Drowning in Decadence: The Root of Unhappiness in America’s Working Class

This quarter, the eighteen freshman in Professor Nicholas Leither’s Critical Thinking and Writing course at Santa Clara University worked together in a collaborative effort to study how the endless consumption of food, money, and technology have an effect on our culture and our happiness. As we begin our final quarter of the 2014 academic year, we are examining the advantages and disadvantages that result from consumerism, over-consumption, and excess.

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The Authors: Cameron Akhavan, Sabrina Aspiras, William Gebb, Christian Hellmers, Andrew Highlander, Mitchell Hong, Sondra Leal Da Costa, Ian Poblete, Ann Renschler, Chad Russick, Monica Shaw, Colin Skaggs, Sarah Thomas, Namanh Tran, John Valencia, Thomas Valentine, Anna Whitehouse, Natalie Wiggins

We often buy things saying, “I need this!” or “I just have to have this!” but then our purchases end up in the back of our closets or on a shelf, untouched. Compared to Americans sixty years ago, we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita; yet our super-sized homes do not have enough space for all of our belongings, causing us to spend twenty-two billion dollars in the personal storage industry (Hill). Our lives become unnecessarily complicated with this excess, consuming us and distracting us from what is truly important. We get so caught up in our own decadence that we forget to ask the fundamental question: does this endless consumption bring us happiness?

The phrase “there is always room for improvement” has brought Americans a long way.  These improvements have dramatically changed technology, the standard of living, and the average lifespan. All of this, of course, would not be possible without wealth. Despite being stereotyped as grossly excessive, excess has allowed technological and social growth. Expansion of medical technology within the medical sector has increased life expectancy in the past century. New drugs and vaccines have eliminated deaths from common diseases and infections that were once harmful. They have a huge impact on third world populations, one example being Malaria. Even prosthetic devices have allowed amputees to walk, swim, and run marathons, and hearing aids have enabled the deaf to hear clearly.

When it come to the advancement in prosthetic design and construction, namely the emergence of more sophisticated materials, we can see how our culture of excess can often allow us to pursue things other than individual wants and desires.  Because we put a major emphasis in the expansion of technology, we develop new ways to integrate it in other fields.

Social media has exploded, news travels in seconds over the world wide web, and Facebook connects individuals scattered across the globe, having a total of 1.11 billion users as of March 2013.  The drive for excessive wealth has brought us into an age of technological innovations that controls our day to day activities.

All these advancements in technology and in our standards of living might set Americans on a path to longer and more comfortable lives, but not necessarily happier ones. The root of America’s culture of excess is the attitude of quantity over quality in regards to food, money, and technology. In fact, unhappiness results from the endless and overwhelming desire for more. Young adults and the working class have become so mesmerized by the idea of living in exces
s that they neglect the awareness needed to overcome this cultural plague and recognize the magnitude of their choices. More importantly, they ignore the little things in life that surrounds them and fail to appreciate what they have. Daily activities such as food choices, monetary status, and technology use have become habitual instead of conscious decisions and have clouded our judgements. This has slowly, but surely led Americans to disregard what really matters in the world such as individual health, our environment, and appreciation of our lives and each other’s presence.

Donald Trump

Status is defined as the relative social and professional standing of someone in America. It has become the measuring stick for one’s happiness.  Americans have become obsessed with constantly striving for a higher class, consequently consuming their life and career. Americans have based sophistication on the food they eat, the technology they use, and the money they posses has given people an illusion of their happiness.  However, when one stops striving for a higher status, their happiness fades as they never lived their life in the present and enjoy life.  Status-seeking imposes negative externalities that cause people to work too hard and consume too much when judged by the criterion of economic efficiency (Arne).  Constantly striving for status does not lead to a happy life but instead a life filled in excess.

A new study by Cameron Anderson, a professor at UC Berkeley, found that respect from peers and being a valuable contributing member to society has a greater effect on happiness then appearances and monetary wealth.  The study discovered that constantly chasing wealth to improve one’s socioeconomic status does not necessarily bring contentment or have an effect on their peers’ happiness. Herman Edward Daly, an ecological economist, explored the same idea that “people’s concern for social status generates excess levels of economic activity and, by extension, natural resource depletion and environmental degradation” (Arne). However what actually matters to one’s happiness is the idea that “ the respect, admiration and feeling of powers from others within our face to face groups” (Kennelly). This idea of respect suggests that having the highest status is actually not that fulfilling, despite all the time one spends trying to achieve this status. Being a valuable, contributing member to your community and those who are an important part of your life, will give you a sense of contentment.  Knowing that you make a positive impact to those around you is what allows to feel satisfied with your life and thus happy; something obsession or excessive status can not do.

This Is Water

Choose (verb)
1. Pick out or select (someone or something) as being the best or most appropriate of two or more alternative
2. Decide on a course of action, typically after rejecting alternatives
(New Oxford American Dictionary)

“Choosing” is the focus of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the Kenyon College Class of 2005, titled This Is Water. Wallace presents the idea that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think” (This Is Water).

Wallace introduces his ideas with a parable that includes an older fish passing two younger fish and greeting them, asking how the water is; later the young fish asks each other “what is water.”  Straight to the point, Wallace reveals that “the point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about” (This Is Water). The audience is then warned about the monotonous routines and petty frustrations that cloud the lives of adults day after day. This is where choosing what to pay attention to becomes important. Rather than just focusing on how miserable we are when standing in a line or when stuck in a traffic jam, we can choose what we are going to think about and how we can get meaning from our experiences.  We are advised to take advantage of these opportunities as a time to think rather than be annoyed with the situation as we normally do as our natural default setting.

Wallace’s ideas portrayed in his speech exemplify the importance of our daily choices, more specifically the choice to be aware. Americans today lack the awareness that is necessary to recognize that living in excess should not be our main concern. Similar to This Is Water, this idea of excessive consumerism has been instilled in our daily lives and has led us to neglect our surroundings and what truly matters in life. Our “natural default setting” is to strive to get more in life and make as much money as possible. Instead of being aware of the technology, money, and food that revolves in our everyday lives, we are constantly striving for more.  Rather, we should be taking time to examine the “water” that surrounds us.

Students

Here at Santa Clara University, students have also fallen prey to constantly using an excessive amount of technology. When surveyed, all the students responded that they had at least a phone and a computer in their dorm room, in addition to some having a TV, Wii, Xbox, Playstation, or tablet. With all this technology, it is not surprising that 51% of students spend 3-5 hours a day on their phone or computer. Even more extreme, 45% of students spend six or more hours a day with their faces glued to the screen. These students are always wanting more time to check the newest information online or watch their favorite show. One student declares, “I spend so much time on my phone and computer. Time just escapes me when I am online. I want time to do more activities, but I also can’t go a day without using technology”. Only one student out of thirty-three surveyed spends less than 2 hours a day with technology. This student realizes the importance of enjoying life without the excess of technology and admits, “I went a week without my phone once and it was so much nicer being able to genuinely enjoy those around you without the distractions of unnecessary websites like Facebook.” Despite the differences in what technology they have in their rooms or how many hours a day they spend with technology, all Santa Clara students surveyed agree that SCU students, as well as other college students, are obsessed with technology.

