Sunday, December 5, 2010

Laying Hens

I'm going to do my best to describe why laying hens endure the most suffering of any animals as best I can without sounding like a total downer. It certainly is possible to gather some chicken eggs without having to harm chickens in the process, but for any sort of eggs you would buy at the store the process that makes economic sense is far different from the cruelty-free strategy. Egg laying hens and broiler (meat) chickens are not of the same species. There is no demand for male chicks of laying breeds and these are disposed of in whatever is the cheapest way the hatcheries can get away with. Mercy For Animals did an undercover investigation at the United States' largest hatchery just last year, showing one typical process of male chicks being ground up alive.

The laying hens are packed about 5-7 into slanted battery cages. The cages are slanted so that eggs will roll out and make them easier to gather. The current recommendation by the United Egg Producers is to give each bird between 67 and 86 square inches of space, less than a sheet of printer paper. Chickens in the wild naturally form a hierarchy called a pecking order. Chickens will peck at each other to establish dominance and the lowlier chickens will get out of the way when they don't wish to assert dominance. The battery cage conditions prohibit chickens from getting out of the way, so ordinarily chickens in such conditions would peck at each other incessantly causing one another serious bodily harm. To combat this, the beaks of the laying hens are cut off at birth, making it so that the pain the chickens feel when attempting to peck at each other will be a sufficient deterrent to combat their natural social habit.

Producers have also discovered that keeping the lights on for unnaturally long periods of the day increases the amount the chickens lay. Thus the chickens are kept awake in their cramped quarters for the majority of the day, eating and laying for their existence. After a year in such conditions the hens production begins to drop. An ordinary lifespan for a hen might be for around a decade, but once production drops, it makes more economic sense to raise a new hen than to continue to feed and house one that is producing at a lower rate. Yet the producers don't ship them off to slaughter just yet, by starving the chickens for a period of one to two weeks and keeping them in near perpetual darkness (sometimes depriving them of water as well) they can induce the chickens to molt. According the the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Egg production resumes and increases rapidly to a profitable rate following an induced molt.” This gives the producers one last spurt of production before they send the spent laying hens off to slaughter.

Slaughterhouses and factory farms don't typically exist in the same facility, and the slaughter process is designed, like the rest of the process, to maximize efficiency rather than benevolence. Caged chickens are often literally thrown onto trucks and carried at the producer's leisure to a slaughter facility where the spent bird's meat is typically only useful in processed foods or as pet feed. Typical slaughter for these animals will involve hanging them upside-down by their legs and running them down a production line to have their necks automatically slit, allowing them to bleed out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard that in 2008 California passed Proposition 2, banning the use of battery cages by 2015. While this is probably a step in the right direction, it does nothing to address the worst of the suffering the animals must endure. They will be taken from their cages and merely dumped onto the floors. Beak trimming, forced molting, chick grinding, and bleak lives of densely packed confinement will still be all these fellow animals are allowed to enjoy.

This is all assuming that the predictions of the Proposition 2 opponents don't come to pass.

We estimate that 95% of that output and employment would be lost by 2015 as the egg sector gradually contracted to no more than 5% of its current size due to the proposed ballot measure.

Idaho, Nevada, and Georgia have all made efforts to court California's farmers with promises of fewer regulations that drive up their costs.

Buying free-range eggs, while it may sound like the obvious solution, is not what many of us hope it to be. Free-range producers still produce with competition and economic incentives to keep prices low, and this often comes at a cost of welfare in the process. Peaceful Prairie Animal Sanctuary took footage of free-range hens they had rescued shortly before slaughter showing no noticeable differences from their conventional counterparts.

These free-range birds had all outlived their unwanted male counterparts, had all been debeaked, and were obviously debilitated from their short lives of laying.

I know someone is going to try to accuse me of merely picking out isolated cases that are not an accurate representation of the process. They are going to say that clearly it doesn't make economic sense for farmers to abuse their animals, because stressed and hurt animals produce poorer products (these talking points are almost as predictable as Republicans saying “no” these days). These accusations are baseless. None of the clips I show present isolated cases of abuse, but production lines designed in ways that clearly involve great suffering when run as intended. These aren't outdated or isolated production techniques either, but part of the what the industry says is, “approximately 98 percent of all layer flocks in the U.S. [...] housed indoors and in cages.”

So, do you think the pleasure you enjoy from eating eggs is greater than the suffering the birds endure to produce that product for you?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sarah Palin's Alaska

Sarah Palin's Alaska is a show that I imagine few if any of my blog readers watch. Yet this week's episode caught the attention of many in the animal rights community for its focus on Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol bludgeoning halibut. Here is a preview from TLC I was able to track down for the episode.

This only shows a small bit of what was displayed in the episode. Having now watched it myself, I would estimate that about half of the hour long episode was dedicated to Sarah and Bristol's time upon a halibut fishing vessel, where they are both shown attempting to beat the life (or the struggle) out of several halibut with a club (with admittedly limited success), momentarily slicing the gills to allow the halibut to bleed out onto the ship, and even holding the still beating heart of one of the fish after it has been sliced apart. At one point during this gruesome ordeal we hear a voice over from Palin expressing that while she understands this appears brutal, it is also the safest and most humane way to kill the halibut.

While the Palins may have managed to stir up controversy on the subject, what happened in the episode was by no means unusual. I was able to find numerous similar clips on YouTube of halibut being beaten into submission, this next clip being perhaps the most brutal of them.

One reader on the Washington Post Blog comments:
As a commercial halibut fisherman in southeast Alaska, I have personally clubbed thousands of halibut. I can tell you that is the only way to do it. A good size halibut can break your boat, your legs and your neck if you don't stun them. It is far more humane than letting them gasp to death on deck. After stunning, a slice to the gills bleeds them out in a hurry. Bleeding them is why they taste so good. Unless you are a vegetarian, you can't really say much about the killing of your food. It's a fact that things die so you can eat.

Luckily I am a vegetarian, so I do have something to say about the killing of these beings. None of the clips I viewed showed the slightest concern for the suffering of the animals. In the episode with the Palins several fish seem to just be left sitting, bludgeoned into submission, but without their gills slit to even begin the bleeding process; clearly alive the entire time. These halibut are left, often for hours at a time hooked underwater, then they are dragged to the surface where they often have additional hooks jabbed into them to pull them aboard, where they are then brutally beaten with nothing more than the crudest mallets until they lose the will to struggle, and are then slowly bled out aboard these vessels until the last breath of life drains from their bodies.

The only sense in this immense cruelty is the economic sense it makes for those participating in the process. There is not the slightest sign of concern for the suffering of the animals given along the way. Not an effort to pull in lines sooner, not an effort to pull them aboard without jabbing into their flesh once again, not even the kind grace (sarcasm) of a captive bolt to put them out of their misery without struggling against repeated blows to enjoy another breath.

