Emissions &

July 26, 2015

So I’m afraid that this is one of those weeks when I’m going to send you backwards to catch up. Like to last week when I couldn’t get started because the whole thing was just too confusing, or to a few weeks ago when we were all giving out a big shout-out to Pope Francis. But while it would be wholly within the spirit of the Thornapple Blog to go around in circles two or three times before moving on to the subject at hand, this week I’ll just point out quietly that I do in fact regard these two context-setting-blogs as important provisos for what comes next. So if you were about to quote me out of context on Fox News or some other outlet like The Review of Metaphysics, just be advised that you have been warned in advance!

What I thought I was going to get around to last week was a conversation I had had about the surprising number of people who say confusing, head twisting things about climate change, and then end up with an amazing simple statement like “The biggest thing that you could do to address climate change is to give up eating meat.” There is a rationale behind this recommendation, as a rather surprising amount of the methane currently being emitted into the atmosphere comes from ruminants. And if it’s not crystal clear yet, I’ll go on to concede that, indeed, cattle are ruminants. Of course, not all the meat you might eat is beef, so you might be wondering whether there’s a bit of overgeneralization going on, so I’ll further ‘splain that a surprising amount of our industrial agriculture production (which uses a not massive [hence not surprising] but still significant portion of our fossil fuel) is for animal feeds.

So with those concessions off my chest, let me be slightly serious here for a bit and say why this is confusing to me. In the spirit of calling out the overgeneralization alluded to above, I could start by noting that ‘meat’ is kind of ambiguous in this context. Does it include fish? Does it include eggs? And most importantly due to the fact that we are (recall) mainly talkin’ bout cows when the word ‘methane’ comes up in conversation—does it include milk, cheese, yogurt and other assorted dairy products? If you are going to be consistent in applying your dietary climate ethic, you should include all of those things. We are, in fact, talking vegan, here.

I’ll hasten to add two things. First, far be it from me to insist on consistency in matters of diet. I’ve sworn that particular philosopher’s vice off long, long ago. And second, if you are in fact inclined to go vegan, by all means, do it. At least give it a try. The last thing I sat down to do this morning was to try and dissuade any of those heroic vegans out there of their dietary regimen. I was just trying to point out the bigger picture behind a superficially simple recommendation.

But more significantly, let me focus like a laserbeam on the methane thing. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, which means that it aggravates the nasty processes that are causing all the problems we associate with that bland term “climate change”. But this methane does not “stay up there” all that long, and as I see it (this is my blog, you know) the much larger problem is the longevity of carbon dioxide emissions. When we burn stuff like coal, gasoline or jet fuel, most of that stuff is going to be around for thousands of years. Even our grandchildren’s grandchildren won’t be able to do much about it. If we stopped raising cows, close to 90% of the methane might be gone in 20 years. Heck, even I might live to see that!

In short, pushing really hard to figure out some way to stop burning stuff when you go from place to place, when you need to heat or cool your house, and when you need electricity to make toast—that would be the most important thing that you could do to address climate change. This thing about saving the world with better eating is overselling a moderately good idea that should probably be considered solely on its own merits.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


Climate Ethics

July 19, 2015

Are you confused about the climate ethics of your diet?

Me, too.

I don’t doubt that humans are having a significant impact on global climate systems, but I have some limited sympathy with the climate-change skeptics. It’s going a bit too far when you claim that this is all something that Al Gore (remember him?) made up right after he invented the Internet. And it’s also going a bit too far to claim that the steady rise in average temperature, the fluctuations in climate systems, the melting glaciers and the increasing number of extreme weather events have absolutely no connection to the fact that human beings having been pumping ever increasing amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and possibly some other stuff I’ve never heard of into the atmosphere. So hold on, Bessie, I’m not going anywhere near that far when I admit to being a bit confused.

Not to say that there isn’t something confusing here. I can hardly blame the so-called average person for not thinking too hard about stuff. Not thinking about stuff too hard is one of the perennial themes of the Thornapple Blog, after all. Have you seen those hilarious U-Tube videos where Jimmy Kimmel goes around asking all these people who are cutting down on gluten what it is that they think they are cutting down on? They don’t have a clue. So we could hardly blame folks who are skeptical about climate change who also have no clue what it is they are skeptical about. Confusing, isn’t it?

So if you are just either incensed or skeptical about climate change from the get-go with absolutely nothing further to base your respective attitude on, it would follow that you would not have much to go on when it comes to whether or not you should change your diet to save the world from sea-level rise, constant monsoons, desertification, and stoppage of the thermohaline circulation! Just getting through that sentence alone is pretty confusing, isn’t it?

Well, that’s about where I find myself.

So I sat down this morning to throw out a few musings on the subject, but by now I’m just so confused I don’t even know where to start.