“BEFORE/AFTER OF POPE ANNOUNCEMENT SHOWS INCREDIBLE PROLIFERATION OF MOBILE IN JUST 8 YEARS”

Along with excessive amounts of technology usage, students at Santa Clara University (SCU) can also easily access excessive amounts of food from the dining hall or the on campus grocery store, the Cellar.  A survey done by SCU students showed that students aren’t eating a well-balanced diet, but rather 75% of the students have been found to be eating unhealthy snacks and foods on a regular basis. On top of an unhealthy diet, 25% of SCU students have been found to be constantly snacking instead of eating three structured meals a day (Renschler). With the freedom to choose what and when they eat, college students find themselves eating constantly even when they aren’t hungry. This constant eating is only accelerated by daily stress.  One student even commented on how she “[does not] stop eating” (Lidia Diaz Fong). The constant excess of food and food choices causes over 75% of students to feel guilty, unhappy, and lethargic about not only eating food but also by their insatiable need for food. Students at SCU are not content with eating three balanced meals. They constantly want more.  Coincidentally, eating more in turn adds to more unpleasant feelings.  Like so many things, more just doesn’t ever seem to be enough.

Students unable to control their eating habits in college during their first year tend to experience the phenomenon called the “Freshman 15”. This combined with newly found independence on food choice and social habits causes women and men alike to gain weight during their first year of college. On average 51% to 72% of freshman gained weight over their freshman year (Smith). Gaining weight is not limited to first year college students only, but rather can be applied to all college students. All college students are at risk of gaining “an average of [6.6 pounds] of body weight per year” (Hoffman). Excess food at colleges leads to an increase in students’ weight, which can harm their physical and emotional health and is often accompanied by unhappiness.

At Santa Clara, there are students who must take out loans because their parents are not able to cover all the costs, and, as a result, many of these students work during the year to pay off their loans. Then there are students whose families can afford the tuition, providing their child with the alleviation of stress of working to pay off loans. Based on a survey taken of a group of Santa Clara freshmen, about 47% needed financial aid to be able to attend, and 30% received the financial aid they needed. On top of that, 76% of the students did not have to take out student loans. This shows that despite the high price of this university, many families are wealthy enough to fully support their kids and let them focus on school instead of forcing them to also get a job during the school year. Also, 11% of these students needed on or off campus jobs, and about 50% of the kids are getting a monthly allowance.  Despite Santa Clara’s large endowment, the cost of school is still very high.

In the same survey, SCU students have revealed that tuition isn’t the only expensive thing they face in their daily lives.  Their favorite brands of clothing are among Polo Ralph Lauren, Lulu Lemon, Brandy Melville, J Crew, Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Nike. What we wear might not be necessary to some to display status, but to others like Christian Hellmers, a freshman student at SCU, “our status isn’t necessarily directly correlated to what we wear, but there are trends that many kids follow which may give off the impression of what clothes are popular.”  Let’s be honest.  You might not want to spend 100 bucks on a pair of trendy jeans.  Then again, there’s that little voice in our heads that say, “But just think of who will look at you.”

No matter which college campus you set foot on, you will be surrounded by technology:  students using their ID cards to buy food, others texting their friends on their phones, and some doing work on their laptops. This is what is out in the open; behind the closed doors of the dorms, lies the various gaming systems and social networking sites on which countless hours are spent. We have become so reliant on technology, that it has become normal to let it control us. Our technology usage has become excessive with the fact that a “recent survey concluded that on average, an adult … checks his or her phone over 150 times a day” (Cleverley). Our obsession with technology is detrimental to communicating effectively with each other when face to face. With our reliance on communication through computers and cell phones, “social skills, speaking confidence, and non-verbal gestures will be replaced with abbreviated acronyms and emoticons”(Cleverley).

While the negative effects of striving for excess are certainly clear through today’s experiences with food, technology, and money, the line between obsessing over what we want, and actually being content with what we already have, blurs when we consider the positive effects of goal setting resulting from personal ambition. The American culture’s high standards of living is an example of how advancements that were made through striving for a better life have directly resulted in a plethora of advancements. We wouldn’t have efficiently traveling cars without first having carriages, and convenient smartphone texting before starting out with old-fashioned handwritten letters. Striving for more has actually allowed humans to progress further than ever before. These technological advancements were only achievable through individuals’ dedication to innovation and an understanding that people desired more than what they already had.

This idea that striving for more encourages negativity and dissatisfaction with one’s life further blurs when we take our own lives and modern day philanthropists into consideration. In a survey done around Santa Clara University regarding feelings of contentment and the process of striving for more, the results proved that while many people are discontent with their lives and are choosing to strive for more, there are some who are also extremely content (Aspiras).  Interviewees said setting goals and subsequently achieving them brought them contentment(Tenorio and Huber). What’s interesting to note is that these goals were set on a day by day basis and followed a constant recurrent pattern. The goals that the interviewees set were relatively small daily achievements in comparison to larger end result goals.  It seems that contentment is more about the small, daily challenges and achievements, and less about grandiose dreams.

Oprah opening the Leadership Academy for Girls school in Africa

Still, philanthropists often have big, grandiose dreams to change the world.  They often aim to further social causes in order to positively impact their local or national community. This specific process of striving to fight social injustices, therefore, causes positive interaction within the world and is beneficial to individuals in a community.  It might bring happiness simply because it’s not personal.  A big dream for your betterment may not be the same as a big dream for the betterment of  others–at least when it comes to happiness.  Through the actions of philanthropists like Oprah Winfrey and Bill and Melinda Gates, it is clear that being ambitious by setting goals produces an environment that is conducive to a positive attitude and an influential life. However, even though we can reflect on our own choices and understand that philanthropists are able to donate to worthy social causes for the improvement of human life, there are still some other factors to consider when arguing over the effects of striving for more.

Technology

Cars, cell phones, and medical miracle drugs are devices that have helped our lives become better, longer, and more productive. However, this newer and better technology comes with a curse. The best technology is reserved for those who can afford it, essentially capitalizing it into a rich reward system. And it recirculates; as children grow up in environments that are either luxurious or impoverished, they become polarized in their perspectives on the usage of technology. This not only provokes socioeconomic differences, but also perpetuates (and is perpetuated by) capitalism (Lynn 1). Indeed, top companies often target their ‘innovations’ for the middle class and above–that’s where the money is, right? This has led to increased competition for companies that target the opposite demographic: frugal, minimal, and lower-class volume seeking companies like Nokia. However, some advancements in technology, like medicine, are held back from the lower class because of income and America’s private health care system. Other developed countries with socialized health care can provide top notch care with the newest drugs and state-of-the-art medical devices. With so much funding into biotechnology and biomolecular engineering, shouldn’t the mission be to allow everyone to afford it?  And if you’re poor and can’t afford health care, you can understand why striving to be rich is a reasonable goal.

The constant search for knowledge and innovation has created a tunnel-vision where ethics, happiness, and simplicity are often a second priority. Humans, as ‘Wisdom Kings’ desperately try to reach a full potential, are eagerly seeking the future (Margaret 2). Yet, the more wires we attach to our lives, the more stressed we become with complexities of daily life. Isn’t technology supposed to make our lives easier? How about safer? Guns and weapons of mass destruction are ethically cloudy in inherent purpose as well as actual use. Weapons, even when holstered in a belt or a silo, have historically created tensions with sanctions, power, greed, and dominance proportional to the length of the sticks. Not only have we developed a dependence on technology, but also as a side effect developed a dependence on the stimulation of discovery. More stimulation leads to needing more stimulation, keeping us on the fast track whether we like it or not.

