Book Review: God, No!

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you'd expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who's well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He's also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure - although I have to say that it's often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I'd say it's less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn's life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn's proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as "Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings." It's not hard to conclude that Penn's moral view is superior to the Bible's, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let's start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn't for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn's visiting a gay bathhouse. (It's not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn's own, sometimes others'). Penn claims he's never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn't the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that's likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It's not what you think - or maybe it is...)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn's friendship with three former Hasidic Jews - an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world's most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I've ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal - and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn't already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn't really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, "Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it's still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes." (There's this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn't know enough to know if it's real, if it's dangerous, or if there's anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don't consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say "I don't know" and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it's not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn's refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

September 7, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

The storm may rage and the winds may howl, but I'm still here! (So far.) Here's a couple of interesting stories I didn't have time to write more about this week:

• Following Rick Perry's urgent prayers for rain in his drought-stricken state, Tropical Storm Don formed in the Gulf, headed toward Texas, and then dissipated before dropping any significant rain. The drought continues. How long will it be before Perry's Christian supporters start to seriously consider if God is punishing him for something?

• The Filipino Freethinkers win "The One" category at the Tatt Awards! Congratulations to the FF, and thanks to everyone who voted for them.

• Following some very disappointing decisions at the United Nations, here's one that's a welcome change: the UN affirms that criticizing religion is a human right.

• Jon Huntsman torpedoes his chance at the Republican presidential nomination by announcing he doesn't deny two of the foundational theories of modern science.

• The U.S. defense agency DARPA plans to award half a million dollars in seed money for a feasibility study for a ship that could send human beings to another star. This money is a drop in the bucket next to the trillions that would actually be needed to construct such a ship, but it's good to see that some people still have the ability to contemplate the biggest and most adventurous questions.

• Sam Harris writes a superb article on Objectivism. "Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers." (Edit: But please see this disclaimer.)

• In a previous post, I wondered if the Irish government would match its harsh condemnation of the Vatican with action by seizing and auctioning church property to compensate the victims of church-sanctioned sexual assault. I'm extremely pleased to read that they're doing just that, pressing the church to hand over control of land and schools and pay half the compensation bill for abuse victims in Roman Catholic children's homes.

August 28, 2011, 12:59 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink23 comments

Tax Breaks for Ignorance

As you doubtless already know, America is suffering through an unprecedented economic disaster. With millions of people jobless and millions of homeowners underwater, the economy is stagnant and its prospects are dim. Which is why, in these hard times, nothing is more important than shoveling more taxpayer dollars into the gaping maw of the fundamentalist carnival sideshow:

A group of private investors and religious organizations is hoping to build a Bible-themed amusement park in Kentucky, complete with a full-size 500-foot-by-75-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, and other biblical exhibits on a 800-acre campus outside of Williamstown, KY. Their effort got a shot in the arm yesterday when the state approved $43 million in tax breaks for the project.

As the article notes, Kentucky has cut funding to education and Medicaid eight times in the past three years. But, somehow, its government has found room in the budget for a $43 million tax break, a 75% property-tax reduction over 30 years, $200,000 in direct incentives, 100 acres of reduced-price state land, $40 million in sales tax rebates, and $11 million in nearby road improvements, all of which are for the benefit of a creationist "amusement park" whose chief attraction will be a full-size replica of Noah's leaky boat. All this is to complement the "creation museum" which Kentucky already boasts, though I feel dirty even using the word "museum" to describe an institute devoted to the teaching of antiscientific ignorance.

This story is a prime example of something that I first saw pointed out by Sikivu Hutchinson. In economically depressed communities, storefront churches are both a sign of and a contributor to blight: a sign of blight because it means that profit-generating businesses can't get a foothold; a contributor to blight because churches, unlike businesses, pay no taxes and don't help broaden the revenue base. The same is likely to be true of these "creation museums": as soon as their builders have cashed the state's checks, we can expect them to turn around and claim that they're part of a ministry and should be entirely tax-exempt, over and above the massive tax breaks they've already been given.

This project is unlikely to help the state's economy, but it does help right-wing demagogues burnish their theocratic credentials for the benefit of the masses. In today's Republican party, being anti-science is a prerequisite, and dispensing government pork to some loon who claims that the universe is younger than the invention of writing is a solid bullet point on a politician's resumé. That said, I can't pin all the blame on Republicans: Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, also supports the project, which just proves that ignorance and pandering cross party lines.

