Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 list of victories for the environment

Since we’re approaching the end of 2007, I thought I’d take a minute to highlight some environmental victories:

  • Official protection for Puerto Rican Coastline -- On October 4, Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila signed an executive order to establish a 3,240-acre natural reserve that will effectively protect all of the lands in the corridor.
  • Congress passes landmark Energy Bill -- Congress gave America a big holiday gift in the form of an energy bill that included increased fuel economy standards, a massive increase in the production of homegrown biofuels, programs to train workers for 3 million green jobs over the next ten years, dramatic increases to the efficiency of our buildings and appliances, and more.
  • Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency -- The Sierra Club won a landmark Supreme Court ruling stating that the EPA has the power to and must regulate carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels as a pollutant.
For a complete list 2007 Sierra Club Victories, click here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin Named Time's Person of the Year

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2007. This honor was bestowed upon Putin even though many, in Russia and the United States, feel that he has done little to further human rights in Russia, and has perhaps even diminished these rights.

Some Russians see this honor as acknowledging the role Putin has played in “helping to pull Russia out of the economic and social troubles of the 1990s”. In fact, it is reported that Russia’s economy grew “an average of 7 percent yearly for the past half-decade and that Moscow had repaid a foreign debt of nearly $200 billion.”

While reporting these economic successes, the magazine also acknowledges Putin’s “curtailment of democratic freedoms”. Similarly, opposition leaders in Russia “agreed Putin had been a newsmaker but accused him of oppressing rival political parties, rigging the recent State Duma elections and ignoring the needs of ordinary people.” Some in Russia have gone so far to claim that “antihero of the year” would be a more fitting title, and that the economic growth can be directly attributed to the rise in oil prices and such growth would have resulted with or without Putin.

Time defends its selection of Putin by claiming that this honor is only recognition of the fact that Putin had made the biggest impact on world events in 2007 and is not an endorsement of anything Putin has done. Unfortunately, allies of Putin are using this as support for the President, and state controlled television in Russia is only broadcasting the positives written about Putin in the article.

Although Time cannot in any way be held responsible for the use of the award by the Russian government and its supporters, the choice still seems rather questionable. In a year when a person such as Al Gore, a runner up for this award, has tried to positively affect the world and make others aware of the environment, it would seem that there may have been available choices that had similar impact on world events. Instead of choosing an individual who has done little in the way of advancing human rights in his country, and who now has further support for his “effective” leadership style, it appears that a better choice may have been an individual who has not done such damage to the advancement of these rights.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Addendum to Carnivore Politics: The Question of Seafood

While writing about meat-eating and some of its associated implications, it didn’t occur to me that in addition to beef, pork, and poultry, I should consider seafood as well. For me, it’s often easier to overlook the ethical issues that are associated with seafood, probably due to a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” I don’t live in an area that produces it, and my closest connection to squid and shrimp (two of my favorites) is when I purchase them at the grocery store or order them at the restaurant. Nevertheless, it’s just as important to understand what we are eating when we consume seafood, and it’s even possible to draw parallels between mass-produced seafood and their land-based cousins.

The New York Times provides an excellent example of this in an entry for their current series on China’s “epic pollution crisis” (series overview here). David Barboza focuses on the southern coastal city of Fuqing, which has become a major domestic and international source for farmed fish, including crab, shrimp, and eel. As he argues, Fuqing is part of the aquaculture system that has made China a “seafood power” since the 1990s, but their farming methods come with a high environmental and public health cost:

“Government records document the environmental ills in the region. The nearby Dongzhang Reservoir, a water source for agriculture and more than 700,000 people, was recently rated level 5, near the bottom of the government scale, unfit for fish farming, swimming or even contact with the human body.

“The Long River, the major waterway in Fuqing, has been degraded by waste dumped by paper factories and slaughterhouses. The government this year rated large sections of the river below level 5, or so highly polluted that it is unfit for any use. And nearby coastal waters which are also heavily fish farmed are polluted with oil, lead, mercury and copper, according to the State Environmental Protection Administration in China.”

Barboza notes that while “industrial waste and agricultural runoff” are responsible for the polluted water supplies upon which aquaculture farmers rely, “[t]he fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.” Moreover, the farmers have resorted to treating fish supplies with a variety of chemicals and antibiotics that are not only illegal, but also include carcinogens and other human health hazards. Consequently, the U.S. has rejected over forty seafood shipments from Fuqing this year, all of which “involved the use of illegal veterinary drugs.”