Even the Internet can be dangerous.  The fact that there are clinics that specialize in the psychological treatment of computer-based addictions, such as the Center for Online and Internet Addiction in Pennsylvania is testament that the things we use, we often use to excess (Griffiths).

Take cell phone.  Sure, they are undoubtedly considered an essential tool in our lives. Without them, we would feel lost, disconnected, a step behind all of their peers. But when is it too much? According to the Morningside Recovery Rehabilitation Center, the average American spends 144 minutes a day using their phone (Borreli). Nearly two and a half hours, or 10.4% of the average American’s time is spent staring at a screen, and for what? If we took just thirty minutes of this time to exercise instead of responding to a text right away, American society would be much healthier and happier. More directly damaging is the fact that cell phone usage while driving a vehicle accounts for 23% of car crashes in the United States (Borreli). This use of phones is directly hurting and killing Americans through excessive use of what we dub a basic essential of our lives.  Moreover, those who have smartphones often have to enter binding contracts with service providers leading to more stress. There are fees and penalties for using excessive data which is the lifeblood of smartphones. Additionally, people who use smartphones are always thinking about the newest version of what they already have.

 

Food

Everyone loves food. Wouldn’t you love to go to your favorite place to eat every single day, and get whatever your heart desires, even if it is the most expensive thing on the menu? The real question here is, do you really need to? According to nbcnews.com, it is now evident that “Americans spend nearly half of their food budget eating out” (Young). Eating out too much is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, when a large fraction of money goes to Taco Bell instead of a healthier place such as the grocery store, that’s when one starts to worry. Furthermore, we as Americans have no limits with our food, constantly giving in to our desires for more to eat. For example, something that was as simple as a slice of pizza, has now evolved into an ideal creation that gets “more fanciful with newer and newer toppings” (Nandy). Nowadays, you can get pizzas such as a Hawaiian Pizza, one that has ham and pineapple on it, or one could go as far as getting over five toppings and ordering “the King Arthur’s Supreme at Round Table Pizza” (roundtablepizza.com).  Simplicity has disappeared, and Americans are faced with the dilemma of food getting more and more complex. As food continues to change, so do we, as we constantly strive for more and more, until we eventually want too much.

Nowadays, most Americans typically eat food that is already pre-prepared for them, or in other words food that is not healthy because it is not made with natural ingredients. Processed foods are on the rise, and Americans have “nearly doubled the amount of processed foods that they ate thirty years ago” (Lovelady). Processed foods are beneficial for people who are financially struggling in terms of today’s economy, due to the low cost in price, and this has become evident in supermarkets, restaurants, and many other stores nationwide. Also, processed foods contain trans-fats, which are the “worst type of fats… they raise your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol” (mayoclinic.org). The main reason why Americans continuously consume so many trans-fats is because they are in so many processed foods, because they are known to “lengthen the shelf life of many foods” (Jones-Shoeman). The fact of the matter is that Americans are quite lazy, and if a little unhealthy substances can save a trip to the supermarket, most people are willing to take the chance of eating something unnecessary.

Obesity is a growing problem in America, and it is seriously impacting the way Americans are living their lives. Merriam-Webster defines obesity as a condition characterized by the excessive accumulation and storage of fat in the body (Merriam-Webster). This condition, gained easily through excess food consumption, can become extremely detrimental to the quality of one’s life. America is one of the most obese countries in the World with 69% of the adults being overweight and a whopping 36% of Americans being obese (Shah). This obesity doesn’t usually come from nowhere; approximately 17% of children aged 2 to 19 years old are obese. (Shah) With a high percentage of obese children in our country, and if not careful, our generation is on its way to possibly pass the 36% of obese people that currently live in the US. Obese people have to deal with a lot of challenges in life, including not being able to perform daily activities such as walking, but the issue that haunts them the most is the health issues they encounter.

The health problems that obese individuals face are vast. These problems include: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, strokes, cancer, kidney disease, fatty liver disease, pregnancy problems, etc. (Shah). Many of these are due to an excess consumption of food that can easily cause death. Many of these diseases can alter someone’s life by putting him or her into a wheelchair, crutches, or even a motorized vehicle.  But the health concerns are one thing.  The daily physical and emotional challenges someone faces who is obese can be downright terrible.  If you are lucky enough to be thin, just imagine how carrying around an extra fifty or even 100 pounds might change your life.  We often fail to notice the things we’ve grown accustomed to.  Eating Cheetos and cheeseburgers tastes great in the moment.  But the effects slowly chip away at our bodies and our minds.

Not only does obesity hurt the health of US citizens, it also severely damages their wallets and more importantly the wallet of America. Obesity costs the US 21% of the National Health Care budget, which turns out to be about 190 billion dollars annually (Shah) and 14 billion dollars of that budget is spent solely on childhood obesity. These mind-boggling facts about obesity really make us students step back and look at obesity from a much more serious and concerned perspective both financially and physically. Obesity is not something that should be taken lightly, and food is, unfortunately, not the only thing that is (consumed) used in excess in America.

Although it can be hard to go through a breakup or traumatizing event, emotional eating is not the answer. “Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than hunger,” says Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland (Feature). In college, I hear a lot of girls talking about emotional eating, but I never understood how much science was behind the term and how dangerous it can be. “Instead of the physical symptom of hunger initiating the eating, an emotion triggers the eating,” Jakubczak claims (Feature). Due to this non-natural symptom of hunger, people excessively eat food that they think will change their moods. These foods are commonly known as comfort foods and they can be tremendously unhealthy for you. “Comfort foods are foods a person eats to obtain or maintain a feeling,” says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois (Feature). Wansink also adds that “comfort foods are often associated with negative moods, and indeed, people often consume them when they’re down or depressed.” The main food associated with comfort food is chocolate (Feature). The most obvious side effect of eating too much chocolate is calories, but other side effects include dental problems related to the high sugar content, nervousness and irritability related to the high caffeine content, and gastrointestinal discomfort related to excessive consumption over short periods of time. These side effects can really hurt emotional eaters in the long run, making the short-term happiness of snacking really a huge negative in the long term. Emotional eating is only one of the small things in life that can make you happy in the short term, but doesn’t seem to be beneficial later on in one’s life.

Money

Even though receiving that pay check at the end of the week feels great, it’s not a true source of happiness.  Most people think that money is essential to our survival and that the more you have the happier you will be; however, having excess cash doesn’t necessarily make people feel any more content in the mornings.  The effect of happiness resulting from more money caps at $75,000 (Luscombe).  People who make below this amount have been observed as more depressed, but for those who make $75,000 or more a year, their scale of happiness seems to plateau.  Also, people quickly adjust to a higher standard of living and eventually get bored and tired of it (Frank). They have so much already that buying more and more makes the effectiveness of the product’s satisfaction output less.  Whenever there’s an environmental shock, such as a hurricane, the wealthy tend to work out their issues with minimal loss of happiness, but in daily life, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference.

