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

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.


Science communication and conservative values

image CC via flickr/jeffreypriebe

Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

Warmer is better!

slateworkers. Credit: Slatesite

Well into the Twentieth Century the slate industry of North Wales was the world’s largest. It roofed the buildings of the world and left a huge scar on the beautiful landscape of what is now the Snowdonia National Park. But that’s not all it left. If you visit Yr Amgueddfa Llechi Cymru – the National Slate Museum – outside the village of Llanberis you can tour the old buildings of the slate quarries, including the infirmary. One of the human legacies of the industry was to bequeath workers, especially slate-splitters, with chronic and fatal respiratory illness from breathing in the slate dust created from dressing the raw material and turning it into usable roof slates. In oral accounts you can hear at the museum workers describe how the air in the slate dressing buildings was thick with dust. On the wall of the infirmary is a row of certificates signed by medical doctors. These documents certify that not only is slate dust not the cause of respiratory illness, it is actually promotes good health. If you ever happen to be visiting North Wales, go and have a look.

My forebears worked in the Dinorwic quarries near Llanberis and so there is a family, if not a personal reason to feel a little affronted by the lie perpetrated by people who could have known and almost certainly did know better. The lie they told on the walls of the infirmary and in their supposedly professional diagnoses condemned many, many people to a slow and painful death. Slate dust was not safe. It was obviously not safe. Anyone who worked in it could have known and did know that. And yet profit was to be made by avoiding and denying the obvious.

These days we like to think health and safety has come a long way. In some ways it certainly has. It’s improved a lot since the time my great great uncle fell and was injured on the quarry face, only to be charged by the company for delaying production. But when I look at the climate change denial industry, I realise in truth we’ve barely moved forward. Continue reading “Warmer is better!”

Tempting fate in schools: contrived randomness as educational policy

Australian economist Andrew Leigh has entered into public discussion with Noel Pearson about Aboriginal inequality by proposing that randomised trials should be initiated for those educational innovations supposedly aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged groups. He takes his cue from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who is well known for testing the effectiveness of cash rewards on academic achievement. Provocatively, Leigh has called proponents of the approach ‘the randomistas‘. (You can also hear about randomised education trials).

The rhetoric of the scientific method sounds very sensible. After all, if it works in medicine, why shouldn’t it work in education? Indeed we can go further: since we don’t accept medicine that hasn’t been tested in a randomised trial framework, why should we accept education without similar confirmation of its effectiveness? The point Fryer and now Leigh have been making is that much educational policy is ideologically driven, rather than evidence driven. We need proper evidence and for them, randomisation is the mark of proper evidence.

So is there any downside? Continue reading “Tempting fate in schools: contrived randomness as educational policy”

What kind of duty is called for in Call of Duty?

Games have several important effects. One is that they train us to accept the premise of the game.

If I don’t accept that a knight moves two spaces forwards and one sideways, I simply can’t play chess. If I don’t accept that mass murder is necessary, I simply can’t play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Reflecting on this latter experience, one commentator wrote:

I thought, You don’t have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn’t.

Trying to avoid the endless killing doesn’t work, any more than changing the knight’s move would in chess. And mostly, we just go along with the premise imposed on us by the structure of the game. In games we learn very quickly which rules we shouldn’t bother challenging. In real life, we have far more freedom of action, but we rely on social constructions of the rules of life to tell us which obstacles we shouldn’t even bother trying to overcome. We are like cattle that never even touch the electric fence. Even as we proclaim our freedom, we corral ourselves.

It’s hard to break out of that paddock. But what we can’t yet achieve politically we can sometimes achieve artistically. As soon as I heard about the extraordinary sales figures of the latest Call of Duty game sequel, I thought this is a very suitable subject for artist/provocateur Joseph DeLappe (of ‘Dead in Iraq’, 2006 and the Second Life Salt Satyagraha, 2008). It turns out he’s already been there, with a machinima collaboration named 6 Days in Call of Duty 4, an ironic take on the ill-fated game Six Days in Fallujah. It seems what made Six Days in Fallujah unsellable was that it was regarded as too realistic.  DeLappe and his collaborator Joshua Diltz have taken this idea and used it to test the limits of what is possible in an ‘acceptable’ shoot-em-up game.

Here’s the download page.

6 Days

Update: The Onion has a satirical take on a ‘realistic’ wargame, Call of Duty 3, in which players can opt to complain about cell phone reception and  be redeployed to Germany to repair humvees for 10 hours a day.

Two kinds of tales, one true and one false

More on truth and lies:

‘There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,’ Socrates claims in Plato’s Republic (trans A.D. Lindsay, 1935, London: Dent, p. 376).

‘The depth of consciousness created by the exercise of the arts of deception is the first arena for the practice of that dissimulation proper to the life of human intelligence. The same spirit permeates other expositions, for instance that of Karl Popper, who equates the capacity to lie with the capacity to imagine: the power to imagine other things, to negate, and thereby to create fiction, even hypothesis – and thence to create science’. (John Forrester 1997 Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9)

What, according to Nietszche, the Greeks admired in Odysseus;

‘his capacity for lying, and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose’ (Frederich Nietzsche 1974 The Gay Science, trans Walter Kaufman, New York: Random House, p. 156).

These quotations are to be found in :

Linda Neil (2009) Beautiful lies my father told me. TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real April

Now read: Truth and Lies

The Ethics of Autonomous robots

Further to a recent post about the ethics of autonomous robots, it seems military robots are not the only kind that can kill, allbeit by ‘mistake’. In Japan there are already robots that feed the elderly and baby-sitting robots in shopping centres. So who exactly should be held responsible when they go wrong? It’s an issue that has concerned Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University for a while (he and Ronald Arkin were interviewed for the radio recently), and now the Royal Academy of Engineering has weighed in with a discussion report.

Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal & Ethical Issues, commissioned by the Academy’s Engineering Ethics Working Group, is online at

It’s an interesting read, but it doesn’t begin to ask the kind of questions grid-group cultural theory might…. Continue reading “The Ethics of Autonomous robots”

Beware – Dangerous Robots!

Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project has been thinking about the possible ways of reacting to robots that kill. It’s a relatively new set of technologies, but what happens when AI merges with weaponry to produce robots that want to kill you? He thinks the arguments could go in several ways and I tend to agree.

The ethics of this is already being worked out, with the aim of making robots behave ‘more humanely than humans’. There is a summary.

The title of a key book on the subject points to the potential contradictions:

Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots

Governance is great – as long as we’re the ones in charge

The context in which all this is happening is an Hierarchical one: the so called military-industrial complex. Hence the great significance of the term ‘Governing’. For Hierarchy, governing is exactly the correct response to ‘lethal behavior’ – and this applies to all lethal behaviour, not just that of robots, who in a sense are nothing special. The point is, in the Hierarchical worldview violence is warranted, provided it is clear who is doing the warranting. But lethal robots present something of a problem. What happens if they aren’t programmed to be ‘governed’? Continue reading “Beware – Dangerous Robots!”