Inhuman Folly: The Argument for Veganism

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2013)

David A. Nibert delivers an impassioned, well-researched and idealistic argument for why humanity should shift to a vegan, or plant-based diet in Animal Domestication & Human Violence: Domescration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013). He surveys the impact of meat, dairy and egg consumption through human history and links it to some of our worst behaviour.

Nibert maintains: ‘The emergence and continued practice of capturing, controlling, and genetically manipulating other animals for human use violates the sanctity of life of the sentient beings involved’. He coins a neologism ‘domescration’, used throughout the book, arguing that ‘their minds and bodies are desecrated to facilitate their exploitation: it can be said that they have been domescrated.’

He traces an upsurge in human violence to the practice of stalking and killing animals which ‘began no earlier than ninety thousand years ago – and probably much later’, but fails to acknowledge that this was connected to the expansion of humanity into northern latitudes where edible plants were not available throughout the year, often making hunting a necessity for survival.

His basic thesis is that ‘domescration’ has generated conflict between human societies because the amount of land required for raising animals for human consumption is far greater than that required to grow crops for direct human consumption. He emphasises how ‘domescrated’ animals act as vectors for zoonotic diseases, and displace countless free-living animals.

As an abolitionist he does not envision a scenario where humans could exploit animals in symbiosis with one another and their environment.

He begins his account in 1237 at Riazan near Moscow as the Golden Horde led by Batu Khan lays the city to siege. Nibert links the cruelty of those Mongols to their treatment of animals and shows their reliance on them as weapons of war and mobile sources of food.  Conquest, in turn, was fuelled by a need for more grazing land. They terrorized Eastern Europe and China which saw its population drop from 123 million in 1200 to 65 million in 1393, laying waste to societies engaged primarily in crop cultivation. In all likelihood the Mongols introduced the bubonic plague to Europe which reduced its population by half.

The ‘Greatest Tragedy’

The effect of colonisation of the Americas on its indigenous people was described by Alfred Cosby as the ‘greatest tragedy in the history of the human species.’ Large numbers were displaced to make way for livestock from areas where they cultivated crops or hunted free-living animals; and, with few domesticated animals of their own, they were ravaged by zoonotic diseases, especially smallpox. Their numbers were reduced by two-thirds.

It would be wrong to idealize the lives of indigenous peoples in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. But it seems the virtual absence of domesticated animals curtailed warfare: ‘archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columian warfare was limited to small-scale raiding, sniping, and ambush’ and that ‘deaths by violence were relatively low.’

Hernán Cortes whose expedition led to the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico instantly foresaw the possibility of developing a cattle industry there. Livestock products, especially hides, were integral to the wealth accumulated by the conquistadores.

Nibert contrasts the colonisation of the Americas with the Spanish conquest of the Philippines which is unsuited to livestock production. He says this supports: ‘the thesis that colonisation was much more likely to involve large-scale violence when invasions involved expanding ranching operations.’

Expanding livestock numbers was also the primary motivation for the encroachment of Europeans into North America. The West was won by cowboys who cruelly displaced and often massacred large numbers from nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chicksaw, and Cherokee.

In North America the fates of the native population and free-roaming buffalo, vital to their way of life, were intertwined. In the early nineteenth century there were up to thirty million buffalo roaming North America, but by century’s end they had been hunted to virtual extinction to make way for livestock.

Nibert recalls the often wanton violence that accompanied their annihilation. In one account train passengers made a ‘sport’ of it: ‘As they neared a herd, passengers flung open the windows of their cars, pointed their breechloaders, and fired at random into the frightened beasts.’

With the West ‘won’ industrial slaughter houses emerged, especially in Chicago. Rudyard Kipling was horrorstruck by what he saw in the late 1880s and worried ‘about the effect of so mechanical a killing on the human soul’.

English beef

Nibert notes the important role of English capital in the expansion of livestock production into the Western plains of America in the nineteenth century.

He also explores the English colonisation of Ireland and emphasises how Irish salt beef was a critical factor in the ‘profitable sugar production in the Caribbean because it was an important source of food for enslaved labourers on Britain’s plantations’.

In Ireland the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from tillage to pasture which led to depopulation, with the Great Famine the primary catalyst. He quotes Joseph Connolly description of this in Labour in Irish History: ‘Where a hundred families had reaped a sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.’

Nibert does not discuss the Gaelic Irish mode of food production which was also heavily reliant on cattle. It might be argued that there was some symbiosis in that society between cattle and human beings with animals kept for dairy and rarely slaughtered. But cattle-raiding was endemic in medieval Ireland, and most Irish forests had been removed by the fourteenth century to make way for cattle. The shift to tillage, abetted by the potato that began in the seventeenth century allowed the population to rise exponentially. It was only a change in demand in Britain after the Napoleonic War that caused Ireland to revert to pasture in the nineteenth, a situation that endures.

Unhappy Meals

In 1916 a short order cook called J. Walter Anderson invented the first hamburger in Wichita, Kansas. This product gave a new lease of life to the livestock industry which had come under attack for the poor sanitation and barbarity of the slaughterhouses.

Companies such as White Castle, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC stimulated a demand for meat products through the use of insidious advertising, often targeting minors. Ronald McDonald was thrust upon the children of the United States in 1966 when he made his national television debut during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – accompanied by the “McDonald’s All-American High School Band”.

The twentieth century witnessed the continued expansion of livestock production with consequent species loss and significant implication for climate change. Surprisingly Nibert cites the conservative estimate of 19% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the UN Report Livestock’s Long Shadow from 2006 rather than the figure of 51% found by Goodland and Anhang in 2009.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) as animals were increasingly fed on grain in cruelly enclosed spaces. Ruth Harrison observed: ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

Aside from the obvious barbarity of putting animals in such close confinement, CAFOs are a significant risk to public health because of the enhanced risk of zoonotic diseases especially a deadly influenza virus developing there. According to Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: ‘An influenza pandemic of even moderate impact will result in the biggest single human disaster ever – far greater than AIDS, 9/11, all wars in the 20th century, and the recent tsunami combined.’

A surfeit of livestock products is also directly implicated in the onset of chronic diseases that are beginning to shorten life expectancies in the Western world. But also indirectly as Nibert links the consumption of obesogenic sodas and meat-eating, quoting Richard Robbins: “The sugar in soft drinks serves as the perfect compliment to hamburgers and hot dogs because it possesses what nutritionists call ‘go-away’ qualities – removing the fat coating and the beef aftertaste from the mouth’

During the twentieth century expansion of livestock continued in Latin America especially Brazil where: ‘cattle pasture accounts for six times more cleared land in the Amazon than crop land; even the notorious [feed] farmers who have ploughed some 5m hectares of former rainforest cover just one-tenth of the ground taken by the beef producers.’

US aid to Latin America was often linked to the extent to which a country could satisfy its insatiable demand for livestock products. Oppressive regimes willing to convert large tracts of arable land and jungle to pasture were supported against political movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, opposing it.

Happier Meals?

As an unwavering abolitionist Nibert argues that “new welfarism” ‘actually promotes the continued oppression of domescrated animals and the underlying global injustices’ by ‘appeasing the concerns of the more conscientious citizens, thus blunting movements for more significant social transformation.’

He claims apparently ethical animal products are only accessible to the rich, and states that if the entire population of cows raised for food in the United States were freely ranged, half the land in the country would have to be converted to pasture. Also: ‘the energy resources necessary to raise domescrated animals for local consumption is considerably more than that required to transport plant-based food long distances’.

Controversially he argues that societies that still practise hunting for food should cease doing so. This might sound like excessive interference in ‘traditional’ ways of life: the morality of this hinges on whether we should extend a right to life to other creatures where possible, and if the practice of hunting contributes to inter-human violence.

It also assumes that food will be supplied from elsewhere. Nibbert states: ‘In a more just, vegan global order, a genuine policy of “comparative advantage” could provide nutritious plant-based food and fresh water where it is needed throughout the world, including areas where many now have few alternatives to exploiting animals.’ But it would put societies such as the Innuit in northern Canada at a significant disadvantage and be impossible to enforce. However, of far greater concern is the increasing spread of the Western diet to China and other developing countries.

It is difficult to envisage how a policy of comparative advantage can ‘transcend the capitalist system’ as he advocates. Trade is essential to the realisation of widespread vegan diets and for all its faults capitalism does successfully facilitate the efficient exchange of goods.

It remains to be seen whether a more ethical capitalism emerges. Interestingly Bill Gates has been prominent in funding and advocating ‘analogue’ meat and egg products that could replace the real thing. A company like McDonald’s hardly has an ideological attachment to meat and with sufficient demand, and profit, perhaps a happier meal could be conceived.



Losing the Plot Again

Losing the Plot Again

(Published in the Sunday Times, January 4th, 2015)

Alas, personal flaws recur. Similarly, cultural failings may be identified in communities across great distances in time. We hope mistakes are character-building and not repeated, but often lessons are not learnt.

I suggest there were parallels in the current relationship of Irish people with property, and an earlier reaction to the seemingly unlimited supply of potatoes before the Great Famine. Both suggest a tendency towards complacency, though undoubtedly the conduct of our forefathers was more understandable.

The potato plant, solanum tuberosum, is native to the Andean uplands of South America. It is uniquely well-suited to damp and temperate Irish conditions, becoming a staple crop for the native Irish soon after its introduction by British colonists in the early 1600s. Buried in the ground it also proved ideal for peasants confronting the presence of a succession of armies that laid waste to the countryside over the course of the seventeenth century. Large families could live off paltry acreage, and the population grew from under a million in 1600 to over 8 million in the 1840s. In no other Western country has so rapid a rate of natural increase been sustained for so long.

The surge in population was nothing short of a demographic miracle and the population of this island has never since scaled similar heights. But over generations it could not have escaped notice that holdings were being continuously sub-divided, and that sustenance was increasing dependent on the unpalatable but prolific Lumper variety of potato. Yet the pattern of early marriage and large families endured; gynaecological brakes were not applied as occurred in other European peasant societies at that time.

During these decades of unprecedented fecundity, political activism was lacking, even in the face of the continued injustices of the Penal Laws. Most of the leadership of the United Irishmen came from Protestant and Dissenter minorities in Dublin and particularly in Ulster. Of course, a Catholic society denuded of its native leadership (the Earls flew in 1607 and the Wild Geese thereafter) was likely to find it difficult to mobilise politically; still, the relative passivity of the Catholic Irish of the 18th and early 19th centuries is conspicuous.

No Western economy experienced growth, at least in the period 1995-2007, comparable with that of the Celtic Tiger. It was another Irish economic miracle and again political stasis took hold. A party, many of whose members had been revealed as corrupt or inefficient, continued to win elections. The myopic notion that the ‘boom just got boomier’ per Bertie Aherne in 2005 was readily accepted so long as the price of property continued to rise. Even as the noose grew tighter delusional optimism endured. We dined out, flew off for weekends in New York, and snorted cocaine on the back of a great whale that we mistook for terra firma.

Failure of both property and potatoes emanated from America. In the case of the famine it was the dreaded blight, phytophthora infestans, which first blackened the leaves and then reduced the crop to inedible mush. The pin that pierced the Irish bubble, a large boil on a global wart, was marked with another American sign, that of the ruinous Lehmans Brothers Inc. Both the potato blight and the financial meltdown afflicted other countries, but excluding tiny Iceland in the case of the latter, none so severely as Ireland.

The habit of blaming native capitalists is no less apparent: bankers now, profiteers then. The Galway Vindicator’s headline writer in 1846 fulminates:

‘There is no use in thinking that the peace of the country can be maintained while the farmer, merchants, miller, meal monger, baker, and provision huxter seem ruthlessly determined with a cupidity, an avariciousness that puts to the blush every feeling of humanity and libels the very name of Christian, to wring fortunes, if they can, out of vitals of the poor and reaps a golden harvest in the plunder, shameful plunder, of the public.’

The response of politicians was also similar. Nearing the end of his days, the great leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell addressed the House of Commons in 1847: ‘Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. I solemnly call upon you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of the population will perish unless you come to her relief’. These words might not be so far distant from our government’s plaintiff appeals to the European Council to reduce the EU’s punitive rate of interest.

Happily Ireland is not now confronted with starvation, only the diminished sovereignty of the state and the continued emigration of many its inhabitants. Unfortunately the nation, the culture writ large, did not learn its lesson and failed to take precautions against the failure of an ambrosial crop.

Partly in reaction to the Famine, over the course of the second half of the nineteenth a highly conservative Catholic church took charge of many of the institutions that would dominate the future state. Moreover, the political movements that emerged espoused an unrealistic romantic nationalism and a conservative view of the state they wished to build on independence.

Hopefully we won’t lose the plot again, and the state we re-build will display a more vibrant political culture, and greater foresight with regard to material accumulation.

A Revolution in Work

Contemporary job insecurity is more than a response to dominant neo-Liberalism. The pace of technological change gives less of a role for human beings with millions of jobs predicted to disappear. With the advance of third and even fourth level education a serious mismatch has emerged between skill sets and the requirements of our economies. Only a revolution in work will allow for greater fulfillment and individual autonomy in this changed environment.

