You are currently only viewing entries by the user Carl Turner.

To view the other authors active here, click here, or to go back to view all items, click here.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Vegetarianism: Part 2, Practical and Environmental Concerns

A tentative exploration of some motivations for vegetarianism # Permalink C Comment

*Please Note* This is as yet unmoderated, and un-proof-read document. Feel free to point out omissions. Thank you. It continues from Vegetarianism, Part 1: History.

The main motivations (or justifications) for switching to a vegetarian diet can be classified as follows:

  • Practical
  • Environmental
  • Health
  • Ethical
    • Religious grounds
    • Non-religious grounds

I shall now discuss each of these categories separately, attempting to draw on real evidence, and to present arguments, counter-arguments and so on, as to the viability and tenability of the associated positions where there is any dispute.

Practical Concerns

The two main practical issues with meat-eating relate to cost and availability. These are both highly geographically and temporally dependant factors. Both of these seem likely to have contributed significantly to the sharp rise in Western meat consumption over the past five to six centuries. The capitalist model has ensured a continuingly growing supply of meat at falling prices (giving rise to a large subset of animal-rights ethical objections, as welfare cutbacks to improve efficiency are clearly necessary without major scientific breakthroughs). It is clear that this rise was driven by the association of meat with positive aspects of life (wealth, health and so on), so it is possible that, had there not been the initial lack of availability of meat except to the upper classes, contemporary meat consumption might have been greater.

Many fairly irrelevant associations can be seen today influencing the younger generation’s choice of food, and may be justifiably attributed to medieval attitudes regarding meat’s importance as a symbol of authority, wealth and ‘manliness’ (watch some burger adverts if you don’t believe me), and the naïve assumption that meat ‘is’ food. (Etymologically speaking, this is actually correct – the Old English mete meant food, as opposed to drink, and derives from the Proto-Indo-European mat or met, meaning measure – hence ‘meter’.)

This latter prejudice, derived partly from the practical issue of availability of a suitably varied vegetarian diet in the West – the shortage of nutrients, minerals and protein now recognised as a serious issue with uneducated vegetarianism by all doctors – and partly from religious and cultural assumptions about the role of meat, and is still present today. Comparatively rarely do non-vegetarian customers in restaurants order ‘vegetarian options’, which are often separated, instead choosing a meal which is centred on the choice of meat (beef, lamb, chicken…) and which frequently has a large quantity of whatever meat it contains.

However, it is generally the case that vegetarian meals are cheaper and easier to prepare. This influences both the choice of people, and organizations which feed people (‘soup kitchens’ and similar organizations often serve soups and salads with no meat, for instance.)

Also, it is evident that restaurant prices can influence people eating out – even if the vegetarian submenu is limited, the meals are often at least a third cheaper.

The issue of limited availability of vegetarian options is mentioned above. It is important to note the importance of fairly rare (regionally speaking) foodstuffs or vitamin supplements to vegetarian diets, if they are to have healthiness similar to omnivorous diets (which are generally less regionally dependent, since meat producing animals provide much of the required human intake of vitamins, minerals and so on, but can themselves live on a vast variety of landscapes – an issue particularly to poor and isolated communities in areas with large amounts of human-indigestible vegetation.) In the case of vitamin B12, including compounds like cyanocobalamin, scientific research has actually concluded that, based on current knowledge [1] [2] [3] [4], uncontaminated plant sources cannot reliably provide sufficient levels for full health, leading to supplements being taken by many vegetarians (intriguingly, the sources for other herbivorous animals are often, for example, plants which are infested with insects, whilst vegetarian humans in recent history have often got B12 by consuming contaminated plants – where faecal contamination is not uncommon.)

There are also practical objections to ‘unconditional’ vegetarianism. The two most serious issues cited pertain independently to the two different worlds of highly connected economies, and poor disconnected and isolated regions.

The more attractive of these arguments is the latter, due to its strong emotional appeal (as opposed to the former, which is of a type resented by most economical cynics). The central thesis is that many communities cannot, for geographical, financial and logistical reasons, subsist on a vegetarian diet. Obvious examples are many African communities living mainly off quite arid land surrounding their homes. In such locations, the human body is generally not sufficiently efficient to live on an herbivorous diet; grazing animals generally have to process the local, human-indigestible plant life first. Elsewhere around the world, we find a large portion of available plant life to be inappropriate for human consumption, and people with little access to other crops or supplements therefore generally find it difficult to avoid eating some flesh.

This objection is, of itself, of no direct consequence to individual dietary/lifestyle decisions in the West. However, these societies help firstly to illustrate the historical, and current, impracticability of ethics taking an immediate driving seat everywhere. It is clear that this argument is in no way an attempt to dissuade people from adopting a vegetarian diet, or from attempting to dissuade others from eating meat – rather, it is a way of putting into perspective our current conception of meat consumption.

