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Thursday, April 29, 2010

You Are What You Grow

Click here to read the article from the award-winning journalist Michael Pollen from the New York Times

"A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem. The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy.

Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Climate Change Doesn't Matter

by Stephen Lacey from

This winter, I was out on the streets of Boston interviewing random people about their thoughts on the outcome of the Copenhagen conference. I was very surprised at what I heard: 7 out of the 10 people who spoke with me thought that scientists hadn't yet proven that climate change was caused by human activity. Some questioned whether the climate is changing at all and were happy that the Copenhagen talks had failed.

Looking at the beating that climate science has taken over the last few months, it's no wonder that people showed so much distrust. But 70 percent? I couldn't believe it.

Okay, so my not-so-scientific poll is hardly an accurate way of gauging how Americans feel about climate change. But last fall in the lead-up to Copenhagen, there were a number of polls from reputable organizations showing somewhat similar (albeit less dramatic) changes in feelings toward climate change. Depending on which poll you looked at – Zogby, Washington Post-ABC or Pew – you'd find between a 10 percent and 20 percent decrease in the number of U.S. citizens concerned about climate change.

From a climate science perspective, this is certainly alarming. But from a renewable energy development perspective, I would argue that it doesn't really matter.

In my interviews on the streets of Boston, every single person said they unequivocally support renewable energy. In fact, some of the people who were most vocal about their climate skepticism were most vocal about their support of renewables, mostly for national security and economic reasons.

The polls I mentioned earlier show similar support for renewables even among climate skeptics. The trend is clear: More people will respond to the industry's message if it focuses on issues other than climate change.

Whenever I talk to people outside the industry about the benefits of renewables, I don't usually mention climate change. Not that I don't think it's important – I do. I just think it's an idea that is difficult for people to grasp, given how long term the problem is and how far removed most of us are from the places that are being impacted.

The way to get people excited about clean energy is by talking about technological progress, entrepreneurship, job creation and citizen empowerment. These are all very tangible, easy-to-understand concepts that put renewables in a context that are nearly impossible to oppose. Who would want to stop that type of innovation?

When I talk about environmental issues, typically they involve problems right in front of us that we can quantify: Things like the coal-ash spill in Tennessee, which will cost more than a billion dollars to clean up; the millions of dollars it takes to clean up water supplies and reclaim agricultural land in the aftermath of coal strip mining; or the $120 billion in nation-wide external environmental and health impacts from the burning of fossil energies.

These concrete examples help people envision the real cost of fossil energies. If we talked about them in this context more often, perhaps more consumers would understand that renewables aren't really as expensive as they're made out to be.

I'm happy to say that renewables have been somewhat separated from the “debate” over climate change. Because renewable energy is so beneficial for so many reasons, the industry still has strong bipartisan support, despite the mild increase in skepticism of climate science.

Since the Copenhagen talks, a number of diplomats, analysts and organizations like the International Energy Agency have questioned the global community's ability to agree on greenhouse gas targets aggressive enough to combat climate change. Instead, they've been wondering if it would be easier to simply develop stronger global support schemes for energy efficiency and renewables, rather than wait for an agreement that may never come.

Even when faced with dramatic scenarios about the impact of climate change, politicians and citizens can't agree on what kind of action to take. But they can certainly agree on one thing: Renewables can and should be developed aggressively. The industry would be wise to recognize this trend and adapt its message accordingly

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Among Weathercasters, Doubt On Warming

The debate over global warming has created predictable adversaries, pitting environmentalists against industry and coal-state Democrats against coastal liberals.

But it has also created tensions between two groups that might be expected to agree on the issue: climate scientists and meteorologists, especially those who serve as television weather forecasters.

Climatologists, who study weather patterns over time, almost universally endorse the view that the earth is warming and that humans have contributed to climate change. There is less of a consensus among meteorologists, who predict short-term weather patterns.

Joe Bastardi, for example, a senior forecaster and meteorologist with AccuWeather, maintains that it is more likely that the planet is cooling, and he distrusts the data put forward by climate scientists as evidence for rising global temperatures.

“There is a great deal of consternation among a lot of us over the readjustment of data that is going on and some of the portrayals that we are seeing,” Mr. Bastardi said in a video segment posted recently on AccuWeather’s Web site.

Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.”

More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” the researchers found.

The split between climate scientists and meteorologists is gaining attention in political and academic circles because polls show that public skepticism about global warming is increasing, and weather forecasters — especially those on television — dominate communications channels to the public. A study released this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media or public figures like former Vice President Al Gore or Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate.

The George Mason-Texas survey found that about half of the weathercasters said they had discussed global warming on their broadcasts during chats with anchors, and nearly 90 percent said they had talked about climate change at live appearances at Kiwanis Club-type events.

Several well-known forecasters — including John Coleman in San Diego and Anthony Watts, a retired Chico, Calif., weatherman who now has a popular blog — have been vociferous in their critiques of global warming.

The dissent has been heightened by recent challenges to climate science, including the discovery of errors in the 2007 report by the United NationsIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from a British climate research center last fall that skeptics say show that climate scientists had tried to suppress data.

“In a sense the question is who owns the atmosphere: the people who predict it every day or the people who predict it for the next 50 years?” said Bob Henson, a science writer for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, who trained as a meteorologist and has followed the divide between the two groups.

Mr. Henson added, “And the level of tension has really spiked in recent months.”

The reasons behind the divergence in views are complex. The American Meteorological Society, which confers its coveted seal of approval on qualified weather forecasters, has affirmed the conclusion of the United Nations’ climate panel that warming is occurring and that human activities are very likely the cause. In a statement sent to Congress in 2009, the meteorological society warned that the buildup of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to “major negative consequences.”

Yet, climate scientists use very different scientific methods from the meteorologists. Heidi Cullen, a climatologist who straddled the two worlds when she worked at the Weather Channel, noted that meteorologists used models that were intensely sensitive to small changes in the atmosphere but had little accuracy more than seven days out. Dr. Cullen said meteorologists are often dubious about the work of climate scientists, who use complex models to estimate the effects of climate trends decades in the future.

But the cynicism, said Dr. Cullen, who now works for Climate Central, a nonprofit group that works to bring the science of climate change to the public, is in her opinion unwarranted.

“They are not trying to predict the weather for 2050, just generally say that it will be hotter,” Dr. Cullen said of climatologists. “And just like I can predict August will be warmer than January, I can predict that.”

Three years ago, Dr. Cullen found herself in a dispute with meteorologists after she posted a note on the Weather Channel’s Web site suggesting that meteorologists should perhaps not receive certification from the meteorological society if they “can’t speak to the fundamental science of climate change.”

Resentment may also play a role in the divide. Climatologists are almost always affiliated with universities or research institutions where a doctoral degree is required. Most meteorologists, however, can get jobs as weather forecasters with a college degree.

“There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions,” Mr. Henson said. “There are meteorologists who feel, ‘Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.’ ”

Whatever the reasons, meteorologists are far more likely to question the underlying science of climate change. A study published in the January 2009 newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, the professional association of earth scientists, found that while nearly 90 percent of some 3,000 climatologists who responded agreed that there was evidence of human-driven climate change, 80 percent of all earth scientists and 64 percent of meteorologists agreed with the statement. Only economic geologists who specialized in industrial uses of materials like oil and coal were more skeptical.

Seeing danger in the divide between climate scientists and meteorologists, a variety of groups concerned with educating the public on climate change — including the National Environmental Education Foundation, a federally financed nonprofit, and Yale — are working to close the gap with research and educational forums. In 2008, Yale began holding seminars with weathercasters who are unsure about the climate issue and scientists who are leading experts in the field. The Columbia Journalism Review explored the reasons for the split in an article this year.

Conversely, the Heartland Institute, a free-market research organization skeptical about the causes and severity of climate change, is also making efforts to reach out. At its annual conference to be held in May in Chicago, the institute tried without success to put on a special session for the weather predictors.

“What we’ve recognized is that the everyday person doesn’t come across climatologists, but they do come across meteorologists,” said Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Meteorologists do need to understand more about climate because the public confuses this so much. That is why you see efforts in this turning up.”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

At 40, Earth Day Is Now Big Business

From the New York Times
So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Peat the Penguin at F. A. O. Schwarz. The toy, made of soy fibers, teaches green lessons to children.


A blog about energy, the environment and the bottom line.

Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.

For this year’s celebration, Bahama Umbrella is advertising a specially designed umbrella, with a drain so that water “can be stored, reused and recycled.” Gray Line, a New York City sightseeing company, will keep running its buses on fossil fuels, but it is promoting an “Earth Week” package of day trips to green spots like the botanical gardens and flower shopping at Chelsea Market.

F. A. O. Schwarz is taking advantage of Earth Day to showcase Peat the Penguin, an emerald-tinted plush toy that, as part of the Greenzys line, is made of soy fibers and teaches green lessons to children. The penguin, Greenzys promotional material notes, “is an ardent supporter of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.”

To many pioneers of the environmental movement, eco-consumerism, creeping for decades, is intensely frustrating and detracts from Earth Day’s original purpose.

“This ridiculous perverted marketing has cheapened the concept of what is really green,” said Denis Hayes, who was national coordinator of the first Earth Day and is returning to organize this year’s activities in Washington. “It is tragic.”

Yet the eagerness of corporations to sign up for Earth Day also reflects the environmental movement’s increased tolerance toward corporate America: Many “big greens,” as leading environmental advocacy organizations are known, now accept that they must take money from corporations or at the least become partners with them if they are to make real inroads in changing social behavior.

This year, in an updated version of a teach-in, Greenpeace will team up with technology giants like Cisco and Google to hold a Web seminar focused on how the use of new technologies like videoconferencing and “cloud” computing can reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said it was necessary to “promote a counterweight to the fossil fuel industry.”

In 1970, Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York addressed a crowd of tens of thousands in Union Square on Earth Day, in an atmosphere The New York Times likened to a “secular revival meeting.”

This year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will be in Times Square to announce measures to reduce New York’s impact on the environment. Using the same stage, Keep America Beautiful, an antilittering nonprofit organization, will introduce “dream machines,” recycling kiosks it is introducing with PepsiCo. The machines are meant to increase the recycling rates for beverage containers, which is estimated at about 36 percent nationwide.

Of course, a fair portion of the more than 200 billion beverage containers produced in the United States each year are filled with PepsiCo products like Mountain Dew and Aquafina; such bottle trash contributes to serious pollution on beaches, oceans and inland waterways.

Still, Matthew M. McKenna, president and chief executive of Keep America Beautiful, and a former PepsiCo senior vice president, said he jumped at the opportunity to have his former employer introduce its new kiosk at the event.

“We are not being asked to encourage the purchase of Pepsi or the consumption of their products,” he said. “We are asked to deal in the field with what happens when they get thrown out.”

While the momentum for the first Earth Day came from the grass roots, many corporations say that it is often the business community that now leads the way in environmental innovation — and they want to get their customers interested. In an era when the population is more divided on the importance of environmental issues than it was four decades ago, the April event offers a rare window, they say, when customers are game to learn about the environmentally friendly changes the companies have made.

Frank Sherman, United States green officer for TD Bank, said the company hurried to get its prototype of a highly energy-efficient bank branch building in Queens ready for Earth Day because that’s when “people are paying attention.”

The original Earth Day events were attended by 20 million Americans — to this day among the largest participation in a political action in the nation’s history.