These animals, like so many others, are treated as if their interests deserve no consideration. Even when it wouldn't cause us the slightest inconvenience, we still forgo what would lessen their suffering if it does not benefit ourselves as well. We vegans are often accused of placing ourselves upon a pedestal of moral superiority, but those who act as if we have some god-given right over others have placed themselves upon a much sicker pedestal of superiority. For those of us who don't think there is any ethical sense in this purposeless abuse, we make a difference by decreasing the economic sense these beatings make for those without any concern for the suffering of these cousins.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Vegan No More

This past Friday, the vegan world got rocked by an announcement from a formerly vegan blogger who went back to eating meat. Tasha, the former Voracious Vegan, made this announcement on her Voracious Eats blog in a post titled A Vegan No More. Tasha's post nearly perfectly echos numerous aspects of Lierre Keith's Vegetarian Myth, describing how her time as a vegan left her suffering bouts of depression, low energy, B-12 deficiency, and numerous other physical and psychological troubles, and that somehow out of these troubles that very literally boggled her mind, she managed to come to a well-reasoned truth, that the only way to restore her health was through the consumption of animal products once again. She even goes so far as to echo Lierre's signature line that “life requires death”. Ginny Messina over at The Vegan RD does an excellent job of pointing out this similarity with Lierre's book, along with discussing how poorly several of her health issues were addressed by a doctor who seemed set on merely echoing the Weston A Price Foundation's selling points.

One thing this event emphasized for me, however, was the importance of skepticism in the animal rights movement, both in the message we sell to non-vegans and in correcting the misinformation we hear from other vegans.

In the post Tasha describes how she had been told, and had unskeptically accepted, that a vegan diet would be a miraculous panacea for her health.

Everything I had ever been told by vegans had said that this was the optimum way for humans to eat.

Just as I described in my Why Skeptic post Tasha describes how her beliefs were impacted simply by her desire for them to be true.

I wanted veganism to work. I wanted desperately for it to be right, for my ethics to outweigh my physiology.

When these unrealistic hopes and nutritional misinformation she had been fed didn't pan out, she was all too ready to gobble up an entirely new set of pseudo-scientific claims when a few bits of her previous worldview were shown to be false.

I listened patiently, refuting her [the doctor's] claims with the knowledge I’ve gleaned over the years. After all, I wasn’t just a regular vegan, I was a hardcore, self-righteous and oh so judgmental vegangelical. I never passed up an opportunity for some preaching. She was prepared. Just as patiently she explained how many of the ‘facts’ I was quoting were just plain wrong, or had been presented in a way that distorted the truth. It was horrifying and I almost passed out in her office because I was so worked up.

What if instead of blindly believing that a vegan diet would be a panacea of health Tasha had taken advice from Ginny of the Vegan RD, Jack Norris, or any registered dietitian following the advice of the American Dietetic Association. Had we taken the time to address misinformation within our own ranks we could have prevented this meteoric impact into the animal rights movement. Now, we are instead left with a smoldering ruin of Weston A. Price inspired naturo-babble.

I think Ginny (the Vegan RD) makes an excellent point about what causes some vegans to fail.

I believe that a lot of vegans get sick and return to eating meat when all they needed was more sound information about vegan diets and less misinformation from the pseudo-scientific anti-vegan world (as well as the pseudo-scientific pro-vegan world.)

The enemy of success in the animal rights movement is not anti-vegan information, but misinformation on both sides.

I have talked with Jamie of Skeptical Vegan and we have agreed to go through several of the new pseudo-scientific claims being made by the Voracious Eats blog in greater detail.

One of the best bits of skepticism I saw in response to the Voracious Eats post, however, was a comment left on Reddit in response.

I am a meat-eating omnivore and I'd love to be validated but this piece just has a funny smell to it. We very quickly go from health problems to painting vegans as self-rightous woman-haters. It feels like in an earlier draft they were perhaps anti-semetic puppy-kickers but it got switched before publishing.

Seriously, how many closet meat-eating vegan bloggers would out themselves after a simple email?

While I can agree that maintaining a healthy vegan diet can be difficult and perhaps impossible for some people I just can't believe this article which is so obviously playing on misplaced emotions to persuade the reader.

I assure you that there are no closet meat-eaters behind the scenes at this blog.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Environmental Impact of Leafleting

I got a lot of positive feedback in response to my previous post on whether being vegan is worse for the environment. One of the few objections raised in response, however, was the question of what the environmental impact of leafleting is (and reposting my link Vegan Outreach's leafleting totals). This is an excellent question.

As with almost all things, printing booklets has an environmental impact in a large number of areas, but the objection I hear most often when leafleting is that people don't want to waste the paper because of the trees that need to be cut down to create that paper. This creates an interesting dichotomy, since those of you who have read Livestock's Long Shadow or even the related press release will recall that the majority of land deforested in recent years is now being grazed by livestock. If only we had some way to compare any potential decrease in deforestation due to a decrease in livestock consumption from leafleting, with whatever deforestation may have been caused to print the booklets.

The fact regarding deforestation given in Livestock's Long Shadow is that, “By 2010 cattle are projected to be grazing on some 24 million hectares of Neotropical land that was forest in 2000.” This did not actually originate with the Livestock's Long Shadow report, but is actually attributed to an article published in the journal Global Environmental Change titled Projecting land use changes in the Neotropics: The geography of pasture expansion into forest. Since this article is only focused on neotropical areas, and the fact we are given relates to only grazing cattle, not all deforestation related to animal consumption is being included in the figure we have been given, but we will use it as a baseline for the minimum amount of recently forested land now being used to support our demand for animal products. 24 million hectares in the last decade, or 2.4 million hectares per year.

According to the USDA, worldwide production of beef and veal in 2010 is expected to be around 7.2 million tonnes. This is a slight decrease from a peak of around 7.6 million tonnes in 2007, but serves as a fairly accurate yearly estimate for the past decade. This means that for every tonne of meat, 1/3 of a hectare of neotropical forest is deforested ([2.4 Mha/yr] / [7.2 Mt/yr]), or 3.3 square meters per kilogram of beef.

I leaflet exclusively in the United States, where the total beef consumption in 2009 was 26.9 billion pounds, or about 40 kilograms per person. This means each person in the US contributes to about 130 square meters (40*3.3) of neotropical deforestation per year through their consumption of grazing beef and veal alone.

How many sheets of paper would be in that same 130 square meters of forest? Assuming Pokomoke State Forest in Maryland can serve as a fairly typical example of forest, I calculate that there is roughly 7300 board feet of wood per acre there. That would be roughly 1.8 board feet per square meter. (Pokomoke is mostly brushy forest as opposed to tall trees, which probably explains the low number). Doing some online research I see numbers ranging anywhere from 2000 to 76000 board feet per acre, with just under 10,000 seeming like a fair middle ground, so I will use the more pessimistic Pokomoke number in order to continue to favor beef in all of our estimates. One board foot of wood would weigh roughly 2 kilograms, which we will pessimistically estimate yields only 1 kilogram of paper. A typical density for printer paper is 20lbs (9.1kg) per ream (500 sheets). This would be equal to 55 sheets per kilogram. We have turned each square meter of forest into 1.8 kilograms of paper, so this would be 100 sheets of paper per square meter.

Out of that same 130 square meters deforested for beef production we could typically harvest roughly 13000 sheets of paper. Each booklet I hand out contains the equivalent of 16 sheets of paper, so even if out of every 100 booklets passed out, only one person reduces their consumption of beef by a mere 1 part in 8, our forests will still have come out on top.

I have reached this conclusion making every estimate along the way as beneficial to the pro-beef conclusion as could be reasonably argued. I have even left out important considerations in favor of printing booklets. Booklets are printed on lighter paper than printer paper, paper is predominantly made out of otherwise unusable wood scraps and recycled paper bits with only a fraction coming from newly harvested wood, and land used for logging is replanted once logging is completed. We have ignored land demands for non-grazing cattle and deforestation from cattle that wasn't caused in neotropical regions. No matter how I look at the problem, I am forced to come to the conclusion that leafleting for Vegan Outreach is ultimately beneficial in preventing deforestation as well.

