Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Sexual Adventures of Fruit Bats and Extending Human Empathy

In a few paragraphs this title will make much more sense, I promise…
The idea of the ‘Empathic Civilisation’ is as grandiose and idyllic as the expression would suggest. It is a global cultural shift, described by Jeremy Rifkin, characterised by the extension of human empathy to every other person and living creature upon the planet, so that this empathy becomes consistent with the profound and far-reaching impacts that our actions have come to bear.
As ambitious as this shift may seem, if it can be realised, it could prove to be a valuable step towards eradicating the daunting array of social and environmental issues that persist throughout the modern world, and facilitating the development of a fair and sustainable global society.
And the essential question is, if we can’t achieve this, does a global civilization have any chance of surviving? Or will it simply implode under the weight of perpetual social and environmental catastrophes, dissolving into detached societies on a scale that we have the capacity to regulate?
Fortunately, despite the overwhelming nature of this transformation, his argument arouses a far greater feeling of optimism (for me at least) than might be expected.
‘Soft wired’ for empathy?
His argument begins with a discovery of modern brain science, namely that humans are ‘soft wired’ to feel empathy for others via the use of ‘mirror neurons’. These are the part of our brains that allow us the capacity to feel the experiences of others as we perceive them in particular situations.
Now this probably doesn’t come as much of a revelation, as most of us have had fairly extensive personal experiences of this feeling, and are fully conscious of it. So the next part of the argument is perhaps more interesting.
He points out that, throughout history, human empathy has already extended dramatically in line with the increasingly connected societies that have been formed. So from its initial confinement to within small tribes in early hunter gatherer groups, empathy then extended along with the development of increasingly complex societies: as theological consciousness developed it came to exist throughout religious groups, and similarly as markets grew it began to extend within the boundaries of the Nation State.
Given this historical context, he argues why stop here? Is it unrealistic to strive for our empathy to extend throughout the human race, or even to all other living creatures?
So back to the fruit bats
It may still not be entirely clear why the sexual adventures of fruit bats are mentioned in the title, so I’ll now try to shed some light upon this.
Some time ago I stumbled upon what must be one of the most entertaining scientific papers in existence, ‘Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs CopulationTime’ (I seriously recommend reading the abstract). I’m pretty unfamiliar with that particular branch of research, to say the least, so I couldn’t put my finger on its intended practical application. However, I think if we have any aspiration to increase our empathy and respect for other living things, it’s hugely valuable to observe in animals anything that is typically considered to be ‘human behaviour’.
Consider dogs, for example. In the UK at least, the animal receiving the largest share of human empathy must surely be dogs, but why is this? I’d conjecture that this is because we are so intimately interwoven with these creatures that we come to recognise within them a wide spectrum of emotions and behaviours that we can relate to ourselves: whether it is joy, misery, excitement or anxiety. Through this experience we perceive them to live a meaningful existence, and hence their lives become something worth respecting.
So what should we make of the discovery that fruit bats engage in a type of sexual deed that we would typically consider to be uniquely human? Is this not a delightful demonstration  of how the means and behaviours that we have developed to satisfy our own needs and desires those things that give us an appetite for life may in fact be mirrored within the lives of countless other living things, however primitive they may seem?  And if this is the case, should we not also recognise the potential capacity of other living things to suffer, and hence develop within us a universal sense of empathy?
Admittedly this would be quite a grand conclusion to draw solely from oral sex in tiny flying mammals, but of course this is not the only relevant evidence.
Selfish and selfless empathy
So the motivations to develop an Empathic Civilisation appear to be twofold. Firstly, if civilisation is to remain as extensive, and as heavily dependent upon the biosphere as it has become, it surely requires a global consciousness and respect for this system. An extension of our empathy to all other living things is perhaps the most effective way of beginning this process. And secondly, in any case, if we can recognise a capacity for joy and suffering laying within other creatures then it should be our duty to respect this, given that it so often comes at such an insignificant cost to ourselves.
So perhaps by extending our empathy throughout the biosphere we can learn to protect it, putting an end to the mass species extinction human activities are currently responsible for, and giving global civilisation a chance of survival. And then, just maybe, one day the humble fruit bat will undergo enough social development for a feminist revolution to emerge, giving future zoologists the opportunity to continue the study of these intriguing creatures and report their observations under the title ‘Cunninlingus by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time’.
I’m certainly going to try to do my small part to help keep this dream alive.
Some final pessimistic thoughts
Of course there are some issues with the idea of the Empathic Civilisation, perhaps the most obvious being the considerable gap between the formation of a globally empathic culture and its practical capability of addressing problems. After all, it’s one thing for me to feel empathy for a malnourished African child in a TV commercial, but knowing exactly what I can do to help alleviate that suffering, or perhaps more importantly, how my lifestyle may contribute to the circumstances that facilitate it, is an entirely different issue. Although in any case, the more genuine empathy I feel for the child’s situation the more determined I will be to seek out some real solutions, rather than simply offering a meagre financial donation.
But there is a more disturbing potential issue that comes to mind. What if within groups or societies be it tribes, religions, or nation states the development of this shared sense of empathy (or at least its magnitude) is dependent upon the recognition of a common ‘other’? A perceptible enemy that is required to affirm the group identity? And if this were to be true, for the Empathic Civilisation, where would this enemy lie if not on earth?

