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Sunday, 24 July 2011

Nuclear Power

An uncertain future # Permalink C Comment

I've never known the answers to the big questions about energy.

I do know that with clever uses of grids there might be some hope for a sustainable future. Yet many of these plans are troubled by lack of (economically viable) technology - renewables are, if not exactly young, still very much in development - and 'long-term' and 'future' are phrases which are used heavily in discussing plans for renewables. (Another interesting question is why renewables have much lower support amongst governments and administrators than the public, and whether this is justified.)

Anyway, for me, one natural alternative to continuing to use fossil fuels whilst we oscillate between plans, and technologies, and try and decide between waiting for the next generation or committing now, is to use an already well-established, efficient, considerably less harmful source of power - nuclear fission.

Now, this isn't a manifesto for nuclear power. It's just a few thoughts. The thing that interests - and frustrates - me is public opinion. The thing which bites at my soul is how misguided most of the common objections really are. One thing I'd like to hammer home into people's minds: fossil fuels are far deadlier than nuclear power. The public image of nuclear power is tarnished by a lot of complicated cultural baggage (I blame the hippies), but precisely how governments can justify turning away from nuclear power based speficially on the perceived dangers of the technology is beyond me. Data from the WHO shows exactly the same thing - that article has a fascinating review of the subject. Read it

Indecision and u-turns plague recent history with nuclear power. China's decision to suspend its nuclear programme in the wake of the Fukushima disaster is deeply frustrating and bodes ill for a country using 47% of the world's coal - and a quantity which has increased by nearly 3 times since 2000 - is one of many worries troubling those concerned with our fuel habits.

Whilst the news is mixed, there is some light at the end of tunnel: the IAEA provides a handy summary of the current status of nuclear power around the world. There are 440 nuclear reactors in operation, and 65 in construction - even the UK has confirmed plans in the wake of the Fukushima event. That's not the rate of growth I'd ideally like to see - though we should bear in mind the improved efficiency of more modern plans - but growth is interestingly regional, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all with subsantial nuclear plans. The political situation in other areas - notably Egypt - has been frustrating some other efforts in this area. It is, of course, important that we make sure radioactive materials are carefully protected, or more than the case for nuclear power will be irreversibly damaged. I look forward with interest to see what happens in one particular country.

Anyway - and not at all because I've always wanted to say this - Ahmadinejad certainly has the moral high ground here.

Posted by carl at 21:10

Filed under: Culture

Monday, 28 June 2010

Art & Aesthetics

What makes good art? From an old Facebook note. # Permalink C Comment

The following is taken from a 'Note' I wrote on Facebook in February 2009. I thought I'd repost it, since I'm less likely to forget about it here. It is, as I note at the end, very much an early-morning ramble or rant, but hey, it's helpful for thinking about things.

The question at hand (let's make this clear) is

What makes good art?

That's what makes GOOD art, not just what makes art. Nota bene.


Okay, the usual three-way division is still relevant here. What is at question is what we should consider when judging the quality of art. I'll outline the three main categories of viewpoint (there are others, some cynical and some highly romanticized) using Wikipedia articles to draw on structure and examples, and also to try and cover many bases.


The thesis of the aesthetic relativist is that aesthetic quality (a.k.a. 'beauty', but more on that later) is sufficiently heavily dependent on individuals' feelings towards and experiences of other individuals that there can be no consistent objective assessment of art.

Many influential philosophers - people like Kant - subscribe(d) to this theory, based essentially on the strong evidence that more or less any two people will disagree about the quality of some piece of art. The most obvious influence on this variation is probably that of the culture. This is essentially the argument espoused by many analysts of the semiotics of ideal beauty. Semiotics is essentially the study of symbology, in which anthropologists (and other professionals, especially linguists) examine how various signs acquire their meaning - John Locke was one of the first people to clearly outline the study of the topic.


