Culture Oiled_Bird_-_Black_Sea_Oil_Spill_111207

Published on June 16th, 2010 | by Justin Van Kleeck

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“Making It Right” for Real: Responding to the BP Gulf Oil Spill

Oiled_Bird_-_Black_Sea_Oil_Spill_111207

It has been just under two months now since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and oil, with natural gas and other chemicals, started spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. I need not recount the ensuing debacle, as I am sure almost everyone is far too familiar with the dire results. Considering that there has not been much positive progress in cleaning up the mess, I know too well how painful the reality of this situation is.

Everyone in affected areas is suffering from this terrible disaster, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Yes, residents are losing income from fishing and tourism, and people working or living in affected areas are already having health problems. But the wildlife is suffering, too. Scores of birds and other innocent creatures, on the coast and offshore, will be irreparably harmed for many, many years to come. No amount of scrubbing and financial reimbursement can make up for all of those lives lost…not even for one bird or fish. Why? Because this deadly disaster is a product of human action, plagued by greed and selfishness and ignorance.

I cringe every time I hear an update on the oil spill response,  whether from BP or the U.S. government. It seems like neither is stepping up to take full, honest responsibility for all of the factors involved here, and so far their actions and rhetorical quibbling have indicated more of a deflect and defend approach than one of full accountability and serious response. So when BP talks about “making it right” in their response, it is hard not to be utterly, ruthlessly cynical.

One potentially positive outcome–and I shudder even saying “positive” in this context–is President Obama’s temporary moratorium on offshore drilling. Thanks to this, many still-pristine areas got a little more time…if only a little. Without a permanent ban, we could soon see oil rigs offshore (and onshore as well) in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or any number of other equally fragile ecosystems.

How to “Make It Right”: Crafting Your Own Response to the Oil Spill

When it comes to “making it right,” then, I think it falls onto us, average citizens who can shape future policy with our words, our votes, and our cash. And we can, indeed we must, try to “make it right” with more sustainable lifestyles in order to reduce the at-all-costs drive for more oil.

But what do we do in the near term, right now while oil is still leaking into the Gulf and washing up on more and more coastlines? (If you think this is just a distant problem, far from wherever you live, try making it more “real” and see how the spill would look covering your home turf.) We can, and I think we must, speak up and let our anger, sadness, and desire for change be known. Here are a few ways to speak out about the oil spill and our policies on oil development:

It seems we cannot rely on BP or the government to “make it right” for real, and for the long term, so we better start doing something ourselves. I have seen far too many goo-covered birds already…we have no excuse for doing this to more of them in the future.

One good long-term response: cut your own use of oil. Take a look at our selection of road bikes from Fuji, Scott, and Schwinn.

Image credit: Marine Photobank, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.



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About the Author

I am an ethical vegan (since 1999), a writer, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a vegan-of-all-trades. I have a PhD in English but then left academia to work on social change. I focus on veganism, animal rights, local foods, farming practices, environmentalism, and sustainability--starting from the position that humans are just one part of the biosphere, not the center of it.



  • Angela

    Overall, this article was great. I was about to link to it on Twitter when I read the last suggestion, about buying a T-shirt from PETA.

    Please, do not endorse PETA or encourage people to give them money. The wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico will not be helped by this. PETA’s aim is to end the practice of keeping domestic animals. PETA–and the HSUS–are giant corporations who spend millions more on advertising than they do on helping animals.

    Find an organization that is on the ground helping animals, transparent and accountable in how they spend donations, and doesn’t want to eradicate your cats, dogs, and pastured cattle.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Thank you, Angela. PETA and HSUS are primarily interested in one thing: separating well-meaning people from their hard-earn money.

    Justin, you need to do some homework before you get all upset with BP and the oil business at large.

    First, get upset with Obama and his inner circle for playing politics. If Katrina was Bush’s fault, then the Deepwater Horizon spill falls squarely upon Obama’s shoulders. Obama’s handling of this disaster is more akin to Mayor Ray Nagin’s and Governor Kathleen Blanco’s handling of Katrina (not Bush’s). Obama – like Nagin and Blanco with Katrina – chose to ignore the problem and reject assistance until it morphed into a disaster. Obama’s EPA director, Lisa Jackson, took little interest in the spill for ten full days. In her defense, the spill began April 20th just a couple of days ahead of Earth Day 2010 and she had many other important engagements to attend: concerts, speeches, appearances on talk shows, meetings with business leaders and heads of state, etc. If you think I am making this up, you only need check her published schedule between April 20 and April 30 on the EPA’s website (http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/Calendars_1?OpenView&RestrictToCategory=Lisa%20P.%20Jackson.%20Administrator,%20Environmental%20Protection%20Agency). Obama’s Department of the Interior Chief of Staff, Tom Strickland, left for a “work-related” white water rafting trip to the Grand Canyon just a few days after the spill started (http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2010/05/while-oil-slick-spread-interior-department-chief-of-staff-rafted-with-wife-in-grand-canyon-.html). Even if the spill’s potential was not recognized during those first few days, one would think a drilling explosion that killed eleven workers would have resulted in a change of plans for both of these officials; if not the president (who vacations and plays golf more than any of his predecessors) himself.

