jump rope. I have a wide range of functional movements in the rotation, from lunges to box jumps to balancing to shuffles, and a variety of core work, as well as stretching of the major muscle systems.

It’s strange, I know, but I actually look forward to getting up around 5:05 a.m. Every day is always a little different, with a new challenge. I enjoy being with people in the classes, and I enjoy listening to music and reading when I’m working out on my own. And getting up early isn’t as hard as I once imagined, because it has become a habit. I don’t have to think whether or not to get up, because it’s just something I just do. But it’s also fun.
14 12 07_3782

On Saturday night, Sally and I tried our first vegan pizza at Lilly’s, and saw The Theory of Everything at the Rialto. The pizza wasn’t so great – there was something a bit off with the non-dairy “cheese” — but we really liked the movie. It’s basically a biopic on the British physicist Stephen Hawking, with particular focus on his marriage. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne’s performance is a nuanced and remarkable tour de force. His gradual loss of control of his muscles is noted without mawkishness, and his courage and perseverance are noted without huzzahs. Having lost my own father to ALS, I’m particularly conscious of the brutality of this disease, and particularly amazed that Hawking managed to become a path breaking scientist while it ravaged his body and threatened to kill him.

Unconnected to the movie, early this week I read an interesting story in the BBC en espagnol web site regarding Hawking and artificial intelligence. I was surprised to see him saying in an interview that he expected AI would eventually not only surpass human intelligence, but would threaten it. I can see that our AI creations may eventually begin to improve themselves and leave us behind in terms of IQ, but they will not carry the emotional components that drive humans to compete for resources and domination. So why would they threaten us?

Green smoothies

For the past few weeks, most mornings I’ve created a green smoothie for breakfast.  A green smoothie consists of a couple of cups of a fresh raw green leafy vegetable, a couple of cups of fresh fruit, and a cup or so of fruit juice mixed for a minute or so in the blender.  This morning I combined spinach, pineapple, blueberries, orange juice, cranberry juice, and soy milk.  It was shockingly green, but delicious.

Making the smoothies has been an adventure.  I’ve focused new attention on the leafy vegetables available at Whole Foods, and tried ones like kale,  collards and dandelion greens that I previously knew almost nothing about.  At the market I’ve sniffed and smelled various exotic fruits and learned how to deal with some of them, like pineapples, mangoes, and papayas.  I intentionally make each one with different proportions of juices and other ingredients, so each one is a little surprising.  My success ratio keeps improving.  Even the ones that turn out less well (sometimes they taste a bit too much like grass) involve some amount of satisfaction in the exercise of creativity and the knowledge that they are incredibly nutritious.

My relationship to food continues to evolve.  It has come a long way since my days as a beginner vegetarian about 15 years ago.  Recently I cut milk and seafood out of my normal rotation.   This is more consistent both with my personal ethics and with what I know of nutrition science.  And so I’ve reached a state that I would have thought of in years gone by as a true health nut.

Is it worth it?  Definitely, but not just for the obvious reason.  I feel very healthy, but after having seen various loved ones, friends, and colleagues battling cancer, I realize that some disease could strike me as well with sudden and brutal force no matter what I’m eating.   It is satisfying to be more consistent with my ethical principles of respect for animals, but I doubt I’ll ever achieve perfection beyond all question.

The most unexpected dividend of my plant based diet has been how much more sensually satisfying eating is.  The tastes and textures of plant food are unendingly varied and complex.  This approach to food leads to trying new foods and new restaurants.  It inspires experimentation and discovery.

Last night, for instance, we ate at Zely and Ritz, one of the most interesting restaurants in Raleigh, which is about two blocks from our place.  I ordered sweet potato gnocchi with rutabaga sauce.  I’ve never cared for sweet potatoes or rutabagas, but it was the dish they offered that was most consistent with my rules.  And it turned out to be very tasty.  I had no room left for dessert.