It’s no surprise that many people can’t handle receiving large sums of money without blowing it.  It has been seen time and time again with professional athletes and lottery winners.  They make a tremendous amount of money in a short period of time and consequently waste it on useless items until they have a reduced amount of money they had than before their winnings were introduced. Antoine Walker burned through $110 million; Vin Baker spent $93 million; and Mark Brunell originally made $50 million but is now $25 million in debt (Davis).  All of whom were professional athletes and are now struggling financially.  Also, about 70 percent of Americans who quickly win a large sum of money, such as the lottery, will lose it within a few years according to the National Endowment for Financial Education (DeLuca).  Not only do we struggle with controlling our urges when we are presented with large sums of money, but we also don’t gain a substantial amount of satisfaction in our daily lives as a result of an increased income.

Many dream of earning enormous sums of money and strive towards this end without regard to other factors of their daily satisfaction. The American Dream is the possibility that if you work hard enough you will be happy. Though many people cling to this traditional imagery of the American Dream—that if you work to get what you want, you will be happy—others have realized working for nothing more than accumulating wealth rarely equates to happiness. In fact, the quest for unfathomable wealth not only fails to impress our peers, but also can lead an individual into having an unsatisfied outlook on life, resulting in more unhappiness. The 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles follows the Siegel family and depicts exactly the idea that the extremely wealthy who continue to strive for even more money are unhappy.

The Siegel family, owners of Westgate Resorts, is attempting to build the largest single family owned home in America, deemed the Versailles house. Jackie Siegel, 30 years younger to the 78-year-old CEO of Westgate Resorts, David Siegel, explains to the cameras, “[w]e are busting at the seams!” (The Queen of Versailles) They are determined to upgrade from their 26,000 square foot mansion into a home three times as large, modeled slightly after the Palace of Versailles (Scott). Jackie, a stereotypical trophy wife, is concerned solely on appearances of the Versailles home, hoping to express the family’s wealth through the exterior aesthetics of the house and frets over what paintings and furniture will decorate the interior.

Meanwhile, the 2008 recession hit David’s timeshare corporation enough to cause concern for the Siegel’s and lay off hundreds of Westgate employees. While Jackie exclaims, “the kids might have to go to college!” David quietly wonders if they will be able to afford college when the time comes. Jackie ignorantly continues to ask for more money and shops until she drops. She hardly notices when David tells her that she should spend less because they really will be in serious trouble if the recession continues to affect his profits much longer.

Some millionaires focus on giving money back to the community and donating to worthy causes, but Jackie Siegel decides to expand their home into the largest building owned by a single family which includes ten kitchens, thirty bathrooms, tennis courts, and, of course, a bowling alley. Everyone remembers the days when we fantasized about making enough money to afford our dream house, but seeing the reality of the ridiculously wealthy lifestyle alarms us more than causes us envy. Reviews of the documentary show how a variety of Americans react to the intriguing, yet disturbing images relayed directly from the lives of the top 1%. Most reviewers are “largely entertained” by the hilarious ignorance and hubris displayed by various members of the Siegel clan (Rotten Tomatoes). This goes to show money in and of itself won’t be buying respect anytime soon.

 

Cars

Cars are universally a symbol for American ingenuity and exponential improvement of technology. Every American has been in a car, and nearly every American family owns at least one car (Chase). They are an integral part of our lives that allow us to work and live in separate places, take vacations, get around quickly, and do things in the spur of the moment. While these are positive things, excessive use of cars is detrimental to us and the planet as a whole. While we have all heard of arguments against motor vehicles because of harmful emissions and excessive use of gasoline, it doesn’t end there.

Americans spend excessive amounts of time in their cars which deprives them of valuable exercise and often takes away an opportunity to form human relationships. For example, the average American worker who commutes to work sits in traffic when they could be at home spending valuable time with their families. This excessive use of cars leads to unnecessarily congested city streets, highways, and automobile accidents which causes direct injuries. The nature of the obsolescence employed by car manufactures inherently creates dissatisfaction from the owners of cars. An American driver buys a car one year, only to see a newer, better version of their car come on the market just a handful of months later. This can create a cycle of wanting and striving.  For the last century, motor vehicles have driven America into its position as an economic and social powerhouse, but at a great cost to many of those who buy them.

In 2008, the housing market in the United States crashed. Similar to other collapses that have challenged the American economy (The Great Depression, The Panic of 1893, etc), the world economy was in jeopardy. How could something so terrible have happened? In our modern times, it seems like there should have been warning signs that would have predicted the downfall. So what happened?

Credit default swaps were invented. Credit default swaps are essentially insurance against the collapsed company bonds (Davidson). CDS, as they are known, became a very dangerous tool. As Credit Default Swaps are insurance bonds, and companies rarely collapse, “…that’s zero money down and a profit limited only by how many you can sell” (Davidson). So in essence, companies were selling insurance against something that was unlikely to happen and would in the short term gain a profit. Excess was so easy that some companies did not have a backup plan if and when things went wrong.  Something did go wrong.

Enter a new character in our play: AIG. AIG was a CDS broker. While most companies would buy and sell CDS, AIG would only sell them. The last element in the equation comes in the form of the American homeowners. Picture a middle-class family. This family sees a very

From “Queen of Versailles”

nice house that is far out of their price range. Desire and sometimes even greed tells them they need it, and banks give them the money to buy it through tricky terms like CDO’s and MBS’s. But people skipped over the fact that they could not afford such houses. So people began to default on their debt and soon, “mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations became nearly worthless.  Suddenly that seemingly low-risk event-an actual bond default-was happening daily. “The banks and hedge funds selling CDSs were no longer taking in free cash; they were having to pay out big money” (Davidson).  AIG did not have enough money to cover the defaults and defaulted themselves. As a result, all the banks that had bought insurance from them were left up a creek and unable to keep money moving around the economy. This reverberated around the world and the global economy threatened to shut down.

Thus it became a reality that American consumerism and the desire for excess threatened not only the country, but the world at large. The greed of the consumer combined with the greed of the banks, which then combined with the greed of CDS brokers. This combined greed almost crashed not only the American economy, but the global economy. Our culture, which encouraged Americans to spend money they did not have, nearly demolished the economy which we had spent so much time and effort to make a global force. While there were many factors which led to the recession and it is certainly easy to blame the banks who were lending out faulty loans and taking advantage of the people’s lack of foresight, it was the American people who wanted these loans in the first place and forced a lifestyle which was beyond their means. Of course, it wasn’t all their fault.  How can you blame someone for wanting a better a life, especially when there were all those “financial experts” out there telling them they deserve it and can afford it?  Sure, there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of the American dream, yet when it is coupled with a sense of entitlement and a disregard for limits, it can lead to disaster. Therefore, it is time for our culture to grow more aware and become cognizant of the effect which each individual can have. We now live in a time of interconnectedness, and it is the responsibility of all of us to know the consequences of what some of our excessive wants have on those who are still in need.

 

REFERENCES

Aspiras, Sabrina. “Striving for More” Survey. 17 April 2014.

Borreli, Lizette. “Technology Addiction: Warning Signs of A Cell Phone Addict.” medical daily. 2 July 2013. N.P. 7 April 2014.

Chase, Robin. “Does Everyone in American Own a Car?” You Asked. N.D. N.P. 21 April 2014.