Nor is it just Kentucky that's rewarding the purveyors of religious lunacy. In Texas (where else?), the state is funneling money to "crisis pregnancy" centers, those anti-choice fronts that typically do their best to look like legitimate family-planning clinics so that they can bombard women who come to them with religious propaganda.

What these stories show is that the Republicans' alleged fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with deficits, and everything to do with wielding the power of the government as a bludgeon to support their regressive, medieval views on science and women's rights. They're dead-set against raising taxes, except when it's raising taxes on abortion and family planning. They're ferociously opposed to more government spending, except when that spending is for the benefit of carnival-barker religious whackjobs or deceitful anti-choicers. They're more than willing to use the government's spending power to advance ignorance and take away choice, just never the other way around.

August 26, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink13 comments

Photo Sunday: Madrid

As I've mentioned, my wife and I took a trip to Spain last month to celebrate our first anniversary. I'm not going to inflict all my vacation photos on you, but we did see some sights that are relevant to the kind of thing I usually write about on Daylight Atheism. If you're interested in seeing more, click through to view the rest of the post.


June 12, 2011, 1:09 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

I noticed a few stories this week that I haven't had time to write more about, but wanted to mention briefly:

• So-called "psychics" defraud their gullible customers out of thousands of dollars, usually through laughably obvious ploys in which they claim the client's money needs to be "cleansed". Can we please regulate these con artists already? Or should we even try - do the suckers deserve what they get?

• And proving that corruption and hypocrisy crosses denominational lines, a Greek Orthodox "holy man" is sentenced to 15 years in prison for raping two women by convincing them that having sex with him was the only way to rid themselves of curses.

• Couldn't have put it better myself: Stephen Hawking says that the afterlife is "a fairy story for people afraid of the dark".

• The tight link between religion, education and income in America. The non-religious are up there, although it's Hindus, oddly enough, who take the crown.

• And although this is in no way related to atheism, it was too cool not to share: Google is lobbying Nevada to legalize self-driving robot cars, which the software giant has been quietly testing for some time.

I've always thought driving was a tedious chore, and I can't wait for cars that can do it for me. Not only would it be extremely convenient, it'll almost certainly be safer: a robot car never falls asleep at the wheel, never drives drunk, never lets its attention wander, and ought to be able to react to hazards much faster than a human. We are entering the future, and I for one can't wait to see it!

May 17, 2011, 8:11 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments

On the Morality of: Investing

I haven't written a post on morality in a while, and this one's a little different than past entries. This is an issue where I haven't made up my mind, and I'm hoping that people's comments can illuminate the issues and help me reach a final decision.

Through the economic chaos of the past two years, I have to admit I've been more fortunate than a lot of Americans. I have a high-yield savings account with ING Direct - that is to say, I had one. I still have the account, but since the subprime market crash and economic depression, the interest rate has dropped so low that it's scarcely worth bothering with. I'd have transferred the money elsewhere, but all the other high-yield savings accounts have done the same. Even the rates on CDs are pathetically low, to the point where I think I'd be better off not buying one because there's a reasonable chance of the economy recovering and interest rates rising again before they mature.

Money should work for its owner, and the money in my savings account wasn't doing that, so I decided to take it elsewhere. Since my 401(k) has done fairly well through the downturn, it was a natural step to put some of this money into the market as well. I'm not confident of my own ability as a trader, and I don't believe that anyone can consistently beat the market, since that would imply an ability to predict the future. (Granted, I could be wrong - there's an ongoing million-dollar wager between Warren Buffett and a group of hedge fund managers over this question.) So I decided to do the next best thing and invest in an index fund, a basket of stocks chosen to track the performance of a major market index. In my case, I went with the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, which tracks the S&P 500. The fees are minimal, since there's very little active management required.

However, it wasn't long before I had an unsettling realization. The fund that I invested in includes stock in oil companies like Exxon Mobil, whose activities I consider unethical and destructive to the planet, financial companies like Goldman Sachs which promote the ever-greater accumulation of wealth at the very top, and defense companies like Lockheed Martin, which have profited massively from America's swollen defense budget and sprawling military-industrial complex. Am I doing wrong by investing in a fund that includes these companies?

I haven't fully made up my mind about this, and I'm open to persuasion. However, I see one consideration to counterbalance the obvious argument against: Buying or selling stock is different from boycotting the company, since it doesn't directly either aid or impede that company's ability to operate.