Methodological Shortcomings

One aspect the methodology I have used cannot take into account is the motive for the deforestation. It is entirely possible that cattle farmers are merely taking advantage of land opened up by the logging industry, or that timber harvesters are merely collecting wood off of land that is going to be opened up for grazing in any case. Additionally I have treated world beef as if it is a single commodity, all bearing equally in any deforestation it may have caused, when in reality there is a huge variety in impact attributable to any given producer. The numbers used have been averaged and speak well to the average consumer, ignorant of the details in their food choices, who is being leafleted.

Once again, I would like to emphasize that I am not trying to promote veganism for environmental reasons, but I feel this example speaks well as to why the free distribution of information on paper nearly always outweighs any potential environmental cost.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Being Vegan is worse for the environment?

This past Thursday I leafleted a couple college campuses with Vegan Outreach materials to ensure that I didn't lose my place on the all time leafleting totals (nothing wrong with some healthy competition to help the animals). The first school I stopped at that day, West Valley College, was one of the most receptive schools I've ever been to. At West Valley College, however, I also talked to a young gentleman who tried to tell me that vegetarianism was actually worse for the environment and that the world couldn't sustain an all vegetarian human population. I wasn't out there trying to promote vegetarianism for environmental reasons, but I definitely didn't want environmental concerns to keep someone from giving fair consideration to non-human interests, so I mentioned that the error bars on any such study would have to be very large considering the difficulty of predicting what technologies might become practical under different economic circumstances, and that many estimates predict the earth can't sustain its current human population at all in the long run. I was being very modest since I certainly still believed there are environmental benefits to reducing our consumption of meat (in most cases), but this gentleman had not given me many details to work with. He dismissed my skeptical remarks adding that he had really looked into this in the past and was quite knowledgeable on the subject. He left me with the statement, “You should really look into it, man.” Needless to say I was still quite doubtful of his conclusion, but I am not one to pass up the chance to research a sketchy claim.

I began by doing a few Google searches to get an idea of where the claim may have originally come from: “Vegetarianism is worse for environment”, “Vegetarian bad for evironment”. All the top hits I got for these searches seemed to trace back to a single source. If I dug down a few pages into the results I found a couple older results, which generally traced back to the Weston A. Price foundation, but all the top results (that were relevant to my query) were published on or after Feb. 12, 2010. The earliest of these was an article published in The Telegraph titled, Becoming vegetarian 'can harm the environment'. Like all the other top results I was getting, this article in The Telegraph mentioned a Cranfield University study commissioned by the WWF. My task became clear. I had to track down this vaguely referenced study.

Luckily, the Telegraph article included a single quote from the study. “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.” This was the key I needed, and I was able to track this quote down to a pdf available on the WWF website. This study was affiliated with Cranfield University and was published a little less than a month prior to the Telegraph article. This was clearly the study being referenced. How Low Can We Go?: An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050.

My first thought was to check the methodology of this study, to make sure everything seemed appropriate and that it hadn't left out anything like forgetting to count feed crops toward livestock's impact, instead of putting it down as vegetarian food (I can hardly believe the things some people think we eat). The methodology was not just sound, but incredibly thorough, not just counting the feed toward livestock, but refrigeration, transportation, packaging, cooking, every single detail and bit of greenhouse gas seemed to be getting counted. I was beginning to think I may need to reconsider my views on the environmental consequences of vegetarianism, but first I needed to see the results to understand this conclusion for myself.

Very little of the study actually had to do with vegetarianism. The study was about the environmental (specifically in terms of greenhouse gasses) impact of our food choices, and vegetarianism only came up because one out of dozens of scenarios they looked into to mitigate future impact was adopting a no-meat diet. It seemed strange that all of the articles I had read had focused so much on this small aspect of the study, but it was what had attracted me to the articles in the first place, so I wasn't going to blame them for reporting on the bit that seemed interesting.

I still had not seen the original quote from The Telegraph that led me to this study in the first place, and as I read through the results they seemed to be in line what I would have expected. Beef seemed to be worst for the environment in nearly every area studied. Poultry was a far better (environmentally speaking) alternative to beef, and performed at roughly the same level most plant foods did. I was just waiting to come across some bombshell that would be an unexpected hit against vegetarianism. Production? No. Transportation? No. Packaging? No. Refrigeration? No. Disposal? No. Then I came to Table 24, which had results from their various scenarios for reducing future emissions (Click to enlarge).

Mitigation Techniques for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Not only did no-meat reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it performed better than any other single measure looked at in the study even beating out such far-fetched alternatives as “zero fossil fuels”. I finished reading through the conclusion of the study and still did not find the quote from The Telegraph that had led me to this study in the first place. The conclusion did feel the need to mention the no-meat scenario however:

Diet provides single measures with big effects. In addition, these measures are technically feasible now. The most effective single measure (meat-free diet) gives a 20% reduction. The benefit of a vegetarian diet increases to about 38% when our estimates of LUC [Land Use Change] emissions are included, but this excludes the loss of soil carbon if UK grassland was converted to arable cropping. Our analysis of the effects of the production of substitutes leads to the conclusion that a broad reduction in livestock product consumption balanced by broad-based increases in crop product intake is a more feasible measure which avoids the land use burden associated with soy based livestock product analogues. A 66% reduction in livestock products delivers a 15% reduction in supply chain emissions. Moreover, reduction in ruminant production in particular will reduce methane emissions.

The main dietary changes examined would involve substantial social change. This is quite likely to be the largest barrier. Meat, milk and eggs have been part of our diet for centuries. While a substantial minority actively embrace a meat free or vegan diet, most consumers will continue to consume livestock products. The better nutritional properties of the animal products compared with the non-animal alternatives mean that vitamin supplementation is required. However manufacturing vitamin supplementation appears to be trivial in energy and GHG terms owing to the very small quantities needed.
(p.73 of pdf)

The conclusions were clearly quite in favor of adopting a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons, if anything slightly more favorable than I would have anticipated coming into this paper. The question remained, where had that quote from The Telegraph come from? I did a search of the pdf and found it, not in the conclusion, but rather in the introduction.

A switch from red to white meat will reduce supply chain emissions by 9% but this would increase our reliance on imported soy meal substantially. Our analysis indicates that the effect of a reduction in livestock product consumption on arable land use (which is a critical component of the link with deforestation) will depend on how consumers compensate for lower intakes of meat, eggs and dairy products. A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and Quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK. In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable. We estimate that a 50% reduction in livestock production consumption would release about 1.6 Mha of arable land (based on the yield of crops supplying the UK) used for livestock feed production. This would be off-set by an increase of about 1.0 M ha in arable land needed for direct crop consumption (based on UK yields). In addition to the release of arable land, between 5 and 10 Mha of permanent grassland would be available for extensification, other uses, or re-wilding. Such changes would open up ‘game-changing’ opportunities but there needs to be careful assessment made in the development policy if unintended consequences are to be avoided.
(p.8-9 of pdf)

It appears that in the middle of a paragraph describing how a reduction in livestock consumption and a switch to plant based products would be beneficial, a quote on how not all processed foods obey this trend has been quote mined. The mass release of the idea that vegetarianism is worse for the environment did not trace back to a study but rather to media reporting, and now I wanted to track down where the reporting originally went wrong.