    Second, get upset with the hypocrisy of the left. During the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s, Saddam Hussein’s military intentionally created the largest oil related disaster in history. In 1980, Mexico’s PEMEX was responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s largest ever oil spill, which destroyed more than 300 miles of the Texas coastline. For its part in causing such a disaster, Mexico cited diplomatic immunity, paid the US zero dollars and offered no help with the clean-up. In Nigeria, oil spills are the rule not the exception. Outside the United States oil related accidents and spills are relatively common, but barely get noticed by the mainstream media or the major environmental organizations. In the wake of ignoring dozens of oil related disasters around the globe, isn’t calling for activism in light of the few we have in the U.S. a bit hypocritical?

    Third, get upset with Obama again for not waving the Jones Act (a union payoff) to allow members of the international community to assist with the clean-up. If this oil leak is as bad as everyone says, shouldn’t we be allowing other nations to assist with efforts to correct the problem?

    Fourth, let us keep hammering away at Obama & Co.’s inaction. Packgen in Auburn, Maine, had 13 miles of oil containment boom at the ready before the accident. They can produce 100,000 additional feet per day (almost 20 miles per day) if necessary. They notified many in Obama’s administration shortly after the leak began (http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/breaking-coast-guard-head-was-informed-of-maine-oil-boom-on-521-yesterday-he-claimed-he-didnt-know/), but the booms remained warehoused until late May (http://www.pressherald.com/news/Maine-oil-booms-on-the-way-to-help-Gulf-spill-.html). Go figure.

    Fifth, blame misapplied diversity and political correctness for trimming the IQ of the original scientific dream team, which was assembled to develop solutions for this problem. One physicist was released because his social views did not align with those of Obama’s U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu (http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-05-18/katz-fired-from-oil-spill-team-due-to-controversial-writings-.html). Just imagine if this fellow holds the key to the solution.

    Lastly, blame environmentalism. It is the environmental lobby that forced domestic oil producers into the business of deep water oil exploration and drilling. The greens are directly responsible for prohibiting access to 300 years worth of proven domestic reserves both on land and in shallow coastal areas (http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/06/the_presidents_oil_reserves_li.html). Had this accident and its resulting leak occurred on land or in shallow waters, it would have been fixed in a matter of days; not months.

    Before I close, thank God. Thank God that the world was created in such a way that our mistakes can be washed away. Past disasters become forgotten history. The impacted areas return to normal in a short amount of time. The rains, wave action, evaporation, ground seepage, foliage, etc. all work to erase the evidence. With or without a clean-up effort, the effects of this spill will eventually disappear.

    To close, it is naïve to believe – or even wish – that oil will never be a part of our lives. Petroleum not only provides energy, but it is a much needed lubricant and a building block for many of the things we use every day. The administration’s moratorium can never be permanent, unless BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” advertisements and its generous monetary support of Obama’s presidential campaign were premonitions of a collusive relationship to introduce a new paradigm in the wake of a conveniently timed disaster. Such a conspiracy is surely beyond the realm of reality, even for an administration whose minions’ favorite saying is, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

  • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

    First, Angela, I am glad you liked most of the post but sorry you took exception to PETA & the HSUS. I disagree with your position on both. First off, HSUS & PETA are not claiming to be shelter organizations or to make it their mission to take in homeless animals, but they do many other investigations and activities that bring very real help to animals, directly. And secondly, the fact that they spend money on media & advertising is not a de facto proof of any sort of hypocrisy or misappropriation of donations. Both organizations do immense work to raise peoples’ awareness about animals and the issues surrounding animal suffering in many forms–human-caused suffering. The celebrities they use are a big part of that, since more “traditional” approaches to campaigning often miss the demographic that worships stars to the detriment of informed debate and more important issues. Luckily in both cases, the approaches are multi-faceted, not JUST about star-power or one particular cause. And I cited the PETA shirt specifically because it is succinct, strong, and “fun” in its way…for those of us who are in fact peeved at BP.

    Which leads me to Bobby. (First, hello again Bobby. Good to be talking with you again…been a while.) I am not in any way defending Obama, nor do I think I did so in my post. I agree with much of what you wrote–his administration, and so he in propria persona, bear a large burden of blame for inaction and bad decisions. But the corruption in the MMSA and elsewhere goes way, WAY back before him, to Bush and even before him. The oil lobby and its influences on government policy have a big part to play in that, too. (Look at the number of Bush-appointed ex-oilmen in the MMSA…a familiar scenario, alas). But it was not Obama’s or any administration’s responsibility to put safety and legal compliance above profits; that was the corporations’ (BP et al.) responsibility, and they failed. If you argue there should have been more enforcement, in this case or others you cited, then that seems again like passing the buck to government for the core duty of compliance. And after the spill, BP repeatedly took actions (or failed to) that deflected blame, clouded facts, and stalled–because of the impact it would have on stock values and company cachet in the market. That angers me. At least Obama’s administrations were trying, as haplessly as that might have happened on the ground. And at least he took responsibility. It would be a mistake to place sole blame on Obama, or BP, or the oil lobby, or on your average petroholic citizen. Obviously. But I have witnessed enough of BP’s self- and stock-defensive actions thus far to be righteously indignant at them, while only frustrated with the government.

    No one is getting off clean in this disaster, especially not the Gulf ecosystem.

  • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

    And yet more “leaks” on BP’s deliberate negligence: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/us_and_canada/10362139.stm.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Justin, you must feel as though the environmental movement’s political support of “The One” was unbelievably short-sighted and too easily molded by the mainstream media’s promotion of Obama’s cult of personality. I still regret wasting my vote on McCain, which I cast to oppose Obama rather than to support McCain, but his defeat absolves me from feeling any guilt for the actions of the current regime.