In fact, buying stock in a company whose actions I disagree with is arguably a good thing. I see two main reasons for thinking this: First, if I buy a company's stock, I become one of its owners, and I gain a voice in how it operates. (Even if it's only a small voice - a few shares of stock out of millions.) It makes me more influential, not less, when I exert pressure on that company to cease environmentally destructive practices, clean up its carbon emissions, respect the rights of local people, or behave in more socially responsible ways.

Second, if the stock pays dividends, I gain a share of that company's profits, which I can redirect to better ends. Rather than further enriching the already wealthy, I can donate it to advocacy groups, reinvest it in needy communities, or otherwise use it for good. That said, I have to acknowledge that owning a dividend-paying stock would also give me an incentive to do the wrong thing: to encourage the company I own to do whatever makes the most profit, rather than what's the most ethical.

Despite that, does investing in a company also make me complicit in the harm they do? An honest answer surely would have to be yes. Granted, the degree of complicity is small, but the degree of influence it gives me is also small. Which one outweighs the other?

Other posts in this series:

May 11, 2011, 6:24 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink104 comments

The Looters Win Again

As we all know, Ayn Rand is the greatest genius in the history of the human race, and her book Atlas Shrugged is her highest achievement and therefore the highest achievement of our entire species. Thanks to her, we've learned that sheer determination can surmount any obstacle, up to and including the laws of thermodynamics, to create value and earn its bearer a profit. All of which makes it inexplicable that her magnum opus is bombing at the box office:

Twelve days after opening "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," the producer of the Ayn Rand adaptation said Tuesday that he is reconsidering his plans to make Parts 2 and 3 because of scathing reviews and flagging box office returns for the film...

"Atlas Shrugged" was the top-grossing limited release in its opening weekend, generating $1.7 million on 299 screens and earning a respectable $5,640 per screen. But the box office dropped off 47% in the film's second week in release even as "Atlas Shrugged" expanded to 425 screens.

John Aglialoro, CEO of the exercise equipment company Cybex, spent almost 20 years and $20 million of his own money making this movie. He advertised it heavily to conservative audiences, including showing a world premiere of the trailer at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. But despite the dauntless labor of this heroic capitalist individual, the movie turned out to be a flop, grossing only $3 million so far and getting panned even by such free-market stalwarts as the Wall Street Journal and Reason. There's an obligatory hilarious quote from an earlier Reason article, whose author can't quite keep the disappointment from shining through: he writes that Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays Dagny Taggart, "sometimes seemed too much like a normal human being for a Randian romantic heroine".

In an interview, Aglialoro was not at all bitter:

"Why should I put up all of that money if the critics are coming in like lemmings?" said Aglialoro... "I'll make my money back and I'll make a profit, but do I wanna go and do two? Maybe I just wanna see my grandkids and go on strike."

Wait - he wants to see his grandchildren? What kind of moocher socialist talk is this? There's no purpose to interacting with other human beings if it doesn't earn you a profit. Faithful Randians know that the correct way of dealing with your offspring is to put them to work in a coal mine as soon as they turn twelve, as demonstrated by Ken Danagger, one of the capitalist titans of Atlas Shrugged.

Alas, just as in the world of Atlas, the heroic ambitions of a noble soul like Aglialoro have been laid low by the worthless, parasitic looters who make up the majority of humanity, and who doubtless refused to pay to see his movie because they despise the accomplishments of productive people. Or could it just be that Objectivists aren't nearly as numerous as they make themselves seem through sheer clamor and volume? In either case, I'd advise him to consider retiring and moving to Galt's Gulch, where his talents will be appreciated. I hear that despite their hologram projectors and perpetual motion machines, they could really use someone there who knows how to manufacture free weights.

April 28, 2011, 1:13 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink56 comments

The Financial Ignorance of Religious Texts

Among the many other prohibitions in the Old Testament, there are several verses that prohibit charging interest on loans (at least to one's fellow Israelites - foreigners are apparently OK to gouge). Some of them are:

"You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest..."

—Deuteronomy 23:19-20

"And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit."

—Leviticus 25:26

"If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right - if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel... does not lend at interest or take any increase... he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord God."

—Ezekiel 8:5-9

The New Testament, meanwhile, is more ambiguous on the subject. Matthew 25 and Luke 19 contain the parable of the talents, where a wealthy landowner gives money to his servants and rewards the ones who invest it and return him a profit. But this is most likely intended as a moral lesson about developing one's god-given talents, not as financial advice. Luke 6:35, however, is more explicit: it instructs Christians to "lend, hoping for nothing again".

