A Post-Religion World

Ah, Facebook. A place to share photos, silly photos of cats, and bash religion. While the Dalai Lama wasn’t necessarily “bashing” religion, his status update last week raised a few eyebrows and prompted this excellent io9 article, “Dalai Lama tells his Facebook friends that religion ‘is no longer adequate’.” When I shared the article on my Facebook, I garnered quite a few likes as well (though, admittedly, I have a lot of non-religious friends). The specific words of the Dalai Lama were, to be clear:

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

As io9 (who, if you are not aware, are basically the futuristic/sci-fi/transhumanist wing of Gawker/Gizmodo/Lifehacker) points out, this is sounds an awful lot like Sam Harris with his morality-should-be-decided-by-science approach. Hear, hear!

As the Alaska Dispatch (yeah, huh?) points out, tweets from the spiritual leader mirror this sentiment:

(Side note: WordPress did a damn good job of those tweet embeds! More on that here.)

So where do we go from here? Comments from my friend circle find the Dalai Lama’s remarks not altogether surprising, but I think that’s also because many of us in America typically look at him as a source good quotes, not a spiritual leader like millions of other Buddhists around the world. And at the same time, is Buddhism not a religion? By some counts, sure, by others it’s merely a philosophical practice, or a way of living. As The Onion so succinctly put, “No One Was Murdered Because Of This Image” which indeed includes the Buddha being “violated.” Sadly we cannot say the same for satire of Muhammed.

In light of the recent outrage about a mere comedic film, which included mass rioting, injuries, and death, how much longer can we tolerate extreme faith? Or any faith, for that matter; the moment we begin to criticize irrational, god-first-and-foremost, “praise be to him” thinking, the moment we can speak clearly about much of this violence, be it from an Islamic or other religious basis. From the NY Times article:

Raising banners with Islamic slogans and denouncing the United States and Israel, Iraqis called for the expulsion of American diplomats from the country and demanded that the American government apologize for the incendiary film and take legal action against it’s creators.

This is simply ridiculous, and highlights the continuing issue with Islamic politics and their faith-crazed viewpoints. Trying to be as unbiased as possible here: holding an entire country accountable for the offensive film created by a few within it, is just ludicrous.

At least some Libyans disagree, as evinced by these photos. And I think many of us see these events unfold as evidence that a portion of Muslims are just wacky, deluded into violence by some promise that it will bring them salvation in the end if they live up to the creed of following the Quran as they interpret it. But I think we need a broader picture: the same faith that they use to fuel these attacks is the faith that causes irrational belief in any god, be it Allah, Yahweh, or Jesus. We have to confront the source: that faith, and religion, are no basis to make these moral and real-world decisions when the teachings inscribed within their books are from an archaic time long ago.

Sam Harris puts it well in his TED Talk from 2010, where he drives home the point that we don’t tolerate “differences of opinion” in other areas of science, where facts are facts and bullshit is bullshit. So why should we do it with morality?

[T]here are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing. And morality relates to that domain of facts. It is possible for individuals and even for whole cultures, to care about the wrong things. Which is to say, it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliable lead to needless human suffering. Just admitting this will transform our discourse about human morality. […]

We can no more respect and tolerate vast difference in notions of human wellbeing than we can tolerate vast differences in the notions of how disease spreads, or the safety standards of buildings and airplanes. We simply must converge on the answers we give on the most important questions in human life. And to do that, we have to admit that these questions have answers.

Photo: Wikipedia

Running Out Of Water? Time To Go Vegan

That’s the theme of the Guardian’s Global Development series last week, with the headline “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists.” Stockholm International Water Institute warned that there simply won’t be enough water to produce the meat we need, at the current rate of eating, by 2050:

Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world’s leading water scientists.


Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.

“Nine hundred million people already go hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished in spite of the fact that per capita food production continues to increase,” they said. “With 70% of all available water being in agriculture, growing more food to feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050 will place greater pressure on available water and land.”

The Guardian’s Lagusta Yearwood followed up this piece with a great addition of her own, “Forget meat – there’s a world of vegetarian food out there,” where she writes:

 Particularly, we can look to what poor women from every corner of the globe have invented. Why? Because they have always created the tastiest dishes – so many of today’s classic, beloved dishes originated from women who had to put food on the table for their families, no matter what. When kings and queens were busy dying from gout because of their overly rich diets, housewives in Sicily were making luscious caponata from aubergines and celery in a sweet and sour marinade; women in Oaxaca were wrapping corn dough around roasted chilies, seeds, and vegetables to make tamales filled with mole sauces; cooks in Egypt were frying onions in precious olive oil and topping their lentils and rice with them to make koshari; women in Africa were pounding peanuts to make rich stews laced with fresh greens and spices. Vegetarian dishes are everywhere, if we look.

