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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.

Frances Moore Lappe (Author)
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Tuesday, election day for us in the USA, I was barely able to get productive work accomplished. It wasn’t just a matter of being concerned that “my” candidate for President might lose. It was a mixture of many things, including:

  • the sense that our country stands at a unique moment – we either embrace the serious challenges facing us, or fall farther behind other countries who already are assuming a leadership position in the world relative to matters such as universal health care, a rational national energy policy, and an active commitment to economic, cultural, and social justice for all its citizens;
  • the sense that this long election campaign so much needed to end, for all our sakes, coupled by amazement at the apparently limitless energy of all four of the major national candidates, right until the final hour;
  • indescribable amazement at the fact that someone who was a state senator a mere four years ago appeared about to win the Presidency, someone whose intelligence, emotional balance, and capacity to organize his campaign in a manner never before seen has been commented upon by virtually everyone who wasn’t actually running against him (and at times even by them).
  • amazement every time I saw the Obama family on a public stage; when I was a child, and even a young adult, this family could simply not have been in such a position, running for a national office. Could we really have come this far?

And now that it’s all over, a new surprise: it seems that virtually everyone is celebrating. It appears nearly universal – that we recognize that as a nation we have turned a corner. This is a national Affirmative Action moment.

I say that because I can see the effect Obama’s election is already having on African Americans – there is an apparent sense of personal validation. THIS, for those who just don’t get it, is why we need people of all “flavors” in leadership positions. “Equal” mean equal access, and not just in theory. In actuality. Equality simply needs to be a visible reality, so that our children can see it. Now, in a sense that has never before been true, for African Americans, it is.

BUT…the caution: We still have a long way to go. The trans-generational effects of slavery, and of Jim Crow racism, are with us still, and will be for quite a while yet. The solution isn’t to make black people white, but to make our society brown – a mixture, at all levels. It simply has to be acceptable to appear, sound, and (even!) act black, at all levels. I can say this, as a Caucasian: too many white people simply don’t yet get this. And it isn’t just true for black people – tolerance for diversity remains one of our most central social challenges.

Now….to stay on topic – does any rational person doubt that social inequality has mental health consequences? It isn’t enough to have “equal access”. Only equal achievement will do the trick, and we have yet to achieve this, on so many fronts.

Social intolerance, and inequality of achievement affects everyone. What hurts one hurts us all. We cannot fail to care about our neighbors. We may well disagree about how to turn our caring into social policy, but about the goal there cannot rationally be disagreement. When one of us is injured by life, by social circumstance, by accident of birth, we all are injured.

This is a rare and shining moment we are having this week. We are not likely to pass this way again any time soon. I savor this moment, and seek to draw energy from it. There is a great deal of work to be done, by us all.

We really do need all hands on deck. I’d like to think that this week, “the crew” increased very meaningfully. I’m grateful to Obama, for who he is and what he has done, but I’m probably more grateful to my fellow citizens. As he said, we did this. It is our moment more than anything else – and no ones more than those folks who voted for the other candidate but still feel good about this moment. The last time we came together like this – and world drew close to us – we had just suffered a national terrorist attack. This time feels very much better, and will surely have more far-reaching consequences.

As we look at the challenges the whole world faces, in this and the next generation, we all need to believe “Yes, we can”. Then, we need to act on our belief.

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I have today resolved to remove myself as contributor to all Internet discussion lists which have moderators who screen all posts before allowing them to display (or not – and of course that’s why they screen them). I can no longer tolerate autocratic* discussion list moderators. (Please see my Note, below, re: “autocratic”.)

HAVING TO ASK PERMISSION TO SPEAK – NO LONGER OK

I began the first draft of this post a few days ago, in a state of outrage. The problem was that in one 24-hour period I had received TWO queries as to the appropriateness of proposed posts to an Internet discussion list I set up a few years ago. Both individuals contacting me had advanced degrees in psychotherapy-related fields, plus years of experience in their fields. Their maturity and good judgment may be assumed. Why, therefore, are they asking permission of me to express themselves on this discussion list? For one thing, I have made it clear, in other contexts, that this List does not have an autocratic moderator. Still, they ask permission.

This is reminiscent of the behavior that been observed in the USA of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They get in trouble at some point, and ought to call for help. They are asked – “So why didn’t you call the police?” One person put it plainly: “Where I come from, police don’t resolve trouble. They make trouble.” While this might be very easily understood for, say, an African-American from south-side Chicago, or Louisiana, or a great many other places (sadly), for many of the rest of us it is not.

