Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Debauchery of Moral Imagination: Josh Fox, "How to Let Go of the World" and Animal Agriculture

Don't get me wrong. I like Josh Fox. We have loads of things in common--including our opposition to the continuing emission of greenhouse gases.

But that's what makes his new film, "How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change" all the more disappointing--well, actually, disturbing.

I watched the movie very attentively, hoping  that given Mr. Fox' tremendous and loyal following--let's call them the Foxilytes--he'd actually do something courageous, and lend some real substance to his references throughout the film to the concept of "moral imagination."

Indeed, he laid out a cornucopia of climate change catastrophes from Hurricane Sandy to the deforestation of the Amazon to the drowning of entire islands--all of it important and utterly tragic.

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, 6.13.16
And all of it entirely anthropocentric--no, actually chauvinistic.

That is, insofar as "How to Let go..." is narrowly and almost exclusively focused on the effects of climate change for human beings and human populations, he actually reinforces precisely what he'd seem to reject, namely, that human self-interest ought to determine value.

Mr. Fox demonstrates this human chauvinism in several ways throughout the film, not the least of which is his merely passing references to the loss of species habitat and diversity, and his persistent need to put himself in virtually every frame--making us wonder if the documentary is about climate change or Josh Fox. 

But these are minor issues compared to his truly stunning lack of courage and honesty concerning the role that animal agriculture plays as a major cause of climate change.

Let me lay this out:

The film included a follow-up Q&A. Mr. Fox called on me in a "very short questions" set of three raised hands at the tail end. I pointed out that I appreciated his mention of animal agriculture in a long list of causes of climate change. He interrupted me--as if I had no question, but simply sought to praise him. I persisted, and asked why--given that animal agriculture plays an enormous role in the production of greenhouse gases--he had not discussed it more thoroughly.

His answer was as peremptory as it was factually bankrupt: "You're wrong. Science says your wrong."

I persisted, and pointed out that the film was, among other things, about the causes of climate change. 

Mr. Fox' answer here was truly mystifying--and disingenuous: "The film's not about the causes of climate change."

I'm quoting Mr. Fox verbatim. Let me get at these one at a time:

Here's the facts about the contribution of animal agriculture--factory farms and more--to climate change:

From:  http://www.fao.org/agriculture/lead/themes0/climate/en/

Livestock contribute both directly and indirectly to climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Globally, the sector contributes 18 percent (7.1 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent) of global greenhouse gas emissions. Although it accounts for only nine percent of global CO2, it generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide (N2O) and 35 percent of methane (CH4), which have 296 times and 23 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2 respectively. Methane emissions mostly occur as part of the natural digestive process of animals (enteric fermentation) and manure management in livestock operations. Methane emissions from livestock are estimated at about 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, accounting for about 80% of agricultural CH4 and 35% of the total anthropogenic methane emissions. Nitrous oxide emissions are associated with manure management and the application and deposition of manure. Indirect N2O emissions from livestock production include emissions from fertilizer use for feed production, emissions from leguminous feedcrops and emissions from aquatic sources following fertilizer application. The livestock sector contributes about 75 percent of the agricultural N2O emissions (2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent). Carbon dioxide emissions from the livestock sector are related to fossil fuel burning during production of fertilizer for feed production, the livestock production process, processing and transportation of refrigerated products. Furthermore, livestock are a major driver of the global trends in land-use and land-use change including deforestation (conversion of forest to pasture and cropland), desertification, as well as the release of carbon from cultivated soils. The overall contribution of CO2 emissions from the livestock sector are estimated at 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2
From:  http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/hsus-fact-sheet-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-animal-agriculture.pdf

 [T]he Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that the over-accumulation of these natural and human-made gases since the Industrial Revolution has caused anthropogenic global warming. Global warming is responsible for a range of climate-related events, such as more extreme weather occurences including increased flooding and drought, as well as melting of Arctic ice and the loss of plant and animal biodiversity as a result of changes in temperature. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the animal agriculture sector—which includes the production of feed crops, the manufacturing of fertilizer, and the shipment of meat, eggs, and milk — is responsible for 18% of all GHG emissions, measured in carbon- dioxide equivalent. In fact, the farm animal sector annually accounts for: 9% of human-inducedemissions of carbon dioxide (Co2), 37% of emissions of methane (CH), which has more than 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2, and 65% of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which has nearly 300 times the GWP of CO2.  Farm Animals in the United States: Nearly 10 billion land animals are raised for meat, eggs, and milk annually in the United States, with many of them confined in the nation’s approximately 18,800 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Typical factory farms intensively restrict animals in large, overcrowded, and barren sheds, denying them the ability to engage in most of their natural behavior. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Factory Farms Farm animal waste and other aspects of the animal agriculture sector generate GHG emissions, as well as ammonia and other air borne pollutants. Carbon Dioxide, CO2 is c onsidered the most powerful GHG as it has the most significant direct-warming impact on global temperature as a result of the sheer volume of its emissions.CO2 is released from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum, and deforestation and other land-use changes that remove vegetative cover. Animal agriculture produces CO2 in a number of ways: High-Energy Feed. Factory-farmed animalsare typically fed high-energy crops such ascorn, which is dependent onlarge amounts of chemical fertilizer.The FAO estimates that the production of fertilizer for feed crops may emit 41 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally. Fueling Factory Farms. Intensive confinement operations require vast amounts of fossil fuel-based energy to cool, heat, and ventilate the facilities, and energy is also used to operate farm machinery to cultivate and harvest feed crops, resulting in at least 90 million tonnes of CO2annually worldwide.