As I read about this, I noticed that what Barboza was describing bore striking similarities to U.S. factory farming. Both factory farms and Fuqing’s aquaculture farms are attempting to defy nature by packing a high concentration of animals into confined spaces while keeping them fit for human consumption. Both negatively affect (and are negatively affected) from their surrounding environments, especially with regard to waste disposal and access to uncontaminated water sources. Both face high risks of disease outbreaks among their stock due to confinement, and both rely upon the use of chemicals and supplements as a primary response method. Finally, because of the above practices, both place human consumers at a greater risk than we should tolerate.

The irony of aquaculture farming is that it’s theoretically supposed to counterbalance the quite serious problem of overfishing, which has depleted numerous species and upset delicately balanced ecosystems worldwide. Yet if farmed seafood can be unsafe for consumption and results in environmental damage, how do we proceed in determining what types of seafood to purchase? The best resource I have found is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which includes a seafood guide for consumers. The guide is particularly helpful because it not only classifies popular edible seafood into three categories (Best, Good and Avoid, with corresponding green, yellow, and red signifiers), but also briefly explains the harvesting methods for particular species and why it does or doesn’t make a good choice based on environmental and marine factors. (Unsurprisingly, they aren’t too keen about the harvesting of sea turtles.)

As I wrote in my previous entry, we’re not always going to make the ethical and/or sustainable choice that we probably should. Following the Seafood Watch recommendations definitely requires some adjustments, especially since some popular types of seafood—Atlantic cod, farmed shrimp and salmon, and certain types of halibut and flounder—have Avoid warnings. The good news is that there are plenty of environmentally sound and personally safe choices on their list, and, thanks to federal law, we can also determine the source of unprocessed seafood at the store, as well as whether it has been farmed or wild-caught. Keeping these two things in mind provides us with a basic awareness of what we eat when we eat seafood.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Private Medicare Health Plans and Unscrupulous Practices

The New York Times has an article today discussing a disturbing trend practiced by some unscrupulous insurance salespersons. According to the article, some salespersons are misrepresenting and “hard-selling” their product in order to have elderly men and women unwittingly sign up for private Medicare health plans.

In order to prevent such tactics, the Bush administration has taken steps such as fining companies, issuing warnings to companies and using “secret shoppers” at some sales events hosted by these companies. According to the acting administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, such steps have reduced the number of reported issues; however, the New York Times, based on interviews conducted in Mississippi and Alabama, concludes that the problem still exists at a higher level than the government is acknowledging. Studies by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee Commission appear to confirm the conclusions reached by the New York Times.

Enrollment in these private plans has increased by more than 8.9 million subscribers from December, 2005 to November, 2007. For sales of these plans, each agent receives anywhere from $350.00 to $600.00 in commission, providing incentive to push these programs.

Aside from being elderly, the main targets of the salespersons appear to fall into the low-income category. As stated in the article, “Most people who sign up for private Medicare plans are locked in for a full year, but many low-income beneficiaries are allowed to switch plans each month.” As these low-income beneficiaries can switch their plans more easily, the salespersons do not have to necessarily wait an entire year in order to sell their product.

The idea of taking advantage of the elderly who, as the New York Times states, “just have a hard time saying no” is rather disturbing. Add to this the fact that many of those targeted are low-income beneficiaries, and the practice is even more problematic. Many of those approached need no additional insurance, but the article states that the salespersons disregard this fact and continue to push. Even if those approached do desire additional insurance, the misrepresentations made by the salespersons do not allow the person to make an informed decision. Such practices by these few salespersons may also cast a bad shadow over all insurance salespersons in the eyes of those affected, preventing those who desire additional insurance from knowing whom to trust and what to believe.

It is admirable that the government is taking steps to try to prevent these practices. However, it is naïve to think that the government, through mere threats or fines, will be able to completely eliminate these practices. This fact is evidenced by the interviews conducted by the New York Times and the studies performed by the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee Commission. It would seem that the insurance companies themselves would need to create more stringent policies and possibly reduce the commissions for sales of these types of private Medicare health plans. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such steps will be taken.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Carnivore Politics (Part III): Final Thoughts

--CHOW has an interesting analysis of the Bill Buford essay for the New Yorker that I discussed in my first post for this series. Miriam Wolf argues that Buford’s three subjects—Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Martin Picard, and Stéphane Reynaud—“reflect the three streams of thought that have led to the re-adoption of meat as our most treasured foodstuff.” In her view, Fearnley-Whittingstall represents the “sustainable farming” movement that Michael Pollan promotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Picard is part of the meat-for-meat’s-sake crowd that isn’t really concerned with ethical implications; and Reynaud espouses a “slow-food” approach that originated in Europe and is becoming more popular in the United States.