I tracked down every English news article that I could find via Google in which this study was being referenced. The list is relatively short, but these sources were then picked up by blogs and echoed all over the internet. I took down several relevant bits of information about how each source reported on the study. Here are my results:

Date Source Title Vegetarian “How Low Can We Go” Cranfield Donal Murphy-Bokern

Farmers Guardian

Major report focuses on food chain emissions No Yes No No
01/18/10 WWF Emissions from UK food industry far higher than believed No Yes No No
01/18/10 Farmers Weekly Interactive Farm emissions 'far higher than thought' Yes (in quote by dairy farmer) Yes No No
01/22/10 Taylor Vinters UK food system ''must reduce carbon emissions'' No Yes No No
01/27/10 The Land UK food system emissions higher than thought No Yes No No
02/18/10 Green Fudge WWF study shows environmental impact of food No Yes No No
02/12/10 The Telegraph Becoming vegetarian 'can harm the environment' Yes No Yes Yes
02/12/10 The Times Online Tofu can harm environment more than meat, finds WWF study Yes No Yes Yes
02/13/10 The Med Guru Tofu hurts environment more than meat—study Yes No Yes Yes
02/13/10 The Australian Tuck in and save the planet: Eating red meat is the new way to be green Yes No Yes No
02/13/10 Daily Mail How being vegetarian does more harm to the environment than eating meat Yes No Yes Yes
02/28/10 Meat Trade News Daily Ireland - Vegetarians damaging the planet Yes No Yes Yes

Full Data Set

I have grouped the news stories into two separate categories and then sorted them by date. The first group seems to have done a good job of reporting on the story. They all mention the title of the study they are discussing, none of the mention Cranfield University, which is hardly mentioned in the study, and the only time vegetarianism is mentioned by any of them is in a quote given by a dairy farmer to one of the articles. The second group on the other hand did not report on the study appropriately. All of them mention the word vegetarian multiple times, they all mention Cranfield University, most of them include the name of a single author, Donal Murphy-Bokern, and not a single one remembers to include the title of the study they are discussing. It is clear that several of the later ones let their imaginations loose with even the quote mined version of the quote turning a study which has condemned beef and red meat along every step of the way into, “eating red meat is the new way to be green.”

Both The Daily Telegraph and The Times Online include the clearly quote mined quote in their articles. One hint that The Times may be the guilty party is that the Daily Telegraph references a quote from Liz O'Neil, the spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society, as being given to The Times, and the article in The Times also includes the same quote. In any case, these early stories were picked up and clearly manipulated by other news outlets who appear to not even have been aware of the name of the study they were addressing. If you can't be buggered to read a study that you are writing an article about, then perhaps it is time for you to get out of journalism. Everyone who reported on this as being a mark against vegetarianism clearly did not do their due diligence at best. There is no reason why any journalist should not have been able to track down and read the original study just as I did.

Now if only I had some way of tracking down that young man I talked to at West Valley College.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dear Abby

I was reading the newspaper this morning and the headline for the Dear Abby column caught my attention.

You don't need to alter Thanksgiving meal to appease 2 vegans

Dear Abby: Last year for Thanksgiving, I made a special effort to get the entire family together for the traditional meal. All 13 of us met at my mother's home, and everyone was to bring a dish or two to share.
One of my brothers has two college-age daughters. Both are vegan, and he insisted that all the dishes we brought be vegan. I did it, but I resented it because I felt that two out of 13 people should not decide the menu. If they wanted vegan dishes, they should bring something for themselves, while the rest of us brought what we wanted.
My brother and nieces are now asking what we're doing this year for Thanksgiving. Frankly, I don't want to go through that again. Am I wrong in thinking everyone should not bend over backward for the vegan meal? I don't mind some of the menu accommodating them, but I don't think the whole dinner should be altered.
Turkey Eater in Texas

Dear Turkey Eater: Neither do I. And the response you should give your brother (and his daughters) is that you'll be serving a traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year, so they can either bring something they will enjoy or make other plans.

I understand that being encouraged to bring our own vegan dishes is already much better than many of us vegans enjoy during Thanksgiving with family. Nonetheless, I absolutely disagree with Dear Abby and Turkey Eater in their conclusions.

The vegan daughters have a serious ethical reason for making their demands. It isn't about simply having the foods they prefer to them, but about being able to comfortably enjoy a meal with family without having to be plagued by the cruelty and suffering in every bite around them. They may be trying to throw their weight around a bit in order to save a couple extra turkey lives, and I absolutely support them in this.

Turkey Eater on the other hand is merely whining that he didn't get to enjoy the foods he preferred. He is correct that everyone should get their fair votes toward what foods they want, but food preferences are not something worth breaking up a family get together over. Serious ethical dilemmas are justified reason for the daughters to raise a concern, and I think Turkey Eater has gone much too far by choosing to cut off a part of his family because he is not willing to enjoy a perfectly fine meal with them if it cannot include his choice of flesh.

I encourage you to write Dear Abby and let her know how you felt about today's column. I am not going to write something for you to tell her, but you are welcome to take any ideas or quotes from the above in what you choose to send in.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

9 Questions to Stump Omnivores

You may have fallen privy in the past to one of numerous similar examples by creationists of their 26 questions for evolutionists. More recently vaccination deniers have come up with their own 9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims. Clearly these groups think these are effective tactics for the positions they are trying to promote. The problem for both of these groups, however, is that their questions only attest to their ignorance of the science they are hoping to debunk. This post is an attempt to take the positive idea of asking questions, but hopefully using sources with a bit more knowledge than creationists or anti-vax groups.

There are barbarians who seize this dog, who so greatly surpasses man in fidelity and friendship, and nail him down to a table and dissect him alive, to show you the mesaraic veins! You discover in him all the same organs of feeling as in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel?
Voltaire (Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764)

The mechanist Voltaire mentions is actually a reference to the idea that all things, including living things can be understood solely by understanding the laws of nature and some initial set of conditions. Life under this view is no more than a complex machine that could be broken down into component parts and better understood. This reductionism is very much essential to science, and everything we know does suggest that nature abides by its own laws. Rene Descartes was a proponent of mechanism in most cases, but struggled with the idea that the human mind and consciousness that he experienced could be explained simply by natural interactions. Descartes posited that in the case of humans we must posses some “mental substance” that was not material to explain all the sensations we feel in our lives, but that non-human animals did not have this additional mental component and thus could not feel pain. This argument was used to justify immensely cruel acts in the 17th and 18th centuries and it was in the context of these cruel acts that Voltaire raised his challenging question. Clearly there is no logical reason why we should find the mechanisms for feeling in non-human animals if they are not to feel; nonetheless, this Cartesian argument is still one we hear commonly raised today.

Another way to do it would be to hybridize humans and chimpanzees, produce an actual hybrid, and the point of the novel would be to explore the implications. What effect would that have on society? What effect would that have on moral philosophy? What effect would that have on religion?
Richard Dawkins (Point of Inquiry, Dec. 7 2007)

At present our legal system has not defined the place a human chimpanzee hybrid would inhabit. Should it be granted the same freedoms we enjoy ourselves? Should it be subjected to the same confinement and experimentation we would subject chimpanzees to? What about a 3/4 or a 1/4 human version? Perhaps this blurring of our own species line might finally make clear that species should not be the morally relevant characteristic that determines whether a being deserves consideration for its interests.

But if the experimenter claims that the experiment is important enough to justify inflicting suffering on animals, why is it not important enough to justify inflicting suffering on humans at the same mental level?
Peter Singer (Animal Liberation, 2002, p.83)

People who try to justify rights for only humans often do so on the basis that humans have some exceptional mental characteristic. There are certainly a number of things we see humans doing that we do not see amongst other animals, but these things aren't things done by all humans. When we use these rules to justify differential treatment for human and non-human animals we need to acknowledge that humans who do not meet the requirements for these rules do not receive the protections from these rules.