The other concern, more relevant in modern societies, but less appealing to people arguing in revolutionary and ideological terms, is based on the fact that the large amount of industry relying directly and indirectly on meat consumption supports a substantial portion of the economy. Concerns about unemployment are sometimes cited as a serious problem with a world lacking a meat production sub-economy. Farmers in area with poor soil or inappropriate environment for crop growth – including insufficiently large areas of fertile land to make crop growth profitable – are of immediate concern, whilst the whole butchery industry, and a large chunk of the food preparation industries, would cease to exist.

Obviously, there is no suggestion (from any educated, thoughtful omnivore) that since an instant removal of all meat industries would create an almighty employment vacuum, the gradual change of dietary habits is unacceptable. The argument is that the interconnectedness of the economy surrounding food production means that any shrinkage, even gradual, would bring about a loss of confidence in quite a large sector. Also, the vast swathes of agricultural economy which currently rely on meat production could feasibly fail, in the worst case scenario (which can fairly readily be argued to be highly unlikely).

A common, and immediately obvious, refutation of this argument is that the loss of meat farming and processing industries would be compensated for by growth in industries in synthetic ‘meat’ synthesis, and other supplementary techniques. However, in response to this, it is relatively easy to see that this new industry would not be so reliant on large agricultural economic systems, but rather on small-scale, high-tech farming systems. For example, the well known British meat ‘analogue’ ‘Quorn’ is a mycoprotein, meaning it is a processed version of an edible fungus that is high in protein content. Specifically, the soil mould Fusarium venenatum is grown in massive fermentation tanks, being fed on glucose sugar; non-essential minerals and vitamins are added to improve its nutritional value. Of course, other meat substitutes are derived more or less directly from plant products (seitan from wheat, tofu from soybeans and so on) – but omnivores can simply point out that this doesn’t necessarily help people in the meat industry living in places where they cannot start growing the appropriate crops (whether in rich, densely populated regions, or poor, arid regions). The surviving remnants of this objection are therefore mainly the justified claims that (many of) the jobs in processing would not be lost, but rather transferred to meat substitute management. It is, however, difficult to see the role of what are traditionally, and (currently) by necessity and choice, meat farming and exporting cultures, in the absence of interest in their products. Without what seem currently to be radical changes in the support of poor communities and possibly irrigation of land and similar initiatives, it seems likely that many areas would suffer.

Another important objection attacks the economic soundness of the argument, and the assumptions leading to the summary at the end of the previous paragraph. Historically, shifts in emphasis within industries have been commonplace, and cultures and societies have ‘moved with the times’. This has never been without casualties – the specialists, and the skilled manual labourers (and the unskilled, in the case of mechanization) – but it is widely, if reluctantly, perceived as part of the natural journey of industry. Mostly, of course, these decisions have been highly beneficial to the industry, and society at large because of this – however, it is also clear that these decisions have mainly been made precisely because they were expected to be beneficial (whether to avoid a systemic problem, or to massively improve efficiency or quality). It is questionable whether a much more controversial and more ethically motivated shift or reform in industry would necessarily be of any gain. Nonetheless, though, this argument definitely holds water. Industries die out regularly, and unemployment figures tend to stabilise at a point of equilibrium which is not particularly harmful. If such a shift is considered worthwhile, then it seems likely that our economy, at least, would recover even with the meat industry forced to gradually shed workers due to levels of demand falling out of the operational parameters of the natural supply and demand model of economics.

Whether poor areas would be able to cope with the bottom falling out of the meat (and associated product) export market is a different matter, but perhaps also an irrelevant one. Vegetarians could feasibly argue for a system whereby it is encouraged that meat producing regions feed poorer areas – maybe even are subsidized to do so – whilst financial and scientific aid is given to the former to help them convert to a more ethical/sustainable/suitable system, if that is even necessary. Places which rely on producing food for animals being grown for meat would have to be treated similarly. It seems likely, however, that richer countries would have to compensate somehow for the reduction in cash flow which would inevitably ensue, but that this would prevent any serious repercussions for these vulnerable and economically sensitive groups.

Some statistics which it is interesting to know are that the livestock industry as a whole (these statistics are from a piece on grazing generally, not just for meat production, but they may be of some interest anyway) accounts for 40% of all agricultural produce, and employs around 1.3bn people, very nearly 20% of the world population. This clearly includes many animals not grown for meat, but it is nonetheless a very impressive statistic. The livestock sector is also the fastest growing agricultural sector.

Finding ways to increasing meat prices is occasionally suggested by meat eaters (and less hard-line vegetarians) as a practical compromise, or as an intermediate first step, to trying to eliminate meat from diets. One idea is that by finding areas such as animal treatment and welfare, and forcing all companies – especially large corporations – in meat farming to meet substantially increased standards of animal welfare (see the section on ethics) far beyond the simple exclusion of what are currently termed battery animals etc., and all companies importing meat to demonstrate that it meets some equivalent standards. Apart from obviously improving the treatment of the creatures, the hope is that increased costs would encourage people to eat less meat, helping to deal with the other issues associated with meat consumption such as carbon dioxide emissions. Clearly, such an approach would have opposition from many people used to low meat costs, but many people consider the current situation unsustainable, for reasons outlined below.

