The Technological Savage

The Technological Savage

(Published in the Dublin Review of Books, December 2017)

In 1983 the world came within a whisker of nuclear Armageddon when Soviet satellite photos mistakenly revealed NATO missiles in the sky. Only the impulsive refusal of Russian officer Stanislav Petrov to believe his eyes prevented mutually assured destruction being set in train. Now a US President threatens to ‘totally destroy’ another nuclear-armed country – with twenty-five million inhabitants – using the same technology. Evisceration by mistake or design, it hardly matters to the millions of people and other life forms caught in the conflagration. It just takes one fat finger to push the button, or for that matter to pull the trigger on conventional weapons widely available to citizens of the dominant superpower.

Armed with such weapons, it is hard to rebut Carl Jung’s charge that modern man is a ‘technological savage’. He believed this stemmed from denial of a primitive or primordial self, previously expressed in religious rituals and popular rites. Instead the intellectual zeitgeist is an ideal of infinite progress that permits rapid digestion of the planet, with scientists often oblivious to the consequences of their innovations. Homo sapiens has long displayed destructive tendencies, and, armed with our latest tools, we wreak unprecedented environmental havoc, while mistakenly assuming that technological advances improve our collective decision-making. How we chart a course for humanity requires different lenses, as Yuval Noah Hariri points out in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hariri: ‘by definition it [science] has no pretensions to knowing what should be in future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.’ Science must be reconciled to these objectives.

Nuclear proliferation after World War II raised the stakes such that Nuclear Powers have not waged war with one another since Japan was bombed into submission in 1945. Instead, we saw proxy conflicts from Greece to Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and further peripheral engagements since the fall of the Soviet Empire, but none between members of the nuclear ‘club’, or their allies. No wonder the leader of a ‘rogue’ state should wish to join the top table, having witnessed the grizzly fate of other ruling regimes previously stigmatised. But if we are to take the hectoring ‘leader of the free world’ at his word, even nuclear capability may no longer confer immunity.

Nevertheless, Hariri proposes that ‘the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have gone to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the Atomic Bomb’. He admits the assessment may be naïve and, since the success of Trump and other ‘morons’, that seems increasingly so. One psychotic leader – and democracy is no guarantee against this coming about as the Nazis electoral success underlines – or just a technological glitch, could unleash a dread spectre. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power station malfunctioning, as we saw in Chernobyl; or being subjected to a natural disaster, such as a the tidal wave that washed over Fukushima; or even a reactor being attacked by terrorists. Nuclear fission is intrinsically dangerous, and its by-products almost eternally toxic.

The end of the Cold War represented our best chance of decommissioning these horrendous weapons, but this was not given serious consideration, as the United States of States took on the role of Global Policeman, with Britain acting as its obsequious sidekick. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 spelt the demise of a lingering hope for multilateralism.

Now the majority of politicians in Britain, including in the Labour Party, consider nuclear capability a totem of national sovereignty, and funnel billions into the Trident programme. The once mighty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament barely flickers; its logo a vaguely nostalgic reminder of student idealism. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons seems more of an expression of the aspirations of the Committee than a reflection of that NGOs ability to enter popular consciousness.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (1818) is a great parable for our time, in which a bionic monster torments his master for failing to acknowledge his responsibility. It spawned a new genre in science fiction, which grapples with technological advances in a way novels usually no longer attempt. ‘At the time’, according to Amitav Ghosh, ‘there does not seem to have been any sense that Frankenstein belonged outside the literary mainstream, only later would it come to be regarded as the first great work of science fiction’.

The book’s disarming implication is of profound monstrosity lurking, not in an impressionable invention, but in humanity itself. The invention is neither beneficial nor harmful, but a reflection of the human world in which it co-exists. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is born with a pure heart, and it is only when his friendly overtures towards humans are rudely rebuffed that his diabolical tendencies are unleashed. Towards the end of the book he reveals: ‘When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair’.

Abandoned by his creator and without a friend in the world the monster casts a long shadow, killing members of Victor’s family. Crestfallen, Victor eventually consents to build a mate in exchange for an end to this reign of terror. But at the last moment he destroys her, shuddering to think that ‘future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race.’ In revenge the monster kills Victor’s own wife on their wedding night. United in grief, Victor meets his doom in a the polar wastes as he vainly pursues that shadow.
Finally, over Victor’s corpse the monster announces:

I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.

Through Victor’s belated self-sacrifice the genii is put inside the bottle, and humanity might endure. If only it was so easy.

A host of Hollywood potboilers have followed the same theme of the destructive capacity of scientific innovation. One such was the Terminator series which posited a nuclear calamity brought on by rebellious robots, who acquire the most diabolical human traits. A succession travel back in time to eradicate John Connor, the future human leader of the human resistance, along with his doughty mother, Sarah Connor.

In Terminator II (1991) the leading engineer of cyborg technology Miles Bennett Dyson takes responsibility for his work and abets the destruction of the technology, dying, like Victor Frankenstein, in the process. A further parallel with the novel is that at the end of the film the benign robot, played by Arnold Schwarzneigger, demands his own destruction in a pool of molten metal, exultantly fading away in the “light of that conflagration”.

In both cases catharsis arrives only when the inventor acknowledges responsibility. In the real world such foresight is scarcely possible, and once a technological frontier is crossed only rarely is a reversal possible: scientific advances often serve simply to amplify our destructive capacity, even if the original motivation is speculative.

Thus, although the unprecedented breakthroughs in physics during the early part of the twentieth century were motivated by a genuinely enquiring spirit, these developments permitted less scrupulous scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, and allowed even less scrupulous politicians to deploy it. Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb (1995) presents compelling evidence that President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Harry S. Bryant ordered bombs to be dropped on Horoshima and Nagasaki not to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the Soviet Union; and that General Marshall’s proposal to drop it on a non-civilian target was ignored. Geologists date the beginning of the Anthropocene from this point, and it is worthwhile considering human history in terms of ‘the before and after’ this terrifying exhibition of this technology.

History reveals that once one power acquires a new weapon whether it is the horse, the canon or the machine gun, the rest will follow or face annihilation. Rarely, if ever, is a military technology put aside. Moreover, even if an innovation is designed for the benefit of humanity it may well have devastating side-effects, as we are discovering with innovations such as the Haber-Bosch process that manufactures artificial fertilizer from natural gas.

This appeared to solve the age-old problem of field crops depleting nitrogen from the soil, and farmers having to keep fields periodically fallow. In combination with mechanization and improved breeding it brought the so-called Green Revolution that permitted exponential population growth over the course of the twentieth century. But besides seemingly solving the problem of global food scarcity we created another in feeding over half of all cereal crops to other animals, and developing an insatiable desire for meat. This has reduced much of the world to a patchwork of fields that rely on chemical inputs for life, and billow Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Similarly, the Internet is an invention with extraordinary capacities for expanding awareness and knowledge, but social media has facilitated surreptitious methods of influencing voter behaviour. The current US President is a master of the short written form of the tweet, and his allies have also used Facebook to devastating effect. Unknowingly, the earnest scientific minds that developed the Internet have created an propagandistic monster, which threatens nuclear Armageddon.

Yet it is still commonly assumed that advances in scientific education elevate human consciousness. Expressing the optimism of the Enlightenment in The Descent of Man Charles Charles Darwin proposes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”:

Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.

Of course there is some substance to Darwin’s claim. Over the course of the last century the chance of someone dying in violent circumstances has diminished significantly. The archaeological evidence from prehistory suggests far more of us were killed in violent circumstances than is the case in most societies today. Life for the foraging homo sapiens was generally nasty and brutish, though rather less short than one might expect. The restricted diets of early agricultural civilisation, which also brought most communicable diseases from animal husbandry, lowered life expectancy considerably. But as for our relationship with so-called lower animals, that is another story: one of unremitting devastation.

Most creation myths hark back to a Fall before which our species lived in balance with Nature. Some contemporary versions imagine us living like bonobos, playing erotic games from dawn and dusk, as we swung through trees in search of sweet fruits. But well before the Industrial Revolution, or even the first Agricultural Revolution that produced civilisation just about twelve thousand years ago, homo sapiens had embarked on our wild career of ecocide.

An ability to utilise fire gave all hominoid species, including homo Neanderthalensis, a Promethean capacity to alter the landscape unlike any animal up to that point, but homo sapiens also exhibited an unprecedented tendency to wipe out large fauna, once we preserved a bridgehead out of Africa.

We began by eradicating bigger-brained relatives such as homo Neanderthalensis and homo Denisovan – although we acquired a few of their genes along the way – before hunting large fauna such as the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Worse followed when we announced our arrival in the Americas and Australia by wiping out most large – many of them apparently docile – fauna within a short period of our arrival. As Hariri puts it: ‘the historical record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological killer’.

According to Hariri what distinguished homo sapiens from other hominoids is a capacity to invent fictions that are vital for togetherness. Such mythologies survive in modern societies, not just in religious worship, but also in legal fictions such as the separate legal personality of companies and the imagined communities of nation-states. A conceit also underlies trust in the money economy where the actual amount in coins and notes in circulation is less than ten per cent of the notional amount that keeps commerce afloat.

Moreover, we maintain the myth that we are, for the most part, doing ‘good’ in the world. But we cannot get away from the shocking casualties that our success as a species has brought to others. We are now living through the Sixth Extinction, but it is hardly considered newsworthy.

There are now over seven billion humans in world which have a combined weight 300 million tonnes, while other animals domesticated by humans weigh up to 700 million tonnes. All other surviving large wild animals (including marine life and birds) weigh a mere 100 million tonnes. That is a ratio of ten to one between the human world and wild animals.

Also, the conditions in which most domesticated animals now live and die is one of unrelenting torture. In Hariri’s plausible view: ‘over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.’ We may not be killing and maiming one another to the same extent, but technology allows us to distance ourselves from unspeakable exploitation of domesticated animals, while eradicating the habitats of most wild animals. Eventually as Hariri indicates, this ‘orgy of reckless consumption’, may destroy the foundations of human prosperity too. That is what many Climate Scientists are predicting at least. Is it too late to turn the ship around?

There is no easy way out of the pickle that humanity finds itself in. No bride of Frankenstein’s monster can be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. We cannot return to subsistence in restored forests, as these would never support our present numbers. Traditional methods of farming are not going to feed us either. The scientific revolution and the discovery by Europeans of new continents has got us into the mess we are in, and science has to dig out a way for us. Synthetic meats and clean energy are viable alternative, but we need to alter the terms of the relationship between science and other fields.

According to the philosopher Mary Midgely: ‘the very word ‘science’ which had originally meant knowledge or understanding in general, gradually became narrowed during the nineteenth century to mean only physical science’ She argues that if we are to deal with major questions we will have to combine ‘several different methods belonging to different disciplines.’ She charges the Pythagoreans with rejecting an Earth Mother in favour of disembodied mathematical forms in the physical world. Pythagoreans identified intuitive female qualities as evil, and good ones as rationally masculine, a tendency exhibited by scientists ever since, so she argues.

