Sunday, May 12, 2013

Conspicuous consumption

My hero Peter Singer just wrote a nice little piece about conspicuous consumption called Why Pay More.

I often blog about conspicuous consumption, but rarely name it. To me, it is perhaps the most disgusting and most damaging way of being selfish. In a nut shell, conspicuous consumption is "keeping up with the Jones's" - spending resources on unnecessary or luxury items as a way of signaling status. Examples of conspicuous consumption include purchases of designer clothing/accessories/furniture, oversized living spaces/cars, pedigree companion animals, weddings, lavish vacations, and any purchase you'd want to brag about or that would impress your peer group. Think about purchases or experiences you post on Facebook. Think about your boards on Pinterest. Can you see conspicuous consumption at work in your own life?

The reason that I believe conspicuous consumption is worse than private indulgence is conspicuous consumption places social pressure on others to spend as you spend. Not only do you use your own resources selfishly, but you encourage others to do the same. Even worse, there's a "one-upping" that's expected - you spent 5 days in London, but I spent 5 days in London AND 3 days in Rome. And all that unnecessary spending could have saved lives.

Extremely large, public gifts to charity are also considered conspicuous consumption, as they raise the status of those making the gift. This is the one form of conspicuous consumption I support and applaud, for exactly the reason I stated above: it encourages others to do the same. The charitable gifts made by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have made way for other billionaires to follow suit.

Conspicuous consumption is deeply embedded in American culture, self-identity, and group-identity. It is extremely important to recognize the way in which conspicuous consumption directs our spending habits, and thus "ties up" money that we should be free to give away.

To change our culture, to value compassion over selfishness and altruistic actions over "stuff", we must celebrate and elevate those who defy conspicuous consumption, like Uruguay's 'poor' president Jose Mujica. And we should feel disgusted and outraged by public displays of luxury and indulgence, not envious.

-Selfish Blogger

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I lived below the line without harming animals

Global Poverty Project, the organization that runs the Live Below the Line challenge, gives lots of advice and support to help people figure out how to live on $1.50 a day in the US, £1 a day in the UK, and $2 in Australia. They connect you with other folks taking the challenge, suggest shopping lists and recipes, and share tips on fundraising.

One piece of advice that I certainly didn't use was their recommendation to eat eggs for a cheap source of protein during the Live Below the Line challenge. While eggs might be a cheap source of food for you and me, the cost to the chickens who lay them is more than anyone should be willing to pay.

After dairy, eggs are the most confusing item on the "do not eat" list of my vegan lifestyle. I think the confusion comes from most people picturing happy, fat, egg laying hens running around green fields with their brood in the sunshine, laying eggs in a soft nest of grass and hay, which friendly farmers gently collect and then sell. The reality couldn't be farther from the truth.

Chickens forced to lay eggs for human consumption live in dark, cramped cages. Most never see the sun or feel grass beneath their feet. They stand or lay on wire cages 24 hours a day, hurting their feet. They don't have perches to roost in, no nests to snuggle into at night. They don't even have the space to stretch out their wings. Their cages are cramped so close together that the chickens are covered in feces and urine. The smell is overwhelming. A portion of the chickens' beaks are cut or seared off, without pain killers, so the chickens won't peck their neighbors. It is animal cruelty. It is torture.

And if you think you're doing chickens a favor by paying extra for cage free or free range eggs: think again. In cage free egg production, chickens are not condemned to a life in wire cages, but are instead crammed into huge barns where they are forced to stand in their own waste, causing terrible sores on their feet. The ammonia fumes burn their delicate bird respiratory system, and cause painful lesions on their lungs. Some will die from respiratory failure caused by the inhumane conditions they are forced to live in. The overcrowding of the chickens is so extreme, many cannot navigate their way to food and water. They starve, and their dead bodies are left among their living sisters.

When you buy eggs, that's what you are paying for. You are paying someone to continue the torture of these smart, social, sentient birds.

It is easy for me to empathize with chickens: I grew up with them. My family cared for chickens in our big back yard - years before we adopted a dog, before my little sister was born. They were my first friends.

Happy chickens run around in the sunshine eating weeds and bugs. They pile into the dirt with their sister and take "dust baths" to keep away mites. They chase each other. They talk to each other constantly (they have a LOT to say). They wait to get pets on their backs from their human friends. They follow their human and dog friends around the yard. They help each other. One of the chickens we care for now was born with a deformed beak. She can't close her mouth as a result, and it is difficult for her to eat and drink. She spills water down her front, and food cakes on her feather. We were sure this hook-billed chicken (her name is Hooky) wouldn't live very long. But Hooky's sister watched out for her. They let her dive into the food pile first so she can get her fill. They gently peck the caked-on food off of her feathers to keep her front clean. Today, Hooky has outlived half her clan. She is eight years old - quite an old lady for a hen! To think of Hooky living in an egg production facility breaks my heart.

It is one thing to live below the global poverty line. It's something else to live below the line of common decency - that's a line I refuse to live below. And that's why I didn't buy eggs this week. That's why I never eat eggs.

-Selfish Blogger