This year, while the day will be widely marked with events, including a climate rally on the Mall in Washington, the movement does not have the same support it had four decades ago.

In part, said Robert Stone, a independent documentary filmmaker whose history of the American environmental movement is being broadcast on public television this week, the movement has been a victim of its own success in clearing up tangible problems with air and water. But that is just part of the problem, he noted.

“Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

Electric Cars Charge Ahead In The US

Happy Earth Day from the Yoga of Ecology! May our efforts to better our own internal and external environment through our collective spiritual power reap many wonderful (and even edible) fruits!

From our friend Madhava Ghosh...

Construction to begin on thousands of charging stations for ‘clean’ cars.

Source: Washington, United States []

What’s billed as the biggest rollout of electric vehicle infrastructure in the world is about to begin in the United States.

Urban planners are deciding where to locate more than 11,000 charging stations in 11 major cities. They want those stations up and running when the first mass-market electric cars from Nissan and General Motors go on sale at the end of this year.

Last year, the Department of Energy awarded $100 million to eTec, an electric transportation research and development firm, to build electric vehicle charging networks in five states. Now is when the rubber meets the road, or more precisely, construction begins.

“You know, there’s a lot of excitement over this,” says Rich Feldman, a regional manager for eTec. “This is going to result in oil savings. There’s going to be jobs that come out of this project in terms of people installing the equipment. We’re obviously launching a whole new industry here. There’s going to be other spinoffs and economic opportunity.”

Park, Plug in and Power Up

Feldman is supervising the installation of more than 2,000 electric car chargers in the greater Seattle area in western Washington, and another 2,000 at homes and public places in four Oregon cities. They’ll be near shopping centers, fast food restaurants and movie theaters, “the variety of places that people think about when they’re able to park and leave the vehicle for an hour or two.”

Feldman’s infrastructure company has partnered with Nissan. The car maker bought lots of ads during the Winter Olympics to promote its forthcoming all-electric model named the Leaf. Nissan is inviting drivers to sign up on its website to be among the first to buy one.

Feldman says eTec hopes to convince a subset of Nissan Leaf buyers to participate in a study. It wants 900 drivers in each state to let researchers from the Idaho National Lab monitor their driving and charging behaviors. “In exchange, they get a free, home-based charging station,” he explains. Lessons learned about consumer preferences on placement, features and payment options could guide the eventual national rollout of charging infrastructure.

The Nissan Leaf and the plug-in Chevy Volt are supposed to hit U.S. dealerships late this year. They’re the first wave of mass production electric cars. Mark Perry, who directs product planning for Nissan North America, says new owners will have no trouble finding a power station. “So the concern, ‘If I use this vehicle or purchase this vehicle, can I get charging?’ that’s going to be a very easy answer here.”

The price of the fully electric Nissan is being announced at the end of March. Then the company will start taking deposits from consumers, who likely will pay a substantial premium over a comparable gasoline powered compact. The four-door, five-passenger Leaf has a range of about 160 kilometers.

Perry says that Nissan will sell and lease the car and battery as a package. “There had been a lot of conversation about separation of car shell and battery and different approaches,” he said. “Nissan is still going to explore different business models in other parts of the world. But here in the U.S., definitely an entire transaction ? car and battery ? purchase or lease.”

A World of Business Models for Electrics

Other companies and countries are trying different business models to lure consumers into electric cars. Denmark is one nation on the cutting edge. A California-based company called Better Place is working with Denmark’s biggest utility to build the charging network there. It will offer battery swap-out stations, a feature not included initially in the United States.

(Image, left: In Copenhagen, hotel owner Kirsten Brøchner gets behind the wheel of her leased Norwegian-made electric car. Credit: VOA – T. Banse)

“We are building these switch stations here in Denmark ? a number of them ? so that when people want to cross the country, then they can very easily,” Utility CEO Anders Eldrup says. “If it works according to the plans ? we hope it will ? then you can, within three to four minutes, faster than you can put gasoline in your car, you can switch the battery for a brand new one, which is fully charged, and off you go.”

When the system starts up next year, Danish electric vehicle drivers will pay a monthly subscription to access the battery charging network. They could also pay by the mile.

But will consumers go for any of this? Vehicle researcher Valerie Karplus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the car market is big enough to support numerous niches. But she adds, “It’s going to take consumers some time to sort out how they feel about going to a swap station, versus a gas station, versus charging at home. At the same time, today’s internal combustion engine cars are going to get more and more efficient. You may not have to go the gas station all that often with one of those cars.” She is looking forward to what she calls ‘an interesting technology race’.

In Denmark, electric cars are exempt from the world’s highest car registration tax. That’s a big incentive, along with free parking on Copenhagen streets.

Washington State already exempts fully electric cars from its sales tax, and Nissan executives recently paid a call on legislators to talk up additional incentives. Free parking came up, along with access to carpool lanes. In Oregon, electric car enthusiasts want that state to increase the tax credit it offers to buyers of alternative fuel vehicles.

Similar conversations are happening in government offices in Europe, East Asia and U.S. state capitals. Many policymakers, as well as drivers, find the prospect of a zero-emissions ride electrifying.

Reprinted from Voice of America, a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts more than 1,000 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 115 million people.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Global Leadership Crisis

By Bhakti Raghava Swami on 25 Mar 2010
From ISKCON News
Bhakti Raghava Swami speaking in India.

A few years ago, while pursuing my postgraduate studies at USM in Penang, I happened to glance over the front page of the local newspaper to read the following headline in large capital letters: WANTED: LEADERS.

The statement was being made by the then Prime Ministry of Malaysia who was expressing his dismay at the lack of leadership within his country, especially in the context of educational institutions which seemingly were not able to produce highly qualified leaders. He was pointing to a leadership crisis within his own country, but if we analyze most countries and most organizations around the world, the lack of such qualified leaders is rampant in present day society, the consequences of which can be witnessed by the ever-increasing anomalies we find in all spheres and at all levels of modern day life.

More recently, a similar concern was expressed by the Minister of Education in India when he officially stated that 75% of students graduating from universities were ill-prepared and ill-suited to take up their designated career. Where today can we find qualified leaders? And where today can we find the training and education to bring individuals to proper standards of leadership?

Leadership and Dependence

Within the Vedic culture, anyone who had dependents was considered a leader. Therefore, not only the Kings or Heads of State (kshatriyas) were accepted as leaders, but those in the other varnas having dependents were also regarded as leaders. According to the Vedic social system of daiva-varnasrama, the majority of people (sudras) are meant, by nature and by disposition, to serve under the able guidance and care of either the brahmanas, ksatriyas or vaisyas.

Leadership and Governance

Within the context of setting up and coordinating communities in keeping with the principles of daiva-varnasrama, the main leadership falls upon the head of householder ksatriyas, either at the level of villages, states, countries (kingdoms) or the world. Governance is a vital principle within the Vedic society and is the specialized domain of the ksatriyas who are meant to rule their citizens as loving fathers. As we begin to consider implementing principles of daiva varnasrama, the themes of leadership and governance take on a more significant role.

Varnasrama Development and Governance

In analyzing the four-fold vision given by Srila Prabhupada (as outlined in his essay Conceptions of Gita Nagari) to help transform our present misdirected society towards a global Krishna conscious nation, it is only when we begin to closely consider the fourth division of "Varnasrama" that we begin to see the need of implementing a God conscious leadership within society at large.

There are certainly leadership elements in the first three divisions identified by Srila Prabhupada namely, 1) the Sankirtan Movement based on the holy names and book distribution, 2) the Temple Worship Movement and 3) the Spiritual Initiation Movement. However, these first three divisions remain largely confined to those having brahminical duties. All these three divisions are meant to be headed by brahmanas for it is the primary duty of brahmanas to 1) study the Vedic literatures and spread their glories through both the chanting of the holy names and the distribution of transcendental literatures [brhhat mrdanga], 2) to perform yajnas by installing deities and worshiping the arca-vigraha form of the Lord in temples and in homes of householders and 3) to encourage the involvement of various congregational members preparing them to become connected in guru parampara through training and educational programs. At present, to a large extent, all of these are intimately connected with our city temple preaching activities.

However, when we enter the larger realm of varnasrama development, not so much within our city temples but rather within the rural setting of village communities, we are confronted with concepts of leadership and governance at various levels and hence the need for effective training and education.

Standard Training and Education

Such type of leadership will only be possible if we implement the standard Vedic training and education, as recommended in our sastras, from an early age. When the varnasrama system was in order, generally young boys from both brahmana and ksatriya families would receive this specialized training in the educational system of gurukula. However, anyone who displayed the natural tendencies and qualities of a brahmana or ksatriya could also avail of this training and education. Keeping this vision in mind, Srila Prabhupada wanted his disciples to implement the Vedic educational institutions of both Gurukula for the younger boys and Varnasrama Colleges for the older ones.

Standard Qualities of Leaders

Our Vedic literatures give us clear and specific information about the qualities needed for a good leader. From the perennial teachings of the Bhagavad-gita we find the following seven qualities of an ideal leader outlined:

“Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.” (Bg. 18.43)

From the Srimad Bhagavatam, the following ten qualities are given:

“To be influential in battle, unconquerable, patient, challenging and charitable, to control the bodily necessities, to be forgiving, to be attached to the brahminical nature and to be always jolly and truthful—these are the symptoms of the kshatriya.”

We find another important instruction given in the Srimad Bhagavatam by the great King Rshabadava to his 100 sons headed by Bharat Maharaja:

"One who cannot deliver his dependents from the path of repeated birth and death should never become a spiritual master, a father, a husband, a mother or a worshipable demigod.” (SB 5.5.18)

In the purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada explains:

“Ordinarily, the spiritual master, husband, father, mother or superior relative accepts worship from an inferior relative, but here Rshabhadeva forbids this. First the father, spiritual master or husband must be able to release the dependent from repeated birth and death. If he cannot do this, he plunges himself into the ocean of reproachment for his unlawful activities. Everyone should be very responsible and take charge of his dependents just as a spiritual master takes charge of his disciple or a father takes charge of his son. All these responsibilities cannot be discharged honestly unless one can save the dependent from repeated birth and death.”


Thus, leadership within the Vedic culture carries a heavy responsibility. We can therefore better understand why so much preparation would go into training both the young boys and the young girls before entering householder life. Similarly, anyone who would envision becoming either a brahmana or ksatriya would likewise have to undergo many years of training and education. To become a parent is a life-long responsibility, at least until the children are grown up and can start their own family life. Likewise, to become a leader for a much larger family, either a village, a state, a country or the world, is even more demanding and requires the highest of qualifications. Until these instructions given by Srila Prabhupada to establish both standard Gurukulas and Varnasrama Colleges are taken up more seriously, we can expect to continue witnessing a leadership crisis around the world.

Read more:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Coal Mine Disaster Brings New Reason To Consider Renewables

From our friend Madhava Ghosh

“Hundreds of men in China die, and it really doesn’t stop us from flicking a light switch. We don’t make that connection much. 25 men in West Virginia died today, and it hasn’t stopped me from using my computer or my television. We have a great capacity to accept and move on. But, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to adapt.”

by Kathleen Davis

The rather dramatic irony of this blog entry is that I thought about writing it yesterday after reading about China’s flooded mine and all the men trapped there. At that point, I was thinking about how much safer our own mines are here in the U.S., how that probably wouldn’t happen here after all the OSHA safety requirements and other issues involved. I was going to write about that, slant the article to say we can help China make mining less dangerous. Then, this morning, I read about the coal mine blast in West Virginia that killed 25 people with four still missing.