    In this case, should we not apply the old saying, “To the victor belong the spoils?” As the newly elected president, Obama would have been within his rights to restructure his cabinet and the various government agencies that he inherited. If he decided that it was okay to keep corrupt officials from previous administrations on the government payroll, then he is complicit to their alleged crimes. If he or any of his staff profited from a relationship with BP and bent the rules to favor them over other companies, then they all should be investigated and punished appropriately. We know without question that BP supported Obama’s campaign to the tune of some $750 million, and now we learn that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel enjoyed a rent-free apartment for five years:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2010/06/rahm-emanuel-bp-gul-oil-spill.html

    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/blogs/beltway-confidential/bp-client-gave-rahm-rent-free-dc-apartment-95865949.html

    http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/06/rahm_emanuel_lived_rent_free_i.html

    What a sweet deal that must have been, and deals like that rarely come without strings being attached. Of course, “The One” and his “disciples” are above any influence that big money can buy (sarcasm intended).

    Now, if you want to go down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, stories have been bouncing around the internet about the well being torpedoed by a North Korean submarine or sabotaged by eco-terrorists (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/randall-amster/was-the-gulf-oil-spill-an_b_560014.html). If some crack journalist could tie the submarine conspiracy to the story about the fisherman and the periscope (http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/state/boater-chases-mysterious-periscope-off-hollywood-beach-752917.html), you would have the makings of an “X-Files” grade cover-up. ;-)

    • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

      Believe it or not, Bobby, I did not vote for Obama either. I think my original post and my response to your comment will make clear that I am not a devotee of Obama (though for the most part I have a favorable opinion of him so far–excepting the war[s], the health care push, and other things). I am not at all excusing him or his administration for the response to the oil spill. But I do not want to, and I am not going to let you, change the subject here. We can speculate until the cows come home about payoffs and conspiracies that led to a situation in which the oil rig could be in operation and a state of danger. Honestly, though, that is only a minimal bee in my green bonnet. I found most incensing BP’s statements, actions, and overall strategy in response to the event itself; the administration’s response was not much more reassuring, but it was nowhere near as…well, insulting.

      The points you raise do speak to a larger issue, one that troubles me terribly: the power of the oil lobby, and rich lobbies in general, in government. You may blame government for taking the funds, but do not forget to blame the corporations for exerting every form of underhanded influence they can–based on an agenda of profits, not of social welfare. So you can attack Obama all you want for accepting BP support, but that is pretty hypocritical given his predecessor.

      Still, the point remains, BP has clearly been negligent fore and aft, and countless lives have been lost or harmed as a result. Accepting blame and the costs involved immediately would have helped in so many ways, but BP had a very different bottom line. The thought of this industry, with its “ethics,” let loose on some of the most fragile ecosystems, and given such tremendous power in our houses of (so-called) law, utterly breaks my heart and feeds my deepening cynicism.

      And before I close, let me say in response to your first comment that the penultimate “glory to God” paragraph really troubled me. Major disasters may be forgotten by history, and the ecosystems may return to something like what they were before, but that in no way makes up for or excuses any single tragedy, especially if it could have been prevented. I am just very bothered by what seemed to me like a dismissal of this event as part of some grand “Providence.” Whatever your criticisms and cynicism and choices of whom to blame, please at least understand why this tragedy troubles people like me: We feel the suffering of the people, the animals, and the environment very deeply. And I am tired of people wasting time pointing fingers or just accepting it as “part of the cost.” No life is expendable.

  • http://www.adiaryleftopen.com Patty K Mooney
  • http://www.adiaryleftopen.com Patty K Mooney

    Plus, I might add that it was Dick Cheney via George W. Bush who deregulated deep-sea drilling (not Obama).

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    P1 (BP’s infuriating comments versus the administration’s long-delayed non-response): The questions that need definitive answers are whether or not the regulatory agencies (MMS, OSHA, etc.) gave BP permission to deviate from standard procedures and if those deviations were directly responsible for the accident. The post-accident finger pointing by those intimately involved and the administration’s inaction and “blame Bush” stance should be equally infuriating, because both were attempts to detract from the significance of the event.

    P2 & P3 (Money in Politics): A perennial question has always plagued politics. Why do rich people seek political positions that pay a pittance of their standard pay grade? The answers generally include: an honest desire to serve, a need to satisfy an incredible ego, and an extreme lust for power. However, the common denominator underlying all three answers is CASH. Whatever the politician’s motive for securing an office, it takes CASH to get there and more CASH to stay there. The McCain-Feingold bill was a skewed attempt to get big money out of politics. It was rightly found unconstitutional because it restricted certain types of donations while letting other types go unchecked. It should have made some sort of across-the-board limitation. You and I can only speculate about what motivates corporations, not-for-profits, PAC’s, 527’s, and individuals to give money to politicians. However, I do believe that they should all be required to adhere to the same set of rules. Now, since it is the politicians who ultimately make those rules, shouldn’t the politicians be the ones held to a higher standard?

    Also, how can you accuse me of being hypocritical when it comes to Bush’s versus Obama’s campaign finance shenanigans? To my knowledge, this is our first foray into the topic and you have no baseline to judge what my opinions may have been with regards to “W”.

