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.

False Signal?

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean
Image via Wikipedia

“My father told me the oceans were limitless, but that was a false signal.”

NYT on collapsing fish stocks in the South Pacific.

In Mackerel’s Plunder, Hints of Epic Fish Collapse

 

Climate Disruption as policy: wisdom or folly?

by Rarbol2004Could it be in China’s interests to ignore climate chance?

According to the Danish ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg:

Climate models show that for at least the rest of this century, China will actually benefit from global warming. Warmer temperatures will boost agricultural production and improve health. The number of lives lost in heatwaves will increase, but the number of deaths saved in winter will grow much more rapidly: warming will have a more dramatic effect on minimum temperatures in winter than on maximum temperatures in summer.
There are few arguments for China and India to commit to carbon caps – and compelling reasons for them to resist pressure to do so.”

Now to say that Lomborg has been accused of playing fast and loose with statistics would be an understatement, so there is no special reason to trust his unreferenced ‘climate models’. However, commentators at the Ecologist Magazine, hardly Lomborg’s best friends, have said more or less the same thing, and added Canada as a potential beneficiary of climate change. So let’s just suppose Chinese, Indian and possibly Russian officials and politicians are indeed thinking along these lines. After all, disruption and change always create opportunities for someone, somewhere. Would it be possible to develop policy on the basis that climate change will substantially alter the balance of environmental blessings between the world’s nations? In other words, could rising temperatures shift competitive advantage to certain nations? Of course it would be possible to develop policy on this basis. But would it be wise? Continue reading “Climate Disruption as policy: wisdom or folly?”

Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming

The director of the UK’s Soil Association, a peak organic farming body, has been in Australia talking about a new agenda for the organic movement.

There’s a chance to hear what Patrick Holden  said on Radio National.

Patrick Holden in Sydney Feb 2009

The   broadcast talk spoke of a ‘Rob Hopkins effect’ – referring to the impact on Holden’s thinking of the originator of the Transition movement – a grassroots push to plan for communities that will be more resilient in the face of the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

Holden’s words are like a primer on the Egalitarian mode of understanding the world. He speaks of major threats to civilisation, of population size as a problem, of a need to change our values, not just our living arrangements. He extols the benefits of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down planning, and of localising the economy.

Towards the end he also speaks of the need for the organic movement to go beyond merely speaking to itself. And this is where the issue lies. How can an almost text-book Egalitarian agenda communicate beyond the self-imposed ghetto of Egalitarianism? Is there a way of talking outside the box of one’s own worldview?

Continue reading “Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming”