Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Simple, Green, Food

Don't eat factory-farmed meat. Wait--free-range food isn't what it's cracked up to be, either. Buy organic--or not. Local is greener. Except when it isn't.

To green, or not to green, that is the question--and how. Take any statement that sounds good and someone somewhere will prove it false (like I do, with GMOs). The fact that nobody has a clear environmental agenda only adds to this dilemma. It doesn't help that sometimes what's clear from an environmental point of view clashes with the morals of the matter. For instance, organically raised beef is better for the environment--at least, until you consider the massive increase in acreage involved.

But fear not, gentle readers! I offer you one key to all of your greening dilemmas--at least, when it comes to food:

Don't eat what you wouldn't kill.

In my mind, it essentially amounts to cowardice to do otherwise. Of course, most of us don't raise our own meat. So most of us don't know what it's like to kill something. For most of us, the idea never even crosses our minds, unless we get it vicariously from watching crime shows.

But ask yourself, what would you happily kill for dinner? I'm not talking about survival situations, where you're stuck in a deathscape with no chance of life unless you kill Fluffy (actually, if it gets to that point, Fluffy's probably killed you first). I'm talking about your everyday meals. Could you catch a chicken and lop off its head for lunch on Sunday? Would you butcher a pig so that you can enjoy a hot dog?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer lovin'

It's finally gotten hot in the Netherlands, by which I mean, "I occasionally break a sweat when running around while wearing jeans." Summers in the Netherlands are mild, generally, and so the full power of the following drink is probably lost here. Nevertheless, it is delicious, refreshing, and you can make it as healthy or unhealthy as you'd like.

Basil Lemonade

~ 1 C of basil leaves, chopped fine
Sugar (at least 1/2 C is recommended)
3-4 lemons
Cold water
A refrigerator
A few hours

Mix the chopped basil leaves with the sugar, bruising the leaves.

Squeeze the juice out of the lemons. If you're using one of those citrus juicers that can cut into the rind, make sure you don't cut into the pith.

Mix the sugar/basil mix with the lemon juice. Let it sit for ~10 minutes. This allows the essence of the basil to be captured by the acid of the lemon juice. It goes without saying that you should not let this sit in an aluminum bowl. Use glass or ceramic. A cereal bowl works really well.

Seive the sugar/lemon juice/basil mix into the pitcher. Pour water through the sieve to fill up the pitcher. Chill. Drink.

Makes ~1 qt.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Meet Virginia

Some time ago I heard the astounding statistic that every DAY in Brazil, an area the size of Virginia was being cleared of trees. Virginia is not Texas, to be sure, but it's still an entire state and of course I was outraged and probably wrote a letter to the mayor or something (it was that long ago).

Of course, what I failed to appreciate at that time was that Brazil is big. Very big. You could probably cram two thousand Virginias into it. Although it doesn't ameliorate the budding panic I feel every time I think of a massive tree getting sawn down (I don't mean to be overly sentimental, but it doesn't take a math genius to figure out that if you're cutting down huge trees much faster than they can grow soon you won't have any huge trees, or any trees at all--just ask the Easter Islanders) for the sake of making a cabinet, or someone's slash-and-burn field, it does make the cavalier attitude about the rain forest a little easier to understand: if you're in the jungle, it's massive. During the right seasons, you can stand on one bank of the Amazon, and not see the other side. We see the rainforest as a precious resource. To the folks who live there, it's something that gets in the way of making a living.

Two factors mitigate the difficulty of preservation efforts. First is a vacuum of land use laws concerning the jungle, and second is poverty. According to the latest issue of The Economist, the jungle is taken over on a first-come, first-served basis. Stake your claim, shoot those who contest it, and when you've finished with it, sell to the highest bidder.

The solution seems simple--a bigger carrot. Commercialization of products derived from the rain forest, eco-tourism, and flat-out bribery (technically it's known as "subsidization for not cutting down trees") are all incentives to leave the forest be.

Well, maybe not. Eco-tourism, for instance, requires you to go into the forest with your group of tourists, show them around a bit, and then get them back out. Getting, say, exotic nuts or plants from the forest requires the same thing. Bribery--well, that works. The first two require roads. But it's been shown that roadways into the jungle are potentially more devastating than just cutting down a swath of trees.

But none of this will matter without Brazilian law extending its reach. Carrots are all very well and good, but without a suitable stick, there won't be enough incentive for people to change. Free market theory suggests that this will never work. The government, corrupt as it is (or will be, once enough money is involved) will somehow endeavor to screw it up.

I'm not sure I buy the idea that the best way to go about fixing the economy is necessarily to give people a stake in keeping the environment intact. People are notoriously bad at making decisions that involve delayed gratification (witness the credit crunch) and investment, and that is doubly true when there's no obvious benefit--for them--to keep the trees alive.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


This photograph was taken off the coast of North Berwick, a little seaside town in Scotland that boasts the Scottish Seabird Center which was (apparently) built at the behest of HRH the Prince of Wales. The gannets in this photograph are fairly common. The colony on Bass Rock numbers 120,000, and it only stands to reason that other improbably large colonies are scattered elsewhere on impossibly small rocks in the North Atlantic. So, you might wonder, why the hell did I have to go all the way to Scotland to see them?