The prevailing narrow focus tends towards abstractions that ignores a wider assessment of consequences. The success of a polymath such as Aristotle is today unthinkable. Specialisation has reached a point where according to Richard Feynman: ‘There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two department of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other’. Similarly, Einstein wrote that ‘specialisation in every sphere of intellectual work … is producing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist worker’, adding that ‘since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more’!

Scientists who go into great depth on a particular subject may lose sight of the implications of their innovations, just as Victor Frankenstein chose to ignore what he had done. We also face the huge problem of funding being directed by short-term commercial gain, and the influence of lobbyists on government investment. As Hariri puts it: ‘many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.’ The education system as it is currently ordered ill-equips them for this role.

Any scientific education should be linked to an appreciation of the arts which lay bare the human condition and imagine a multiplicity of realities. Therein lies the key to charting the future. Thus Aristotle writes that ‘it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen’. A broader education should also encourage artists to become more scientifically literate, perhaps giving rise to new creative forms. In return scientists will be afforded the creative vision of art to plot a route for humanity out of the impending crises we face. The artist and the scientist may work as one.

More controversially, it is still possible to envisage a place for religion in the modern world as we seek to temper an innate savagery that has harnessed technology. As Laurens van der Post puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ The progress that Darwin observed in human empathy originates in large part from religious sensibility, seen in its widest terms. A dogmatic atheism is alien to our nature.

But religious devotion has erred terribly in venerating ourselves as God’s chosen species over the rest of Nature. Monotheist religions in particular must accept a broader responsibility, as the current Pope Francis has done, at least in part. We demand a Reformation in the human spirit to save us from intellectual savagery. The portents are monstrous. Either we come to terms with technological barbarity, or we face annihilation.

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Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.

Stuffed and Starved

In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.

The Green Revolution

The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.

Pre-domesticated Varieties

Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.

Food Sovereignty

But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.

Shifting Diets

Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.

