Thursday, February 21, 2013

200. 200 opinions that not everybody agreed with

By my unofficial count, this will be my 200th column for the Amherst News Times. It has been nearly a decade since my first column, which ran back in August of 2003. That averages out to a little less than two per month--which is usually what I aim for. I believe I have them all correctly chronicled on my website, I put the first 50 into a small collection and had planned to do so with each subsequent 50, but it is a lot of work and time consuming. Now I have the website and they are just as easily accessed there.

Despite ten years of opinions, many are surprised that I am still sort of quiet. I truly enjoy sitting back and listening, and watching-and then reading and researching column ideas. Inspiration is wide-spread-from things like documentaries, editorials, books, news headlines, displaced or random comments, or cable news. They sometimes originate from personal experiences or just hanging out in public-- and most touch my passions (or my nerves).

No surprise then, I've occasionally touched on the passions of others. Some have responded in agreement; others in adamant opposition. Although my passions sometimes get in the way, I am always rooting for an engaging discussion. My favorite topics are the ones that have good arguments on both sides-and I love the challenge of trying to formulate a unifying theory in my mind. Once I've convinced myself, then I offer them to others-to test them, which also means that sometimes my opinions do change.

The most sensitive of my column topics seems to be religion, and, of course, President Obama. Though I do not think I have ever taken a position on abortion, I have received emails--very passionate emails as you can imagine-- linking the three. Abortion is one of those topics that I still have not landed on with a confident position. To the frustration of some of my liberal friends-I find the merits, and flaws-in the argument made by both sides (though, I certainly do not put the blame of a 1973 Supreme Court decision on President Obama). It is interesting that some people see this issue as clearly as I see the merits of vegetarian/veganism.

I very much still enjoy writing this column, though I realize that some topics get repeated and might bore readers. I have a number of issues I still want to cover, including some topics I have not yet written about. The ones that require research often get pushed back in draft stage; others are written in a matter of minutes--in which I could not stop writing even if I wanted to.

As for other ambitions, I would like to write a book--if I can ever make the time commitment. The book I have in mind is sort of a unifying theory of all my columns. It would be an opportunity to go into considerably more depth than I can in a short essay-and links a common theme. However, what I have in mind will require a lot of time spent researching ideas. I have no illusions of a best seller, or even maybe a publisher, but think the process might offer self-realization--and the product, self-definition. As Henry Miller said, "writing is its own reward."

I have a silly new blog, called Five Roos (, which is about a "retired racer's life." Sky, our retired greyhound, actually "writes" the blog from his perspective. Greyhounds "roo" when they are excited, and Sky rates his experiences on a scale of 1-5 "roos." We'll see if he can keep that going. Blogs are very difficult to sustain.

Either way, I very much appreciate the opportunity to present my ideas in this newspaper. Like most writers, I always appreciate feedback--whether it is positive or negative, or just an opinion. Despite the personal reward, writers do want to be read, just like singers want to be heard and dancers want to be seen. I don't know when this will end-at column 225, 250 or maybe 500--but it continues to be a wonderful experience. Thank you to the Amherst News-Times and those who take a few moments to read my column a couple times each month.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

198. Are you a carnivore or herbivore?

In the consideration of veganism and vegetarianism, a popular argument is that it is "natural" for human beings to eat meat.

The proposition is that eating meat is not only natural for humans; it is often also presented as a key to our evolutionary success. By becoming omnivorous, human beings were able to survive on an additional energy source (other than plants). In fact, it is widely accepted that ancient humans were hunters and gathers--surviving on plant energy, spiked occasionally with animal meat. Thus, some conclude, eating meat is a natural part of our diet.

I would suggest that this argument fails on two significant levels. The primary flaw is the extent in which the human body has evolved to eat meat. The second flaw is that, if indeed if it is natural for human beings to eat meat, it is an inconsistent argument when juxtaposed with the other foods that we eat.

Comparative anatomy, as wonderfully presented by Milton R. Mills, M.D., suggests that human beings are much more related to herbivores than they are to carnivores. It is a convincing journey throughout the human digestive system that consistently reveals our relationship to animals that exclusively eat plants--even more so than common omnivores.

To offer just a few examples, consider the act of chewing. Carnivores do not chew their food (they will break it apart so that it can be swallowed, but do not chew their food). Ever say to your dog, "chew your food, you're going to choke"? Herbivores, meanwhile chew their food extensively. Omnivores typically swallow their food whole or engage in simple crushing. Human beings, particularly if they are to access maximum nutritional benefits, are required to chew their food extensively.

The length of the small intestine respective to an animal's body size is revealing as to the type of diet consumed. Carnivores usually have a small intestine 3-6 times their body length; herbivores have a small intestine 10-12 times their body length. Omnivores are about 4-6 times their body length. Human beings, it turns out, have a small intestine approximately 10-11 times their body length.

The stomach acidity of carnivores and omnivores is less than or equal to a pH of 1 (with food in the stomach). For Herbivores and human beings, the stomach acidity has a pH of 4-5.

And this goes on and on. Space doesn't permit discussion on each digestive trait, but in each case--from everything like jaw type, teeth, saliva, stomach size, liver, kidney to nails and colon--human beings resemble the herbivore more than carnivores and even typical omnivores. Rare is any trait without exception in nature, but taken together--it is clear that human beings, though they can eat meat, were designed to eat a plant-based diet.

