Limits and conscientious consumption

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

Lincoln, I was informed when I was nine years old, freed the slaves. I learned that lesson well; I was an excellent student. Lincoln freed the slaves and, in my northern curriculum, that was that. Reconstruction, Redemption, sharecropping, the bought election of 1876, Jim Crow didn’t fit the narrative of American glory and the Ultimate Triumph of Liberty.

I know better now, but at some level it remains inconceivable to me that slavery still exists in the world. It was so deeply ingrained in me that we had progressed beyond such primitive miseries that I have trouble getting my head around it, no matter how much evidence I see to the contrary. And so it was that, a decade ago, when I read news reports about “human trafficking” in the global chocolate industry (a pleasant euphemism, as if the poor dears were merely stuck at a long red light), I assumed, with a last thin strand of youthful faith in my fellow human beings and the institutions meant to protect us from the consequences of our faults, that this problem had been “taken care of.”

But of course it hasn’t, because our boundless need to consume—even something as ultimately trivial as chocolate—trumps everything. Continue reading “Limits and conscientious consumption”

Ignorance is fear: or, “it’s gross” is not an argument

A former “food industry insider” named Bruce Bradley has started a blog to tell the world about all the terrible things the food industry does. In his most recent post, he lists some of the disgusting things that industry passes off as natural products. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “big food companies have cast a spell over most regulators that allows them to manipulate us with advertising, make deceptive claims, and mislead us with ingredient labels.”

I appreciate the effort to speak truth to powerless, but here’s the problem: Three of the five things he lists have been commonly used for centuries or, in some cases, millennia. Not only are they, in fact, natural; they’re traditional and originally handmade. Continue reading “Ignorance is fear: or, “it’s gross” is not an argument”

What’s a chicken worth?

Occasionally I see arguments to the effect that eating red meat is dangerously damaging to the environment — red meat specifically, as compared to poultry. For example, that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but only 800 gallons to produce a pound of chicken. (“Only” is relative here.) Or that 27 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of beef consumed, but only 7 pounds of CO2 per pound of chicken. The figures vary so wildly that I won’t bother citing sources: I assume these numbers are inaccurate; I offer them only as examples of the argument being made, which is that eating chicken is more “environmentally responsible” than eating beef.

I wrote recently about my objection to this sort of bean-counting, this reduction of lives and complex realities to mere data. Here’s another example of what I meant: linking pounds of meat with pounds of CO2 or gallons of water ignores the fact that those pounds of meat come from once-living creatures, which somebody has to kill. Continue reading “What’s a chicken worth?”