“mercy mercy me (the ecology)” – marvin gaye (1971)

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The news coming from the Amazon has been incredibly upsetting. The massive fires sweeping across Brazil are a very real indicator about our world’s future and the negative consequences of climate change. It shows how climate change had contributed to its manifestation while also furthering the advancement of it as well.  The Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen. As conditions that create massive forest fires, much like the ones California experienced last year, the effects of deforestation disrupt the oxygen balance, producing more carbon which accelerates the effects of climate change.

While many factors contribute to climate change, the most influential are industrial and populist governments.  In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, deemed Brazil’s answer to Donald Trump, openly ran on a campaign calling for the exploitation of the Amazon. Specifically, to allow farmers and ranchers to expand cattle ranches.  Ranches where large conglomerate food companies, such as fast food chains, buy meat to feed their customers. Meat that, coming from an inexpensive source, can be sold cheaply to ensure mass consumption.  Mass consumption that thrives on its appeal to consumer for it’s convenience and availability, someplace warm and welcoming where you do not have to put in time to cook healthy, nutritious food because you have so little time after work and all of your other commitments. Capitalism and climate change are lovers in this vicious cycle.

Climate change has concerned me for several years now.  Admittedly now more than ever before.  When I was in college, when Bush was finishing his second term and Obama was selling hope to a new Democratic electorate, things seemed like they were looking good. The new president cared about climate change and worked across national borders to reverse the effects of climate change, putting the onus on corporations as mass polluters.  At that time in my life, it did not seem like I needed to do anything to help.  After all, I am just one person. I don’t need to do anything because my carbon footprint is much smaller than a major company, right?

As Obama was going through his second term, I started to think more consciously about food.  Throughout college and during my early 20s, my diet was not that great.  When I moved to Chicago in 2011 at the age of 23, I ate out a lot or bought frozen meals.  I did not really know how to cook.  Plus, that was a point in my life where I was working way too much so I did not have the time to cook even if I wanted to.  I relied too heavily on convenience.

After some major life changes such as losing my job and partner, I had a lot more time on my hands. I will not say I was unhappy, but there were certain things in my life I wasn’t too happy about.  And if I could make more positive change in those areas, I could be happier.

One area I recognized that I needed to work on to be happier was to better my diet.  So, I started cooking.  Very simple, basic stuff at first. Things I could microwave, came from a box, or throw into a crockpot. Steps I needed to take to learn my way around a kitchen and establish habits.

As I continued with this and became more skilled in the kitchen, I was also working on other areas of my life that would make be happier.  I gained more friends which required time spent on them.  I also picked up a few hobbies and began volunteering at a couple of places.  I became a busy guy again, like I was when I had that overbearing job a few years back, but I was doing much better.  Not just because I was spending time doing more of the things that I wanted to do, but I was eating better.  And being too busy to cook did not dissuade me anymore because I had a routine, figured out how long things took, and started meal prepping.  I wasn’t the healthiest eater I knew, but I found solace that my diet was better than average.

A few months ago, when I was hearing reports about Alaska’s heatwave and fish dying in the streams, I started to get very depressed about the environment. I had moved here from Alaska.  Alaska was my home for several years.  I know and love people in Alaska.  I have had great adventures hiking through its natural wonder. Alaska will also be someplace that holds a special place in my heart,

Earlier that year, Chicago experienced a polar vortex where temperatures were consistently remaining below zero for a few days. While only lasting a few days, I knew that it happened because of climate change and that, in a decade or two, a few days of that could easily turn into a month.  And when summer came, the extreme heat was worrying me. A record-setting weekend will turn into a month by the time I am retirement age.

While experiencing this extreme weather in Chicago, and hearing the news from Alaska, I was also putting in considerably more thought into my diet. My cholesterol is a bit high. Not enough to warrant medical intervention or medication, but definitely not in the green.  I am also getting closer to the age when my dad was diagnosed with diabetes.  To be truthful, getting diabetes scares me so much.  In order to combat it, I had picked up a somewhat regular exercise routing the last three years, going to the gym three times a week if I am not too busy.