The day has been, I grieve to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail?
Jeremy Bentham (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789)

Perhaps you don't speak quite the same way as Bentham did in 1789, but those who treat human and non-human animals by different sets of standards ought to be able to answer what it is that traces the insuperable line. Bentham also makes the excellent point that even if humans are more reasonable than non-human animals this doesn't mean non-human animals should be subjected without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. Bentham answers the question of the insuperable line for himself suggesting that the ability to suffer is what traces the line.

But if we should ask these profound expositors of God’s intentions, How about those man-eating animals - lions, tigers, alligators - which smack their lips over raw man? Or about those myriads of noxious insects that destroy labor and drink his blood? Doubtless man was intended for food and drink for all these? […] Now, it never seems to occur to these far- seeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation?
John Muir (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, 1916)

I often hear from omnivores that animals eat each other, therefore that somehow justifies us eating them, strangely with no bother to explain how herbivorous cattle made their way onto our menus. Nevertheless, whenever any animal tries to return the favor upon a member of human-kind the act is universally condemned. How is it people determined that non-human animals were placed here for our consumption, but certainly not us for theirs? We are a much smaller part of this cosmos than could have ever been realized in Muir's time. We should be grateful to enjoy a part in it, but we certainly do not properly appreciate its beauty if we believe the cosmos, in all of its entirety, was created solely for our own purposes.

If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth - beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals - would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?
(Possibly)George Bernard Shaw

This quote has been repeated in a number of different forms by a number of different people. I most commonly see it attributed to George Bernard Shaw; although, I was unable to track down the original source in which it appeared, so take that attribution with a grain of salt. The point of this comment, however, is fairly clear. There may very well exist beings in this universe whose intellect and technological prowess far exceeds our own. To them, we may not appear particularly exceptional amongst the numerous beings that inhabit this planet (or region of the universe). Most of us agree that it wouldn't be right for them to treat us as we currently treat non-human animals, but why not?

Consider those unfortunate mentally impaired people who have much less capacity to solve problems, to care for themselves, to communicate, to engage in social relationships and to feel pain, than do apes. What is the logic that forbids medical experiments on those people, but not on apes?
Jared Diamond (The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, 1991)

Perhaps these severely mentally impaired humans have less impaired humans who deeply care about them and would be hurt by their loss, but it is not out of the question to find severely mentally impaired orphans whose disappearance would not particularly concern anyone. I suspect many of us would still find it wrong to subject them to excruciating experiments or to keep them confined and lonely without social interaction. Yet many great apes capable of enjoying life at a seemingly much higher level are subjected to these sorts of conditions regularly. Why do we allow this to happen, but forbid the experiments on much less deserving humans?

When nonvegetarians say that “human problems come first” I cannot help wondering what exactly it is they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farm animals.
Peter Singer (Animal Liberation, 2002, p.221)

I understand that this is not an actual question, but I have chosen to include it since it can easily be reworded as such. I can easily see people believing that they are personally more equipped to deal with issues pertaining to humans than non-humans, but even so, there is no reason to continue to support the exploitation of non-human animals just because you have put human issues as your primary concern.

Why should species, genus, and family be relevant to the assignment of legal rights?
Steven M. Wise (Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, p.24)

Steven Wise is an excellent animal rights author, and makes an important point early on in his book. Linnaean categorizations should not be what determines whether a being is deserving of rights. Only the characteristics of each individual should be relevant to determining the consideration each receives.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Humor Toward Vegans?

I was perusing College Humor when I decided to do a search for anything they had relevant to the term 'vegan'. I had expected most of the results I got to be humor made at vegans' expense, but some of the results I found seemed to be much more sinister than that.

You were a vegan. You decided to constantly tell us how disgusting we were for eating meat, dairy, and the multitude of other things that even partially contain animal products. So one day, when you weren't there, I microwaved some beef stew. Then I sprinkled the broth all over your bed. You slept in cow death for weeks before you washed those sheets. I still smile a little bit every time I think of it.
Danielle Pierce, Kent State University

Sean. You're a wonderful guy, but living together means sharing responsibilities. Like washing up. Or buying new toilet paper. Or not having your idiotic girlfriend over and stealing my parking spot. So I know you're a vegan and made me get a separate fridge for my meat and beer, but you can't keep cooking that foul-smelling crap before you go to class at 6 in the morning. So you remember that one time that your tofurkey tasted so delicious? I took it upon myself to smear everything that belonged to you in the fridge with my bacon. And your door handle. And your toothbrush. Isn't veganism delicious?
Jimmy English, The College of New Jersey

Freshman year, my roommate was the definition of a pussy. The thing that pissed me off most was that he was a vegan. I would eat a burger and he would bitch me out. So one night me an bunch of buddies from our dorm filled his bed with lobsters and steak. His reaction was priceless. He flipped shit and ran out of the room crying. He went home and didn't come back for two weeks. He immediately filed for a room change and when he came to get his shit out of our dorm, he wouldn't even look at me.
Mike, School Not Given

I understand that to most people these will seem like innocent college pranks done in good humor. I know I have quite the rap sheet of pranks from my college days as well. Nonetheless, suppose for a moment that these pranks were pulled not against vegans, but against strictly religious students. A female is bothered by the strict lifestyle her Muslim roommate is constantly trying to push, so she puts pork in her burqa. A male student is bothered by his strict Jewish roommate not sharing his kosher silverware, so he covers his bed in shellfish. These aren't innocent pranks, they are acts of property damage done against someone because of their religious beliefs and would be considered in many areas to be hate crimes.

I'm not trying to argue that these pranks should be treated like violent crimes because a religion is involved. Unlike what the AETA seems to claim, property damage is not terrorism. Nonetheless, these are still criminally harmful acts. Yet the only difference between the religious examples and what has been done to these vegans is that the ethical beliefs in the case of the vegans do not require an appeal to the supernatural, and thus the vegans receive less protection under the law. In the United States, at the very least, people receiving less protection under the law because of their religion, including the lack of religion, should be viewed as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I am admittedly no legal expert, but I would love to see the FFRF or the ACLU take up the case of one of these vegan students.

This isn't to say humor can't be made at the expense of vegans. I found this example which did a fine job of it:

Real roommate ad 1:
"I'm 24, vegan, easy to get along with. I tend to be a bit clutter-happy, but keep the common areas tidy. I like to have guests over now and then, yours can come too! Would like to keep the kitchen vegetarian if possible."

Translation: I'm 24, passive-aggressive and self-righteous. I'm a hoarder, but if you push my stuff out of the way, you can sit down on the couch. I like to have guests over at all hours. Yours can come too, but should be willing to engage in vegetarian activities. Don't dare bring meat or milk into my apartment or I'll slaughter you in your sleep. Did I mention I was vegan?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Historic Vegan News

I have used the Google News feature to track down two of the oldest articles mentioning veganism that I can find and was quite tickled by these early depictions of vegans.

The first article comes from the January 28, 1953 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel:

Vegans Eat No Meat, Lose Sense of Humor

DO YOU KNOW what a vegan is? If not, please be informed that a vegan is a vegetarian who, in addition to abstaining from meat, also abstains from dairy products. Are you a steak enthusiast? So am I. Do you know how the vegetarians and vegans refer to us? They say we “are addicted to the taste of dead flesh.”
A vegetarian diet may have some advantages but it seems to inspire those who follow it to express themselves in a nasty way. Also a vegetarian with a sense of humor appears to be a distinct rarity. When they do have a sense of humor it is more sarcastic and biting than kindly. As for example, George Bernard Shaw's sense of humor.

