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Eager: The fall and rise of the North American beaver

Pity the keystone species.

Those animals upon which the health of so many ecosystems depend — wolves and jaguars, sharks and sea otters, to name just a few.

Due in large part to their outsized impact on our planet, they are often blamed for getting in our way. Wolves take our cows and sheep. Sea otters take our seafood. And jaguars and sharks take away our sense of comfort on land and in water.

Beavers are also a keystone species and, not surprisingly, no friend to many city managers or land owners. They create chaos with our human-built rivers and drains. And, because they are the member of a family with few human friends — the rodent family — we tend to view them as just another invasive species.

But what if beavers are not the sharp-toothed Beelzebubs we make them out to be?

What if beavers are actually a solution to many of the environmental crises we face today (crises brought about in part because we have done such a good job of getting rid of beavers in the first place)?

As author Ben Goldfarb makes engagingly clear in the timely book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter the eradication of the beaver across the United States over the past several centuries has had a significant and negative impact on water quality and supply, fish populations, riparian vegetation and the countless creatures that depend on those millions of ponds that once dotted continental North America.

And why did we lose the beavers?

Blame it on a hat, the beaver hat. This European fashion craze brought about their near extermination. Eager takes us back to the 1500s when Europeans began trading pelts with the natives until the fur gold rush attracted fortune hunters from far and wide. The killing was so complete that it was widely assumed by those who settled in California in the 1800s that beavers had never lived in much of the state (when in fact they once blanketed the state). But researchers and historians are finally and gratefully setting the record straight. And they are making clear that beavers played a critical role in building not just dams but in conserving water for dry summer months, providing nesting places for other animals, and breeding waters for fish.

Fortunately, we’re starting to relearn what was forgotten so long ago — that beavers are essential to healthy ecosystems. And there is a growing chorus of “beaver believers” who are spreading the word about their many benefits of these animals. These believers stand up in city hall meetings and write letters and letter our cities know that there are people who do not want to see beavers killed. Besides, one does not easily eradicate beavers. City leaders are learning that it’s far wiser to learn to coexist with beavers than try to kill them, because when you create a vacuum you only encourage new residents to set up shop. And there are businesses now that will help you build flow-through tunnels that allow beavers to have their dams while also maintaining human-built infrastructure.

It’s not often I feel inspired after reading books about animals these days. Everywhere I turn I find another species in rapid decline (and it’s partly my fault because I’m drawn to endangered species).

And yet we have the beaver, a species that despite our best efforts continues to survive and, in many parts of the world, thrive.

Thankfully, a growing number of scientists, citizens and ranchers now see that beavers not only have much to offer this land, but may in fact play a essential role in saving it.

Out here in the west, water can never be taken for granted. Once the snow melt goes dry so too do the valleys, unless we dam enough of the snow melt along the way, which we’ve done. But beavers do it better, in staggered steps, in ways that not only collect water but recharge the water table, provide nesting sites for birds (sandhill cranes in particular), filter the water that passed through and over the dams, providing the perfect spawning ponds for salmon. We talk a lot in the Pacific Northwest about removing human-built dams to save the salmon, but we also need to talk about allowing beavers back to building some of their dams, which will also help salmon rebound.

It’s nice to read examples of old-school ranchers who would have once shot a beaver on site now working to protect them (a handful of ranchers had been doing this way back in the early 1900s). To protect beavers is to embrace a degree of chaos. But the fact is, the more we try to manage nature the less manageable it becomes.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Chelsea Green Publishing

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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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Happy Earth Day

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, and unfortunately we’ve recently taken a lot more steps backward than forward.

Still, we humans have taken a lot of great steps forward since the 1970s. There’s a lot to celebrate about our planet, and so many ways to help it survive and thrive. We founded Ashland Creek Press to raise environmental awareness through literature … this combines two of our passions: stories and taking care of our planet. There are myriad ways to help out the planet, and to make every day Earth Day in your own life.