Wild Law Lecture

Delivered in Anglo-American University, Prague 19/11/15

It is sometimes observed in jurisprudence how Hitler came to power by legal means and continued to govern in accordance with the German constitution. Of course an American might argue that this could never happen there because of the separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislature in their constitution. But slavery was allowed to cohabit with the original constitution until the civil war and some describe what happened to native-Americans in the nineteenth century as genocide.
But few would argue that what Hitler did was justified or even, in a sense, legal. That’s because most of us subscribe to a view that human beings have certain rights that are inalienable (cannot be given away) and imprescriptible (do not lapse with time) antecedent and superior to positive law. These include inter alia the right to life, property and one’s good name. Of course most of these rights are limited (although I would argue that a person’s right not to be tortured is absolute). Courts therefore often have to weigh up competing rights. Thus we are allowed to defend ourselves proportionality if someone attacks us and the police are allowed to enter a property if they believe someone inside has committed a crime.
We might conveniently and perhaps confusingly consider such rights to be a part of natural law. But the scope of natural law is limited to human actors and I will argue that we must broaden it to encompass all of Earth and the beings that exist here. I say this not merely because I think that fairness demands that we extend compassion to all life on the planet but also because without radically re-appraisal of our relationship with nature we are endangering our continued existence on the planet.
I believe that what has come to be known as Wild Law or Earth Jurisprudence is not just an intellectual curiosity, a neat concept that gives us a warm glow of satisfaction, but really I predict that this is could be a huge area of work for the lawyers in the future as we consider the competing needs and interests of all the living world and attempt to bring a harmony that will be to the advantage of all including the human species.
Moreover, I argue that the propositions I am making this evening are nothing new and would be recognised by most faith systems especially those closest to nature in the small number of hunter-gatherer communities still existing. But what I am saying is also firmly rooted in science and in former NASA scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. This is the idea is that the earth’s organism interact with inorganic surroundings to form a self-regulating, complex system that maintains life.
Thus for example: ‘around 21 per cent of the atmosphere is made up of oxygen, which is highly reactive, while methane is found at a fairly constant level of 1.7 parts per million. In sunlight, oxygen and methane react to produce carbon dioxide and water. Maintaining methane at this level requires living organisms to produce about 500 million tons of methane a year. If life on Earth were to cease, all its elements would continue to react with one another until no more reactions were possible and the planet would become a hot, inhospitable place without oxygen and water.[Cullinan, p.80]’.
What’s encouraging about the Gaia hypothesis is the assumption that as the Earth is a self-regulating system it will redress any imbalance: this suggests that humans as a part of the earth community will mend their ways and find a more symbiotic relationship with the rest of the life on planet Earth. But this requires a change of heart on the part of many of us leading to radical changes to our behaviour. One author points out: ‘Many of our so-called “material comforts” are not only in excess of, but are probably in opposition to, basic biological need.’ Most of us could easily consume less than we do now, and be healthier for it. Indeed, the global obesity pandemic shows we are consuming too many calories or are relying insufficiently on our own energy for transport and in the manufacture of products that have built in obsolescence.
The laws that govern most of our societies are really a product of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the so-called Enlightenment. In particular the ideas of Rene Descartes have had a powerful effect. ‘Descartes set out to entirely reconstruct philosophy on the basis of mathematical reasoning’. He distinguished between a rational mind and an animal, wild body and understood the physical world as a complex machine ‘that could be understood by reductionist analysis (i.e. by dissecting it and looking at each of the parts to understand how it works)’. In Descartes schema, which was formulated at a time when Europeans were subduing and colonising the rest of the world, only man had the power of reason and as such this placed him above all other animals an idea that was inherited from earlier Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. The colonisation of the world beyond Europe also brought about the subjugation of nature, as European technologies have allowed ever wider encroachment on regions which often displayed an approximate balance between human beings and the rest of their ecology.
The superiority of men over nature is affirmed in the American Declaration of Independence: ‘ When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Prior to European subjugation many human groups saw themselves as being on the same level as other animals. Shamans would communicate with animal spirits requesting that they offer themselves as prey for hunters. This gratitude towards nature is also evident in other religions including Islam where under halal rules thanks is given to the animal for the food they offer to the human community. Even in Christianity until recently meat was off the menu for much of the year. It has been argued that prohibitions during the period of Lent reflect the need to restrain consumption during the months of the year when little meat was available. Today where religions have fallen into decline we have few limitations on our consumption.
Until very recently (and only in Europe and South America) do we find that rights are conferred on anything other than human beings. There is simply no recognition of the limits of natural profusion or the extent to which human actions could be destabilising Earth systems and could have terrible repercussions for ourselves and other creatures.
There is no doubt that human beings have displayed extraordinary resourcefulness and have made up for a lack of physical prowess since they left Africa less than 100,000 years ago. This has allowed them to survive in all parts of the planet, discovering every manner of food source and even overwhelming far larger animals. We may call this intelligence a capacity for reason but if it leads us to consume so much that we endanger most other species and our very survival then that capacity for reason is in fact stupid and self-destructive. In the place of reason what we really need is wisdom.
Since the departure of human beings from Africa where we evolved various megafauna including the woolly mammoth have been hunted to extinction which may have had an effect on the earth’s climate. But the real troubles began when certain high-performing seeds and docile animals were domesticated. This allowed settled humans to create food surpluses for cities that reached over one million people more than two thousand years ago.
This expansion of humanity was amplified by the discovery of fossil fuels starting primarily with coal which rapidly accelerated urbanisation, made travel far easier and led to the industrial revolution and the emergence of consumer societies. All of this was underpinned by the rapid expansion of agriculture which entailed the deforestation of huge swathes of the world (including much of Europe) mainly to make way for our animals to graze. This process was accelerated by the crucial invention of artificial fertilizer (the Haber-Bosch process) in the 1910 which led to the Green Revolution after World War II and an extraordinary expansion in food supply.
It is amazing to consider that in 1901 the world’s population stood at about 1.5 billion with less than 20% living in cities while today we have 7 billion with over 50% living in cities. And it is not just the number of humans that have increased: our lifestyle expectations have altered considerably. Many in the West (and the East increasingly), expect to drive a car. We aspire to travel by aeroplane to far flung places and most people want to eat meat every day whereas before it was a rare luxury and often restrained by religious obligations that have gone out of fashion.
The loss of other species due to this expansion has been staggering. Will Tuttle informs us that 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, free living animals made up 99% of the biomass and human beings made up only 1%. Today humans and the animals that we own make up 98% of the biomass. He says: We’ve basically stolen the world, the earth, from free-living animals to use for ourselves. It is a staggering statistic that over 50 billion animals are killed to feed humans each year. Moreover, since 1970 half of all mammal species have been made extinct mostly because of human actions.
But all our travel, deforestation, domesticated animals (particularly ruminant cattle and sheep) are adding up to one terrifying outcome which is runaway climate change which could create billions of refugees from many parts of the developing world and is already causing great turbulence in our weather patterns. We have seen droughts giving rise to crop failures on a more regular basis this century and this is set to increase as the century goes by. 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is man-made so denial of it is increasingly absurd.
Scientific questions are rarely addressed in legal settings because as I have noted we are still enduring the intellectual legacy of Descartes where most of us reside comfortably in our respective specialities. But the challenges to the world we are living in requires holistic thinking so that sciences draw on humanities and the humanities draw on science. We need to start thinking of the big picture and connectedness and that is what Wild Law and Earth Jurisprudence are all about.
Moreover, physics the most important branch of science is teaching us to look at the world in a very different way from Descartes’s. Werner Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ states that the mass and velocity of an electron could not be determined simultaneously.’ Physics is essentially accepting mystery as implicit and that nature does not act in the mechanistic way that Descartes proposed. Quantum physics exploded the view that the universe is a vast mechanism constructed of many tiny ‘building blocks’. This gives further credence to Lovelock’s Gaia theory. As ‘the nature and behaviour of part is determined by the whole rather than the other way round. This point of view is fundamental to what today is often referred to as ‘systems thinking’. If we accept mystery is implicit then simply because we don’t fully understand how observed processes occur should not deter us from drawing lessons from them. The earth is not a machine which we can dismantle into parts but a highly complex system that may always defy human understanding.
So what is this Wild Law that I have been skirting around the edges of? In my view it is an extension of natural law, involving a more rounded picture of the world that encompasses the whole planet. As Cormac Cullinan observes: ‘Probably all human communities once regulated themselves with the purpose of ensuring that their members lived in accordance with the requirements of the wider ecological community.
We have become so powerful that geologists now refer to the Anthropocene the era of human geological time that began around 1945. With this unprecedented power comes great duties and to simply ignore the plight of the rest of the planet is unconscionable. We cannot insulate ourselves from other inhabitants of the planet. We need the diversity of nature for clean water, air and healthy food. A good example is wild bees whose populations across Europe are under pressure, apparently due to the use of certain pesticides. These bees are vital for the pollination of many our food crops. Under our current laws nobody can make a claim on behalf of the bees, though they are crucial to our agriculture. We have to realise that we are part of nature not opposed to it or in competition with it.
According to Thomas Berry, ‘The Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects’ and every member of the Earth Community has three inherent rights: the right to be, to habitat, and to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.’ That is not to say that human beings should go around policing nature or stopping foxes from hunting rabbits. There is a balance to be struck and most natural processes will continue to go on without us. We are talking about light touch regulation and laissez faire as far as possible but when our own actions start to seriously interfere with the natural world we need to be able to enforce the rights of nature.
The important thing is for us to modify our own behaviour so that we desist from encroaching further on the natural world. One has only to look to look to see the forest fires in Indonesia to realise that there is a crisis of our own making that looms as a threat far greater than terrorism. The destruction of mangrove forests in that area to make way for agriculture is causing an ecological catastrophe, but our media sources prefer to concentrate our minds on far lesser dangers. It has been estimated that each year 2 million people die due to air pollution. Just this week I met a Chinese girl who showed me pictures of Beijing which is now enclosed in a smog that requires people to wear air masks to filter the air.
Of course you might wonder how a change in our ideas about the ambit of the law will make the slightest difference to the world. But there is no doubt that laws influence our behaviour and generate moral outlooks. Just look at the attitude of younger generations to drink-driving compared to their parents, or the positive attitude many people now have to recycling. And although I have been critical of the US constitution there is no doubt that it contained advanced ideas on human rights that are firmly installed in the global consciousness. Other instruments like the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights have had a similar effect. These legal instruments are still very important they just need renewal.
In the Descent of Man Charles Darwin argues that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”: Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals”. It is argued that the history of the law suggests a parallel development. Thus for example a Roman father held power of life or death over his family. But we may question Darwin’s description of “lower animals”; I would argue that there is nothing inherently superior about human beings. We have remarkable capabilities but this certainly does not make us superior to other creatures, especially when you consider some of the things that human beings have done to each through history, and even today we observe terrible things around the world. All creatures have remarkable features or they would not have found their ecological niche.
Let us pause for a moment and consider how we go about creating the new world order that has been proposed. How do we re-frame the legal instruments in order to protect nature? No doubt this will be a difficult process and unfortunately it is impossible for us to understand the earth’s great complexity. We will of course look to science for guidance. Conservationists for example can tell us what will happen if a certain river is polluted and climate scientists can tell us what the effect of a car or a cow is but really what we need is a change of heart and for us to start dignifying other creatures with equality of consideration.
All creatures have different needs and we should acknowledge that humans have needs too and can continue to consume in line with them but in such a way where harm is minimised. This change of heart that our legal system can inculcate must influence those at the top in corporations and governments but it can begin at the bottom and it is worth living by Gandhi’s idea ‘to be the change you want to see in the world’. Any change begins at the level of the individual level. We should try to avoid despondency and never give up hope. Humanity has the capacity to change and can do so very quickly if we pull together. In our technological age we have unique ways of sharing information so that processes that would have taken decades in the past can now happen almost overnight.
One moral question that Wild Law poses is whether human beings have the right to kill other animals for food. I was particularly struck by a description in Laurens van der Post’s autobiography Yet Being Someone Other on this question. As a young journalist van der Post observed a number of expeditions on a whaling vessel in the south Atlantic. He records:
‘I could not deny the excitement and acceleration into a consummation of archaic joy which the process of stalking and hunting, even at sea, had invoked in me, although I was at present now only as an observer. On the other hand, hard on these emotions came an equal and opposite revulsion which nearly overwhelmed me when the hunt, as now, was successful and one was faced with the acceptance of the fact that one had aided and abetted in an act of murder of such a unique manifestation of creation. The only dispensation of the paradox ever granted to me in the past, unaware as I had been of the immensity of it until revealed to me in this moment at sea, was that in hunting out of necessity, all revulsions were redeemed by the satisfaction one felt in bringing food home to the hungry. That such satisfaction was not an illusion, nor a form of special pleading in the court of natural conscience, was proved to me by the profound feeling of gratitude one invariably felt for the animal that had died in order for others to live … [but] what could this possibly have to do with the necessities which were essential for the redemption of the act of killing … in this increasingly technological moment of my youth, when control of life was passing more and more from nature to man, and when there were already available all sorts of artificial substitutes for the essential oils which animals like the whale had once been the only source of supply, what, I asked myself bitterly, could justify such killing except the greed of man for money … Worse still, I was certain that our imperviousness to the consternation caused by such killing in the heart of the nature could be the beginning of an enmity between man and the life which had brought him forth that could imperil his future on earth itself.’ He concludes: every one of us – not excluding the disabled, maimed, blind, deaf, dumb and the bearers of unbearable suffering – matters to a Creation that has barely begun
There are situations where human cannot survive without exploiting other animals for food making them in a sense obligate carnivores but living in developed cities where there are ample alternatives it seems that this argument is less compelling. Some argue that eating a small amount of meat does little damage to the environment but can we tolerate the way most animals that we eat are treated in factory farms and feeding lots? It seems to me that any natural law should not exclude such excesses or prohibit such suffering. Moreover, as the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields.’ It may be that the violence we exert against other animals leads in ways that we cannot grasp to violence in human societies. Moreover extension of compassion to other sentient creatures will extend our compassion to the wider planet as those animals are part of a wider nature. We should appreciate the beauty of a tree, even if there are times when we must chop it down in order to survive.
But of course any lawyer will ask how can all these high-sounding ideas be turned into something tangible in terms of legislation or constitutional expression? In his seminal article on the subject Can Trees Have Standing (written in 1972) Christopher D. Stone explores how wild law might apply. He argues that natural objects could have legal standing by analogy with companies, states, infants, incompetents, municipalities or even universities. Thus a court appoints a trustee when a corporation has become incompetent. He says: ‘On a parity of reasoning, we should have a system in which, when a friend of natural object perceives it to be endangered, he can apply to a court for the creation of a guardianship … The guardian would urge before the court injuries not presently cognizable – the death of eagles and inedible crabs, the suffering of sea lions, the loss from the face of the earth of species of commercially valueless birds, the disappearance of wilderness areas.
He also draws an analogy with the law of patents and copyright: ‘I am proposing that we do the same with eagles and wilderness areas as we do with copyrighted works, patented inventions and privacy: make the violation of rights in them to be a cost by declaring the piracy of them to be the invasion of a property interest.
He even suggests that this could involve modifications to our democratic systems: ‘I am suggesting that there is nothing unthinkable about, and there might on balance even be a prevailing case to be made for an electoral appointment that made some systematic effort to allow for the representative “rights” of non-human life.’ Considering most of our laws are framed in national and regional assemblies this argument could have some merit, although it is hard to imagine how it could actually happen. If it does, it seems very unlikely that the representative for turkeys will be voting for Christmas…
He envisages that a change in our legal culture would have an effect on the wider social norms: ‘such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the “legal rights of the environment” would be inclined to legislate more environment-protecting rules by formal enactment.
He speculates that ‘What is needed is a myth that can fit our growing body of knowledge of geophysics, biology and the cosmos’ and considers ‘that we may come to regard the Earth, as some have suggested, as one organism of which mankind is a functional part’. Another leading author on the subject Cormac Cullinan developed an earth connection when he was on a Buddhist retreat. He records: I suddenly knew with great clarity that I was part of a single whole.’ But it is doubtful whether existing religions offer the guidance required. Even the spiritual beliefs of the Chinese and Indians ‘in the unity between man and nature had no greater effect than the contrary beliefs in Europe in producing a balance between man and his environment.’ Perhaps James Lovelock’s Gaia theory can offer that idea for our time as it is clear that most human beings have a need for some form of spiritual connection but that scientific rigour is also required for us to understand all of the earth systems. Perhaps in the future American money will have written on it: In Gaia we Trust.
Happily there are signs that human beings are coming around to the idea that the natural world has inalienable and inherent rights. Thus in September 2008 Ecuador constitution commits the state and citizens to seeking well-being in a manner that is harmonious with nature and that recognises the rights of nature. It is stated that ‘Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.’ A duty is also imposed on all Ecuadorian men and women “to respect the rights of nature, preserve a healthy environment and use natural resources in a rational, viable and sustainable manner.”
This was followed by the declaration on 17 October 2009 by nine countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America supporting the call for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights. It reads
1. In the 21st Century it is impossible to achieve full human rights protection if at the same time we do not recognize and defend the rights of the planet earth and nature. Only by guaranteeing the rights of Mother Earth can we guarantee the protection of human rights. The planet earth can exist without human life, but humans cannot exist without planet earth.
2. Just as World War II caused a serious humanity crisis that in 1948 led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, today we are suffering the enormous consequences of Climate Change making it essential to have a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.
3. The ecological crisis which global warming is part of, is showing so palpably an essential principle that has been argued for centuries by the native and indigenous peoples all over the world: that human beings are part of an interdependent system of plants, animals, hills, forests, oceans and air that require our respect and care. The system is what we call Mother Earth “Earth does not belong to man, but man to earth.” The Earth is not a group of things that we can appropriate of, but it is a group of natural beings with whom we must learn to live together in harmony and balance respecting their rights.
It is revealing that this statement was framed in one of the poorest parts of the planet where resources are scarcest. It seems that many of those enduring poverty more easily recognise the limitations of nature and it is simply untrue to suggest that environmentalism is not concerned with human welfare. The opposite is actually the case, it’s just that environmentalists takes a longer term view and see humans and nature as one.
We already have enough resources for the whole planet and the technologies required to change the way we consume. Krishnamurti observed: “If all of us said, ‘Look let’s all get together and solve this problem’ they could do it. Science has the means of feeding people. But they won’t because they are conditioned to function so as to destroy the security which we are seeking.” We need to alter that destructive way of thinking and get people to focus on the outcome of their actions. Significant re-distribution of global income among humans is I believe implicit in our acceptance of Wild Law. Lawyers have tended to shy away from pursuing socio-economic rights but what use is one’s good name or property if one is dying of poverty.
The Declaration also states there is no contradiction between human rights and the rights of nature. In fact they are one and the same as one flows from the other. The challenge of global warming in this the Anthropocene should be the moment for humans to act individually and collectively.
At least it would appear that the Catholic Church is moving in the right direction with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si. The pope draws on the legacy of his namesake St. Francis saying: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.””
The recollection of these sentiments is encouraging, but the relationship that the encyclical envisions between humans and nature at large remains essentially hierarchical with humans atop the food chain due to their capacity for reason. But perhaps we simply do not understand the capacity of other species for reason. At least there is acknowledgement that: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
It is clear that the notion of Wild Law brings lawyers out of their comfort zone and exposes the limits of our language to define the reciprocal relationships that the complexity of the natural world involves but this should not deter us from the task since as Wittgenstein wrote: ‘Ethics cannot be put into words’ but ‘make themselves manifest’. Cormac Cullinan observed: ‘The language of the universe is primarily experiential. It speaks to us in the language of hot and cold, beauty and fear, patterns of events, symbols and associations. However, we must engage with it to ‘hear’ this language. Book learning and scientific rationality can only take us so far. We also need direct experience of nature, intuition and emotions. Therefore in order to become ecologically literate once more and to regain an awareness of the principles which govern life on Earth, we must strive to reconnect and engage empathically with wildness and nature, and if possible, with wilderness.’
Cullinan also warns that ‘we must beware of succumbing to the temptation of devising the ‘Great Solution’ that will enable all of human theories of jurisprudence to be transformed instantly into a reflection of the Great Jurisprudence’. Too often we have seen utopian ideas being appropriated by dictatorships that justified their actions on the utilitarian grounds that it was for the greater good. Instead he says: ‘doing very small Earth-caring things on an ongoing basis is probably more important than the odd grand gesture (or World Summit), though both can have their place.’ In a revolution such as this it seems to me that change is more likely to come from the periphery than the centre.
Perhaps it is in poetry an art form whose ambiguity puts fear into lawyers that offers the best expression of Wild Law. In writing this lecture the closing lines of a poem by W.B. Yeats were in my mind:
Oh chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from dance?
The dance is more than the dancer, the tree is beyond its constituent parts. We are greater than ourselves, connected to an earth that brought us into being and through engagement with the earth, a deep listening, we may start to understand in all our limitations its shifting laws.