It seems the stereotype of vegans not having a sense of humor is much older than I had imagined and dates back to nearly the beginning of the term 'vegan'.

Combating this stereotype is not an easy one as rights for anyone is a very serious matter. Imagine someone who was bothered by the evil of racism hearing a friend make a racist joke. They would likely not laugh, but rather attempt to clarify their righteous discontent with their friend. The friend, however, most likely still feels that there was no harm in their humor and that the joke merely went unappreciated by their humorless companion. It is easy to see vegans being perceived in a similar way for their attempts to defend animals. Nevertheless, I still laughed when reading such an outlandish title as “Vegans eat no meat, lose sense of humor,” and at the cheap pot shot they made at the expense of George Bernard Shaw who had passed away a mere 3 years prior.

The second article comes from the January 12, 1956 edition of the Beaver Valley Times:

Lack Of Protein In Diet Causes Variety of Ills

A vegan, I am able to tell you (Webster doesn't), is a vegetarian who excludes from his diet not just meat, fish, and fowl, but also milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.
Signs of nutritional deficiency in vegans are (1) sore tongue; (2) pricking, tingling or creeping on the skin without apparent cause; (3) in women, amenorrhea and other menstrual disturbances; (4) pains in back and spine, stiff back, called “vegan back.”
These signs or symptoms occur less frequently in Dutch vegans than in British vegans, and seldom if at all in American vegans.
The total protein intake of British vegans is seven per cent, of Dutch vegans nine per cent, of American vegans nearly 10½ per cent, according to biochemical examinations of vegans apparently in good health (but most of whom had had sore tongue at some time), as reported by Wokes, Badenoch and Sinclair in Am. J. Clinical Nutrition.
THESE INVESTIGATORS state that British vegans do not consume the only vegetable foods (seaweeds and ground nuts such as peanuts) known to contain vitamin B-12. They suggest that vitamin B-12 deficiency is responsible for the definite illnesses that have gradually developed after several years in some British vegetarians who have excluded milk, cheese, butter and eggs from their diet. Milk, skim milk, separator milk, buttermilk, cheese and eggs are excellent sources of protein as good as meat protein for human nutrition.
I have known, observed and examined numerous vegetarians and it seems to me they have as much vite as people who eat fish, fowl and meat. I have not had the opportunity to examine any vegans, however.
NOT FROM PERSONAL observation but from general reading I have formed the impression that vegetarians vegetate. I do not mean to imply that they “do little but eat and grow,” but rather that they “lead a passive existence without initiative” (as Webster says). In other words, they are not aggressive.
I shall continue eating meat, fish or fowl daily if I can get it, but if I had to kill my own I'd probably become vegetarian.

I immediately recognized the first two symptoms of nutritional deficiency in vegans as being signs of B-12 deficiency. It is interesting that as early as 1956 some medical professionals had already noticed and identified this deficiency in vegans; although, they wrongly claim that seaweed and ground nuts are reliable sources of B-12.

I managed to track down the original study being referenced, which is truly phenomenal for its time. The study managed to track down 235 vegans of three different nationalities and assessed several different health factors. Nearly all of these early vegans had low B-12 levels and many were showing signs of serious deficiency.

Despite the clear and obvious symptoms of B-12 deficiency, the main focus of the newspaper article seems to be on protein, which continues to be a public misconception to this day. I sure am glad that the phrase 'vegan back' has died off however. That would certainly be a major pain in the (vegan) back to have to answer constantly.

The final bit of the article is perhaps the most disturbing. It attempts to claim that vegans, who have clearly taken initiative by choosing their diet, “lead a passive existence without initiative”. It is nice of them to at least clarify that we are not aggressive, much better than Lierre Keith does in this interview, where she practically describes herself as a violent, cannibalistic rapist while she was a vegan (I exaggerate a little, but not much). For more on Lierre's book The Vegetarian Myth I recommend checking out our closest companion blog Skeptical Vegan.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Science OR Fiction

This post is an idea I have taken from the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast, which has a weekly segment by the same name. Science or fiction will work slightly differently on Vegan Skeptic. I will find three claims made within the vegan community, two based in truth and one entirely fictitious. I will give you a quote where the claim was made and its original source. Your goal is to read through the claims and decide for yourself which one is the fiction. I will then give the answers at the bottom of the post and cite first hand sources affirming or contradicting each of the claims.

Item 1: “Aurora Dairy/Horizon Organic (owned by Dean Foods) is one large, organic-certified farm that got caught violating 14 organic dairy laws, including confining their animals and denying them grazing.” Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Life.

Item 2: “Beef would cost $30 a pound if it weren't subsidized.” Best answer to this question.
“If beef weren't subsidized, it would cost about 30 dollars a pound for the consumer.” Blog post for a Vegan Restaurant

Item 3: “one medium egg contains a massive 213 mg of cholesterol. Considering that the recommended daily intake of cholesterol is 300 mg maximum daily, the consumption of even one egg per day closes in on recommended maximum dosages.” Vegan Animal Blog

Here is an image to prevent you from cheating ahead to the answers while you make up your mind:
Bizarro Catch and Release Comic

Item 1: Science
Read the Notice of Proposed Revocation filed with the USDA for yourself. There are 14 violations listed, several of which seem to involve confinement and denial of grazing.

Item 2: Fiction
US beef production in 2009 was 26.07 billion pounds according to the USDA and has remained in the high 20-billions for the past several years.

All farm subsidies paid by the US government in 2009 amounted to $15.4 billion dollars (Typical years may be anywhere from 10-25 billion)

Even if all of these subsidies went solely to reducing the cost of beef, ignoring all other meats and all other agricultural products, this would still amount to only a 59 cent subsidy per pound of beef in 2009 and a similar amount in other recent years. It is difficult to see the price of beef jumping to $30 a pound simply by removing these subsidies.

Item 3: Science
When we go to the supermarket to find eggs, virtually all the eggs we see available for sale are advertised as large or extra-large, so we have become fairly accustomed to these as being an ordinary size for the eggs we buy and would likely call an egg advertised as being large as being fairly medium in our own experience. In actuality other egg sizes are sold. In the United States, medium eggs range from 50-57 grams while large eggs range from 57-64 grams (other nations have different standards). According to Wolfram Alpha, a medium egg contains between 123 and 159 milligrams of cholesterol while a large egg contains between 184 and 239 milligrams of cholesterol. The estimate of 213 milligrams seems pretty reasonable for what is classified as a large egg in the United States; although, it would be entirely reasonable to refer to this as “medium” in standard parlance.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Vegan Music Playlist

Free Me by Goldfinger

Eat Pussy Not Cows by Jesse Vital

Human(e) Meat by Propagandhi

Vegan Freak Radio Theme Song by Rat and K@!