The general position of objectivists is that it is possible to salvage something of an objective value judgement to analyze art, and that although the objective position is still deeply tied to humanity, this tie does not restrict us to the purely relativistic beliefs. See A Primer on the Objectivist Esthetics for some introductory points. Ayn Rand, the foremother of objectivism herself, said that concepts and values are

determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man's mind.

If differences of opinion are the 'obvious evidence' for relativism, then the 'obvious evidence' for objectivism is that "it is not a contradiction to say: 'This is a great work of art, but I don't like it'," in the words of Ayn Rand. Therefore, there exist some criteria which can be used to discriminate between good, bad and non- art.

A major premise of many objectivists is, in fact, frequently an appeal to semiotics and symbolism - in one very intriguing sense. This is that art is an efficient way of packaging various complex notions into - well, manageable chunks, almost (I really recommend "Why Do We Have Art?" at the above link.) As I suggested in my recent note on poetry, our ability to condense metaphysics, emotions and so on into small packages in fact elucidates them. After all, our cognitive ability is almost entirely associative in nature, and as such is greatly stimulated by complex, interwoven representations of topics. People do tend to love the way that a topic is composed of many different (often seemingly incompatible) strands which can be brought together into cohesive, pleasing (there's that aesthetic appeal) structures.

This is actually quite an inclusive, if no doubt dissatisfyingly vague, definition - it includes art reflecting on (read: containing - most artists spend a LONG TIME thinking about how their art relates to their subject matter, and so do consequently most critics - but this is not necessary for the full enjoyment of the piece) natural beauty, and manufactured beauty (as I say, more on beauty later), probably speeches and anything containing metaphor, and so on. And we can also conceive of ways of comparing quality - according to the criteria in the above link, for example. However, personally I find these criteria rather vague and limiting. Mainly "Clarity", which I think is of debatable value.

Seeing Things - Is photography really art?Of course, this label has little to say about, for example, true abstract art, or many types of post-modernist art. It also has an interesting problem with photography, which I suspect is of interest to the readers of this essay. Namely, that people often regard photographs as art when they were, in reality, little more than snaps - a phenomenon particularly prevalent in the field of wildlife photography. This also touches upon the problems of art without the artist, and leads us naturally on to natural beauty and such topics... But there's no space for that here. See below!

As far as abstract art goes, I find it unintuitive that it can be included in this category - and music has a similar problem. This is where we discuss whether art must be representational - i.e., whether it must be a symbol of something. First, we turn once more to Rand:

As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.

This certainly seems to say no. I suspect Ben might sympathize with the viewpoint expressed in the above statement, since he has a fairly pragmatic approach to such high-brow concepts (I don't think it is necessarily high-brow) as art, and since he considers things which need study and background to be less worthwhile.

But -- let me look at music first. If you read books like The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (by Alex Ross), or biographies of most 'classical' music composers, then you start to find out about lots and lots of symbolism buried in the history and personal stories of the composers. There are obvious and subtle motifs, and the question as to whether such cultural and subtle representations are deemed acceptable is moot. I don't see how you can deny it. Decent music with lyrics tends to be as metaphorical as poetry, if not as considered.

Abstract art is a more awkward prospect. I personally don't rate a lot of abstract art very highly, so I won't discuss it.


This viewpoint is held by those who insist that aesthetic value - often termed beauty (see below) - is a concept completely independent of humans.


To quote the Simpsons, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (Keats) -- The Secret War of Lisa Simpson

But the truth can be harsh and disturbing! How can that be considered beautiful?

Often, we abbreviate much of aesthetic quality into the term 'beauty', in a rather uppity sense. Take the first line of Wikipedia:

Beauty is a characteristic of a person, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction

Or the OED, which gives this as an additional definition to visual attractiveness:

That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to other senses (e.g. that of hearing), or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties, through inherent grace, or fitness to a desired end

These get at the empathetic nature of beauty, to my mind. The point is that the object in question evokes some degree of some variety of resonant satisfaction in our mind (I use 'resonant' advisedly; memory and thought seem to work by resonating neuron networks.)