Coal mining is a dirty, nasty business—even with our OSHA regulations, even with our laws and safety requirements. We’re not so different, at the core, from China, after all. It may, in fact, be impossible to make mining a really safe endeavor.

I come from a long line of coal miners. I’ll bet you are surprised by that revelation. My grandfather was a coal miner. And his father. And his father’s father. My family’s dug a lot of black chunks out of the ground.

My grandfather used to talk sometimes, quietly about what miners fear most—back then it was a scary term called “blackdamp.” Blackdamp is the removal of oxygen in the air, which is replaced by toxic gases. Pretty much all tight, sealed environments can create blackdamp, but it’s especially nasty in coal mines because the coal itself adds to the problem. Coal, once exposed to air, begins absorbing oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide and water vapor. My grandfather used to talk about blackdamp as if the mine itself was breathing, cutting off air from the miners inside its gullet.

You can’t smell blackdamp. You usually only become aware when you get lightheaded and dizzy, uncoordinated like you’ve had way too much to drink.

Blackdamp was what miners feared most in my grandfather’s day. But, that wasn’t usually what killed them. It did kill some, of course, but most miners were killed from the force and power of collapses or accidents, not from the creeping blackdamp. Still, the blackdamp scared them most—that slow, crazy spiral to asphyxiation that it represented. My grandfather said the scariest thing was an awareness that death is coming down that mine in bits and parcels, in small steps and strides. And you had to watch. You had to realize what was coming.

My grandfather stopped fearing the blackdamp in 1947 because he stopped being a coal miner in 1947. March 26, 1947, to be exact. He was running late for his shift at the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine on the edge of Centralia, Illinois. He wasn’t usually the type to run late—at least not as I recall. (We always made it to the movies and the circus early enough to get sodas and popcorn when I was a kid.) But, that one day in 1947, he was a bit behind. He told me the reason was something to do with a family birthday celebration that had kept him up way too late the night before.

The celebration hadn’t, however, slowed down my great-grandfather. Not a bit. He was bang on time for the mine collapse—the worst coal mine disaster that the country had seen in nearly 20 years. 111 men died in that mine disaster, including my great-grandfather Jacob Rethard. My grandfather, Raymond, would talk about digging with shovels and picks and bare and bloody hands—anything to get to his father and those other men trapped, even though they knew just minutes after the shaft fell that hope for the lives of those men was completely futile: If the force didn’t get them, the blackdamp and growing lack of oxygen certainly would. It was a race against time, and they didn’t have the equipment to win. Still, my grandfather kept digging until he recovered the body of his father. His father was no. 110—the 110th body. No. 110 out of the 111 dead men pulled from that mine.

And my grandfather walked away from that disaster dirty and bloody and done. He left coal mining behind without a second thought.

As human beings, we are incredibly resilient. My grandfather certainly was. He became a security guard, working everywhere from Vegas to Oklahoma City. He raised a family and rarely talked about that coal mine collapse that killed his father. He was funny, a great cook, and he used to build the most amazing blanket-and-kitchen-chair forts in his living room, much to the annoyance of my grandmother. He pressed on.

As a society, we often mirror my grandfather’s ability to move forward. Hundreds of men in China die, and it really doesn’t stop us from flicking a light switch. We don’t make that connection much. 25 men in West Virginia died today, and it hasn’t stopped me from using my computer or my television. We have a great capacity to accept and move on. But, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to adapt.

I’ve thought a lot about the place of renewables in this industry in the last few years—most of it focused on the practical. I still think they are expensive and lacking in a certain economy of scale. But, perhaps I should think less about the financial cost of renewables and more about the lives they might save—not just with reducing global warming but direct human lives like those we lose regularly in coal mines around the world.

Jacob Rethard was a solid, tough family man who was proud to be a coal miner, but it cost him his life. My grandfather, Raymond Rethard, walked away from that disaster that killed his father a changed man, one who saw coal mining as not worth the risk. In the end, he died at a ripe old age surrounded by family—not by darkness and blackdamp.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to the humanity embroiled in the dangers of mining. If renewables become more prevalent, could we save more men in China and in West Virginia and in Illinois from dying in the dark? Years ago I made a definitive choice to never buy diamonds because of the human cost they sometimes require to mine. It was a change in attitude, and I know I’m not alone in that attitude or choice. Perhaps we, as an industry and as a society, also need to consider a change in attitude and adjust our social concepts and technological advances to give the advantage to renewables, even if they are more expensive. We should remember that we sometimes pay a very large, very human price for very cheap power.

And, bottom line, that human price may be much, much less if renewables were given a stronger foothold in power production. No man should fear the dark blackdamp in our smart energy future.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Detroit Looking At Downsizing To Save City


DETROIT | Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile.

Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green.

Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month.

"Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable," said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. "There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don't accept that, but that is the reality."

The meaning of what is afoot is now settling in across the city.

"People are afraid," said Deborah L. Younger, executive director of a group called Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation that is working to revitalize five areas of the city. "When you read that neighborhoods may no longer exist, that sends fear."

Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is not clear and fraught with problems.

Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn't known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won't go willingly.

"I like the way things are right here," said David Hardin, 60, whose bungalow is one of three occupied homes on a block with dozens of empty lots near what is commonly known as City Airport. He has lived there since 1976, when every home on the street was occupied, and said he enjoys the peace and quiet.

For much of the 20th century, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse, the city that put the nation on wheels. Factory workers lived in neighborhoods of simple single- and two-story homes and walked to work. But then the plants began to close one by one. The riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed.

Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit's plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown.

Faced with a $300 million budget deficit and a dwindling tax base, Mr. Bing says the city can't continue to pay for police patrols, fire protection and other services for all areas.

The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out. The city could use tax foreclosure to claim abandoned property and invoke eminent domain for those who refuse to leave, much as cities now do for freeway projects.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nigeria Tackling Climate Change Through Religion

By Tunbosun Ogundare for The Daily Champion (Nigeria) on 4 Mar 2010
From ISKCON News
Image: erinmikayla/
Adequate rainfall for subsistence farming is the key concern.

The effects of climate change particularly in sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly taking toll on the social and economic well-being of people of the region. Having realized these, some top faith leaders in the region have resolved to explore religion in tackling the menace.

The faith leaders have committed to taking proactive roles by helping educate members on the critical task and responsibilities all must play to safeguard the environment.

They made this commitment at the end of a two-day inter faith forum in Abuja, Nigeria, on climate change for sub-Saharan Africa.

The forum co-organized by the British Council and First City Monument Bank Plc (FCMB) to advance the awareness on climate change issues in the region, brought together over 100 participants from Nigeria, the United Kingdom and several other Sub-Saharan African countries including South Africa.

About 60 of them were faith leaders.

Those from Nigeria include Sheikh Qaribullah Kabar and Sheik Ibrahim Khali, both Islamic scholars; Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies, Noibi; Rev. Mathew Kuka of Catholic mission; Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, National President, Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN); Prof Wande Abimbola, former Vice-Chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife; Archbishop John Onaiyekan; Dr Newton Jibunoh, environment activist; Dr Abdul Audu, academics/environmentalist, and Prof Lanre Fagbohun, environmental lawyer,

Others were Dr John Momoh; Emir of Suleja, who represented Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Abubarkar Sai'd; Hon Ezeuche Ubani, Chairman House of Reps Committee on Climate Change; Bishop Margret Idahosa, Church of God Mission; Oluwasetihun Salawu and so forth.

From outside the country were Longdi Daniels; and Jeremy UYhili among others.

The Nigeria's British High Commissioner Mr. Robert Scott Dewar and the British Council Director, David Higgs as well as Peter Obaseki, Executive Director, FCMB, were also in attendance.

At the end of the summit, participants arrived at a decision that as leaders of faith communities on the continent, they would commit to highlighting the very real threat to the world's people and to the fragile creation, from the threat of catastrophic climate change.

In all our religious teachings and Holy Scriptures, they said, it is clearly stated that protecting and taking care of nature and human life is one of the main instructions of Creator, and human beings are guardians of this earth.

They believe that if climate change are not curtailed, it would continue to increase the level of poverty, disease and conflict in Africa.

It is a known fact that Africa has already been impacted by climate change through more floods, droughts and extreme weather conditions - but least equipped technically and financially to deal with climate- related risks.

Subsistence farming, the main source of Africa's food, is being threatened by climate change because it mainly relies on rainfall that is becoming increasingly erratic

Studies have shown that climate change may increase competition for diminishing water resources that will force people to become 'climate change refugees', posing challenges to peace and security in the region.

Noting that faith leaders have a crucial role to play in pressing for changes in behaviour at every level of society; and that, all have a responsibility to learn and teach how to live and develop sustainable in a world of finite resources, participants identified some salient action points to pursue subsequently.

These include the need for faith leaders to strengthen their capacity building trainings on climate change issues so as to improve their knowledge and understanding of this serious global threat.

From there, they will further commit to raising awareness of environmental ethics in their religious activities and dedicate a minimum of one sermon, says for one month for issues related to climate change and environmental degradation.

Equally, they said they would commit to emphasizing relevant verses in their Holy Books related to the environment as it is the responsibility of every believer to keep the earth clean and healthy for human life.

They are also ready to sharing best practices and strengthen existing structures and practices to implement agreed positive actions for adapting to climate change and preventing environmental degradation, while advising their communities on how to behave in their daily activities.

Similarly, they commit to working together with leaders of different faiths and engage with government, private sector, educational institutions, youth and civil society organizations in Africa and the region.

Their positions, however, are not limited to those above.They also said: "We should also involve and work with policy-makers and, where possible, hold them accountable, while ensuring that these people are a part of regional and national talks and (legal) agreements.

"We commit to working together to hold developed countries to account for a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases so that global warming does not exceed 2 C Degree and advocate for an adaptation or Global Climate Fund.

To help to achieve these ends, the faith leaders agreed to use the Abuja meeting as the first step in an ongoing process of collaboration.

"We believe our communities can be key agents of change and urge the government across levels and the international community, wherever possible, to support our efforts to build capacity, raise awareness and promote sustainable practice", they declared.

Nevertheless, the Abuja forum was the first of its kind in Africa coming few months after the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a meeting of faith leaders and faith-based and community organizations at Lambeth Palace, UK to discuss the response of faith communities to environmental crisis and; the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit held recently.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coal's Toxic Sludge

Click here to read the full article from Rolling Stone

For decades, the industry has gotten away with dumping coal ash pretty much wherever it wants. It poured the stuff into vast lagoons, dumped it into mines, used it to pave roads, spread it on crops as fertilizer, even mixed it into everyday items like concrete, wallboard, vinyl flooring, bowling balls, potting soil and toothpaste. There are no federal regulations to speak of. Many states have minimal restrictions on where and how coal ash can be dumped, but the coal industry has a long history of buying off state regulators with a junket to Vegas and a few rounds of golf. In short, the industry had it made. Nearly 300 billion pounds of coal ash simply vanished from view each year, with less oversight than household garbage.

