Monday, May 25, 2015

Monsanto's Death Food

Here is the Monsanto image from Saturday's worldwide protests that I think will become the signature image for their death foods. It recalls Andy Warhol's Campbell Food images.

I'm also posting a short, 4-minutes video made by my friend and colleague, Will Parrinello. It conveys what Monsanto's Roundup does and the reaction to it in Argentina. Powerful!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Blog 5-23

I’m not sure what I’m going to write about today, so I’ve titled this simply, “Blog 5-23.” Not that there aren’t ample things to write about. The news about the latest event where the Repugnant candidates for President were speaking, for example, gives us an accurate preview of what the dominant theme will be: Obama was the one who screwed up Iraq. Obama’s responsible for the latest ISIS triumph in Ramadi. Not George W. Bush, the president they hardly mention anymore. Oh no. Georgie had it all right, had Iraq conquered and pacified—until Barack Hussein came along and withdrew the troops. It’s amazing, really. Completely ignoring the fact that it was the illegal American invasion of Iraq that blew the place up, that destabilized the nation and incited the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia populations that had always gotten along, that it was Bush himself who negotiated the timeline for American withdrawal, these yahoos appeal to the great American worship of weapons and say ‘we had ‘em beat until that wuss Obama came along and removed all our power. And then ISIS burst into the power vacuum Obama created and took over half the damn country we spent so much life and treasure liberating.’ But wait! Where did ISIS come from? Wasn’t it from the remnants of al Quaeda in Iraq? And isn’t it the case that al Quaeda never even existed in Iraq until the United States destroyed the damn country with its invasion? And isn’t it also the case that the reason ISIS (morphed from the al Quaeda that never before existed) has triumphed so easily is also due to the stupidity of the Bush adminisration’s strategy of canning Saddam’s existing army and bureaucracy, almost all Sunnis, to a man? Isn’t the area ISIS has rolled over almost fully Sunni territory, those Sunnis who were so completely destroyed by the American invasion that they have opted to cooperate with ISIS in order to get back at the Shia-dominated government America put in place? Duh. Facts. Just dull old facts. Who gives a damn about facts? Only eggheads and some democrats. The important thing in an election is emotion, so appeal to the emotional outrage over America’s great ‘handiwork’ being destroyed, over a band of ragtag barbarians overrunning one city after another in defiance of the greatest military power in the world, US, and blame it on the black wuss in the White House.
            But it’s not only that simpleminded diversion that outrages. Because no one can avoid feeling revulsion at the other side, too. At the group calling itself The Islamic State in Syria, or in the Levant, or whatever they’re calling themselves. Fanatics. The world seems increasingly to be falling into the hands of fundamentalist fanatics. It seems that a simple, fundamentalist religious stance is the only way masses of people can be galvanized these days. Yearning for certainty in a world that seems always on the brink of catastrophe, the masses of humans seem zombified except in response to a fanatic reversion to a simplistic worldview. Follow sharia law. Arm oneself to the teeth. Execute those who disagree. Roll over every departure from that simple certainty, slaughter coldly those who don’t conform, and count on bliss in a future life. And now, horror of horrors, these wackadoos have taken over one of the most ancient and precious World Heritage Sites on the planet, Palmyra. Take a look at the ancient ruins left from long centuries of occupation on the oldest of trade routes.

