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Opinion Column
For the week of February 21 through 27, 2001

In the dark about cows and taboos

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH

To promote an absurdity—that unlimited growth in a finite world is healthy, desirable or even possible in the long run—should be taboo.

A few days ago a fellow worker gave me a cattle industry promotional bookmark emblazoned with factoids about the benefits of cattle to our lives and how much they enhance the environment of the planet.

A few weeks ago a friend in California wrote to ask what I thought about the power failures and blackouts rolling up and down California (but not too far south) .

The two are unrelated on one level, but, like everything in life, they are connected in myriad ways. They are reminders that the past and the future exist in the present and that problems not honestly faced continue to grow.

The bookmark was printed for the American National CattleWomen, Inc. by Merial, a leading animal pharmaceutical company. The factoids are a mixture of industrial boosterism truths and falsehoods, the cattle manure, so to speak, covering the beef, so to speak, of the cattle industry.

I replied to my friend in California that I think the power outages are an early indication of a phenomenon just emerging in North America that can be observed in more advanced stages in, for instance, the ancient country of China: that is, the collapse of regional biologic systems under the weight of more human beings than those systems can support. In my opinion, the earth cannot support even its current human population with a standard of living anyone reading this would call ‘acceptable,’ as evidenced by the standard of living experienced by most people on earth. As the human population grows, more failures in the systems that sustains it, like the California power outages, will take place. My friend is uncomfortable with and not willing to confront the issue of overpopulation. In this he is not alone. Population control is a taboo subject in our society. As a result, we are as much in the dark about the consequences of overpopulation as are the people of California when their lights go out. By the time China seriously confronted the fact that too many people live upon its land (more than 1 billion and growing daily), it was too late. As anyone who has been there knows, the landscape, the environment, and the quality of life for most Chinese citizens has been trashed. It is difficult to see how it can get better there without trashing some other part of the planet.

The factoid bookmark from the CattleWomen includes the claims that cattle enhance the environment because the land they graze "can’t be used for anything else;" improve grass and reduce erosion because cattle aerate the soil when they walk on it while providing natural fertilizer; that cattle are recyclers because they "eat non-edible by-products of food production;" and that cattle are fire-fighters because they "reduce the length of grass" that might burn otherwise.

It is difficult to know exactly where to start replying to such self-serving thoughtlessness and the people who serve it up, but, like the taboo against discussing humanity’s over population of planet earth, the CattleWomen’s bookmark exemplifies the cattle industry’s taboo against honestly discussing and confronting the long range deleterious consequences of food production cattle. It is easy to understand why people are reluctant to curtail freedoms, whether it’s the freedom to make babies, or the freedom to graze cattle on public lands at public expense. It’s also easy to understand that the taboo is a great place to hide assumptions and actions that need re-examination.

The land cattle in the West graze upon "can’t be used for anything else" only after cattle have pounded it to powder and erosion runnels filled with fecal matter that makes any stream in the vicinity undrinkable. That unusable land supports a lot more life without cattle than with them. Cattle do not "aerate" soil. The size of their hooves and their weight pulverize the land and everything upon it, and while cattle surely defecate upon the land they do not fertilize it, as anyone familiar with a cow pie knows. "Non-edible by-products of food production" is doublespeak (if it’s non-edible, why are cattle eating it?) for the offal of sheep and, in some cases, cattle, making carnivores and cannibals of the herbivorous cow. It is the source of mad-cow disease and has been curtailed in the United States; but terming the practice "recycling" raises some interesting questions, among them: Is Hannibal Lechter a recycler? Cattle as firefighters is akin to the convoluted logic of some military strategists who destroy the village in order to save it.

There are taboos in our society against confronting the true costs and consequences of our assumptions, beliefs and standards of living, the status quo. The lights will go back on in California, but the taboo against confronting the underlying reason they went out in the first place (and will go out again) is still in place. The cattle industry still hides behind the taboo against honest discussion of the true environmental costs of grazing cattle on public lands.

Some taboos are healthy to maintain. For instance, I believe that making herbivores into carnivores and cannibals should be taboo. To promote an absurdity—that unlimited growth in a finite world is healthy, desirable or even possible in the long run—should be taboo.

Other taboos need to be thrown out. The sooner the better.

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