I think Wolf is generally correct in her interpretation, but it’s important to remember that these “three streams of thought” she identifies aren’t inherently separate. For example, Pollan’s arguments for a more sustainable mode of eating are favorable toward the Slow Food movement; there’s actually a fair amount of common ground between the two, especially on emphasizing the benefits of local livestock and produce sources. (He also partnered with slow-food adherents for this fundraiser last year.) Also, Wolf obscures the fact that Picard and like-minded unrepentant meat lovers still express ethical considerations about where their meat originates, even if they don’t directly voice those considerations. As I wrote in the first post, the fact that “Picard relies on local suppliers for his Montreal restaurant and ‘rarely offers beef in his restaurant, because he has yet to find a producer he trusts’ ” is telling. Picard relies on local suppliers for his Montreal restaurant and “rarely offers beef in his restaurant, because he has yet to find a producer he trusts” It is highly ethical even if his primary concern is simply whether his beef sources are “good” or “not good.”

--I’ve mentioned Michael Pollan and his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma repeatedly in this blog, and there’s a good reason for that; it's become one of the most important books on food this decade due to Pollan’s crack research (particularly on how large a role corn plays in the American diet) and his willingness to ask tough questions about what’s on our dinner plate and how it got there. It has inspired plenty of praise as well as some inspired criticism, leading to larger debates about food production, including what organic food really means. And Pollan already has a sequel of sorts that is due for release early next month.

--A final point: When it comes to purchasing and consuming our meat from ethical, sustainable sources, it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to be completely consistent on our decisions. Heaven knows I do a pretty poor job overall, and even though I’ve made some changes that I’d like to think are for the better (buying organic free-range eggs and vegetarian-fed beef, for example), I doubt that they’re even that adequate. With that said, awareness is a necessary first step, and if we make the effort to figure out the source of our meat and what it does and doesn’t contain, then that alone is huge.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bali Climate Change Conference Ends With A Deal

It seems that an agreement has been reached at the Bali Climate Conference. The United States had originally rejected the compromise, but ultimately accepted. The pact provides for negotiating rounds until 2009. The Conference was scheduled to end yesterday, but was extended a day because no deal had been struck.

It appears that the United States wasn’t in a position to leave without signing. I think that the United States realized what leaving without an agreement would do to their image. If nothing was decided it would be a black-eye for Americans, so they decided to cave in and continue to make “energy intensity” reductions.

Two interesting quotes from Reuters:

"The U.S. has been humbled by the overwhelming message by developing countries that they are ready to be engaged with the problem, and it's been humiliated by the world community. I've never seen such a flip-flop in an environmental treaty context ever," said Bill Hare of Greenpeace."

"At the end of the day, we got an extremely weak agreement," said Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Science and the Environment in New Delhi. "It's obvious the U.S. is not learning to be alive to world opinion."

Friday, December 14, 2007

U.S. Senate Approves Scaled Back Energy Bill

The U.S. Senate passed the amended Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 (H.R. 6) yesterday evening, 86-6. The House of Representatives is set to approve the bill next week.

The energy bill will help reduce America’s oil dependency and will be an critical step in reducing global warming pollution. However, according to Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, the bill does not close $13 billion worth of tax loopholes and subsidies for the oil industry and reinvest the money in clean and renewable energy technologies. On Thursday morning, 40 senators lined up behind big oil companies, instead of American families. Oil companies have contributed $8 million to senators over the past four years.

Democrats noted disappointment at the demise of the tax package and the removal of a renewable electricity standard but said the final bill is still a historic achievement.

The centerpiece of the final bill is language requiring a 40 percent increase in vehicle fuel economy standards, raising the average fleet standard to 35 miles a gallon by 2020.

The provision, which drew reluctant support from the U.S. auto industry, is expected to save 1.1 million barrels of oil a day and save consumers some $22 billion in 2020. Proponents say it will also make a significant dent in U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, equivalent to taking some 60 million cars off the road.