But all that changed just before 1 a.m. on December 22nd, 2008, when an earthen dam collapsed at a storage pond brimming with coal waste near Kingston, Tennessee. Within hours, a billion gallons of gray-black sludge had oozed into the once-lovely Emory River, destroying nearby homes and poisoning the water. It was the largest industrial disaster in American history, a flood of waste 100 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The cleanup of the river, which will take years to complete, is expected to cost as much as $1 billion.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Growing Low-Oxygen Zones In Oceans Worry Scientists

By Les Blumenthal, McClatchy Newspapers Sun Mar 7, 12:01 pm ET from Yahoo News

WASHINGTON — Lower levels of oxygen in the Earth's oceans, particularly off the United States' Pacific Northwest coast, could be another sign of fundamental changes linked to global climate change, scientists say.

They warn that the oceans' complex undersea ecosystems and fragile food chains could be disrupted.

In some spots off Washington state and Oregon , the almost complete absence of oxygen has left piles of Dungeness crab carcasses littering the ocean floor, killed off 25-year-old sea stars, crippled colonies of sea anemones and produced mats of potentially noxious bacteria that thrive in such conditions.

Areas of hypoxia, or low oxygen, have long existed in the deep ocean. These areas — in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans — appear to be spreading, however, covering more square miles, creeping toward the surface and in some places, such as the Pacific Northwest , encroaching on the continental shelf within sight of the coastline.

"The depletion of oxygen levels in all three oceans is striking," said Gregory Johnson , an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle .

In some spots, such as off the Southern California coast, oxygen levels have dropped roughly 20 percent over the past 25 years. Elsewhere, scientists say, oxygen levels might have declined by one-third over 50 years.

"The real surprise is how this has become the new norm," said Jack Barth , an oceanography professor at Oregon State University . "We are seeing it year after year."

Barth and others say the changes are consistent with current climate-change models. Previous studies have found that the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"If the Earth continues to warm, the expectation is we will have lower and lower oxygen levels," said Francis Chan , a marine researcher at Oregon State .

As ocean temperatures rise, the warmer water on the surface acts as a cap, which interferes with the natural circulation that normally allows deeper waters that are already oxygen-depleted to reach the surface. It's on the surface where ocean waters are recharged with oxygen from the air.

Commonly, ocean "dead zones" have been linked to agricultural runoff and other pollution coming down major rivers such as the Mississippi or the Columbia . One of the largest of the 400 or so ocean dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico , near the mouth of the Mississippi .

However, scientists now say that some of these areas, including those off the Northwest, apparently are linked to broader changes in ocean oxygen levels.

The Pacific waters off Washington and Oregon face a double whammy as a result of ocean circulation.

Scientists have long known of a natural low-oxygen zone perched in the deeper water off the Northwest's continental shelf.

During the summer, northerly winds aided by the Earth's rotation drive surface water away from the shore. This action sucks oxygen-poor water to the surface in a process called upwelling.

Though the water that's pulled up from the depths is poor in oxygen, it's rich in nutrients, which fertilize phytoplankton. These microscopic organisms form the bottom of one of the richest ocean food chains in the world. As they die, however, they sink and start to decay. The decaying process uses oxygen, which depletes the oxygen levels even more.

Southerly winds reverse the process in what's known as down-welling.

Changes in the wind and ocean circulation since 2002 have disrupted what had been a delicate balance between upwelling and down-welling. Scientists now are discovering expanding low-oxygen zones near shore.

"It is consistent with models of global warming, but the time frame is too short to know whether it is a trend or a weather phenomenon," Johnson said.

Others were slightly more definitive, quicker to link the lower oxygen levels to global warming rather than to such weather phenomena as El Nino or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a shift in the weather that occurs every 20 to 30 years in the northern oceans.

"It's a large disturbance in the ecosystem that could have huge biological changes," said Steve Bograd , an oceanographer at NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Southern California .

Bograd has been studying oxygen levels in the California Current, which runs along the West Coast from the Canadian border to Baja California and, some scientists think, eventually could be affected by climate change.

So far, the worst hypoxic zone off the Northwest coast was found in 2006. It covered nearly 1,200 square miles off Newport, Ore. , and according to Barth it was so close to shore you could hit it with a baseball. The zone covered 80 percent of the water column and lasted for an abnormally long four months.

Because of upwelling, some of the most fertile ocean areas in the world are found off Washington and Oregon . Similar upwelling occurs in only three other places, off the coast of Peru and Chile , in an area stretching from northern Africa to Portugal and along the Atlantic coast of South Africa and Namibia .

Scientists are unsure how low oxygen levels will affect the ocean ecosystem. Bottom-dwelling species could be at the greatest risk because they move slowly and might not be able to escape the lower oxygen levels. Most fish can swim out of danger. Some species, however, such as chinook salmon, may have to start swimming at shallower depths than they're used to. Whether the low oxygen zones will change salmon migration routes is unclear.

Some species, such as jellyfish, will like the lower-oxygen water. Jumbo squid, usually found off Mexico and Central America , can survive as oxygen levels decrease and now are found as far north as Alaska .

"It's like an experiment," Chan said. "We are pulling some things out of the food web and we will have to see what happens. But if you pull enough things out, it could have a real impact."


The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Oregon State University's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Real Food-The Next Big Thing?

From Communities in the Washington Times

Omkara World by Adam Helfer

On the eve of Obama’s big health care overhaul plan, less than an hour away in Annapolis, Maryland, there was another momentous event taking place amongst members of a brewing movement that is gathering momentum fast and reaching the horizon of the cutting edge.

Supporters of the sustainable and “real food” movement held a viewing of “Fresh, the Movie” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis on Sun March 21st.

Joel Salatin addressing the crowd.

Joel Salatin addressing the crowd.

While the movie “Food Inc” has so far seemed to have gained the most widespread popularity in exposing the current industrial food system, it seems that “Fresh, the Movie” could be at the forefront of furthering the alternative to the current paradigm. “Fresh” summarizes the glaring downsides of the current system, but its main focus is on the visionaries and farmers that have practical and superior alternatives to make a shift and change in the organic, sustainable direction.

What makes the film unique, is its current distribution method- Director Ana Sophia Joanes and Co. didn’t want anyone to get the DVD, watch the documentary, and then struggle with “ok, I get it- now what!?”- Ana emphasizes purchasing the “Fresh Kit” and holding a community, or at least a family viewing, enables you to support each other once the movie is over and its “change time”

This model came to perfect fruition on Sunday- Farmer Joel Salatin (PolyFace Farm, Fresh, and academy award nominated Food Inc.) and Ana Sophia Joanes spoke to 2 sold out viewings of the documentary. 400-600 people came through the doors that day: Vegans, Omnivores, Yoga practitioners, business owners, young and old- so many were turned away, a 3rd sold out show was easily plausible. 30 vendors were also on hand distributing and showcasing local sustainable food and services- answering questions and offering services to those looking to kick the current system make a “Fresh” start with local, sustainable, organic whole foods.

Salatin has become somewhat of a farmer “celebrity” since the conception of Omnivores Dilemma, Food Inc. and now Fresh. His Polyface Farm may need security soon to keep fans at bay! Well, it’s all not quite there yet, but trends are showing GM (Genetically Modified) food is down this coming year, while sustainable farming and organics are on the rise. While the popularity of organics and sustainability leads to its own set of issues within its own realm (saved for another story) it is getting close to poising itself for “cutting edge” and the next step being mainstream.

Salatin addressed the full capacity crowd by stating how this current food paradigm has run its course. Besides the issue with this system and our fledgling health and wellbeing, it has also led us to be so disconnected from our food in general- 25% of people eat in their cars, 60% haven’t even planned what is going to be for dinner that night, and 90% of our food dollars are spent on processed and fast food.

Andy of Woodberry Kitchen

Andy of Woodberry Kitchen

The fact is, we’ve become so disconnected in general! Our current sad state of affairs in regard to our food habits also parallel how fragmented we have become with ourselves and each other. It’s no surprise that anxiety, depression, and other mental illness are on the rise also. Processed, homogenized food leads to a processed, stripped down connection with our own selves, other beings, and a general disconnect from the pulse of life in general.

This sustainable food movement is also equal part a spiritual revolution. Ana Joanes states that “Fresh” isn’t really about food, it’s about the sacredness of re-establishing our connection with ourselves, nature, the planet, and all its inhabitants. Food is just used as a reference point to start the re-connection.

There is a certain sense of sacredness that can come from our connection with our food: Having a relationship with our farmers, seeing and knowing where our food comes from, being present while preparing it, giving thanks or making an offering, and most importantly being present while eating. Generally, we would be lucky to have part of this equation going just some of the time. The ideal is having the full chain of events working in our lives on a regular sustained basis-This is what the new paradigm of food is striving for…

Adam Helfer (Omkara World), Ana Sophia Joanes (Director- Fresh,  the Movie), Baby Maayan, Farmer Joel Salatin (Fresh, Food Inc.)

Adam Helfer (Omkara World), Ana Sophia Joanes (Director- Fresh, the Movie), Baby Maayan, Farmer Joel Salatin (Fresh, Food Inc.)

I was reminded of the sacred aspect of food while attending a Weston A. Price meeting a couple of months ago, at which W.A.P. president Sally Fallon was speaking. She was describing a culture which Dr. Price studied when he travelled the world in the 1930’s analyzing native culture’s diets and dental and physical health. Most cultures seemed to have a “special” food they revered and honored in connection to their well-being. A specific European culture brought a candle in a bowl once a year of their special “butter oil,” which they revered for their robust health, into their church as an offering for their good health and fortune. This spontaneous gesture is eerily similar to the ancient sacred Vedic/Hindu "Puja" ceremony where a ghee (clarified butter) wick lamp is offered to the Deities/Divine. This stunning example of this European culture greatly states the clarity of mind and realization that can occur when a culture is connected into the entire process that goes into the organic, real food they eat.

Although this new paradigm of food sounds appealing to all, we can have our own excuses and reasons for not being able to apply it to our daily lives: “We won’t have enough time to do all that is necessary, it will cost too much,” etc... Salatin exclaimed that we all make decisions with our time, money, and energy: we follow all our sports, listen to our music, follow our celebrities, and spend money in all these various areas and then some. He gave an example of a woman who spoke at a conference he attended. She had a successful career, but found herself trapped in these thoughts of “no time, no energy, money was tight, and not enough motivation.” One day she exclaimed enough was enough and she started the process of the “re-connect.” For one year she stopped all frivolous spending on travel, entertainment, and various activities. She then invested that time, energy and money into discovering the magic and vastness of her local sustainable food culture- her life was changed.

We all have our choices to make with this precious life- Let’s aim to connect again. If you need some direction, please check out the past article on “Fresh” for more information- also please join their mailing list to get updated on their theatrical release that is coming soon!- Take some time to look into the sustainable food movement in your own area also- Let’s all do our part to push this movement to the cutting edge.

Adam is a Reiki Master, certified Health and Lifestyle counselor, Licensed Massage Therapist, 20 year practicing bramana initiated Bhakti Yogi, Spiritual advisor, visionary, jock and veteran of the “hardcore punk scene” all rolled into one. Adam is the founder of Omkara World and produced the mind/body fitness DVD “Intelligent Fitness."

Click here for Adam's past article archive.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

FRESH The Movie!

Click here to check out the FRESH website and trailer.

FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.

Among several main characters, FRESH features urban farmer and activist, Will Allen, the recipient of MacArthur’s 2008 Genius Award; sustainable farmer and entrepreneur, Joel Salatin, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and supermarket owner, David Ball, challenging our Wal-Mart dominated economy.