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Meeting Demand, or Meeting Production?

Am I a naive, impractical idealist? It’s a question I often ask myself although I rarely come any closer to an answer. But the events of this week may have helped me see a few things more clearly.
One week ago, climate change activists from the group ‘NoDashForGas’ scaled the cooling towers of a new-build gas fired power station in Nottinghamshire, taking with them a week’s supply of food to sustain them for a long-haul protest on their makeshift, but sophisticated high level campsite.
Why? Partly, because the UK’s plans for numerous new fossil-fuel based power plants will lock us into a dependence upon gas imports (the prices of which are both volatile and increasing), and also for the obvious reason that the plans are a huge blow to reducing the UK’s green house gas emissions. Instead, the protesters claim we should be supporting the growth of sustainable renewable technologies, which a decade or so from now are forecasted to become cheaper than gas anyway.
The protest comes at a crucial time, given the feeble attempts to mitigate climate change in most of the industrialised world, despite (for example) increasing droughts and crop failures already hitting the developing world and accelerating ice melt at the pole. The woefully inadequate attention given to climate change is perhaps most outrageous in the USA where, for the first time in two decades, it has been completely absent from the pre-election debates, even in the midst of massive crop failures and ‘super’ storms occurring in their own back-yard.
But despite all these facts, scrolling through comments on the NoDashForGas facebook page (or those on the Guardian reports) reveals an onslaught of critical and often judgemental responses, substantially diluting the encouragement from their supporters.
Predictably, many critics dismiss the protest without much engagement of their brains. They simply throw some sort of generic insult in the activists’ direction, accompanied with the constructive advice of  ‘Get a job!’, based upon a groundless assumption that they currently lack paid work.
But the more thoughtful arguments are perhaps more disheartening, as they demonstrate the absolute condition that so often preside over energy debates: that demand must be met, at any cost. In effect, we’re allowing our extravagant energy demand to preside over the human rights of millions of people in the developing world, who are set to absorb almost the entire hit of climate change related impacts: droughts, floods, famines and numerous other crises.
Likely future impacts of man-made climate change estimated by the IPCC (2007)

Once these facts are digested, the hideous nature of “meeting demand at any cost” is revealed. It’s an argument akin to a serial rapist saying "OK, I realise what I do isn’t good, but it could take me years to find a girlfriend that will let me treat her like that, so until then, how else do you expect me to get my fix?"
Surely, instead of debating upon how we can meet our energy demand, the humanitarian approach would be to deploy renewables to their maximum potential, and then decide how best we can bring our energy demand down to meet sustainable production. Essentially, rather than meeting energy demand, we should be meeting energy production. This is more akin to setting out for a night out on the town hoping to get lucky, but not getting too disappointed if things don’t work out. Under no circumstances should we be committing horrific crimes if we find no mutually consented way to get our kicks.
Unfortunately, the unhumanitarian structure of this argument is all too familiar. It mirrors that which typically arises when any change to more sustainable behaviour is proposed, such as eating less meat and dairy, or travelling overland rather than flying. In these cases too, a spoilt sense of entitlement raises its ugly head.
But figuring out how this attitude can be changed seems, to me, to be hugely problematic. My attempts typically consist of trying to raise awareness amongst individuals in the hope that they may begin to connect their behaviour with its distant impacts, in the same way I have been encouraged to do so myself by others.
However, the situation imposes upon us by society continuously pushes our attitudes in the opposite direction. Politicians tell us how much we’re entitled to and promise us they will bring us what we deserve to secure their votes, and the advertisements we’re relentlessly exposed to not only encourage us to consume more but embed within us a sense that this is the customary way to behave. Therefore, if it is these structures in society that are the problem, should bringing these down perhaps be the focus rather than encouraging individual behavioural change? I certainly don’t know the answer to that.
So back to my original question, am I a naive, impractical idealist? Considering this last week, I guess my current answer is both yes and no:
No, because I would never expect that war, famine, disease, rape, murder and exploitation etc. could be eliminated, but I see no reason why exploitation on the scale of nations, whose populations are mostly too distant from their impacts to really appreciate them, should exist. I can’t accept that an absentmindedly exploitative society is normal, and that a generally fair and respectful society is a utopian dream.
Yes, because given the concentration of power and social control currently exercised in the West, our doctrine of economic growth that magnifies our individual and collective selfishness, and the shear complexity of the forms of exploitation that have developed, the radical change we need eliminate this nation-scale exploitation may well be an impractical ideal.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Capitalism on the Rebound