Environmental Concerns

The association of vegetarianism with ‘green’ environmental causes stems partly, as seen in the first half of this two-part blog, from historical associations of personality and moral views.

However, the environmental issues behind vegetarianism provide some of the clearest and most readily documentable arguments for its adoption. There are many ways in which (capitalist, mass-production-scale) meat production and consumption affect the environment detrimentally. The diversity of issues in fact warrants the subdivision of environmental concerns into subcategories:

  • Land use and degradation (leading to loss of habitat, biodiversity, forestry – causing climate change – and resources)
  • Water use
  • Air, water and land pollution

It is important to note, before we begin disseminating information on these topics, that vegetarianism can also have significant problems with relation to some of the above issues, and that meat production can benefit the environment in certain situations.

Land Use and Degradation

There are two main reasons for meat production claiming large areas of land, corresponding roughly to the division between factory and free-range animal farming.

The first issue is that of the land required to provide food for meat-bearing animals, especially those in factory farms, since they do not graze on the land they occupy. It is well known (even historically) that the consumption of mass-produced meat gives a very poor efficiency ratio, in the sense that only a low percentage of the energy the animals take in from their diets is passed on to the human ‘predator’.

This is generally true for the phenomenon of ‘secondary’ energy absorption from plants – for poultry and beef, the ratio of energy input to protein output varies from 4:1 to 54:1 (poultry is generally the most efficiently produced meat, followed by turkey, whilst lamb and beef are the least). 1996 China, according to one report working in the ‘grain equivalent’ of a diet, showed that a vegetarian diet ‘costs’ 3 times less grain than a typical affluent diet, although the food energy intake of the affluent diet is only 15% greater than the vegetarian’s, who get over twice the plant protein.  The US Department of Agriculture reports that growing crops for farm animals occupies 80% of the country’s agricultural land – animals raised for food there consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn and 70% of its grain. 33% of the world’s arable land is used to produce feed for livestock. There is a clear argument for the view that this land – and/or crop – could be put to better use.

David Pimentel, a scientist from Cornell University said, over 11 years ago, that

If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.

According to his report, Americans provided for by only grass-fed livestock would continue to exceed the RDA of both meat and dairy protein

Land set aside as grazing for creatures, for any reason, is also recognized as being in some ways irresponsible, as it contributes noticeably to desertification and also corresponds to lower biodiversity in most cases – areas devoted to animal agriculture overall represent 30% of the world’s surface, and 70% of arable land.

These concerns are far from imaginary; Pimentel also says that, in 1997, 90% of US ‘cropland’ is losing soil at 13 times the sustainable rate; fertile Iowa loses topsoil at 30 times the rate of soil formation – it has used half its topsoil in around 150 years of farming, but this quantity of soil takes thousands of years to form.

These topics are concerning in a time of unstable climate, especially when a massive percentage of Amazonian forests have been converted for use as pasture and for growing feed crops – 70% of former forests there are now used for grazing.

Removing forests which are helping to reabsorb carbon is not necessarily the best of ideas, especially when we consider that the global livestock sector itself is responsible for around 18% of our CO2 equivalent emissions, more than transport (mainly because it produces such potent gases: only 9% of our carbon dioxide, but 65% of nitrous oxide – mostly from manure – and 37% of our methane).

This sort of scale of problem is only compounded when we look at projected figures for meat and animal product consumption. Global meat production was forecasted (2 years ago) to more than double between 2001 and 2050, from 228m to 465m tonnes. Similarly, milk output was expected to increase from 580m to 1043m tonnes.

It is hoped that these issues can be controlled by environmental tactics such as soil conservation, and silvopastoralism in the world of forestry, the more careful location of livestock et al, and further increases in efficiency of feeding and breeding systems, but this seems a sticking plaster on a bloated system.

However, obtaining meat is not necessarily always a problem for the environment. One small note is that small-scale hunting of wild animals helps keep populations in check in some circumstances; where natural predators and dangers do not limit a population, such practices can be necessary for the well-being of the wider ecosystem (should someone do this to us?!)

Also, it has been documented, particularly in studies of the rapidly developing China, that ‘integrated’ food production systems which feed unusable organic material from farm and restaurant waste to robust animals, such as pigs, can actually increase the energy efficiency of the system.

This backs up the suggestion that massively cutting down on meat consumption around the world (especially in high-intake countries such as the US, which has an average meat consumption around 40 times that of Bangladesh) and returning to grass-fed pastures, and waste-fed animals, at the expense of factory farming, would greatly improve the environmental footprint of meat consumption.

