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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2006
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's January 1, 2007, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail mr.green@sierraclub.org.

Tales From the Crypt

After I wrote that "I'll have all the lawn anybody could ever want soon enough in my cemetery plot," Herb from Ithaca, New York, wondered why I plan on being buried under conventional turf when greener options are available. Other readers have suggested that I arrange to have my corpse composted, or to recycle the usable parts by donating them to medical research. Some have just demanded my corpse.

In considering these matters, I realized there's more to this topic than I thought. Looking for connections between death and the environment led to some rather dark philosophizing. I've already suggested that lawns are a type of death denial, in that they're replicas of cemeteries where the owner glides on the mower, godlike and immortal, over the pristine green, enjoying the illusion of immunity from burial below. Replacing lawns with a variety of plants requires us to cope with dirt, death, and decay--literally as well as figuratively.

On the other hand, I cherish the custom of setting aside sacred places or objects that help us commune with the dead, a tradition that unites so many cultures, from Chinese to African, Mexican to Native American, with my own Catholic brethren--though the spirit of the latter's All Souls' Day, like Christmas, seems to have been subjugated to the vulgar commercialized frenzy of today's Halloween. I'm just waiting for the kiddies in their $200 designer costumes to start demanding gourmet candy, at which point, they'll get one raisin per bag (which overprotective parents will promptly throw away, convinced it's laced with poison).

Anyway, while cemeteries are obviously not a very good idea from a strictly environmental point of view, their usefulness in remembrance rituals is perhaps ultimately beneficial enough that the trade-off is worth it. Being more in touch with our mortality might help us to reduce the desperate consumption that is often driven by fear and the urge to banish death. Owning the "safety" of an SUV, building trophy homes with elaborate alarm systems, "protecting" our families with guns under our pillows (while electing right-wing politicians who loathe gun control and the environment), taking drastic medical measures to maintain our loved ones in a vegetative state--maybe these are, at their essence, tricks to distance ourselves from death and the dead.

Greener burials--which I strongly support--might be more popular if there weren't as many misconceptions about the disposal of remains floating around as there are myths about where your spirit goes to hang out after you're dead. For example, some people think that embalming is required by law. This is only true if your corpse is being transferred across state lines. A requirement for embalming would violate the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims, whose faiths forbid the practice.

Why is this important to know? Because embalming is probably the most environmentally hazardous aspect of how we handle our dead. Treating the typical corpse takes about 2.5 gallons of embalming fluid, in which the active ingredient is formaldehyde, a toxic substance and possible carcinogen. With about 1.7 million corpses being buried each year and eight ounces of formaldehyde per gallon of embalming fluid, we're talking around 250,000 gallons of the poison. (Little wonder the European Union is considering a ban on formaldehyde use for embalming.)

Other concerns that often come up are relatively minor in the big scheme of things. Though there are certainly a lot of resources spent on conventional caskets and burial vaults--about 105,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and around 35 million board feet of hardwood--that's but a fraction of the materials used annually in building, road, and automobile construction. A three-ton SUV contains ten times as much steel as the casket you'll ride in if you get killed when it rolls over.

In terms of land use, the typical cemetery can hold between 1,000 and 2,000 dearly departeds per acre, so we're devoting a maximum of 1,700 acres of new cemetery ground each year. Not much land compared to what we dedicate just to parking lots. As always, though, Mr. Green favors a minimalist approach. If there were ever a time to avoid conspicuous consumption, it would be after you're no longer around to enjoy it!

Even cremation, which is more environmentally sound than conventional burial, has come under, um, fire by environmentalists. Some fret about the amount of energy it takes to go from ashes to ashes. Others worry that vast amounts of toxic mercury escape from dental fillings when the bodies that held them are heated to the necessary temperatures. On the first point, thermal processing of a body, starting with a cold furnace, takes an amount of energy equal to that in 16 gallons of gasoline--or about what an SUV burns through in 200 miles. And even this figure is high, because once the furnace is stoked for the day, later customers require far less heat. As for the fillings fear, let's do the math: The average American has 7.22 fillings, each of which contains 50 to 100 milligrams of mercury, for a maximum of 722 milligrams per mouth. With 721,000 folks choosing cremation each year, that's a maximum possible mercury total of 520,562 grams, or about 1,100 pounds. That's also assuming that all fillings contain mercury--and that all the cremated geezers had any teeth left anyway.

One EPA study put the figure at a more realistic 278 pounds per year from all the crematoriums in the country--a fraction of what's emitted by power plants and other industrial facilities. Far more mercury escapes just from fluorescent bulbs that are tossed out instead of recycled. Environmentally, you just can't make up for living poorly by dying well.


Food for Thought on Meat

Several readers have written asking why, although I recommend limiting meat consumption, I don't come out and demand total abstinence. Well, call me conservative (ooh, how that would hurt), but at this point, I am not convinced that completely eliminating meat and fish from our diets is best for the environment. I've heard the main arguments--(1) that it takes eight or more pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, (2) that livestock raising pollutes air and water, and (3) that eating meat violates animal rights--and I'll try to address them one by one.

The grain-to-meat ratio is not as inefficient as it may first appear. The primary grain fed to cattle is corn, which has a relatively low protein content. A pound of beef contains three or four times as much protein as a pound of corn, and unlike corn, it's complete protein. In addition, meat contains vitamin B12 and certain micronutrients not present in grains. It's the old apples and oranges problem--grains and meat are just not the same thing.

Also, not every pound of an animal is produced by feeding it grain. Cattle, for example, put on a good deal of their weight from hay and pasture. Besides, the overfeeding of grain is more a result of popular taste than agricultural necessity. Consumers have been taught to favor fatty "marble" in their meat, which is produced by grain feeding. Some environmentally friendly producers get tasty results by grazing their cattle and cutting way back on the grain.

The simple weight-to-weight comparison also fails to account for the role of livestock in a healthy agriculture. Animals produce manure, which is (and has been for millennia) a very important source of fertilizer. Without livestock, more chemical fertilizers would have to be used. Farm animals also convert nonedible grasses into edible food without the need to plow up land (a major cause of soil erosion). Cattle, in particular, provide another source of fertilizer, since the alfalfa they eat fixes nitrogen in the soil.

This argument also ignores the fact that from time immemorial, food has not been the only purpose of livestock. Any meaningful comparison has to take into account the byproducts of meat production, including leather (a $2 billion industry in the United States). As far as I know, no one has looked closely enough at the entire picture, holistically examining all environmental, agronomic, and economic aspects of livestock growing for different ecosystems. Until they do, and until I see compelling evidence for zero meat consumption, I'll stick with the less radical stance of limiting--not eliminating--meat eating.

The second major argument against meat is that raising livestock pollutes. Yes, indeed it does. Terribly. However, this does not have to be the case. There is nothing intrinsic to livestock production that necessitates the cramped feedlots, hog and chicken factories, and bad grazing practices so notorious for their environmental damage.

The main reason livestock is being raised in this filthy and brutal way is to meet the U.S. demand for a huge quantity of cheap meat. This is exactly why I recommend eating a lot less meat. By eating less but paying more per pound, we could then support farmers who raise meat in an environmentally beneficial way and treat their animals humanely.

People and animals are both victims of the country's long-standing "cheap food" policy that mostly benefits agribusiness. But that's a whole nother topic. (Additionally, we can't stop meat production just by fasting from meat. Whether we like it or not, the worldwide demand for meat is increasing, and you can be sure that many countries we export it to would not apply any pressure for environmentally sound production. Italy, for example, famed for its healthful diet, now consumes ten times as much meat as it did 50 years ago, and it's hard to see what would stop such a trend in industrializing countries like China.)

The third case made against meat, the animal-rights argument, is certainly valid when creatures are made to suffer unnecessarily, as in factory farms. This, however, is again a question of method. There is no reason livestock has to suffer so that McDonald's can sell more bacon burgers--no reason, that is, except to keep those burgers cheap. To stop this suffering, we have to demand a change in the method of production. This is happening, though much too slowly.

Of course, some animal-rights advocates would argue that we have no moral right to take the life of any creature to feed ourselves. I find it hard to accept this argument for two reasons: First, human beings have clearly evolved to consume meat and have probably done so for several million years. Biologically speaking, we are just another type of predator, taking prey just as a shark eats other fish or a cougar eats a deer. The animals we now slaughter for food would be quickly eaten by other predators if we turned them loose. What would we do then to protect their "rights," kill the predators? Philosophically, I find it rather anthropocentric for human beings to extend human laws against homicide to other species, when so many are in the evolutionary business of killing.

Secondly, the brutal truth of agriculture is that you have to kill to be a vegetarian. I smash snails to keep them from eating my vegetables. I don't shoot squirrels, even though they steal my figs and guavas, but I'd be rather pleased if a predator carried a few of them away. Let's face it: Any farmland displaces myriad creatures or requires them to be chased away, fenced out, or killed, so even the strictest vegetarian or vegan has blood on his or her hands. Ecologically, I suppose the purest thing we could do would be to give up all forms of agriculture and revert to a hunting culture. But going full circle back to our predatory beginnings would leave little time for us to engage in these kinds of debates.

P.S. Most of this argument applies to fish as well, which I've covered in other columns.

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
 

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.


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