FRESH is more than a movie, it’s a gateway to action. Our aim is to help grow FRESH food, ideas, and become active participant in an exciting, vibrant, and fast-growing movement.

When I write we, I don’t mean our small team (officially two of us, with lots of amazing helps from our interns and volunteers) but I mean YOU. All of you. FRESH is a grassroots efforts for a grassroots movement. It’s been tremendously exciting to see the movie catch on and spread like wild fire, being used all over the country as a platform to raise awareness and connecting people to the solutions available in their community.

Within a month of our launch, we’ve received over 20,000 visitors and hundreds of screenings have already been organized. We want to reach 1 million folks. Not just because that would totally feel nice to our ego (mine especially!), but because, we believe that FRESH can truly help get us to a tipping point, when sustainable food will no longer be just a niche market.

Please help us reach 1 million people (to start with that is.) Organize a home screening or a community screening. Get in touch with us, let us know what we can do more and better. We’re open!

And join us on Facebook & Twitter.

Ana Joanes & The FRESH Team

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Inner Meaning of Vegetarianism: An Interview With Steven J. Rosen

Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008).

[*This interview was conducted by Rynn Berry for his book, Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World Religions (New York: Pythagorean Publishers, 1998)]

Berry: How long have you been a vegetarian?

Rosen: I became a vegetarian in 1971 after studying the roots of various religious traditions. It started when I began to look deeply into Western religion, especially Christianity, which only goes back about two thousand years. I then studied Judaism, which is somewhat older. Both of these religions emphasize the need for love and compassion, but rarely take it to the point of vegetarianism, at least not overtly. Wanting to delve deeper and go further back into the religious history of mankind, I began studying the various Eastern religions, which go back many thousands of years. In the course of my research, I found that common to most of the Asian religions was this sort of ahimsa sensibility—this notion of “harmlessness” and “nonviolence,” this mood of treating others as you would have them treat you. And that’s what led me to vegetarianism quite early on.

Then, taking the religious quest back to its roots, I became interested in yoga and ancient Hindu traditions that emphasized vegetarianism. This was well before I met the devotees of the International Society for Krishna consciousness [ISKCON]. I was already a practicing vegetarian when I became a practicing Vaishnava, although my commitment to the Krishna religion definitely enhanced my resolve to be kind to all creatures and to be a vegetarian.

But the point I want to make is this: I saw that there was a thread connecting all the religious traditions and, for me, this was best expressed in what is known as sanatan dharma, or “the eternal function of the soul”; that’s what the devotees of Krishna were purporting to follow. So that’s what I started to explore in the Krishna consciousness movement. Now, that particular sanatan dharma ideology, that particular point of view—wherever you find it, be it in Christianity or Hinduism or whatever—necessarily insists on kindness to all living creatures. Taken to its furthest and most logical end, it insists on vegetarianism.

Berry: Larry Shinn, President of Berea College, Kentucky, and an acknowledged expert on the Hare Krishna movement, observed that many vegetarians joined the Krishna movement because it gives them a rationale for their vegetarianism. Did you find this to be true in your case?

Rosen: Yes. I would say so. Here at last was a religious tradition that provided a clear connection between vegetarianism, kindness to all creatures, and the religious pursuit. As I said, I found this same principle in other traditions, but you had to look really hard for it—it was mainly to be found in the mystical traditions. Mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, certainly do not stress vegetarian teachings. If anything, they would reject it. But they do stress universal compassion and love, which ultimately leads to vegetarianism, at least if such love is truly universal. Therefore, the mystical traditions that grew up around these religions do support a vegetarian way of life; but their mainstream counterparts lost sight of this. Whereas in Krishna consciousness, whether mainstream or the more mystical side, it is right on the face of it, right there as a prominent teaching.

Berry: I understand that in 1975 you were initiated by Swami Prabhupada himself, the founder of the International Krishna Consciousness movement. Did you have a sense that he was a special person?

Rosen: When I first met Prabhupada in 1972, my immediate impression was that he was a genuine saint, and his saintliness inspired me to want to improve my lifestyle. So I followed his instructions, distributed his books and spread his teachings with a view to becoming his disciple.

Berry: What were the prerequisites for becoming a disciple of Swami Prabhupada?

Rosen: Disciples were required to follow four basic principles—no meat-eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling. One also had to chant sixteen rounds of Hare Krishna on beads. There are 108 beads on Vaishnava rosary. So one has to go around sixteen times chanting the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra: “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna! Krishna! Hare! Hare! Hare Rama! Hare Rama! Rama! Rama! Hare! Hare!” This was the minimum prerequisite for initiation.

Berry: Did you have to repeat this refrain throughout the day?

Rosen: Sixteen rounds on beads as a minimum—that was for quiet, reflective meditation—and then you would chant aloud in kirtan, a sort of joyous, overflowing spiritual exercise wherein you sing and dance with others. You must have seen the devotees singing like this on the streets. It’s quite traditional, and it’s a well-known practice all over India. There are many Vedic and post-Vedic prayers and chants like this, but this particular one is known as the Maha-mantra, which indicates that it is all-inclusive and all-encompassing. It’s said that all other mantras are contained in this one mantra. It’s that powerful. So it has a soteriological function, its meaning is very deep, and it is extremely purifying.

You see, most prayers or incantations ask for something in return. “Give us our daily bread,” or something of that nature. Or, in the latter-day Buddhist tradition, you have nam-myoho-renge-khyo—suppo
sedly, if you chant this incessantly, you’ll get whatever you want, any material acquisition. But this Hare Krishna prayer is totally selfless. It asks for nothing in return. So its power comes from its selflessness, its purity, and it puts you in touch with the supreme pure, God.

Berry: How would you translate it?

Rosen: “O Lord! O divine energy of the Lord! Please engage me in Your service!” It means, essentially, “Whatever You want, O Lord, that’s what I want! I'm going to put Your desires before my own.”

Berry: The great Indologist A. L. Basham said that Swami Prabhupada, in founding the International Hare Krishna movement, had established the first Asian religion in the West since the days of the Roman Empire. Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity and Chairman of the Department of Applied Theology at Harvard Divinity School, said of Prabhupada: “There aren’t many people you can think of who successfully implant a whole religious tradition in a completely alien culture. That’s a rare achievement in the history of religion. Eventually, he planted this movement deeply in the North American soil, throughout other parts of the Europe-dominated world and beyond. The fact that we now have in the West a vigorous, disciplined, and seemingly well-organized movement—not merely a philosophical movement or a yoga or meditation movement, but a genuinely religious movement—introducing the devotion to God that he taught, is a stunning accomplishment. So when I say ‘he was one in a million,’ I think that’s in some way an understatement. Perhaps he was one in a hundred million.”

Rosen: Yes, that’s a great quote.

Berry: He certainly was an improbable figure to have founded a religion on Western shores: he arrived in New York almost penniless in 1965. Clad in a flimsy dhoti and wearing rubber shoes, his only luggage was a battered portable typewriter and an umbrella. When he embarked on his long sea voyage to the United States, he was seventy years old (an age at which many people are checking into rest homes). On the outward voyage from Calcutta, he had several mild heart attacks. Yet he did the impossible: he established a branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in America, Europe and Asia—and it seems to have taken root.

Rosen: That’s true—it was a phenomenal accomplishment! But he was not really “an improbable figure,” as you say. In many ways, Swami Prabhupada was the most likely person to do it, chiefly because, as his biographers tell us, he spent a lifetime in preparation. He was born to devout Vaishnava parents of the Chaitanyaite school; he studied Vedic texts for most if not all of his life; he knew Sanskrit; he knew Bengali; in college, he majored in economics, philosophy and English; and he lived a pure life of loving God from the very beginning. So these things really prepared him for coming West, and for the monumental success that followed.

Berry: But he was an unlikely figure in another sense. Come to think of it, Mahatma Gandhi was an improbable figure as well. Dhoti-clad like Prabhupada, he weighed about 125 pounds soaking wet; yet he drove the British out of India and is considered, in some respects, the father of modern India. So that’s a consideration: very often even the most unlikely figure triumphs. The weak overcome the strong when they have truth on their side—that’s the whole idea of satyagraha.

Rosen: Ultimately, Prabhupada’s greatest strength lay in his dedication to and faith in his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur. There were so many people who had been given the instruction by Bhaktisiddhanta to come West and to deliver the esoteric teachings of Krishna consciousness; but they considered it to be totally impossible because they’d been given to understand that people in the West were meat-eaters, alcoholics and sex-mongers. So they backed off. On the other hand, Prabhupada rose to the challenge, saying, “They declared that it was impossible . . . but I was determined to try it anyway.” [laughter]

Berry: Do you think the Krishnaites [Vaishnavas] have been responsible for the spread of vegetarianism and the doctrine of ahimsa in America and Europe?

Rosen: Yes, very much so. In ISKCON vegetarianism is a requirement for practitioners, whereas, in other traditions, it is generally optional. Thus, it is an actively promoted philosophy. ISKCON has opened vegetarian restaurants in every major city of the world. They are immensely popular, opening people up to a broader conception of the vegetarian lifestyle. There are, of course, Jain and Buddhist denominations who have contributed to the popularity of vegetarianism, and certain Christian sects like the Seventh-Day Adventists have contributed as well. Perhaps I’m biased, but I would say, comparatively speaking, ISKCON has had a broader influence.

Berry: In fact, Bill Shurtleff told me that when he was training as a Zen monk in Japan and working on The Book of Tofu, that he met Swami Prabhupada, who had come to Tokyo in the late sixties to open a branch of ISKCON. So thanks to Prabhupada’s zeal it has become a worldwide phenomenon.

Rosen: Vaishnava restaurants, which are strictly vegetarian or, I should say, lacto-vegetarian, have been thriving all over Europe, Japan, Australia, China, India, and Hong Kong, and, of course, in America as well.

Berry: India? I should think that opening a Krishnaite restaurant in India would be like taking coals to Newcastle.

Rosen: ISKCON has its own particular style of cooking and preparing sacred food that’s offered to Krishna in sacrifice. In addition to the interest created by the mere fact of seeing Westerners preparing traditional dishes, devotees sometimes take traditional recipes from the culture and give them a distinctive Western flourish. Thus, the popularity is twofold.

Berry: What characterizes that style of cuisine?

Rosen: Bhakti. The love and devotion of the devotee—this is the main ingredient. You see, in Vaishnava devotional cooking, there are three concepts that one should be aware of: first, there is bhoga, or “mundane enjoyment,” and this refers to unoffered food. Then you have naivedya, or the food that is brought before the Deity. Finally, you have prasadam, literally, “the Lord’s mercy,” which refers to the food after it is offered. This food is spiritually purifying and is always sattvic, or vegetarian and health-giving.

Berry: Is Yamuna Devi’s cookbook Lord Krishna’s Cuisine representative of prasadam preparation?

Rosen: Yes, in the sense that her mood in this book is devotional, but, in addition, it is a masterpiece of Indian culinary art. For many years Yamuna was Prabhupada’s personal cook; he taught her his own cooking secrets, helped her collect recipes and specifically asked her to compile a cookbook. That was a great impetus for her; that’s why she did it and doubtless that’s why it turned out to be the award-winning cookbook that it is.

Berry: Prabhupada wanted her to do it for the West?