However, the capitalist market can be expected to continue to exploit the natural world until regulation, necessity or demand forces companies to stop.

Yet it remains important to check any enthusiasm for dropping local meat production in favour of importing cereals and other crops – it is notable that air transport, refrigeration and freezing, and various horticultural techniques and practices can drive up the fossil fuel cost of vegetarian diets in some cases, past the point of locally sourced organic meat.

Also, the global farming community’s reliance on fossil fuels means that plant- growers may also find it difficult to reach sustainable levels of production (even though they generally use 8 times less fossil fuels than for equivalent amounts of animal protein.)

Water Use

Another concern is the prodigious rate at which one of our most valuable natural resources is used. The concept of ‘virtual water’ describes this, so that since 1kg of grain and hay requires around 1000 litres of water, based on the approximation that each kilo of beef takes 100kg of hay and 4kg grain to produce, around 100,000 litres of virtual water are required to produce a single kilogram of beef.

Comparison of water requirements for animal and plant protein show a factor of around 26 times more for meat in areas with sufficient rainfall not to need much irrigation, or around 4.4 where intensive irrigation is required.

Also, overgrazing tends to disturb the natural water cycle by reducing the replenishment of water resources, both surface and buried.

Air, Water and Land Pollution

We have already discussed greenhouse emissions briefly, and so omit them here. Also, since most of the pollutant effects are due to the production of feed crops, they are not immediately relevant (except in so far as a feed crop is produced more cheaply and hence hazardously than crops intended directly for human consumption.)

The remaining serious pollutant agents are really consequences of animals’ waste and treatment. Animal waste itself will readily penetrate into the water system, but so will hormones and antibiotics from large herds. Chemicals from associated industries like tanneries have a lesser input.

The main consequences of these pollutants entering the water system, apart from the obvious problems of contaminated water, include eutrophication of water bodies and coral reef degeneration – both of these have a large impact on biodiversity. In the South China Sea, it is also estimated that livestock are the central source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination, which also impacts negatively on marine diversity. Generally, the presence of livestock and man-made environmental changes tend to affect habitats; the growth of feed crops has a similar effect.

(More to come...)

Posted by carl at 05:00

Filed under: Culture

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Something Hilarious at Something Awful

AOL Search Log Bonanza of 2006 # Permalink C Comment
You've gotta read this Something Awful page, linked from XKCD.

Posted by carl at 05:00

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Vegetarianism: Part 1, History

Regurgitating untested viewpoints for all to dump on. # Permalink C Comment

Well well well. Here we are again, about to embark on another mostly aimless tangent.

I feel I should begin with historical background, in light of my recent Romanticism/Age of Enlightenment divergence. Browsing the internet quickly takes one back a long way.

Ancient to Medieval History

In the West, we look back to the Greeks:

You ask me for what reason Pythagoras abstained from eating the flesh of brutes? for my part I am astonished to think what appetite first induced man to taste of a dead carcase or what motive could suggest the notion of nourishing himself with the loathsome flesh of dead animals ~ Plutarch

This is one of many vegetarian views expounded by philosophers of this period and region. (The Greek á¼€ποχá½´ ἐμψύχων, which literally translates as... well, not much. Something like "abstention of the spirited" - the latter word is a form of the verb to inspirit, but often means 'human', revealing the emotions behind the term.)

Indeed, vegetarianism is traditionally one of the many indicators used to indicate non-violence, cross-species egalitarianism or distinction from main-stream attitudes (typically, in meat-eating societies, it has generally been a trait either of 'principled' individuals, or societies or groups with a particular identity to preserve.) It is also associated, historically speaking, with radicalism, and rebellion against established culture.

Intruigingly, the objections generally cited by Western ancients as the initialy motivation are frequently that meat restricts mental or physical abilities or metempsychosis (human souls being attached to animals). I find this interesting, since although - as is certainly to be expceted - the debate rapidly turned to ethical considerations about life, the philosophers either considered this less important, or were reluctant to mention it as their guiding motive.

Christian history is by far the most immediately relevant recent religious movement with a substantial voice in Europe. Paul's letter (epistle) to the Romans contains the following quote:

One man hath faith to eat all things: but he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth set at nought him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. (Romans 14:2-3)

It is striking that Romans 14 contains such a stongly worded rejection of Christian-ethics-motivated vegetarianism, but even more striking are Paul's words to the Corinthians in his first epistle:

Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” (1 Corinthians 10:25-28)

Throughout the middle ages, the world of monks and religious devotees is generally considered to have contained little ethically motivated avoidance of slaughter. In the 1300s, papal statutes attempted to deny monks free access to meat, but this had little effect - in 1339, the Pope basically conceded. Two of the most highly influential saints (with respect to the medieval period and later), Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, in fact are seen to stress the absence of any obligation of humans to look after animals.

