The importance of choice

Disclaimer: This post involves me talking about my reproductive system in a personal and political manner. If you’re easily offended, get over it or go elsewhere. This post has been cross-posted on the Feministing Community blog.
This month, my period was nine days late.
Days one and two, I didn’t worry. My cycle is pretty regular, but it fluctuates a bit, and a day or two past due isn’t anything unusual. Days three and four, I started worrying a bit. I crossed my fingers and told myself it wasn’t a huge deal.
 Day five, I told my mom, just in case. I’ve had one or two seriously late periods before, and for me, the point when you tell someone else makes a big difference. If only you know, your worries are all theoretical. What if I am pregnant? you ask yourself. Who would I tell? How would I tell them? As soon as you tell someone, as soon as you verbally acknowledge the possibility, you move on to planning. Ok, you say, my mom/boyfriend/best friend knows this is happening. They’re going to be with me no matter how this plays out. You start thinking about options and choices.
 Day six, I took a home pregnancy test. It came back negative, but still no period. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled anyway, and since the last thing I wanted was to head off to Ecuador and discover that I really was pregnant once I got there, I asked my doctor to do a blood test. It came back negative on day nine, and my period finally started within two minutes of me getting off the phone.
I was lucky. But it could have gone the other way. I could have been pregnant now or this spring or last year or a dozen other times. I’ve had one or two other minor pregnancy scares, but none of them—not even this one—has been a truly scary experience for me. The reason for that is because I know that where I live, it’s still legal for me (and only me) to decide what I want to do if I do get pregnant.
I’ve never been pregnant, so I can’t say what I would do in that situation with 100% certainty. But I’m 99% sure I would have an abortion. I’m twenty years old and in school. I’m about to spend four months in Ecuador. I want to travel the world and be an investigative journalist and do a bunch of other things that would make me a terrible, negligent parent for the next five or ten years. I believe that there are too many people on earth, and I have no interest in carrying a pregnancy to term only to let someone else raise my child. I promised myself a long time ago that I would never let someone else raise one of my children.
During the week or so where I was worrying and thinking about my options, I had this conversation with my mom and my doctor. I asked my mom if my gynecologist’s office does abortions, and she said yes. Before I got the blood test, I asked my general practitioner if anyone in her office does abortions, and she said they did. We discussed medical versus surgical abortions for a few minutes. She answered all my questions thoroughly.
While talking to her, at no point did any of the politics surrounding abortion enter our discussion. She didn’t judge me. She didn’t ask me if I had considered other options. She behaved like a medical professional answering questions about a medical procedure.
I’ve been pro-choice my whole life. I vehemently support a woman’s right to choose whatever she thinks is best for her if she gets pregnant, and I believe access to abortion is a right and an issue of social justice. There are few things that make me as angry as politicians and zealots who argue against access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion. This issue has always felt more personal to me than almost anything else. I’m a sexually active young woman. Pretty much any policy aimed at limiting access to reproductive care is going to affect me or someone very close to me in a negative way.
When I was sitting in my bathroom, counting down the two minutes before I could look at the result of my pregnancy test, I was a little bit nervous. I was hoping and keeping my fingers crossed. But I also knew I had an out. I knew that if I didn’t want to carry a pregnancy to term, I wouldn’t have to.
For millions of women around the world and in the US, this isn’t the case. Most counties have no abortion clinics in them. Looking online, the cheapest abortion I could find in Seattle cost $420—a small fortune for many people. Women often have to drive hours and spend the night far away from home to get an abortion. Access is already a huge issue, especially if you’re poor. And thanks to the Republican Party’s crusading anti-women platform, it’s getting worse.
When you’re sitting in your bathroom, underwear around your ankles, praying to God that that second line doesn’t show up on the stick you just peed on, you want every option you can get. You want to know that whatever happens to you from that point on will be your choice, and that you will be supported no matter what. Most of all, you don’t want anyone who has never been in that position, anyone who isn’t capable of being in that position, making laws deciding if, when and how you get to make choices about your own body.

Veganism and the myth of individual choice

I just came across this video via GOOD magazine. It’s a Mercy for Animals tape of pigs inside a factory farm, and though it’s incredibly hard to watch, it’s also really important.

I’m cynical and jaded. It’s hard for me to get truly angry or upset about the abuses of industry and the destruction of the natural world, because it’s so ubiquitous. But this video had me in tears. Climate change is distant and species extinction is abstract, but pigs screaming in terror and pain is awfully, disturbingly real.