  • Immerse yourself in environmental literature! We love books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been — each is a stunning work of eco-lit, each in such a different way. Naturally, we also love every one of our Ashland Creek Press titles, from eco-fiction to veg lit to books about animals.
  • Watch movies. A few environmental films that are interesting, important, and well worth watching: Earthlings, Cowspiracy, What the Health, Forks Over Knives, If a Tree Falls, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel … the list goes on, but this is a great start.
  • Take action. Clean up a beach or a park; step up your recycling; plant a new tree, bike or walk instead of driving; eat vegan for a month (or more) … there are so many small changes we can make that become regular habits and definitely make a difference.
  • Get political. Of course, don’t neglect to vote for candidates that believe in climate change and want to do something about it — but you can also write letters, sign petitions, march, and otherwise make your opinions known…every voice does matter.
  • Get kids involved. It’s clear that today’s young people are the ones who are going to change the world, and they’re realizing they need to do this for their own survival. Help them out, whether it’s by giving them books about environmental issues, spending time with them outside, volunteering with a nonprofit to clean a beach or maintain a hiking trail, or taking them to an animal sanctuary. Show them what’s at stake being out in nature.
  • Support organizations that do good work. From conservation to animal rescue to protecting the oceans, there are a lot of great organizations that need support to do what they do. Be sure to investigate nonprofits carefully to be sure your money is used wisely and that the organization is truly environmental (you might watch Cowspiracy before making donations). Here are a few organizations we feel are worthy of our support via the Ashland Creek Press Foundation.

We wish you all a very happy Earth Day, and here’s to much more progress to celebrate in years to come!

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Opportunity for Writers: Art after Nature from The University of Minnesota Press

I’ve long been a fan of Antennae, a literary/artistic journal created and curated by Giovanni Aloi.

So I was thrilled to see that the University of Minnesota Press is partnering with Giovanni and Caroline Piccard on a new book series titled Art after Nature.

Here’s their vision for the series:

Art after Nature maps new aesthetic territories defined by the humanities’ recent ontological turn. In the face of the unprecedented shifts in humanity’s conceived relationship with the natural world, modes of critical and political artistic engagement are adapting in response. As notions of pristine sublimity crumble, Art after Nature proposes to explore the consequences of this transition, further destabilizing anthropocentrism, and revealing the dark ecological fluidity of naturecultures. The urgency imposed by anthropogenic lenses of inquiry provides an ethical focus capable of applying productive pressure on practices and discourses alike. Within this framework, art theory, practice, and criticism become intersecting platforms upon which to map current philosophical waves. Books published in this series engage with the politics and contradictions of the Anthropocene as a concept in order to problematize recent and influential philosophical waves like animal studies, posthumanism, and speculative realism in relation to art writing and art making. 

More info

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Book Review: Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro

Paul Shapiro’s book Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World explores the fascinating — and potentially planet-saving — world of cultured meat.

While the notion of “cultured meat” or “lab-grown” meat may sound odd to many, Shapiro’s book makes the case for why this new industry is among our best hopes for, quite literally, saving the world. He notes, “Our species truly is at a crossroads. It’s not hard to imagine the global instability that could ensue when we have billions more people on the planet, including billions more who expect to eat meat regularly. We just don’t have the resources to satiate that demand without destroying our planet and inflicting an enormity of suffering on animals, both domesticated and wild, in the process.”

As a decades-long vegan and the founder of Compassion Over Killing, Shapiro, who has also served as a vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, knows firsthand what’s at stake, and in Clean Meat he takes us behind the scenes of those who are about to change the world for the better.

As Yuval Noah Harari notes in the book’s foreword, “The world’s animals are not the wildlife we think of when we think of animals.” Rather, most animals that exist on the planet are bred for our consumption. For example: There are forty thousand lions in the world to one billion domesticated pigs, fifty million penguins to fifty billion chickens—and for these animals, life is horrific: “Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, industrial farming of animals is arguably one of the worst crimes in history.”

Cultured meat is the answer not only to the problem of animal suffering but to the issue of greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture (responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined); the massive water consumption required (“you’d save more water skipping one family chicken dinner than by skipping six months of showers”); and the destruction of rainforests to raise animals (“animal feed is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation, essentially killing the lungs of our planet”). In Clean Meat, Shapiro writes about start-up pioneers who envision “a world in which we can have our meat and eat it, too: where we can enjoy abundant amounts of meat and other animal products without all the environmental, animal welfare, and public health costs.”