Meat was, of course, considered a massive luxury during the middle ages - this is possibly one of the reasons the church proper also turned towards it, since they generally attempted to put on public displays of their wealth and power. The following is a description of a feast of incredible proportions:

The amount of food consumed during these feasts, which might continue over a number of days, was enormous. When, in September 1465, the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York was celebrated at Cawood Castle to demonstrate the riches and power of his family, 28 peers, 59 knights, 10 abbots, 7 bishops, numerous lawyers, clergy, esquires and ladies, together with their attendants and servants arrived at the castle. Counting the archbishop's own family and servants there were about 2500 to be fed at each meal. They consumed 4000 pigeons and 4000 crays, 2000 chickens, 204 cranes, 104 peacocks, 100 dozen quails, 400 swans, 400 herons, 113 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 608 pikes and bream, 12 porpoises and seals, 1000 sheep, 304 calves, 2000 pigs, 1000 capons, 400 plovers, 200 dozen of the birds called "rees", 4000 mallards and teals, 204 kids, 204 bitterns, 200 pheasants, 500 partridges, 400 woodcocks, 100 curlews, 1000 egrets, over 500 stags, bucks and roes, 4000 cold and 1500 hot venison pies, 4000 dishes of jelly, 4000 baked tarts, 2000 hot custards with a proportionate quantity of bread, sugared delicacies and cakes. 300 tuns of ale were drunk, and 100 tuns of wine, a tun containing 252 gallons according to the usual reckoning. There must have been well over 60 pints of wine for each person. ~ R. Mitchell and M. Leys (A History of the English People, 1950)

Indeed, meat was often seen as a cure for ills.

As an aside, the Eastern history of vegetarianism is starkly more developed and - well - obvious. Most people leap to think of the Buddhist tradition.

My thought has wandered in all directions throughout the world. I have never yet met with anything that was dearer to anyone than his own self. Since to others, to each one for himself, the self is dear, therefore let him who desires his own advantage not harm another. ~ Buddha

The Buddhist principle of not causing harm to living creatures generally means that Buddhists will not kill animals, or consume or otherwise use animals which have been killed for them. Technically, this does not make 'practising' Buddhists vegetarians, since animals which die accidentally are not harmed by the actions of the consumer, but this is often a minor detail.

Hinduism, by contrast, has had a... patchy history, with those in higher castes and having a higher income being able to afford a vegetarian diet, whilst the worse off needed whatever they could get to live.

And someone I know insists I mention the 'Hare Krishna' (no, not Harry Krishna, you fools - 1.2m results in Google!) movement, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. This was a movement born from a Hindu tradition which worships Vishnu, or its avatar, as God. Founded in 1966, this movement praised the four 'legs' of dharma, including Tapas and Åšaucam: self-control and cleanliness of body and mind. Consequently, followers of the dharma system disallow caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and vegetarianism (also, eggs are disallowed). This interpretation of an ancient system emphasises the long history of the association of vegetarianism with purity.

Of course, many places in the East were vegetarian on purely practical or financial grounds, a statement true of most beliefs the world over.

Up To 17th Century

Coming out of the medieval period, and back to the West, we see a resurgence in interest regarding moral considerations of duties to animal - cutting both ways.

Apparently, da Vinci was one of the first major figures to adopt the pro-vegetarian philosophy. However, two immensely important philosophers in a period where many different disciplines were being reassembled - Descartes and Kant - were also arguing explicitly that there can be no ethical duties towards animals (they were both Christians who were very interested in the concept of soul, the major topic of discussion at the time, and were debating the place of the human soul primarily). (Interestingly, Descartes seems to have been a devoted vegetarian despite this, a habit formed probably by the health benefits which were perceived.)

Meanwhile, the common people had gradually increasing access to meat.

[By the mid 17th century,] Gregory King estimated that half the poor who were in work ate meat every day, the other half at least twice a week, and even the unemployed might do so once a week. But for those who had no land to help feed hungry children life was hard

For some classes, attitudes were quite strange:

Meat remained the staple diet of all those who could afford it, joints being generally preferred to minced meat, offal and made dishes. The meat was not of high quality since it was not until the 18th century that improved strains of beef-cattle and sheep were developed; and since they had no means of refrigeration, butchers could not allow their carcases to hang long enough to make them tender. Also, for much of the year fresh meat was difficult to obtain, as cattle were slaughtered in the autumn, there being no means of feeding them during the winter months. So meat still had to be preserved in brine or powdered with salt; and huge amounts of salted beef were eaten. The daily allowance for common seamen was 2lbs. It was a diet that, with few or no fresh vegetables, often led to skin diseases. Housewives were instructed in cookery books how to get rid of the salty flavour of the meat, but many relished the taste, as they did of other strongly preserved foods. (The Diary of Samuel Pepys as edited by Latham and Matthews, 1970-83)

However, this period also saw the rise of one Thomas Tryon, a merchant who capitalized on the proliferation of independent religious sects advocating vegetarianism to make his case for a unified religion outside of Christianity, in which animal rights play a major part.

