Monday, September 13, 2010

The Ten Things I Hate About Now: Part 3

2. Factory Farming

I may step on some toes with this one. But I know something must be important to me when it affects my eating habits.

Animals were farmed by traditional methods - you know, the way we all have in our heads that they're farmed. On a homestead with a quaint family, a few angsty brothers, a hen-like mother and maybe a tomboyish daughter. The whole red barn with silos, ancient farmhouse, rolling meadows, animals of many different species roaming about, etc. All of the cliches you learned on the see-n-say.

The above description accounts for something like one percent of farming in this country. Maybe less. For everything else, it's the factory farm.

I'm not exactly sure how to describe just how awful the idea of the factory farm is. Maybe you remember when PETA was doing an expose on KFC farms, and how the workers were abusing the chickens all the time? Not only is that still going on, but it's just the very beginning.

Farming by its very nature involves a certain amount of cruelty, but nothing to this extent. Factory farms operate under the notion that animals are not animals. Instead, they are machines that can be tuned up, altered and controlled to better supply the human population. In this way, some animals are fed food that they aren't meant to eat (pigs and cows are fed human-unsuitable corn grown in gargantuan fields that could be otherwise used to feed people, for example). The environment is controlled at all times and most animals never, ever see the light of day. Waste disposal is at best unnatural and at worst apocalyptic to the environment on and around the farms.

And this method hasn't been around for that long. It was only in the postwar years that it really caught on.

Hogs and cattle have it pretty bad, but let's talk about the worst sufferers in this mess: Chickens and turkeys. Have you bought "cage-free" eggs? You were deceived. The USDA stipulations for cage-free are laughable, and any hen factory worth its salt is going to milk the loopholes for everything they're worth. "Cage-free" hens usually get to exit through a tiny, gated porthole in the side of the coop that opens into a tiny patch of fenced-in dirt. And most of the time that gate is closed, and the hens are confined inside.

Oh, and you know how when you think of turkeys, you see huge, magnificent birds with lots of feathers? Throw that image in the shredder. Modern turkeys have been bred to the point that they are so top-heavy (I.E., more breast meat) they can barely stand, let alone fly. Both turkeys and chickens are complicated animals that form social groups.

So do hogs. You know, there used to be lots and lots of different breeds of hogs. But now, farmers have essentially phased out all of those other breeds and replaced them with the current one that is fragile, temperamental and allergic to sunlight. The same thing happened to turkeys: There once were different, regional breeds of turkey. But now, everywhere you go, it's the same one.

Did you hear about the recent outbreak of salmonella in chicken eggs? Some ex-workers at one of the Iowa chicken plants said that, on the conveyor belt that was supposed to only carry eggs, they would regularly see chickens, alive and dead, rats, tools and once, a live cat. And when they pointed out these problems to USDA officials, they would turn their heads and say, "There's nothing we can do about it."

I could go on and on. Shady business tactics, massive distances between farm and slaughterhouses, frequent abuse, awful slaughterhouse conditions, disease-ridden meat--every horrible thing you can imagine goes on at these farms, and no one seems to care much about it.

I think--and hope--that in the decades to come, humanity will look back on factory farming and call it one of the biggest evils of the 21st century.

But the solution is not at all easy. The problem is, unlike what PETA believes, people are not just going to stop eating meat. And the reason meat prices have stayed relatively the same over the last 60 to 100 years of rapid growth is because the factory farm movement has kept up with demand. Its efficiency is unrivaled.

If factory farming were to stop today and suddenly everyone was farming traditionally again, meat prices would skyrocket. There just wouldn't be enough to go around. Unfortunately the easiest solution to this might be higher prices or - yes - lab-grown meat. In fact, I would even support the latter if it meant an end to this travesty of a development.

I'm not even really an animal rights guy. I like eating meat. I always have. I think it's natural. I just can't keep buying into this system. I just can't look at a plate of pork loin or chicken Parmesan or brisket and think, "This end justifies the means."

1. Suburban Sprawl

Well, here it is. The big issue. The one that ties into just about everything onto this list. For some people, it's abortion or human trafficking or starvation. For me, it's suburban sprawl.

Cities, towns and villages existed as coherent, unified systems of businesses, residences and industry. Zones complemented each other -- residential areas mingled with commercial and industrial, so workers could live near their factories, shop owners could live above their shops and civilians had easy access to the town around them.

Towns were for people. Not for cars. Sidewalks, alleys, paths -- all of these things existed to allow people to travel on foot to their destinations, which were usually within walking distance.

In fact, just quit reading now and go visit Paris or Florence or Tokyo or some small town in Britain and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Some bug set off a chain reaction shortly after World War II. Somewhere in the military tactics we used overseas clicked in our town development, and a problem occurred.

We started dividing the elements of a unified space. Business moved out of downtown and into a new place, on the edge of town. These new residential areas - subdivisions started appearing. Places called "industrial parks" appeared.

If a town is a unified mixture of ingredients, the sprawl model is all of those ingredients spread out, far apart, on a long, low table.

But what's so bad about all of that, you ask? What's the problem? I'll tell you. It destroys community. In fact, it's destroyed community so utterly that we don't even know what the word means anymore.

We'll talk about the living environment first.

You can see a sprawl-model neighborhood in just about any town. Most of the time the houses were built anywhere from the 1970s until now, with a few rare earlier examples. All of the houses look just about the same - low, usually one story, with a lot of yard and a very large, sometimes two- or three-car garage. Sometimes the garage takes up the entire front of the building.

The roads in the neighborhood are long, winding, and seem to have no rhythm or purpose. Some lead to dead-end cul-de-sacs. You might enter a neighborhood thinking you will find a shortcut to a place on the opposite side, but the roads may turn you completely around. Although the speed limit is 25 mph, you find it very easy to speed 10 or more over the limit.

Probably there are no sidewalks or parks. There are people outside, but not too many. As you leave you see the name of the neighborhood is something completely irrelevant, like "Stonehenge Garden" or "Perimeter Center."

The sprawl house, in essence, is trying to be the American ideal of a farmhouse: isolated, a family's treasured living space with a lot of surrounding property and the promise of unconquered land. But the fatal flaw is, you can't have that in a town or city environment without creating a sense of total alienation. I've read about Boomers who fled our cities during the 1960s and found themselves living in these sprawl neighborhoods where they never, ever met anybody.

As a result, people become paranoid. They lock their doors (in the 1950s and earlier, they didn't) and are suspicious of visitors.

And the businesses you see pop up in the sprawl are just hopeless parodies of the community-driven places that once existed in downtowns. But I've already covered that in my big-box retail section.

And these neighborhoods and business zones are horrible, horrible wastes of space. Take a look at some aerial photos of sprawl restaurants (Chili's, Applebee's, Olive Garden, etc.) and note how much space is devoted to parking lots. And that goes back to our over-reliance of cars.

The same cars that are splattering kids in the sprawl neighborhoods. The reason why this happens is because of those long, winding roads I was talking about. Neighborhood designers made them like that because they were supposed to be safer, but instead, the gentle curves and wide lanes just provoke people to drive faster. A good neighborhood has sharp right turns, lots of stop signs and big obstacles. Nothing makes you drive slower than having to stop all the time.

And why do you think we have such a problem with obesity? People in the sprawl drive everywhere. There's no public transportation and kids are never able to experience their town because there is no town. So they stay at home, play video games and at worst, never meet the other kids in their neighborhood. They turn into that alienated and depressed teenage generation that we can't seem to understand.

But who convinced us to move to these neighborhoods? People didn't just show up there overnight. Some of it was the new families returning from the War. The earliest sprawl neighborhoods were what they called "Levittowns," and were built specifically for those soldiers.

But it continued through the 1950s, and led to this particular phenomenon called "White Flight." This happened when blacks started moving into the older neighborhoods in cities and racism started urging folks out. Underhanded real estate techniques (usually called "block-busting") populated these new neighborhoods. And then the 50-minute commute began.

As a result, our cities and downtowns atrophied. Do you remember when, in the 1990s, New York City was legendary for its crime? That was a recent development. It happened because people simple left the city! All of the business was handed to the sprawl on a silver platter.

In some places, it's gotten severely out of hand. Try driving through Houston, Phoenix or Atlanta and you'll see what I mean. I lived for seven years in West Mobile and watched the sprawl choke the life out of everything around me.

Sprawl affects our aesthetics (it's all very, very ugly and commands low respect), our property values (it lowers them almost 100 percent of the time) and ultimately our community. The big box stores, the McMansions, the fast food, the megachurches, the oceans of parking lot, the death of downtowns, the crime in cities - all of it ties back into the sprawl.

I can't really say. Sprawl a multi-headed beast and I don't really know which head is the main one. I can say that a lot of towns and town designers have seen the problems that sprawl creates, but it will be a very, very long time before all of the damage is undone. I am pleased to say that I've witnessed a bit of a renaissance in Searcy's downtown over the last five years, and some of that has to do with Main Street Arkansas, a program that I love with all of my heart.

Other times I think, "Why don't I just leave this country?" But I can't, because it's my country, and my family and friends are here, and I can't just leave it all behind like that. So I guess, in the meantime, it's back to fishing for time.

I got a lot of my information from the following sources...
Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
The Old Neighborhood: What we lost in the great suburban migration, 1965-1999 by Ray Suarez
The Failure of Modern Architecture by Brent C. Brolin
America's Forgotten Architecture by Tony Wrenn and Elizabeth Mulloy
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
Super-Size Me (Film), dir. John Banzhaf
Food, Inc. (Film), dir. Robert Kenner

Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small
that we can never get away from the sprawl