While thinking about lowering my cholesterol and reducing my risk of diabetes, I could not escape the news stories about the extreme weather impact Alaska, Chicago, and elsewhere in the world such as Europe.  And with the Trump administration’s reversal of several environmental laws and policies aimed at combatting climate change, things are just going to get worse.  So, I had to do some serious thinking about what I can do, on an individual level, to do my part to help the climate while also keeping myself healthy. That mindset I had in college, about how helpless one individual is, had to change.

About a month ago, I began making some serious changes to my diet.  And, even as I write this, I know that these changes are just incremental and will likely develop into something larger.  I made the decision that when I cook (and I do cook quite a bit), to cook exclusively vegan.  Buy raw, unprocessed vegetables and find creative ways to make them super delicious.

I know that being vegan does not mean one is inherently healthy. So, like when I first learned to cook, I am committed to setting up patterns.  For the first two weeks of this change, I went hard on the high fiber vegetables.  I bought kale, chard, peas, broccoli, and spinach and cooked them in a variety of ways accented with bell pepper, chickpeas or even walnuts. These are wonderful things to put into your body and enjoy.

So, in the meantime, I have been focused on incremental change.  After a month, I am still cooking exclusively vegan.  While I’ve been out with friends or at a work function, places outside of my kitchen where food is available, I have been keeping the same food habits. Even now, just beginning, that this will likely change.  I am sure my vegan eating habits will start to increase when I leave my apartment.

For the most part, friends have been rather supportive of this.  They ask why I’m making these changes and I discuss with them I’m making a personal change because of health and climate change reasons. For the most part, people get it.  Some are supportive because they support me.  Others make jokes because they likely feel my personal choice is an indictment on theirs.  Vegans are viewed as a joke and even though I am not completely vegan and not condemning others for their choices, I am starting to realize that I need to develop a thicker skin and rise above the nonsense when I talk about me eating more vegetables. These people certainly would not make similar comments if I was halal or kosher, but some people view meat as a part of their identity and the emotional bond they have is so strong that it becomes personal when they meet someone with a different life choice that they view as frivolous.

As the fires rage through the Amazon, I see friends on social media saying the feel helpless and do not know what to do.  Of course, you could always give money to a pro-climate or pro-Amazon organization. But that would be them doing the work without you having to make any compromise in your own life.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Those organizations do great work, but people are no longer willing to embrace compromise if it inconveniences their lifestyle.  They’ll only make a change when they are forced to.

Beyond just giving it away, your money can also be used as a weapon in other ways.  To fight climate change, and the industrial and populist forces advancing it, you can choose to not spend your money on meat and dairy, especially those sourced from places like the Amazon.  Hit those companies where it hurts; their pocketbooks.

This requires eating less meat, or no meat at all.  Our world is dying, and we are on the verge of crossing the threshold where there’s no going back. Now is the time to find ways to find back against those in power because we cannot trust anyone but ourselves to do the right thing.  I have my plan and know the steps that I need to take. I am continuing eating vegan in my home and finding ways to get more creative with my cooking to keep my interest and have the experience be fresh and exciting.  Perhaps in a few years I will be entirely vegan. For now, I’m making incremental change.  I have not given anything up, but I feel like I’m doing my part.  For the planet and myself.

On his landmark 1971 studio album What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye addressed a lot of social and political issues.  From the war in Vietnam to heroin abuse in black communities to police brutality to poverty, Gaye was tackling serious issues in a way that Motown had never done before.  The second single from the album, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” addresses the environment and humanity’s poor treatment of our planet.  Gaye sings asking where the blue skies went and tells of the radiation underground.  Even the food we eat, fish filled with mercury, and the water we drink, oceans filled with water, are products of the same systemic issues inherent in industry and populism that also fuel racial tensions, violence, and poverty.  To Gaye, environmental and human problems are symbiotic.  One in the same, each fueling eachother in a vicious and deadly cycle.

I really hope that something good comes from the devastation in the Amazon.  I’m trying not to be cynical, but it can be hard.  It seems that the news and social media is filled with so many tragedies, but nothing changes. Climate change is real, and it will get worse.  If you’re worried about what to do and feel helpless, anything helps.  Give money, sure.  But, reduce your reliance on the products that fund the industries and populist governments that only serve their own interests at the expense of the rest of humanity.

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