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Tastes Like Chicken: Farms with Glass Walls

The Authors:
The Authors: Kelsie Ballesteros, Simon Barbe, Kirsten Brondial, Francesca Caruso, Rachel Duhe, Lillian Farnkopf, Monifa Foluke, Darrell Hubbard, Gabriella Jones, Anmol Josen, Michael Katira, Michael Leake, Robert Pankratz, Benjamin Paulson, Matthew Pierson, Samantha Singer, Morgan Todd, Jack Welsh

Many of us have seen friends and family members attempt to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. Some succeed.  Others find that the cost and hassle of preparing an alternative meal each night prevents them from sustaining vegetarianism for long.  And while many attempt to live life without meat to live a healthier life, other vegetarians and vegans uphold a higher cause.  They believe that eating animals is cruel, and protest this cruelty through their refusal to participate in a cruel system. Vegans and vegetarians often argue that humans have a moral obligation to abolish the structures that have allowed, regulated, and institutionalized the mistreatment and exploitation of animals in the food industry.

Defined as a system of rearing livestock including poultry, pigs and cattle using vigorous and intensive methods, factory farming confines animals indoors under strictly controlled conditions.  The government, due to beneficial results such as high yields of more affordable and readily available meat, remains intent on perpetuating the practice of factory farming.  While producing food in large quantities seems like a good idea, there are numerous unseen consequences, particularly for the animals that will become the food.  Many upper middle class Americans know that there are problems with factory farming, so they choose to buy products labeled “local,” “organic,” “family farmed,” or “free-range.”  However, most Americans do not realize that these words are often misleading, and the images of a barn and Mr. and Mrs. American farmer that they represent do not often reflect reality (see table below). This misconception often leads to self-deception, and many of us fool ourselves into believing that there is nothing wrong with factory farming.  This lack of awareness remains vital to the system of factory farming.  They use our ignorance to exploit both us and the animals involved. An increase in transparency within the farms would cause us to be more inclined to fix their poor conditions.

“Making Sense”

 

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

Throughout this country’s history, many Americans have been in favor of, or indifferent to, continuing wars overseas. When we declared war on Iraq in 2003, more than three-fifths of the nation supported the president’s choice wholeheartedly. Pictures of our troops fighting bravely took over every news broadcast. No matter where you turned, someone, whether for or against the war, was talking about America’s decision.

However, as the war went on, no one seemed to talk about the innocent Iraqis who were caught in the crosshairs. The fathers, the mothers, and the children became used to waking up to the sound of explosions. Families were left homeless after returning to the rubble that used to be their home. America hasn’t  experienced a home-front war in over a century, like the way the Iraqis had to experience it. Therefore, American society is unable to empathize with the countries we occupy and the many lives we change completely. Due to a lack of transparency very few Americans can actually see or even imagine the effects of such a war. We are fine with being ignorant of the horrors of war in order to benefit ourselves; although in the end it may cause harm to other living beings. This “out of sight, out of mind” outlook is much like the way we treat factory farming. As our survey shows, we care less about the process and more about the product. Just like the way many of us have ignored the harmful treatment of innocent people, many of us are ignoring the harmful treatment of animals simply because we do not have to get our own hands dirty. We simply reap the benefits. As Paul McCartney says, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” Therefore, if the practices of factory farms were visible to us, and were completely transparent, we would have no choice but to feel some sort of shame that we no longer can ignore.

The number of people in this world is rapidly growing and so is the rate of the amount of meat we produce. When family farms couldn’t produce their meat fast enough, factory farms were created. Factory farming was started to increase food production, where animals could be kept in confined places without transporting diseases. Although these factory farms have increased food production rapidly, the abuse these animals have to undergo is far more drastic. Through genetic engineering and the use of antibiotics, animals are now able to grow larger at a faster and unnatural pace (Kirby). If animals are getting fed these growth-enhancing antiobiotics and chemicals, they are essentially going into the human bodies that eat these animals. Genetically modified meat is not healthy for animals nor humans because it breaks the rules of nature. Once these animals are injected with these chemicals, they have changed from nature’s creation to a man’s creation. FDA would dispute that chemicals are tested to be safe for human consumption. However, FDA has failed many times in taking into consideration the risk factors. For example, “In 2010, the FDA allowed the resumption of commercial shrimp harvesting in coastal waters following the BP oil spill based on the results of only 67 samples.” This shows that FDA does not test thoroughly and mindfully. 67 samples will not give you accurate results and more samples need to be done in order to know if the coast waters are safe or not after an oil spill. Although this is unhealthy for both the animal being treated on and the human that eats the meat, this is the unfortunate reality of how factory farming works.

Because there is a lack of transparency in the factory farming industry, most meat consumers are unaware of the cruelties that go on within the facilities.  When the facts are revealed, people’s blissful ignorance is destroyed allowing them to feel shame for allowing factory farming to increase in size. For example, DoSomething.org reveals that most consumers do not know that “egg-laying hens are sometimes starved for up to 14 days, exposed to changing light patterns and given no water in order to shock their bodies into molting.”  Around 5-10% of hens die during this forced egg-laying process (11 Facts).  When consumers read about unnatural and even malicious practices that happen behind the curtains of factory farming, they realize most of their consumption is directly connected to the factory system.  When people consume more meat the demand for farmers to produce and process meat quickly increases.  In order to increase production, unnatural raising to speed up animal growth and weight gain occurs and more animals are slaughtered.  This provokes shame in individuals because they feel they are responsible for the killing of animals in mass numbers.  In recent decades, with increased media coverage against factory farming, people are beginning to realize that ignorance about food production is more serious than it seems.  An IBM poll released results claiming that 77% of Americans want to know the history of their food (Botelho).  As of November 2013, the U.S. government requires that the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) mandates all meat labels to include where the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered.  COOL represents a start to transparency in the farming industry, but individuals need to know more than where their food came from in order to make ethical decisions about their meat purchases.  Even the terminology used on food labels hides what truly goes on in food production.  For example, “food producers might have to print ingredient lists, but no one ever passed a law saying we had to understand them. (How do you hydrogenate an oil, anyway?)” (Klein) which is a major concern for animal activists.  Lack of transparency in the factory farming industry makes it incredibly difficult for consumers to know or understand anything that goes on behind the doors of factory farms.  Because we are not adequately informed, we often do not make appropriate decisions while consuming meat products which ignites shame in us when we find out the drawbacks of our consumption.

Many American consumers suspect a lack of transparency in factory farming, and more and more American consumers feel a sense of guilt and shame about contributing to the suffering of animals going on behind the scenes. However, as more consumers feel a sense of guilt or shame, they don’t always make a change in their food choices. In terms of food quality and animal treatment, the lack of transparency can be blamed both on consumers and corporations.The corporations pursue and manipulate us as consumers, and we choose to ignore and allow it which creates a corrupt food system that does not fit our cultural ethics.  Several corporations, like Tyson Foods, have refused to release information regarding their malpractices, and as a result, they are able to act freely and do as they please while worry for consequence.  When consumers know less, they are less likely to refuse to buy the product, create laws, and criticize.  As time goes on, activist groups like PETA, continue to educate American consumers by protesting and making ads that show the harsh truth of how animals are treated. However, some of the ways PETA uses are alienating consumers because they are turned off and don’t want to make a change.