Remember that all Beasts are not only endued with sences equal with Man, but also with all kinds of Passons as Love, Hate, Wrath, and the like, which their Flesh and Blood is not freed from, for in the Blood consists the high Life of every Creature, therfore the Illuminated Prophet Moses Commanded that it should not be eaten, because the more noble human Nature should not pertake, nor be infected with the Beastiality for Killing and Eating the Flesh and Blood of Beasts. ~ Thomas Tryon ("Of Moyst Airs", Monthly Observations for the Preserving of Health, 1688)

Eshew things derived from violence, and therefore be considerate in eating of…any thing, not procurable but by the death of some of our fellow Creatures. ~ Thomas Tryon ("Dreams", Pythagoras; His Mystick Philosophy Reviv'd, 1691)

His belief was very pacifistic, and shows some of the signs of importing Eastern ideology (specifically Hinduism, which he believed to be part of the original unified religion) into Westen vegetarianism. This practice became common over this period, with contact with Inda particularly fuelling ideological shifts during the 17th century.

[Europeans had] accustomed themselves to thinking of Europe as the pinnacle of humanity, travelers were shocked to find in India a thriving religion which had been sustained in a pristine form since well before – and virtually oblivious to – the invention of Christianity ~ Tristam Stuart (The Bloodless Revolution)

Though largely Eastern ideologies seem significant over this period, many of the concepts were projected and attributed (largely inaccurately) to the Pythagorean cult.

This period also saw the rise of resentment against the wealthier classes (the Cromwellian English Revolution contained some strong egalitarian ideals), and gluttony in meat consumption was seen as one of the indicators of elitism.

Furthermore, there was a revived interest in the concept of an idealistic 'State of Nature' in the naturalistic (rather than the political) sense. This even grew to the belief that in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate no meat. This can be considered to contain the seeds of a widespread (then and, significantly and worryingly, now) but terribly mistaken conviction than humans are 'naturally' herbivores.

This all helped open up much debate on the issues involved. People such as John Evelyn (a writer who took up many environmental issues, even lobbying parliament for air pollution regulation!) made the case for vegetarianism, whilst others like Henry More insisting that cattle and sheep were only living creatures to ensure meat was fresh "till we shall have need to eat them." (There weren't many good anti-vegetarian arguments out there.)

Moving On

The eighteenth century saw upper classes continue to gorge on massive meals, though the penetration of the consumption of vegetables increased. The main changes approaching the 1800s were an increase in the number of doctors prescribing vegetarian diets (a Dr. William Lambe, a dietician, recommends it as a cure for cancer), and a sudden attack of conscience among the more nature-friendly writers.

[The late 18th century was] the heyday of medical vegetarianism [...] it flourished in the most prestigious medical faculties of Europe ~ Stuart, Ibid.

This period includes the Age of Enlightenment with its rational and dissection-like tendencies - anatomy became more scientific, as nutrition started to do (Descartes had started, much earlier in the 17th century, to perform experiments on himself, which is apparently what led him to become a vegetarian), and the ill effects of massive meat intake were seriously considered. Also, people became more convinced that humans and other primates were (primarily) herbivorous creatures (the only large primate that hasn’t been observed eating some kind of animal protein is the orangutan).

England did much to foster the growing vegetarian tendencies through the 1800s (a role it had until recently - Gandhi did not accept the ethical arguments until his studies in London, where he got to know the chairman of the London Vegetarian Society, and wrote articles which they published). Shelley (an English Romantic poet) took on a highly visible role, and indeed, in 1847 the renowned Vegetarian Society was founded - it grew to have 889 members in just 6 years. This was largely driven by the Empire increasing contact with India and hence interest in both the philosophy and practicalities of Hindu and Jain life.

However, the Society had many highly puritanical views about condiments (including but not limited to salt), and the members could be heard to state that they were as bad 'stimulants', and as dangerous as alcohol. This earnestness in ethical matters filtered through to other areas, and strengthened cultural links between extreme purity and moral rectitude, and vegetarianism. It was connected with abstention from alcohol, and meat was claimed to be a cause of 'lust'. At a time when British beef was one of the Empire's selling points, the cause was widely ridiculed by the rich and powerful aristocratic classes.

Perhaps the only 20th century events to really impact on meat consumption are the two world wars.

The First World War forced pacifism and vegetarianism together, strengthening what we know as a very strong tie - 70 conscientious objectors who were vegetarian died whilst in prison, with it seeming obvious that their inability to subsist on their meals was the main cause. A food strike eventually rectified this, with vegetarian meals being provided.