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Democracy threatened by the torrent of the Internet

(Published in Village Magazine, July, 2016)

We live in an age of digital ephemera that befuddles our wits and has thrown up the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Britain departs the European stage left after a campaign marred by misinformation. The siren sounds of advertising impel us to consume beyond what we need and Enlightened Despots in corporations exercise unaccountable power over vast, and growing, fortunes. In an effort to understand this cultural drift I turn to philosophy, evolution and the effect of changes in technology for answers.

In philosophy I attempt to harmonise two seemingly contradictory notions that inform my understanding. The first is a notion expressed by the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (d. 475 BCE) that ‘no man ever steps into the same river twice, for he’s not the same man and the river is not the same.’ This phenomenological view rests on observation of a constantly evolving reality. It is a process similar to the gathering of scientific data.

The second approach is ideological but might be seen as analogous to over-arching scientific laws. This is the idea of prior knowledge, an objective belief in identifiable forms of justice or beauty. In Western philosophy this is identified with Plato (d.347 BCE) and his successors who trained their ears to the strains of an elusive harmony.

Inferring truth solely from observation of phenomena is problematic, especially where life is reduced to competition between individual genes for expression as expounded by Richard Dawkins in his formative The Selfish Gene (1976) which, intriguingly, was the favourite book of Jeffrey Skilling, when CEO of Enron. He interpreted Neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good, even for its victims, because it weeded out ‘losers’ and forced ‘survivors’ to become strong.

These competing ideas may be resolved by allowing for an evolving objectivity: a fleeting truth. That is to say that answers to questions posed in Ancient Greece are quite distinct from those we confront today. It is dangerous talk, no doubt, to assume that humans have a capacity to discern principles arising from observation of a shifting reality, but without that assurance there is little hope for us.

We can reject that idea and see homo sapiens as no more than a primate with a powerful brain that has successfully stored knowledge over millennia, beginning with farming proceeding through literacy into the Internet. But then there is a temptation to retreat into relativist angst and dismiss our idle thoughts.

Most political ideologies, Marxism not least, eschews nihilism and posit a Utopia that we should drive towards, the best acknowledging the word’s origins in Greek as ‘no place’, but an aspiration. For example Village Magazine promotes equality and sustainability as substantial ideals necessarily shifting with the flow of events.

Agreeing on principles is a treacherous business, not least in crooked Ireland. It requires serious engagement over time with a great range of information and disciplines, we might also leave a space for mystery as most Ancient Greek philosophers assuredly did.

It was in that Greece of Antiquity where it seems that ideal and reality – form and content – came into closest balance. Fifth century Athens was not human perfection incarnate, slavery was commonplace and women were not seen as equal to men, but still their achievements are unparalleled in a host of domains, including architecture where an accommodation with Nature appears to have been reached.

In his History of Western Philosophy (1945) Bertrand Russell wrote that: “nothing is so surprising or so difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilization in Greece … What they achieved in art and literature is familiar to everybody, but what they achieved in the purely intellectual realm is even more exceptional.” How to comprehend the virtually simultaneous arrival of science, history and mathematics, the very fundaments of a dominant Western civilisation?

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain McGilchrist in his The Master and his Emissary (2009) proposes that a steep evolution occurred in Ancient Greece when an abrupt collective separation in function between the two hemispheres of the brain – broadly a creative right and rational left – occurred.

To begin with these achieved a beatific balance. But he argues that since our Hellenic heights left-brained rationality has emerged dominant over a creative right hemisphere. Thus we have developed extraordinary technologies but failed to use them wisely, bringing us to the brink of auto-destruction, a process that continues apace in the age of the Internet.

McGilchrist writes that: “The Greeks began the process of standing back; and the beginnings of analytical philosophy, of theorising about the political state, of the development of maps, of the observation of the stars and the ‘objective’ natural world, all may be mediated by the left hemisphere; though the urge to do it at all comes from the right.” He also sees the origins of the individual “as distinct from, as well as bonded to, the community”.
He wrote of this evolution in our minds: “My thesis is that the separation of the hemispheres brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. It made possible a standing outside of the ‘natural’ frame of reference, the common-sense everyday way in which we see the world. In doing so it enabled us to build up that ‘necessary distance’ from the world and from ourselves, achieved originally by the frontal lobes, and gave us insight into things that otherwise we could not have seen, even making it possible for us to form deeper empathic connections with one another and with the world at large. The best example of this is the fascinating rise of drama in the Greek world, in which the thoughts and feelings of ourselves and of others are apparently objectified, and yet returned as our own. A special sort of seeing arises, in which both distance and empathy are crucial.”

However: “separation also sowed the seeds of left-hemisphere isolationism … At this stage in cultural history, the two hemispheres were still working largely together, and so the benefits outweighed by a long way the disadvantages, but the disadvantages became more apparent over time.”

A technological development that McGilchrist relates to the shift was the emergence of money currencies, reigning ascendant by the fourth century BCE. This replaced the reciprocal exchange of gifts which are “not precise, not calculated, not instantaneously enacted or automatically received, not required; the gifts are not themselves substitutable, but unique; and the emphasis is on the value of creating or maintaining a relationship, which is also unique.” Money creates a distance between people that has been growing ever since, especially with the sophistication of modern usury.

McGilchrist argues that metaphor, imagination and reason rather than a remote rationality, which he identifies with Rene Descartes (d. 1650) in particular, should inform our understanding of the world in a powerful thesis that combines scientific insight with acute analysis of the history of Western thought. In my view it only comes a cropper when he advocates preserving vestiges of monarchy over republican government. Assuming the descendants of a warrior cast are suited to being heads of states, symbolically or otherwise, seems abhorrent to reason. However, as I will explore, the democratic alternative is threatened by declining concentration in the era of the Internet; linked to a decline in the reading of serious books.

While acknowledging Plato’s ideas as more poetic than is often assumed, McGilchrist sets him in opposition to the phenomenological view identified with Heraclitus. But I propose that we need to continue to strive for eternal truths, however fleeting that encounter may be. Otherwise we drown.
Can Plato’s Republic that divides mankind into casts of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Copper be recovered from racism and totalitarianism? The literary critic Northrop Frye (d.1991) argued that the state he imagines should be treated allegorically and that the real location of the Republic is in the mind: “the wise man’s mind is a ruthless dictatorship of reason over appetite achieved by the control of will … the real Utopia is an individual goal, of which the disciplined society is an allegory.”

WB Yeats argued “that much of the confusion of modern philosophy … comes from our renouncing the ancient hierarchy of beings from man up to the One.” In part this is based on Yeats’s idea of the revolt of soul against intellect, accessing the creativity of our unconscious thoughts which McGilchrist would identify with right hemisphere function. Out of this duality we might confront the challenges of our time.

It is those who ascend a chain of both intellect and imagination rather than the pure technocrat that should chart our society’s course. Yeats and other poets, beginning with William Blake, have emphasised is the vital force of imagination as a guarantee of freedom in the scientific age.

Paradoxically we live in an age of increasing ignorance when digital ephemera clouds deep awareness. Most human beings blithely ignore warnings of impending doom and the horrendous loss of the natural world and even threats to human survival. We’re in a muddle that may originate in defective thinking. So much of what we consume is unnecessary and vacuous. Advertising charms us into mindless consumption. Appetite dominates will.

Technology was supposed to free us from the constraints of work but the opposite has occurred as new fetters crystallize. The sector concentrates vast financial resources in a few hands. It is left to chance whether the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are suited to shaping the future of humanity. Our liberties in this plutocracy move towards a scenarios which obtained under the Enlightened Despots of the eighteenth century in Europe; with preferences and tastes guided as never before by cunning algorithms.

Before the Internet the last great breakthrough in communication was Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type in about 1450 (for the first time in Europe) which was a necessary precursor to the Renaissance and perhaps democracy. The Canadian critic Northrop Frye identified the book, mass-produced through printing presses, as the “by-product of the art of writing, and the technological instrument that makes democracy a working possibility – avoiding all rhetorical tricks designed to induce hypnosis in an audience, relying on nothing but the inner force and continuity of the argument … Behind the book is the larger social context of a body of written documents to which there is public access, the guarantee of the fairness of that internal debate on which democracy rests.”

The book he says “is not linear: we follow a line while we are reading but the book itself is a stationary visual focus of a community.” This he distinguishes from “the electronic media that increase the amount off linear experience, of things seen and heard that are quickly forgotten. One sees the effects on students: a superficial alertness combined with increased difficulty preserving the intellectual continuity that is the chief characteristic of education.”

Frye wrote this in the 1970s at a time when electronic media meant the television. He would surely despair at our attention spans today which sees most media reduced to pornographic click-bait and dull chatter about sport and celebrities that are “quickly forgotten about”. The crucial distinction between the e-book and the real book is that the former does not provide a “stationary visual focus”. The tangible book offers an ease of access and permits non-linear reading. The Heraclitan torrent of the Internet makes it difficult for us to fix on the kinds of principles that books adumbrate.

Frye also identifies a rejection of history and tradition, an iconoclastic tendency to dismiss the past rather than learn from it, especially in America: “A society with a revolutionary basis, like American society, is often inclined to be impatient of history and tradition. ‘History is bunk’ said Henry Ford, at one end of the social scale: I don’t take no stock in dead people,’ said Huckleberry Finn, at the other. The future, in such a view, cannot be the outcome of the past: it is a brand new future, which may be implicit in the present but is to be built out of the materials of the present by an act of will, which cannot operate until it has been released from the past. The strongly negative mood in today’s radicalism, the tendency to be against rather than for, is consistent with this: whatever is defined is hampering, and only the undefined is free.” Liberation from the grip of dominant, and often illogical, orthodoxies is important but dismissing all that came before leaves us bereft and drowning.

The revolutionary trend that dismisses history and even ideas of objective justice has its origin in the Renaissance which James Joyce wrote: “placed the journalist in the monk’s chair: in other words, it has deposed a sharp, limited and formal mind in order to hand the sceptre to a mentality that is facile and wide-ranging … a mentality that is restless and somewhat amorphous … Untiring creative power, heated, strong passion, the intense desire to see and feel, unfettered and prolix curiosity have, after three centuries, degenerated into frenetic sensationalism. Indeed one might say of modern man that he has an epidermis rather than a soul. The sensory power of his organism has developed enormously, but it has developed to the detriment of his spiritual faculty. We lack moral sense and perhaps also strength of imagination … we are avid for details. For this reason our literary jargon speaks of nothing else than local colour, atmosphere, atavism: whence the restless search for what is new and strange, the accumulation of details that have been observed and read, the parading of the common culture.”

But Joyce did identify one important redeeming feature: “If the Renaissance did nothing else, it did much in creating within ourselves and our art a sense of pity for every being that lives and hopes and dies and deludes itself. In this at least we excel the ancients: in this the popular journalist is greater than the theologian.”

Here again we encounter a conflict between the respective legacies of Plato and Heraclitus. The Platonic ideal, dear to the medieval mind, does not have the flexibility to observe the stream, instead staring towards an a priori and unchanging heavenly sphere. This was washed away in the current of the Renaissance. But the purely Heraclitan mind that has reached its apotheosis with the Internet just goes with the flow and shrugs its shoulders at the absurdity of it all; emoticons substituting for words and selfies for bildungsroman.

Analysing the origins of the mob that support Trump is a precarious and prolix exercise but loss of attention span is surely a significant factor. The modern human is a bewildered creature educated in the use of tools – an infant can work a tablet – but increasingly removed from sustained intellectual engagement or poetic imagination: the province of serious books and enquiring spirituality. Befuddled minds identify with shrill invective and cheap humour, the sweeter harmonies of justice, beauty and truth go unheard, just as the high pitch of the dog whistle is inaccessible to our ears.

Moreover, can we counter the complexity of a financial system serving the interests of those who rule over it? Can we ever enter an equilibrium with Nature?

Individual monetary wealth must be contained within proscribed limits but an innovative society can be served by incentives reliant on a form of objective currency. We need those incentives to develop alternatives to fossil fuels and livestock, and because small businesses harness creativity and the conviviality of trade. The money market is however clearly unsuited to satisfaction of basic needs like homelessness and food poverty. The challenge is to reorder our priorities as educated individuals, and reassert democratically-accountable states over corporations. But as Frye indicates this requires an electorate capable of the intellectual engagement dependent on reading serious books: more philosophers in other words.

The Renaissance extended compassion and empathy which increasingly sees into the natural world, as one can observe in the rise of Veganism in many countries. Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses even opined that unless you eat “weggiebobbles and fruit … the eyes of the cow will pursue you through all eternity.” Yet species loss continues apace, just as we struggle to contain our carbon emissions despite warnings of dire consequences. We need to sustain our engagement with the real injustices we perceive, and avoid the distraction of mindless devotion to sports and celebrity.

A wise society can be realised by reorientation of educational priorities towards the humanities, and its books, and away from an unmediated approach to science, as the former should guide the latter. The human should guide the machine and not become victim to it, as Dr Frankenstein succumbed to his monster. Frye observed perceptively: “The civilisation produced by the automobile, with its network of highways, the blasted deserts of its parking lots, the grid plan of cities, and the human sacrifices offered to it on every holiday, clearly raises the question of who is enslaving whom.”
We need to reassert the creativity and originality of the right hemisphere to guide the rationality of the left hemisphere as McGilchrist proposes. The evolution he observed is not irreversible.

In Greek mythology Prometheus is the fire-bringer who has provided human beings with the power to control Nature and rise above it contrary to the wishes of Zeus who punishes him for eternity. Human have been slashing and burning their way through primordial forests since. It could eventually end in tragedy for us as it has for many species, especially in this the Anthropocene the era of human geological time.

But another light shines too, that is the light of human ideas. We are capable – not necessarily uniquely – of employing reason, this a leap of imagination arising out of a belief in a divine intelligence. We must hope that the generation growing up with the Internet are better placed to remedy its ill-effects than their parents.

Too Much of a Bad Thing

(London Magazine, December 2011)
So many tears have been shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat

The English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.
George Orwell

Type: ‘Haiti’; ‘Dominican Republic’; and ‘border’, into an image search on Google. A split-second-cyber-miracle-later a startling aerial photograph of a portion of the island of Hispaniola shared by those countries appears. The Dominican side is blanketed in verdant forest with occasional yellow patches, but to the east in Haiti green has given way to arid yellow.

The stark contrast reveals the environmental devastation that sugarcane agriculture has wrought, dissolving forests as if enamel from teeth. According to the World Wildlife Fund it has ‘caused a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop’. This is compounded by over-population, a legacy of sugarcane’s labour-intensive agriculture, which leaves Haiti with a mere 1% of forest cover. Next door, the Dominican Republic retains 28%.

By the end of the 18th century Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, was the cash cow of the French Empire, accounting for two-thirds of its overseas trade. A plantation system based on slave-labour brought fantastic wealth to its ruling class: ‘rich as a Creole’ entered popular parlance.

The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 ended that iniquitous system, and former slaves came to power for the first time. But sugarcane’s scars fester on the body politic, as on the landscape, and Haiti was crippled by huge debts from its inception after France compelled its former colony to pay massive compensation to dispossessed plantation owners. Outside interference continued, latterly emanating from the United States. The ills of a system that generated Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoute originate not in the frailty of the Haitian people but the after effects of the insatiable (mainly) European appetite for sugar.

Sugarcane originates in Papua New Guinea but is now cultivated in many tropical countries that enjoy hot and wet conditions. It even reached far-flung Easter Island where archaeologists have discovered the highest incidence of cavities and tooth decay of any known prehistoric people. First processed into solid sugar in India around 350 AD, cultivation and consumption then moved steadily westwards. It is said that sugar followed the Koran.

First treated as a spice it was rarely encountered in Europe prior to 1000 AD, but became a fixture in aristocratic cookery during the Crusades. After the fall of Acre (1291) cultivation moved to Cyprus and soon spread throughout the Mediterranean world.

Desserts were not a feature of medieval banquets with pricey refined sugar used sparingly in otherwise savoury dishes. Only after Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henry II of France in 1533 did the idea of climaxing a meal with a sweet conclusion become de rigeur for the few who could afford it. Most Europeans would not have encountered it prior to the 18th century, but by 1900 it had become a staple, especially in England. According to anthropologist Sidney Mintz: ‘the diet of a whole species was gradually being re-made’.

Colonisation of the New World serviced Europe’s growing addiction. Settlers, beginning with Christopher Columbus, grew it and more than elusive gold, sugarcane offered a real El Dorado. But production was dependent on slavery, a pernicious system that first exhausted and then extinguished the native Arawak population before Africans were resorted to: approximately 13 million endured the murderous indignities of the Atlantic crossing, and of the 11 million that survived 6 million were destined for sugarcane plantations, in which ‘the deadliest form of slavery’ prevailed. In those appalling conditions a new species of racism emerged where Africans, ‘the sons of Ham’, were often treated worse than livestock. The racist language of the plantation survives to the present day, co-opted by successive political movements that relegate fellow-humanity to the status of inferior animals. Eric Williams argues that ‘slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’.

According to Elizabeth Abbot: ‘Whites relied on blacks to produce their sugar, counted them as their biggest capital investment, enslaved and mistreated them, vilified their race, sexually assaulted and fell in love with them, and lived dependent on and surrounded by them.’ The cruelty catalogued in Abbot’s book: Sugar A Bittersweet History, is shocking and its legacy is the continued instability of post-plantation societies. With the demise of most of the French West Indies the British West Indies dominated the market, although countries such as Brazil gained increasing market share in the era of free trade that followed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

The Slave Trade was prohibited in 1807, but full emancipation only arrived in the British Empire in 1833. Slavery on sugarcane plantations endured until 1888 when it was finally stamped out in Brazil. Europeans and Americans continued to consume slave-produced sugarcane until that point. Abolition was the fruition of a long and worthy campaign, but the system that replaced it, indentured labour, involving the transport and virtual incarceration of coolie labourers from India and China, was almost as bad. It has left a further legacy of racial tension in the West Indies and places further afield like Fiji.
Humans have a natural inclination towards sweet food and refined sugar (sucrose) is a pure expression of this. In sweetness our bodies recognise easily-digestible caloric value. But as adults we rarely enjoy food that is purely sweet, usually preferring a balance of tastes. It is important, however, for us to be wary of the bitter taste as this may indicate indigestibility or even poison; a child’s aversion to coffee or beer is quite understandable. Over time most of us acquire a taste for strong-tasting bitter substances, often for the stimulation and even intoxication they impart as much as any nutritional benefit.

According to Sidney Mintz: ‘sweet-tasting substances appear to insinuate themselves more quickly into the preferences of new consumers while bitter substances are “bitter-specific”’. Thus, ‘liking watercress has nothing to do with liking eggplant [aubergine] for instance.’ A sweet tooth is not discerning: the taste of sucrose derived from cane or beet is virtually identical, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has much the same character – witness Coca-Cola’s successful substitution of cheaper HFCS for sucrose in 1984. Trying to substitute the bitter flavour of root beer for bitter cola would be another matter.

The increased sucrose consumption which began at the end of the 18th century at all social levels was predicated on low price but also on a seductive combination with chocolate, coffee, and tea. These bitter drug-foods became cheap and plentiful for Europeans at precisely the same time: the end of the 18th century. Sucrose took the edge off the bitter taste which balanced excessive sweetness. Coffee, tea and chocolate consumption would not have taken off in isolation, but equally sucrose alone would not have had the same appeal.

Mintz says that in England tea ‘triumphed over the other bitter caffeine carriers because it could be used more economically without losing its taste altogether’. In reaction to the heady days of the gin-soaked 18th century the temperance movement lauded it as ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’. For impoverished workers of the Industrial Revolution, tea in combination with sucrose provided calories, as well as stimulation and an enduring social ritual. Mintz argues, persuasively, that cheap sucrose was an important fuel for workers in the Industrial Revolution. Over-worked and under-paid, they now had access to fast food that would get them through the day.

Horrendous slave-labour in the West Indies was providing energy for harsh wage-labour in Britain. Moreover, Eric Williams argues that huge profits generated from sugarcane ‘fertilized the entire productive system of the country’. It also provided jobs directly, manufacturing items required by plantations including iron-collars, handcuffs and shackles, tongue depressors, and ball-and-chains originally designed for medieval torture.