There are Aramaic ruins, Babylonian ruins, Mesopotamian ruins, Roman ruins—each one more precious than the last. This “Bride of the Desert” is like some fantasyland of antiquities in the desert. And now it is controlled by a gaggle of lunatics. Contemplating what these image-destroyers will do to these remnants of “infidel art” is enough to make one weep. And yet, there they are in force, already having taken control of the antiquities museum, posted guards outside, executed everyone they could find with any connection to the Syrian government, and impelled anyone with concern for his head and the means to do so, to flee.
            Whether there is anything to stop them now is an open question. But one thing that comes to mind is this: these Wahhabi warriors are supported, or were originally, by the Gulf monarchies, Sunnis all, despotisms all, that are our purported allies—chief among them Saudi Arabia. Couldn’t a little American pressure cause the Saudis to use their influence (if any is left) with their proxies? Because that’s what they are: proxies for the Sunni monarchies in their conflict with Iran (a Shia nation) and Syria (whose Alawite minority, also Shia, controls the last secular government in the Middle East). It’s a bit like the support the United States gave to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and for a similar proxy purpose: to defeat our Soviet enemies. And the Saudis will live to regret their machinations, just as the U.S. has lived to regret its build-up of the mujahideen into al Quaeda. But in the meantime, couldn’t the U.S. put pressure on our oil-wealthy allies and get them to at least spare the antiquities in Palmyra? But then, that might make too much sense, and the world lacks sense more than anything else these days.
            As we see in yet another outrage that occurred recently. Competely different, but similar in its possible effects. I’m referring to the move by the allegedly environment-friendly Obama Administration to approve Shell Oil’s petition to drill in the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic. Talk about an outrage. Talk about ignoring the plea of every sane climate scientist to forego any more drilling of the world’s most dangerously-sited oil. Talk about ignoring the history of accidents in Alaska, in Santa Barbara, in the Gulf of Mexico, all of which tell us that sea-floor drilling is a recipe for disaster. Especially in this fierce sea, miles off the coast, with perilous conditions that would make an oil spill a disaster beyond anything we’ve ever seen—and we’ve seen a lot. Especially since, after the initial approval in 2012, Shell’s Kulluk oil rig ran aground and had to be towed to safety. And yet. President (I love the environment) Obama has just given his second presidential approval to Shell to drill in this (so far) pristine ocean. It is baffling. It is heartbreaking. It is mystifying. It is enough to make one want to vaporize these fools.
            But after all, it’s not that much different from Palmyra, is it? The ocean. There’s so much of it. The desert. So much of it, too, and most just a wasteland. Antiquities. So many of them, and so old and in such bad condition they can’t be occupied by living humans in any case. What good are they? What good is the ocean? What good are all the creatures that live there? We’ll soon be able to synthesize all of the nutrients and vitamins and elements they contain. Just as we’ll soon be able to clone any missing species. What’s the big deal?
            Ah humanity. Shiva the destroyer of worlds must be exulting about now.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Animals, Water and Big Ag

I heard recently about a new documentary called Cowspiracy (see for some specifics on it.) And what caught my ear (I haven’t seen it yet), other than some of the facts we’ve long known about how damaging factory farms can be to the environment and our health, was a list of hazards presented by these rapidly-growing operations. So I went to the website mentioned above and found a list of “facts” that I’ll simply present here. You can draw your own conclusions.
            Before doing that, though, I want to refer to another book I’ve read recently, Animal Wise, by Virginia Morell (Crown 2013) just to give everyone an idea of what’s at stake in our usual attitude toward animals. Briefly, what Morell has given us is proof, from several areas of study including neuroscience, about a variety of animals from ants to dogs to elephants, that animals do indeed have minds. The traditional modern denial of this refers to fish that we catch on a hook: ‘Oh, they don’t feel anything because their brains are too small and simple to register any sense of what pain means.’ Well think again, anglers. As a researcher named Braithwaite, after meticulous testing, says: “Fish have the cognitive capacity to experience emotions, and are self-aware, and conscious.” As to their brains, what Morell shows us about archerfish (and you can see stunning films of this on Youtube), is that these amazing fish have the neurological capacity to aim at insects, even through the distortions of water, and hit their targets with water squirted from their mouths like, well, archers. The lesson: to calculate distortion, movement, and trajectory, these fish have to have some heretofore unsuspected mental power. Morell provides us with similar research on ‘thinking’ in ants, speech in parrots, empathy in almost all animals, long-term memory and grieving in elephants, and almost superhuman synchrony in dolphins. In short, when we slaughter animals for our daily dinner (always doing it out of our sight, and hence out of our minds), we are not killing dumb, senseless mechanical robots; we are killing sentient beings built on the same template, and with the same basic material that builds us.
            That said, we now turn to the aforementioned facts about the damage done by large-scale animal farming. The damage is done by the use of water—both to feed the animals, dispose of their waste, and grow the feed they consume—and by the emission of greenhouse gases (global warming) like CO2 and methane into our atmosphere. To wit: 1) Animal Agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. When one adds the byproducts of animal agriculture, we get this: 2) Livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. And when it comes to water use, animal agriculture makes the savings we think we’re making by low-flush toilets and not watering our lawns appear downright paltry: 3) Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually; and 4) Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of water in the US. To get a bit more specific and low to the ground, think about that hamburger you eat. Well here’s the fact: While Californians, on average, use 1500 gallons of water per person per day (half of which is associated with meat and dairy products), 5) 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef! (Actually the amount varies from 442 to 8000 gallons; 2500 is a median estimate from Dr. George Borgstrom, Chair of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University.)
            Of course, one might think that milk products are not so wasteful. But one would be wrong. 6) 1,000 gallons/liters of water are required to produce 1 gallon/liter of milk. So if you have a big Mac and a glass of milk, you’re consuming what took a couple of hundred gallons of water to produce. Here's the overall comparison: 7) 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes; 55% of water consumed in the US is for animal agriculture. And when you’re talking worldwide, 8) Animal Agriculture is responsible for 20% -33% of all fresh water consumption in the world today.
            Then there’s the waste produced by these immense concentrations of animals in factory farms. (This emphasis on factory farms is important, because in traditional agriculture, farms were mixed operations whose products fed each other: farmers had a few cows, pigs, and/or chickens and used the waste as fertilizer to grow their crops, including the feed they gave to their animals.) 9) Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US. This doesn’t include the animals raised outside of USDA jurisdiction or in backyards, or the billions of fish raised in aquaculture settings in the US. And to give you an idea of how much this really is, 10) A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. To put it another way, 11) 130 times more animal waste than human waste is produced in the US – 1.4 billion tons from the meat industry annually; 5 tons of animal waste produced for every person.
            I could go on, but the mind fairly reels. Suffice it to say that all this waste produces immense quantities of greenhouse gases, not to mention the rivers of pollution it carries to our aquifers, our streams, our lakes, and our oceans, thus reducing the fresh water available for things like, say, drinking. And the worst part is that the planetary lands devoted to animal agriculture—to grazing cattle or dairy cows, to raising the water-intensive crops like alfalfa and corn and soy that feeds these animals—are the leading cause of rainforest destruction now imperiling our world. They are also the leading cause of habitat destruction for the irreplaceable species that are going extinct both in these rainforests and elsewhere. One final fact to hammer this point home: 12) 10,000 years ago 99% of biomass (i.e. zoomass) was wild animals; today, humans and the animals that we raise as food make up 98% of the zoomass.
            The conclusion ought to be obvious. All of these animals—both the ones we are driving into extinction and the ones we raise to feed us—are our relatives, our cousins, our evolutionary forebears. We are literally impossible without them. When we destroy them, we destroy ourselves. Surely the big-brained ape must be able to think up a better way.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” He was right as far as he went, i.e. inveighing against the timorous moderation of the middle classes. But Wilde’s truism pertains only in the short run. In the long run, success, and especially excessive success, can turn not only problematic, but disastrous. Consider the phenomenon now widely known as “blowback” (Shakespeare referred to a similar turnabout more poetically as “hoist by his own petard.”) The United States has suffered from this confounding product of its success several times in recent years. Perhaps the most well-known instance concerns Afghanistan. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Russians sent their forces to Afghanistan in order to keep it under the control of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), but they ran into fierce resistance by guerilla groups like the Mujahideen (lit., one engaged in jihad; actually begun as 19th century opponents of British rule). Seeing this as an opportunity to laden the Soviets with their own Vietnam, the U.S. Government (and others like Saudi Arabia) gave enormous caches of arms, ammunition, money and general support to these mujahideen, routinely referring to them as “freedom fighters.” Among these ‘freedom fighters’ was a wealthy leader from Saudi Arabia called Osama bin Laden. The mujahideen eventually (1989) forced the Soviets out, ousted the DRA’s last president in 1992, and consolidated into what Mullah Mohammed Omar called the “Taliban.” Osama bin Laden was then able, from this relative safe haven in Afganistan, to organize al Quaeda, and eventually its 9/11 attack upon the new enemy he had switched to—his one-time backers, the United States of America. The Taliban, of course, became the rulers of Afghanistan for a time, and, despite eleven years of war by the U.S. forces against them, continue to wreak havoc against US-backed puppet governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to this day.