Although is not the bill that environmentalist had hoped for, it at least shows effort on the part of the United States in the fight against global warming.

President Bush had threatened to veto the bill over the tax package.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Charity Through the Internet

Starting this afternoon (3:00 P.M. on 12/13/2007), a “new” concept will be tested to determine the role of the Internet in aiding charitable causes. The Case Foundation is sponsoring a contest which will award two prizes, one of $500,000 and one of $250,000, to people who enter either via Parade Magazine or through the Causes section of Facebook. According to the sponsors of the contest, “[t]he prizes will go to the charities and causes that attract the greatest numbers of unique donors, rather than the one that raises the most money.”

According to Jean Case, co-founder of the Case Foundation, the purpose of such a contest is to endorse the belief that“[p]hilanthropy shouldn’t be defined as a bunch of rich people writing big checks”. Instead, such a contest hopes to encourages and demonstrate how a large number of smaller donations can be just as effective as a single large donation. Along with the Case Foundation, it appears that Facebook is seeking to send a similar message, as evidenced by the following description obtained from their “About” section:

“The goal of all this is what we call ‘equal opportunity activism.’ We're trying to level the playing field by empowering individuals to change the world. Existing nonprofits must raise hundreds of millions of dollars and leverage massive direct marketing campaigns to attract members. We're democratizing activism by empowering activists with an arsenal of tools for users of Facebook who want to leverage their network on Facebook to effect positive change.”

The Case Foundation and Facebook appear to be seeking the most beneficial way to further charitable endeavors through the use of the Internet. Aside from this contest, the Chase Foundation is supporting, aimed at getting youths involved in their community and charitable causes. Facebook’s efforts have raised what some call “modest” amounts; but even the $52,240.00 raised for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the top cause on the site, would seem to amount to much more than what any of these users alone would contribute.

Targeting Facebook and other social networking sites, as well as cooperating with companies such as MTV, would certainly seem to, at the least, make these opportunities known to a previously untapped audience and get this audience to think about their participation in charitable causes. The Internet is already being successfully used for the purposes of acquiring signatures on petitions; this success seems to stem from the fact that the Internet creates greater awareness and ease of participation. It would seem that other charitable causes could just as easily take advantage of these same benefits the Internet provides. If organizations such as the Chase Foundation can promote their causes through the use of the Internet as effectively as proponents of these petitions have, they will have an excellent opportunity to make people aware of this “equal opportunity activism” and demonstrate how even small donations can be effective. If such effective use can be implemented by these organizations, it is believed that these projects will encourage participation and will be successful, leading to greater participation in charitable endeavors.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Carnivore Politics (Part II): Reconsidering Veganism

When I was seventeen, my family went on vacation to the Cayman Islands, which I, as someone from rural Indiana, found to be an incredible area—clear blue water, good restaurants, and agreeable weather (this being a period without hurricane threats). Our activities included a trip to the Cayman Turtle Farm, and I loved having the opportunity to witness such a large concentration of sea turtles up close. Then I noticed the farm’s small indoor snack bar, with a sign in front of the door advertising that day’s special: “TURTLE SOUP.” Having naively failed to yet notice the clear implication of the word “farm,” I felt ashamed, and almost immediately asked myself a question that is common for teenagers becoming conscious of their diets: should I become a vegetarian? I had made the connection between the turtles—sixty percent of which the farm raises for food—and the snack bar, and wondered if my love for meat was wrong.

It didn’t take long for me to move past my ethical dilemma at the sea turtle farm, and I continued to regularly consume meat. If anything, I think I’m guilty of being overly defensive about being a carnivore/omnivore. I have vegetarian friends, and think it’s admirable that they’re able to make such a commitment to their diets. Yet my attitude has largely been along the lines of “Why would you want to do that?”—as if my own self-reflection in the Caymans was simply a youthful and silly matter. Things become even worse with regard to vegans, because I often conveniently resort to negative stereotypes as a means of safeguarding my own eating habits. It’s often been easier to espouse an attitude of “look at those crazy vegans!” rather than seriously consider the validity of their claims. Even when I read Michael Pollan’s respectful critique of veganism and its sustainability in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (you can get the general idea here), my own reaction was less gracious; it was as if I’d found a personal apologetic for eating chicken and pork. Besides, how can vegan food be consistently good anyway without the benefit of so many ingredients?