Anyway, the interesting thing is what makes beauty; and I think that there are different categories of beauty. Here are some, mainly focusing on the visual arts:

Beauty of the human (and to some degree other animal) form

Doves - Beauty of animal forms

This kind of beauty - a respect for various qualities ranging from elegance, healthiness, calmness, and happiness to that found in sexually provocative material - is probably derived largely from the evolutionary advantage of being able to pick out fertile and healthy mates - there is conclusive evidence, for instance, that in women, a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 is a good predictor of both attractiveness and fertility. In animals, it makes sense that we look for similar attributes - like the elegance and pure colour of the wings of the dove I snapped above - in judging beauty.

Beauty of animals and the inanimate object (including devices or tools, and statues)

Shells - Beauty of the inanimate

This type of beauty often has appeals between several of the other categories here - as well as the appeal discussed under the human/animal form discussion, we see the appeal of patterns and so on.

Beauty of the landscape, skyscape, seascape... etc.

View from Carreg Cennen - Beauty of landscapes

This is a much more subtle form of beauty. There is a definite need to look to the multifarious views of our philosophical betters. For example, look at Burke, who divides aesthetic appeal into masculine and feminine components (being a man...) He declares the sublime to be the masculine element, which overwhelms the viewer with power, scale, uniformity, abruptness, difficulty, intense colours, etc. and argues that the language of the sublime is muddled, not descriptive, emotionally abstract, and full of conflicting sensations. Contrastingly, he defines beauty as the feminine element, which overwhelms the viewer with the wish to protect the subject, and is characterized by symmetry, intricateness, smoothness, mildness, attractiveness (in a metrosexual way!) and so on. Burke wondered if the beautiful was appealing to evolutionary elements of sexual desire, and the sublime - but terrifying - to our instinct for self-preservation in some way.

A highly important concept in aesthetics (particularly the 18th century) is the picturesque, literally that which is fit to be made into a picture or which is in the style of a picture - it is a term considered to unite the sublime and the beautiful as Burke considered his extremes, and classically taking the form of the idealized rural landscape painting, with stern elements like crags, ruins or torrents, and softer elements like a quiet - vulnerable - cottage, a gentle winding river or a soft forest. This concept of the picturesque sheds some light, I feel, on how we relate to landscapes and many other works of art.

Beauty of colour, patterns and shape

The subtleties of these forms are essentially those of abstract art, and as such are in some ways difficult to pin down. However, using the tools developed using our landscape analysis, perhaps some elements are already separated.

The human instinct to spot patterns - and the satisfaction we experience when we use this ability - seems to help us gain pleasure from fractal-based images like that above. We seem to particularly like subtle or obscured patterns. This seems to be reasonable, given we have evolved highly specialized symbolic and pattern-spotting mechanisms, and since our culture is set up to teach young children that spotting things is good.

Beauty of abstract consistency and bringing together of disparate thoughts (particularly mathematical beauty)

(See the Wikipedia articles on Mathematical Beauty and Mathematics and Art.)




It is surely a related type of satisfaction which we can gain from understanding the mysterious patterns and intricacies of a consistent theory. We do love it like a good story when things come together, in quite a literal sense.


So why have I gone on about beauty, and where does it leave us?

Well, my argument is that the aesthetic value of a piece of art qua art is based entirely on its beauty, as defined above:

That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to the senses, or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties, through inherent grace, or fitness to a desired end

And as such it is essentially a relativist concept, and every individual can have their own response to any of the terms in the above definition. However, I dispute that this makes the concept of art useless. Apart from giving us this definition of the value of art (I'll discuss value in just a minute) this discussion also indicates how culturally dependent and how dependent on human nature the notion of art is, since (as we observed above) various elements of beauty are a consequence of biological (neurological) or cultural influences.

As far as investigating 'good art', i.e. judging its quality, goes, there are two obvious possible types of criterion to judge how beautiful art is, given the above context.

  • Breadth of appeal
  • Intensity of appeal

That is, on how many 'levels' it works (sensually, intellectually, morally, functionally...), and how strong the sensation is. Mix and match to your own taste. I think a 50-50 split sounds good. Simple, really.

Note: You can attach value to the amount of work put into something, if you want, but be aware that split-second dives for wildlife photographs become worthless in the category, whilst a child intently (but poorly) copying trees into what I like to call a 'crapscape' gets a heck of a lot of credit.
Note: My definition of art clearly includes film, novels, songs, whatever. I can live with that. See that overly sentimental emotional flicks and childish books, whilst they may evoke strong emotions, do not really have the variety of effects the above evaluation looks for, since they are working purely on one level.
Note: I've been watching TV and stuff whilst doing this, and it's now 2:17 in the morning. I'm pretty tired and this is probably full of incomplete stuff and bollocks. Enjoy.

Wow, I wasn't kidding with that third note. Well, I can see omissions and problems already. Maybe I'll sort this out sometime.


Posted by carl at 23:20

Filed under: Culture Style

Thursday, 18 February 2010

No Competition

The Conservative party's education policy is poorly justified # Permalink C Comment

The Conservatives are proposing a form of free market education, based largely according to them on the Swedish (and also American and Canadian) model of the last 20 years. The problem is, there's no convincing argument what they're doing is constructive.

They want to allow parents to effectively choose which school they want their portion of the schools' budget to go to, in essence forcing schools to compete for students.

There are two main problems with the Conservatives' position, perhaps symbolic of the current trends in politics - firstly, their policy is not right-wing enough, because it fails to allows schools to turn a profit (as Swedish schools can) and hence will likely lead to charitable institutions and small collabratives setting up minor that have little impact on the system; and secondly, it is far, far too right-wing, because it totally fails to promote equality and fairness in the educational system.

If you know me, you'll not be massively surprised to hear that the second issue is where my personal bone of contention is to be found. Newsnight recently found the Swedish model to be unimpressive as a piece of pioneering social organization, noting that in recent years "not only are standards generally down, there are strong indications that the new schools have increased social segregation".

It seems to me blindingly obvious that this is precisely what you would expect from such a crude attempt to make the school system more dynamic.

Obviously, you won't hear me disagreeing with the Conservatives' statement that giving

many more children access to the kind of education that is currently only available to the well-off: safe classrooms, talented and specialist teachers, access to the best curriculum and exams, and smaller schools run by teachers who know the children’s names
is a good thing (although I might well dispute, based on personal experience and the teachers who I know, the claim that one only gets such attention in the public and private school system). And it's trivially true that opening more schools will improve class sizes and, assuming that their budget is not effectively reduced during this process, also improve teaching quality and time (we could look here to up-and-coming countries like China, where 7AM-6PM state-funded schooling is reality for many people, as Ken Livingstone pointed out earlier this week).

Of course,

The Swedish people generally approve of the new system. About 10% of all students of compulsory school age now attend the new schools, and in the upper secondary level it is about 20%.

In fact, the Conservatives' draft schools' manifesto has much in the way of increased spending recommendations and increased powers, intervention and supervision: they will

  • allocate increased pay budget control for headteachers (allowing them to "pay good teachers more", rather than the converse, it seems implied);
  • "pay the student loan repayments for top maths and science graduates for as long as they remain teachers";
  • "legislate so that teachers can ban any items that cause disruption in the classroom";
  • "reinforce powers of discipline";
  • "set up technical Academies across England, starting in at least the twelve biggest cities";
  • "fund 400,000 new apprenticeship, preapprenticeship, college and other training places over two years"

and so on. Hardly the anti-nanny state, fund-cutting image we're used to, is it? The point is the Conservatives are basically in favour of creating more schools and educational institutions and allocating more funds to the school sector. Sure, the usual pro-discipline measures are there, but what's that really but increasing how heavily then government intervenes in day-to-day life? (I'm not against it, but many Conservatives seem to claim to be.)