If you’ve been through a tough break up, there is a chance that ‘going on the rebound’ will do you wonders. It may be the perfect remedy for regaining self-confidence, eliminating unwanted anxiety, and forming some sort of base to start enjoying life again.
On the other hand, this could prove to be a hazardous and volatile method of therapy: it may bring out the worst in you, there’s a very real possibility it could do you far more harm than good, and whatever benefits may come of it could probably be gained by other means anyway. And to compound these issues, the impact you may have on those caught up in your self-involved behaviour may be rather harmful, perhaps even exploitative. You may just begin to break a few too many hearts.
Whether it works out for you or not, what’s for certain is that as a long-term strategy this behaviour is disastrous. Play around like this for too long and any increase in emotional wellbeing that may initially have occurred will begin to plateau, perhaps even begin to decline, while the casualties of broken hearts continue to pile up.
Now if you haven’t guessed already, I’m not, in fact, a proficient relationship counsellor (and I’m not even speaking from much experience…). So my simplistic psychological analysis may be a little off the mark. Nevertheless, this thinking has led me to wonder whether this behaviour (and the likely consequences) offers a surprisingly accurate metaphor for those of global capitalism (at least in its current form) and the drive for economic growth. I should probably try to explain what I mean…
First of all, it’s clear that this capitalism has, in many parts of the world brought around some huge benefits. In the Western world, we generally have secure food supplies, good access to healthcare, and a decent amount of leisure time relative to one or two centuries ago (or much of the developing world in the present day). More recently, the opening up to free trade and kick starting of industrial production has brought similar levels of wealth to countries like Singapore and South Korea.
On the flipside to the economic progress we’ve made is that it’s certainly not brought out the best in us. This relentless pursuit of growth has locked us into the on-going practice of exploiting the people and resources of less developed countries, while within our own countries an uncomfortable, unnatural culture has emerged with individualism and materialism at its core. And on top of this we can’t possibly know if there was a way we could have achieved our prosperity without these adverse effects.
These undesirable side effects of capitalism are where the parallels with risky post-break-up behaviour start to become more clear.
Equally worrying is the fact that in many countries capitalist economic programmes, often in the form of ‘shock therapy’, haven’t worked out at all as planned (for example in Chile, Russia, and Iraq post-Saddam; see Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’). Even when on paper these programmes achieve the economic growth they were aiming for, all too frequently the wealth ends up concentrated in the hands of an opportunistic few, and it shows little sign of it trickling down to those at the bottom who are at the heart of the problem.
So again these hazards resemble those of post-break-up rebounding, which may too either fail entirely as a strategy, or succeed only in satisfying a select few body parts (not including the heart).
Moving back to those parts of the world where the outcomes of capitalism have been more positive, in these countries we are now in a fantastic position to live prosperous lives, but the usefulness of economic growth in increasing our happiness has surely ceased. In another words, once people’s basic nutritional and health needs are met and sufficient leisure time obtained, capitalism seems to have little to offer us: instead it serves only to perpetuate the exploitation of people and planet and accelerate the deterioration of society.
Overall it seems that, although both capitalism and post-break-up rebound may well bring some benefits, they are risky, volatile, inevitably exploitative, and hopeless in the long-term.
The graph shown below (from ‘Prosperity without growth’ by the UK Sustainable Development Commission) gives empirical evidence of the initial, but subsequently diminishing benefits of economic growth. It can be seen, for example, that there are countries with half the GDP per capita of the USA whose people are equally happy, and that generally once a country reaches a certain level of wealth any additional growth has a negligible effect upon peoples happiness. In fact, arguably, the eternal sense of dissatisfaction required to drive consumption and maintain growth eventually leads to a decline in life satisfaction.

Yet increases in GDP invariably lead to increases in resource use and pollution emissions, which in turn leads to increasing exploitation as more powerful countries feed on the cheap labour and natural resources of those less well off, and millions (perhaps billions) of lives are disrupted by the environmental damage caused by this resource use.
May be my drawing parallels between post break-up behaviour and economic institutions is worthless, but the motives for scrapping the doctrine of economic growth seem flawless, even though putting this into practice is a truly daunting task. And in any case, environmental constraints will force us to abandon this doctrine eventually anyway, which begs the obvious question ‘what the hell are we waiting for?
Unfortunately, metaphorically speaking, most of civilisation seems to have become dangerously addicted to sleeping around, rather than searching for a stable life partner.