The Qur'an, meanwhile, contains similar injunctions. Sura 2:275 says that Allah "permitteth trading and forbiddeth usury", and 3:130 and 30:39 similarly warn believers not to lend money in the hope of "increase". These rules, like other vague guidelines in the Qur'an, have been expanded in sharia law into a total prohibition of charging interest that's widely observed in Islamic countries (as opposed to the Jewish and Christian response, which is to largely ignore the inconvenient commands).

You might be wondering how you get a mortgage if you live in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or other Muslim theocracies. The answer is that Islamic banking companies have invented a concept called sukuk to get around this prohibition, which would otherwise make it impossible for them to do business. In essence, rather than you buying a home with money borrowed from a bank and then repaying the bank with interest, the bank buys the home outright and then permits you to live there for a fixed period, paying rent to do so, while at the same time you slowly acquire ownership of the property by paying back the bank's principal. If you think this sounds like a legalistic fiction, invented to technically comply with the prohibition on interest while exactly reproducing its legal structure, you're right.

As the tortured reasoning that created sukuk shows, regardless of what originally motivated these prohibitions, in the modern world they're archaic and irrational. Interest isn't always a cruel imposition by wealthy lenders (though it can be) - in a capitalist economy, it serves several important purposes. It compensates the lender for credit risk - that is, the risk that the loan recipient will go bankrupt and won't be able to repay. It compensates the lender for opportunity cost - for them giving up the ability to do something else, potentially more profitable, with the money that's loaned. And it compensates the lender for inflation - the fact that money becomes less valuable over time as a society becomes more productive and prosperous and the money supply increases.

The charging of interest has transformed lending from an activity that's the largesse of a few wealthy elites, to a bona fide profession whose benefits are available to everyone. Interest has made it possible for tens of millions of people to buy a home, start a business, or finance anything else that they couldn't have paid for up front and out of pocket, and it's enabled the global capitalist revolution that's lifted hundreds of millions out of subsistence and poverty. If we had obeyed the prohibitions of religious texts, none of this would ever have come about. However well-meaning these rules originally were, their existence shows that the texts that contain them were authored by fallible humans, ignorant of the mathematical and economic arguments that would propel the human species to prosperity.

March 11, 2011, 6:52 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink58 comments

Wednesday Link Roundup

I may write more about some of these stories over the weekend, but in the meantime, I just had to make quick mention of them:

• Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur, whom Daylight Atheism readers have heard about before, has a new pearl of wisdom to bestow on us as regards the democratic revolutions currently sweeping the Middle East (HT: Slacktivist):

I think there are a lot of ways to approach that but if you just talk about a biblical thing, [the protesters] are all in violation of a biblical command – to submit to the powers that be because they're ordained of God. I'm not saying Moammar Gadhafi is the best leader, I'm not saying that Mubarak is a great, benevolent and just leader, not when he's got $70 billion in his own pockets at the expense of people.

But what I am saying is that whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they're ordained of God... After all, who said democracy's the best form of government? No matter what the form of government is, the Bible doesn't advocate anything but a theocracy.

Libertarianism in a nutshell, as told by The Volokh Conspiracy (HT: Slacktivist, again - what can I say, he's posted some great stuff lately!):

I think there's a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress's powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective.

And emphasized by the author, in a comment:

Yes, the view I've stated opposes taxation even to prevent the end of civilization, provided that end happens by purely natural means.

I laughed a lot at this, until the sobering realization that some people who believe this have probably been elected to high office. Do read the post about it on Slacktivist - he also discusses a very interesting distinction between "first-order insanity" and "second-order insanity", which could be very useful concepts for atheists.

• A discussion of conservative atheists. Unfortunately, it rather proves the point that they are, for all intents and purposes, utterly irrelevant compared to the religious right:

In 2008, feeling the absence of irreligious voices on the right, Mr. Khan, who also blogs about science for Discover magazine's Web site, started Today, the site usually gets 500 to 1,000 hits a day, Mr. Khan said, although there are spikes as high as 10,000.

Sheesh. I get more than 10,000 hits on an average day. When do I get a writeup in the New York Times?