But really, the basic principle of allocating funds in an essentially market-controlled manner is going to do exactly what it does in every other market - create some really huge, bloated organisations (Tesco, Whitehall, I could go on), crows out many smaller specialist instutitions, and result in bizarre competitions that end up not being beneficial to student, or (more likely) teachers. Put in this light, the apparently reasonable approach of having

more unannounced inspections, and failing schools will be inspected more often – with the best schools visited less frequently [and] any school that is in special measures for more than a year will be taken over immediately by a successful Academy provider.

seems somewhat more likely to result in the rapid construction of very large, monocultured schools, with presumably the same old problems with discipline, management, class sizes, and inefficiency.

Surely this will result in 'good' schools (presumably judged by the local media as much as anyone more qualified) receiving far too many applications to cope with, and hence either taking in too many pupils to manage adequately, or turning away vast swathes of candidates (based on what, one wonders) who would be forced to turn to 'worse' schools, creating significantly more inequality in the educational system, in the short and medium term at least.

Impressively, the Conservatives appear intent on doing this without even offering a monetary incentives to the people owning the schools. Regardless, having schools compete for students might also make for a considerably more high-pressured environment, both for students and teachers.

And even the other celebrated Conservative goals (particularly of 'liberating' schools from the tyranny of the 'politicised' national curriculum) seem thin when you consider even their idols Sweden enforce their curriculum.

Also, an interesting comment is to be found in this draft manifesto - the Conservatives will

end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.

I don't know what everyone else makes of this, but it sounds fascinatingly dangerous to me.

Posted by carl at 09:14

Filed under: Culture

Thursday, 18 February 2010

New Politics

A few thoughts on how the world could be # Permalink C Comment

I went to see Ken Livingstone today.

Ken Livingstone is an interesting man. He is variously described as outspoken, "bold and imaginative", a disgrace, and Trotskyist. Whatever you think of him, I believe that more politicians like him could be a good thing.

I don't mean more left-leaning, or more environmentalist, or more liberal (well, actually, I do think these are good things, but that's really not what I'm getting at) - what I mean is forthright, open and frank. I like Vince Cable. I also have massively more respect for people on the right, like maybe Boris Johnson, and hell, even John Bolton, who state their (frequently wrong...) views openly and, yes, divisively, than those who studiously avoid the controversial in what they have to say, even when it is massively important to the electorate.

Yes, this is heavily directed at Cameron and Osborne and their ilk, people who leave you confused about their long-term vision, and their commitment to their policies.

But it is equally heavily directed to the Blairite school (although I certainly feel Cameron and Osborne - and Clegg, come to that) and the whole culture of 'professional' politicians (I use the word in the same way one describes 'professional fouls' in football) who exist, publically, as sort of ethereal ghosts in the machine, who do not represent with any confidence any values or schools of thought, but rather just give glimpses into an unknowable Whitehall existence.

Perhaps the world would be a better place if politicians (in fact, this is largely directed at higher-ranking ministers and their shadow counterparts) could step away from not just party line, but from the strange brand of modern political pseudo-realism which permeates all attempts at political debate. It is endlessly refreshing to hear people talking coherently about their own personal views, and putting forward reasoned, historical or just plain true arguments about important stuff.

Just my two cents.

Ken Livingstone was speaking at the Cambridge Union on Wednesday 17th February 2010. He was mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, winning his first election as an independent candidate, and returning as a Labout party candidate in 2004. His achievements include introducing the first same-sex civil partnership register, before the government followed suit 3 years later, overhauling the public transport system, and introducing the congestion charge and other environmental measures. He was succeeded by Boris Johnson, but plans to run again for the role next term. Previously, he had served from 1981 as Leader of the greater London Council until the post was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. He is currently an adviser on urban planning in Venezuela, where we works with Hugo Chávez who he says is "just like me".

Posted by carl at 00:05

Filed under: Culture

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

'Culture' Category

Anything vaguely cultural. That's music, art, books, poems, sociology, festivals, etc.

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