Voltaire’s (d. 1778) dictum that England has 42 religions but only 2 sauces contrasts that society’s piety with its lack of enthusiasm for cooking. Bernard Kaufmann argues that such a hotbed of Puritanism was unusually predisposed to sucrose: ‘religious asceticism is suspicious of anything that is fatty or bloody, but is defenceless against things that are sweet’. At a time when an all-pervading spirit of ‘thou shalt not’ held sway, sucrose, dissolved in water or used to preserve, did not seem a gluttonous indulgence. It could also replace the sweetness of frowned-upon alcohol.

Writing about his countrymen from the vantage of the late 1940s the historian C. R. Fay asserts: ‘Tea which refreshes and quietens, is the natural beverage of a taciturn people, and being easy to prepare it came as a godsend to the world’s worst cooks’. But arguably the very popularity of tea contributed to the decline of English cookery. A pot of tea with sucrose, only commonly accompanied by milk by the start of the twentieth century with the advent of refrigeration, was the urban answer to the cauldron of soup that traditionally sustained rural communities. Its simple preparation, warm re-assurance and even slight suppression of appetite removed the need for hot food in a hard-working society where time was increasingly short. Also, the failure to provide infrastructure to cope with mass urbanization in 19th century England made it necessary to boil water to make it safe until improvements in sanitation arrived in the 1890s. Tea made water potable and palatable.

In many poor urban families an expensive piece of meat was reserved for the male bread-winner while the rest of the family subsisted on sweet tea, ballasted with shop-bought bread and butter or margarine and jam, composed of over 50% sucrose. This under-nourishment of children and babies in utero had long term health consequences. According to Floud et al in The Changing Body, over the course of the 19th century average final heights of men (an important nutritional indicator) in England actually declined slightly from the average at the start of the century (168.6cm to 168.0cm).

Tea, while a diuretic, has some health benefits (particularly if it is green tea) but sucrose is considered nutritionally ‘empty’, apart from as a short-term source of energy. The effects of over-consumption, now defined very conservatively by the NHS in their dietary guidelines as above 10% of daily caloric intake, can be extremely damaging. Henry Hobhouse describes the process: ‘the body becomes used to a feast/famine syndrome in the blood sugar, and this produces an addiction which is chemical, not psychological’. Thus, ‘a vicious circle is created in which the victim becomes hooked on a constant flow of industrial sugar to the bloodstream and cuts down on fibre… as sugar consumption inhibits the production of starch and fibre-converting enzymes’. A preference for less nutritious white bread is coupled with and reinforces a sucrose addiction as the enzymes required to digest whole grains are ‘killed by industrial sugar’. Furthermore, consumption of refined sugar does not trigger the release of the hormone leptin which informs the brain that we are sated. This explains why it is possible to drink highly caloric soft drinks during and after meals without feeling full.

In 1900 sucrose was supplying a whopping near one-fifth of the calories in the English diet, almost double on average the maximum limit recommended today. Despite the virtual end to sustained food shortages, and certainly famines, a series of nutritional surveys conducted among working class families across Britain at that time suggested that not only the urban poor, but also ‘the bulk of the semi-skilled workers, the routine clerical workers, and even those of the skilled artisan class’, were likely to be undernourished. Sucrose was the food of the poor it would seem.

Greater diversity entered the diet after World War I which brought better nutrition (and led to increased average heights and life expectancy) but the English sweet tooth endured. By the 1930s George Orwell still observes an unhealthy addiction in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk – even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and cornflour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters’.

Refinement of sugarbeet into sucrose commenced at the start of the 19th century, especially gaining ground during the Napoleonic Wars when France was denied access to the West Indies. By 1880 beet production nearly equalled that of sugarcane. Although it is not environmentally hazardous, the end product is equally unhealthy. From the late 1970s, especially in America, sucrose was joined by another refined sugar derived from maize: HFCS. Farm subsidies, introduced by Richard Nixon in the 1970s maintain its low price. It is even sweeter than sucrose and has identical harmful effects. Sucrose consumption has not declined in the United States, but HFSC consumption now exceeds it. Consumption is disproportionately high among the poor, many of whom subsist on HFSC-laden fast foods in which it forms an unhealthy trinity with saturated fat and salt. Its use is rising inexorably elsewhere. It was recently calculated that of an estimated 47 billion beverage servings humans consume daily, 1 billion of these are in Coca-Cola.

The success of HFSC can also be attributed to the emergence of nutritional advice in the US and elsewhere in the 1970s promoting ‘low fat’ diets. A product could be advertised as ‘low fat’ but still contain vast quantities of cheap HFCS. Big Food has maintained this nutritional confusion through powerful lobbies.

The consequence of large-scale addiction is the public health crisis of obesity. We may now live longer than ever but our potential to live still longer and in good health is threatened. Refined sugar seems to be the greatest culprit. According to nutritionist Patrick Holford: ‘There is no question in my mind that increased sugar consumption is driving not only obesity and diabetes but heart disease and breast cancer’.

Obesity is the plague of our time with most developed countries converging with the US rate of over 50% of the population. The concomitant rise in type 2 diabetes is afflicting children at increasingly young ages. One wonders why governments, medical professionals, chefs and gastronomes have been so slow to address the issue. A zero-tolerance approach should be adopted that advocates a near-total exclusion of refined sugar in view of its addictive quality. The present NHS guideline seems inadequate. According to Floud et al the ‘evidence suggests that the rise in obesity represents one of the major challenges which needs to be faced if European populations are to build on the advantages which a century of economic and social progress have bequeathed.’

Sweetness can be derived from safe sources in which fibre is present. As Dr. Robert Lustig whose lecture ‘Sugar: the Bitter Truth’ (which has been viewed almost two million times on Youtube) says: ‘When God created the poison he packaged it with the antidote’. Natural sugars are accompanied by fibre. The problem arises when the antidote is removed, i.e. when a plant is refined into a slow-acting poison.

Not only is refined sugar responsible for expanding waistlines and a range of preventable diseases, according to Holford: ‘adolescents consuming sugary drinks become ‘more disruptive and less able to concentrate in school’. A variety of mental health problems have been associated with over-consumption of refined sugar.

Refined sugar has always had its apologists. In 1715 Dr Frederick Slare wrote an encomium to it as a tooth-cleaning powder, a hand lotion, a healing powder for minor wounds and, above all, an essential treat for babies and ‘the ladies’ to whom his treatise was dedicated.

Even the iconic Che Guevara was seduced: ‘The entire economic history of Cuba has demonstrated that no other agricultural activity, would give such returns as those yielded by the cultivation of sugarcane. At the outset of the Revolution many of us were not aware of this basic economic fact because a fetishistic idea connected sugar with our dependence on imperialism and with the misery of the rural areas, without analysing the real causes: the relation to the unequal balance of trade.’ After the fall of its main trading partner the Soviet Union, Cuba discovered the cost of its dependence on that monoculture and has only belatedly turned to mixed agriculture to address its needs. Moreover, the requirements of sugarcane sustain an autocratic mode of agriculture that exacts a terrible price on the natural environment, as well as workers. Finally, the end product is nutritionally empty.

Most surprisingly, Margaret Abbot in the closing chapter of Sugar: A Bittersweet History opines that the successful conversion of sugarcane into biofuel in Brazil has ‘a redemptive quality’ in ‘the narrative of sugar’s story’. Here she departs from the thrust of her argument, perhaps wishing to end on a positive note after telling such a harrowing tale. She disregards her own findings about Brazilian sugarcane agriculture’s continued encroachment on ‘former pastureland and ecologically-sensitive wetlands’, as well as the unequivocal findings of the WWF. The siren-sound of refined sugar has no limit it would seem.

It seems quite appropriate that refined sugar and the motor car in which that biofuel is used should join in an unholy alliance. Both were once the preserve of aristocrats but now access is near universal. As the prevalence of each increases any initial benefits decline: cities become thronged with traffic; and energy-dips, or even hypoglycaemia, occur after refined sugar’s brief high. Mechanized locomotion and instant energy are coiled in a warm, corpulent embrace; 19% of American meals, mostly fast food, are eaten in a car.

(http://inpressbooks.co.uk/products/the-london-magazine-december-2011-january-2012)

Protecting Agriculture from Emissions Targets Will Cost the Wider Economy

(Published in the Sunday Times, November 9, 2014)

In a week when the International Panel on Climate Change said that current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have not been seen in at least 800,000 years the European Council agreed to set no specific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction in the agriculture sector. The move was instigated by the Irish government who persuaded other leaders that agriculture should be given special treatment.
Irish authorities are keenly aware that a startling 32% of Irish emissions emanate from agriculture already. Ambitious targets to expand dairy production outlined in the Harvest 2020 document would be impossible without the deal.
A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report states that emissions from Irish agriculture will increase by 9% between 2012 and 2020. The EPA report asserts: ‘This is predominantly driven by a projected increase in dairy cow numbers of 14% between 2015 and 2020 following the abolition of milk quotas in 2015’.
The proportion of emissions from Irish agriculture is higher than for any other EU state, and second only to New Zealand’s among developed countries. This is because of the dominance of cattle and other ruminants in our farming sector. There are almost seven million cattle in Ireland, and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to crops, fruit and horticulture production.
Livestock are responsible for significant emissions for a variety of reasons including their digestive process, fossil fuel inputs in feedstuffs, and clearance of forests and jungle for grazing and feedstuffs.
Calculating their global impact is a complex exercise. Estimates will depend on criteria used which could include historic loss of forest cover and mitigation strategies.
A 2014 UN report, that leading environmentalists have questioned, estimated that the proportion of emissions emanating from livestock had dropped to 14.5% of total anthropogenic emissions compared to 18% calculated in a 2003 report.
At first glance this suggests livestock emissions have declined by nearly 20%. In reality an increase in emissions from other sectors in the intervening period has masked the livestock sector’s apparent decline of a modest 5%.
At the other end of the scale, a 2009 World Watch report authored by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimates that livestock account for 51% of global emissions.
It might be argued that unlike, for example, air travel all human beings require food, making agriculture untouchable. The Irish government advances the further claim that emissions from Irish livestock tend to be lower than elsewhere, although the intensification envisaged in Harvest 2020 could erode that argument.
This one track, industry-driven approach ignores the value and simplicity of encouraging a dietary shift towards food alternatives with far lower emissions profiles. Essentially this means human beings eating more crops directly as opposed to animals expensively converting grass or grain into flesh.
A 2014 Oxford University study found that an average ‘vegan’ (or ‘plant-based’) diet in the UK had emissions less than a third those of a person on a diet with a heavy share of meat. Considering the near convergence of UK and Irish food supply chains we can assume those figures apply in Ireland too.
A change in the profile of our agricultural production would cost far less than a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Thus, the decision to remove the agricultural sector from the emissions reckoning could harm the wider Irish economy as industry, households and transport sectors will be compelled to bear the entirety of scheduled reductions.
There is an onus on the Irish state to protect marginalized rural communities. But the current arrangement is not even rewarding most farmers. Despite annual subsidies of over €2 billion in direct farm payments, four-fifths of farms actually lose money. Just last week meat packaging plants were blockaded around the country.
Minister Simon Coveney has publicly blamed low European demand for beef on the economic downturn but it could be indicative of a long-term trend as ethical, environmental and health arguments weigh in against meat consumption particularly in more affluent countries.
The global dairy industry has marshaled powerful nutritional arguments that feature in many government’s nutritional recommendations, but nutritional epidemiologists are increasingly questioning their validity. For example the Harvard School of Public Health states on its website: ‘It’s not clear … that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.’
It has become almost axiomatic that Irish agriculture cannot produce anything bar animal products. But our history defies that assessment: only after the Famine did the extensive commodification of cattle for export begin. Today Irish farmers have access to a global seed bank and a warming climate offers prospects for novel crop varieties.
Reducing emissions is arguably this generation’s most significant challenge if we are to believe the assessment of 97% of climate scientists who say that human activity is responsible for climate change and that there will be devastating consequences. It is surely regrettable that any sector should be given a free pass, especially if the food alternatives are healthier and far simpler than implementing reductions in other sectors.
Moreover, there may be a creeping obsolescence in Irish agriculture’s overwhelming focus on producing animal products as opposed to healthy crops for direct human consumption. Irish rural life should be protected but the argument for substantial agricultural reform is compelling.