The lack of transparency in factory farming is what creates this sense of shame. With the use of technology and endless resources, we have access to learn about where our food is coming from and both the benefits and drawbacks of the foods we are eating. There are food companies who know what they are doing is not healthy for the consumer or the animal, and make sure that what they are doing is covered up. The book Eating Animals, written by Jonathan Safran Foer, uses his perspective as a new dad to explore the importance of the types of food we eat and why we eat it. This topic became increasingly important to him when he found out he was going to be a father and have the responsibility to care for a human being other than himself, along with the responsibility of helping his son make dietary choices in order to raise him in the healthiest way possible. Foer writes to Tyson Food Company on multiple occasions, inquiring about the health and different aspects of their food company, and never gets a response. If Tyson company was to respond, they would have to respond to everyone who writes to them, and that would be a difficult task since it would be close to impossible to be honest to your customers while not losing their loyalty. If they told them what they wanted to hear, it wouldn’t be true. If they told them the truth, then people would be less willing to want to eat their food. If you see a video of the inside of a factory farm, it is probably going to be off of a personal cell phone that someone is hiding underneath their t-shirt. The film is going to be shaky and not only is it unreliable but it is also unauthorized. How do you know it is real? Obviously, this is not CBS and their crew going in because they wouldn’t be allowed near a factory farm. If you had something you were proud of, you would want to show it off, and so getting the attention of a major news source such as CBS would be very good publicity. The state of Iowa, which is mainly farmland, enforces the Ag Gag Law. This law states that reporters are not allowed to take pictures or film inside of a slaughterhouse or factory farm. This further shows the extremes that factory farms are willing to take and attempt to hide the process from the public. This makes it hard for the consumer and general public to gather information and insight in regards to the reality of the process inside factory farms.

Beyond a lack of transparency at all levels, the ubiquity of factory farming is created by other levels of ample and varied support throughout the nation. Individuals who support current farming practices, such as economists, argue that factory farms are the most efficient, the only process capable of keeping up with the nation’s ever increasing demand for meat. The United States Department of Agriculture, a segment of the government that is responsible for the nation’s food production, stands by factory farming with a public statement available online: “advances in agricultural productivity have led to abundant and affordable food and fiber throughout most of the developed world,” (USDA) while maintaining a veil around the truth by not specifically addressing or defining these advances. This standpoint taken by the government also justifies factory farming by suggesting that it provides jobs and capital for the citizens of its local area. But economists often argue about the technology of factory farming producing ample meat at a low cost, which is transferred to and enjoyed by the consumer through their savings (Farrell).  But because a low price in the supermarket trumps quality, the vast majority of consumers also support the growing industry. This flawed argument focuses solely on the questionable economic positives of factory farming, and ignores any moral obligation that human beings may feel toward animals.

The government also supports Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or  CAFOs, because many officials on the boards for the EPA and FDA are currently or have previously been employed for major factory farm-using companies, including Monsanto, a supplier of agricultural products (Food Inc). This internal corruption dominates the lawmaking process and makes change difficult. These individuals face opposing forces and are unable to claim they represents the well being of Americans as advocate for the factory farms for which they used to work. Clearly, change must be accomplished from the outside, by knowledgeable consumers acting on their shame and demanding reform. The difficulty was made evident in 2012, when the USDA retracted its support for “Meatless Mondays,” a campaign to promote healthier lifestyles and a healthier environment.  Meat industry officials claimed that the support of this restricted diet was a direct attack on the industry whose self-proclaimed role is to sustain the hunger of the world. The USDA also went under attack from Kansas senator, Jerry Moran, who publicly emphasized the beneficial economic effects that the state receives through their sale of meat worldwide. Senator Moran took the USDA’s suggestion even farther, interpreting it as a personal attack on farmers as individuals (Lupkin). This loud, public outburst from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and political leaders scared the government into taking back their statement. These forces combined may be nearly unstoppable against factory farming.

One of the largest factory farming companies is Tyson Foods, which produces a high percent of beef, pork, and broilers. Although they produce the food we eat, many Americans do not know what effect that food has on our bodies because of the way the meat is produced. It is important to take into consideration how they make that meat and what the animals go through in order to produce meat fast enough. Tyson Foods has treated their animals in ways that they should not be treated. in Not too long ago, there was an undercover video caught of a Tyson employee being violent towards a pig. These are the kinds of exposure videos that are useful in shocking a consumer into wanting to change the way the food industry works.

Lupkin

In order for people to understand what actually takes place inside a factory farm, they must be shown images of the grueling process or understand the farmer’s reason for this abusive behavior through advertising and entertainment. 99% of animals that reside in a farm are living in a factory farm. In these farms, 10 billion animals are killed inhumanely annually in the U.S alone. Many films and documentary show the graphic actions that take the lives of these animals in their movies. In the documentary Farm to Fridge-The Truth Behind Meat Production (see below), many graphic images of the process of meat production are brought to light. Within the first two seconds of the video, they show a cow’s skull getting bashed in and a pig being suffocated to death. This is only a 12-minute documentary, but it’s easy to stop the video out of digust after only ten seconds. Throughout many responses to this documentary, such as comments, reviews etc. many people became activists and attempted to fight these farms. On the online blog Kiss me, I’m Vegan, many people are taking a stand and building awareness through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The blog owner, Lindsay said, “Will you make a pledge with me to feature ‘Farm to Fridge’ on your Facebook wall for the next week? Or at least the next day? Because even if a thousand people don’t stop to watch it, one might. And that one may be a person who never before considered changing his or her ways from carnist to vegan.”

Due to the persuasion of this blog, many people are responding to this call to action and becoming activists . In another documentary produced by HBO titled Death on a Factory Farm, an undercover animal rights group investigates the actions that take place inside the Wiles Hog Farm near Creston, California. They find out that the farmers euthanize pigs by suffocating them with chains and beating them until they die. What takes place inside this farm is not any different from any other factory farm in the nation. In fact, these types of farms are considered commonplace, and the Wiles Hog Farm is no exception.  This documentary, much like the other one, was made to raise awareness for these actions and encourage people to change the food industry’s process. Thanks to these graphic documentaries, many people are putting a stop to factory farming and are aware of the cruelty farm animals face. Showing graphic images through entertainment and advertisements is a harsh way to alert the public, however it is one of the more effective ways of getting the point across.

Sometimes, it’s not just enough to inform the general public of the horrors that go on inside of factory farms. In the minds of some activists, the use of shock tactics, or outrageously spectacular displays of public awareness, have become more common, especially on the internet. Popular videos (The Meatrix) gif-sets and even video games (Can Your Pet?) have made widespread appearances. Gruesome images of chickens going through blenders, cows being thrown into dumpsters, “worker were documented tearing the heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them” (Foer). Shock tactics are especially effective at grabbing attention and burning images (and opinions) into your mind because they often open a person up, and make them nice and vulnerable (imagine a happy background music along with a title to a video like “cute baby chicks”), then they line up the shot (video opens and for three seconds you get to register a couple dozen fluffy chicks that are all standing on top of a big machine), and metaphorically punch you in the nuts (the blender turns on and those chicks are turned into paste) (LiveLeaks). Upon seeing gruesome images like this, one has questions in their heads. Things like, “Did I really just see that?” “Does that actually happen?” “Who would do something like that?”. These questions are designed to spur those who get bombarded with gore to support campaigns against factory farming in a quest to answer these questions and correct them. However, many people tend to have a more avoidant nature to disturbing imagery, which means there’s a good chance that such traumatic pictures and videos might instead cause the person to block out the source that is giving them the information. The power of one person choosing to share or not share this can easily block or allow a large population to feel these same feelings and make their own choices as well.