February 23, 2011, 7:45 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink26 comments

Using Purchasing Power for Good

Since 'tis the season for commercialism, shopping sprees and big-ticket purchases, I thought I'd write a post that I've had in mind for a long time. It's less about atheism per se, more about rationalism and being aware of the ways our choices shape the world around us.

We may scoff, and rightfully so, when the Supreme Court uses free speech as an excuse to lift campaign-finance restrictions on huge multinational corporations. But it's true, nevertheless: Money is a form of speech - and not just in the sense that it lets you rent billboards or buy ads on buses. Every purchase you make, every person or business to which you send your dollars, sends a signal about what you value - and, in essence, is a vote for what kind of world you want to live in.

If you send money to companies that cut down old-growth forests to make tissue paper or clear rainforest to plant oil palms, you're voting for those practices to continue. The same applies if you shop at businesses that fire workers for trying to organize, that use child labor, that pollute the atmosphere with carbon, or that have a record of supporting fundamentalist and conservative religious causes.

Adam Smith imagined market forces as an invisible hand, but that metaphor makes it seem as if there's a single, invisible agency consciously deciding how the economy will go. A better one might be that the market is like the planchette on a Ouija board, and the motion of the "hand" is determined by the sum of billions of small pushes from each of us. When our buying decisions collectively indicate that we only care about price, we should expect businesses to respond accordingly - to focus on reducing the price of their product at the expense of all else - even if it means acting unethically or unsustainably.

But the opposite side of this is that our buying decisions can support good causes as well as bad ones. If we buy from companies that practice business with an eye to sustainability, companies that treat their workers well and pay them fairly, companies that support progressive and liberal causes, then we're signaling that we support those practices and that will naturally encourage more businesses to follow suit to claim their share of that market.

Granted, it's hard not to be complicit in bad business practices. For most people in developed countries, except a fortunate few who live in dense urban areas with readily available mass transit, it's impossible to make a living without owning a car - and that means we have no choice but to enrich corporations that lobby for destructive drilling in environmentally sensitive regions, that cause disastrous spills and pollution, and that enrich repressive theocracies and corrupt dictatorships. Still, even if every buying decision can't be virtuous, there are a lot of things the average person can do. This includes, wherever possible, buying products that are:

Fair trade: Fair trade certification ensures that products are produced by workers who are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions and have the right to organize and bargain collectively. The best known fair-trade product is coffee, but certification is expanding into other markets, including fresh flowers, cotton, chocolate, wine and tea, even ice cream.

Certified sustainable: Many of Earth's natural resources are in danger of being destroyed by voracious harvester companies that use them up faster than they can replenish themselves - for instance, most sought-after wild fish species are being fished into extinction. Groups like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council certify that paper products, timber and seafood are being harvested at a sustainable rate (but beware of "greenwashing", where corporate-owned front groups sell their own, virtually meaningless "certifications" to companies that want the cachet of a green reputation without the work).

Organic, local and humane: Modern agriculture is driven by vast quantities of fossil fuels, fertilizers and antibiotics, often ending up by shipping food halfway around the world from where it's produced. This approach has its advantages, particularly efficiency and economy of scale, but it also has unintended costs. Much of the meat and poultry you can buy in the supermarket comes from CAFOs - massive industrial complexes where animals are raised, often in cramped and filthy conditions - and even aside from humanitarian considerations, the constant dosing with antibiotics to keep the animals healthy encourages the evolution of resistance in dangerous human pathogens. Meanwhile, the carbon pollution caused by fossil-fuel-intensive farming and shipping contributes to climate change.

Theree isn't a perfect solution to this - it's best to buy locally grown produce if possible, but few people live in places where it's available year-round. And while organic food does have advantages, realistically, its benefits are modest, especially if it's a large corporate-run operation (and be aware that "natural", unlike "organic", is a fluff term that has no legal meaning). But again, buying these products sends a signal about what consumers want, and that helps to steer the market in the right direction. There are also programs like the American Humane Society's certified humane standard for livestock.

Low-carbon or zero-carbon: The greatest threat facing humanity is climate change caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. And yet, surprisingly, there's no international standard for certifying a business as low-carbon or zero-carbon. However, many utilities give consumers the option to buy their power from alternative energy programs that rely on environmentally friendly sources like solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and geothermal. If your utility offers a program like this, consider taking advantage of it. The more of a market we create for alternative energy, the more we speed the decarbonization of the world economy - and that will pay dividends beyond just the environmental ones.

December 24, 2010, 12:06 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments

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