Law and Conversation

November 1, 2010

Read This: George Orwell’s Wigan Pier, Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food

Remember learning about coal mining and other natural resources back in grade school social studies?

Pretty boring, wasn’t it?  Sadly, that’s what I remember best:  how deadly dull social studies was.  I retained the difference between anthracite and bitumen, and not much else.

Now I realize WHY my grade school social studies texts and classes were so dull: we didn’t get to read very many stories.

Stories make everything and everyone more interesting.  Think something (like coal mining) is really dull?  It doesn’t have to be.  Tell a story about it, and the subject will come alive.  Same with any person:  Nobody is really dull.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Told in the right way, everyone’s story is interesting.

Any teacher wanting students to pay attention to and learn about industry, labor, or coal mining should include George Orwell’s “The Road To Wigan Pier,” reportage from the town of Wigan and other industrial communities in the north of England in the 1930s.  Why?  Because Orwell tells great stories about the daily life and work of coal miners that capture the attention and stay in the memory of any reader.

In the first part of the book, Orwell describes the work of coal miners in great detail, beginning with traveling a mile or two or three underground, stooped or on hands and knees, just to get from the pit bottom to the coal face.  In Orwell’s day, that miserable journey was all unpaid: only once the miners got to the coal face, where the work of hacking the coal out of the seams began, did their 7-1/2 hours of paid labor begin.  After describing the latter in equal detail, Orwell says “At a pinch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm-hand.  But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks.”

Orwell’s description of the miners’ deplorable living conditions and the myths about working class people with which he, a member of the upper class, grew up with, is equally fascinating.  His discussion of class attitudes and welfare is as current today as it was when it was published in 1937, as is his observation that, necessary though coal was to all human endeavors in his day, most would prefer to forget about the conditions under which those doing the work of producing it lived and worked.  And when he notes the irony that “a luxury [such as cheap sweets] is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity [such as a square meal],” and reviews the dreadful diets of most of the 1930s English working class, he seems to anticipate Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.”

In telling stories about what he observed in Wigan and elsewhere, Orwell brings coal mining to life in a way that no recitation of facts or statistics possibly can.

Have you ever heard a story that made you realize that something or someone was far more interesting than you’d originally thought?

August 13, 2010

Factory farms and animal law

The New York Times just reported a negotiated agreement between Ohio farmers and humane treatment advocates “to bar new construction of egg farms that pack birds in cages, and to phase out the tight caging of pregnant sows within 15 years and of veal calves by 2017.”  (Hat tip:  Chicago lawyer Ava George Stewart.)

One farmer is quoted in the article as saying that his chickens won’t produce if they’re not happy.  New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter provides a description of how factory farms work in his article, “The Extremist,” which appeared in the April 4, 2003 issue of The New Yorker; if you think that farmer’s argument sounds reasonable, read Specter’s description for yourself and decide.  (You can also do a search for “factory chicken farms” or “factory farms” and click on the links.)

The article reminds me that animal law is a growing area of the law, which I wrote about in “Animal Law Comes Into Its Own”, the cover story for the August 2007 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  As Texas Tech University School of Law Professor Gerry W. Beyer explained to me, there’s a little bit of animal law in every area of law. 

As I wrote in my article, Beyer went on to explain that criminal law encompasses cruelty to animals, as may tort law, which also includes negligent injuries of animals, including veterinary malpractice, and animal injuries to humans, such as dog bites. Estate planning may involve animals when a client wishes to ensure that pets will continue to be cared for after the client’s death. Family lawyers know that pets may be the subject of custody disputes when a couple’s marriage or family relationship breaks up.  Farming, breeding, buying, and selling of animals require a special expertise within business law. Real estate and municipal lawyers may need to develop a corresponding expertise for those concerned about living downwind of a hog confinement operation or who wish to keep their potbellied pig pets when residing in a swanky suburb or condominium.  In fact, animal law has grown so much that there’s actually an animal-law casebook that most, if not all, of the U.S. law schools that now offer animal law courses use, and a few law schools publish animal law journals.  Many bar associations, including the American Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association, have added sections or committees on animal law to their other member specialty subgroups.  An Illinois lawyer, Amy Breyer, was the first chair of ISBA’s Animal Law Section Council, started the first animal law practice in the state, and writes the Animal Law Blog, a comprehensive, up-to-date resource for anyone interested in the subject.

California lawyer Bruce Wagman, who coauthored the animal law casebook, also spoke to me for my article.  Though he himself is a vegan, he refrained from condemning those of us who continue to eat meat.  He said to me, “Most people want to know that animals will be treated well while on this earth. The circle of practices regarding animals that everyone is OK with is getting smaller.”

Given the evolution in people’s attitudes and the law, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether, say, a century or two from now, either factory farms or, even more broadly, killing and eating animals may be generally viewed as barbaric practices comparable to slavery, whose supporters used to justify by saying that it was necessary for the economy, or that people from Africa or of African ancestry were subhuman, or that the slaves were actually happy with their lot.  Those proponents weren’t generally demons, any more than we who eat meat today are; they lived in a different world, had a different mindset than we do, and probably preferred not to become uncomfortable by giving too much thought to the obvious sickness of slavery.  Will our descendants someday view arguments in favor of industrial meat production and/or eating meat as ridiculous and revolting as we now view those that were used to justify slavery?  If so, how will, and how can, the law develop?

Here are a few books that discuss the livestock industry, eating animals, and related matters:

“Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“The Lives of Animals,” by J.M. Coetzee

“Animal Liberation,” “The Ethics of What We Eat,” and other books by Peter Singer

“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan

You can listen to interviews with Foer and Singer on “The Book Show,” a program available on podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company, on January 26, 2010 and March 19, 2010 (Foer) and July 27, 2010 (Singer).  A recent documentary, “Food, Inc.,” deconstructs the food industry; there’s a paperback of the same name that’s marketed as a “participant guide” to the movie.

UPDATE:  While waiting to get my car fixed this morning, I noticed that the cover story for the current issue of Time magazine is Jeffrey Kluger’s “Inside the Minds of Animals.”  Kluger provides evidence from experts that animals DO think and suffer, contrary to historical views to the contrary.

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