 There is no question that animal agriculture makes an immense contribution to climate change. The implications are absolutely clear:

We in the industrialized West/Global North must stop eating nonhuman animal bodies.

We must discourage it in every corner 
of the developing world. 

We must substitute for it education about nutrition, 
land use, water scarcity, food insecurity, 
species habitat and extinction, and aggressive conservation premised on the scientific facts.

No desirable future can sustain the industrialization of animal bodies.

Mr. Fox didn't touch any of this, and that's not just a lack of courage--it's a gross lack of the very "moral imagination" he makes so much of.

Virtually none in the U.S. have any excuse for continuing the barbaric practice of nonhuman animal body consumption--and note carefully that to this point I haven't even spoken about the abject cruelty of factory farms.

Indeed, even if--as Fox makes clear in a "joke" he makes about the great smell of broiling chicken in a solar cooker--we don't give a tinker's damn about suffering, the effects on human health of animal agriculture are so significant that to ignore these in a documentary about the effects of climate change amounts to a complete distortion of the facts.

Factory farm waste pit from the air
Why would Mr. Fox do that?

Is it that he feels forced to pander to an audience of activists who he surely knows have no interest in giving up their Chik-Fil-A? 

Is it that Mr. Fox himself is committed to KFC? 

Was he telling the truth when he said that the movie wasn't about climate change? Is "How to Let Go and Love..." really just about Josh Fox making a movie about, well, whatever?

Is it that his Kickstarter campaign to raise money for and from the film isn't going to do as well if folks come out of the movie less likely to feel like dancing because their lives as carnivores have been threatened?

But isn't that what we rightly call "pandering" when we point it out in the Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund?

I don't know. What I do know is that it's a grotesque lack of that moral imagination called a conscience to make a movie ostensibly about loving the things climate can't change--and then mislead your audience about the causes of climate change.

In fact, there's only one thing worse: 

Making a movie about love--and then leaving out of the equation the overwhelming majority of the world's sentient beings--
except for when they "smell good" on the grill.

Grilling Chicken body

 Human chauvinism has devastating consequences. To pretend that the only effects of climate change that really matter are the ones that impact human lives and human communities reinforces that conception of value out of which we've built not only speciesism--but its direct and awful correlates: racism, heterosexism, and classism.

Ironic then that Mr. Fox rightly decries the patent bigotry of Donald Trump--but then reinforces its very foundation in the speciesism of his willful omission of animal agriculture.  For that omission can have only one explanation: Mr. Fox simply does not care enough about the experience and suffering of nonhuman animals to consider even what the circumstances of that suffering mean to human health and well-being.

At the end of the film, Mr. Fox prodded his audience to "get up and dance" for all the things climate can't change. Lots of folks did. I didn't. 

He then prodded us further to stand up for a group pic. Nope--not gonna do that either. Not really interested in that group-think manipulation that either convinces us--for a moment anyways--that everything's OK, or shames us into refraining from asking the hard questions.

Discarded slaughtered baby male chicks

Fact: there are no such things as things climate change isn't going to change, Mr. Fox. 

In fact, it's the very worldview that makes us think we're entitled to factory farm, slaughter, and grill that chicken that's going to fuck us.

To think that so long as we human critters can find a way to adapt--to be, what's that corny catch phrase we saw in the movie?--resilient, that the world's going to be habitable for all the other species of living critter on it--especially the ones we manufacture for our own consumption--well, that's not moral imagination.

It's moral failure. 

We earn the right to dance when the least among us have the possibility of being, if  not free from suffering and death, at least free from that suffering and death caused by human greed and the morally depraved capacity to objectify whatever we can subjugate, enslave, and slaughter.


Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Story from the FERC Meeting: Bloomsburg University, 6,15,16:

A woman sitting directly behind me says, "Why can't Williams [the builder of that monstrocity called the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline] build the pipeline closer to the factory farm? That way if any explosions happen it will roaast the pigs instead of children."

And then she laughed--along with her fellow "activists."

Her comment captures a very important and VERY deep-going wrong.

The blindness of entirely too many in the anti-fracking movement concerning the contributions of animal agriculture to the production of greenhouse gases so serves the purposes of the gas industry that the only message an EXXON executive need take away from Josh Fox "How to Let Go..." is "Don't worry!"

After all, the sheer quantities of fossil fuels consumed in the production of your bacon burgers will guarantee that drilling will go one and one

And on.

It IS certainly difficult to stop driving cars. The culture industry and the emergence of that bastard of social life called "the suburb" has doomed us to that for the foreseeable future.

But eating animal bodies? Who in the industrialized West/Global North can say with any integrity that they NEED to do that?

Virtually none.

Yet not only do we fail to make the key connections with animal rights actors and organizations, we can't even stop making daily sojourns to McDonalds.

This hypocrisy is more than appalling: it's suicidal.

If we cannot be persuaded to care about those whose suffering is of this magnitude, why should EXXON think we care about our human neighbors?

For additional discussion, please see:


Tom Frost Jr. said...

Just move the proposed pipeline location to alongside your ivory tower. That way, 1) if it explodes, the pigs will thank you, and 2) if it doesn't explode, we'll still have the additional fossil fuels from it available with which to enable you to keep on fueling your lazy, "It IS certainly difficult", apparent plan to keep on playing in the dirt that is motoring and suburbia.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

You ARE just a stalker aren't you, Mr. Frost? For a fellow who knows absolutely nothing about my life or personal history, you do seem to take quite an interest.

So thanks for that astute observation about the suburbia I don't live in and the dirt that is my food garden.