One of the long-running themes of the Science-Based Medicine blog (on which I sometimes comment) is the despair at how seemingly intelligent people fall for things like homeopathy (which =/= herbal medicines, and that's a whole 'nuther game entirely) and the Anti-Vaccination Conspiracy. The writers on that blog especially bemoan the influence of idiots like Jenny McCarthy for their refusal to believe that vaccines are safe (barring rare genetic conditions), do not cause autism--and their refusal to shut the f*ck up already.

There's a connection between these two. I promise.

The McCarthy campaign* was fed by the rise in autism cases, an "epidemic", as the fear mongers like to call it. I have no idea how they picked vaccines to blame it on, since it's become apparent that it's genetics--but anyway: the point is that autism is only reliably diagnosed at around age 2, the age that coincides quite happily with the recommended age of administration of the MMR vaccine. For your average parent, who doesn't have access to neuroscience textbooks and Piaget's work, it's a simple cause-and-effect. If enough parents--just one other one will do--have similar experiences, you start to wonder if you've missed something. And if someone fakes research telling you that your experiences have been scientifically validated, well, there you have it! Proof that vaccines cause autism!

Both of these illustrations point to the importance of education through experience. In the first case, until I saw the birds for myself, I was inclined to think that these were rare. The second case demonstrates how even nominally intelligent people allow personal experiences to trump their better judgment (although the truly intelligent know when to back down in the face of irrefutable evidence). It's very hard to unlearn something that has a deep emotional significance (i.e., validation that your whack-job theory was right)--the corollary is, it's very easy to learn something that does.

So my interest in environmentalism arose largely because when I was 7, one of my mother's friends gave me, as a Christmas present, a little suction-cup-on-the-window bird feeder that came with a little book showing all the pretty birds I could see. It may surprise you to know that I never saw anything more interesting than a crow, but for some reason I got hooked on birdwatching. I'm the person who will stand and scan every last Canada goose in a flock in the hopes of seeing something different--something new. And I did, often enough to make me realize that birds were interesting creatures which in turn sparked even more interest in how to keep them around.

This is probably the main reason why most people just don't care about the environment to the extent that Greens do. In the suburbs of carefully tended lawns and decor-only plants, they don't hear the awesome chirping of a thousand frogs (or one massive bullfrog). The artificial environs mean that most of the smaller songbirds have to find homes elsewhere, so "wildlife" means robins and the occasional fight with the raccoon over the garbage. To enjoy the "outdoors", you drive to a park, where the wildest thing you'll encounter is a fairly tame mallard. If this is the sum of your wildlife experience, of course you won't feel it's worth protecting.

It's all very well and good to point to rising lines on graphs, but to paraphrase the Governator, we have to make Green connect with people like Coke and Pepsi have done with their legions of fans, and you cannot make a solid connection with guilt. Nobody ever got addicted to guilt. They get hooked by "cool!"

Next: Behavioral modification

*Isn't it ironic that Joseph McCarthy did the same thing in the 1950s? Coincidence? If Jenny McCarthy (their names both begin with "J"!) can ask us to believe that vaccines cause autism, then surely my indulging in some little fantasy connecting her, the Communist Party, and eventual world takeover by China is harmless. Right?

Other factors (part 3 of 3)

Perhaps one of the hardest things to do as an owner of a cat with renal failure is not to get too invested in the Numbers (Blood Urea Nitrogen, Creatinine, Phosphorous). The Numbers are an indicator of renal function--i.e., lower is better, because lower means that the kidneys are taking the stuff out--and, as such, it is often recommended that they be tested frequently. The Tweeb has an appointment with the much-dreaded vet about 3 times a year (evidenced by the pee stain on our couch), but depending on the severity of the case it can be as often as once a month.

But going strictly by the Numbers ignores the cat. The fact that the BUN and Creatinine have gone down slightly from the last visit sounds like a cause for relief, if not celebration. But if the cat is so miserable from the change in food and starts wasting away because it won't eat--well, that could also contribute to the decrease in BUN and creatinine, and it's probably not nearly so worthwhile.

I won't presume to make an assertion as to what's worse: starve the cat to death, or let it eat itself to death. Every cat is different, and every owner likewise. The point is that there is still a lot we don't know about cats, and even more we don't know about renal failure, and to treat by the Numbers alone is to ignore the overall status of the cat: is it still reasonably healthy? Does she still play? Has her personality changed? The gestalt often tells a more complete tale of how the therapy is working than just the Numbers.

We've recently started the Tweeb on a prescription diet (Science Diet), as her Numbers have been elevated for two tests in a row. Fortunately, she seems to love the stuff more than life itself (as does Shadow, who most emphatically does not have renal failure) and it seems to agree with her, though her coat is somewhat more scruffy than it had been. We've agreed to take her in about four months later to see how she's doing.

Four months is a long time. I've had the Tweeb for two years now--that makes almost two and a half years as a CRF kitty for her. They don't call it "chronic" for nothing, and that's the thing. It may seem like a hopeless fight--after all, it starts badly and can only get worse--but keep in mind that if it is indeed the chronic, idiopathic kind of renal failure, proper care can keep a cat going for years. The moment of diagnosis is not the moment to consider euthanasia, but a moment to seriously re-evaluate your commitment to your cat--the whole Cat.