That last one is a stickler for me and for many others who aren’t vegan. No meat is one thing, but cutting out meat, dairy and trace animal-based ingredients (such as gelatin) is quite difficult, especially in the Midwest. I don’t tend to handle dairy very well, and many of the dairy substitutes I’ve tried have been disappointing; rice and soy milk are okay, but nothing seems to match the richness of real butter and cheese. I “cheat” every so often, but vegans don’t really have that option, and it leads to the question of how they approach certain types and categories of food. This is especially true for dessert, where milk, cream, and butter are traditional fixtures.

Enter Patty Cake Vegan Bakery. I became more curious about vegan cookies earlier this year after stumbling across a couple of bakery websites that offered several different varieties available for online ordering. Patty Cake was another accidental find, and, looking for an excuse to go to Columbus, my girlfriend and I first went there in October. She voiced the question that we both had on our minds—would this be good for being vegan? We collective purchased several cookies, buckeye bars, and whoopee pies, and took them home for the test.

Oh. My. Word.

Any of their cookies are just as good as their well-made and non-vegan counterparts, and two kinds in particular—the molasses crinkle (which is probably oil-based regardless of dietary concerns) and peanut butter chocolate chip—are easily among the best cookies I’ve ever put in my mouth. The buckeye bars and whoopee pies are equally excellent. On a recent return trip, my girlfriend bought two different types of cupcakes, and one bite of the first one (chocolate with chocolate icing) left her raving. I merely had what was arguably the best sticky bun of my life. Patty Cake single-handedly refutes the notion that vegan food can’t taste good; I can honestly say that I’m more willing to make the two-and-a-half hour round trip to buy their products than to search for something similar that’s closer to Dayton.

Yet Patty Cake also reminds me of how I’ve been wrong in my attitudes. Their employees are friendly, and though they’ve asked me if I’m vegan, it’s simply out of curiosity. (Another dumb assumption on my part—what else should I expect?) In a consumer society that encourages a “fast and cheap” approach to food, they offer the best kind of counter-example—an ethical business (organic ingredients, sustainable practices) that sticks to its convictions while selling superior product to believers and (initial) skeptics alike. This approach is educative to those of us who use and consume animal products. Even if we disagree with certain core tenets of veganism, it’s important to consider not only the merits of the “cruelty-free” paradigm, but also that adopting such a philosophy doesn’t mean having to sacrifice as we think it might. On a personal level, it additionally means that I need to more fully develop a critical awareness of how I view the food options of others, especially if those options are attempts to circumvent our unhealthy attitudes towards food.

Good cookies with a lesson? It’s hard to argue with that.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Human Rights Day 2007

Today is Human Rights Day, marking the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The theme for the coming year is “Dignity and justice for all of us”, which is meant to reinforce the idea of “vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a commitment to universal dignity and justice.” In a ceremony today Ban Ki-moon, General Secretary of the United Nations, has promised that the coming year “would see all UN bodies taking part in a campaign ‘to promote the declaration's ideals and principles of justice and equality for everyone’.”

The UDHR itself is a “commitment to universal dignity and justice”, with a goal of ensuring the protection of human rights through the education of what human rights entail. In order to spread knowledge on the subject of human rights, the UDHR “is now available in over 360 languages and is the most translated document in the world – a testament to its universal nature and reach.” According to Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UDHR is “not a product of Western cultural values but a ‘composite synthesis’ of views derived from many backgrounds, regions and legal traditions.”

Human Rights day has set the stage for statements by several activist groups regarding the violation of human rights. In France, the government was criticized “for hosting a state visit by Libyan leader Muammar Kadhafi on the same day as the anniversary.” In China, Reporters Without Borders has complained that they had been banned from entering mainland China. In Russia, activists have used the day to bring forth accusations of human rights violations by President Vladimir Putin.

As Louise Arbour states, it is hard to “accept [that] there's any culture, religion or tradition that should supersede the fundamental principle that all human beings are born equal”. It is hoped that the continued work of the United Nations will ensure that all people are one day soon treated equally with equal rights; as the United Nations and all member nations work towards this goal, it is important that activist groups continue to report human rights violations, keeping people aware of, and fighting against, these transgressions not just on Human Rights Day, but throughout the entire year.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Carnivore Politics (Part I): “What Do We Eat When We Eat Meat?”