Ready To Fall by Rise Against

Get Up by Goldfinger

Meat is Murder by The Smiths

Free Kevin Kjonaas by Goldfinger

Meat is Still Murder by Propagandhi

Open Your Eyes by Goldfinger

In This World by Good Charlotte

No Bones No Blood by Jah Sun

Meat Means Murder by Conflict

The Way It Is by Vegan Reich

Struggle to Survive by Freya

For the Sake of the Voiceless by New Winds

Soft Machine by By Divine Right

911 For Peace by Anti-Flag

Animal in Man by Dead Prez

One Species by xTrue Naturex

Other Songs without samples I could link to:
Ex Straightedge Ex by Good Clean Fun
Vegan Revolution Draft Dodger Anthem by Good Clean Fun

Giving Thanks

One of the worst consequences the animal rights movement faces is having its activists become burned out. Many of us remember our first days after we opened our eyes to the interests of non-human animals, the passion we felt to do anything, everything, just so we could feel like we were doing something. Often times this early excitement can lead us to try a lot of things that are unproductive or even unnecessarily dangerous, but many more times it does a great deal of good for the animals as well. Some of us manage to maintain this enthusiasm for years to come, but along the way, many of the activists we once knew will become burned out from activism and this can leave many animals suffering that may have otherwise been saved.

It is entirely understandable why people become burned out. I cannot even begin to recount to you all the negative responses I've gotten from people by merely identifying as an animal rights activist in front of them. When handing out Vegan Outreach literature I have probably received nearly a thousand snide remarks from people telling me how much they love meat. Like any good activist I'll take this with a smile and an affirmation of their experience while trying to open up a conversation with them, but such consistent dismissal is trying on even the toughest hearted of us.

Admittedly out of every thousand people you talk to there will be a handful who will thank you for what you are doing, but for me, the experiences that have the biggest impact and that keep me leafleting into the future is the one person out of every couple thousand who comes back to me later and says, “This had an impact on me. I have changed my diet because of what you've done. Thank you.” Without a doubt, many more people get away without ever getting the chance to thank us for what we've done, but those few thanks we do receive make a world of difference in keeping activists working on behalf of all animals.

People Who Changed Me

This post is also a chance for me to thank those who have had an impact on me.

Almost exactly two years ago now Eleni Vlachos and Rob Gilbride were on tour around the country showing off Eleni's documentary “Seeing Through The Fence”, playing music with their band, and leafleting colleges along the way. At the time I was a couple of months into running a vegan club I had started at my university, and they offered to stop by along their way, inviting us to leaflet the campus with them and offering to show their documentary if we were willing to present it. That was the first time I had ever leafleted and I was incredibly nervous at the time confronting people with information in such a fashion. Eleni and Rob were excellent teachers and after handing out only a few booklets I was feeling much more comfortable. I have now handed out well over 15,000 Vegan Outreach booklets along with engaging in countless other forms of activism, and I would have never had the nerve to have started if not for the two of them.

Brian Grupe is a full-time paid leafleter for Vegan Outreach. In early June of 2009 most colleges had already let out and Brian was leafleting some local high schools that were still in session, one of which my younger brother happened to still be attending. My brother saw the booklets Brian was handing out and immediately recognized them as being the same ones I had showed him in my own room. He called me up on the spot thinking this was some sort of joke I was pulling on him, and upon finding out it wasn't put me on the line with Brian. Since then Brian has taken me under his wing as an activist. He has taught me huge amounts about being an effective advocate for the animals and has been kind and encouraging along the way. There are without a doubt people who are vegan today who would not be if not for the voice Brian has given me.

On March 1st, 2008 I was a lone vegetarian who didn't know a single other vegan or vegetarian in the world. On March 2nd I found the Vegan Freak podcast and Bob and Jenna Torres ended up changing me forever. By the end of the month I was vegan, never to look back. Bob and Jenna made me realize that being vegan was possible, realistic, and that it could even be somewhat humorous at times despite the seriousness of the issue. For me they were the long overdue straw to break the camel's back and for that I certainly owe them my thanks.

What Keeps Me Going

There is also one piece of thanks that I have received that I'd like to share. This came from someone who attended one of the meetings of my vegan club late last year in hopes of writing a report on us. She ended up not writing the report, but sticking with the meetings, eventually turning vegan herself and is now an active part of running the club. I received this message from her a few months ago.

i still haven't gotten over that feeling of standing on the table and shouting at all the people [...] eating their nasty [...] omni meals. i am so eager to tell people i am vegan.. i almost go out of my way to tell people. i guess i am proud. i wish people would ask me questions about it instead of just saying, "oh i could never do that"... and anytime i do try to say something i feel like they are automatically turned off by not only the idea, but of ever hanging out with me for fear of being 'lectured'.

[...] sometimes it is just a bit overwhelming to think of the blissfully unaware and deliberately unaware people. i can't believe that vegans are the minority! i mean how on earth could it be that such tremendous cruelty and pain and suffering is the norm???

hmph. i am very proud of the decision i have made... thanks for helping me see the light [...] i really am eternally grateful.

To the person who wrote me this message, I just want you to know that the small effort you made to share this with me is paying dividends for the animals many times over now.

Please feel free to share stories of people who have influenced you toward helping animals in the comments, but more importantly share the story of how they helped you with them! Send them an e-mail, a facebook message, or even tell them in person. It will mean a ton to them and make a huge difference for the animals.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vegans Are Awesome

A brand new video made by VeganSkeptic.

We should always make sure our arguments stand up to reason and evidence, but once we've accomplished that, then making veganism seem cool is absolutely worthwhile if that is what will help the animals.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Vegans Autocomplete Me

This post is an attempt to get a glimpse at people's stereotypes of vegans by using Google's autocomplete feature. By better understanding how people feel about vegans, we can better counter these stereotypes and open people up to considering the more important aspects of our animal rights message.

Looking through all of these I'd say the most common stereotypes are that vegans are weak, unhealthy, and annoying. In particular protein deficiency still seems to be a major misconception in addition to the idea that we are all skinny and pale. The idea that vegans are angry and gassy doesn't seem to be unusual either.

There is one bit of good news however. Apparently we can read minds.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy actually describes two different types of energy, fission and fusion. Nuclear fission is the form already in use, while no nuclear fusion power plants yet exist. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting heavy atomic nuclei, such as uranium, plutonium, or thorium into lighter products, turning a small amount of the mass into energy in the process (associated with the nuclear binding energy of the nuclei). Nuclear fusion involves combining lighter atomic nuclei into heavier ones, retrieving a small amount of the mass as energy once again. As a general rule, fission releases energy for nuclei much larger than iron, while fusion releases energy for nuclei much smaller than iron.

Energy Potential

Nuclear energy is unlike most sources of energy that are considered renewable, because in any given year we are able to extract as much energy from it as we choose to use in fuel. Nuclear energy isn't limited by the amount of solar radiation falling on the surface, the speed the winds blow, or the amount of rain that falls. The limiting factor is the amount of material available to be used in nuclear reactions.



Uranium has two isotopes currently used to produce energy from nuclear fission. The first of these, uranium-235 makes up only about 0.7% of worldwide uranium, but can be used much more easily. The second isotope of uranium, U-238, can be turned into plutonium-239 within fast breeder reactors, which can then extract about 60 times as much energy from the same amount of uranium ore.

Uranium is currently mined from uranium ores. There are presently about 4.7*10^9 kilograms of uranium stored in these ores, enough at our present rate of use of just nuclear energy to last us a mere 85 more years according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. If we started exclusively using fast breeder reactors however, this same supply of uranium could provide the same power output for over 2500 years.

Much more uranium is stored in phosphates; an estimated 3.5*10^10 kilograms. Accessing this would come at a few times the cost of mining uranium ore, but since the cost of the fuel is such a tiny fraction of the cost of running a nuclear power plant, fuel extraction costs can afford to increase several times without causing a significant increase in the price of the electricity we receive.