See ‘Development Economics’, at MRUniversity.com’ for a discussion of many of the arguments revolving around the various approaches to tackling poverty with economic programmes (albeit, with a bias towards free-trade and privatisation, and in my opinion far too little discussion of environmental limits).
In contrast, ‘Prosperity without growth’ by the UK Sustainable Development Commission is focused on our urgent need to drop the doctrine of growth.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Rational Russian

She’s been referred to as the “Goddess of the Market”, but the ‘Goddess of selfishness’ would be an equally appropriate title for Ayn Rand: and one I’m sure she would be perfectly content with.
Rand’s ideas, and her philosophy of “objectivism”, have strongly influenced conservative politics and economics, and hordes of fans – often in powerful positions, such as Alan Greenspan, Margret Thatcher, and Paul Ryan; who, if the Republicans have their way, is set to be the next US vice president. Her final novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has even been voted the second most influential book ever written in one survey, behind only the bible.
I recently made it through the controversial book myself, and it certainly warrants at least one blog post. But instead of writing a standard book review I thought I’d write an ‘objectivists manifesto’, which includes various direct quotes and hopefully summarises many of the books ideas. At the same, I’ve attempted to integrate my thoughts on her ideas.

The Objectivist Manifesto

The foundations
At the core of the objectivism philosophy is the idea that one’s life should be guided only by the rational, objective perception of the mind, and the rational desires of the individual. To this end, the laws of the ‘mystics of spirit’ and the ‘mystics of muscle’ should be rejected, and all sacrificial or altruistic behaviours abolished. Thus, we must reject these external shackles and recognise the absolute of existence. We must accept that each Man is an end within himself, and therefore that the only morality is to live in pursuit of our own happiness, guided by our own rational minds, with productive achievement as our noblest activity.
Rejecting the mystics
The mystics of spirit –those purveyors of religion and faith– demand from us the surrender of our minds to their mystical beliefs, guided from another dimension. Some preach this to us openly, without fear, proclaiming that our original sin was to eat from the “tree of knowledge” – that act of acquiring knowledge and a rational mind. Thus the sin of which these mystics speak was simply that of no longer fully surrendering the mind to them.
And the mystics of muscle –those who demand from us continual sacrifice for the good of an invisible, undefined society and the welfare of an unspecified public– they too demand that we sacrifice our minds to them, so that we may be tools in their quest for the ‘greater good’. But the essence of their plan, the pure evil that underlies it, is that reward should be based upon need rather than ability, with the justification they proclaim to be noble: that through this the “greatest good for the greatest number” can be achieved. In reality, their only wish is to exploit the virtues of the ‘men of mind’ and redistribute their wealth amongst the undeserved, lazy savage cannibals that are the poor.
Thus, these mystics, in all their forms, must be renounced from the mind.
Rejecting altruism
Altruism and self-sacrifice –the behaviour which provides the human flesh upon which the cannibalistic mystics of muscle rely– must also be rejected in its entirety. The moral code of the altruist demands that you offer your respect, wealth, and love to all other men as your duty, and the less they deserve these offerings, the higher the value of your moral sacrifice.
But there can be no causeless wealth or causeless love. And when any other man is allowed to make a claim upon your life, wealth is transformed to need, happiness to duty and self-esteem decays to self-denial.
True morality and the ego
With these mystics rejected, we must recognise that existence exists, and that each man exists within the absolute of existence as an end within himself. Thus, the only moral way to live is to confidently obey the rational perceptions of our own minds above that of all others, and guiltlessly elevate our desires above the needs of all others.
For this life to be led, the ego must be embraced in full.
The productive, rational being
In order to live life as rational beings, we must adhere to this morality. We must allow our rational perception to guide us though life, remembering that there are always two sides to every issue; one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.
The irrational men that have surrendered their minds to the mystics should no longer be considered to be human. But the machines, metals and railroads that came into existence because of those heroic men who have lived the moral life; who have shaped the earth and its materials with their minds, continually answering every question of right or wrong, true or false; these machines, metals and railroads are an extension of those man who built them. They are more human than all those men who have sacrificed their capacity for reason.
Productiveness we hold as our noblest activity; our primary means of acquiring happiness. We will remake the earth in the image of our selfish, egotistic values. And, although we believe each man is an end within himself, we will extend ourselves invasively into the environment upon which all others depend for their prosperity.
Most importantly, we must endeavour to make the following promise to ourselves:
I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
Thank the lord for the free market
The only way that this individual freedom and our rigid form of individualistic happiness can be obtained is through the system of laissez-faire Capitalism. This allows every man the chance to flourish by exercising his mind through continual material production, and the selling of his goods through free-trade and voluntary exchange; a system which alleviates physical force as a means of obtaining property and goods.
With their persecution of the rich and productive, all other socialist ideals are fundamentally evil, and lead inevitably to corruption. But we must have faith that our political ideology –even though with its reliance upon human greed it is the most precarious of them all – will not become corrupted and violent itself.
Furthermore, we must blank-out the fact that, even in theory, our ideology is flawed by the unavoidable juncture that is encountered when everyone’s material needs are met; the point at which no rational person will continue to consume, while for us slowing our orgy of material production and accumulation of wealth is not an option. We must not acknowledge that we rely upon a supply of irrational people to feed upon our excessive production and generate our wealth, nullifying the possibility that a world of rational beings could ever exist, and rendering our already erroneous argument that ‘there is no conflict of interest between rational men’ an irrelevant ideal. But fortunately we need not worry about this juncture, as we can easily maintain a pool of irrational people by implanting and nurturing foolish, materialistic desires in the minds of the masses.
So we must proclaim the benefits of the deregulated Capitalist system to the world: the freedoms it brings and the industrial and technological progress that will be achieved by allowing our limitless human potential to be maximised. Only through this system will advanced technologies and industries be continually replaced by those more efficient and more powerful, leading to increases in the quality of human life everywhere. Although, these benefits may not be felt by everyone for some time, and they must be measured by the indices we choose.
Finally, we must be certain not to apply this same logic to Capitalism itself: we must stress that at the moment we believe it to be the best system that has been developed, and hence it must not be meddled with, even though it may in fact be possible that it could easily be exceeded or progressed.
Our rational self-destruction
So we, the objectivists must lead the world in a linear unquestioned goal of material progress. We will be like a flock of birds, flying not in formation and unity, but in bitter competition with one another to reach ever higher heights in our single-minded pursuit. Even those who do not share our vision of happiness will have no choice but to join us in this flight, as it continues defiantly upwards, until eventually the strongest and most arrogant of us lead the flock into thin air, devoid of oxygen: one of the gifts of the natural world which we have taken for granted; omitted entirely from our philosophy; dismissed as an externality of our rationality.
But we have little cause for worry, as when the flock breaches the limits of the environment, when we all grow weak from the thin air and fall from the sky, it will be us, the rational beings, that led the rest into danger, who will have the greatest chance of recovering before we hit the earth. The only casualties will be those that we dragged, unwilling, into this self-destructive pursuit.