In an essay for the New Yorker, Bill Buford discusses three recent books with different authors—“a farmer, a chef, and a pig-slaughtering, bacon-loving descendant of butchers”—that “are remarkably alike in their gleeful chauvinism about being carnivores.” He remarks that this collective attitude towards meat-eating perhaps signifies that “it’s finally cool to be a carnivore” after vegetarianism and veganism have become increasingly attractive from an ethical standpoint. At first, this redemption of meat-eating seems somewhat improbable. Buford’s brief rundown of the meat industry’s remarkably unhealthy and destructive practices (rampant hormone use, toxins, and environmental degradation) are just highlights of what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have documented through their research. Moreover, Schlosser notes that until we are willing to accept higher food prices, cheap industrial meat in particular will result in a terrible long-term health cost.

In light of these realities, the above-mentioned unrepentant carnivores—British farmer and food celebrity Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, French-Canadian chef Martin Picard, and French butcher Stéphane Reynaud—do two important things in their respective books. The first is that they acknowledge (either overtly or implicitly) how, as Buford writes of Reynaud, “we’re losing our connection to our animals.” Although Pollan does an excellent job of tracing the farmyard-to-plate pathway for beef and chicken in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it safe to assume that many of us (myself included) either don’t know or properly consider the origins and production methods of the meat we consume. Buford finds that for Fearnley-Whittingstall, this requires a stark reminder that we are eating an animal:

“For all the disarray, there is a coherent ideology [to Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book]. It is evident in the opening pages, an eleven-photograph sequence that shows the author taking two cows to slaughter…There is little accompanying text, apart from a rhetorical aside: Why is it considered entertainment when a predator kills another animal in a wild-life film, Fearnley-Whittingstall wonders, ‘whereas the final moments of human predation of our farmed livestock are considered too disturbing and shameful to be made available even for information.’ The reader understands the point. Meat comes from an animal—a banal connection that has been obscured by the way supermarkets prepare and present our food—and the animal has to be killed. If you fear the sight of a carcass, you shouldn’t be eating from it.”

And this last point is what Buford intends as an answer to his essay’s subtitle (“What do we eat when we eat meat?”). My own recent personal reminder came the week before Thanksgiving, when I was preparing to roast a turkey for the first time. Wrestling to rinse the fifteen-pound bird and properly arrange it in the roasting pan, it struck me that I was handling what had once been a living, free-ranging animal—a fact that often escapes me, even though I eat meat on a daily basis.

This leads to a second element that Buford’s subjects argue is equally important: “What do we eat when we eat meat?” also means “What quality is the animal which we are eating?” Fearnley-Whittingstall completely distrusts mass-produced meat and raises his own animals; Picard relies on local suppliers for his Montreal restaurant and “rarely offers beef in his restaurant, because he has yet to find a producer he trusts”; and Reynaud insists that it’s impossible to “ ‘get good hams from good pigs,’ ” with “good” meaning naturally raised and slowly tended swine. Again, this is something that is easier to overlook if our meat is coming from, say, Wal-Mart (which is where I bought my hamburger patties in college) as opposed to a local farm or a company like Niman Ranch. Fortunately, all-natural meat often sells itself on taste alone if we’re willing to try it; the experiences of eating Niman Ranch ham or the Trader Joe’s turkey that I roasted have been compelling. When combined with its ethical advantages, good meat becomes worth its extra price tag, and not only brings us closer to the animals from which it came, but also moves us away from a system of production that blinds and harms us.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

ABA announces top 100 blawgs

The December 2007 issue of the ABA Journal has named the top 100 law blogs, a.k.a. blawgs, from around the country. While notabibliothecae wasn’t honored with a nod this year, keep an eye out for us next year! Click here to see the full list. The top 100 is a nice list of blogs that give advice, cover legal news, and share ideal chitchat.

Friday, December 7, 2007

University of Dayton will offer human rights degree

The University of Dayton’s (UD) board of trustees recently approved one of the nation’s first bachelor’s degrees in human rights studies. The degree will prepare students for careers as human rights advocates and humanitarians as well as law school or other advanced degrees.

As part of the degree, students will be required to be proficient in a foreign language, complete an internship and take a course in research methodology.

Christopher Duncan, chair of the political science department at UD said, “Human rights have become the language in the political and international community for talking about social justice and morality. Students interested in social justice and issues of peace and peacemaking have gravitated toward human rights. This degree captures the mission of a Catholic, Marianist university. It prepares students for professional careers as leaders in service to others.

UD, one of the nation's preeminent Catholic universities, is a pioneer in human rights education. In 1998, UD launched the country's first undergraduate human rights program that included both an international studies degree with a concentration in human rights and a minor in human rights.

College students are facing a world wrestling with poverty, terrorism, genocide and torture. There are no simple answers. By providing a degree in human rights, UD is arming the leaders of tomorrow with the tools they need to face humanitarian challenges, and hopefully bring peace.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Chiquita, Terrorism, and Blood Bananas

My familiarity with Corporate Counsel doesn’t extend beyond the title, but their latest issue features an informative and comprehensive account of Chiquita’s financial ties to Colombian terrorism. In March, Chiquita pleaded guilty in federal court to paying $1.7 million to Autodefensas Unidas de Columbia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group specializing in kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder. As Human Rights Watch has documented, AUC’s terrorism against civilians included a January 17, 2001 attack in the village of Chengue, where they bludgeoned twenty-four men to death with stones and sledgehammers. This obviously begs the question of how and why Chiquita became involved with AUC in the first place. Corporate Counsel’s Sue Reisinger explains:

“According to court records, Chiquita's Colombian subsidiary, Banadex S.A., first began funding the group in 1997 after receiving veiled threats directed at its property and employees. (Before that, Banadex paid the left-wing terrorists who had controlled the region.) Chiquita sent money to the AUC roughly each month ‘to protect the employees and property of Banadex,’ court records say. Payments were always disguised as either a check to a third party who passed the money to the AUC, or as income to a Banadex employee who paid the AUC in cash.

“[Former Chiquita general counsel Robert] Olson was aware of the AUC's true nature…Whether to pay them was strictly an ethical question, because at that time it was not yet a crime in the United States or Colombia to give money to terrorist groups. Olson and the in-house attorney reported the study's results to the audit committee of Chiquita's board of directors. The lawyers' report concluded that making the payments was extortion and ‘not a voluntary decision,’ the records say. However, the directors decided to continue the payments” (emphasis mine).

This last sentence offers the crux of the matter. Chiquita had already established an unethical pattern of paying off terrorists before AUC threatened its Columbian holdings, thus apparently making it easier to justify paying AUC, even though Olson determined that such an action would be extortion. Yet Resinger notes that Olson and Chiquita executives chose to continue payments after the AUC made it onto the federal “foreign terrorist organization” list (making the payments illegal); after the company learned that what they were doing was illegal; and even after outside counsel urged them to stop. When repeatedly faced with the opportunity to end their financial relationship with AUC, they only stopped after being served federal warrants in March 2004.

As part of a plea agreement, Chiquita has agreed to pay a $25 million dollar fine. This is certainly a significant amount, but we should also consider that from September 10, 2001 (when the US officially recognized AUC as a terrorist group) until payments ceased in 2004, they made nearly $50 million from their Columbian holdings. In short, part of Chiquita’s business was blood bananas, and business was ultimately good. Consequently, while the company found itself in a difficult position, I have a hard time accepting current general counsel James Thompson’s argument that it ultimately made the “morally right” decision. As Reisinger writes near the end of her article:

“Professor Deborah Rhode, head of Stanford Law School's Keck Center on Legal Ethics and the Legal Profession and founding director of Stanford's Center on Ethics, doesn't condone what Chiquita did-but she acknowledges that Olson was faced with a difficult decision. ‘This is a really hard place for a general counsel who wants to do the right thing,’ Rhode says. Yet Rhode believes Chiquita's actions, however well-intentioned, were wrong because the AUC used the money to buy weapons that killed innocent people.”

When Chiquita generates profit from transactions that lead to murder, morality has flown out the window.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Non-citizens and Voter Registration

The Chicago Tribune offers a story today talking about the plight of Beth Keathley. According to the article, Ms. Keathley was in the process of becoming a permanent legal U.S. citizen, having already been issued a Social Security card and a state identification card, when she made the “mistake” of voting in a U.S. election. Due to this “mistake”, Ms. Keathley has apparently lost her job, and her citizenship application may now be in question which could lead to her eventual deportation.

According to U.S. law, non-citizens are not permitted to vote in U.S. elections. The crime committed by Ms. Keathley is one that apparently “trips up hundreds of immigrants each year”. What causes this issue in many instances, and aided in the mistake made in this case, is the ease in registering to vote. Voter registration locations are available in a wide variety of locations, encouraging people to participate in the election process.