I went to the Mercy for Animals website and clicked on their “Get Active” page, which made me even angrier. Here are their suggestions for getting involved in this issue, in the order they’re listed on the site.

1) Go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan.
2) Educate others about the horrors of factory farming and the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism.
3/4/5)Join Mercy for Animals by sending them money, volunteer for them and attend their events.
6) Spread the word about vegetarianism via Facebook, Twitter and your email signature.
7) Hand out leaflets about vegetarianism.
8) Organize a video screening.
9) Veganize local restaurants and cafeterias.
10) Write people in power about these issues.

Look, I get that individual actions are important. Feeling personally invested in an issue is an important thing, and many people get into broader forms of activism because they started out being vegetarians and then choose to look into food production more (oh hey there). So by all means, go veggie or vegan if you want to and spread the word to interested parties. But we all know that individual vegans are never going to end factory farming, and as a movement, we do a disservice to ourselves by pretending otherwise.

Most people will never be vegan. Selling people on reducing meat consumption is feasible—it’s probably healthier for them anyway. Selling people on vegetarianism is challenging, but doable. Selling people on veganism is really hard. Veganism, as far as I’ve seen, has a popular perception as a movement of ascetics who are interested in self-deprivation and having moral high ground. This isn’t completely accurate, obviously (I have vegans friends, I swear), but like most stereotypes, it contains grains of truth. Being vegan isn’t easy, and it isn’t practical or realistic for many people, especially people who are low-income.

I don’t believe we can sell the world on veganism, but I think we can sell them on not torturing animals. Pretty much any decent human would be saddened, angered or shocked by watching that video, or one of the many others documenting similar practices in the industry. I believe we do a disservice to those who will never be vegan when we list that as the first action step a concerned person can take. Individual choices can be powerful and empowering, but they won’t change the status quo. Framing the solution to factory farming as veganism disempowers people who aren’t willing or in a position to make that choice. It frames people unwilling to give up animal products as part of the problem. It emphasizes personal choice over political action, even though the latter can produce results on a much larger scale.

Existing power structures will not change or give up power without a fight. No one has ever stopped clear cutting because a bunch of people from the Sierra Club asked nicely. They stopped because radical Earth First and ELF people were busy chaining themselves to trees and monkeywrenching machinery, and suddenly a compromise with the Sierra Club seemed like a perfectly reasonable middle ground. And existing power structures have made factory farming a necessity for feeding the world, especially poor Americans.

Ending factory farming requires radicals and compromisers. It requires activists willing to break into slaughterhouses and film conditions inside of them. It requires people to build and support alternative meat suppliers, and policies which allow equality of access to those alternatives. It requires people who want to lobby Congress to pass more stringent regulations on factory farms, and it requires vegan anarchists who want to liberate pigs from their prisons. There’s no reason you should have to be a vegan to care about animal suffering or to be an anti-factory farm activist. We need as many committed people as we can get to fight back, and pretending that our individual choices are the most important tool we have won’t get us very far.

