Category Archives: Education

The “choice” to eat meat, dairy, & eggs: Forcing children to be vegan (part 1)

crossroads-997123_1280Eating meat, dairy, & eggs is status quo. Virtually all of us grow up eating some version of an omnivorous diet. Animal products are so easily accessible that they’re taken for granted, even difficult to avoid. Living in a society – actually, a world – in which consuming animal products is well-accepted, nay advocated for, means that people who adopt a vegan lifestyle are total outsiders, on the less-trodden trail. But nothing happens in a vacuum, right? So, what happens when these vegans interact with society-at-large? In this multi-part series, I want to take a look at what goes into our choices around food. Are our choices what we think they are? Do we really have a choice at all?

A common accusation levied against vegan parents is that they force their children to be vegan. The underlying assumption is that children have the right to make that choice for themselves. I’m always amazed, and a little infuriated, at how little thought process goes into this accusation. I guarantee you not a single person who has ever accused a vegan of forcing their children to be vegan has asked their own children whether they want to eat animal products or not. More often, and I’ve seen this first-hand too many times, people try to make kids eat animals products even when they don’t want to. Not out of some desire to inflict pain & suffering, but for the same reasons that vegans don’t give their children the very same products. The desire to do what’s best for the child.

The problem here is obvious – those people who believe vegans shouldn’t “force” their children to adopt a vegan lifestyle, at the same time forcing their children to eat & drink animal products, don’t understand/haven’t yet learned that veganism is the best possible choice, ethically, sustainability-wise, and in terms of their children’s long-term health. They’re thinking of veganism in the negative – those poor kids are being denied the simple pleasures in life – a life without cream- and egg-filled desserts isn’t worth living – it’s some ascetic nightmare. How could you force that on your children? And many people still believe that it’s more difficult for vegans to get enough protein & calcium, so they worry about vegan children. It’s totally valid to have those concerns – but they must be taught (and willing to learn!) the truth. What is the truth? Vegans eat dessert. And vegans get plenty of protein & calcium.

conventionThey don’t understand (yet, hopefully) that the situation is quite the opposite of what they think – they’re forcing their children to consume animal products, which is devastating to their own health and is a major contributor to that clear and present danger: climate change, never mind causing slaughterhouse workers psychological problems like PTSD, and animals untold amounts of suffering. Why force that on your children? It’s past time to rethink how we understand our choices when it comes to food. Blindly following alimentary norms is not a choice at all. It is the absence of choice.

Another way in which I take issue with the accusation that vegan parents are “forcing” their children to be vegan is that all parents force their children to do certain things (e.g., clean their room) and behave in certain ways (e.g., discuss problems rather than throwing a temper tantrum). Why? As parents, we have a responsibility to do the best we know how for our children in order to prepare them for their future in this world, which includes being a member of society who knows how to make decisions that are in line with their ethics, to seek out new information to use in making those decisions, and to be a member of this global population that is capable of leaving the world a better place than they found it. But that also means first informing ourselves of how to do those things. To stop eating animal products is one of the single most effective things we can do for sustainability, and our health.

crossing-801713_640Vegans would be seriously remiss in their duties if they didn’t teach their children that! Imagine not teaching your children to look both ways before they cross the street. That’s what it would feel like for a vegan not to teach their children that it’s harmful to consume animal products. For me personally, every time I see a child eating a sausage, it’s like watching that child smoke a cigarette – because it’s the same in terms of cancer risk! And that is the reason we try to keep children away from cigarettes, is it not? So then why give them sausages?? Now that we know how carcinogenic they are, we have a responsibility to accept that we need to change our behavior. But it even goes beyond that.

hand-644145_640Now that we know how devastating animal agriculture is for the environment, we have a responsibility to our children, for the sake of their own future survival on this planet, to teach them how to save it. Since we’ve done such an abysmal job of saving it ourselves, the least we can do is pass on a little bit of knowledge before making them responsible for cleaning up the titanic mess we’ve managed to create in just a few ignorance-filled generations – if, that is, it isn’t already too late. And that is why this issue is so important. We have got to turn this boat around. Urgently.

Raising environmentally and socially conscious vegan children is an excellent way to do that.

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Is veganism unnatural? What we can learn from children.

goat-1137852_640Sometimes unlearning is as important as learning. It is for this reason adults can benefit so much from listening to children, and from keeping in touch with our own childhood instincts.