The Second World War had a considerable impact on diet for many people, with rationing particularly changing eating habits. By 1942, vegetable and cereal production had increased by over 50%, whilst animal raising had fallen: the number of pigs by 51%, and of chickens 24%. Decreased meat consumption 'caught on' at the end of the war, as part of a diet which some considered better than pre-war food.

The interest in non-violence has continued strong to this day. Most people are affected by slaughtering animals, as something from which we are isolated and protected, and think of only through many distorting layers. Things such as the life-cycle of animals raised for meat which were once so essential to life her have become almost totally unknown, and our contact with such animals is very ill-informed and remote, until the instant it arrives on our plates.

Health risks and the pragmatics of access to meat are, for most people, the only real factors considered when deciding on what food they want to eat.

Next time, on Vegetarianism: I look at all the arguments I can for and against vegetarianism.

Posted by carl at 05:00

Filed under: Culture

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Free Will and Me

My Philosophical Heritage and Compatabilism # Permalink C Comment

Some people are quite obsessed by 'free will' (some people don't give a flying proverbial. If in this category, go to 'Back'.) Mostly, they're either religious or avidly interested in the science/philosophy boundary. This means there are not only small variations of opinion, but massive rifts in viewpoint amongst those who find this an interesting question.

I just thought I'd throw in my personal perspective and history. (A 'Free Will and Me' thing, you might say.)

For those of you who haven't figured it out yet, I'm partly an Age of Enlightenment academic nutcase, and partly a hapless, lost-cause Romantic. Yes, that's one hell of a direct juxtaposition. But hey, I'm like that.

The Enlightenment attitude is basically about a highly reasoned approach to debate and decision. This isn't (necessarily) a cold, calculating philosophy by any means - it supported human rights movements, and opposed bloated institutionalization of human thought. There are many Enlightenment 'mavericks', taking inspiration largely from resentment about repressive societies, many of them religious and fascinated by attempts to resolve complex abstract issues into more concrete concepts. The spread of pantheism was one of the many outcomes of this - the view that God is not unearthly, but is rather synonymous with the world, or with the universe.

By contrast, the Romantic movement was an idealistic movement, largely borne by the visual arts, musical development and literature which are its home ground. Its sociological background is a combination of a reaction against the aristocratic class driving the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution's effects.  Its ideology is one of emotional attachment to nature, 'aesthetics' and folk culture - that is, it places great significance on natural beauty, most especially untamed, raw nature, as well as on the 'nobility' of folk art. It had the effect of driving many different religions' popularity up, despite its professed interest in overthrowing the dogmatic and orthodox - partly, this is because of the increasingly vulnerable classes who had dismissed religion in the light of Reason, but turned back to it as their positions became less comfortably bourgeois.

These two different movements, theoretically opposed, though sharing some attitudes (regarding human rights, for instance) and some proponents (Beethoven was attracted to both, lauding Romantic traits in his works, whilst supporting the Enlightenment ideals of the French Revolution), contain the seeds of much of Western view on free will.

Often, people think of one question when they consider free will: "Is everything we do pre-determined?", or "Is determinism correct?" This is, for many of the interested, at least the most important question to answer, if not the only one. It is, indeed, a fascinating subject, but also - far too often, in my opinion - a very technical one. To the Romantic, the many different incarnations of determinsm are of extreme interest - the movement is associated with forays into areas such as cultural determinism (which teaches that human actions are a consequence of their social upbringing) and environmental determinism (which teaches that culture itself is entirely a product of the physical surroundings of the society, rather than of social conditions and human innovativeness) since some Romantics were intrigued by the possibility of humans reaching a natural equilibrium with their surroundings, in the form of a 'folk' culture or a similar social structure and system of laws.

However, the two most obvious fundamental types of the philosophy are causal determinism and religious determinism (also 'theological' determinism).

The first is the proposition that the laws of nature allow only one course based on previous events (an elaboration of the concept that 'what goes up must come down', if you like). This scientific determinism is one which has a strong appeal to many people trained in logical thinking, for obvious reasons, although probabilistic effects in Quantum Mechanics are frequently cited as 'ways out' of this problem (QM proposes a system in which the state of nature is indeterminate, until some part of it is measured - however, this measurement will throw other aspects of the system into uncertainty - this uncertainty is a property of nature, NOT of the measurer or their apparatus). This viewpoint is clearly important to Enlightenment philosophy's insistence on logic and reason.

The latter proposition is that there is a powerful being - a God - who is either determining all events for himself, or who is omniscient (that is, a God who can 'see' what is going to happen ahead of time). The first of these positions pretty much excludes all other questions of free will, as I view it (although definitions of free will are available to skirt this problem); the second is strongly analogous to causal determinism (since causal determinism indicates that it is possible for a being to know what will happen next).

However, there is at least one other question of extreme relevance to the free will debate - this falls under the category of "compatability". The compatabilist position is that free will is perfectly possible in a deterministic world, whilst incompatabilism states that they are irreconcilable.