Local isn’t about the carbon footprint

I just posted my problems with the local movement, namely that a focus on choosing local foods can ignore the fact that the same crops have very different environmental impacts when grown in different places. That said, I’m a huge believer in eating locally. I’ve heard some criticisms of the local food movement recently that have bugged me because they seem incomplete, so I want to address them.
The most common criticism of local eating that pops up on various blogs has to do with carbon emissions. Some people claim, as the Freakonomics blog crew did a while ago, that the efficiencies of large-scale agriculture can mean that stuff shipped in from really far away actually has a smaller carbon footprint than local food. They tell you to picture one large steamship or cargo plane compared with dozens of inefficient diesel pickups driven by individual farmers.
The other carbon footprint argument is made by people comparing the transportation footprint of food to the production footprint of meat. Because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases released by animals, particularly cattle, eating meat and dairy gives you a much bigger carbon footprint than eating food shipped halfway across the world to your plate. Sometimes, this argument ends with the claim that if we really care about saving the world and reducing our impact, we should go vegetarian or vegan instead of worrying about local food.
I have two big problems with the carbon footprint argument. One: it’s not uniformly accurate. The generalizations that are relied on to make claims like, “x produces more carbon emissions than y” mean that those statements have to be taken with a grain of salt. The carbon footprint of a piece of food depends on literally thousands of factors—what it is, where it was grown or raised, where the water to irrigate it came from, how power is generated in the area it’s grown, how it was shipped and how it was packaged, just to name a few. Cows can be managed in such a way that they increase the organic content of soil, meaning the soil sequesters carbon and the beef being produced has a greatly reduced or negative footprint. I’m willing to concede that most of the time this isn’t the case, but to generalize about “the carbon footprint of beef” ignores the reality of farmers who are working hard to do it right. There’s simply no accurate way to know the exact footprint of anything, especially if you don’t know the person who produced it.
Secondly, these arguments are assuming that the only point of eating local is reducing your carbon footprint. A lot of foodies care about that, but most of us have other reasons we want to eat locally too. I personally don’t care much about my individual carbon footprint—I’m much more worried about the Keystone XL pipeline and stopping coal plants from being built than agonizing over how many cow farts it takes to destroy the planet. For me, local foods are about community. Buying directly from farmers keeps money in my area, where it has a greater multiplier effect. It supports hardworking average people, rather than shareholders and executives at big supermarkets. It allows me to have the awesome experience of strolling through the farmers’ market with no shopping list and buying weird-looking vegetables on impulse because the farmer who grew it was right there and told me how she cooks it at home.
Local foods are a function of privilege and wealth, and they’re yet another indicator of the sad fact that low-income people are much less likely to have access (geographically and financially) to healthy, fresh food, much less the time and knowledge required to cook it. As far as I’m concerned, this is the biggest problem with the local food movement. Choosing local can’t be called a choice if most people aren’t in a position to make it.
Ultimately, though, we need local. If we’re going to live on this planet well into the future, we’re going to have to do a better job of building resilient communities where members support each other. We’re going to have to grow more food closer to where we eat it and pay better attention to taking care of our soil and water. Local isn’t about carbon footprints. It’s much, much bigger than that. It’s about nothing less than reshaping our entire relationship to food.
Sometimes, this sounds like a daunting task to me. But then I remember that the current food infrastructure hasn’t been in place for very long. My great grandma knew how to can food. My grandma remembers what real tomatoes taste like and doesn’t want to buy the ones in the supermarket because she says they’re just not the same. Another world is possible, and its close relatives have existed in living memory. Industrial food on this scale is a post-World War II invention, and the seeds of resistance began sprouting a few decades ago, when organic food became a thing. I spent much of my time hopelessly depressed, lamenting the state of the world and politics and social injustice. But food is one thing that leaves me smiling. We’re up against the biggest, most entrenched special interests in the history of civilization. But time, dedication and ecology are on our side. It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there won’t be bloggers asking questions about whether local food makes sense, because local will be the new normal.

Beyond local

Note: This is a column I wrote for the Pioneer last fall while I was on Whitman’s Semester in the West program. The column can also be found on the Pioneer website. I’m planning to post in the next few days about some common reasons people argue against local food and why they’re missing the point, but I thought it would be relevant to post my own critique of the local idea, as well some thoughts on the shortcomings of food package labels.

The importance of eating local foods has been a prominent theme in the environmental movement for the past few years. Eating local makes sense for many reasons—buying close to home is a way to connect people to the farmers who grow their food, and a shorter transportation distance generally means fewer carbon emissions. As we develop local food systems, however, it is critical to remember that not all crops are created equal.
Consider California. About half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown here, mostly in irrigated valleys which rely on the importation of water. In Southern California, much of this water comes from the Colorado River, which has been dammed dozens of times to provide cheap water for the desert farms and metropolises of the American West. California has the largest share of the Colorado’s water, and it uses about 80% of what it takes to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, the Colorado is overallocated—shared between seven states and Mexico, depended on to feed the growth of Las Vegas and Phoenix and subject to increased water loss as climate change warms the West. With water shortages looming on the horizon, California’s farmers may move to mining groundwater, pumping it from underground aquifers at rates that will take centuries to replenish.
A concerned environmentalist living in Los Angeles could easily find local produce to eat. Go to the supermarket, and you’ll find California-grown avocadoes, tomatoes, oranges, carrots and artichokes. But how sustainable is it to eat vegetables grown in a semi-desert with water pumped to them from hundreds of miles away? If local eating requires taking so much water from the Colorado that its waters have failed to reach the ocean for the last three decades, what are we accomplishing?
This is not to say that local foods aren’t a worthwhile goal. On the contrary, some degree of local food production is essential for solving climate change. But locovores need to do more than look at the distance their food has traveled to get to their plate. The same food produced in two different climates can have dramatically different environmental effects. Cattle grazed on Virginia pastures, where it rains, are good for the land and can easily be rotated between pastures to allow grasses to regrow. Cattle grazed in the desert canyonlands of Utah trample biotic soil crusts, increase soil erosion and allow non-native plants to take over the ecosystem. If you live in Utah and want to eat beef, getting it from Virginia might be the more sustainable choice.
Environmentalists are used to screening food by labels. If something is organic, local, grass-fed or all-natural, it’s automatically assumed to be better for our health and the Earth. If we want to succeed in building a more sustainable food system, we need to move beyond these labels and look at the actual impacts our food has on the land it’s grown on. If a crop can be grown in the area where you live without pumping a river dry, building a dam to divert subsidized irrigation water or permanently depleting the soil of its nutrients, it’s a good candidate for sustainability. If not, get it from somewhere that can grow it sustainably or go without it.
Obviously, this approach is not universally applicable—many crops are unsustainable no matter where they are grown, and there isn’t enough choice or transparency in our food system to answer all of these questions. Being in a place to consider your food choices this carefully is a function of education, environmental awareness and affluence, all of which are privileges many people don’t share. But to the extent it’s possible, everyone who cares about the health of the planet needs to ask difficult questions when they to go the store or sit down for dinner. Looking at the package will never tell you everything you need to know about your food. Talk to the farmer, learn what grows well where you live and pay attention to what you’re supporting when you buy food. Our existence on this planet depends on its ability to produce food for us. We need to start taking better care of it.