WHERE THERE’S POWER THERE MUST BE CHECKS AND BALANCES

The problem is power distribution. The moment someone has inordinate power – a lot more power than someone else, without adequate checks and balances, the stage is set for abuse. How the abuse comes about can be surprisingly subtle, and that’s a good part of the problem. Altruistic people, possessed of good intelligence and values, nevertheless simply cannot make certain decisions for other people. When they think they can, and there’s no recourse to those of us on the outside of the process, trouble seems to me to be inevitable.

True autocrats are not controlled by those they serve. They are self-determining. This is the very definition of a “dictator” -someone who says in effect “I will tell you what you will do, and that will be the end of it.” This is unacceptable, in every context which comes to my mind.

POORLY MANAGED POWER IS A PROBLEM IN TOO MANY PSYCHOTHERAPY DISCUSSION LISTS

In truth, there are a number of psychology and psychotherapy-related Internet Discussion lists run by moderators who frankly say “You may speak here only about the topics that I’m interested in, else I’ll prevent you from speaking on the list.” Or, worse yet: “You may express only certain points of view, else I’ll prevent you from speaking here…” The idea of constructing an area where only certain activities are allowed isn’t problematic. The problem is that when one person, or even a minority of a group, controls the behavior of the group as a whole the free flow and interaction of ideas is constricted in ways which do not maximally benefit the welfare of the group.

LESSONS OF HISTORY? WHAT LESSONS?

If the intellectual history of western Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter, teaches us one thing, it is that only when there is a free marketplace of ideas does the best of which we are capable emerge. That it will emerge is not at all guaranteed by such a marketplace, but when the people as a whole are not actually running the market, the likelihood of such an emergence is always reduced. One of things I find most regrettable is that there are too many people, including some in positions of power, who have no apparent knowledge of this history lesson.

WHY THEY KEEP ASKING

Returning to the Internet discussion list problem – this is not the first time I have been asked whether I, as a list moderator, would inflict some kind of punishment upon someone should they post some particular expression to the list. I have, in fact, been contacted repeatedly over the years by people concerned about this matter.

I assume that the anxiety motivating these people to contact me derives from bad real-world experiences on other discussion lists, in part because I have myself had conflicts with Internet discussion list autocrats.

“MAJORITY RULE” ISN’T ENOUGH; WE MUST CARE FOR ALL

Free speech is a core value of my national culture. It is a cornerstone of freedom, we are told, growing up, in our schools and families. At the same time, actual behavior in these schools and families have on occasion denied this principle. Ideology and behavior are tto often at odds, that that in effect we are sometimes told “You have free speech, and if you know what’s good for you you’ll use it in the following way…”

Well, that doesn’t look like free speech, does it?

This actually a more complex problem than it might seem. If autocratic restrictions are a bad thing, how about restrictions deriving from the expressed will of the majority of a group? Well, this certainly is less oppressive, but isn’t necessarily acceptable. Under such a structure, for example slavery might well flourish – and historically has.

A good solution appears to be obtainable when one considers the subtle notions embodied in the conclusion of John Donne’s famous Meditation 17. I find this so powerful that I feel compelled to quote the entire fragment here:

…No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Where one man, woman, or child lives in oppression of any kind, there lives a threat to us all. THAT is why autocratic management of anything which might provide benefit to the people in general is so unacceptable.

Democracy – the rule of the people by the people for the people – is historically a rather rare and precious thing. It seem to require conscious fostering and advocacy, and even defense, at times, for its survival.

DRAW A LINE – TAKE A STAND

So, I will take this stand, from now on: I will make no further contributions to any Internet discussion list which is run by a moderator whose actions are those of an autocrat (as opposed, say, to those of an administrator).

I urge you to do the same, and to do it conspicuously.

The free marketplace of ideas is worth fighting for.

NOTE

* I want to be careful about my use of the word “autocrat”. Am I name-calling, by using it here? I hope not. I certainly am labeling, which is a legitimate kind of intellectual shorthand. The reason why I don’t have trouble with the word is that it has a long and distinct history in the political philosophy and political science. It is not really an imprecise term.

The virtues of autocracy have been debated at least since the time of the Athenian democracy. Implicit in that debate is a fairly clear idea of what’s being debated:

…the control of the many by the few (or the one) without regard to the opinion of the many.

This should be added: whether or not that “regard” is present is to be determined by the many, not by the few. THAT is the critical factor which keeps things from reeling out of control. Someone in a position of power who pays satisfactory attention to the opinion of the many is not an autocrat but an administrator.

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