Eating less meat?

In Ghent, Belgium, every Thursday is officially Veggie Day

“Our thinking has created problems which cannot be solved by that same level of thinking,”

(Attributed to Albert Einstein in Leonard D. Goodstein and J. William Pfeiffer, eds, The 1985 Annual: Developing Human Resources, Issue 14 New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 185)

What you think about why I don’t eat meat is culturally conditioned.

I stopped eating meat when I was 18 and for many years was a vegetarian. Over the last few years I’ve also been eating seafood about once a week on average.

Why? Many vegetarians forswear the flesh because they are concerned about animal welfare. They are right to be concerned, in my opinion. But that’s not my own motivation. The chief reason for limiting the meat in my diet is that it’s an inefficient method of producing food. Many crops are grown specifically to feed meat livestock such as beef cattle and pigs when they could have gone to feed humans directly. Sure meat is tasty, but then so is a lot of food. And I don’t think the inefficiency is worth it. According to a recent article in Nature, ‘Solutions for a Cultivated Planet’, by converting animal-feed farming to human-feed farming, up to 50% more food could be grown. In a world with a strongly growing population, this figure is significant and may well be a matter of life and death.

“Shifting more crop production toward food use could potentially add about 50% more calories to the global food supply.”

More at http://storymaps.esri.com/stories/feedingtheworld/

All this is just the preamble to what I want to talk about. This post is not about me, it’s about you. I wrote the words above to get you to feel something. How did you feel when you read my reasons for eating a low meat diet? Did you nod sagely, stroke your chin and reflect how wonderful it is that at least some people in this crazy world have the good sense to care about others? Or did you frown slightly, try to skip sentences and contemplate how tasty a good steak is and how you’ll stop eating it when you’re good and dead and not a day sooner?

How you responded doesn’t just depend on your own personal eating habits, of course. It also depends on your theory of change. You might well agree about the need to change farming practices to feed a growing population, but disagree strongly on the effectiveness of individuals changing their diet in a piecemeal way. So the cultural conditioning of your views on my diet is a two-stage process. First, your take on the evidence itself is culturally conditioned. You may actually disagree that farming practices need to be changed, or you may disregard the evidence altogether. Second, your take on the appropriate response is also and separately culturally conditioned. In each stage, there are four possible approaches, corresponding to the four cultural solidarties or worldviews identified by Cultural Theory.

To illustrate, vegetarianism is a classic response to the cultural understanding that the world has limited (possibly declining) resources. On this general view we need to be careful, eke it out, act frugally and share what we have. So cutting out the meat is a very clear and simple cultural marker. Egalitarianism disproportionately favours vegetarians. That’s the first stage, the stage relating to the evidence, the facts of the matter. Egalitarians are hyper-sensitive to empirical evidence that we’re about to run out of resources. The second stage is all about the theory of change that goes along with this view. Read any Egalitarian tract you care to mention and the last paragraph or the last chapter will seek to answer the question ‘so what should we do about all this doom and gloom?’ The answer – the Egalitarian answer – is nearly always the same: we need a collective change of heart. Tinkering about the edges of the problem won’t fix anything in the long term. Instead we need to change the human soul, specifically in order to recognise that ‘we are all one’.

But does the solution – culturally speaking – always have to fit the problem?

In the case of meat consumption, Egalitarian institutions tend to assume the only workable strategy is a kind of voluntary mass-conversion to something like vegetarianism, (or at least meat-free Mondays Thursdays). The issue is cast in moralizing terms to drive home the point.

“Cultural Theory starts by assuming that a culture is a system of persons holding one another mutually accountable. A person tries to live at some level of being held accountable which is bearable and which matches the level at which that person wants to hold others accountable.”
(Mary Douglas, ‘Risk as a Forensic Resource’, in Edward J. Burger, ed., Risk. University of Michigan Press, 1990:10)

But why do we have to have only an Egalitarian solution to an Egalitarian problem? Isn’t the solution space much bigger than this? This unexamined matching of the solution to the problem is widespread and goes far beyond Egalitarianism. The same worldview that selected the problem in the first place tends also to prescribe certain kinds of solution and to proscribe certain other kinds. Each cultural solidarity has its own special version of that much-parodied car bumper sticker: ‘The answer is Jesus – now what’s the problem?’

Looked at this way it’s possible to see that while there might be only four kinds of problem, there are actually sixteen kinds of solution; or that while there are only four kinds of solution, these can solve sixteen types of problem. Most of these are culturally disallowed, but there is no reason why they should not at least be entertained. For example, an Individualist response to the issue of meat consumption might be to promote vegetarian dining as a high status, exclusive activity, in sharp contrast to the lentils and sandals image of Egalitarian vegetarians. A Hierarchical approach might be to deprecate personal preferences and make changes that affect large numbers of people simultaneously – for example by subsidising certain types of farming or land use while taxing others.

 “Often the best ways to solve environmental problems are invisible and not available to the consumer in the supermarket aisle. We can tax or regulate offending activities, such as fertilizer runoff or the bad treatment of animals. But we cannot always tell how much environmental evil any given foodstuff contains.” (Tyler Cowen, reviewing  Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006)

The upshot is that since we are culturally conditioned to pair certain types of problem with certain types of solution we fail to see beyond the horizons of our own cultural biases. In many situations it’s pretty hard to see further than this but Cultural Theory offers tools for doing so and it provides a framework for innovating solutions to otherwise intractable problems. My own residual Egalitarianism leads me to assume that there is a great value in modelling social change at a personal level, to be, as Gandhi put it, the change you want to see in the world. Cultural Theory helps remind me that a) others may well find this unbearably smug and b) there may be other ways of doing it.

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