For many, incompatabilism is the most logically obvious viewpoint ("How can you have free will if someone knows what you're going to do?"). There are three important subdivisions of incompababilists: firstly, Libertarianism teaches determinism is wrong, and that we do indeed have free will - the most widespread assumption. Secondly, 'hard' determinism states that determinism is correct, and that all we have is the illusion of free will - the obvious alternative, historically common amongst scientists. Finally, pessimistic incompatabilism preaches that although determinism is (or might be) incorrect, free will is still illusory - this often challenges our definition of free will.

However, compatabilitism's challenge of our conpect of free will is - for me - a much more fascinating question, independently of my belief in determinism. It has a long history (back to the Greek school of Stoicism, who had, interestingly, a very Romantic view about harmony with nature involving 'prohairesis'), and has always attracted very interesting and clever philosophers, not least of whom the currently very active Daniel C. Dennett, who is my favourite modern philosopher.

The position of the compatabilist (who does not necessarily believe in determinism - if they do, they are 'soft' determinists) is that determining whether an action is an expression of free will is not about whether or not the result is predictable. Actually, this is not a very outlandish claim, despite the initial resistance to the conclusion of the argument - free will, surely, is an internal phenomenon, not an external one, and anyway, so what if your decision is predictable? For most of us, free will is about making a choice 'for ourselves'.

My personal interpretation of this is that we should consider carefully the origins of our choices. At the end of the day, in the argument against causal determinism, what is important is that the sequence of thoughts and analyses which we make - independently, even spontaneously (to use a heavily loaded word) - is determined (principally, and to the near exclusion of all else) by how our 'minds' (leaving aside the whole mind-soul-brain-body issue for another time) 'think' (leaving aside the issue of what thought is too) - phew! That's a lot of brackets.

But ultimately, what this boils down to is this: there is nothing in causal determinism that stops me from saying that my mind reaches the same decision it would without determinism. The environment of the mind clearly influences the thought process (causal or not) - when we are angry, we make harsh decisions, but when we are happy, we make generous decisions, and when we are 17 year old college students in South West Wales having spent our lives in the British education system, brought up by my parents, and having had my experiences, we make decisions consistent with what I like to call 'me'. This argument doesn't work as is for higher-level forms of determinism (most intriguingly cultural determinism), but for general causal purposes clearly shows how we can interpret our actions (human 'agency' in philosophy) as voluntary, and as moderated by what we identify as the 'self' - or more specifically, the mind.

For those of you interested in more - and better! - writing, Dennett has a subtle twist of compatabilism which he assembles over a set of books, bringing several ideas together in Freedom Evolves (Elbow Room is his perhaps more focused work devoted to assessing the behavioural of free will). He argues that the abilities we have evolved allow us 'evitability' - the ability of an entity to (try to) make events follow a chain leading to beneficial consequences, whilst avoiding unwanted situations.

One of the main reasons I consider this important is its role in repudiating particular incarnations of fatalism and defeatism. Popular culture (particularly the sci-fi and fantasy genres) is full of characters who exhibit what I consider repulsive and highly destructive behaviour - the tendency to assume that life is all about either finding ways around, or struggling against, events which they 'know' are pre-destined. Somehow, people move from a clear-thinking analysis of a situation to a type desperation which is psychologically detrimental, and worse, contagious.

Similarly, people routinely seem to step without hesitation from seemingly reasoned arguments to conclusions about ethics which are totally off the wall - most commonly, the (as it were) 'moral determinism' which swiftly apportion blame and hence responsibility for one's actions on events (or even people) in one's history. There are some brilliant fallacies there.

Anyway, that's all we have space for folks. :)

[ PS:  Check out this hilarious post about Obama! ]

Posted by carl at 05:00

Filed under: Culture

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Physics IS Useful!

Hooray for physics # Permalink C Comment

The sort of thing everyone wants to invent...


Posted by carl at 04:00

Journal by Carl Turner

All entries by user Carl Turner

Simple diagrams for LaTeX with Inkscape • 1.7.2013 Yesterday I discovered how to make nice, simple, elegant diagrams for fairly painless inclusion… [read more - comment]No Data Connection (Android) • 4.6.2013 Just spent an age dealing with a phone (Samsung Galaxy S2, I9100, on the UK network 3) running a… [read more - comment]Android/BusyBox Segmentation Faults • 30.9.2012 Just had a terrifying moment when, after attempting to install BusyBox on an Android device,… [read more - comment]Temporarily Redefining In-built Mathematica Functions • 16.7.2012 Suppose a package you're using is, say, zealously Simplifying lots of Mathematica expressions… [read more - comment]Nuclear Power • 24.7.2011 I've never known the answers to the big questions about energy. I do know that with … [read more - comment]
top / xhtml / css
© Carl Turner 2008-2017
design & engine by suchideas / hosted by xenSmart