In analyzing the omnivore diet, there is evidence that less meat is healthier. It is not a secret that human beings who eat a large amount of meat and animal protein have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Our bodies have simply not evolved quickly enough, within the context of the omnivorous or carnivorous diets, to process large quantities of cholesterol and saturated fats.

However, for argument sake, let us suppose that all of that is wrong. Let us argue that because human beings can consume meat, regardless of the amount, it is indeed natural--and not subject to argumentation. Then, I would encourage consistency, and offer examples of unnatural human habits--in comparison to other animals.

Other animals do not drink the milk of other species (except in unusual circumstances) and never past the infant stage. Human adults, who drink milk of cows or goats, are engaging in one of the truly most unnatural behaviors in nature. This unnatural behavior is the reason that a majority of the world's population is unable to digest lactose--it's natural for mammals to lose that ability after weaning. However, we do see some evolutionary movement on this trait (though the cause/extent of that movement is widely debated).

In the consumption of meat, carnivores typically use their large canines to rip apart their prey's body. Carnivores eat the meat right off the bone, and do not take the time to cook the food, or season it to taste. Thus, to be consistent with the argument of our "natural" omnivore tendencies, we ought not to find walking up to a cow and ripping off a piece of its thigh and eating it raw as unusual.

Eggs are a natural food source and many species will eat the concentrated protein and energy sources dedicated to a developing young. However, like our meat . . . in nature, it goes down raw. Snakes and raccoons do not add salt and pepper and eat them scrambled with ham, cheese and onions.

Finally, our "natural" foods are quite extensively altered in modern food processing. Milk is pasteurized and injected with vitamins. It is turned into cheese and sour cream--things you'll never find in nature. Livestock is genetically selected and injected with growth hormones and antibiotics to increase food production.

Human beings have long passed living in the "natural" world. While we can debate the merit of our cultural evolution, and the optimal human diet, I think it is a stretch to justify eating meat as a natural behavior of human beings. Human beings, through comparative anatomy, seem clearly to be designed to eat a diet made up of primarily plants. Furthermore, the argument that eating meat is a natural perspective of the human omnivore is inconsistent when we consider other unnatural part of our diets.

One can't argue it both ways.

We no longer live in the natural world, and, as such, we can no longer give credence to that argument as the justification for eating meat--unless we are willing to revert to a truly "natural" diet. While we can biologically consume meat, it is a choice--not a requirement or some predisposition based on our evolutionary history.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

197. Remember: Chocolate has a price

There is a line in the movie Men in Black 3 that attempts to sum up the key to happiness. It is explained that the key to happiness is not asking questions you don't want to know the answer to.

In other words, in many cases, it's easier just not knowing--ignorance is indeed bliss. We don't want to know how the diamond got there on your finger, what's in your hot dog or the realities of animal testing. It seems that nothing is sacred, and hearing the story behind the story is not only depressing--it's getting old.

Each time I am made aware of a situation of exploitation, I wonder, how did I miss this--why didn't I hear about this before. Why aren't the voices of the exploited being heard?

It's a story I am getting tired of telling.

Another Valentine's Day is upon us and with it perhaps about 60 million pounds of chocolate will be purchased and presented as a conduit in the expression of love. Soon will be Easter, and much more chocolate will be enjoyed, as enthusiastic kids will wake up and search for their cleverly--hidden Easter baskets.

It's tradition, it's fun and, of course, it tastes great. It is a weakness for many--a guilty pleasure best enjoyed in manageable portions.

Unfortunately, a deeper look into chocolate reveals that it is a highly controversial bitter sweet industry. Not even the pleasure of an endorphin-releasing piece of chocolate is safe from the scandalous endeavor of corporate profit seeking.

It is a battle that stems from forced child labor and human trafficking within the infamous Ivory Coast--where much of the cocoa beans that are eventually processed into chocolate are harvested by children.

A 2000 BBC documentary about the use of child labor in the industry initiated the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which is defined as "a voluntary agreement that partnered governments, the global cocoa industry, cocoa producers, cocoa laborers and non-governmental organizations. The agreement laid out a series of date-specific actions, including the development of voluntary standards of public certification. The Protocol did not commit the industry to ending all child labor in cocoa production, only the worst forms of it."

The 2010 documentary, "The Dark Side of Chocolate," however, evaluates the success of this protocol as it is related to child labor. The documentary investigates the reality of human trafficking of young children from Mali into the Ivory Coast--even if many local authorities deny that child labor still exists. There are conflicting reports about how many children are still working in cocoa agriculture--from thousands to millions--but it is clear that the protocol has not been successful in fully addressing the issue.

Self-regulation is difficult to measure and enforce-as the cheaters inspire others to cheat. Those who want less government regulation should support those corporations that play by the rules.

Fortunately, all is not lost when it comes to enjoying one of our favorite valentine treats. There are many "free-trade" chocolates, and a quick Internet search will reveal the different brands and where to purchase them. Doing so may make one feel a little less guilty about enjoying that guilty pleasure--even if it might cost a little more.

The fact is that we live in a world that revolves around profit and the corporations that will do almost anything to realize them. Most of this exploitation takes place out of the public's view--behind closed doors or in countries beyond our interest.

They hope you will not ask the questions--if fact, they bet your happiness, and their profits, on it.