    Lastly, you and I will never have enough time to discuss the goodness or the evil that is inherent in both the capitalist drive for profit and the anti-capitalist desire for a utopia based upon social welfare.

    P4 (My “glory to God” statements and your “No life is expendable” quote): I was in no way trying to dismiss the significance of this event. I have mourned the individuals (strangers to me but not to my extended family who work the oilfields) who died while trying to earn their livings and prayed that their families can find some comfort in the wake of such losses. I am upset that the media have largely ignored their deaths and have opted instead to report about the impact of the leak on wildlife, politics and tourism. I am also saddened that this disaster is being used to push liberty-crushing, cap-and-trade legislation upon the populace. I was only trying to give the environmentalists a ray of hope, because the earth will survive and the eco-system will eventually return to normal. These lives – and possibly a large piece of our freedom – will forever be lost.

    “No life is expendable.” Have I actually had an exchange with an environmentalist who is anti-abortion? If so, you would be the first.

  • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

    Thank you for the response, Bobby. As always, your comments are thoughtful and thought provoking. Trust me, I am with you that government is a quagmire of corruption and should be viewed with all means of skepticism. But I want to emphasize that for me, I distrust government only slightly LESS than I distrust big corporations. Whether or not the MMS et al. screwed up before the rig exploded, BP screwed up royally after the fact. I see no hypocrisy or reason for being fainthearted to grill them for that. Nor should the government be let off the hook if in fact their negligence (and corruption) allowed the even to happen in the first place. Let the investigations begin…

    As for the “hypocrisy” of attacking Obama but not Bush, that may have been a bad word choice, so I apologize. I was not so much calling you a hypocrite but instead making the point that Obama came very late to any corruption game in the MMS, given who appointed most of its heads. It is unfortunate that that agency had not been scoured by corruption investigations by Salazar, etc., as were other agencies. My main issue was that if you are going to criticize Obama for that situation, you have to acknowledge Bush’s role in it, too.

    I appreciate the clarification about the end of your comments. I agree with you about the post-homo era, and that is just about all that GIVES ME HOPE these days. But I still want to work to make a positive difference and help ease the damage if possible, not contribute to it or get complacent.

    As for abortion, that is a very different discussion. I will only say I respect all life and cherish it, but I respect the right to choose in this matter, which is so much the mother’s. And “abortion” as “murder” is such a thorny issue, I do not even want to go there.

    Thank you again for the tete-a-tete, Bobby.

  • http://onyahoo michael geisen

    why can’t bp use a large bell with a line running back to the surface to catch the out pour of oil and pour concrete over the bell to hold it down then draw the oil up the line to a waiting oil tanker ?(large heavey bell like with a lip that would sink into the ground)

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Justin, thanks for your considerate reply.

    Please know that I do not believe in any sort of “post-homo era.” Man is the only benefactor of HOPE, because he alone possesses the capacity for FAITH. Any potential “post-homo era” might be an environmentalist’s ecological paradise, but it would also be a godless era of no religious or historical significance. What you see as fantastic, I see as empty.

    I do always find it fascinating that the average environmentalist – especially one who claims to value all life – finds the issue of abortion to be “thorny” and solely a matter of maternal choice. Most greens will use the “no life is expendable” argument when discussing animal abuse, animal slaughter, animal laboratory testing, the prevention and/or termination of unwanted animal pregnancies, manmade environmental disasters, and some plant harvesting practices (i.e. forestry). However, when we switch the subject to a human fetus, life suddenly becomes less sacred. It is as if human life has less value than all other life. One might suppose that the environmentalist’s devaluation of human life comes from his belief that man is an alien invader bent on destroying the natural world; instead of a part of the natural order. Abortion proponents who may or may not hold to the man-as-invader view often attempt to rationalize the expendability of something that is uniquely human through educated discussions about when life might actually begin: conception, birth, somewhere in between, or some years afterwards (ref. Peter Singer). Ironically, to stay aligned with the political platforms of the parties that claim to be pro-environment, the average green will cite the sanctity of life when opposing the execution of a heinous human criminal. When it comes to capital punishment, it is as if the environmentalist views the condemned man as a lesser animal, relegates him to the natural world, and bestows upon him a value that he did not possess before committing his crimes. Is there not something diabolical in a worldview that accepts the sacrifice of an innocent but opposes the elimination of an evildoer?

    Let’s take another path to the rabbit hole. Say that a given environmentalist adheres to the Darwinian view that man evolved from the lower animals? This belief is forced to accept man as part of the natural order, and view him of no more or no less value than any other beast. To quote PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Should not the proponent of this worldview seek to protect the lives of all pre-born and post-born men just as vehemently as he seeks to protect the lives of his distant cousins?

    I know that we got off topic and that you did not want to go there, but I just could not pass up the opportunity to comment on what I see as inconsistencies in the sanctity of life dogma.

  • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

    Following you down the rabbit hole Bobby… Let me first address the abortion issue. The MAIN problem here is that you are comparing two nonequivalent things: a living, in-the-world animal to an unborn human fetus. I am sure you have your own definition of when “life”–in the fullest sense of the word, not just biological functionality–begins, but there is a wide variety of arguments to answer that. So when you refer to “abortion,” you are also using a generalized term to cover a wide variety of procedures relative to the time they occur. A late-term abortion is deemed more, ummm, controversial because the fetus is more developed, complex, and near the state of full personhood. But is a zygote equally “valuable” in the sense of having rights? Now, the reason greens and animal-rights folks will fight so hard for animals and still be pro-abortion is because of the relative value of the lives involved and the capacity for suffering in each case. A normal, sentient, sensitive animal has a vast amount more capability to suffer than a fetus–even more than a young infant. That is why, at least in our minds (yes, I include myself here), it is as much if not more a crime to torture and kill animals than unborn fetuses. The only reason that pro-lifers are horrified by this is because of speciesism and giving a greater value to HUMAN life, no matter what stage of life it is at. This de facto privilege is based on a perception that human life is of the utmost importance, not life itself, and that human life can and should be preserved at the expense of anything and everything else. Greens and PETA-philes (tongue in cheek here; I need a shorthand) disagree and feel 1) that animals have as much capacity to suffer and as much right to humane treatment as humans, and 2) that the “value” of a life should be judged not by the species but by the individual’s state of life and capacity. (This sort of a mindset also explodes racism and sexism…since no generalizations about a group, based on arbitrary categorizations, determine beliefs and behaviors.)

    You rail on us (here I go again) for fighting for animals and not for fetuses, but I can turn that around just as easily: You (there I go again) will fight like mad for fetuses that are no more than couple of cells and yet inflict all forms of torture, exploitation, and apathy towards non-human animals simply because they are non-human. I have a major problem with that, more so than killing an unborn fetus with little capacity, at that moment in time, to suffer or contribute to the world. (If you are going to argue that a human fetus has more POTENTIAL to contribute to the world, then I would fire back that it also has the potential to harm the world…a little Hitler or Pol Pot in the making. You cannot reasonably argue one way or the other, and so there is no ground to bring it in to the discussion. And this is also true for the made-in-God’s-image line, or the God-gave-man-dominion-over-animals line. That is a matter of faith, not solid proof or reasoned argument; bring that up, and the debate stops.)

    I am going to stop there. But if you are claiming that we are inconsistent in the sanctity-of-life argument, then just recognize there is as much if not more inconsistent in your view.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Justin, those are interesting arguments and probably the most logical that I have ever seen presented. However, I would be remiss if I did not address a few of them. Below, “S” equals your statement and “R” equals my response.

    S: A late-term abortion is deemed more, ummm, controversial because the fetus is more developed, complex, and near the state of full personhood. But is a zygote equally “valuable” in the sense of having rights?
    R: A person who kills a pregnant woman is generally charged with two counts of murder, regardless of the pregnancy’s term.

    S: A normal, sentient, sensitive animal has a vast amount more capability to suffer than a fetus–even more than a young infant.
    R: (1) Since animals – we are told – act solely upon instinct, are they truly “sentient” with regards to their ability to comprehend or to react to anything more than basic triggers. (2) Humans have larger encephalization quotients and more highly developed cerebral cortexes than beasts. The human brain begins to form in Week 3 of gestation, divides into hemispheres and shows wave activity in Week 6, controls voluntary muscle movements by Week 19, regulates all body functions by Week 24, dreams at Week 27 and is essentially complete by Week 28; although it continues to grow and to make complex neural connections until age five or six. It is difficult to accept that any animal has “MORE capability to suffer” than a mid-to-late term fetus or an infant.

    S: That is why, at least in our minds (yes, I include myself here), it is as much if not more a crime to torture and kill animals than unborn fetuses.
    R: So, you would take no exceptions to aborting and to experimenting on animal fetuses as long as the parent animal suffers no permanent harm?

    S: The only reason that pro-lifers are horrified by this is because of speciesism and giving a greater value to HUMAN life, no matter what stage of life it is at.
    R: I admit that I assign a greater value to human life, and that I do debate from that perspective.

    S: … the “value” of a life should be judged not by the species but by the individual’s state of life and capacity.
    R: Who gets the privilege of assigning “value” to an individual’s life and determining who is worthy of living? Be careful how you word such a statement as it echoes the sentiments of past tyrants.

    S: You rail on us…
    R: I do not “rail” on anyone.

    S: And this is also true for the made-in-God’s-image line, or the God-gave-man-dominion-over-animals line. That is a matter of faith, not solid proof or reasoned argument; bring that up, and the debate stops.
    R: My “in God’s image” and “man’s dominion” beliefs are no more or less matters of faith than your beliefs to the contrary. Opposing faiths are why the debate stops, not that science offers solid proof for what you consider to be a more reasoned argument.

    S: I am going to stop there.
    R: It has been great talking with you. Take care.

  • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

    Hey there Bobby. Great responses, really, and I am glad to respond as best I can. But first, in general, I would strongly recommend to you Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation (be sure to get the revised edition). I know that is not your cup of tea, but Singer is a seriously rigorous thinker and ethicist, and he addresses all of the issues you touch on and more. The main point in all of this is NOT to disrespect humans OR argue carte blanche for a “sanctity of life, no compromises” attitude. It is more a matter of giving animals an equal consideration when it comes to treatment…I want to make that clear, since not all animal-rights advocates are as fair to humans as they want to be to animals. But now let me respond to your comments:

    1. A person who kills a pregnant woman is generally charged with two counts of murder, regardless of the pregnancy’s term.
    – This only reflects a speciesistic judicial system, and even among humans this is not unanimously agreed upon. For myself, I think it reflects more (or as much) upon a skewed, often draconian legal system than anything else.