Fat acceptance

I’m five feet, five and a half inches tall, and I weigh 150.7 pounds. This gives me a body mass index (BMI) of 24.7, just a hair below the cutoff for overweight (25).

I used to be skinny. I had no breasts to speak of until well into seventh grade. I had bony knees tiny legs and ribs you could count, if only just. By freshman year of high school, I had developed a bit. I ran cross country that fall, stopped running once the season was over, kept eating four meals a day and gained ten pounds that winter. In my first two years of college, I’ve put on another fifteen pounds.

By American standards, I’m an average weight, probably even below average. I’ve always loved my body–especially during the two or three years when I had a respectable chest and still held on to my flat stomach. I’ve never felt “fat”, or had any particular desire to lose weight. But over the past two years, as I’ve gained more weight, I’ve found it harder to look in the mirror and feel proud. Initially, I thought this was because of the way I looked–the rolls of fat on my side that appeared when I bent over, or the way my cheekbones didn’t stick out quite as much as they used to. I told myself I wouldn’t always look like this, that it would get better when I didn’t have school and three jobs to keep me busy and stressed.

After a year of feeling this way, during which I stayed about the same weight, I realized I wasn’t mad at myself for the way I looked. I was mad because I wasn’t taking care of my body. With an all-you-can-eat meal plan, I’d been eating more than I was used to, and I felt worse for it. I wasn’t exercising regularly. I made some choices to change this. I signed up for aerobics classes, got off Whitman’s meal plan so I could cook healthy food for myself and tried to limit my binging on chips and cookies a bit.

Guess what happened? I stayed exactly the same weight. I might have even gotten bigger. And I do not care anymore.

My parents, like many well-meaning people, have fallen into the skinny = healthy trap. When I told Mom I hated cross country and was quitting junior year of high school, she was concerned about my health without a regular source of exercise. The way she chose to phrase this concern was, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get fat if you don’t exercise?” This summer, I proudly declared that I didn’t care about my stomach fat anymore, because I had more important things to worry about and I wasn’t “overweight” anyway. My dad’s response: “Don’t you think you are, a little bit?” I responded with a vehement, “No!” Later, I had another thought. What if I was? Would it even matter?

Since then, I’ve thought about fat a lot. Here’s my non-radical reasoning about why fat is the wrong question:

Americans (and other people, to be fair) eat terrible food and don’t exercise. Many people could stand to be more healthy. But healthier doesn’t mean skinnier. People can be healthy at tons of different weights. Some obese people eat very little and exercise regularly. Some skinny people can eat whatever they want without gaining any weight. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. So sure, encourage people to be healthy, eat well, lay off the junk food and exercise regularly. Maybe they’ll lose weight in the process. Maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll certainly be healthier, and better off. There is absolutely no need to shame people for their weight or teach them that they are disgusting or unworthy of love or some other awful shit like that.

And here’s my more radical reasoning (thanks to the amazing Lindy West at The Stranger for giving me some of these ideas in her awesome essay Hello, I Am Fat, which you should go read right now.)