            Blowback. Watch out what you hatch; it might come back to bite you in the ass. As, for another example, ISIS or the Islamic State now running rampant in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, is also the product of the idiotic American machinations in the Iraq invasion. We ousted Saddam Hussein, disbanded his army and de-authorized his Sunni military and government officers, and in so doing gave power to the Shia forces now allied with our presumptive enemy, Iran. We also paved the way for al Quaeda in Iraq to rise and grow (there had been no al Quaeda in Iraq before the invasion), and, they, allied with those Sunni forces we sidelined and offended, have become the core of ISIS, taking over half of the allegedly “free” Iraq we spent so much American life and treasure to “liberate.”
            Of course, it’s not just in international relations that this phenomenon exists. Consider the ‘success’ humanity has had, first when homo sapiens, with its big brain, out-competed all other apes to become the clear winner in populating the entire globe. So excessive has this ‘success’ become that the human population has now reached 7 billion and is on a path to exceed 9 billion within a few years (a mere 250 years ago, world population was only about 800 million!). Such runaway growth strains not only the planetary resources needed to feed, clothe and house so many human beings, but also the space that all other species require to live. And the waste products generated by this one runaway species, homo sapiens, have become a gathering menace to the oceans (think of the ‘islands’ of plastic now circling in several oceans; of the over-fished species now reaching the brink of extinction) and the land increasingly polluted by it. Allied with this, obviously, are the inventions that this one species has created to allow it to thrive. Forget fire and the wheel; antibiotics have succeeded in nearly wiping out several diseases that used to plague humanity. But their excessive use (not only for humans, but in keeping livestock ‘healthy’, which means humans consume antibiotics in their meat without knowing it) has contributed increasingly to the development of ‘super-bacteria,’ that is, those new strains resistant to antibiotics. The problem daily threatens to get out of control if any of these super strains outstrips the methods that are still able to contain them.
            All of these examples might be grouped under the one rubric of autoimmune diseases. Such diseases have become more and more prevalent as modern medicine has grown ever more successful in eliminating most of the conventional diseases that used to bedevil it. Little needs to be said about arthritis, except to point out that it is an autoimmune disease, i.e., one in which the body’s immune system attacks its own proteins, often with inflammation. The list of autoimmune diseases is amazingly varied and too long to include here, but it includes such diseases as lupus, rheumatic fever, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, eczema, some forms of diabetes, celiac disease, Addison’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease, and many more, possibly including cancer itself. While there is no easily summarized general theory of these autoimmune diseases, one idea struck me as quite telling. Rob Dunn, in his 2011 book The Wild Life of Our Bodies, cites Tufts University researcher Joel Weinstock’s theory that sufferers from Crohn’s disease (wherein the immune system attacks the gut to cause severe digestive problems and intestinal blockages), found mostly in the U.S. and developed countries, were missing something that used to be common: intestinal parasites. Rather than the conventional idea that we get sick when foreign species invade our bodies, Weinstock theorized that our success in ridding the body of parasites left our immune systems devoid of their usual targets, the parasites like tape worms that almost all children used to have. In their absence, Weinstock theorized, the immune system attacks its own gut. Weinstock, Dunn reports, did experiments to show that by introducing parasites into the bodies of Crohn’s sufferers, many got better. There is more to the theory, but basically it involves the idea that the human body evolved with parasites to fight, and that without those parasites (including their possible production of compounds that suppress the immune system’s attacks against them), the immune system begins to attack its own flesh. And the more general point Rob Dunn makes is that our success in sanitizing our environment, our war against microbes, has upset the balance and relationship to all other life in which we evolved. And it is making many of us, no longer developing normal immunities, sick.
            The biggest example of the autoimmune epidemic, of course, has to do not with the individual human body, per se, but with the collective body and the planet on which humans must survive. Since the advent of the industrial age, humans have been burning fossil fuels to obtain energy, most significantly to run machines that produce power and heat, and machines to pamper us and transport us effortlessly around our cities and the globe. This burning of fossil fuels, mostly gasoline from petroleum but also fire from burning coal, has put enormous tonnages of CO2 into the atmosphere, and created what is known as the ‘greenhouse effect.’ That is, CO2 collects in the upper atmosphere and creates a kind of gaseous shell around the globe from which heat cannot escape. The result (heat coming in but not getting out) is global warming—a rapid warming of the planet that is unprecedented in human history, and threatens to melt the polar regions (already happening at an alarming rate) and raise sea levels to disastrous levels for coastal cities, and heat the climate so much that all flora and fauna, including those we depend on for food, will be negatively affected. The most important point about this CO2 effect, this greenhouse effect, is that we humans are doing it to ourselves. There is no longer any serious question about this. Despite the climate deniers, virtually all scientists agree that climate change is human caused. It is our civilization that is at fault, we ourselves that are responsible.
            The most dangerous autoimmune disease of all, in short, is the one threatening civilization itself. Humans of the last 250 or so years have been amazingly successful in using our large brains to adorn ourselves with the kind of comfort and products that not even the wealthiest potentates of old could have imagined. Success is ours! We have triumphed over nature. Become free as gods. We have won.
            The problem lies in the blowback. Our very success in producing machines to make us dominant and mobile and safe has led us into what appears to be the gravest crisis humanity has ever faced. Our machines have paved the way for a deadly reaction by the planet itself, by its feedback mechanisms, by what we might call its immune system. And what those feedback mechanisms are telling us, in the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, is: we have met the enemy and it is us. What they are telling us is: Change the way you think, the way you see; for if you do not, you will perish from your own success. It is as if humanity has suddenly regressed to an ancient Greek theater dramatizing in slow motion the peril that the Greeks found most threatening—the peril of hubris. The peril of presuming to arrogate to themselves the prerogatives of the gods. Whether collective humanity can gather itself and humble itself enough to alter its current disregard for everything but its own short-term comfort remains to be seen.

Lawrence DiStasi