A final note...To those that know me, and have perhaps not read Atlas Shrugged, it may seem from this post that I've lost much of my sanity. While there may be an element of truth in this there is no cause for panic, as in general, anything cruel and cold hearted in the above is Rand, while anything sarcastic or otherwise is me.
If you have been pondering reading the book, then perhaps this post will help in the decision, as it gives an indication of Rands rather psychotic character and aggressive condemnation of all things altruistic or egalitarian: over a thousand pages of this is quite difficult to stomach.
If you do however decide you’d like to read the full book, then you can find a copy at my local Oxfam shop, where, in a defiant act of pure evil, I will be gladly parting ways from mine.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why We Are All Secretly Vegans

Almost every one of us is a vegan lying dormant. I’m sure of it. And if you hear me out over the next few paragraphs I’ll explain why.
The argument begins with the fact that there are very often some serious misconceptions about why people choose not to eat meat or any other animal based products. All too often omnivores tend to think that vegetarians and vegans are dreamy hippies or who think it’s fundamentally wrong to exploit living creatures or militant activist that want to enforce their morals upon you.
Clearly, it’s true that many of the vegan’s amongst us have chosen to consume in this way for the perfectly legitimate reason they don’t wish to play any part in the unnecessary exploitation of animals in any form. It’s also true that some vegetarians and vegans can on occasion be too aggressive in their condemnation of omnivores.
However, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to care enough about the suffering of animals to do away with certain foods, when for many of us the eating of animal products has become a deeply ingrained habit and something to derive satisfaction from. After all, although not in itself a justification for eating animals, meat may have been a part of the human diet many generations before ours (albeit not in the excessive, obscenely unhealthy quantities currently consumed in the West.)
But the methods by which we have come to raise animals for our use have developed to be staggeringly unnatural and they have an abundance of socially and environmentally destructive side effects. Consequently, there are numerous reasons for cutting out, or cutting down on the quantities of animal based products from our diets that have little to do with animal rights but instead rely upon morals and beliefs that are shared almost universally.
Some beliefs that I think (or at least hope) that the majority of us on this planet share are that we shouldn’t compromise other peoples access to an adequate supply of food and clean water, we shouldn’t forcefully remove people from their native lands, and we shouldn’t damage and pollute the environment others live in so that it becomes hazardous to their health. In addition, it seems only fair that future generations should be able to live free of these injustices too.
Unfortunately however, nearly a billion people around the world are currently malnourished [1], over a billion don’t have access to clean water [2], and it’s been suggested that 40% of deaths worldwide may be attributed to environmental pollution [3]. And as our excessive demand for highly processed foods, electronics, and everything in between spirals aimlessly and mindlessly upwards, these numbers are set to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult to satisfy the basic needs of the planets rapidly growing population.
It turns out that the high meat and dairy diets we’ve become accustomed to play a central part in all of these issues. In fact, in our complex, entangled world food system, even eating British beef can exacerbate poverty on the other side of the world.