Being healthy is an admirable trait, but it’s not the be all and end all of human existence. What if someone wants to eat fried food all the time? That’s their right as a person. What if someone has absolutely no desire to lose weight? That’s absolutely their prerogative, because it’s their body. Not yours. Not society’s. Not everybody has to be healthy, just like not everyone has to be well-read or fluent in three languages or able to cook five course meals or pilot fighter jets. These are all traits that make for pleasant, well-rounded people, but they’re not essential to live a happy, fulfilling life. If someone wants to be unhealthy, that’s completely their choice. If someone happens to be fat, there’s no guarantee that they are unhealthy at all, and either way, you don’t have a right to tell them how to live their life.

People berate and ridicule fat people, tell them that they’re imperfect, half-formed people who just need to lose a little weight before they can find love and happiness. People who do this claim to be concerned about health and people’s well being, which is bullshit. As Lindy points out, health includes mental health, and there are literally millions of fat people who’re tried to lose weight to no avail.

For people who are concerned about public health, I would like to point something else out. I’ve previously quoted Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, who argues that obesity is a symptom not of “an impoverished faculty of choice” but “an impoverished range of choices”. Obesity correlates with poverty, because poor people are more likely to live in food deserts and to not be able to afford fresh produce, gym memberships and a host of other things that keep the rich looking like covergirls. So if you’re really, really concerned about health and people’s well being, you’d be much better off pushing for food system reform (an end to corn subsidies, better social welfare programs, subsidized produce, etc.) than you would shaming fat people.

Obviously, that’s what I want to do. But I’m making a promise to myself. Starting today, I promise to take good care of myself–regular exercise, not too much junk food. I promise to love myself no matter how much I weigh. I promise to never try to lose weight, because that’s so not the point. I promise to remember all the amazing things my body can do, like hiking up ridiculous hills. I promise to never encourage anyone else to lose weight or shame them for their body size or appearance. I promise to be aware of thin privilege. I promise to fight with everything I have to build a better food system, and if I happen to have stomach fat rolls while I’m doing it, I promise to not care at all.

No-car, week 1&2

I’ve had a bit more than a week at home, so I figure it’s time for an update on my No-Car Challenge. Thus far, I have mostly followed all the rules I originally set forth. I got a ride home from the airport and drove to get dinner with my cousin because I was going with my brother, who would have driven anyway. I went to Walla Walla earlier, which is obviously outside the Seattle city limits. I did cheat a bit yesterday and get a ride home from my aunt after walking 3.5 miles to her house because I had a cold and needed to start cooking dinner for friends who were coming over. And I got a ride home from the Harry Potter premier last night because buses don’t run at 3am.

Strangely, it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal to not drive anywhere. I’ve been taking the bus more than I thought I would, and while busing usually takes about twice as long as driving somewhere, I’ve been able to get a ton of reading done that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ve done a few long walks to get places too, but mostly, I’ve just been chilling at home reading books.

So far, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything especially profound or out of the ordinary by not driving. Maybe this will change if I get more ambitious–I’m thinking of trying to bus out to Issaquah to see my aunt and cousins, and also of doing an entirely public transit trip to Mason Lake to see my grandma. Even if I don’t achieve a Zen-like trancendence of car culture, though, I’m accomplishing my main goal quite nicely. In the (almost) two weeks I’ve been home, I’ve spent a total of $18 on busses and $60 on gas to drive to Walla Walla. There’s no way that I could have driven around this whole time without spending at least $30 on gas and another $15 on parking. And while I’m definitely not saving the world, saving money feels almost as good.

Culture shock

The weirdest things about the US after a month in Ghana:

1) Driving home from the airport on a road that’s completely paved with no potholes, no tro-tros, no signs proclaiming the benefits of a relationship with Jesus Christ and nobody trying to sell me phone cards, water sachets or plantain chips.

2) Saying “Good morning” to someone and getting a curt nod in reply as opposed to a smile and reply of “Good morning, how are you?”

3) White people. Everywhere. In very excessive numbers.

4) Going outside and having the air smell vaguely like spring or car exhaust, as opposed to the pungent combination of street food, sewage, warm rain, diesel fumes and humidity (which I love, by the way).

5) Being able to pay for things with a credit card.

6) The lack of color, on people’s clothes, storefronts, signs and vehicles.

7) Brushing teeth with tap water. Also drinking tap water.

8) Paying 2-3 times as much for non-local produce that barely tastes like whatever it’s supposed to.

9) The quantity (less) and type (non-tropical) of vegetation.

10) The realization that I didn’t clean my room at all before I left, since I had less than 24 hours between getting home from school and leaving for 7 weeks of international travel.