    2. (1) Since animals – we are told – act solely upon instinct, are they truly “sentient” with regards to their ability to comprehend or to react to anything more than basic triggers.
    – The “we are told” is provocative. It really depends on who does the “telling.” This is what I tried to get at…we are learning more and more about the complex minds and lives of animals. The only reason we treat them as pure instinct machines, and automatons, is because we are unable or unwilling to understood fully, in a non-prejudiced way, the richness of their capabilities. (Not all are equal, of course…just as not all humans are equal).
    (2) Humans have larger encephalization quotients and more highly developed cerebral cortexes than beasts…
    – Your description of fetal development is interesting, Bobby. But if you research recent scientific findings about animals–from the complex “languages” of birds and whales and even fish to social structures of insects–I think you will find some info that shows how complex and developed their capabilities are. My point only is that fully developed animals are going to be at least as sensitive to suffering, with more developed and powerful brains, than a fetus…even an infant. On a functional level as well as a mental level. Just because fetal brains develop and they exhibit wave patterns does not mean there is any sense of self-identity, an intellectualized experience of surroundings, or even pure instinct. I just have a hard time agreeing that a weeks-old fetus is more complex, and more deserving of fair treatment, than an animal ONLY because it is a human fetus. I would also remind you that many of the same arguments you are making about human superiority to animals have been made in the past to support racism, sexism, and xenophobia (see, for example, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel for an excellent exploration of this, as well as Peter Singer again). I have more to say on this below.

    3. So, you would take no exceptions to aborting and to experimenting on animal fetuses as long as the parent animal suffers no permanent harm?
    – I would take exception to purposefully aborting ANYTHING solely for the purposes of experimentation. Alternative methods have been and are being developed, requiring no death whatsoever. I do not see what point you are trying to make here, though.

    4. Who gets the privilege of assigning “value” to an individual’s life and determining who is worthy of living? Be careful how you word such a statement as it echoes the sentiments of past tyrants
    – That is a good question, Bobby, but obviously most humans are not giving animals much value at all and are drawing a purely arbitrary line of human-nonhuman when it comes to consideration of rights and justice. It is not a matter of pinpointing the “feeble” or “valueless” for extermination but simply saying that how we have valued life up to this point has been based on a weak line of human-nonhuman, not on the actual capacities of the beings involved. We are not establishing criteria but instead questioning the existing value system.

    5. I do not “rail” on anyone.
    – Collective impersonal “you” there, sorry for the linguistic slippage.

    6. My “in God’s image” and “man’s dominion” beliefs are no more or less matters of faith than your beliefs to the contrary. Opposing faiths are why the debate stops, not that science offers solid proof for what you consider to be a more reasoned argument.
    – This argument is old and familiar, but it is not convincing for me. I do not agree at all that religious faith and scientific “faith” are equable. Religious faith is, as Paul says in Hebrews, “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11.1). Science, however, seeks to test and prove theories based on solid evidence, and all theories are only accepted when they can provide testable predictions. Religious faith is based on revelation and personal experience, as well as tradition, and supports a refutation of physical evidence whenever it contradicts “the word of God.” I see no similarity or even parity in saying, on one hand, “God made man in his image because the Bible says so,” and saying, on the other hand, that animals have such and such capabilities as displayed in various tests. Sure tests can be flawed, but there is a serious difference between scientific experiment, and the reasoning based on that, and conviction from faith by fiat.
    But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that all the scientific findings about animals’ capabilities are bunk, and that they are in fact little more than instinct machines with not the slightest smidgen of “smarts.” That does not give us complete freedom to treat them cruelly and cause them needless suffering. To me, it really is not a question of their capabilities to reason and judge…but ours. We have those capabilities, and we have ethical responsibility, regardless of the reciprocal nature (or not) of the relationship; the fact that we rely (sadly) on animals for so many things only heightens the responsibility we have. I would make the same case for natural resources: Besides depending on them, we can and should make decisions of how we “use” (treat) them based on ethical principles (rather than, say, a “to the victor the spoils” sort of mindset). You may be rolling your eyes at all of this as a suspiciously socialist sounding pipe dream, so let me return to the point and close for now. Over 200 years ago, Jeremy Bentham (the father of utilitarianism, remember) said it perfectly when discussing how we should treat nonhuman animals: “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (The Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789, Chapter XVII, Section 1). You do not need cutting-edge science to answer that question.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Let me respond to a few of your comments:

    1. This only reflects a speciesistic judicial system, and even among humans this is not unanimously agreed upon. For myself, I think it reflects more (or as much) upon a skewed, often draconian legal system than anything else.
    – Can a proper judicial system by anything other than speciesistic? Very few species live their lives in solitude. Most congregate in segregated societies of herds, packs or prides. Contrary to Kipling’s jungle books, the wolf pack does not include a Baloo, a Bagheera or a Mowgli when it gathers at the council rock to discuss its laws. Additionally, the laws of any given herd, pack or pride are based solely on the will of its strongest member, are not open for discussion, and are subject to change upon the violent deposition of the current leader. This type of legal system is truly draconian because the members of the congregation must accept the will of the leader or suffer the harshest consequences; usually death. Since the law of nature is the survival of the fittest, this system is very likely the most efficient for the animal kingdom. Man’s intellect – be it God given or the result of evolution – and his ability to fashion complex tools has allowed him move beyond basic survival and beyond competing with the lower (there’s that word again) animals for sustenance. In this paradigm, threats to his existence are more likely to come from other men than from any beast that might cross his path. Since the only real threat for any given man is now another man, systems of laws have been created to establish order in the human jungle. In most Western legal systems, which are the opposite of draconian, the weakest of men are afforded considerable protection from the cruel intentions of stronger rivals. If animals cannot evolve to a point whereby they can participate in any of man’s civilized legal systems or communicate the basis for civilized systems of their own making, adding protections for animals to man’s law does not elevate their status so much as debase ours.