Avoiding meat is as much about respecting people as it is about respecting animals
We can begin to understand why this is the case by considering some simple numbers:
·         It takes 10 kg of feedstock (cereals, grains and beans etc) and 15,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef [4,5]
·         According to the United Nations, globally, a third of land suitable for growing crops is devoted to growing these feedstocks and 8% of fresh water available to humans is sucked up by livestock [4]
·         In fact, livestock grazing and the growing of animal feed is spread across 30% of the entire land area of the planet [4]
The result of this extensive, inefficient system is that while 1 billion people around the world starve, enough human-edible food to feed over 4 billion people is instead fed to livestock [6]. In return we get only a fraction of the original amount of food in meat and dairy form, and I mean we: most of this meat is consumed in the industrialized world where our per-person consumption of meat and dairy is over twice the world average [4, 7].
And to make matters worse, in South America the expansion of soy plantations to provide the world (particularly the EU which imports a third of Brazilian Soya [8]) with animal feedstock has had a devastating effect upon local communities who are often forcibly removed from their homes, poisoned with agricultural chemical runoff and conscripted into slave labour (children and adults alike) [8, 9]. Even if they escape these fates, it’s quite likely that the local environment that provides them with their food will be destroyed [8, 9].
Then there is the role of meat and dairy products in climate change: livestock is responsible for nearly a fifth of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions [5]; more than the entire transport sector. And it’s well known that the first and hardest hit casualties of global warming are the poor, who are the least able to prepare for increasingly chaotic weather events, or secure adequate supplies of food and water under crop failures and prolonged droughts [10].
With all this considered, it’s quite clear that reducing our intake of meat and dairy is a hugely effective way of reducing our personal contributions to poverty [11, 12].

Those crazy vegans
The strange thing is that vegans and vegetarians are very often assumed to have some alien set of values, even though so many of the reasons advocating veganism are about respect for the basic rights of other people. Consequently they’re often accused of being all self-righteous about these alien values and of forcing them upon others.
But clearly it’s not really about forcing these values on others at all: It’s about informing them of the impacts of their behaviour, which they may not be aware of, so that they can see that these actions may in fact be at odds with the values that they already hold.
In this sense, spreading the word about the benefits of veganism isn’t at all like missionary’s trying to expand the faith in their God, as that involves persuading people to embrace new values and beliefs. Rather, imagine you are sitting with some friends in the pub and one of them sits down and starts accidently drinking a drink that’s not theirs but that actually belongs to someone sat at the table next to them, you’d probably tell them, as if they were aware they were stealing they’d probably stop. Very often, spreading the word about veganism is exactly like this.
Yet it seems as if being vegan or vegetarian is seen as some genre of personality, identifiable by a specific manner of thinking and set of values. It’s as if being vegan is being this person, while omnivores may simply be any one of the countless other types of human personalities that exist.
Consequently, rather than the dietary choices of a vegan being what defines them, it’s as if this diet is just an artefact of the personality that they are alleged to have.
Well in this case, if the values that can underpin much of veganism are simply the consequence of a manner of thinking which involves caring about the basic needs of other people, isn’t practically every omnivore, whether they know it or not, actually a vegan, that as yet is either unaware or in denial of the facts?

[3] Ecology of Increasing Diseases: Population Growth and Environmental Degradation (see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070813162438.html)
[4] Livestock’s Long Shadow, http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
[6] United Nations; The Environmental Food Crisis, http://www.unep.org/pdf/FoodCrisis_lores.pdf
[7] www.worldmapper.org Meat Consumed
[8] Friends of the Earth, What’s Feeding Our Food? http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/briefings
[10] IPCC Fifth Assessment Report; AR4 - Climate Change 2007

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Four Angry Relatives and a Funeral

Recently I attended the funeral of a relative who, although close to me in a genetic sense, was more distant from me emotionally than the owner of my local corner shop. This lack of any connection between us meant that I got little from the event in an emotional sense, but in the aftermath I was profoundly affected in a way I didn’t foresee, which was far from the intention of the ceremony. Hand in hand with this came a valuable lesson in the damage that can be caused by adhering to a rigid moral code.

It had been years, may be decades since I had seen this relative prior to his death, so I knew almost nothing about him first hand. Most of what I now know I learnt the day of the funeral from conversations with other relatives and from the occasion itself.

