Saturday, April 23, 2011

Weather Or Not

During last weekend's three-day outbreak of severe storms, it became clear to me that there are some aspects of meteorology that are becoming bloodsport. As the reports of tornadoes kept coming in, many of them duplicates or updates of initial reports, the tornado count was climbing like the "ka-chings" of a cash register during rush. Reports of "catastrophic damage" and EF5s, "violent" tornadoes, and debris balls on radar filled my Facebook feed like termites in a crumbling wall.

I love severe weather, but not at all because it tends to destroy things. The thing is, I'm not sure everyone else feels the same way anymore. Should I take the exclamation points in a status update to mean alarm or rapture? I fear it is the latter.

The beauty of deep moist convection is in the visual grandeur, and the physics. The collateral damage is our, at times, perilous existence. Severe weather can destroy lives, even end them. So seeing a radar screen of supercells with "chaser convergence" surrounding these things like vultures observing the latest kill leaves me in a morally ambiguous zone.

I understand that most people who chase storms do it because they appreciate the beauty behind these storms. I admire that feeling, and share it. But now, I believe, this admiration coexists with something else. Adventurers waiting for their next dollar. Receiving money for the latest tornado video, which shows somebody losing everything because of it, is an ethical quagmire to me. Broadcast companies extend their hands full of stash at the nearest sign of a rocky clip of debris spinning around. Something doesn't sit well with me given this reality.

I have mentioned many times my ethical dilemma with storm chasing. I have already vowed never to chase on high risk days again, after the calamitous rural traffic jam on 19 May 2010 in central Oklahoma. And I continue to see these drool-laden clips of revelatory excitement from destructive tornadoes, again and again and again. I just don't know anymore. I love the science behind tornadoes, and they do look quite beautiful. But I see a big downside to them, and I can't help but feel ... well, conflicted by the latest brouhaha on YouTube showing shaky video of a house lifted off its foundation. Enough already.


With the "miracle" of social networking, meteorologists have, more and more, warned others of impending danger via Facebook/Twitter, etc. I don't know why, but I find this trend increasingly annoying.

For one thing, it seems concerning to me that people would be on Facebook during a tornado warning. I would hope they were not online at all, but rather in a place of safety. Of course, it is naive of me to expect everyone to be doing this, but then again, my fear is that people will come to depend on Facebook during times like these, when I think their interests should be elsewhere (online or off).

The other thing that bothers me about it is that there seems to be a lot of overwarning going on. Alerting people that they are in a tornado watch/warning is fine, but exaggerating the risk seems doomed for the "cry wolf" syndrome. Seeing someone say a tornado watch is in effect, followed by "city X" is in "grave danger" during the next few hours is ... well ... a bold statement. And I'm not sure people will take it too seriously if they receive no such grave danger.

Then there are the "five-minute" updates of warnings, followed by "take shelter, take shelter"! If the warned people haven't taken shelter by your third of fourth update of the storm, Darwin is stirring.


I've mentioned this before, but please, for the love of "God", refrain from the default, robotic, meritless statement proclaiming "prayers to the victims of the tornadoes" after showing video, radar data, etc. of your adventures enjoying them. It screams hypocrisy, and I find it simply deplorable. I am sure many if not most of you mean the words, but they sound as hollow as their actual worth. First, virtually no one affected by the tornadoes will see/hear your prayers on Facebook/YouTube. The very people you offer them to won't even be aware of them. Secondly, they do NOTHING, and I mean that in every sense of the word ... NOTHING ... toward actually helping them. Instead of offering your prayers, donate some money/time to volunteer groups, the Red Cross, etc. Do something meaningful.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On vegetarian fundamentalism

I made a mistake today, a very big mistake. I was browsing the interwebs in between meetings, and I stumbled into an interview Anthony Bourdain had a few years ago on his book, The Nasty Bits, in which he explained his distaste for vegans. I then stumbled into articles written by a sample of those vegans, probably unrepresentative of the population, but enough to prompt me to write a blog sharing my distaste -- not for vegans, but for what has been colloquially termed "vegetarian fundamentalism".

In my mind, vegetarian fundamentalism has traits like many of the religious fundamentalist counterparts. Fundamentalism is, for one thing, blatantly and intentionally controversial. It provokes "us against them" mentality, often supported in the believers' minds by anecdotal "evidence" or blind doctrines of, at best, questionable validity. Fundamentalists also are advertisers, if not propagandists, seeking fear in the "nonbelievers" by exaggerating or completely fabricating "evidence" in support of the philosophy/lifestyle.