    2. Not all (animals) are equal, of course…just as not all humans are equal.
    – The above phrase actually supports “racism, sexism, and xenophobia” more than anything that I have stated. When Jefferson penned “all men are created equal”, he meant in the legalistic sense of rights and privileges. Surely he understood that some might be born with physical or mental impairments. He also surely understood that being “created equal” did not guarantee equal outcomes. However, the recognition of equality via a common Creator guaranteed each individual’s most basic rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (property). It also set the stage for the future abolition of slavery, for the future success of women’s suffrage, and the legal admission and assimilation of foreign immigrants into the culture. Societies that have refused to recognize equality via a common Creator have proven to be the most despotic, cruel and murderous. Jefferson would likely have never considered extending man’s rights to the animal kingdom for the reasons given in #1 above.

    3. I would take exception to purposefully aborting ANYTHING solely for the purposes of experimentation. Alternative methods have been and are being developed, requiring no death whatsoever. I do not see what point you are trying to make here, though.
    – Since alternate methods have been and are being developed in the realm of stem cell research, why do so many on the left side of politics still support the harvesting of the unborn for this purpose?

    4. It is not a matter of pinpointing the “feeble” or “valueless” for extermination but simply saying that how we have valued life up to this point has been based on a weak line of human-nonhuman, not on the actual capacities of the beings involved. We are not establishing criteria but instead questioning the existing value system.
    – I believe that I addressed this in #1 and #2 above.

    5. Collective impersonal “you” there, sorry for the linguistic slippage.
    – No problem. We all do it. And I know that you also recognize when I slip into the collective impersonal.

    6. Science, however, seeks to test and prove theories based on solid evidence, and all theories are only accepted when they can provide testable predictions.
    – Not exactly. The scientific method is used to test a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a conjecture (an educated guess) as to why A yields B. If one can identify and fix the boundaries of the hypothesis, a workable test can be developed. If this type of test yields the same outcome each time it is run (i.e. it is repeatable), the hypothesis can move into the realm of fact. Two often cited examples of scientific fact are spoiling food begetting maggots thanks to flies and Pavlov’s dog being condition to a pre-feeding stimulus. However, if the scientist is unable or unwilling to account for all of the variables that might impact his test, the best for which he can hope is to have his hypothesis accepted as a theory. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a theory because the scientists cannot possibly include all of the variables that might affect the climate in their computer models. The acceptance of any theory requires a degree of faith, because it requires “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen.”

    Sorry for yet another lengthy response and for continuing off topic. However, it has been intriguing to have this discussion with you. Oh, and by the way, I did not kick any puppies on my way to work this morning. ;-)

  • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

    We definitely are wandering far afield, but I want to respond. I will try to do so fully but briefly.

    1. First off, your depiction of the animal kingdom’s “might makes right” principle is pretty limited. What about the huge number of species that have no such hierarchical, much less violence-based, system for organization? And what about the numerous instances of animals tending to sick or weaker animals in their own pack…or of entirely different species? For example, think of a pack of walruses, when the older adults circle the young and sick if a polar bear or killer whale attack. Tennyson was overdramatizing with the whole “nature red in tooth and claw” thing; there is a large degree of empathy and benevolent interaction in nature, not just kill or be killed. But to the larger point: I see absolutely no reason why human laws can also include measures to prevent human cruelty to animals. It in no way debases us; it only protects others from our all-too-common tendency to exploit and abuse those over whom we have power. They have no “rights” in a civil dimension, so they have no voice with which to speak out; but it is not about putting them “on a par with” humans or saying we are in every possible way “the same” as nonhuman animals–it is not like we are fighting for their right to vote!!! It is just about giving them equal consideration when it comes to living free from undue suffering.

    2. I simply meant that all humans are not “equal” in the sense of having the exact same characteristics in the exact same degree. Is every human being a scientific genius, or a musical virtuoso, or limited by Downs syndrome? No. They are equal in the most basic sense of being human and having a core set of characteristics and so rights. Animals also have some basic features (sentience, a nervous system, etc.), but a duck is not the same as, equitable to, or “equal” to a dolphin; the latter has more highly developed mental skills, among other things. Racism and the like become possible when someone starts drawing arbitrary lines not based on actual capabilities of individuals but instead characteristics that have nothing to do with personal capacity like skin color or sex; but again, one would never say human men and women are “equal” when it comes to giving birth to children!