Theodore Zeldin’s latest work: The Hidden Pleasures of Mankind: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future offers a profound examination of the failings of contemporary corporations to offer dignified employment to their workers. He mines history for alternative responses to contemporary challenges.

The book is an extension of Zeldin´s non-profit Oxford Muse foundation that provides an online platform “to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life“. It is a forum where ideas are flashed before participants offering a kind of intellectual Tinder. Proceeds from the book go to that project.

In terms of originality and variety, Zeldin –  born to Jewish-Russian parents in 1933 – is arguably the preeminent historian of his generation in Britain. His lack of a deserved public profile derives perhaps from concentration on the history of France although his Intimate History of Humanity (1994), like this work, provided a staggering global range of sources in his exploration of the human condition in different historical circumstances. But as well as providing a collection of portraits that yield insights into historical processes, in his latest work he looks explicitly at how contemporary societies might offer greater satisfaction for beleagured citizens.

He is a trenchant critic of large corportions and trends towards privatisation. In spite of this, Ikea allowed him to conduct research into its modus operandi which he criticises for a ruthlessly expansionary appetite and inability to nurture the hidden talents of many of its workers. Zeldin harks back to an economy composed primarily of micro businesses operating at all levels of society resulting in greater communication, and a personal relationship with money as opposed to one mediated by impersonal banking institutions.

Zeldin argues that individuals must overcome an inability and unwillingness to share deep thoughts attributing this to how: ´Many are schooled to believe that they need to be hypocrits. The hidden thoughts in people´s heads are the great darkness that surround us.´ For Zeldin the utility of the historical knowledge he has accumulated over a long and impressive career is apparent: ´I juxtapose people and ideas from different centuries and backgrounds so as to find new answers to the questions that perplex the earth´s present inhabitants.´ The hidden pleasures of life lie in the exchange of creative ideas that have brought satisfaction through history.

He is also a restless soul himself. He says: ´I do not wish to spend my time on earth as a bewildered tourist surrounded by strangers, on holidays from nothingness, in the dark as to when the holiday will end, stuck in the queue waiting for another dollop of ice-cream happiness.‘ It appears that a life of climbing the greasy academic pole accumulating honours has proved insufficiently rewarding for the author.

He wonders what the great adventure of our time should be, recalling (eurocentrically) that in the sixteenth century it was the discovery of new continents; in the seventeenth questions of science challenged great minds; while in the eighteenth equality was the great idea that gripped energetic individuals.

Echoed across history he has already listened to a widespread contemporary concern to live less self-centered existences; or in harmony with all the earth’s creatures; or “a quest for beauty, and its appreciation in many forms.” But the great idea of our time remains elusive during an epoch when more people than ever seek a purpose to their lives, and where dominant corporations offer scant reward for skill and artistry, preferring instead a form of ‘teamwork’ where orders are taken from on high.

Later in the book Zeldin considers that giving new meaning to work could be the great adventure of our time: “so that it is more than the exercise of a valued skill, more than the enjoyment of collaboration with others, more than a price that has to be paid in search of security and status, means using work to redefine freedom.” Zeldin is calling for a subtle but far-reaching evolution. Quite what this “freedom” is not explicit but he favours the more haphazard arrangements that once obtained to the formality in most work environments today. The latter sees individuals carry masks into their daily lives.

He traces the origins of the companies that now dominate the world’s resources, recalling how for over a century between 1720 and 1825 in England, during an era of seismic development, it was a criminal offence to start a company. He draws attention to how in the United States until the nineteenth century there were two competing ideas regarding the purpose of companies: the first were those with charters restricted to the pursuit of objectives in the public interest such as canal building; the other regime issued charters of a general character allowing companies to engage in whatever business proved profitable. The latter category remains the dominant form, divorced from responsibility for fellow-citizens, it has carried all before it.

Zeldin quotes Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, who predicted that the tedium of performing monotonous work renders an individual: “stupid and narrow-minded. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in rational conversation, but of conceiving generous, noble or tender sentiment; and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning even the ordinary duties of private life.” History certainly shows how many individuals have risen above their lot as unskilled workers, nonetheless a life of unceasing monotony can have disastrous effects. But one wonders whether there ever was, or can be, a fabled ‘New Jerusalem’ or ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ where physical work and mental engagement attain a balance; an artisan creativity inhabiting all fields. Of course that elusiveness should not stop us striving towards it.