Anthony Bourdain has called vegetarianism, particularly the vegan sects, "rude". He frequently gives an example of an impoverished family who grows food and offers you the one animal they have available on a particular day. A vegetarian would turn it down, saying "No, thanks". "It's antihuman. It's antisocial," he says in this interview.

He's right.

But he alludes to a far better point about one of the main sources of "evidence" that vegetarian fundamentalists use in their propaganda campaigns: They do not take into account the peoples who simply do not have the luxury of deciding meat or plants for dinner. Bourdain hosted an episode from Namibia, in which a nomadic tribe hunt for their survival. They live, and die, by the day's hunt. With Bourdain as a guest, they were lovingly offered wart hog, an animal many if not most Americans would sneer at. But I ask you: Would you turn down food offered by someone who could very well die if they can't find the next meal? If so, you are, in Bourdain's words, "rude". And you are. And you are completely unaware of the world around you.

Those who claim that meat-eating humans are contributing to global warming are certainly onto something. Plenty of studies exist showing that fossil fuel usage for a certain amount of protein is much higher than an equal portion of plant-derived protein. Of course, the problem with this argument is that converting from this animal-growing to pure plant-growing world is simply impractical. Because plant-growing is certainly climate-dependent, what are the farmers going to do in the High Plains if the plants they would need to grow can't grow there? What if the plant-growing they convert to is not sustainable, or profitable?

This argument, yet again, ignores the impoverished people of the world, who simply have no choice but to eat what they can grow/raise for themselves. It's naive.

My two favorite arguments with vegetarian fundamentalists are the animal's right not to be eaten, and the "we will die if we eat meat..." claims. An animal has a right not to be eaten. Uh, huh. Certainly that is supported by the wealth of predators forgoing eating prey in the unspoken number of years this planet has existed. Do you think a cow will survive in the wild if there's a coyote around? Will a bear pass the next salmon stream? This argument is so absurdly funny, that I cannot even believe it has metastasized. Animal cruelty is one thing, but let's get one thing straight: any death of an animal by another animal is inherently an ugly, painful, cruel way to die. It is also fundamentally natural.

Now torturous deaths of animals for food, in which some strange version of pleasure is derived from the pain the prey has before its death, is certainly abhorrent and completely indefensible. But even a quick, relatively painless death, is still by nature savage. But there is no dignity in death, ever.

The more problematic argument is that people who eat meat are destined for an early grave. That argument is, simply, an exaggeration -- a simplification. In the statistical sense, there certainly is evidence of this -- or, perhaps better worded, there is statistical evidence that suggests that vegetarians, on average, live longer than omnivores. However, the findings are quite variable and not overly convincing. Some studies show a life span increase of up to a decade, whereas others show 1-3 years. Study after study, website after website, show rather conflicting data, which suggests inherent uncertainty. Many of these studies also do not consider a cornucopia of ethnic groups, or citizens of multiple countries/continents. There are also various uncertainties associated with these studies, including underlying tendencies to use alcohol/drugs/tobacco, inherent knowledge of nutrition/health, etc. Although I believe it is certainly reasonable to conclude that vegetarians/vegans may live longer in a statistical sense, I wonder if there are correlations with other variables, including exercise, habits, religious practices, social interactions, geography, climate, etc. Given the underlying uncertainty associated with these studies, it appears this topic deserves further scrutiny.

Thus, claiming that people shouldn't eat meat because it will kill you sooner -- is just naive. Individually speaking, it's fear-mongering. A particular individual's susceptibility to premature death via meat craving is not clear-cut.

I don't have a problem with a person's choice of being vegetarian/vegan. I whole-heartedly support it, actually. I do have a problem with the propaganda campaign, though. Spouting moral superiority is just nonsensical, incredibly insulting to the people who could very well perish without their next kill, and ignorant of the world around you. People are starving all around the world, so scaring people into ridding people of steak knives seems misplaced to me. In many ways, I wish people were as passionate -- more passionate -- about preventing human cruelty versus animal cruelty.

I wonder if, given some worldwide calamity -- what would a vegetarian do if the only means of food around him/her was an animal? Would that person choose suicide? If so, his/her beliefs are rock solid, but the natural world will have the final say. Darwin would not be on that person's side.