Rosen: For the world—even for India because, as I’ve said, ISKCON is unique in its presentation of Indian food. More, Prabhupada wanted her to perpetuate traditional Vaishnava cooking.

Berry: I understand that Prabhupada saw to it that his protégé Yamuna was given access to temple kitchens to which non-Westerners and non-Hindus had never been admitted. Have you, as a Vaishnava scholar, penetrated any of these temples?

Rosen: Yes, I've entered the sacred precincts of many temples that are off-limits to Westerners and non-Hindus. I’ve been to Tirupati, Guruvayur, Shri Rangam, and others. But, in actuality, they’re easing up on the restrictions for foreigners. I think this is also due to ISKCON’s presence.

Berry: In your book Om Shalom [a collection of dialogues with Rabbi Jacob Shimmel, who has studied and traveled extensively in India], you discussed a temple in South India, Pakshi Tirtha, where they have a time-honored custom of feeding two white eagles at precisely the same time every day. Can you tell me about that?

Rosen: That’s a Shaivite temple [where Shiva is worshipped] near Mahabalipuram in southern India. An Amazing place. The temple sits atop an enormous hill. To reach the top, one has to climb a seemingly endless flight of steps that are carved into the mountainside. One has to time one’s journey so that one arrives before the feeding of the two eagles, which takes place at 12:30 P.M.—sharp—every day.

To climb these steps takes about an hour or an hour and a half. At this time of day, the sun is positively scorching. It beats down piteously on these stone steps—which one has to climb barefoot because one must remove one’s shoes upon entering a sacred place. So to climb these steps is quite an austerity.

As soon as one gets to the top, amidst throngs of pilgrims, the first thing that one sees is a pujari—a priest who worships the deity and presents prasadam (sacred food) to the deity as well. Around twenty-seven minutes after 12:00, the pujari takes out a pot of prasadam and places some in his hand. Soon after he does this, at exactly 12:30, one sees two black dots in the sky, moving in from quite a distance. It’s the two white eagles! This ritual has been going on for thousands of years. It’s even mentioned in the Puranas, where there’s a story that refers to two devotees of Shiva, two yogis, who were cursed to take birth as birds perpetually, birth after birth. It’s also briefly mentioned in the Chaitanya-charitamrita—the most authoritative and canonical of the biographies of Lord Chaitanya, which was composed in the early seventeenth century. [Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, of which ISKCON is a branch.] So there is evidence that something has been going on here for a long, long time.

Berry: Rabbi Shimmel, who is a keen but not uncritical student of Hinduism, was very impressed by the whole Pakshi Tirtha incident.

Rosen: That’s right. He witnessed it, and for centuries European travelers who visited this Pakshi Tirtha temple have left accounts of it. For instance, in 1908 the Archaeological Survey of India published interesting findings in the annual report of the Madras Epigraphist. It seems that ten Dutch army officers had inscribed their names in the Pakshi Tirtha area in the year 1664, attesting to the fact that they had witnessed the noontime meal.

So the two black dots appear in the sky just after noon, flying in from across the subcontinent. As they get closer, one can see that they are actually two white eagles. They swoop down, seize the prasadam from the pujari’s hands and eat it. Then they fly around the mountain and clean their beaks on the alternate mountainside. What’s more, since these birds (and, perhaps, their ancestors) have been cleaning their beaks after lunch for millennia, there are huge indentations in the mountain just where they clean their beaks. So this is the story of the two Shaivites who were cursed to take birth as eagles . . .

Berry: Cursed or blessed? It’s not such a bad existence, is it? Flapping about merrily while feeding on tasty vegetarian dishes prepared by a temple chef . . .

Rosen: One man’s curse is another man’s blessing. [laughter]

Berry: It’s also rather extraordinary that eagles, which are thought of as being exclusively carnivorous, should be so taken by this vegetarian food that they appear at 12:30 on the dot every day for at least two thousand years.

Rosen: India is filled with such inexplicable enchantments and paradoxes. You’ll find many truly sacred places with uncommon marvels that defy the imagination.

Berry: Can one interpret this metaphorically, I wonder? That these two white eagles should feed on the prasadam—isn’t that almost symbolic of the way that devotees of Shiva and Krishna sustain themselves on the gods’ prasadam?

Rosen: It’s a little different here because this is Shiva prasadam. Shiva is a demigod, and so feeding on his prasadam can only bring material benefits. Whereas devotees feeding on Krishna prasadam are feeding on food that is consecrated to the Supreme Personality of Godhead; the result of this kind of feasting is that it frees you of sin, brings intense happiness, and ultimately liberates you from material existence, situating you in love of God.

Berry: Do you yourself eat prasadam at home? Do you consecrate your food to Krishna before you eat it?

Rosen: Yes. I offer my food to Krishna, in my way. At the same time I try to remember that the energy I get from this food is to be used in Krishna’s service. This is another aspect of honoring prasadam.

Berry: Is it Krishna’s teaching that He will not accept animal flesh as prasadam? Does He only accept vegetarian food?

Rosen: Exactly. That’s based on various passages in the Vedic literature. Prabhupada was fond of quoting one particular verse from the Bhagavad-gita in which Krishna says, “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” Prabhupada points out that Krishna doesn’t ask for meat, fish, or eggs in this verse. Of course, this Gita verse is not in and of itself conclusive; but there are many other parts of the Vedic literature that also point in this direction, as well as those that state it overtly. For example, in the Vaishnava epic known as the Mahabharata [anu. 115.47], it is said, “He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take his birth.” Or, also in the Mahabharata [anu. 114.11], “The meat of animals is like the flesh of one’s own son, and the foolish person who eats meat must thus be considered the most vile of human beings.” So the Gita verse taken in tandem with these other texts, inescapably points to vegetarianism. Moreover, the Vaishnava tradition has been emphatically vegetarian since ancient times. In later literature, such as Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Chaitanya-charitamrita, vegetarianism is an implicit and recurring theme.

Actually, in that mammoth work, Krishnadas Kaviraj does something quite remarkable: In addition to delineating an incredibly complex theological system and systematically revealing Lord Chaitanya’s prevailing hagiography, he describes and gives recipes for the hundreds of dishes that Lord Chaitanya found most delectable. Many of them, incidentally, appear in Yamuna Devi’s cookbook.

Berry: Could you give some idea of Chaitanya’s favorite recipes according to Krishnadas Kaviraj?

Rosen: Well, various forms of shak are described, that is, green leafy vegetables with interesting combinations of ghee and spices. All kinds of exotic rice preparations are there as well; and delicious forms of dahl too; the list really goes on and on.

Berry: But they’re not vegan recipes . . .

Rosen: No. There are some that involve the use of milk and ghee, as I’ve said. But many of the recipes are vegan-oriented—simple but tasty vegetarian fare that would appeal to all connoisseurs of good food. You can ask Yamuna about the specific recipes. Basically, there are two food groups: foods called kacha, which are grains, vegetables, and various foods that are boiled in water (wherein you will actually find thousands of vegan recipes). Then there are foods called pakka, which are prepared with cow products—again, there are thousands of recipes. These are the two basic categories.

Berry: So Chaitanya would dine on these vegetarian meals, dished up by temple chefs in the sixteenth century. How fascinating to have these culinary artifacts preserved so faithfully by his biographer!

Rosen: Well, there’s an esoteric reason for that. An interesting thing about Krishnadas Kaviraj, which would kind of explain why he peppers an intensely philosophical work like the Chaitanya-charitamrita with detailed recipes, has to do with his ontological form; it has to do with who he is in the spiritual realm. He is a maidservant named Kasturi Manjari. Appropriately enough, this maidservant assists Radharani in the kitchen when she prepares food for Krishna. Since this is his eternal activity in the Spiritual Sky, it is quite natural that in his bodily form as Krishnadas Kaviraj he has a preoccupation with recipes and has a predilection for listing foodstuffs and feasts in his Chaitanya-charitamrita.

Berry: Interesting. You are suggesting that Chaitanya’s biographer, Krishnadas Kaviraj, was the reincarnation of a sous-chef in the kitchen of Krishna Himself!

Rosen: In a manner of speaking, yes. In his original spiritual form, he is the assistant of Radharani in the kitchen. And so this affects the way in which he approaches his service as a writer of Chaitanya’s biography in this world. This is even brought out more clearly by the fact that Chaitanya’s other biographers—and he’s had several—don’t delve into the recipes or give a detailed listing of the preparations at all. But Krishnadas sure does! He’s meticulously describes all the different kinds of feasts that Lord Chaitanya attended; he tells how to prepare the various dishes, and he lingers lovingly over every detail of its preparation.

Berry: I should think that after having been Radharani’s kitchen assistant, Krishnadas would have achieved moksha, or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Wouldn’t being reincarnated as Chaitanya’s biographer have been a bit of a comedown?

Rosen: Not at all. Here’s the first thing that needs to be understood: As Radharani’s assistant, there is no higher goal—he was already beyond moksha and established in his natural constitutional position in the spiritual world. He’s one of the inner circle of Krishna’s associates and so he is considered eternally liberated. That’s the first thing. Closely linked to that is another, related idea: his incarnation as Chaitanya’s biographer can be seen as lila, or pastime, enacted merely for the Lord’s pleasure.

You see, people are born into this world for diverse reasons. Conditioned souls need to learn certain lessons and are forced to take birth as a reaction to their karma or materialistic activity. Through proper conduct and the Lord’s mercy, they ultimately achieve moksha, or liberation. However, liberated souls also take birth in our world, but their reason is different: they come to help others and to assist the Lord in His mission. So this is one way to answer your question.

From another perspective, it can be seen like this: Lord Chaitanya is considered the most confidential and powerful avatar of Krishna. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition proclaims that Chaitanya is Krishna, but in His most intimate feature. So, since Krishnadas was Chaitanya’s intimate devotee and biographer, he moved closer to the Godhead. Direct service to Lord Chaitanya is the ultimate form of moksha, even for souls who are already liberated. So this is seen as a very exalted thing. This ultimate form of liberation—seva, or service to God—is delineated in Bhagavad-gita…

Berry: I see. So his incarnation as Krishnadas is actually a blessing. That resolves the issue quite well. But I want to ask you something about the Gita, since you just mentioned it. In the Gita there are several passages which stress ahimsa as one of the eternal verities. Would you say that the Gita is a seminal work for the Vaishnavas?

Rosen: Yes. The Gita comprises chapters 25 through 42 of the Bhishma-parva section of the Mahabharata, and the Mahabharata is considered one of Vaishnavism’s main texts. In regard to ahimsa, the Mahabharata says ahimsa para dharmo: “nonviolence is the highest duty.” This emphasis on nonviolence can be found in all major religions as well.

Berry: You’ve become something of a scholar in the field of comparative religion, too, having written Food for the Spirit, Om Shalom, East West Dialogues, inter alia. As a spokesperson in the field of comparative religion, how would you account for the fact that the Indic religions of the East, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Hinduism tend to promote ahimsa and vegetarianism, whereas the Semitic revelatory religions of the West, such as Christianity and Judaism, condone, if not encourage, the taking of animal life and the eating of their flesh?

Rosen: I think it’s because in Western religion there tends to be an emphasis on loka-hita. This is Sanskrit terminology; it means “kindness to one’s own species.”

Berry: This would include Islam as well.