Interview with Tommy Garnett

(Published in Village Magazine June 2015)

Tommy Garnett is a dual citizen of Ireland and Sierra Leone. He founded the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA) in 1997 while living in Liberia at the end of the first Sierra Leonean civil war. His organisation currently employs twenty staff all of whom are Sierra Leonean. He lives and works in Freetown.

1. What is your background and why did you found the Environmental Foundation for Africa?

I was born in the Kono district in the eastern province of Sierra Leone in the late 1950s at a time when most of the country’s forests were intact. I remember that our house was on the edge of the forest, so I had a forest backyard at the age of 5 or 6, but by the time I was eighteen and going to university that forest was no longer there. In its place were developments, degraded bush and diamond-mining pits that stretched as far as the eye could see. But that memory of the forest of my childhood stuck with me. When the war started in Sierra Leone in 1991 I was living with my family of three young children in London and we started seeing pictures of devastation: the suffering of people and destroyed landscapes. I also knew that mining had been happening for the best part of five decades and it seemed there was no one talking about what would be done to repair this damage. The focus was exclusively on alleviating human suffering. That is why I decided to start an organisation that would focus on the repair of degraded landscapes, protection of forests and education of people about managing both.

2. Why is environmental protection urgent in west Africa?

Much of western Africa lies within what used to be called the Upper Guinea forest belt, which once stretched south through Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Western Togo. Over the last century this has been reduced to less than ten percent of its original cover. Given the inextricable link between forests and the traditions of the people of this region, many cultures and livelihoods are disappearing.

3. What are the main projects you are running?

We have launched a biodiversity and renewable energy learning centre which is intended as a repository of knowledge and experience of over twenty years working in the field. We hope to use this centre as a place for exhibiting representative samples from the eco-systems of our country and wider region, and create enabling-conditions for people to have a heart connection with nature and the forest. Currently the relationship with the forest is narrowly utilitarian. We want people to fall in love with nature! Then its protection is assured.
We also maintain a wildlife sanctuary on Tiwai island where we promote eco-tourism, motivating local communities around the site by delivering alternative livelihoods and raising awareness of the global significance of its biodiversity. We are also offering renewable energy by installing solar panels to local villages. These projects help people understand that they matter and that there is great value in protecting forests.
We are also involved in supporting research, working with Njala university to find answers to some of the burning questions that help people recognise why they should manage natural resources. For example, we are conducting a joint study with Environmental Resource Management Foundation (a part of the ERM consulting group) to establish a link between Ebola and natural resource management.

4. What organisations support your work?

We are supported by the European Union who are funding a solar energy project in 50 communities. Critical Eco-system Partnership Fund based in the US has also provided support over the years. We also work with the JJ Charitable Trust an arm of the Sainsbury Charitable Trust.

5. Have Irish Aid been supportive?

We have not had any relationship with Irish Aids in recent times though they supported me initially as for the first ten years out here I was an Irish volunteer working for APSO. I used to receive a volunteer’s allowance which allowed me to support my young family while I did my work. They also provided bridging support for Tiwai island when we first completed construction of the facilities in 2006: the only means of maintaining the facility.

6. Do you have other means of fund-raising?

At the moment the only means available for us is to draw income from the usage of the learning centre, but it is not easy to raise money as a result of the Ebola crisis. It is not a good climate for doing meaningful environment work. It is very expensive to do business in this context for a local organisation that wants to deliver the highest standards possible. The cost of utilities is very high. In order to have the desired impact, we have to focus on environmental management meaning we constantly have to find ways of fund-raising, and that includes generating resources from our facilities.

7. What are the principle challenges confronting environmental protection in Sierra Leone?

We have a rapidly growing population of which more than 65% are under the age of 35. Very high levels of unemployment: over 70% of the rural population are dependent on the land which brings a lot of environmental degradation. The economy is driven by the extractive sector, mining particularly and lately we are seeing the establishments of large plantations of palm oil, squeezing other activities. There isn’t a proactive approach by the international development partners towards environmental protection. Everything that occurs is in response to obligations. Usually we respond to crises when it comes to addressing environmental challenges. It is sometimes daunting to know where to start: for example waste management is terrible meaning many of the beaches are littered; then there is the degradation of the hill sides due to soil erosion; up country we still have a lot of slash and burn agriculture with no clear plan of action on how to replace or remedy the destruction to nature. The measures taken are so far comparatively minor: the combined efforts are far smaller than the problems.

8. Do the Sierra Leonean government support your work?

Yes, they have been very supportive. Apart from the fact that they support all the organisations through concessions, the government recognises that we are contributing to the national development plan. But given the financial and human resource constraints even the best intentions are insufficient to have lasting impact when it comes to implementing environmental projects which require long time scales. But NGOs and their partners want immediate results. Changing a culture is a slow process, and very few entities allocate enough time and resources.

9. What additional measures should foreign NGOs take when delivering aid to take care of the environment?

The first thing they should do is recognise that we have all contributed and continue to contribute to the problem. Investing in development aid in the agri-sector means that more forests are cleared to grow rice. Building more latrines involves using materials from the bush. Investing in roads and bridges requires cutting down huge swathes of forest. Every agency has contributed to the problem. The second task is to integrate environmental considerations into the planning and implementation of every project. This means close collaboration with both governmental and civil society organisations. Bigger NGOs with greater resources should develop capacities within their institutions so that it isn’t always an external agency that cleans up adverse environmental impacts. Failure to recognise the ecological basis of all investments is like building on sand. What has just happened with Ebola is a classic example. When it struck it wasn’t long before all the systems collapsed. Yet we know that this zoonotic disease came about in part because of the fragmentation and irresponsible use of forest eco-systems. We were very quickly left to the mercy of the international community.

10. Is it difficult to raise environmental awareness among Sierra Leoneans?

I would rather say it is absolutely necessity to raise awareness. The challenge is to maintain consistency and follow words with deeds. This is why there needs to be greater collaboration between all the actors, so that when people are told that something is not right they are shown suitable and sustainable alternatives. This is what happens when an organisation talks about agricultural sustainability, it wouldn’t take long before people would stop burning the forest. We need to look at this as not a threat to incomes but a wise investment for the sustainable foundation on which all development efforts lie.

11. Shouldn’t we always prioritise aid to people as opposed to the environment?

If you see people as different from the environment then maybe. But if you see the people as being part of the environment then you see it’s a necessity. It’s a false economy to support people at the expense of the environment. That is where the whole world is going wrong.

12. Are you hopeful that environmental conditions will improve in Sierra Leone?

I have to be, otherwise I might as well retire and go travelling adding more CO2 to the atmosphere! I am an eternal optimists. I see the innocence of the children and ask myself what they will be doing in twenty years. When I was their age I had so many dreams and aspirations. Since then much of the forest has disappeared. Peace and quiet is hard to come by, the beaches are dirty most of the time. All of the things that make nature beautiful are under threat. It is all important that we work with the younger generation who will inherit what we have now. There is no other option if we are to avoid future catastrophes. If we are to curb future poverty, then we have to look seriously at this.

http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/06/sierra-leone-after-ebola/

Song is Existence

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2015)

In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.
Sean O’Faolain

Donal Dineen recently described this as a ‘golden age’ in Irish music. We might take heart when a DJ of his calibre with knowledge crossing genres and continents makes such a pronouncement. His sets and peripatetic shows reveal a remarkable and unyielding musical engagement; his vocal input merges clarity, wit and pathos even if at times he does wander.

Of course it will be for posterity to judge whether such a description is warranted, or whether Dineen ‘has gone off on one’. Nonetheless it is worth assessing this creative outpouring in our midst, track its merits such as they are and even plot future directions.

Any golden age in music cannot be divorced from the wider socio-economic and cultural context. Musicians are not free floating forms insulated from broader currents. If this is a golden age for Irish music then to some extent it extends to Irish life at large, or at least there’s a cloud with a very silver lining.

On many levels we’ve ‘never had it so good’ in spite of the Celtic Tiger failing a dope test: the country has maintained its population unlike after other historical crises albeit with a diminished standard of living and increased emigration. But the brain drain is not all in one direction. Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in Ireland. In terms of music, there is sufficient wealth for patronage of concerts to continue and a comparatively generous social welfare system (for all except the under-25s) forces few musicians into serious poverty.

Importantly those who have arrived are keen to integrate and a garrulous culture is happy to accommodate outsiders. Ireland doesn’t have the colonial baggage of some of its neighbours and there is little obvious racism.

Of course there is serious inequality, a public health time bomb, far too great a concentration of economic activity in Dublin and an often atrocious attitude to the environment. And yet there is a spirit in Ireland that visitors and even residents remark upon. Strangers actually talk to one another. Distasteful efforts to brand and commodify the Irish welcome does not mask genuine warmth.

In the sphere of music many New Irish are asserting individual creativity and drawing on international influences shaped by appreciative Irish audiences. In jazz and world music, the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, the Italian pianist Francesco Turrissi and half-Sierra-Leonean-half-Irish singer Loah could enjoy a global audience.

Meanwhile traditional forms have been nourished by interactions with foreign styles. The ‘session’ which blurs the boundary between audience and performer thrives, particularly outside Dublin.

