When trying to ignore the bits of life that are too nasty to stare at, we employ dozens of avoidance tactics: drink, drugs, sex, exercise, overworking, overeating, "The Jersey Shore," beach fiction, etc. And who can blame us? There are dozens of things too upsetting to face: air pollution, dead zones, war, Third World hunger, politics in general, climate change, and so on.
For instance, sometimes I'll have a cigarette, and my brain eagerly lets me forget that I'm about to do something that'll likely devastate, if not destroy, my body. It's so much easier to ignore the dangers of our own behavior if the negative impacts happen in some distant land called the future.
Now that's a handy trick. Avoiding difficult situations and concepts is practically hard-wired. But healthy in the long run? Not at all.
There isn't a clinical definition or diagnoses of head-in-the-sand syndrome, but it sounds closely related to what some psychologists call avoidant personality characteristics.
In 2009, Dr. George Simon wrote in his Ask the Psychologist column, that there is a sort of "disconnect" in the brains of avoiders "that interferes with the normal communications between areas of the brain involved in 'volitional' or will-directed behavior and areas of the brain involved in task-minding and impulse control."
Indeed we do not normally, under our own volition, create the situations that inch us toward our own demise. Right?
At the end of June, a damning report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Inspector General, the independent whistle-blowing arm of the EPA, found major problems with the way the EPA and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulated factory farms in the state. Factory farms are gross as it is, yet the Inspector General's report found that 70 percent of the factory farms inspected were missing required inspection reports, weren't permitted correctly, and generally weren't doing their legally required utmost to protect us from potential nastiness — extreme nastiness. (You may want to stop reading now and go play your Xbox.)
At any one time, the 205 million meat chickens, 9 million egg-laying hens, 235,000 hogs, and 35,000 dairy cows in factory farms in Georgia produce as much untreated manure as 85 million people — nearly nine times the population of Georgia, according to a joint press release issued by Compassion in World Farming, GreenLaw, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance after the Inspector General's report went public.
Now this was some big news. The Office of the Inspector General is funded by Congress separately of the EPA, just to keep an eye on the EPA. More pertinent to this topic, it is incredibly rare for the Inspector General to come down so hard on the EPA. "[T]here is a significant risk that the Georgia's [factory farm] program is failing to protect water quality. These facilities raise concerns about water quality because the animals produce large quantities of waste — many times more waste than humans annually. The discharge of waste into surface water is associated with a range of human health and ecological impacts, and contributes to degradation of the nation's surface waters."
Not to mention, most of these facilities are upstream of our drinking water intakes.
But it's doubtful you've heard about this report, or the concentration of factory farms in Georgia. It seems that of the dozens of topics that gross us out and force us to look away, one of the easiest to dodge is our steady supply of cheap food — probably because it's so delicious.
Chick-Fil-A was my favorite fast food for a road-trip mealtime stop. But after reading this Inspector General's report, I'll avoid them from now on, or at least until they start offering some of the free-range, chemical-free chicken like Chipotle serves. No offense, Chick-Fil-A.
It's a tiny thing. But all the changes we need to make to face the ugly truths of the world are tiny: all that do-gooder stuff like adjusting our thermostats to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, inflating our tires to save gas, using mass transit when possible, buying local food to reduce carbon emissions and the other things you've heard a hundred times already.
Sometimes we just have to stop looking away.
Michael Wall is a former Creative Loafing news writer and currently works for Georgia Organics, but wrote this op-ed independently of his job, just because he felt like it.
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