Posts Tagged ‘veganism’

Carl Sagan and Animal Rights

November 9, 2011

November 9th marks the 77th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birth. Today we celebrate the life of a great scientist and promoter of animal rights. Over the years Sagan spoke out against anthropocentrism and called on us “to extend our ethical perspectives downward through the taxa on Earth and upwards to extraterrestrial organisms, if they exist.” For two and a half years Sagan served as faculty adviser for Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (CSETA) and was somewhat controversial for some of his views on animals. In his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors he remarked, “Humans–who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals–have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and “animals” is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them–without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeeling toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious.They are just too much like us”.
Carl Sagan had much to say on cetacean intelligence as well and was also a major critic of whaling going so far as to call it “monstrous and barbaric” and “murder”.

He also held critical attitudes toward at least some vivisection, especially primate research and was a supporter of the Great Ape Project which attempts to extend basic rights to Great Apes. Having received bone marrow transplants developed using animal models, he questioned the justice of medical research, saying he felt “very conflicted on this issue”.

PETA used to have him on a list of prominent vegans but have since removed him for lack of evidence. Sagan by reports wasn’t a big meat eater but wasn’t vegan either, he advocated “humane treatment” rather than “non-exploitation” and generally took a measured approach to controversial issues in his life.

Near the end of his life in 1996 Sagan wrote “In my writings, I have tried to show how closely related we are to other animals…and how morally bankrupt it is to slaughter them, say, to manufacture lipstick.” We would all do well to contemplate Carl Sagan’s words and their implications on our and other lives. He was an important and intelligent man with much to contribute to science, philosophy and general culture. Happy Birthday Carl, you are missed!

*please note this is a re-post from last year

Arab Rationalist & Animal Rights Poetry

November 30, 2010

I want to share with you an interesting and inspirational story of a fellow animal rights advocate and rationalist from Syria, Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri. He was born in 973CE (died 1057CE) and after losing his eyesight at a young age to smallpox became a philosopher, poet, and freethinker. He was a thorn in the side of the Islamic religious authorities, having once said, “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.” He may have even have wrote one of his later books, Paragraphs and Periods (Al Fusul wal ghayat), as a parody of the Qur’an with it’s “divine” poetry unmatchable by human hand. His snark was not just reserved for Islam though,

“They all err – Moslems, Christians, Jews, and Magians:
Two make Humanity’s universal sect:
One man intelligent without religion,
And, one religious without intellect”

He also wittily poked at creation myths,

“You said, “A wise one created us “;
That may be true, we would agree.
“Outside of time and space,” you postulated.
Then why not say at once that you
Propound a mystery immense
Which tells us of our lack of sense?”

When he was about 30 years old Al-Ma’arri adopted what we would recognize today as a vegan lifestyle*, avoiding all meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. He condemned blood sport, eschewed use of leather and fur, and even wore wooden as opposed to leather shoes. He was also fond of nudism, perhaps he started the first “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign. My favorite poem, I No Longer Steal from Nature, couldn’t be more awesome

You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!

Even by todays standards he was pretty hardcore! After doing the research for this post I’m inspired to track down a book of his writings to learn more about this very interesting figure.

*To be honest I did find a reference to him wearing wool, I’m not sure why he let this one thing slide. It certainly doesn’t jive with his philosophy of not stealing the products of another labor. Given his cultural context I think he was still pretty progressive.

Bill Clinton, Vegan Poseur

November 28, 2010

He certainly wasn’t the first person you would expect, so when the news hit it was all over the veggie blogosphere. “Bill Clinton goes vegan!” the headlines read, “so should you” was the unwritten subtext. Nevermind that he really wasn’t claiming veganism, admitting to eating fish and taking no stances on animal rights.

If the former Big Mac munchin’ president of the United States could go “(mostly)vegan” for heart health and receive such great benefits, why not you. By his own account Clinton after adopting “essentially a plant-based diet…[living] on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits” he lost 24 lbs and is feeling great. But is this really the best argument for veganism?

As I’ve said before we need to be very careful about health claims, as far too often the media reports one-off, poorly controlled and designed studies while vastly overstating the implications.

By all accounts Clinton’s dietary change is a health experiment inspired by the likes of Dean Ornish whose work he references in interviews, “I did all this research, and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who have gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind, no chicken, no turkey — I eat very little fish, once in a while I’ll have a little fish — if you can do it, 82 percent of people have begun to heal themselves.”