“Speed Bump”

 

Extreme Cruelty & Extreme Activism

But shame in the individual is also sparked by deceptive information.  Some animal rights activists unfairly guilt people for not taking action by using misleading statistics.  From the activists’ perspective, big numbers are better than little numbers, broad is better than narrow (which increases the number of animals put into a category affected by factory farming), and defending numbers by attacking critics is useful.  These tactics can skew data of animal cruelty in farming by overestimating the amounts of animals harmed, using too broad of definitions to classify cruelty, or only focusing on specific factory farms that violate animal protection regulations which do not properly represent the entire factory farming industry.  For example, in 2008 the USDA published data claiming 34.4 million head of cattle were slaughtered for commercial use while activist website Animal Liberation Front estimated 40.8 million cow deaths. So, who’s right?

Animal rights activists often reveal statistics from only the worst factory farms, which takes advantage of individuals’ ignorance to the industry.  Some activists believe “extra” emphasis is necessary because “when people feel guilt about a specific behavior, they experience tension, remorse, and regret… [which] typically motivates reparative action — confessing, apologizing, or somehow repairing the damage done.” (Tangney).  Activists argue that people would not feel shame for the wrongs they commit unless the wrongs are exaggerated, in which case people feel more obligated to change and help lower animal consumption from factory farms.  However, many people agree that honesty is the most ethical approach when delivering information to the public, and because factory farming is such a controversial issue that individuals should be accurately informed in order to make the right judgments about their food choices.  The state of factory farming in this country is bad enough as it is.  The truth speaks volumes.  And the exaggerated rhetoric can often alienate those who might otherwise be open to change.

KFC Cruelty

“According to PETA, these kinds of shock tactics are an effective way of keeping its issues in the news” (Commonplace). PETA, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, has been known as one of the biggest groups to abuse the use of shock tactics to fill their own agenda. From what could be considered more mundane, like their sexy girls playing with vegetables commercial, to their slightly more rash, placing a tombstone that says ‘KFC Murders birds’ next to colonel sander’s tombstone, publicity stunts. PETA is one of the most well known groups, not only for its ability to make changes in world of animal rights, but also for its shock tactics which typically lead the front pages wherever they go. It’s certainly true that shock tactics, especially public displays, are very helpful in getting your information into the news and minds of the general public, but it also has to be asked, at what cost? A certain cycle can be seen, from people feeling shame, to allowing lack of transparency, to rediscovering the shame and taking activist positions, to creating transparency, to feeling shame again. Activism is an important part of the battle to make our food production more transparent. The choices that the individual makes on a day to day basis in protest can change the way we eat as a group. But it’s the actions of groups that defines the way our food makes it to our plates as a country.

We produced a survey and gave it to a group of 36 college students. The ten question survey asked questions regarding socioeconomic background, dietary positions (ie: veganism, vegetarianism), and about their recognition and standpoint on factory farms. The responses were not too surprising, but they lead to some interesting ideas and opinions. Out of the 36 students, 34 of them had at least some of their tuition paid by their parents or guardians while only 9 of the 36 students had financial aid. This controlling question leads us to assume that most of the students in the survey wouldn’t have too much of a problem, financially speaking, with buying organic and/or vegetarian/vegan foods. Out of the 36 students only 4 consider themselves vegan or vegetarian and 20 would consider trying it mainly for health reasons and because of the practice of family farming. The remainder of the survey asked the students if where their food came from affected what they would eat and a majority said that it would. The remaining part of the survey also asked if they considered themselves informed on the topic of factory farming and the difference between organic and processed foods. While most people considered themselves well informed, I would argue that in reality they are not actually fully informed.

 

The Down Side

Have you ever been going somewhere in a hurry, stopped at a convenience store, such as 7-Eleven, and gotten something to eat? You walk in and you are bombarded by numerous candies, sodas, ramen noodles, and microwavable burritos. Beyond that, you might be able to find something healthy like a granola bar or a pack of cigarettes. These “convenience” stores fill neighborhoods like West Oakland and Richmond in cities where unemployment is high and median income is low. Many parts of metropolitan cities are starting to become what is known as food deserts. Defined by The Center for Disease Control (CDC), food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grain, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.

“Food Desert”

Eating healthy and teaching healthy eating habits is made nearly  impossible within the conditions of a food desert.  According to OnEarth.org, a website published by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the community of West Oakland has 25,000 residents who pay $58 million dollars a year in groceries, yet there is not one single full-service grocery store. Lack of access to food with actual nutritional value has left Oakland with a 48% make of people who are obese or overweight (Ogburn). How can this be? Someone has to see this economic opportunity and take it, but why don’t they? Possible answers could include things like the high rate of theft and shoplifting or the fact that many residents of these areas are car-less, and full-service grocery stores are modeled to serve people with cars. None of these solutions should be reason enough to ignore the millions of dollars that are spent on this necessary commodity every day.

“Animals deserve the most basic rights, consideration of their own best interests regardless of whether they are useful to humans. This stance is based on the notion that animals are capable of suffering and have an interest in leading their own lives” (Paul J. Fitzgerald, The Theological Status of Animals as Moral Beings). We found this sentence very interesting since it shows how humans should respect animals because we can all agree that  they somehow suffer in the same way we do. We should always act and make decisions about animals while taking into consideration our principles and our morals.

“Tyson Cruelty”

This is why killing animals in such a cruel way should not be allowed in farms and people should start to spread this message in order to make more transparency about this topic. There needs to be some rules that manage the breeding of farm animals so that they can live in a decent way. We shouldn’t exploit and damage nature so that it gives us the bigger amount of final product, instead we should adapt to what nature gives us spontaneously. The bigger problem though, is to figure out who it is to blame. In my opinion, the USDA and FDA should intervene and establish some rules that need to be respected nationally. The blame could also be given to those farmers who grow their animals in the worst conditions in order to gain the most money as possible.

A lot of people justify the overproduction of meat as their instinct to eat meat. It was really impressive to find out that the increasing demand of meat is rising exponentially. Experts say that “By 2050 nearly twice as much meat will be produced as today” (Worldwatch Institute, Meat production continues to rise). At the same time though, those same people would have an instinct of stopping someone that cruelly raises and kills animals. A big contradiction then arises and finding a solution to it is very hard. This contradiction is exactly what Steve Loughnan defines as the “meat paradox” in his article “The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals” (Steve Loughnan).

