Environment - Cleaning of the Augean Stables
Myth and Introduction
After hiding for two days from the Erymanthian Boar, King Eurystheus finally crawled out of his jar and ordered Hercules to clean out the Augean stables in one day. Augeas, king of a region of the Peloponnesus known as Elis, had 350 head of red, white and black cattle that slept in a huge stable that had not been cleaned in at least a decade. The odor and the pollution from the dung were so foul that it had polluted all of the Peloponnesus.
Hercules saw the opportunity to profit from this labor and made an agreement with King Augeas. He proposed that if he could clean the stables, the fields and the valley of dung before nightfall, he would get a tenth of the herd as payment. The King did not believe it was possible and cheerfully brought forth his eldest son, Phyleus, to witness the deal. Hercules set to work right away. He opened the wall of the courtyard, then diverted two nearby rivers, the Alpheus and Peneius, so they could flow through the stables and pastures, thus washing the dung out to sea.
When King Augeas saw how easily Hercules had cleaned up his enormous pile of cow dung he tried to renege on the deal and claimed that Hercules had tricked him by using the rivers. It was so unfair to the hero even the King’s own son, Phyleus, urged him to reconsider and do the right thing. The King responded by banning both of them from Elis. Eurystheus got word of the dispute and also threatened to disallow the labor by saying that it did not count because it was undertaken for profit. Hercules left with Phyleus and then later returned for revenge. King Augeas was defeated and Hercules set up the King’s son Phyleus as the new king. Hercules took what was owed him and returned to Mycenae a rich, as well as brave and clever man, ready for his next labor.
In this myth Hercules cleans up a polluted cattle ranch by washing the waste into the local rivers, which then flows into the sea. Around 500 B.C. most rivers were constantly replenished by clear water and the sea appeared to be boundless. At that time, the world’s 100 million humans were not numerous enough to overcome the world’s resources or self-regeneration properties. Today there are 70 times more people, and we add 100 million more people every 17 months. To make matters worse, the average human today uses far more resources and produces many times more waste than even the richest people did 2,500 years ago. The fifth labor has obvious lessons for us on a purely practical level, but the details of the story are also symbolic.
The poet Robert Graves believed the Augean cattle were lunar because they bore the red, white and black lunar colors, and because they numbered 350, which equals twelve lunations, less the five Egyptian holidays. The cow and its crescent horn have been associated with the moon since the Paleolithic. The cow was seen as a sacred connection to the moon because of the horns, but also because the milk and meat of the cow provided nourishment. A cow was seen both as a manifestation and as a gift of the Great Mother Earth Goddess who freely gave her milk to humans. Drinking the cow’s milk was seen as sucking from the breast of the Goddess herself. The four legs of the cow were representative of the four corners of the Earth, and Europe was named after Europa, the white Moon-Cow. Cows were widely considered sacred. One reason may be that one of the sacramental foods of the gods, psilocybin mushrooms, can be found growing in fresh cow dung. (This gives a possible origin of the expletives “holy shit!” and “holy crap!”) The Hindu god Krishna is depicted with blue skin and is usually accompanied by a cow, perhaps symbolic of the blue color of the sacred mushrooms. We still say “Holy Cow!” or call special institutions “sacred cows” in acknowledgement of cow worship, which still goes on in India today where they are a symbol of Kali, a triple goddess of creation, preservation and destruction, who is herself part of a holy male/female Hindu Trinity involving Shiva/Kali, Vishnu/Lakshmi and Brahma/Saraswati. Cows are not eaten by Hindus, but their milk, their urine, and their dung are all used and consumed. Cow dung ash, one of the ingredients for the sacred ash vibhuti, is used in religious worship for anointing the forehead or touching to the tongue. It serves nearly the same purpose as the ash that Catholics receive on Ash Wednesday.
From the Sacred to the Hamburger
America was once home to a 100 million free-range bison, a sort of New World cow that also commanded great respect among the indigenous people. These bovine mammals were slaughtered to near extinction by range busters seeking their hides and the carcasses were simply left to rot. The buffalo has was a more docile form of cattle that could be managed by rustling, riding, and wrangling cowboys—before being ground up into hamburger and eaten. Now that the range has been conquered, the cow is now an image of subjugation, and pollution.
Today, the raising, management, and processing of cattle in factory farms, sometimes called The Meat-Industrial Complex, is a huge business, and the pollution caused by cow dung is a greater problem than ever before. In fact, according to a December 2006 United Nations report, “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Cattle production for food is the primary cause of air and water pollution, land degradation, water shortage, loss of biodiversity, and global warming. Seventy percent of former Amazonian rainforest is being used for cattle production. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, you can do more for the environment by becoming a vegetarian than by buying a hybrid car like a Prius. The meat industry produces more greenhouse gas than all the ships, aircraft, trucks and cars in the world together, and eating one single pound of meat produces the same amount of greenhouse gas as driving an SUV for 40 miles.
Raising cattle for food is about 10 times less efficient than eating seeds, fruits, legumes, and vegetables grown for food. According to Henning Steinfeld, chief of FAO Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior of a 2006 U.N. report, the livestock industry is one of the “most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” A single factory farm, with 140,000 head of cattle, is capable of producing 1.6 million tons of manure every year. This is more waste than produced by the 2.2 million meat-eating human inhabitants living in Houston, Texas.
Altogether, there are 12,000 concentrated animal feeding operations in the U.S. with 890 million animals (including 100 million cattle) producing 2.7 trillion pounds of waste every year. In addition to all this waste, the EPA estimates that 5.5 metric tons of methane is produced annually in the U.S. and 1.2 billion large ruminants produce about 80 million tons of methane worldwide.
Contrary to popular myth, only 5% of this methane is due to flatus and 95% is due to eructation. Cattle farting and burping produce 28% of all methane gas released into the atmosphere each year from human-related activities (and 18% of all greenhouses gases). Methane, as a greenhouse gas, has a warming effect that is as much as 50 times greater than carbon dioxide. Sixty-five percent of the world’s nitrous oxide, which is about 300 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas, is also produced by the meat, egg, and dairy industries.
In addition to all of this pollution, an additional health risk is created for area residents who have to breathe bacteria-laden clouds of particulates that drift up from effluvia that are sprayed onto fields from huge “lagoons” of waste. Runoff into waterways or leaking lagoons can also cause severe water pollution. In 1995 a waste spill killed 10 million fish in a river in North Carolina. The reaction of the Environmental Protection Agency until recently has been that already weak pollution regulations should be further relaxed, even though the number of number of these factory farms has gone up three times in the last 20 years.
Hercules cleaned the Aegean stables by diverting a river through them to wash the dung into the sea. We have been following the Hercules method of dealing with pollution—just wash it into the sea and forget it—for thousands of years. This worked okay for the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it does not work for us.
The simplest solution is to become vegetarian, or at least vastly reduce meat consumption, and seek to find acceptable meat alternatives. The quickest way to drop consumption would be to charge an environmental tax while at the same time banning advertising for meat products and educating the public about the dangers with labeling. There would be both an environmental and health bonus, and it is similar to what we should do with tobacco, drugs, alcohol and other harmful products.
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