    3. I am not the right person to ask on this, Bobby, and it would be inappropriate for me to opine on it.
    6. I still see no reason to equate religious “faith” with a conclusion or “faith” based on scientific evidence. This is really just a matter, in my opinion, of being sloppy and imprecise with language. The former “faith” largely ignores solid evidence and, indeed, directly refutes the findings of reason and hard evidence, instead placing faith on something that cannot be seen or tested but is the outcome of revelation (i.e., the unsupported testimony of an individual person) and/or tradition (handed down through books written by individual people). Science does start often times with “faith” in “educated guesses” and then seeks to find out if they are correct…based on solid evidence, or (in theoretical fields) evidence that fits in with existing measurements, thus having “faith” in the conclusions reached based on this evidence, demonstrability, testibility… And if at some time overwhelming, reliable evidence comes to disprove a theory, then that theory must be refined or dispensed with; religious belief is not so revisable. Now, let me be clear, I am NOT a scientist or an expert on scientific method, nor am I thoroughly enchanted by science; I fear hyper-rational, cold science just as much as I do blinkered religious fanaticism. More importantly, perhaps my core guiding principle is that one must be skeptical of EVERYTHING that is presented as “fact,” be it religion or science, and take nothing solely on “faith” over and above solid, reliable evidence. My point is simply that there is a big difference between a conclusion reached after extensive testing and verification of observable data, even if not EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE FACTOR can be directly measured, and religious faith that takes little to no account of solid evidence and so often directly contradicts it.

    But let me conclude this with a final statement: We can twist ourselves into knots over all of this and still come no closer to agreement or even progress. All that matters to me, Bobby, is that people recognize animals as more than means to ends, as capable of various (often high) degrees of sensitivity and sentience, and as deserving at least a little respect. Whom do you HURT by being a little more compassionate and a little less selfish? The point of veganism and concern for animals is to do less harm to others while also trying to live an enjoyable life oneself, recognizing that we are not living in a world unto ourselves. So I am glad you did not kick any puppies this morning…but knowing how you once bought a whole palette of incandescent bulbs simply to buck the green system, I certainly hope you will not START kicking them simply to spite me and PETA-philes everywhere.

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  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    S: We definitely are wandering far afield, but I want to respond. I will try to do so fully but briefly.
    R: Ditto, and this will be my last entry on the topic.

    S: First off, your depiction of the animal kingdom’s “might makes right” principle is pretty limited. What about the huge number of species that have no such hierarchical, much less violence-based, system for organization? And what about the numerous instances of animals tending to sick or weaker animals in their own pack…or of entirely different species? For example, think of a pack of walruses, when the older adults circle the young and sick if a polar bear or killer whale attack.
    R: The dominant bull walrus gains and maintains his position through violent conflict with competing bulls. The congregational protection of the young and the weak is not so much an act of kindness as an act of instinct to protect against a common enemy by way of showing a strength in numbers.

    S: But to the larger point: I see absolutely no reason why human laws can also include measures to prevent human cruelty to animals.
    R: There are already federal, state and local ordinances throughout the United States that prevent cruelty to animals. And per your point #2 (i.e. a duck not being equal to a dolphin (assumed to mean “porpoise” not the dolphin fish)), these laws are already based upon arbitrarily assigning value to one species over another. In the U.S., livestock and poultry – being food in our society – are afforded fewer protections than domesticated pets, wild game and predatory animals. When one considers that the animals which westerners value as food, adore as pets or consider worthy of man’s protection often fail to mirror the views of these same creatures in other cultures, we are immediately met with difficulties when it comes to establishing a global protection from cruelty points system. Cows are holy in some cultures. Dogs equal cattle in many regions. Whaling is perfectly acceptable in several societies. Will PETA, et al, petition the United Nations to establish a global set of animal protection laws to their liking, or must we allow each culture to set its own rules? Should any culture provoke another via the establishment of animal rights?

    S: it is not like we are fighting for their right to vote!!!
    R: Not yet.

    S: one would never say human men and women are “equal” when it comes to giving birth to children!
    R: Science, which you have often referenced with a degree of admiration, has found ways to turn men into women and women into men. The problem of gender in childbirth is also close to being solved. I will stop there because any further exposition could take us down another long path.

    S: My point is simply that there is a big difference between a conclusion reached after extensive testing and verification of observable data, even if not EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE FACTOR can be directly measured, and religious faith that takes little to no account of solid evidence and so often directly contradicts it.
    R: Would you or anyone else consider Galileo, Pasteur or Newton to be poor scientists because they believed in the existence of God? Compare your statements (shared by many scientists) with the words of the agnostic, astrophysicist Robert Jastrow in his book ‘God and the Astronomers’ (excerpt taken from ‘How Evil Works’): “Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? Was the Universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials? And science cannot answer these questions…at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation.” Jastrow continues, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

    • http://justinvankleeck.blogspot.com Justin Van Kleeck

      A couple of quick points to close this discussion, Bobby.

      We are never going to reach a resolution about how far to take the animal rights issue. I cannot make you change your views, no matter what I say. All that I can hope for, and work for, is that humans will start acting more kindly and humanely towards nonhumans, rather than seeing them only as means-to-ends or commodities. Human history shows too well that our most atrocious actions come when one person or one group adopts an attitude of superiority towards some other(s) instead of even considering their well-being.

      We are at a similar impasse with religion and science. I value both, Bobby, and am interested in both just as I am suspicious of both. They are neither good nor bad in themselves, but in how people use them. They each have things to contribute to the fullness of our lives, and they each can become weapons in the wrong hands. And at the same time, religion does not have the market cornered on wonder “spiritual” experience, nor does science have the market cornered on important contributions to human knowledge and how we think about the universe. I like Einstein’s quote on this: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” But neither one should ever serve as tools to make us act blindly, cruelly, or destructively.

      At the end of the day, I always come back to what the Dalai Lama said: “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

      Thank you for the discussion, Bobby. Until next time…

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  • Matt

    I must say I completely disagree with you.

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