While Yearwood dismisses meat analogues as “expensive” and poor-tasting (which I both agree and disagree with, respectively), her point of not making meat the centerpiece is spot on. We pretty much have to do that, or we won’t be able to feed our booming earth’s population. Of course, we could stop having so many kids too…

Then there was the rebuttal of “Turning vegetarian will not solve the food crisis” by Priyamvada Gopal, who argues that, yes, factory farms are awful and we’re destroying the planet, but

Wealth concentration generates disparate purchasing power that allows richer nations as well as the better-off in every nation to consume – and waste – a disproportionate share of food, fuel, water and other resources. Arable land itself is put towards profit through speculation, mining, and logging, rather than feeding people. The predictable argument that overpopulation is the main problem remains a red herring. When one person can consume or waste between two and five people’s share at a time when per-capita food production has increased, inequity, not human numbers, and the richer, not the poorer, are still the problem.

Gopal argues against the overzealous vegan, pushing their tofu and expensive organic vegetables across the table, but can one get past the ethical implications? Not really. Meat is still murder for large portions of the world where it is simply unncessary, and now, as we see, wasteful and in dwindling supply. Does those buffalo getting slaughtered by the Indians as Gopal references, recognize their contribution to world hunger and lay down with a smile to get slaughtered? No – they simply do not.

Still, there are many issues at work. The goal, in my opinion, is to feed the world, while harming as little as possible. Respect for all life, not just humans, while taking care of the earth, and keeping us healthy. Are these lofty? Absolutely. But, we don’t really have a choice. As Paul Watson says, “if the oceans die, we die.”

Photo: niOS

By Any Means Necessary (Reflections on AR 2012)

After 3+ days of a non-stop whirlwind of animal rights activity, I would wager most activists are going home with a paradoxical “tired, but energized” feeling. I know I am – I ended up being sick the entire time (sorry to anyone I may have infected) – I feel a bit overloaded at the now ensuing networking/commenting/e-mailing/upkeep of 100+ new AR friends. But at the same time, if anything has shown me the power of our movement – the movement to end the exploitation of animals for any use – it was this past weekend.

Hundreds and hundreds of animal rights activists attended, from all over the world (mostly US, but a few from Europe, South America, and Asia), each with their own specific cause, group, or passion. Whether it was rescuing primates in the jungles of southeast Asia, protecting feral cats in our nation’s capital, or giving a voice (and face) to farm animals, the sheer volume of animal rights work being done right now is astounding.

Alex Hershaft of FARM – the organizers of the conference – put it well in his closing speech, that year to year, progress seems slow, but with his hindsight of 40 years (he’s been in the AR scene since the 1970s), we have come so incredibly far. Paul Shapiro echoed the comment at Sunday night’s plenary by showing a marked decrease in meat consumption, animals being killed for food (from 2009 on), and of course the vegan options that abound in grocery stores across the country. Seth Tibbot, the founder of Tofurky, was recognized at the talk for his service to vegetarians and vegans worldwide (and I even saw him do some karaoke later!).

Among my insanely long list of “to-dos” from the conference is some research on “conference-going” itself. I’ve been to just a few now, and each time they feel very overwhelming, then comfortable, and then sadness strikes as we leave for home. I’d like to balance those emotions a little more, as well as “plan” to attend less and network/interact more. My plans originally included a whole slew of talks I didn’t make it to, either because of over-crowded rooms, the super awesome exhibit hall were you could hang out for hours and not get bored, or just doing something else. From a “get things done” perspective, it feels like failure to miss many of the talks one planned to see, but it shouldn’t, and I have some great strategies planned for AR 2013.

It was a real highlight to hear people like Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shepherd and Peter Young discuss direct action so candidly. As Philip Wollen put it, “what is indirect action?” and I challenge you to consider the same thing if you think breaking into buildings to rescue animals that are in pain is somehow unethical. Animals, as we learned, aren’t property: they aren’t pets, they’re companion animals, and we’re not owners, we’re guardians.  If you think that’s silly-vegan-hippie talk, then just consider the power of language as 60 years ago the civil rights movement fought against the word “nigger” instead of black, African-American, or simply, “human.” What we call things, the names we give and the terms we use to describe animals and people do make a powerful difference.