Surveying the wider culture we have long been a country on the geographic edge, but also on edge creatively. A unique history in European terms of colonization, suffering what has been defined as the worst famine in human history then emerging at the end of the nineteenth century as a noisy underclass uncomfortably situated near the centre of an empire where the sun never set. An accident of geography gave the Irish population a modern education and substantial equality in the United Kingdom.

Exploring the context of the Irish cultural revival that began at the end of the nineteenth century, the literary historian Joe Cleary identified ‘conjunctures’ or intersections of socio-political and economic forces that generated impressive artistic achievements.

Rather like the profusion of nature at the fault line of two clashing tectonic plates, the meeting of a peasant society with an advanced industrial society generated an embarrassment of cultural riches. The Irish acquired the language of the colonizer but some chose to distort it and question the prevailing Positivism of the period. In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake the English language was subjected to an almost mocking treatment by James Joyce and W.B. Yeats was inspired by peasant lore to a mysticism central to his oeuvre.

Both Joyce and Yeats were also profoundly musical. Yeats in particular developed a remarkable sonorous quality to his verse, quite at odds with the Modernist rejection of form that has transformed much contemporary poetry into a largely academic pre-occupation. This loss of a wider relevance for poetry could have dangerous, dislocating consequences.

In Songlines the travel writer Bruce Chatwin recalls how the Aboriginal population of Australia believe their ancestors sung their land into existence. He writes: ‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’ He concludes that ‘the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organized his social life.’ Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: ‘Gesang ist Dasein,’ meaning ‘song is existence’.

Songs are of course both music and words, but the inspiration for song seems to originate in a different part of the brain to speaking. Fascinatingly, some stroke victims who lose the use of their brain’s left hemisphere can no longer speak but retain a capacity to sing. The right hemisphere is associated with nuance and metaphor which are the lifeblood of poetry.

But when a musician plays her instrument she is largely working from the left hemisphere. This is not surprising considering the mathematical basis of chord progressions and rhythm. To some extent the playing of an instrument is the operation of a noise-making machine which is in the responsibility of the practical left hemisphere.

But when composing the musician enters the domain of the right as symbolic meaning interacts with the relative order of a musical key. A sensitive instrumentalist can also recognise the sentiments expressed in lyrics, echo and embellish them. This coordination of hemispheres helps explain the power of music, especially singing in combination with instruments, to lift us out of our seats.

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain MacGilchrist explains that: ‘both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that that are also maintained separately.’

Religions have long understood the power of songs. Hymns have always occupied an important place in Catholicism and Martin Luther said: ‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was not as naïve as it may seem. Their success arrived at a time when organized religions were in decline and the enduring connection between spiritual devotion and song music gave Beatlemania characteristics of a religious revival, although any movement was forestalled by the egos in the band.

Religious songs take a meditative form quite removed from an exoteric tendency in religions towards legalistic control. It seems that if a religion rejects song that oppressive tendencies become manifest: this is apparent in the austere form of Islam expressed by Wahhabism which forbade the use of musical instruments. The only verse permitted to be sung was the Qu’ran which was learnt by heart. Exponents chant programmatically with little scope for revealing their emotions. Wahhabism informs the ideology of Islamic State and other conservative variants of Political Islam. In contrast Sufism, another branch of Islam, embraces song and poetic expression. Without the symbolic insights of song, religions can become judgmental and absolutist.
Irish Catholicism also took an oppressive turn in the twentieth century. Its music was perfunctory and removed from the common people: the Church enjoying an uneasy relationship with traditional music which tended to be associated with pagan superstitions, including the idea that tunes derived from the faeries.

Fortunately, unlike in England, traditional Irish music survived as a signature of Irishness, and perhaps some of the vitality and warmth apparent in Ireland is drawn from a resilient musical tradition. MacGilchrist writes that music ‘has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of a shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together’.

Of course many forms of music have been popular since independence from the Show Bands to Rock and Roll and even House and Hip Hop today, but the important thing is that music remains in the blood; the Songlines enduring in shifting genres.

Pace Cleary, the decline of the Tiger might be identified as the ‘conjuncture’ out of which emerged the rich stream of musical creativity that Dineen observes. The shock of a renewed acquaintance with poverty after years of mindless consumerism has seen many return to the creative musical well.

But arguably this golden age comes with a significant caveat as much contemporary Irish music is removed from the deep insights of poetry. This might owe something to an enduring discomfort with the English language as a foreign imposition, but also to the excesses of Modernism in poetry. This lacuna creates an imbalance in collective Irish hemispheres.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys who lives in Dublin recently claimed that Ireland is a great place to write songs. Though not Irish by birth he has tapped into the Songlines.

A recent album An Interview with Mr Yeats (2013) is a homage to the poet. It transposes a number of the master poet’s work into song, but the result is perhaps too reverential as the poems are retained in their entirety and not subjected to Scott’s own poetic inspiration evident in other work. Poetry should be recast each generation otherwise it atrophies and a distance emerges between it and our ever-evolving language.

One band that does display a balance between the poetic and the musical is The Loafing Heroes led by an Irish singer-songwriter named Bartholomew Ryan. His words are joined by musical virtuosity from an unusual instrumental array that intensifies the experience of the lyrics. The creativity of the right hemisphere and order of the left are harnessed to powerful effect.

Like many who have drawn from Irish Songlines, Ryan has spent much of his adult life beyond his native shores. Often the greatest insights accumulate from a distance. We just have to observe the legacy of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats all of whom did not live in Ireland for much of their lives yet played a huge role in forging what we pereive as Irishness.

One song ‘Dream of the Celt’ from Ryan’s recent album Crossing the Threshold concerns Roger Casement: ‘A seeker and a poet who sailed from shore / That enigmatic gentleman who lives beyond his name’. Casement was one of the 1916 conspirators and was executed after landing in Kerry in a failed mission to join the Rising. Casement had a genuinely global sensibility exposing the horrific crimes of Leopold in the Congo for which he was knighted. But he was a convinced Irish nationalist and situated that struggle within the wider constellation of his opposition to colonialism.

We find a subtle reference to Yeat’s poetic homage to Casement in the Ryan’s lines: ‘There’s a ghost knocking / there’s a ghost beating down my door.’ Thus the spirits from another age inform our present relationship with what it means to be Irish: The Songlines of the ancestors, or as Ryan puts it in another track, ‘Into the Nothing’: ‘Walk along the songlines and into the heart / Dream the dreamtime and bring us back to the start’.

A golden age of music in Ireland could become a golden age for poetry too. There are great exponents working in Ireland today, many with a playful, irreverent approach to language, but their work tends not to enter the mainstream. If poetry and music draw closer rather than seeing one another as separate domains we might find a more powerful drawing from our Songlines, and a balance of the hemispheres.

The nuanced communication of ideas through wider poetic appreciation might help us contend with the serious challenges of our time. A golden age in both music and poetry could inculcate greater sensitivity to nature and empathy with human suffering. Our great music can make words dance.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/song-is-existence/)

Water, Water Everywhere

(Published in the Sunday Times, 17 January, 2016)

My father tells a story of his visit to a Japanese home in the 1960s where he was given the honour of the first bath. At the end of his ablutions he casually pulled the plug to the consternations of his hosts who meant to use the water after him.

Like any civilized nation the Japanese have long hallowed the ritual of washing. In the 1920s Laurens van der Post observed that ‘in Japanese homes the bathrooms were situated in places of honour with the best view available on to gardens and into nature, and never combined with lavatories as with us, in tucked-away corners in unconsidered and ill-ventilated spaces of our buildings.’

Generating clean water for drinking and washing is the mark of an advanced civilisation. One sees this in the great aqueducts of the Romans. Sanitation measures in many cities from the 1890s helped reduced the prevalence of fatal conditions such as diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery. Creating a stable water supply is arguably the most important function of a state in a world where water supply is increasingly scarce.

It is a terrifying situation that perhaps a billion people live without access to clean water. Revealing also that 85% of the world’s water supply is used in agriculture, much of it to grow crops for animal feed. Even in developed regions such as California water is an increasingly political issue with animal agriculture implicated. Surprisingly the current flooding actually jeopardises the availability of clean water due primarily to run-off of agricultural fertilizers into our reservoirs.

Over the lifetime of the present government the single most emotive issue has been water charges. Suggestions of corruption in Irish Water have justifiably been seized on by protestors. But that does not explain the anger of the Right2Water campaign. There seems to be an assumption that our wet climate offers a near-infinite supply of clean water. On an existential level the aggression of protests might perhaps be traced to annoyance with the Irish weather!

Protestors tend to ignore the very real challenges and costs involved in bringing water to homes and businesses, as well as ecological constraints. Moreover the infrastructure in our cities needs overhauling.

Of course improvements could be realized through direct government expenditure without recourse to what many consider another indirect, stealth tax. But the advantage of imposing a metring system is that it causes people to recognise the limitation of supply. Of course equality issues arise and the company should only cut off supply in extremely rare circumstances. But it might be a mistake to offer untrammelled access to clean water simply because someone is in receipt of social welfare.

We should develop a culture where leaving a tap running comes to be regarded as equivalent to a light being left on with no one in a room, albeit the cost of water is lower than the electricity. Moreover, attention should be paid to the externalised costs of our agricultural ‘success story’ that are paid for further down the line.

In the absence of the demand from the Troika it seems unlikely that any Irish government would have introduced charges in line with European norms. Investment in water infrastructure is for the long haul and its benefit is not immediately apparent. People only start to complain when restrictions are imposed. Improving its usually invisible infrastructure is a decidedly unsexy expenditure despite its delivery being probably a government’s most important task.

As the Irish population becomes stakeholders in the water supply they might start to ask the question of why Ireland is the only country in Europe which fluoridates its water supply, especially in light of a 2012 Harvard study of Chinese districts which revealed a correlation between impaired cognitive development in children and the presence of the substance.

Even if there is countervailing evidence the potential damage is so grave that it seems unacceptable for the present situation to endure. This is particularly pressing with the low rate of breast feeding in Ireland and consequent use of diluted milk formula.

Twice-daily use of fluoridated toothpaste confers the same benefits as medicating our water supply. Perhaps more effort could be made to improve dental hygiene, including flossing of teeth, and to curbing the consumption of sucrose which damages teeth worse than sugars found in whole foods. Just as the absence of water charges is eccentric in a European context, as is the fluoridation of the supply.

Analysts anticipate that water will be the major political issue of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately Right2 Water protestors, and their party political supporters including Sinn Fein, refuse to confront the real cost of bringing water through our taps or the need for a cultural change in how we see water. That is twenty-century thinking that does not recognise ecological constraints.

Of course whole families should not be obliged to share bathwater as was the case when my father visited Japan! But we should recognise access to water as a privilege not enjoyed by a significant minority of humanity. In Ireland the challenge is to change our relationship with water as well as examine what is driving up the cost and how, equitably, this should be born. Water charges should not lead to privatisation: the supply of water requires democratic oversight.

(http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/News/article1656991.ece)

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.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2013/10/veganism-makes-us-human/)