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Archive for October, 2009

I’ve been a vegetarian (meat – no, eggs and cheese – yes) for over 35 years, for well thought out moral, environmental, and health reasons. I very rarely talk about it. I basically do not proselytize on this subject. That changes, now, and here. I’m going to talk about it, and I want you to think about it. Suddenly, it matters, as you’ll see.

EATING AS A MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE?

A long time ago, someone who’d been born into luxury and comfort and safety discovered that no one can really escape the fact that life hurts. All of us come to sickness, pain, loss, and death. Or, as it is said that he put it: All of us come to unavoidable suffering. (This person, of course, was Siddhārtha Gautama, more commonly known as “the Buddha“, this being an honorific term translating approximately as “sage”, “wise one”, “enlightened one”.

One of the more interesting things about the Buddhist moral tradition is its concern for the suffering of all beings. In our own time, formal mental health intervention is one of the ways we deal with human suffering, along with medical/surgical interventions, etc. At various times, the tide of human suffering has advanced and retreated. It’s about to advance, again, it appears, and what we eat has something to do with this, as you’ll see.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND STRESS

The fast-approaching climate change crisis has already begun affecting people in the lowlands of Bangladesh and some of the island nations of Polynesia, due to threatened and actual rises in sea levels, and increased frequency of typhoons (we call them hurricanes in the USA).

Imagine the impact on your life if rising water chased you permanently from your home, without hope of return in your lifetime or that of your children. You’ll become a climate change refugee. Where will you go? What will happen to your way of life, to the hopes you had for your children?

At the purely human level, this is about exorbitant levels of stress. In sociology, it is well known that in stress-impacted families domestic violence rates go up, sexual abuse rates go up, divorce rates go up, mental illness rates go up. and so on. That’s quite an impact for something that can be traced to small changes in the percentages of certain gases in our planet’s atmosphere.

Now imagine that this mental health challenge is quite significantly related to what you eat, daily. As it turns out, this is true. It’s highly likely that the oceans will rise around four feet in the next century. That will impact coastlines all over the world, because it’s on coastlines where most of the world’s population lives. The impact of storms will be very much increased.

In the USA, large areas of Florida may become to dangerous to live in. New Orleans, Washington DC, New York City, and other major population centers will become at high risk for catastrophic storm damage. Many parts of the world, including in our own country, will have to deal with millions of climate change refugees.

A one meter rise (four feet) in ocean level is estimated to probably create 20 MILLION climate change refugees in Bangladesh. Where will they go?

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WHAT WE EAT AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Now, let’s talk about what we eat. To put it plainly, what you choose to eat can have a huge impact on the mental health of others (as well as your own health), through the mediating factor of climate change. I want you to understand the relationship better.

Here is an article in which a British Lord, a well-informed, well-placed fellow, says some things to say about the relation between industrial meat production and climate change, something about which we’re going to be hearing much more in the near future.

The point he makes is that among the lifestyle changes we need to seriously consider are some that have nothing directly to do with fossil fuel consumption. With industrial meat and milk production, methane gas is the problem, not carbon dioxide. (This is more generally known as “natural gas” – yeah, the stuff people can cook and heat with.)

This aspect of the climate change crisis – the methane produced by the meat/dairy industry – is not well known…yet. I’ve know about it for about a year.

METHANE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

Here are some basic facts you should know about methane as it relates to climate change, with some quality documentation:

  • Methane is lighter than air, and is naturally produced in a variety of ways, including the decay of organic matter in low- or no-oxygen environments. One of those environments is the digestive tracts of rumiant animals (cattle, etc.) Such animals produce “16% of the world’s annual methane emissions to the atmosphere”, [1]
  • “The livestock sector in general (primarily cattle, chickens, and pigs) produces 37% of all human-induced methane”. [2] (quoted in [1])
  • “Methane is a relatively potent greenhouse gas with a high global warming potential… Methane in the atmosphere is eventually oxidized, producing carbon dioxide and water. As a result, methane in the atmosphere has a half life of seven years.” [1] (The core reference used here is [3])

OTHERS DIE SO THAT YOU CAN EAT AS YOU LIKE

An additional aspect of this mess, which is worth mentioning, is that to produce one pound of edible protein from a cow, that cow must consume 22 to 26 pounds of vegetable matter. Feed that matter (or similar crops more suitable for human consumption) directly to people, and you can feed roughly 20 people instead of one. [4] Now you know one of the two reasons I stopped eating meat over 30 years ago.

This doesn’t matter, of course, if you think that the death of a little brown/black kid from nutritional inadequacy (it sounds so benign, yes?) doesn’t matter as much as the death of a little white child. Most people don’t have to think about this, of course, thanks to the blessings of the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon.

But…I’m asking you to think about it. At some point the relationship will become unavoidably obvious. Imagine the impact on your mental health if you have someday to realize that you could have done something about this problem, personally, but just walked on past the opportunity, as if it didn’t matter.

START SMALL…KEEP GOING

A final thought: It doesn’t have to be either/or. Simply reducing the amount of meat you eat will be helpful. You can walk slowly toward omitting it entirely from your diet. And you should know this: the concern expressed in Lappe’s book [4] for correct mixing of vegetable proteins to simulate meat protein turns out to be unnecessary. I gave that up a long time ago, and just eat a variety of vegetarian protein sources. My health is,  and has been, excellent. Dr. Andrew Weil confirms the legitimacy of this more relaxed view of the protein sufficiency of vegetarian diets. [5]

It’s easier than you think to do the right thing – for the health of your body, for your eventual mental health, and for the mental health of large numbers of people you’ll never meet. You can do this simple think yourself, and tell others about it. You might even send them here to read this.

References

[1] “Methane” (Wikipedia article). Downloaded 2009.10.26 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Methane&oldid=322309918 – mostly a chemistry article, but with some good summaries and references relevant to the industrial meat/methane issue.

[2] Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Oorganization of the United Nations
Rome, 2006. Downloaded 2009.10.26 from http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM A PDF download version of this is available here: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/A0701E.pdf (for broadband use only – it’s a large file).

[3] Chapter 2 of: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is a section of the most recent publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). This group of 500+ scientists of international stature was established “… to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.” (http://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.htm)

[4] Frances Moore Lappe. (1991). Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballentine. This is the book, originally published in 1971, which turned me into a vegetarian. I bought a copy on the way out of town, leaving the University of Colorado with a fellow graduate student to go deer hunting in Montana. I went along as a  “participant-observer”. I helped skin and dress 5 deer. The amount of sheer wastage we produced was staggering to me. I had no idea meat production involved such waste, and this was only in the butchering part of the process. It was an incandescent experience. The book gave me the rationale for my diet-change, but this experience gave me a good part of the motivation. I’ve never looked back, in 35+ years. What’s to miss?

[5] Weil, Andrew. (2001). Eating Well For Optimum Health: The Essential Guide to Bringing Health and Pleasure Back to Eating. New York: Harper.

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