The vast majority of the world's known uranium is stored in the oceans however. A total of 4.5*10^12 kilograms exists dissolved in our sea water, enough, if used in combination with fast breeder technology to continue current nuclear energy production for nearly 2.4 million years. Extracting uranium from sea water has been done in the past; however, never on an industrial scale, most likely due to the lack of economic incentive at current uranium prices.

Nuclear energy only accounts for 5.8% of the world's present energy supply. If we wished to replace the energy from all sources with energy produced from fast breeder reactors, the world's known uranium resources could last roughly 140,000 years.


The other major fuel currently used in fission reactors is thorium. Thorium reactors are similar to fast breeder reactors, but rather than turning uranium-238 into fissile plutonium-239 they turn thorium-232 into the fissile uranium-233. Known worldwide thorium reserves which are easily recoverable amount to 2.6*10^9 kilograms. Using this easily recoverable thorium with current reactor technology, this could supply all world energy demand for roughly 66,000 years.


Fusion is the form of energy that powers our sun. Currently fusion reactions have been done in lab conditions on earth, and energy has been gathered from these reactions, but the energy put into starting these reactions has always been greater than the energy recovered. In 2008 construction began on an international project, ITER, that hopes to be able to sustain a fusion reaction with an output of 500 million watts (Joules per second) for at least 1000 seconds at a time with an energy input of only a tenth of this amount. ITER plans to react deuterium and tritium creating helium and energy as its product.

Deuterium is a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen, and about 33 grams of deuterium can be found in every ton of water. Tritium does not occur in large quantities naturally, but is made from lithium. The amount of lithium is the limiting factor in this reaction, so we will investigate its total potential.

According to the USGS, “The identified lithium resources total 760,000 tons in the United States and more than 13 million tons in other countries.” This is much less than the estimated 230 billion tonnes that are dissolved in our oceans. A reasonable estimate for energy gained per kilogram of lithium would be around 8*10^12 Joules. Assuming this technology pans out, this would mean nearly 2*10^27 Joules of potential energy, or enough to replace earth's current supply for 3.7 million years.

The deuterium-tritium reaction is not the only one which has been proposed. Deuterium-deuterium is a reaction that has been thoroughly tested in the past although also not yet implemented. For this reaction energy output is roughly 3.5*10^14 Joules per kilogram of deuterium. With about 2.4*10^16 kilograms of deuterium in our oceans, this would mean roughly 8.3*10^30 Joules, or enough to replace our current rate of supply for 16 billion years. This is longer than the current age of the universe and well past the anticipated death of our sun. We can only assume we will be able to harness a fraction of this energy, but this is an energy source with billions of years of potential in any case.



Much public fear exists over the potential for a nuclear meltdown. This public fear isn't entirely misplaced as a full scale nuclear meltdown has happened in the past in Chernobyl,Ukraine, and another near meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.


Fission reactors generate large amounts of heat even when they are not producing electricity, and the Chernobyl nuclear facility required coolant to be flowing at all times even when not generating electricity. In the case of a power outage, three generators would come online in order to keep coolant flowing. Starting these generators up took 15 seconds, and they took an additional 60-75 seconds to reach their full operating capacity. This was thought to be unacceptable, and thus it was proposed that the energy remaining in the plant's steam turbines could be used to power the coolant pumps for roughly 45 seconds while the generators started up. The reactor went online in 1983 without this system being tested successfully.

On April 25, 1986 conditions were planned to run the test at last. The day shift had been instructed on how the test was going to proceed, and the reactor had reduced its power output in the early morning on April 26. However, another power plant unexpectedly went offline that day and the Chernobyl reactor was ordered to return to full output. At around 11PM, the reactor was allowed to reduce its power output once again. The day shift had long since departed at this point, and the night shift was given little opportunity to prepare before being thrust into this test.

The reactor was supposed to be turned down to 700 million watts of power, but the production of neutron absorbing xenon in the reactor core caused the power to continue to fall down to roughly 500 million watts. The senior engineer overseeing the experiment then inserted the control rods into the reactor core much too far causing the power to drop to a mere 30 million watts.

When the control room finally decided to restore power, it took several minutes for power generation to begin to rise again, and it stabilized at roughly 200 million watts of output due to the amount of xenon that had accumulated during this time. At this point the control rods had been maximally withdrawn from the reactor core.

After the reactor power had stabilized near 200 million watts for some time the engineers decided to increase water flow through the reactor as part of the test, despite this being well below the intended test conditions. Increasing water flow dropped the power output of the reactor once again, causing the controllers to manually remove control rods from the reactor in an attempt to restore power.

It was under these conditions that the test began. Steam to the turbines was shut off and the water coolant was pumped using the energy remaining in the generator. As the generator slowed however the coolant began to flow more slowly, allowing more of it to boil and decreasing its ability to cool the reactor causing the reactor to heat more and boil more of the coolant.

The system handled this situation quite well actually, reinserting control rods to handle the increase in temperature. As the test was winding down, the emergency shutdown for the reactor was manually initiated, possibly as an attempt to turn off the reactor after the experiment. The system took several seconds to fully insert the rods however, which were poorly designed with graphite tips, causing them to displace coolant before inserting the neutron absorbing material.

As this happened the core power spiked, with none of the usual control rods in, little to no coolant flowing and steam already decreasing the efficacy of the coolant. Under high pressure steam exploded, fracturing some of the control rods and preventing others from inserting properly. A few seconds later a full nuclear meltdown occurred exploding a significant portion of the facility and causing the remainder to burn for several days.

In addition to having gone online without the proper safety tests having been conducted, the facility was in non-compliance with numerous standards of the time for nuclear facilities, most importantly the positive feedback the steam had on the core temperature, and the improper design of the control rods.

This full scale meltdown occurred at one of the world's largest nuclear facilities and represents the worst possible scenario for any nuclear power malfunction. In addition to the 57 direct deaths as a result of the accident, it is estimated that the total number of deaths attributable to this incident could amount to several thousand.

Several thousand deaths is a tragedy without a doubt, but it is on par with estimates for the deaths attributable to the pollution emitted from coal power plants alone every single year. In relation to power output, nearly all estimates put nuclear energy as one of the safest energy sources regarding its cost in human lives.

Spent Fuel

The radiation from the fuel itself isn't the main concern when dealing with spent nuclear fuel. The fuel was mined out of the earth in the first place and it would be hardly any effort to dilute it down to its original concentration and dispose of it underground. The main concern is the radiation from shorter lived isotopes created as products of the fission reaction. If uranium-238 with a half life of 4.5 billion years is split into two smaller isotopes each with half lives of 4.5 million years, then the expected rate of decay at present will have increased 2000 fold (although the type of radiation emitted may have changed). Many of the fission products have much shorter half lives, and once spent fuel has been allowed to cool for a few decades only a tiny fraction of the original radioactivity remains.

Within roughly a thousand years, the radioactivity of the spent fuel is no higher than that of the original ore.


Nuclear energy is by far the cheapest energy source with the potential to replace fossil fuels in the long term. It also has the ability to keep up with a growing population and an increasing standard of living. If we wish to make nuclear power last in the long term, more sustainable fast breeder technologies will need to be adopted on a large scale, but eventually nuclear fusion technology will need to be explored. Current projects such as ITER and its proposed successor DEMO show a great deal of promise, but have yet to become realities. If these technologies pan out as hoped, we may finally have found a solution to long term energy independence.

Additional Reading

Sustainable Energy — without the hot air