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The Howler Monkey photo from Christian Artuso

The Howler Monkey
The Howler Monkey is among the largest of the New World monkeys. They range in size from 56 to 92 cm, and like many New World monkeys, they have prehensile tails. They have a short snout, and wide-set, round nostrils. Howlers eat mainly top canopy leaves, together with fruit, buds, flowers, and nuts and have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years. They move quadrapedally and do not brachiate, usually holding on to a branch with at least two hands or one hand and the tail at all times. They very seldom leave the trees, rest about 80 percent of the time and are considered the least active of all monkeys.



Revenge of the Killer Cows


J. David Bell

My favorite climate skeptic sent me an interesting article. Really, I love the guy, even though his politics are all messed up.

The article, written by Bret Stephens for the Wall Street Journal, is a review of the new book SuperFreakonomics, the follow-up to economist Stephen Levitt and collaborator Stephen Dubner's bestselling Freakonomics. Apparently, one of the topics the authors tackle is global warming--and, iconoclasts that they fashion themselves to be, they set out to prove not only that the climate science is all wrong but that there are far cheaper and easier ways than overhauling industrial civilization to halt the planet's warming trend. Their solution, which involves pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, could, Stephens recites gleefully, be achieved "at a cost of a single F-22 fighter jet."

That's one sure-fire way, I've found, to spot a climate skeptic: they subscribe to the prevailing ideology of capitalist/consumer culture, which is to say, they expect to get something for nothing.

Anyway, in the course of discussing the book--or, really, of trashing climate science, which is what the skeptics do best--Stephens drops this bombshell: "belching, flatulent cows are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all SUVs combined." Apparently, this is meant to exonerate the human race: blame it on the cows!

Now, there's an obvious flaw to this argument. Just because Thing 1 is worse than Thing 2, it does not follow that Thing 2 is good. Nuclear war may be worse than cannibalism, but that's no reason for everyone to break out the "Got Person?" bibs.

Still, leaving aside the Seussian illogic of his argument, Stephens is not completely wrong. The digestive systems of ruminants do produce lots of methane, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas (twenty-three times more) than CO2. And nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat, is released in significant quantities by cow manure. Finally, though the CO2 produced by cow respiration makes a negligible overall contribution to atmospheric CO2, other activities associated with the livestock industry--from the burning of forests to prepare grassland to the transportation of meat to market--do make a significant contribution. Thus, though it's not true that cow flop alone is doing the damage, Stephens's accusation, in its most reductive and literal form, does possess a kernel of truth: the impact of cattle on global warming does indeed surpass the impact of the world's transportation fleet. (For the numbers, see the 2006 UN report Livestock's Long Shadow.)

All of this is, of course, cause for concern. But before we put out an APB on the cows, let's take a step back and ask: why are there so darn many of them farting up the atmosphere and generally making life suck for all of us?

Okay, I admit, that was a trick question. Everyone knows the answer: there are so many of them because there are so many of us, and because (especially in the industrial West) so many of us like to eat so much of them. (I went to a restaurant recently where the menu included a rack of ribs, a whole chicken, and a slab of steak--all three of them together. Even in my meat-eating days, I couldn't have stomached that much animal flesh. I swore the people around me were going to sprout a new appendage.) Day in and day out, we wolf down enough bovine carcass to make a pretty fair run at filling the Grand Canyon. And the cows, not having been consulted on this, blithely continue to reproduce, eat, pass gas, and get slaughtered, all under our watchful (if not mindful) eyes.

So if you think about it, we're not exactly blameless in the current onslaught of gangsta cows. If you remember something about ecology and trophic levels, you'll remember that prey exist in far greater numbers than predators; because of the loss of energy as you move up the food pyramid, there will be hundreds, or even thousands times more of the eaten than of the eaters. Thus, in a particular habitat, you may have one owl to every thousand mice, hundreds of sharks to every million fish. Prey, in fact, tend to control the number of predators and not the other way around: if there's not enough to eat, those at the top die out.

For all our ingenuity, we humans, as the world's top predator, have yet to figure out a way around that immutable ecological mandate. What we have managed to do is produce our own food--in this case, food animals--in sufficient quantities to satisfy our nutritional needs despite our burgeoning numbers. Thus, as the world's population grows and the demand for meat rises, we just keep on making more meat.

That this system doesn't really work should be evident to anyone who has noticed how much of the world's human population remains on the brink of starvation. That it doesn't work on an environmental scale should be evident to anyone who, well, reads Stephens's article. If cows are indeed devastating the atmosphere (not only through flatulence but through the forests downed to pasture them, the corn grown to feed them, and the fossil fuels burned to down the forests, grow the corn, house, fatten, kill, and transport them), the obvious solution would be to stop eating so many of them, and/or to stop breeding so many of us. But that's the argument most people don't want to hear: we may actually need to make some changes, even (gasp!) some sacrifices, to stave off the problems our current way of life has produced. We may actually have to grow up and admit that you can't get something for nothing--that what economists such as Levitt callously call "externalities" must be taken into account when calculating the real cost of a thing.

One of those externalities is the health costs of eating cows: far from dying for lack of meat, we'd actually be much healthier without it. I note this because my skeptic friend also happens to be an abdominal surgeon with a lucrative private practice and a violent reaction to the mere thought of remodeling the health care system. I can't help thinking this too reflects his desire to externalize the current system's costs, to get something for nothing.

Or maybe he just wants people to keep eating cows so they keep ending up on his operating table. I hear a fair amount of gas escapes from the human abdomen when it's slit open, though whether that contributes to global warming I can't say.

J. David Bell is a recovering academic whose fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in such journals as Third Reader, Gander Press Review, SNReview, The Battered Suitcase, and Queen City Review. You can follow his exploits and read his stuff at

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