It is apparent that multinationals such as Ikea and Walmart, biographies of whose founders (Ingvar Kampard and Sam Walton respectively) he explores, have gobbled up huge numbers of smaller enterprises. Zeldin found that before the nineteenth century villages and towns contained multiple businesses which demanded a wide variety of skills rather than the narrow specialisation that bedevils contemporary life. Peasants found many outlets outside of the season of the harvest. He argues that: “Without a Reformation of Work the wonderful aspirations of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity cannot grow to more than an incomplete slogan.” Many workers now lack a sense of fulfillment in their jobs, their real passions and talents not recognized and nurtured by remote employers.

The book has chapters with surprising questions such as “How many nations can one love at the same time?” and “Is ridicule the most important form of protest”. He provides short biographical accounts of a range of diverse characters: artists, businessmen, philosophers and scientists who have already sought answers to some of the questions that he pursues. At times these biographies might seem cursory but the breadth of his knowledge ranging across eras and continents allows what may seem broad brush history to form a vivid picture, and assuredly a guide to different forms of life.

Albert Einstein was among those who bemoaned the dominance of specialization in his field. He decried how it is “providing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist”; even going so far as to joke that “since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity I do not understand it myself anymore”.

Zeldin himself argues that: “Specialisation has been responsible for innumerable improvements in skill and knowledge, but it now only bears fruit when it is pollinated by seemingly unconnected visitors from other specialities and when it can escape from being paralysed by bureaucratic medication.” He disparages the legacy of a century of academic growth: “I did not foresee, however, nor did anyone else, the huge cloud of ignorance that the explosion of university education would spread across the world.’ Insightfully he writes: “every time I want an answer to some questions … I risk being buried under a torrent of responses, a hurricane of facts never imagined before, and an onslaught of ever-more ingenious explanations, each from a different point of view. The more information there is, the more ignorance there is.” He seems convinced that most academics have lost sight of the big picture.

The author provides an interesting analysis on the history of the hotel trade. He argues that this sector could become “a significant force in promoting a better understanding of enigmatic strangers and mysterious neighbours”. But these institutions have changed considerably since the nineteenth century when in most parts of the world meals were served at communal tables. That was until Ellsworth Milton Statler (1863-1928) began to offer “a bed and a bath for a dollar and a half,” and standardized the experience in the way Henry Ford did cars. The hospitality industry was born.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Cesar Ritz was building imitation palaces as hotels that parodied aristocratic rituals of ostentatious opulence for newly ascendant bourgeoisie. The cumulative result is over-priced and impersonal institutions rapidly reaching obsolescence. Unsurprisingly, many people choose the more social and often cheaper experience of Airbnb, or even couch surfing.

As part of his research into the Future of Work, Zeldin examined the experience of hotel workers and guests. Fascinatingly, in light of the recent terrorist attack, one of the hotels he researched was in Tunisia. He found that “In a Tunisian seaside resort, most hotel guests on holidays were too exhausted by their jobs to want to do anything more than rest, and never spoke to the locals; they went back knowing very little about the country they had visited, while the locals who cleaned their rooms and served their meals felt insulted by their lack of interest.” Unfortunately, one local took it into his head to respond to insult with injury. It is a depressing thought that cheap air travel only seems to accentuate differences between cultures.

It is obvious that we need to develop new economic models that allow greater human flourishing and exert less demands on the environment. Zeldin’s book is an important contribution to these debates, especially his critique of corporate culture and the ‘management science’ that guides its leaders. Perhaps one failing of the book is that it tries to do too much: exploring important questions such as gender relations and the capacity for religions to change dilutes its core enquiry into the evolution of work practices and their possible reform.

Finally, Zeldin’s draws an interesting analogy between the importance of human connections and the cells in our bodies billions of which die and are replaced inside our bodies every day: “They are born with a capacity for suicide, which they trigger when they fail to exchange signals with their neighbours; they survive when they succeed in combining with other cells to produce something more than themselves. Cells are constantly transforming themselves, and the proteins in them adapt to the other proteins around them, like dancers joining a ballet.” Humans flourish through social interaction and revelation. Working life should nurture this but often it has the opposite effect. Political rights conferring freedom are of little relevance if individuals are not free in themselves. A revolution in how we work, as well as the economic system that underpins it, is overdue.