“Coverage”

The majority of US Citizens are not educated about the processes of factory farming, the reason being that these food companies go to extreme measures in attempt to hide what they are doing. If these companies were not doing anything wrong, then they would not have reason to hide any part of the factory farming process. Although there is negativity towards factory farming, it still takes place in America, mainly because there has not been enough action towards changing policy.  Food, Inc. is a popular documentary which explores the truth about how farmed animals are cared for, contrasting it with where people think their meat products are coming from. In an ideal situation, you think of your eggs coming from a chicken that was raised and cared for properly on a family farm in Iowa. Instead, the movie informs the viewer of the crowded areas in which chickens are kept; small cages where they are almost stacked on top of each other. This is a setting where the light is manipulated, mocking the different seasons in hopes the chickens cycle adapts to it so that they can reproduce faster and more frequently. Is this caused by demand, or the selfish desire of factory farmers to produce faster in a way to make money quicker? There is this idea of factory farms having glass walls where the public would be able to see everything that goes on in the inside. If people had access to see what was on the inside, then they would not eat the food coming from there. If it was mandatory to have glass walls, then maybe companies would change their means of production because they would be too embarrassed to show what is going on inside the walls of their factories. The negatives of these unnatural, genetic modifying food techniques outweigh the positives as they pose health threats to our bodies, the environment, and our future. After watching the film or having access to see the truth, you would think that people would be more careful and interested in changing their eating patterns, along with showing more interest in where there food comes from. The problem is that although people are interested in it, there is this lack of transparency of factory farms that hides the process and necessary information from the public.

Part of the reason for all this, in America at least, might have to do with the American people being overworked compared to the rest of the first world. According to Mother Jones, American productivity has more than tripled since 1970, but average household wages have lain stagnant in that time. While the value of the minimum wage has gone up by 21% since 1990, the cost of living has gone up by 67% in that time. Also according to Mother Jones, he yearly income on the minimum wage, $15080, is almost exactly half the income required for economic security. More of the middle class is working over 50 hour weeks since 1977.

“Mother Jones”

In roughly same time frame, according to the EPA, the number of factory farms has more than quintupled, from ~3600 in 1982 to ~20000 in 2012. The livestock products you buy are now more likely to be from a factory farm than not. And the American people go along with this. Why? They don’t have the time or the energy. More than they ever did before Reagan, they need to focus on keeping their jobs, keeping themselves and/or their families in the black, keeping their households in shape, and getting enough leisure time. They’re buying from the same groceries as always, but the groceries’ suppliers have changed, and they don’t have the energy to look up from the daily grind and change their ways.

Bridget Huber, http://www.fairwarning.org
An example of signs posted outside a factory farm

Although factory farming began as something intended to be helpful and positive, it has become an entity that negatively impacts people and animals for various reasons. The initial idea of factory farming along with the goal now, which is to sell the most meat at the lowest prices, have not changed. However, the ways in which those goals are being achieved are much different than they were when factory farming first began. Some of the main causes of the negative downturn of factory farming are a lack of transparency, a false view of farms by the public, government legislature, and our human demand for more affordable food. Many people know about the dangers and negative effects of factory farming, but few people actually buy meat products that are raised in animal friendly environments solely because they are much more expensive than meat that was raised on a factory farm. Because our demand for cheap meat is so high, factory farms stay in existence as a result of a large number of people who are still willing to buy meat solely based off of price. Also, factory farms are able to fly under the radar at times because of their advertising. Products from factory farms can be seen with depictions of animals living happy lives on a farm with a red barn, which is how people like to envision farming. However, factory farms are quite the opposite, with animals stuffed in pens smaller than the size of their bodies.

The other two factors that have caused the transition of factory farming from a good idea into a negative entity are government legislature and a lack of transparency by factory farms. These two go hand in hand, with government legislature aiding factory farms in their non-transparency. One of the most important pieces of legislature protecting factory farming transparency are the Ag-Gag Laws. These laws make it illegal for anyone to take undercover footage of acts occurring at factory farms and release said footage to the public. Footage that would be potentially revealing and devastating to factory farms cannot be shown to the public. All this really says is that such footage exists if there is a law against it, and that if the public were to see said footage they would be mortified and may not eat meat produced from factory farms ever again. These Ag-Gag Laws make it even more difficult than it previously was to discover what is really going on in factory farms because of the lack of transparency that they have. Factory farms continue to exist because of the limited amount of transparency that exists within the farms.

With the current problems present in the strategies of animal rights activists, the power that factory farming exerts over the government and us, and the tendency of American consumers to choose the cheapest option, there is no simple way to resolve the issue of transparency in factory farming.  Many Americans want to know more about where their food comes from, and might be affected by seeing the processes involved in factory farming, but the issue is that the factory farming industry (which is an industry with money and power) does not want the public to be educated about the topic.  Therefore, the question still remains of what should be done about this issue from consumers, activists, and producers.  The consumers have the greatest power to resolve the issue, since if every person on the planet got educated about factory farming, there would no longer be a wall of ignorance.  However, the consumers have many obstacles in their way of becoming informed.  Factory farms do their best to keep the press from reporting on their practices, which makes it difficult to get an unbiased understanding of factory farming, since most of the reporting (and certainly the most prevalent) comes from animal rights groups like PETA, which are known for using overly-dramatic shock tactics and false or misleading statistics, and are therefore less trustworthy.  Fair and unbiased reporting on the factory farming industry would have a significant effect on this issue, since it would allow people to learn the truth about the practices of factory farms.  Unfortunately, this would only help to educate consumers who want to know more about the subject—there would still be many people who would remain blissfully unaware of the practices used in factory farming.  Currently, animal rights activists use shock tactics to force these people to become more aware of the infractions on animal rights, which has had mixed results.  Fortunately, the public is becoming more educated about the issue of factory farming, and many people want to know more about it, so fair reporting on the practices of factory farms would help give these people a way to learn more about the issue.

Banner image on National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production’s website

This all begs the question, so what? Why is this something that we as consumers should be worried about and if we are in fact worried, how can we change such a large production? At the end of it all, there is no real way that we can stop this cruelty with just a snap of our fingers. It will take us, as a society and collective whole, to begin to change the practices of how consumers get their meat- because we all aren’t converting to vegetarianism anytime soon. Awareness and transparency is one of the biggest gifts that people can give the common American in regards to the food farming industry. Once people are aware of the practices, their ideas and opinions tend to change and action wants to be taken against how these animals are treated. This is not  a change, like I said, that can happen with the snap of our fingers.

There’s an old cult classic film that many of you probably have seen called Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott in 1982 and starring Harrison Ford.  In the film, ignorance about the origins of many of the characters creates a sense of both secrecy and violence.  The tension stems from the existence of what are called “replicants,” who are genetically engineered robots who are indistinguishable from real humans.  

The film is often referred to as “dystopian,” and, like a lot of dystopian fiction, it’s not what the characters know that creates the violence or sense of doom.  It’s what they don’t know.  It’s what’s kept from them.  Harrison Ford’s character, a “Blade Runner” out to hunt down and kill replicants ends up falling in love with one.  In the end, it’s his refusal to stoop to what’s expected of him that leads him not only victory and love, but to what’s right.

The same idea applies to us.  We have turned our animals into genetically engineered robots with a termination date and one purpose: to give us cheap, crappy, unethical meat.  The problem is, we don’t even see how cruel the process is because the walls on the factories are opaque, the doors are locked tight, and the people who run them are rolling in money.  We don’t need a movie to give us a dystopia.  We’ve got one.  And now it’s time to decide if we are going to do what’s right or continue to stoop, play dumb, and to do what’s expected of us–blindly consume.

 

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