Last night, on the recommendation of a friend, I watched an educational, interesting, insightful, and disturbing 2014 documentary film. Watching Cowspiracy helped to reignite my growing interest in exploring a plant-based diet. It also helped amplify my skepticism of the integrity of many environmental organizations. Several of them, it seems, choose to ignore the massive negative environmental impact of animal agriculture on greenhouse emissions (and, consequently, global climate change). Assuming the data presented in the film are accurate (or, at least, generally true), animal agriculture is a far greater contributor to greenhouse gases and their effects than are the transportation and petroleum production industries. That is, cars and trucks, etc. contribute a much smaller amount of CO2, etc. to the atmosphere than does animal agriculture. The film obviously has an agenda, of course. And it presents information in a way that is clearly biased in favor of promoting that agenda. Regardless, it is an engaging, educational documentary. Bottom line: in spite of its transparent bias, it is a film every consumer of animal products should watch, if for no other reason than to reinforce the need to calibrate and square one’s moral compass.  I would bet even skeptics who watch the film are or will be affected by it.

All of that having been said, the documentary might have been more effective/believable if some of the consultants who argue for the film’s premise had been replaced by more credible experts. It seems to me that the credentials of one such expert, Richard Oppenlander, were oversold. If I recall correctly, the film did not give his background, but I felt that he was presented as an exceptionally qualified expert. In looking into his background this morning, I repeatedly saw him presented (on what presumably are his own websites) as Dr. Oppenlander. The more I looked, the more I came to find that is, indeed, correct. He is a dentist. Richard Oppenlander, DDS. Nothing says a dentist cannot be just as knowledgeable about the environmental impact of animal agriculture as someone with a Ph.D. in ecology and environmental sciences or a DVM who sees, up close, the effects of mass animal agriculture. But I think I would be less skeptical of the credentials of a so-called “expert” if that person’s qualifications were more inline with the subject at hand. But I’m a born skeptic. Maybe. Or, perhaps, I am like so many others who tire of being asked to accept as factual the information presented by a salesperson.

Skepticism aside, the bottom line is that I recommend the film. If nothing else, it will cause the viewer to ask questions and, perhaps, think about reducing or eliminating his or her dependence on diet based on animal agriculture. Oh, that includes fishing, by the way. The film’s producer, Kip Andersen, produced another documentary, last year (2021), entitled Seaspiracy. Though Cowspiracy touched on the negative impact of over-fishing, Seaspiracy takes those concerns to a new level and asserts that the way to save our oceans is to:

  1. Shift to a plant-based diet
  2. Enforce no-catch marine reserves protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030
  3. End fishing subsidies (currently $35 billion per year, according to the film’s official website)

Just watching the trailer for Seaspiracy, I was stunned by the enormity of the problems caused by commercial fishing. No, let me restate that: I was stunned by the enormity of the problems caused by humankind’s insatiable demand for commercial fishing, which in turn is marching toward killing our oceans and, therefore, ourselves.


Watching Cowspiracy last night triggered memories of my research, years ago, into the horrors of an ever-growing human population. I wrote a speech, which I delivered to a local group of Toastmasters International. Later, I expanded that speech into an essay I entitled The New Malthusian Imperative. Several years after that, I wrote another essay (same title) that got into the same issues. My arguments were based on the writings of Thomas Malthus, in the 19th century, in which he asserted that humans have a propensity to utilize increases in food productivity to promote population growth rather than to maintaining a high standard of living.  That view has become known as the “Malthusian trap” or the “Malthusian spectre” but my name for his call to control population The Malthusian Imperative.

Limiting the growth of population is a touchy subject. It involves conversations about limiting personal freedom in support of the greater good. It involves debunking certain religious ideologies in favor of clear, intelligent thought. It involves sufficiently educating the masses so that limitations on personal freedom can be minimized in favor of intelligent individual choices.

Last night, after watching Cowspiracy, we talked about what changes we should make in our lifestyles to help protect the planet from environmental collapse. My pessimism was stronger than my sense of obligation. I said it is too late.  We have waited too long to attempt to reverse the inevitable. Humans are too stupid or too stubborn to realize the massive consequences of their irresponsible behaviors; even if they suddenly decided to behave responsibly, they would simply delay the inevitable. Instead of the great grandchildren of today’s new parents living a dystopian nightmare as Planet Earth ceases to support them, it might be the great, great, great grandchildren who perish as a result of our selfish stupidity.

This deep skepticism, with its fatalistic view of humankind, will pass. In fact, it already has (to the extent that my mood is now more upbeat, although my sense of the prospects of humankind has not changed). I agree with the philosophy behind “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” That is to say, enjoy life to the fullest, because we won’t live forever.

Ach! Life can be so bloody confusing! On the one hand, it can offer such spectacular, enjoyable pleasures. On the other, excruciating pain. To borrow a phrase from a poet whose name is like mine, but to whom I doubt I am related, “pleasure, with pain for leaven.” And that poem goes on…but I won’t try to explain the thing. Here’s the entire stanza (I’m sure I’ve included this in a blog post before):

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance, fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.

Poetry, if we let it, can resolve our confusion. It can sooth our furrowed brows and transform our hard hearts into soft, perpetual refuges. Poetry can protect us from being battered about by an angry, dangerous, insensitive world. It can ease the tension of life in the wilds of civilization. Poetry is both a solitary comfort and a place for lovers to share their sensibilities. But it can be a simple cudgel, too, or a morning star flail intended as a weapon of death. Careful! I am trying to climb out of this pit and into the sunlight. There will be no morning star flails in this house!


Today is Sunday, but church is not on the agenda. Instead, a frenzy of moving boxes—either carefully packed or haphazardly jammed with “stuff” unsuited to orderly packing—and making decisions about what goes where. Within the next day or two, I expect we may be calling on available bodies to help us transport thousands of little odds and ends the three miles to our new house. Or maybe not. Time will tell. It always does.

For now, I will ponder life and wonder, “Is this it? Packing boxes and rushing to take in a concert next week and returning to make decisions about stoves and where to store extra dishes?” The Great American Novel is no longer a dream. Never was, really. But the acreage, far from the hustle-bustle of “civilization,” and the tractor and the barn and workshop: that was a dream. It’s in shambles, now. The fields have weeds so high the tractor could not get through them. The barn has collapsed and the workshop is buried under its rubble. There, beneath that tangled mass of broken dreams, is a shredded black and white photograph of me, taken as a  young man. He never took the risk, because it would have meant making a choice he was unwilling to make. That’s what shatters dreams. But you do what you have to do to stitch it all together. It may not fit like the original, but it covers the scars.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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