So I’m just going to put the whole thing off until next week.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Enter Title Here

July 12, 2015

I might as well start out today by just admitting up front that it’s not really proving to be particularly conducive to blogging. I mean, what is this blogging thing, anyway? (Sounds like the start of a Seinfeld monologue, doesn’t it?). There was a particular idea to it back in the stone age years of cyberspace. It was “Hey! Break free of the constraints laid on us by editors who filter out what we want to read. Go on line yourself. Post anything you want—recipes, how your day went, garden tips, your reaction to current events, your last trip to the bathroom, your sex life (that one was especially popular)—and then see who turns up to read it. Freedom from the tiresome judgment laid on us writers by the gatekeepers to publication. Freedom from the whole process of submitting your writing to someone who then, of necessity, must judge it. A direct line to readers.”

And for readers, what? Aside from the occasional titillation I think it was a mix of business-as-usual chit-chat, on the one hand, and an exploratory sense of the new, on the other. The first had fit nicely with food themes (the recipes and gardening tips) while the latter led to some interesting experiments in semi-intentional online community. That’s way too serious for a Sunday Thornapple blog, so just forgetaboutit right out of the gate. I suppose one of the more interesting parts of that would be the Wiki-wiki thing: the Internet + search as the real-world incarnation of Borges library of babel. It turns out that Borges was right. There is a ton of crap to find on the Internet, and all those little blog episodes thoughtfully entered by the random person occasionally turn up just what you are looking for, if you have the patience and luck to find them.

The fact that it only took a year or two for Internet devotees to tire of parsing the gibberish in search of occasional wisdom is the main reason why I make a distinction between the eventual reign of babel and chit chat, which continues to be useful. Those food-tips and discourses on the food system have continued, as I noted in a more ominous tone the week before last. And we might note in passing the oft noted tendency for “comments” to devolve rapidly into rants (at least when they are not dominated by robot posts advertising shoes or dental services in the Netherlands). The comment sections of most serious blogs are pretty heavily edited by human beings these days. But when you need some help making pound cake or you are trying to find out what to do with that Russian kale, well in those cases the blogosphere remains helpful.

I must confess that I didn’t really pay any attention to bloggers during the stone age. I suppose I should confess that I don’t pay all that much attention to bloggers now. Back when I started writing this blog in 2009, I might spend an hour on Sunday poking around the Internet reading blogs on philosophy or food issues. I rarely do that today. I’ll just end by saying that I don’t care all that much for Russian kale, either. I know, I know. It’s blasphemous for a food blogger to admit such a thing. But there you have it.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Not Knockwurst

July 5, 2015

Topic for an American holiday weekend: How did the Vienna sausage come to be associated with a person who performs dangerous or showy stunts? Or, for that matter, with a general exclamation of excitement or appreciation? The Vienna sausage I’m talking about is, of course, better known as a wiener, which, I’ve explained with extreme patience on at least one prior occasion, a common German idiom for a food item known to be associated with a particular city or region. Perhaps it would be patronizing to go on and explain that, of course, we speakers of Americanized English do not typically use the word ‘wiener’ to describe someone who is performing a dangerous or showy stunt, though it would not, in fact, be inappropriate to describe such a person with the comment, “What a wiener!” To do that would sound a note of disapproval not necessarily connoted by describing the said performer as a “hot dog.”

In short, “wiener,” bad. “Hot dog,” good, or at least neutral.

This general lack of parallelism between the usage of ‘wiener’ and ‘hot dog’ would be even more sharply observed in the case of celebratory exclamation. No self-respecting red-blooded American boy would, upon sight or anticipation of some stimulating and broadly pleasant opportunity cry out “Wiener!” in breathless expectation of exceptional delights to come. In deference to my own limited outlook, I will not comment as to whether a self-respecting, or for that matter red-blooded, American girl might ever make such an interjection. The mind spins in contemplation of such a possibility. But, to foreclose entirely the reader’s opportunity for imaginative completion of the thought being developed here, we know exactly what is meant when someone (male or female) yells “Hot dog!” on the occasion of some joyous or otherwise festive occasion. Imagine, if you will, the Minnesota Twins’ fan after Torii Hunter has connected with a 99-mile-an-hour fastball and sent the spheroid rollicking over the left field fence. Or that member of the gluten-free infused beet generation upon being presented with steaming plate of kale sautéed in peanut oil and sesame seeds. “Hot dog!” either might scream.

In short, “Hot dog!” good; “Wiener!” incoherent, confusing and possibly a little disturbing.

And so to return to our framing question, how did these peculiarities of usage come about? Being neither a linguist nor dispositionally inclined toward actual research, I usually just make up the answers to such questions when writing the Thornapple Blog (or at least I hope my readers can tell when of a Sunday I become consumed with such insouciance). But wouldn’t anyone, or at least any non-vegetarian, on being presented with a steaming Vienna sausage in a bun with mustard, relish and onions be driven by underlying biological drives to shout “Hot dog!” And given this propensity, wouldn’t it be natural to go on and associate that usage with a spectacular and ostentatious display of daring-do? And isn’t that why God gave us vegetarian hot dogs, in the first place? I think so, at least.

In short, “hot dog,” good; “wiener,” irrelevant to any July 4th weekend celebration.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University