Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chicken Methane and the Question of Freedom

July 10, 2008

Last Friday, our nation celebrated its independence. I must admit that I’m more cynical this year about our country’s idea of freedom than I have been in the past. As I have been learning more about our founding fathers and the nation that they envisioned when they sailed away from a tyrannical monarchy, I begin to view our current situation with some apprehension. Are we really as free as we are led to believe?

Two days later, I was up early to read the day’s paper, and there in the first few pages were several articles demonstrating that we are not as free as we used to be (though this point was somewhat lost on the writers who submitted the columns). The first article detailed a battle between a homeowner and her neighborhood association over a swinging gate on the porch of a house lived in by a mother of two. Her husband is away in Iraq and she had the gate installed to protect her two very young children as they play on the porch. It sounds like good, common sense, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are some in the neighborhood who don’t like the “look” that the gate gives to the front of the house, and are rallying to have the gate removed. While the mother’s concern is first for her children’s safety, this is secondary to many of the neighbors, who put primary importance on aesthetics.

The second news item dealt with a proposal to allow families within city limits to raise as many as six chickens per household. I must admit that I did not know that raising chickens was illegal in my city until I read this article. I must have missed that fundamental right being taken away at some earlier time. It should be pointed out that the proposed law is not a total return to chicken freedom. Restrictions will be placed on the raising of chickens, even if the law passes as currently written – limit of six, eggs may be harvested but chickens can’t be slaughtered, and roosters are not allowed. It still sounds like something less than freedom to me.

The bureaucratic situation makes this even worse. No less than three separate entities are involved to work out the rules and mandates – the City Council (to pass the law), the local Humane Society (who are required to regulate the chickens through their animal control services), and something called the Urban Hen Coalition (I wish I could lay claim to making that one up, but I can’t). Add to this the various homeowner’s associations who will doubtlessly jump on the topic, and we have a bureaucracy that the founding fathers could never imagine. Imagine George Washington’s reaction to his local HOA visiting Mount Vernon to complain about the legality of raising chickens in the front yard. The Boston Tea Party crowd may have come out to throw their own “Boston Chicken Party”.

One argument brought to bear by the City Council is the potentially dangerous increase in greenhouse gases caused by “chicken methane”. Is this genuinely a concern? Chicken emissions? Fortunately, the article went on to say that the average emission of a single chicken has indeed been measured (this from another bureaucratic entity, the local Natural Resources Department). Using this number, they calculated that the increase in community greenhouse gas would be less than 0.009 percent, even if everyone in the city owned the maximum number of six chickens. This is one government entity that may actually be adding some value to the debate.

While there is some humor to be seen in this story, consider this. Is our society so far away from changing the limitation of six chickens to that of six children per family? Before letting that thought go, consider it carefully. Are we closer today to the freedom that was enjoyed by the founding fathers and their new nation, or to a nation where family size is government-mandated?

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