The funeral itself was unremarkable. His personality was honoured by the Christian Minister who described the uncountable moments of humour and joy he brought to those around him before praising his commitment to his chosen profession in motoring journalism and public relations through which “he made his unique contribution to the world, which only he could have made.”

However, what I learnt of him from other relatives before the ceremony contrasted greatly with this image.

It turns out that he’d left his immediate family to deal with his debts including a (quite elderly) mother, and also abandoned his wife and daughter and in the process of leaving the country failed to pay the child maintenance money he owed them. And the level of contact I’d had with him over the past years seems to have been typical even for those much closer to him.

So for the first time that I can remember, I had a picture of his identity painted in my mind. The result of this was that for me the event felt utterly surreal. Moreover, I would hazard a guess that for many of the others in the audience —which included a number of the relatives involved in the incidents mentioned above— the picture they had of him in their minds and the image of him that the words said at the ceremony fought to create were in just as stark a contrast as they were for me.

Later that day my bewilderment began to subside as I realised that for me the account of his life given in the ceremony only gave rise to confusion, while for others it caused pain. This filled me with anger, as I imagined the resentment I would have felt, had I been in his daughter’s position, for having to listen to a celebration of his dedication to his career and extravagant cars, while the part this may have played in his abandoning of her was left unspoken: buried in the dishonest atmosphere of the funeral.

I was distressed and confused. Why, when so many of the people present were aware of the harm it could cause, either to themselves or to others, did this situation occur and was in fact even planned in this way? Unfortunately, it seems we were abiding by the rigid morality of respecting the dead: even though in this case it resulted in upsetting many of those still living. For those who could foresee the distress that the ceremony may cause them, had they not wanted to attend this moral code will have compelled them to regardless. The same morality then forbade the verbalising of anything that could be perceived to taint the memory of him, but had so little consideration for the living they allowed him to inflict a final stab of pain to those he’d already hurt.

Now I’m not saying I know best how this situation should have been dealt with. Maybe there was no better way for it to be done. But the morality that was followed seemed only to exacerbate the situation and its rigidity only hindered any objective discussion about how the least harm could be caused to those whom may be vulnerable. And quite strangely, even though it seems he made choices in his life that would be strongly condemned by the teachings of the Bible, in death these appeared to be forgotten. So maybe one way the ceremony could have been made less harmful is if more forgiveness had been exercised rather than forgetfulness. Instead, I came away with the feeling that had I been at a funeral following these same principles but instead for a man well known for having a chain of secretive affairs behind his partner’s back, then he would have been celebrated for his womanising skills in front of his widow.

I see this experience as a valuable lesson in the unfavourable consequences that can result from following a rigid and potentially outdated moral code. To explain what I mean by outdated, consider that in our current society it’s become increasingly acceptable and indeed common to devotedly pursue one’s own individual goals and desires, whereas historically one was expected by society to focus more on the best interests of the family. Perhaps as a consequence of this transition, the breakdown of marriages and families seems to be increasingly familiar. However, strangely, society's moral code still dictates that when someone dies, relatives - estranged or not - should attend their funeral, show respect and pay tribute to their life. In this way the code seems to remain unchanged, in a sense not ‘keeping up’ with cultural developments."

And the more I think about it, there must be countless other situations where we apply rigid, potentially outdated, moral codes.

Extending Morality through Space and Time

One example of a morality we hold that I think should be questioned is our tendencies to let the immediate life around us dominate our moral judgement. I believe that it’s important to update this morality now that we’ve grown to be capable to be affecting our planet so profoundly in ways that reach far through space and time and which many future generations will have to deal with. There should be no excuses made as we are well aware of the capabilities we hold and their possible consequences.

Forced population control is a subject where the implications of this morality are highly relevant. In the UK for example, where we each consume far more than our fair share of the world’s resources which is almost guaranteed to be detrimental to future generations, people are still paid more money to have more children, in honour of this basic human right. In stark contrast to this, the severe rules implemented in China to control their hazardous levels of population growth shatter our established morality.

Unfortunately, a vast number of social issues that have arisen in China have been attributed to these policies, and consequently they have been repeatedly criticised. But consider this thought experiment:

If a person were driving along a reasonably fast road and suddenly saw a young girl who looked to be about to wander directly into their path, if they were to swerve in an attempt to avoid her, crashing and severely injuring their passengers, should the driver be condemned? And should this verdict change if the girl did not in fact walk out into the road, or if it was proven that an emergency stop would have been sufficient?

From the little I’ve read, China’s policies seem to be excessive, and the reaction of the driver in the above scenario may have proved to be, too. But in the UK it’s as if we’ve just shut our eyes and kept our foot on the gas, and as we’re abiding by an established morality we receive little criticism for this. I’d guess that the optimum solutions for population control in both the UK and China, and around the world, probably lie somewhere between these extreme, opposing strategies.