How many children have the experience of realizing where “meat” comes from, and feeling horrified? (I know I did!) How many parents have had that conversation with your own kids? What did you tell them? What was said to you when you had that experience as a child?

We teach our children that what they’re feeling is unjustified, and we tell them what was told to us, which is that it’s natural & necessary for us to kill animals for food. How natural can it possibly be if we have to convince kids of it? What, then, does ‘natural’ mean? We tell them they have to grow up & toughen up, obstructing their natural instinct to be compassionate. I initially ended that sentence with “…compassionate toward all animals” but then I realized that might give you the impression that it only impedes compassion toward all animals, when, in fact, it impedes compassion, period. Many adults no longer have the emotional connection that would allow them to feel pain on behalf of animals – to care about their suffering. This emotional connection is called empathy, and it must be lost in order to be seen as a “mature” person. (This is probably part of why vegans are so commonly ridiculed.) Often, the first place that children are taught not to practice empathy is in their food choices.

Do you not find it incredibly bizarre that one of the first signs of psychopathy in children and the possibility of future violence toward other humans is cruelty toward animals, but at the same time we actively and passively teach children that killing and dismembering animals is okay, as long as it’s only certain animals, and only for food – oh, no, wait – for sport, too. What’s the difference between the “psychopathic” child’s and the “normal” adult’s behavior? Tell me again, I forgot.

Have you ever had to convince a (mentally stable) child that they should care about animals? Of course not! Even the vast majority of adults care about animals in general. The difference is that young children still see all animals as they are – equal, while adults have been socially conditioned to accept the disconnect between caring about and eating animals. See, humans are really good at categorizing. We learn to categorize animals into emotional/intelligent/pet and senseless/stupid/beast, allowing us to treat the 2 categories differently. longhorn-cattle-754741_640What we need to unlearn is this categorization, and what we need to learn from the instincts of children is that the ability to experience pain and suffering and loss is the same for a cow and a dog and a pig and an elephant and a human. Bovine mothers scream and cry and try to chase down the culprit when their babies are stolen from them, just like human mothers. That is what I mean by loss: the pain suffered when a loved one is gone.

And for those of you who are wondering why we should care, why it matters whether we feel empathy for animals, perhaps needing a slightly more anthropocentric reason, consider this:

Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.           ~ Thomas Edison

and this:

For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.                  ~ Pythagoras

We hide the reality of our treatment of animals behind a facade of pretty packaging because, well, better out of sight out of mind just in case some of us have some empathy left. But if we showed that truth to our children – all our children – the world would turn vegan practically overnight.

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For more information, read this published study: Stewart & Cole 2009 – The conceptual separation of food and animals in childhood.

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Sustainable Universities

The university system does a lot to shape our world. It molds young people into citizens. The best of universities allow young people to mold themselves within a healthy and supportive environment, but most of them simply engage in indoctrination. I could write quite a long critique regarding that, but it’s not my purpose here,  so I won’t get into it just now.  There are some colleges and universities that have developed a focus on sustainability, but not nearly enough. We need to push for three different areas of change in our university system. This can be done by almost anyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students. The areas of change: sustainability of the school itself, courses of study that focus on sustainability and application of knowledge in related areas, like engineering, to problems of sustainability, student organizations and focus groups that engage in discussion and action.

Unless we teach people what it actually means to be sustainable, we can’t attain a level of sustainability that will carry us into the future.

Student body & organizations

Students. The most important part of any school. The raison d’etre of any school. There are so many things that students can do to promote sustainability and to bring the topic into focus for the school’s administration, faculty, and other students. First: make some noise. Start an organization and make yourself noticed. Issue challenges to the entire school and everyone in it, or to other schools, like the “do it in the dark” challenge, in which houses and/or dorms compete for the biggest reduction in energy usage for a month. Have seed-bombing and guerrilla gardening campaigns. Petition the school for an area where you can have a vegetable garden on campus to produce cheap food for students – you can even have a little students-only farmer’s market to raise funds for the organization. Give out free BPA-free water bottles to encourage students not to buy throw-away plastic bottles of water. Ask the school’s bookstore to sell notebooks, flash drives, pens, binders, clothing, etc. made out of recycled and eco-friendly materials. Get involved in boards and committees of the institution in which you have a voice, and can push for change. There are so many things you can do.

Programs of study

This one is trickier. Students, along with staff and faculty with experience in related fields can push for the development of programs focused on sustainability and/or for a focus on sustainability in each related field. It’s really when people come together with experience in different fields and from different parts of the world that we can progress in leaps and bounds and make a huge difference. Look at the programs already available at other universities to see how they’re doing it, and try to improve upon them. If you’re a prospective student, even asking about whether schools have a sustainability program, or have plans to develop one, will help. An increasing interest from the general population can push things in the right direction. If you are a current student, you can aim for this within your own program, and you can encourage all your classmates to study together in the same place, which will collectively reduce the amount of electricity you’ll use by quite a lot over the course of a year. Think of how much more you’d use if you were each studying in a separate room or building all the time.

University & its policies

There are several areas to look at here. Alumni might consider telling your alma mater that you will make donations or donate more if it only makes investments in sustainable businesses and if it implements programs to increase its own sustainability, or you can earmark your donation for sustainability projects, renovations etc. Prospective students should keep this in mind, too. Choose the schools that are most environmentally friendly and that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. See what you can do in your own department if you’re currently a student. Can you turn in your assignments via email or dropbox rather than on paper? Are all those hand-outs really necessary, or can they be sent to your email or posted on a virtual blackboard? Some students may need a paper copy, but most don’t. Again, there are many things you can do to try to make a difference, especially if your classmates join you.

Tragedy of the Commons – Noam Chomsky

The following is the final portion of a speech given by Noam Chomsky in Bonn, Germany, whose transcript was recently released. Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he can be considered one of the founding fathers of modern linguistic theory, and he’s widely known for his political activism as well. The full transcript can be read here.

“The last comment I’d like to make goes in a somewhat different direction. I mentioned the Magna Carta. That’s the foundations of modern law. We will soon be commemorating the 800th anniversary. We won’t be celebrating it – more likely interring what little is left of its bones after the flesh has been picked off by Bush and Obama and their colleagues in Europe. And Europe is involved clearly.

occupy_everywhereBut there is another part of Magna Carta which has been forgotten. It had two components. The one is the Charter of Liberties which is being dismantled. The other was called the Charter of the Forests. That called for protection of the commons from the depredations of authority. This is England of course. The commons were the traditional source of sustenance, of food and fuel and welfare as well. They were nurtured and sustained for centuries by traditional societies collectively. They have been steadily dismantled under the capitalist principle that everything has to be privately owned, which brought with it the perverse doctrine of – what is called the tragedy of the commons – a doctrine which holds that collective possessions will be despoiled so therefore everything has to be privately owned. The merest glance at the world shows that the opposite is true. It’s privatization that is destroying the commons. That’s why the indigenous populations of the world are in the lead in trying to save Magna Carta from final destruction by its inheritors. And they’re joined by others. Take say the demonstrators in Gezi Park in trying to block the bulldozers in Taksim Square. They’re trying to save the last part of the commons in Istanbul from the wrecking ball of commercial destruction. This is a kind of a microcosm of the general defense of the commons. It’s one part of a global uprising against the violent neo-liberal assault on the population of the world. Europe is suffering severely from it right now. The uprisings have registered some major successes. The most dramatic are Latin America. In this millennium it has largely freed itself from the lethal grip of Western domination for the first time in 500 years. Other things are happening too. The general picture is pretty grim, I think. But there are shafts of light. As always through history, there are two trajectories. One leads towards oppression and destruction. The other leads towards freedom and justice. And as always – to adapt Martin Luther King’s famous phrase – there are ways to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice and freedom – and by now even towards survival.”

Guerrilla Gardening

Meet Ron Finley – resident of South Central L.A. and guerrilla gardener. Even if you’ve never been near the place, you probably have at least a vague notion that South Central is not really where you want to find yourself. But for the residents, it’s home, and many people couldn’t move if they wanted to (and they probably want to). So, instead of jumping ship, this man decided to do something about it; to try to make a difference that everyone in his community could appreciate and anyone could participate in if they wanted.

Food Deserts

South Central L.A. is considered a food desert. That means that the residents don’t have access to healthy foods within a relatively convenient distance, though they often have plenty of access to fast food, and convenience and liquor stores. Food deserts exist all over the U.S., predominantly effecting lower-income areas, where there are, on average, 3 times fewer grocery stores than in wealthier neighborhoods. This is entirely related to the off-balance obesity rates and incidents of type-2 diabetes in these communities.

Why you should get involved

The purposes of guerrilla gardening are to both beautify and provide healthy food for local communities, no matter what their socio-economic status. As the gap between wealth and poverty widens and the middle class shrinks, it’s not just the food deserts that need help. In suburban neighborhoods, many people are struggling more to make ends meet and, as Ron Finley says, “growing your own food is like printing your own money,” and he tells us that about $1 worth of green beans can generate as much as $75 worth of produce.

The effects are much more far-reaching than that, though. These gardens offer incredible educational opportunities for both children and adults, to learn how to be more self-sufficient and to understand and appreciate the importance of fresh vegetables, for health, yes, but for well-being in general. Kids that are out in the garden aren’t out getting into trouble, or sitting in front of a television. They’re learning how to improve themselves and their communities instead of watching fast food advertisements. Another great benefit is that you can control where your seeds come from and how they’re grown. You can buy non-GMO seeds, and choose not to use pesticides. You generate less waste from trips to the grocery store and all the paper and plastic you come away with in addition to your food. This is something worth getting involved with in some capacity, even if you’re just chucking sunflower seeds down a grate or creating graffiti art with moss (link to instructions below). Make whatever difference you can!

Watch Ron Finley’s TED talk. It’s only about 10 minutes long and worth your time!

Learn more about food deserts at the Food Empowerment Project.

Advice and tips on how to get started

Community pages on guerrillagardening.org and a Facebook page – try to find other guerrilla gardeners in your area to team up with

How to make moss graffiti

Sustainable Education

Diminishing returns

I’m not just talking about a curriculum that includes educating students about sustainability, though that’s also important. I’m talking about the system of educational diminishing returns that we’re seeing, especially in the United States. I’ve got a family full of teachers, so I’ve been exposed to the particular challenges they face for my whole life, and I’ve seen first-hand the disgusting lack of support for all teachers, but more specifically for teachers that work with the students that need the most support – children with behavioral disorders, learning styles that are at odds with the current system, language impairments, math-based learning disorders, physical disabilities, and developmental disorders. The recent U.S. Education Sequester has made things worse, disproportionately so for the teachers and kids in special & alternative education programs. Let’s face it – even with the current economic difficulties, this is an incredibly wealthy country. We’re just not using the power of our wealth to back the right horse. And if we don’t start changing things when we can, I think it will eventually lead to a situation where we don’t have the wealth or the skill-set that makes change like this potentially so easy to implement.

Education refugees

knowledge-1052011_640Because of the diminishing returns that are being seen by all students, more of us are looking outside our borders to pursue higher education. “The number of U.S. students at Canadian colleges rose 50 percent in a decade.” And that’s just Canada, one of our closest neighbors. Lots of us are going to other countries where we can get an excellent education for half the cost, or less. I’m an education refugee myself, and I’m in the Netherlands. I took my brains and my work ethic and moved them overseas. Not because I don’t love my country, but because it doesn’t love me. It loves big agra and big pharma and a big military. It certainly wasn’t the easier choice in the short-term, but it’s the more sustainable choice for me, for many reasons, one being that I no longer need a car; I go everywhere by bicycle, train or bus, greatly reducing my personal carbon footprint. Another thing that makes it a more sustainable choice is that I don’t have the crippling student loans I would have had otherwise. I still needed student loans, and they’re still through the US federal government, who’s robbing me blind on interest, but it’s tens of thousands less than it could have been.

learn-793095_640There’s another way to read ‘education refugees.’ Current and potential teachers are making other choices for careers. When I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher because of the inherent ability of the profession to inspire future generations, and the massive contributions teachers make to the general good of society. But that ability is being eroded by increasingly bad policies, like the rise in emphasis on standardized testing which forces them to ‘teach to the test’ instead of accenting critical thinking, research, and interactive learning, all of which engage students. Also eroding that ability is decreasing federal funding. Schools are closing, kids are being shuffled around, teachers are losing their jobs, and the ones remaining have bigger class sizes, more work, and mountains of stress. This is a downward spiral – by nature not sustainable.

Back to being green

Of course, this all has serious ramifications for the overall sustainability movement as well. Everything’s related. If we aren’t inspiring and educating people to be good critical thinkers and inventors, we’ll have a hard time coming up with new technologies that will help move us away from dependence on fossil fuels. Research and development are vital to this process. For example, biotecture wouldn’t be feasible without a really good understanding of how different materials interact with heat, and how to use that knowledge to increase the self-sufficiency of buildings. We’re actually holding back our own scientific development, and increasing the overall danger to the entire world, and that’s just unforgivable.

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