Rosen: Especially Islam. Western religions emphasize loka-hita more than Eastern religions. The newer religions emphasize loka-hita more than the ancient religions. Islam is only 1,300 years old. Since it’s a newer religion, it accentuates loka-hita, which is a fundamental, beginning spiritual ethic: “First you have to be kind to yourself and your own kind; then you can extend it to others.” Now, in the older religions, and especially in the East, they stress sarva-bhuta-hita, which means “kindness to all living things.” It’s a more inclusive ethic—it includes one’s own kind as well as all other living entities. This is the compassionate sensibility that is stressed in ancient India’s Vedic texts, and especially in the Puranas and the Gita. This is one of the things that attracted me to Vaishnavism: it promotes this more inclusive, embracing ethic. It encourages love for all creatures; vegetarianism is implicit.

Furthermore, the Eastern religions, especially the various forms of what has come to be called “Hinduism,” also stress the principle of aham brahmasmi—“I am not this body but, rather, I am spirit soul.” This very spiritual perspective includes a sense of bonding with all that lives, an interconnectedness with all life forms. They are spirit, and so are we. So we have much in common with all creatures in God’s creation. People who adhere to an Eastern religious tradition will tell you in all candor that “I am not this body—I am something beyond this body.” Of course, this notion can be found in the Western religious traditions as well; every spiritual path will include some sense of experiencing our identities as different from the body. But it’s a question of emphasis. In the East, it is a rigorously elaborated upon and highly valued sensibility. Especially among Brahmins, these spiritual ideals are markedly evolved.

Berry: By chance, as I was making my way here this afternoon, I was reading Norman Lewis’s book called A Goddess in the Stones—it’s about his travels in Eastern India. In it, he recounts an incident that vividly illustrates the point you are making. He describes the reaction of a little Hindu girl on learning that there are people in the world who actually eat fish. Let me read it to you: “Fish had been introduced and ingenious wicker traps were offered for hire in which several, not exceeding two inches in length, had been caught and transferred to tins full of water. These were being examined by a pretty and expensively-dressed little girl, who I was to learn, had never seen a live fish before. ‘And what will they do with them?’ she asked her father. ‘They will eat them.’ he told her. She seemed to turn pale with horror, and was on the verge of tears. The father explained smilingly, ‘She is very gentle by nature. You see, we are Brahmins. We do not eat living things.’”

Rosen: Yes. Instinctively, she realizes that the only difference between her and this poor fish, who is going to be eaten, is the body; spiritually she realizes that she and the fish are one, parts of God, and should not be exploited or abused in any way.

The interesting thing to me is that in the West this would be considered an esoteric teaching, whereas in the East this is a most exoteric teaching. As Prabhupada would often say, “The common street sweeper in India knows that he is not the body.” By contrast, in the West, people are generally not conscious of the distinction between body and soul in their everyday life.

Berry: This may be related to the Indic idea or belief in samsara or the transmigration of souls. The Western religions do not support such a belief. Is that a fair statement?

Rosen: No, this is not really an accurate assessment. In my book, The Reincarnation Controversy: Uncovering the Truth in the World Religions, I argue that just as with ahimsa, the principle of reincarnation is accepted by both Eastern and Western traditions. Although practitioners are generally unaware of it, Western religion for the most part accepts the doctrine of transmigration, even if it’s only religious mystics, or those who study the “esoteric teachings” of Western religions, who would admit this to be true. In the East, transmigration is common knowledge and is pretty much accepted across the board. But make no mistake, samsara is definitely there in Western religion.

You have the example of orthodox Judaism—generally those who adhere to this system of religious belief will deny the doctrine of reincarnation. However, those Jews who know their own mystical tradition, Kabbalah, will inevitably come up against texts that lend support to the idea of transmigration, and they will even become acquainted with a lengthy work known as Sefer-HaGilgulim, which is largely devoted to elucidating the truth of reincarnation. The Hassidim and other orthodox Jewish sects are aware of this, and they accept that a person can be reincarnated in the shape of a stone, an insect, a plant, an animal, and so on, until one perfects one’s life and learns one’s lessons. But the mass of Jewish people do not know that transmigration plays a role in Jewish teaching.

In Christianity, the idea of reincarnation was consciously suppressed. If one studies the twenty-five ecumenical councils one will find that at the Second Council at Constantinople, in 553 A.D., Emperor Justinian, with the approval of Pope Vigilius, ordered that all references to reincarnation be stricken from the Bible and from post-biblical Christian literature. So most Christians are unaware of Christian reincarnationist teaching.

Berry: Weren’t they trying to stamp out Origenism—the teachings of Origen of Alexandria? The emperor and the pope made common cause against Origen because his teachings on reincarnation threatened the establishment.

Rosen: That’s right. The pope was afraid that if Christians in general believed that they had many lifetimes in which to perfect themselves, they would not treat death as such a grave issue. (Forgive the pun.) If they had more than one life, they might not be serious about following Christian directives and scriptural injunctions. In a word, they couldn’t be threatened with hellfire and damnation after a single life. With this in mind, the powerful leaders of that period decided to tell the mass of people that they had only one life—and that after this they would go to heaven or hell. Finished. This, they hoped, would make serious Christians.

Berry: You were saying that ahimsa and samsara are esoteric doctrines in the West but are known to the man-in-the-street in the Orient. What about vegetarianism? It strikes me that this has also been an esoteric practice in the West, but commonplace in Asia.

Rosen: Until recently one had to go to an occult bookstore to find information about vegetarianism or reincarnation; they are considered counterculture subjects in the West, or at least they were up until the last twenty years or so. But in India these have long been topics with which the common man is conversant, and speaks about very easily.

Berry: This is a bit off the point, but I was wondering if you’ve read Jeremy Rifkin’s popular book, Beyond Beef.

Rosen: Yes. It’s an excellent work.

Berry: Do you agree with his view of Indian history?

Rosen: No, not exactly. For the most part, he seems to accept textbook Hinduism, the kind that was popularized by Indologists who were largely Christian missionaries—biased, with a secret agenda, to say the least. In chapter five of Rifkin’s work, he mentions that Hindu Brahmins were largely performers of animal sacrifices, and that it wasn’t until the rise of Buddhism that ahimsa principles were adopted by the Hindus. This is simply untrue. Rifkin’s main reference is Marvin Harris, an anthropologist who does not draw on primary sources. If one studies the original texts, in Sanskrit, one finds that ahimsa was promoted in the earliest portions of the Vedic literature. This can be found in the Rig Veda (10.87.16), for example: “One who partakes of human flesh, the flesh of a horse, or any other animal, and deprives others of milk by slaughtering cows, O King, if such a fiend does not desist by any other mans, then you should not hesitate to cut off his head.” Or consider the Yajur Veda (12.32), which says, “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether these creatures are human, animal, or what have you.” Or the Atharva Veda (17.1.4): “One should be considered dear, even by those in the animal kingdom.” So, contrary to popular belief, the ahimsa principle can be found in early Vedic sources, even if there was a parallel Vedic allowance for animal sacrifices.

Now, it is true that the Buddha refuted the hypocritical Brahmins of his time who were engaged in needless animal sacrifices in the name of religion. But other Brahmins spoke out against these hypocrites as well. It’s not that ahimsa was peculiar to Buddhism; it was there in Hinduism all along. Even Vedic texts that recommended animal sacrifices did so with numerous caveats, and they were clear that these sacrifices were certainly not meant for our present age of Kali.

Only misled, bogus Brahmins bastardized the tradition and taught that it was appropriate to conduct animal sacrifices in Kali-yuga. But this was an aberration that was not condoned by Vedic texts.

You see, in India, there are eighteen Puranas, ancient scriptures—six for those in the mode of goodness, six for those in passion, and six for those in ignorance. The scriptures for people in the mode of goodness adamantly eschew the use of flesh foods—and animal sacrifices. Only the scriptures for those in passion and ignorance condone meat-eating and, rarely, animal sacrifices—and both in regulated fashion only. It is meant to wean practitioners off of these things. A similar phenomenon exists in the Bible, for example, where the koshering laws are described.

So while I feel that Rifkin’s book has a lot to offer, I think he didn’t really do his homework in regard to Eastern religion, and this is reflected in his fifth chapter, which is called “Holy Cow,” I believe.

It’s my opinion that Westerners in general don’t really understand the reason for Eastern vegetarianism, so Rifkin’s analysis is not surprising.

Berry: It would appear that Westerners become vegetarians largely for narcissistic or health reasons; whereas, in Asia, especially in India, people seem to be vegetarians for spiritual and ethical reasons. Is that a correct assumption?

Rosen: Not entirely. Practitioners in the East are also aware of the health benefits conferred by a vegetarian diet, and, conversely, Westerners often become vegetarian for spiritual reasons. But, to focus on the Eastern religions: If one studies ancient Ayurvedic texts, one will find it very clearly stated that it is better to be a vegetarian not only for religious, ethical, and moral reasons but also for medical and nutritional reasons. It is always better to do things in full knowledge than to do things without knowing the purpose. That’s acknowledged in all Indic traditions. But the central reason for Eastern vegetarianism, especially for Vaishnavas, is twofold: first, a Vaishnava cannot bear to see the suffering of others. They feel an intense love for all living beings, and cannot harm anyone—what to speak of eat them! Secondly, a Vaishnava can only eat foods that are offered to Krishna in sacrifice, and as we’ve mentioned earlier, Krishna will only eat vegetarian foods. These two reasons are deeply ingrained in Vaishnava culture, and have been an integral part of Vaishnava consciousness long before the rise of Buddhism. So, yes, the two main reasons are ethical and spiritual.

Berry: Would you say that the average Indian is a healthier specimen than his western counterpart?

Rosen: On average, yes. They tend to be lean and lithe, and they live to a ripe old age.

Berry: You were raised in a non-practicing Jewish family, and after converting to Vaishnavism, you’ve become an expert in the field of comparative religion. Has your interest in Judaism been rekindled by your study of other religions?

Rosen: Very much so.

Berry: Can one be a practicing Jew and a Krishnaite at the same time?

Rosen: The average Jewish theologian would say no. They would say that it’s not possible because Hinduism is idolatrous and polytheistic. But the conception of sanatan dharma that is set forth in the Vedic literature is quite monotheistic in that it sees Krishna as the supreme God—the same supreme God that is mentioned in biblical literature. And, as far as idol worship goes—there is a huge difference between worshiping a Deity of the supreme and worshiping an idol of some lesser god, fashioned by one’s own imagination. I’ve actually written quite extensively on this. You see, what Vaishnavism, or Krishnaite religion, emphasizes is this: getting at the essence, finding God, and this is the same basic idea that is there in Judaism and in all major world religions. So, I would say, yes, one can actually be a good practitioner of any faith and still be a Vaishnava. But one must dig deep, and must look into the essence of one’s religion. In fact, if one does so, one will find that the practice of Vaishnavism can enhance one’s faith in many ways, whatever one’s sectarian affiliation may be.

Berry: Actually, in Om Shalom, you and Rabbi Shimmel discuss a small colony of Jews living in India who can trace their lineage back over one thousand years.

Rosen: That’s a different issue because these people are actually practicing Jews; they’re not following Krishnaite religion.

Berry: Have they retained their Jewish customs and dietary habits? Or have they assimilated and become vegetarians?

Rosen: It really varies because Judaism teaches that it’s a mitzvah, or a “good thing,” to eat meat on the Sabbath. Or at least it teaches that one should rejoice and eat luxuriant foods on the Sabbath—and most Jewish authorities interpret this as a mandate to eat meat. But by and large I’d say that the Jews in India have assimilated and become vegetarians. Many of them speak Hindi or, rather, Tamil, and they wear saris and dhotis; so it is difficult to distinguish them from Hindus, and although their practices are distinctly Jewish they have imbibed many Indian customs. For many of them this would include the vegetarian diet.

Berry: Can you draw any parallels between Judaism and Vaishnavism?

Rosen: That’s the subject of a whole book, and your readers can turn to Om Shalom. But, as an example, the word judaism comes from judah, which means “to exalt the Lord” or “to glorify God.” So if one could, for a moment, divorce Judaism from its ethnological dimension, the essence of Judaism is to glorify God. The connection to Vaishnavism, then, is obvious, for the goal of Vaishnavism, too, is to glorify God. In this way, if one looks at the essence, one can find great harmony in these traditions.

Berry: Although many Jews observe the koshering laws, only a small minority are vegetarians. If a Jew wanted to become a vegetarian, what passages could he cite from the Bible to justify his conversion?

Rosen: Well, this is more Robert Kole’s subject, but I would say that one could begin with the first book of the Bible, in Genesis 1.29, where a non-flesh diet is forthrightly recommended; in this text, God actually describes the vegetarian diet as “very good,” whereas later diets containing meat are given as an emergency measure, and are usually clearly described as such. The meat-oriented diets mentioned in the Bible are generally referred to as “a concession to human weakness.” If one studies the Bible closely, one can see a distinction between God’s preferred will and His permissive will.

Berry: Why did God make these concessions and why did He permit Noah and his descendants to eat animal flesh?

Rosen: The crucial thing here is to try to understand exactly what was taking place at the time of Noah. Actually, man had become so depraved that he would eat a limb freshly torn from the body of a living animal. The situation had become so degraded that God decided to create a great flood—incidentally, the flood that is depicted in the Bible would doubtless have wiped out all vegetation, leaving scant alternatives to animal foods.

In any case, God did give a concession at that time for the eating of animal flesh. This occurs in the ninth chapter of Genesis, where God gives permission for man to eat anything that moves. Soon after this verse, God says that man should not eat the blood of animals (it is for this reason that the Jewish koshering laws came into play). And not long after that, I believe it’s in Genesis 9.5, God reveals the karma that awaits those who slaughter animals: “By their own hands shall ye be slain.” This is translated variously in different versions, but this is basically what it means.

Berry: What about this matter of God’s having given man dominion over the animals?

Rosen: Dominion was never taken to mean “one who enslaves” or “one who exploits”—at least not according to traditional biblical usage. Rather, the original Hebrew for the word “dominion” is yirdu, and it connotes a sort of stewardship or guardianship. In other words, we are given the command to care for our more humbly endowed brothers and sisters—the animals—not to eat them. A king may have dominion over his subjects, but he doesn't slaughter them and feast on their remains. Not generally.

It should be added, too, that Genesis 1.26, the verse that gives us dominion over the animals, is followed, only three verses later, by the verse that clearly recommends a vegetarian diet. In other words, God gives us dominion over the animals and only three verses later prohibits their use for food. Implicitly, the dominion He gives us does not include using animals for our taste buds.

Berry: You’ve touched on the Jewish tradition with respect to vegetarianism. Could you briefly outline the Christian tradition vis-a-vis vegetarianism and animal rights?

Rosen: Well, many of the arguments given for the Jewish side of vegetarianism would apply equally to the Christian tradition—they’re both based on the Bible. But Christians claim to adhere to a new covenant, set in place by Jesus and his unique spirituality. Basically, over the centuries, there have arisen two distinct schools of Christian thought: the Aristotelian-Thomistic and the Augustinian-Franciscan school.

Berry: How do they differ in their view of animal rights?

Rosen: The Aristotelian-Thomistic view has, as its basis, the premise that animals are here for our pleasure—their purpose in this world is only to serve us; that’s what animals are for. Period. We can eat them, torture them in laboratories, and do anything to them we please. This is almost Cartesian in scope. Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity seems to take its cue from the Aristotelian-Thomistic school.

The Augustinian-Franciscan view, on the other hand, teaches that we are all brothers and sisters under God’s fatherhood. Based largely on the world-view of St. Francis, and being essentially Platonic in nature, this school emphasizes love and compassion and, consequently, lends support to the vegetarian perspective. There is clearly a spirit of the law that is missed when one neglects the Augustinian-Franciscan view. Modern Christians would benefit greatly by exploring the philosophical teachings of St. Augustine and St. Francis.

In summation, I think you’ll find that in all religious traditions some form of these two antithetical strains exist—the Cartesian rationalist view versus the compassionate empathetic view. It is the judgment of the mystics, and I quite concur, that those who are more spiritually evolved tend to be attracted to the latter strain, though lest one lapse into total sentimentalism one must have a healthy regard for the rationalist approach as well. Perhaps it’s the Libra in me, but I feel that there must be a balance of these two approaches if the practitioner is to be successful in his spiritual quest.

Berry: This brings to mind religious schisms in general, a problem which is reflected in attitudes toward vegetarianism, among other things. For example, Muslims and Hindus in India have such divergent views on vegetarianism, don’t they?

Rosen: Sure. And you can even see such differences of opinion in the various Hindu sects, too. You have Shaivites and worshipers of Kali, for example, who often sacrifice animals and eat flesh—they call this animal sacrifice bali—and then you have the Vaishnavas, who are scrupulous vegetarians and who are kind to animals.

Sometimes worshipers of Kali offer a goat to the goddess in sacrifice, for she is said to be propitiated only by red blood. Vaishnavas who enter Kali temples often bring an offering of red flowers to appease the goddess by the similarity in color. To this day, there is an unscrupulous class of Kali priests who run a lucrative slaughterhouse business in the name of religion. Not so for the Vaishnavas…

Berry: Would you say that a goodly number of Hindus indulge in meat eating as a result of this form of Kali worship?

Rosen: Well, animal sacrifice, or bali, is now on the wane. Thankfully. There’s evidence that Calcutta’s most famous Kali temple, known as Kalighat, now sacrifices fewer goats per year than ever before. This is setting a standard in the less popular temples, too. All Kali temples that are associated with the Ramakrishna Mission have prohibited animal sacrifice, and it is prohibited by law in the temporary shrines erected throughout Calcutta during Kali Puja. So there is something of a “vegetarianizing” of the Goddess going on. Rachel Fell McDermott, a Harvard scholar now teaching at Columbia University, has been doing a good deal of research on this subject.

Berry: But in the Vedic texts—is there ever an allowance for meat eating?

Rosen: Well, certain medicines include animal products, so, yes, for medicinal purposes—but a true Vaishnava, and especially a Brahmin, will never take these things. Also, in Vedic culture, there was some allowance for a kshatriya, a member of the warrior class, to eat meat, but this was only in very special conditions—when he was living in the forest, preparing for battle. And even then, he would do so only under certain regulations, and then he would have to kill the animal himself, uttering the mamsa mantra in the animal’s ear. This mantra basically says, “As I eat you now, in a future life, you may eat me.” This was to inculcate in the meat-eating kshatriya a sensibility of karmic or causal truth. There is a severe reaction for killing animals, or eating meat, and this was widely known in ancient India. Actually, in India, it is still widely known, and meat eating is frowned upon by most believing Hindus.

Berry: What about the ashvamedha, or the horse sacrifice, that one reads about in histories of ancient India?

Rosen: The ashvamedha was one of many royal sacrifices. Three were most prominent: the rajasuya, the vajapeya, and the ashvamedha. Again, this was for kshatriyas, and they were very complicated sacrifices that would ensure entrance into heavenly planets, although not necessarily into the kingdom of God. The ashvamedha involved a complex series of events that lasted over one year. Essentially, it called for over one hundred horses, but only one was chosen as the main object of sacrifice. What is not generally mentioned in relation to this sacrifice, however, is that the horse was not only killed but was immediately brought back to life—immediately rejuvenated by the power of the mantras that were chanted by the priests. If the priests could not produce a young horse out of the fire sacrifice, then they were forbidden to perform the sacrifice at all or to kill the older horse in the first place. Incidentally, the whole ceremony is off-limits in this age, since there are no qualified priests who can properly chant the mantras.

Berry: Wasn’t there some sort of sexual ritual between the horse and the queen?

Rosen: [laughter] Well, modern scholars have assumed as much. The ceremony called for the queen to lay down behind a drawn curtain with the horse that was to be sacrificed. This was to soothe the horse, to calm the poor animal. Sexual innuendoes are not really there in the texts, and there is no evidence that any perverse activity was actually part of the ritual. Anyway, I must reiterate that these sacrifices are not recommended for this age. There are schisms, however, and some sects say that it can still be done. It should be pointed out, though, that the vast majority of practitioners and Vedic scholars insist that the ashvamedha and similar sacrifices were for a previous age, and that the modern sacrifice is the chanting of the holy name. This is the recommended process for our current age.

Berry: Speaking of schisms, what about the rift between Advaita philosophy and non-Advaita philosophy? According to Indologist A. L. Basham, when he visited Benares, which is the sacred city associated with Shiva worship and Advaita religious philosophy, the Advaita Brahmins who pride themselves on having gone far on the path of Raja yoga and Shankarite meditation tend to be very arrogant and self important because they feel that they have successfully merged their atman, their soul, with Paramatman, the supreme soul, or God. Basham notes that they strut about the streets of Benares like dhoti-clad gods. Far from exhibiting a fading away of self, they display a refined egotism that reminds him of the self-absorption of the Theravada Buddhists.

On the other hand, Basham says that when he visited Vrindaban, which, as you know, is that city in northwestern India that is associated with Krishna worship and non-Advaita or theistic Hinduism, he found the Vaishnavas to be friendly, unassuming, and forthcoming. Basham ascribes their friendliness and lack of holier-than-thou attitude to their being dualists who worship a personal God, holding themselves separate from God (unlike the Advaitavadis of Benares, who see themselves as one with God). Identifying with God, however one rationalizes it, seems to run counter to humility.

So we have these two cities—impersonalist Advaita Benares and personalist non-Advaita Vrindaban—representing the polarity that exists in Indian religious philosophy. Do you agree with Basham’s critique?

Rosen: Yes, to a certain degree. I think it’s very well stated, too. Advaita philosophy is very much akin to Theravada Buddhism. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu preferred the non-Advaita or dualist system because under the Advaita system there is no opportunity for rendering service to God. He prefers being distinct from God and thus being able to pay his adoration to a personal deity.

Berry: What about reincarnation and liberation? Do these various systems perceive the ultimate goal in different ways?

Rosen: There are various nuances of difference in these things, depending on which Advaita group you are talking about and which Vaishnava group you are talking about. Generally, in the Advaita system you continually reincarnate until you achieve moksha, “release,” which, for them, means becoming “one with God,” a position from which one generally falls. For Buddhists, the goal is nirvana, or enlightenment, but this, again, is not really an ultimate goal: what do you do in your enlightened state? The Vaishnavas say that the ultimate liberation is developing love for Krishna and, after death, attaining His supreme abode. This is the perfection of moksha and nirvana. You experience release from material bondage and are situated in your eternal constitutional position. What’s more, you exist in eternity, knowledge, and bliss, so you have enlightened activity in Krishna’s service and relish it for all time.