However, it seems that state officials are “prohibited by federal law from seeking confirmation of citizenship before registering people to vote.” Although Ms. Keathley presented her Filipino passport at the time of registering, it seems that nobody either attempted to ascertain whether she was a legal citizen or advised her of potential ramifications of her voting illegally. In defense of their position in matters such as this, “federal officials say the question on the registration form that asks applicants to affirm they are citizens is clear enough.” However in this case, and presumably a number of others, “[s]he figured that if a state employee offered her the opportunity to register, it must be all right.” The federal government's position further loses support by the fact that many registrants leave this citizenship question blank and are still issued voter registration cards.

I believe the issue here, and in many similar cases, is neither the ease of access to voter registration nor the law preventing non-citizens from voting; instead, it would seem that there is a flaw in how the registration is performed. This case seems especially difficult to understand as a Filipino passport was presented as proof of identification for registration purposes. However, due to a federal law, the person assisting Ms. Keathley apparently had no choice but allow her to register, assuming she fully understood the application and that she could possibly be deported for improperly voting. As stated in the article, she relied on the fact that somebody, a state employee, had allowed her to register; for many, it would seem that the acts and/or words of such an individual would override any wording written on an application.

It is understandable that the government is attempting to prevent voter fraud, and as such “they have to enforce the laws”, but this case, and presumably many others, are simple cases of people not fully understanding their rights and relying on persons in authority positions to clarify these rights. A simple question of whether the person is a U.S. citizen – a question now forbidden to be asked under federal law – would seem to end any confusion and such problems with people who make honest mistakes. Such questions would seem especially appropriate when the person registering presents a foreign ID to the government official at the time of registration.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

“To Read or Not to Read”: America Chooses the Latter

Several media outlets have noted the National Endowment for the Arts’ new report on national reading habits, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.” As its title belies, the report offers a grim set of statistics and correlations that collectively indicate declines in both average time spent reading for pleasure and reading proficiency. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jennifer Howard notes some of the more damning indicators:

“…Just how reading-averse have Americans become? In 2006, the study found, 15-to-24-year-olds spent just seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays— 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. They found time to watch two to two-and-a-half hours of television daily.
“Older and presumably wiser— or at least more bookish— generations didn't do much better. In 2006 people ages 35 to 44 devoted only 12 minutes a day to reading. Even the best-read group, Americans 65 and older, logged less than an hour each weekday and just over an hour on weekends.”

Considering that average reading scores among elementary school children have increased, NEA chairman Dana Gioia argues in the report’s preface that “all [measurable] progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years,” leading to a “general decline” among teenagers and adults. The report goes on to suggest how reading skills relate to employment and civic participation, as the Washington Post’s Bob Thompson writes:

“Thirty-eight percent of employers rate high school graduates as "deficient" in reading comprehension, while 72 percent rate them deficient in writing. Good reading skills correlate strongly with higher earnings and more job opportunities. Reading skills also correlate with increased voting, volunteerism, charity work, attendance at cultural events and even exercising and playing sports.”

What should we make of the NEA’s findings? First, it’s important to note that while “To Read or Not to Read” accounts for online reading, Gioia has admitted that the methodologies to track specific data about online reading habits isn’t yet reliable. This is significant, for it’s possible to imagine a slightly more positive set of statistics based upon Americans teenagers and adults doing more of their reading from Internet sources. (Both Thompson and the New York Times’ Mokoto Rich cite critics of the report that argue along these lines.) Conversely, the Internet could be a culprit as well, and Gioia doesn’t dismiss this idea; while he argues that the report “is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture,” he claims in the preceding sentence that “newer electronic media…provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” Howard also includes his comment during a news conference about the report that it’s easy to “become distracted as a society,” leaving little doubt of what he views as the distractions.

I admit that I’m biased, but I think he has a point. The report’s claim that reading “competes with other media” (page 9) is a perfect description of how profoundly our media culture has changed in the past decade, let alone over the past few decades; books have simply become one option among many during our leisure time. What would be helpful is to see a future study that, assuming the development of better methodologies, examines both how we read online and how what we read online relates to proficiency—especially given that online access will only be increasing in the near future. This notwithstanding, it’s reasonable to take “To Read or Not to Read” at its word and immediately focus on how we can reverse the downward turn in reading and its negative consequences.