Shapiro details the fascinating science behind cultured meat as well as shows us the history of meat consumption in the U.S. and other countries, and why it’s becoming unsustainable.The science of clean meat is explained in both technical and layman’s terms, which makes the industry’s concepts accessible to all readers — and the sections outlining the technology are remarkable, showing us how real animal products such as meat and leather are being produced from microscopic animal cells, and even from yeast, bacteria, or algae.

The book also demystifies many of our perceptions of cultured meat (one major point being that clean meat is not as wild an idea as we think because nearly all the food we currently eat is scientifically engineered, from packaged foods such as protein bars to vegetables and fruits such as seedless watermelon). In addition, the very term “clean meat” reflects the improved food safety of these products; whereas meat from animals raised on farms contains antibiotics, hormones, fecal matter, and diseases such as avian flu, cultured meat, which is produced in a completely sterile environment, will be far safer to eat than the meat being produced today. “Imagine choosing between an egg white that might have salmonella and one you know doesn’t,” says Arturo Elizondo of Clara Foods. “Or milk with pus versus milk without pus, which all cow’s milk has. Which would you choose?”

Perhaps most surprising is that the concept of cultured meat is not as new as it seems; as far back as 1931, Winston Churchill wrote of “the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing” — and even he was not the first: “As early as 1894 … French chemistry professor Pierre-Eugène-Marcellin Berthelot claimed that by the year 2000, humans would dine on meat grown in a lab rather than from slaughtered animals.” Shapiro outlines our history of attempting to improve the way we eat, from hunting and foraging to culturing such foods as beer and yogurt, and how technology has brought us to where we are today. In the pages of Clean Meat, we meet scientists, idealists, and businesspeople, all working toward bringing this science to the mainstream. Having met representatives from many of the companies in this emerging field — among them Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, Hampton Creek, Mosa Meat, Finless Foods, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, Perfect Day, Clara Foods, Bolt Threads, VitroLabs, Spiber, Geltor, and others — Shapiro notes, “Interestingly, for the most part they don’t consider one another rivals as much as they do friendly competitors, all working toward the same goal.”

As with any major disruption in our social, cultural, and economic lives, clean meat will have a tremendous impact on everything from jobs to food to animal welfare, and in the end, it will likely succeed if it improves the lives of humans. As Shapiro points out, much of animal protection is accidental — whaling only stopped in the mid-nineteenth century because kerosene was discovered to be a better and more affordable alternative to whale oil; horses were replaced with cars only thanks to Henry Ford’s innovation, not animal advocates (though wonderful advocates did exist, they were not the reason Americans exchanged horses for cars).

So there is reason for hope for clean meat, especially “given that mainstream meat consumers (i.e., most people in our society) rarely think twice about buying meat from animals who’ve been raised in unsanitary and inhumane conditions … it’s difficult to imagine most of us having a problem with clean meat that (aside from being safer, eco-friendlier, and more humane) is pretty much the same meat that we’re used to eating.”

The biggest question of all — how does it taste? — will ultimately be answered by consumers themselves. As you’ll read in Clean Meat, the reviews so far are quite good. Shapiro was invited to try several foods in process, from “steak chips” to cultured foie gras to clean duck. A vegan for more than two decades, he writes, “I had little ethical concern about eating the [cultured] meat, but it still felt bizarre to be on the precipice of ingesting animal flesh.” He reports that the taste of the products he sampled was authentic; the duck “was exactly how I remembered duck tasting from my youth.”

Clean Meat should be read by anyone who cares about the planet, but most of all by those who currently eat and wear animals the way these products are made today. This book provides a detailed, well-rounded examination of a new industry that highlights the challenges — and the incredible possibilities — of feeding and clothing us all in an increasingly populated and demanding world.

“I’m convinced that when we look back in thirty years on today, how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and handbags, we’ll see this as being wasteful, inhumane, and indeed crazy,” Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow tells Shapiro. “We need to move past just killing animals as a resource to something more civilized and evolved. Perhaps we’re ready for something literally and figuratively more cultured.”

Learn more at www.cleanmeat.com as well as www.cleanmeat.org. And check out my interview with Paul Shapiro at VegNews.

 

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