If optimum solutions to the growing number of issues in the world are to be reached I believe we need to constantly question the basis of our established moral codes. The development of our societies, almost globally, in the past century or so has occurred at an astonishing pace, and hence we need to recognise that our morality needs to keep up. Moreover, it needs to be increasingly considerate of long term prosperity rather than short term comfort.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Cheating and Consumerism: Well at least I Haven’t Murdered Anyone, Right?

What’s your ‘personal fudge factor’? Whatever it is you’re probably happy with it, otherwise you’d instinctively make it smaller. At least, this is my interpretation of the behavioural trait which Dan Ariely suggested following his experiments on dishonesty.

The ‘personal fudge factor’ is the term he uses to refer to the little bit of cheating that we allow ourselves to commit, or the limit that we impose on our dishonesty in order for us to still be able to look in the mirror and feel like a good person. Furthermore, it seems we can be quite devious with our means of rationalising immoral behaviour so that it slips ‘under the radar’, i.e. our own radar, and we can retain a positive perception of ourselves.

Unfortunately however, this behaviour can become dangerous, as when a large number of people are engaged in a potentially harmful activity then the cumulative effect of all these little bits of cheating and dishonesty can be highly destructive.

So there is an obvious question to be asked: why do we allow ourselves these ‘fudge factors’ at all? Is it part of our nature, a product of some aspect of our culture, or a combination of both?
First, it’s possible to examine this question from an evolutionary perspective by considering the following quote made famous by David Wilson and Edward Wilson:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.

In other words, on the one hand it’s advantageous for people to cooperate and behave altruistically within their group as it makes the group stronger, but it’s often of individual benefit (at least in an immediate sense) to behave selfishly. As a result of this —and whether you believe in group selection or not (see Steven Pinker’s essay for compelling arguments against the theory)— groups containing too many people behaving too selfishly become weakened, and at risk of dying out, unless altruistic behaviour and cooperation can be increased.

Clearly however, this mechanism is faced with some problems in the hugely complex interwoven society we now live in. In particular, the breakdown of strong communities in much of the West makes it very difficult to define one’s own group. This is summarised well by Jonathan Haidt, who likens us to lost, confused bees frantically buzzing around trying to find our hive. Left in the aftermath of this cultural shift appears to be an overwhelmingly individualistic society, and it seems to me that we are now in a situation where ‘selfishness beats altruism, and groups rarely exist.’ In this case is it at all surprising that we allow ourselves to cheat a little to get out ahead?

On the other hand, a more encouraging outcome of this connectedness of the world’s population is that a vast number of us appear to consider the whole of humanity, or even all sentient beings, as our ‘group’. The existence of charities for global development and animal welfare offer strong evidence for this.

So if this is the case, why do we still consider the little bits of immorality and dishonesty in our behaviour —i.e. our personal fudge factors— to be acceptable when they accumulate to cause such extensive harm in the world?

Clearly there are a number of explanations for this, such as the separation of our behaviour from its impacts in both space and time, and our knack for ‘moral self licensing’ (see my first post). But could there be other aspects of our culture that act as catalysts for our personal fudge factors?
I’m going to suggest one potential factor that I think maybe of some significance here, namely the media.

Take the Daily Mail Online as an example: on any given day of the week the front page will be overflowing with reports of murder, rape, and corruption, and a general message that all the world’s problems are due to these few villains scattered around the globe. Manmade Climate change seems to be perhaps the only example of a major issue for which the mainstream media regularly tells us that we’re all partially responsible for (although the Daily Mail don’t join in with this as they have their own way of interpreting the science).

This focus on major crimes gives a highly unbalanced view of the world, potentially shifting our moral frame of reference allowing us to more easily excuse our own seemingly insignificant sins.
After all, surely if we can look into our computers and televisions and see murderers, rapists, and other villains blamed for most of the world’s problems this makes it easier for us to look into the mirror and feel good about ourselves, even if we do knowingly play our small parts in an exploitative society? 

Now this may not be a proper real world example, but in contrast to the view painted by the media, Dan Ariely’s researchers found that the cumulative impact of the large number of people who permitted themselves a small, limited amount of cheating was far greater than the impact of the very few ‘bad apples’ they encountered in their sample groups of people, i.e. the 0.6% of people who they observed to cheat as much as the test allowed.

It seems to me that if we want to regard the whole of humanity (or even all sentient beings) as our ‘group’ —and I desperately hope that we do— then we need to recognise that the cumulative effect of all our little bits of cheating and immorality can very often cause more destruction than the acts of the few ‘villains’. If we can’t succeed in this then the world may well be preserved in its tragically unjust social state, and on its course of environmental destruction.

Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely, The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance
David Wilson and Edward Wilson. Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology