Monday, November 16, 2009
I gave a talk in South Texas recently on the environmental virtues of a vegetarian diet. As you might imagine, the reception was chilly. In fact, the only applause came during the Q&A period when a member of the audience said that my lecture made him want to go out and eat even more meat. "Plus," he added, "what I eat is my business -- it's personal."
I've been writing about food and agriculture for more than a decade. Until that evening, however, I'd never actively thought about this most basic culinary question: Is eating personal?
We know more than we've ever known about the innards of the global food system. We understand that food can both nourish and kill. We know that its production can both destroy and enhance our environment. We know that farming touches every aspect of our lives -- the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we need.
So it's hard to avoid concluding that eating cannot be personal. What I eat influences you. What you eat influences me. Our diets are deeply, intimately and necessarily political.
This realization changes everything for those who avoid meat. As a vegetarian I've always felt the perverse need to apologize for my dietary choice. It inconveniences people. It smacks of self-righteousness. It makes us pariahs at dinner parties. But the more I learn about the negative impact of meat production, the more I feel that it's the consumers of meat who should be making apologies.
Here's why: The livestock industry as a result of its reliance on corn and soy-based feed accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used in the United States, contributing more than any other sector to marine dead zones. It consumes 70 percent of the water in the American West -- water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed, ground beef would cost $35 a pound. Livestock accounts for at least 21 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally -- more than all forms of transportation combined. Domestic animals -- most of them healthy -- consume about 70 percent of all the antibiotics produced. Undigested antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the sex organs of fish.
It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of conventional beef. If all the grain fed to animals went to people, you could feed China and India. That's just a start.
Meat that's raised according to "alternative" standards (about 1 percent of meat in the United States) might be a better choice but not nearly as much so as its privileged consumers would have us believe. "Free-range chickens" theoretically have access to the outdoors. But many "free-range" chickens never see the light of day because they cannot make it through the crowded shed to the aperture leading to a patch of cement.
"Grass-fed" beef produces four times the methane -- a greenhouse gas 21 times as powerful as carbon dioxide -- of grain-fed cows, and many grass-fed cows are raised on heavily fertilized and irrigated grass. Pastured pigs are still typically mutilated, fed commercial feed and prevented from rooting -- their most basic instinct besides sex.
Issues of animal welfare are equally implicated in all forms of meat production. Domestic animals suffer immensely, feel pain and may even be cognizant of the fate that awaits them. In an egg factory, male chicks (economically worthless) are summarily run through a grinder. Pigs are castrated without anesthesia, crated, tail-docked and nose-ringed. Milk cows are repeatedly impregnated through artificial insemination, confined to milking stalls and milked to yield 15 times the amount of milk they would produce under normal conditions. When calves are removed from their mothers at birth, the mothers mourn their loss with heart-rending moans.
Then comes the slaughterhouse, an operation that's left with millions of pounds of carcasses -- deadstock -- that are incinerated or dumped in landfills. (Rendering plants have taken a nose dive since mad cow disease.)
Now, if someone told you that a particular corporation was trashing the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel; unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the process, how would you react? Would you say, "Hey, that's personal?" Probably not. It's more likely that you'd frame the matter as a dire political issue in need of a dire political response.
Vegetarianism is not only the most powerful political response we can make to industrialized food. It's a necessary prerequisite to reforming it. To quit eating meat is to dismantle the global food apparatus at its foundation.
Agribusiness has been vilified of late by muckraking journalists, activist filmmakers and sustainable-food advocates. We know that something has to be done to save our food from corporate interests. But I wonder -- are we ready to do what must be done? Sure, we've been inundated with ideas: eat local, vote with your fork, buy organic, support fair trade, etc. But these proposals all lack something that every successful environmental movement has always placed at its core: genuine sacrifice.
Until we make that leap, until we create a culinary culture in which the meat-eaters must do the apologizing, the current proposals will be nothing more than gestures that turn the fork into an empty symbol rather than a real tool for environmental change.
James E. McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos and a recent fellow in the agrarian studies program at Yale University, is most recently the author of "Just Food."
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
A new study demonstrates the power of music to alter our emotional perceptions of other people
As a young man I enjoyed listening to a particular series of French instructional programs. I didn’t understand a word, but was nevertheless enthralled. Was it because the sounds of human speech are thrilling? Not really. Speech sounds alone, stripped of their meaning, don’t inspire. We don’t wake up to alarm clocks blaring German speech. We don’t drive to work listening to native spoken Eskimo, and then switch it to the Bushmen Click station during the commercials. Speech sounds don’t give us the chills, and they don’t make us cry – not even French.
But music does emanate from our alarm clocks in the morning, and fill our cars, and give us chills, and make us cry. According to a recent paper by Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya from the University of London, music even affects how we see visual images. In the experiment, 30 subjects were presented with a series of happy or sad musical excerpts. After listening to the snippets, the subjects were shown a photograph of a face. Some people were shown a happy face – the person was smiling - while others were exposed to a sad or neutral facial expression. The participants were then asked to rate the emotional content of the face on a 7-point scale, where 1 mean extremely sad and 7 extremely happy.
The researchers found that music powerfully influenced the emotional ratings of the faces. Happy music made happy faces seem even happier while sad music exaggerated the melancholy of a frown. A similar effect was also observed with neutral faces. The simple moral is that the emotions of music are “cross-modal,” and can easily spread from sensory system to another. Now I never sit down to my wife’s meals without first putting on a jolly Sousa march.
Although it probably seems obvious that music can evoke emotions, it is to this day not clear why. Why doesn’t music feel like listening to speech sounds, or animal calls, or garbage disposals? Why is music nice to listen to? Why does music get blessed with a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas there is no market for “easy listening” speech sounds?
In an effort to answer, let’s first ask why I was listening to French instructional programs in the first place. The truth is, I wasn’t just listening. I was watching them on public television. What kept my attention was not the meaningless-to-me speech sounds (I was a slow learner), but the young French actress. Her hair, her smile, her mannerisms, her pout… I digress. The show was a pleasure to watch because of the humans it showed, especially the exhibited expressions and behaviors.
The lion share of emotionally evocative stimuli in the lives of our ancestors would have been from the faces and bodies of other people, and if one finds human artifacts that are highly evocative, it is a good hunch that it looks or sounds human in some way.
As evidence that humans are the principal source of emotionality among human artifacts, consider human visual signs. Visual signs, I have argued, have culturally evolved to look like natural objects, and have the kinds of contour combinations found in a three-dimensional world of opaque objects. Three-dimensional world of opaque objects? Nothing particularly human about that, and that’s why most linguistic signs – like the letters and words on this page – are not emotionally evocative to look at.
But visual signs do sometimes have emotional associations. For example, colors are notoriously emotionally evocative, and arguments about what color something should be painted are the source of an alarming number of marital arguments. And “V” stimuli, such as that yield sign on the street, have long been realized (within the human factors literature) to serve as the most evocative geometrical shape for warning symbols. But notice that color and “V” stimuli are plausibly about human expression. In particular, color has recently been argued to be “about” human skin and the exhibited emotions – which is why red grabs our attention, since it's associated with blushing and blood - and “V” stimuli have been suggested to be “about” angry faces (namely, angry eyebrows).
Which brings us back to music and the Logeswaran paper. Music is exquisitely emotionally evocative, which is why a touch of happy music makes even unrelated pictures seem more pleasant. In light of the above, then, we are led to the conclusion that the artifact of music should contain some distinctly human elements.
The question, of course, is what those elements are. One candidate is our expressive speech – perhaps music is just an abstract form of language. However, most of the emotion of language is in the meaning, which is why foreign languages that we don’t understand rarely make us swoon with pleasure or get angry. That’s also why emotional speech from an unfamiliar language isn’t featured on the radio!
But there is a second auditory expressive behavior we humans carry out – our bodily movements themselves. Human movement has been conjectured to underlie music as far back as the Greeks. As a hypothesis this has the advantage that we have auditory systems capable of making sense of the sounds of people moving in our midst – an angry stomper approaching, a delicate lilter passing, and so on. Some of these movements trigger positive emotions – they conjure up images of pleasant activities – while others might be automatically associated with fear or anxiety. (The sound of running makes us wonder what we’re running from.) If music were speech-driven, then it is missing out on the largest part of speech’s expressiveness – the meaning. But if music sounds like human expressive movements, then it sounds like something that, all by itself, is rich in emotional expressiveness, and can be easily interpreted by the auditory system.
Regardless of whether music is emotional intonation from speech or a summary of expressive movements – or something else altogether – the new research by Logeswaran and Bhattacharya adds yet more fuel to the expectation that music has been culturally selected to sound like an emotionally expressive human. While it is not easy for us to see the human ingredients in the modulations of pitch, intensity, tempo and rhythm that make music, perhaps it is obvious to our auditory homunculus.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Monday, May 04, 2009
By MARK C. TAYLOR
Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”
Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.
In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.
The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.
If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:
1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.
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