In a post over on Science-Based Medicine Dr. Harriet Hall explains the study that is the source of this statement:
“He started with 48 patients with angiographically documented coronary artery disease and randomized 28 of them to an experimental group (a 10% fat vegetarian diet, stopping smoking, stress management training, and moderate exercise) and 20 to a usual-care group. Only 20 experimental and 15 control patients completed the 5 year study. The diameter of the coronary arterial stenoses improved by 3.1 percent in the experimental group and worsened by 11.8 percent in the usual care group. Overall, 82% of experimental-group patients had an average change towards regression. They had about half as many cardiac events: 25 in the experimental group versus 45 in the usual care group. None of the experimental subjects were on any cholesterol-lowering medication, but the usual care group allowed cholesterol-lowering prescriptions, and after 5 years the LDL levels of both groups were the same. In short, only 20 patients were on the diet, and it was not a trial of diet alone, but of intensive lifestyle management involving several other interventions. The study has not been replicated.”

Studies like this might point the direction for further research but with such a small sample size and poor controls its nothing to hang your hat on. While the nutritional adequacy and some benefits of a vegan diet are well accepted, many of the specific and sometimes extreme health benefits claimed by advocates have yet to be irrefutably established in the medical literature. Long term diet and nutrition can be a complex issue for study with many confounding variables, more rigorous studies and much more data will be required to establish any real positive (or negative) effects of a vegan diet.

Clinton also cites Caldwell Esselstyn and authors of The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and his son, Tom Campbell as inspiration. Ive previously mentioned the China Study as an example of poor evidence for the nutrition argument and it has been thoroughly torn apart so I will not directly address that book for now. In Dr. Esselstyn’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, he oversteps the evidence to conclude that following his restricted vegan-type diet can prevent “strokes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, adult-onset diabetes, and possibly senile mental impairment, as well … impotence and cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, uterus, and ovaries.”

Such grandiose promises may appeal to an unskeptical segment of the population already obsessed with health and fad diets, but the claims just are not rational or well supported. Poor reasoning and fallacious arguments in the long run distract from the central cause of animal rights. Once the weight is off or health benefits don’t materialize folks are likely to abandon the diet and be the next poster child of the ex-vegans. As noted by Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD, in a recent must-read-post on supplements, “There are many reasons why people abandon vegan diets, and bad nutrition advice from within the vegan community is probably one of them. “

When promoting veganism our reasons should be clear, it isnt the newest weight loss fad, nor a panacea. It’s a stance that rejects the anthropocentric and speciesist bias of our culture, an ethical choice aimed at reducing suffering and ultimately achieving animal liberation. As Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach had to say, “Ultimately, the bottom line is: Reduce Suffering. Everything has to answer to this. I can’t emphasize this enough: the only thing that matters is to reduce suffering. If you accept this as the What, the next question is, How? At this time, in this country, we choose to promote veganism. However, veganism is not an end in and of itself. We don’t promote veganism because ‘veganism is good.’ Veganism is merely a tool to reduce suffering.”

UPDATE:For more on this topic I highly recommend this new post titled How the Health Argument Fails Veganism by Ginny Messina, the Vegan RD. She pulls no punches in getting to the point,“here is the problem with using the health argument in this way—it’s that there isn’t any health argument for veganism. There is, of course, a pretty good argument for eating more plants (lots more plants) and less animal food, but no one has shown that you must eat a 100 percent plant diet in order to be healthy. So to make an argument for a 100% vegan diet based on health benefits alone, we have no choice but to stretch the truth. We have to overstate the benefits of vegan diets, and sometimes minimize or dismiss the risks. And as soon as we stray from the actual facts, our advocacy is on shaky ground. “

The Tragedy of Dolphin-Safe Tuna

November 25, 2010

A horrific example of the failure of greenwashing and a speciesist approach to animal protection is the problem of dolphin-safe tuna. It hit the public consciousness when various environmental organizations such as the Earth Island Institute and Greenpeace started awareness and lobbying campaigns to stop the then common tuna fishing methods being used in the Eastern Pacific Ocean which they considered cruel and environmentally unsound. You see, schools of yellowfin tuna tend to be associated with dolphins in the EPO, possibly either for protection or to help locate prey, by following these dolphins fishermen were able to easily locate the tuna. Then they would encircle the school of fish, dolphins and all, with purse seine nets. While many crews made efforts to allow the dolphin to escape, numerous dolphin died of asphyxiation, from stress, or were bludgeoned to death, hundreds of thousands of dolphins were killed each year.

The legal campaign was successful and eventually “dolphin-safe” labeling was codified in US law. To prevent unnecessary suffering or death, the new dolphin-safe guidelines essentially banned the technique of “dolphin fishing”, the intentional chasing or encirclement of dolphins. This policy applies only to US boats or boats catching tuna to be sold in the US, for other nations “dolphin fishing” is still common and many foreign vessel have filled the gap US vessels left when many of them were decommissioned or started fishing the west pacific. Since then tuna fishers wishing to sell their tuna in the US have had to go through much greater trouble and expense to locate free swimming schools of tuna, known as “school fishing”, or resort to Fish Aggregation Devices (FAD) also know as “log fishing”. These are floating objects are designed to aggregate marine life to one spot for easy netting, though the reason they attract such a wide variety(over 300 species) of marine life in not fully understood and may vary by species. The more high tech FADs are be equipped with GPS and sonar to allow for remote monitoring of number of fish and one ship can service multiple FADs, a very efficient method to generate large catches. This efficiency comes at a price though. While it does kill less dolphins, compared to netting tuna associated with dolphins, netting tuna around FADs creates significantly more non-cetacean “bycatch”, an industry euphemism for the “unintentional” victims of their nets.

Scientists with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) came up with these estimates of bycatch rates per 10,000 sets of purse seine nets for the three fishing methods mentioned earlier. The method called “school fishing” of netting “immature yellowfin tuna found swimming in schools, will cause the deaths of eight dolphins; 2.4 million small tuna; 2100 mahi mahi; 12,220 sharks; 530 wahoo; 270 rainbow runners; 1010 other small fish; 1440 billfish; and 580 sea turtles.”

Using FADs and catching “immature tuna swimming under logs and other debris will cause the deaths of 25 dolphins; 130 million small tunas; 513,870 mahi mahi; 139,580 sharks; 118,660 wahoo; 30,050 rainbow runners; 12,680 other small fish; 6540 billfish; 2980 yellowtail; 200 other large fish; 1020 sea turtles; and 50 triggerfish.”

And using the old methods to net “mature yellowfin swimming in association with dolphins, will cause the deaths of 4000 dolphins (0.04 percent of a population that replenishes itself at the rate of two to six percent per year); 70,000 small tunas; 100 mahi mahi; 3 other small fish; 520 billfish; 30 other large fish; and 100 sea turtles. No sharks, no wahoo, no rainbow runners, no yellowtail, and no triggerfish and dramatic reductions in all other species but dolphins.”

Rod and reel fishing wasn’t mentioned and while it has low bycatch rates, it is expensive, time consuming, and the large amount of baitfish required would have to be considered. You may also notice that for the first two methods “immature tuna” are referred to where as for the “dolphin-fishing” method “mature tuna” are referred to. This is because the fish attracted to FADs or found free swimming tend to be younger and smaller than schools swimming with dolphins, scooping up these fish will have a greater effect on the tuna population as a whole causing subsequent catches to drop by as much as 25%.

As you can see the current reliance on FADs has resulted in larger kills of sea turtles, rays, juvenile tuna, and at least several endangered species and is a large factor in the decline of some shark populations, an important issue as of late. While some conservationist’s response to this issue is to return to the fishing method of encircling dolphins, the anti-speciesist response would likely be to recognize fishing is inherently cruel and stop altogether. As consumers we can choose the tuna-safe alternative and avoid culpability in the deaths of dolphins, sharks, and tuna.

Ask Your Doctor if Tiger is Right For You

November 10, 2010

save the tigers

Ive been meaning to write a post on Chinese Medicine and the dwindling tiger population but it
looks like I’ve been beat to it. Please read this wonderful post over at the Neurologica Blog on recent a report from the BBC which states “Over the past century, tiger numbers have fallen from about 100,000 individuals to just an estimated 3,500.
The study, which used data from 11 of the 13 countries that are home to populations of Panthera tigris, estimated that between 1,069 and 1,220 tigers were killed to supply the illicit demand for tiger parts.”
In his post Steven Novella rightly ads that
“What the report fails to mention, however, is what is chiefly driving this illegal trade – traditional medicine. Tiger bones have been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for centuries, used in many potions. The Chinese TCM market remains the greatest demand for tiger parts.”

You should also check out this awesome campaign by the World Wildlife Fund that used interactive technology and visuals to promote awareness of the poaching of tigers.

You can also click on the image at the top for a great poster. Here is one for Rhino horn also. Thanks to the The American Institute for the Destruction of Tooth Fairy Science for making these posters.