Much like my beloved Vida Vegan Con attendees, people at AR 2012 simply “got it.” They were 99.9% vegan*, they brought their rescue dogs with them (who were all well-behaved), and they sympathized at every story of animal cruelty, be it puppy mills, factory farm torture, or zealous hunters. We bonded over Dandies marshmallows and Tings, and smiled wide as each activist told of what they were doing in their town to promote a vegan lifestyle. I met a vegan forest ranger, a 72-year old vegan woman who was feisty as hell, a TON of vegan straight-edge kids (XVX REPRESENT!), and a lot of people who did a double take when I said I was from luh-a-vull kin-tucky. But we’re everywhere! Vegans from Alaska, from Baton Rouge, from Boston, from California, from New York, and from Hawaii. This isn’t just a group of people who happen to not eat animals: this is a tidal wave of change that will educate, compassion-ate (not a word, yet), and liberate. As it was said so many times, this will all happen, by any means necessary!

See #ar2012 on twitter for thoughts of others attendees. If you wrote a re-cap of the conference, let me know and I’ll link it here!

*I met, I believe, one vegetarian and heard “rumors” of a few others. No judgments! Alex Hershaft’s message to everyone at the beginning of the conference was “leave here a vegan.”

Animal Rights 2012: Overload of the Senses

I’ve been at the Animal Rights 2012 a little over 24 hours now, and it is absolutely incredible. In addition to being a gala of “who’s who” in animal rights – every group from HSUS to PETA to FARM is represented here – hundreds of dedicated animal rights activists (meaning, vegans!) are milling about, showing proof that our passion and fervor is alive and well.

Last night we heard from a wide range of AR activists: Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals quoted MLK, Jr: “The art of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” while Doll Stanley of In Defense of Animals cautioned us in using “pet” versus “companion animal” and “owner” versus “guardian.” Even the slight changes in our speech can make a world of difference in the cause for animal rights.

I saw, and heard, the first vegan forest ranger I’ve ever known of! An inspiring man from El Paso, see Greg Lawson’s speech from 2009 here.

And Gene Baur from Farm Sanctuary had a riveting speech covering all the aspects of that group’s work, as well as showing us progress: corporations are making changes to their food supply system, vegan options abound across the country, and, somehow, the number of land animals slaughtered for food in this country is actually going down! Baur had a USDA slide that documented this, but I have yet to find it (suggestions?).

Today was the first day of breakout sessions, including some very interesting talks by Alex Hershaft, FARM‘s president, on the psychology of “winning hearts and minds” as well as some very heavy “personal development” discussion. Hershaft engaged the audience as we discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and the idea of the most effective activist reaching the top level, that of “self-actualization.”

Also today we heard from Representative Jim Moran, who, for being a politician, definitely seems to “get it” when it comes to animal rights. He covered all the issues and discussed the trials and also successes of what bill he’s been able to co-sponsor and push through on capital hill. Moran introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act in 2011, a bill that if passed would severely limited and restrict many of the cruel circus practices that groups like Ringling and others so routinely sell as “family fun.”

I also heard from Melanie Joy – whom I hope will make carnism a mainstream term – along with Bruce Friederich and Nick Cooney (Farm Sanctuary), and Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach. Each speaker brought something different to the table: their take on the movement, where we’ve come, and how we proceed from here. Many used their time to issue a call to action, thanking us for being here, but asking us to go use the compassion to inspire and reach out to others.

We’re over a day in, and with two more full days of talks, tabling, and vegan food, this conference is a lot to handle! I’m tired, sick (probably due to the chaos leading up to this show last weekend), and a little worried I’ll miss all the good talks (today, Plaza C with Melanie Joy was literally packed to capacity!). But, so what? The energy here is everywhere – it doesn’t matter if I’m up in my room with five other animal rights activists, at the lunch buffet, or hanging out on the shuttle bus with some vegans I’ve never met before. To see hundreds and hundreds of animal rights activists all here, doing their thing, showing that our movement is making a difference and growing so rapidly: that’s what inspires me. As many speakers have said in so many words this weekend: animal rights is the most important social justice issue of our time. Let’s make it happen, by any means necessary! 

“Playing Food” Hides CAFOs in Kids’ Toys!

Check out this genius marketing/product/activism “toy” from Dutch designer Tomm Velthuis:

Playing Food is the name of a project that aims to foster a better understanding of where the food on our plates comes from. While many parents traditionally teach their children not to play with their food, here children are invited to play with the food they are supposed to eat, and the objective is highly ideological.

The wooden set comes complete with 200 pigs, the enormous amounts of food required to fatten them up, the trees that must be cleared for feed crops, and the acid rain caused by the pigs’ manure. It is factory farming packaged as an ‘innocent’ childhood toy. The message is unmistakable.

Incredible! Reminds me of my Ertl Farm Set as a child, only a little more realistic. More incredible pictures here, and check out the (Dutch) manual!

Thanks to FastCo for the heads up on this, and Design Museum Holon for the pictures.