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