stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 3/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

One of the early effects of communications technology usage was the phenomenon of text-speak. This effect first came to prominence when text messaging on pre-smartphones became popular, but it was massively amplified by social media and the arrival of smartphones.

Most people with smartphones check them 200+ times a day. In the last couple of years this has been recognised as a major problem. But smartphones are deliberately designed and marketed by the international technology corporations to be addictive. Yet they are not just addictive – they are massively addictive. This intense psychological addiction has been designed into the system so that the technology companies can do whatever they like, unencumbered by such things as morals or ethics – previously moderated by religion – or by laws, moderated by governments. It’s literally insanity. As the clinical psychologist Nicholas Seto said: “We are currently experiencing the largest unregulated social experiment in the history of humanity.”

And we are. We are sleepwalking into a future where the pace of technological change outstrips our mental ability to adapt to it. This has never before happened. All previous changes – the Agricultural Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution – took place on time scales that human beings could psychologically deal with, even though, on the scale of a single lifetime, there was huge change. So, for example, although British industrialisation changed the working conditions of individuals in their own lifetimes, they were able to mentally cope with that, however much they loathed it. But this is not the case with change now. It is increasingly being said that the feature most noticeable about technological change today is its rate. That is why its prime quality is that of appearing to be out of control.

This relentless drive is fuelled by capitalist, male-dominated social values, originating mostly in 20th century America, though it was recently taken up by Pacific Rim nations, especially China, which has brazenly declared that it wishes to be the dominant force in AI research in the 21st century. But you only have to watch adverts for computer games which “bring the family together” to see the kind of illusion these corporations want to promote. There is no coming together. It’s all vacuous, illusory. What was obvious in the texting explosion is more obvious now.

Communication mediated by the internet is divorced from all the subtle, complex, emotional factors that we take for granted because we are so exceptional at social communication. The great majority of communication between individuals is gestural, takes place through facial expression, through body language, or is conveyed by tone of voice or other ‘musical’ qualities. All these factors are stripped away by social media and general internet use. Even in situations such as skyping, where facial expression and voice tone are added, there remains a considerable reduction in non-verbal communication.

What is the result of this stripping away of human communicative subtlety? The result is depression.

As Dorothy Rowe observed in her trailblazing books, the main metaphor of depression is isolation, however that might be experienced by the sufferer. “Isolation is the number one precursor for depression and suicide,” Wataru Nishida, psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University, observed recently. Depression is a condition of so-called ‘developed’ nations – the West most obviously, but elsewhere too. No indigenous society knows depression. That is because all the human factors of life, most especially in social communication, are present in such societies. Added to that is a profound sense of belonging and of environment experienced by members of indigenous societies. But communication via social media or the internet militates against these two things. The sense of belonging is shattered by the profound sense of remoteness created by internet interaction. Even if ameliorated by special-interest groups brought together over long distances, the interaction has the same base: technological. It is not human interaction. As for a sense of environment, that never had a chance on the global frontier of the internet.

Deliberate addictive design has now migrated into the field of television. A recent tv phenomenon is the rise of multi-episode drama series, which we are encouraged by production companies and by friends and family to ‘binge-watch.’ These series (cosily named box-sets) have been designed in the same way computer games are designed, with what are known as compulsion loops. This a method of using psychological conditioning which optimises gratification – exactly as gambling does – by the use of positive reinforcement and intermittent rewards. Such dramas, utilising our love of stories and our basic psychological make up, are deliberately addicting watchers to television. (Soap operas use vaguely similar techniques, but are founded on emotional voyeurism.)

The conspicuous increase in reported levels of loneliness is related to isolation. The more we live life online, without our usual supports of non-verbal and emotional communication, the more lonely we feel. Loneliness is not cured by internet contact – that only deals with the symptom. The cause is dealt with by human interaction in all its full complexity, and that can only be done in the real world.

Japan is a textbook example. The Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, a kind of acute social withdrawal, used to be limited to that country, but now it is spreading elsewhere, including to Europe and America. The victims are usually male, emotionally isolated, and more prone to suicide than any other age group. That is the most extreme form of what is now an extraordinary and profoundly dangerous lack of direct face-to-face socialising amongst the young, but there are other worrying symptoms. A survey of attitudes to sex amongst the Japanese found 20% of young men had little or no interest in having a sexual relationship. Lacking experience of real life, these young men are almost unable to express human emotions, except anger. They have forgotten reality: touch, warmth, empathy. And when such young people do find themselves isolated and depressed, they have few places to turn to – especially in Japan, where speaking about mental health is taboo.

Our planet looks as though it is doomed in many ways. As a species we may be too isolated and too depressed to do anything about its despoliation, and about the damage online life is causing to ourselves.

We will believe ourselves to be connected, but belief is not reality.

steve opinion2

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 2/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

It’s commonly thought that AIs are value-less, or, at least, value-neutral. But this is not the case, as has been demonstrated recently by such commentators as Jamie Bartlett in a pair of television programmes, which were expanded into his book The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy. AIs do in fact have values, but they are old values, retrogressive values, because the technological systems which support them are inherently conservative.

After narcissism (yesterday’s topic), the greatest danger we face is idiocy.

Early computer scientists thought that they could design top-down AI systems, because they assumed that faculties such as intellectual ability and reason were susceptible to design. But it turned out that all the ‘simple,’ ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ things which human beings do – like for instance reach out to choose a banana from a fruit bowl – are extremely complex. And so, more recently, a new method has been used, bottom-up AI design, which has latterly, with Orwellian bleakness, been named Big Data. This method uses heuristic design and so-called neural networks to facilitate deep learning. It is because such techniques are so powerful that the present AI revolution is happening.

However, all AIs so far created are expert systems, limited in function. There is no general intelligence AI – no AGI – yet. But despite the obvious implications for a thinking humanity, the tech corporations, unrestrained by legal or ethical control, and with no checks and balances whatsoever unless they happen to have a vaguely concerned CEO, are trying to develop AGIs. And even if they do have an aware CEO they are going ahead with AGI development regardless. This is the insanity of the unregulated West.

Future AIs will have values, but those values won’t be humane, caring or liberal. They will be conservative: capitalist, patriarchal, hierarchical, sequential, logical, analytical. The reason for this is that the individuals and systems creating AGIs have values themselves, values which tend to a greater (occasionally to a lesser) extent towards conservatism. Corporations are masculine places. Corporations are capitalist places. Corporations wish to expand regardless of the consequences for the environment or humanity. Corporations and the legal environment they exist in are inherently conservative. So are the AGIs they will create.

So, what social and psychological consequences might AGI’s have? With an expert medical AI, for instance, the benefits are obvious and have for a few years now been demonstrated. Diagnosis rates are better than those of experienced doctors – an incredible result. AIs can drive cars reasonably well, and in a few years will be driving cars very well. But an AGI is a different thing entirely. An AGI will act against thinking human beings by thinking for us.

We are already seeing the mental health implications of AGIs however in the way the internet and technology more generally is being used now. Implicit in the operation of so much present use is that thinking is done for us. Google searches bring up the results google wants you to see, or which its algorithms choose. Devices such as amazon echo or google home mini are advertised as helpers, but their function is to do the thinking for you: to remember, to choose, to prepare.

This use of technology, especially when AGIs appear, will have a profound effect on our minds. Human beings should be thinking for themselves – they must. We should be independent, autonomous, flexible, aware. We should not be relying on vast, anonymous, unrestricted, impersonal intelligences designed by bloated technology corporations. For that is what those corporations want. They want individuals to respond to artificially created desires; and only via their products. They want to do the thinking for you, because that will make you their servant, if not their slave. They want you to be an idiot.

Idiocy is our future if we don’t take care. In my as-yet-unpublished novel The Autist (which should be out in 2019 from Infinity Plus Books) I use some of the above ideas to paint a gloomy picture of humanity’s increasing dependency on callous, unregulated, automatic systems. It used to be the case that in dystopian SF our technological masters were imagined as robots, Terminator style. The truth is, those masters will be unregulated algorithms, designed to work their way into the human psyche using brutal psychological techniques. That is a dystopia already on the horizon. We could, in theory, stop it. My guess is we won’t.

 

steve opinion2

Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 1/5

This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.

It is obvious to most that the world in 2018 is politically polarised. This social change became even clearer following the election of Donald Trump, but it had been happening for at least a decade before that. It was not only present in the West; many Eastern countries, some far more technologically connected than Britain or America, also exhibited this polarisation. A few commentators have observed that the rise of the internet and social media in particular might be responsible for political polarisation, but it is only in recent years that a definite link has been made between social media and poor mental health. Such warnings have become numerous in the last couple of years. And yet, almost no research has been done in this area.

The mental health issues surrounding polarisation are a consequence of what some have called the internalisation of social media norms. Interaction on social media differs from face-to-face interaction in one crucial way. We communicate with family, friends, and even opponents face-to-face, as human individuals, but on the internet such interaction is far more immediate, swifter, and offers no opportunity for reflection and therefore for the use of reason. The consequence of this dynamic is known to all who use Facebook, where too many discussions degenerate into arguments, which lead to entrenched positions.

It is this psychological dynamic which has fuelled recent changes in human interaction. Over the last decade or so young people, active online from an incredibly early age, have become vulnerable to the psychological abuse meted out by tech corporations. Recent American research by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Professor Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia explained: “… the damage might start in users as young as two… After just one hour of screen time, children and adolescents may have less curiosity, lower self-control and lower emotional stability, which can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.” They point out that half of mental health problems develop by adolescence. So it is the young who are particularly at risk, and that is not just because they are vulnerable through the inexperience of youth. It is because until the age of twenty five the human brain is still growing, changing, its multitude of connections expanding.

In other words: social media and internet interaction in general is altering the wiring of the human brain, which, in turn, is changing us as a species.

This is the main danger then. International tech corporations, fostering online life and using brutal psychological techniques to grab our attention (the currency of social media), are preparing the way for a future of strife between extremes. Internalising the habits of online interaction makes us irrational, impulsive, and acts with shocking precision against the reason we usually follow in normal human communication, i.e face-to-face.

Two other cyber effects worsen this situation. One is the anonymity effect, where internet users falsely imagine themselves to be anonymous actors. But digital traces are almost impossible to erase, and the internet is by no means a safe place. Second is the disinhibition effect, which is a consequence of the particulars of the internet, including the perceived lack of authority and the sense of distance, or remoteness which it cultivates.

We need however to focus not only on the symptoms of the internet problem, we need to deal with their cause. We need to deal with their cause above all else. Clarion calls to fight against fascism are all very well, but the recent rise of the extreme right comes from a different underlying source than that of the early twentieth century. Comparisons between the far right in 2018 and the far right of the 1930s serve only to obscure the new cause of fascism’s recent rise and political success.

Polarisation also leads to a learned loss of empathy. Consciousness itself – the quality that allowed us to spread across the world, make beautiful art and see with extraordinary telescopes to the limits of the universe – is rooted in empathy. Consciousness relies for its effect on the fact that we use ourselves as exemplars when understanding the behaviour of others, whom we experience empathetically. If we lose empathy, we lose a fundamental part of ourselves; if not the most fundamental part.

Another way of looking at this is to say that social media style interactions increase narcissism. I use narcissism here in the sense I’ve used elsewhere – “human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself. Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable precursor to psychological development.” Because narcissism acts through self-deception, the slow sophistication of ourselves via the viewpoints of all the people we meet throughout our lives does not happen via internet interaction. There is no time during such interactions for reason, for the viewpoints of others to manifest themselves. Commonly this is described as ‘internet bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ but the effect is far more profound than merely pushing people away from one another. Narcissism is tough. Narcissism acts with brutal strength to protect itself. Human beings only overcome it because we are a profoundly social species. Social media therefore, with ultimate irony, is in fact the exact opposite. It is anti-social media. Slowly, it is fracturing and infantilising humanity. I say this because it seems to me that narcissism can act with far greater reach and depth through the internet. The internet may be the invention which kills us as a social, cultural entity.

Is that too pessimistic? I don’t think so; not in the long run, anyway. That empathetic part of us could be learned again, if ever it was lost, given lots of time. But facing an ecological catastrophe and polarised into two halves, perhaps such lessons would never be learned.

 

steve opinion2

Donald Trump & the Media

There have been a lot of news reports and commentaries in that last couple of days referencing Donald Trump blaming the media for all his and America’s woes. Quite a few explanations have been offered, many of which have been wide of the mark.

As described in posts elsewhere on my blog (I, II, III), Trump’s obsession with what he believes is the media misreporting him, spreading “fake news” and harassing him derives from his intense, malignant narcissism. Like all such people, Trump feels the strongest possible urge to reach out and turn the real world into the best copy of his imaginary one. And this is the strategy behind the deeds of all tyrants, dictators and monomaniacs: Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Thatcher, Mao et al. They are not interested in the world we live in because it is independent, running according to its own laws. What they wish to experience out there in reality is a copy of their imaginary world.

It should therefore be no surprise that the media – who, however imperfectly, represent the truth of the real world – is his number one enemy. It is the media countering his imaginary world. The oppose it by describing the real world, using facts.

It is reality that narcissists such as Trump have no connection with, and indeed no real interest in, except in that they experience it then reach out to replace it with their own imaginary versions. For all dangerous narcissists such as Trump the real world therefore is a perpetual prime enemy. Associates describe Trump’s never-ending rages – a classic diagnostic symptom of intense narcissism. This rage comes from the inevitable abyss between the real world, which can only be controlled or changed to a limited extent, and Trump’s imagination. The real world will never lie down and do what Trump wants. It is forever independent. Luckily for us, the media represent and articulate that independence, through facts, reality, and the truth.

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Council tax rises

What the hell is wrong with British people?

Talk today is all of council tax rises, which could be 3% for most councils, or 5.99% for the largest councils. I make that an extra £6.78 on my (average band) council tax for the larger rise. Yet all we’re hearing about today is how terrible it is that “so much” is being taken away in the form of council tax, and how councils should be making ever more stringent cuts in order to balance the books. Recycling collections every month, maybe?

Let’s look at this the other way round. The worst case scenario on my tax – an increase of 5.99% – is an increase of £6.78 per month. That is a ridiculously small amount of money to be making a fuss about. It equates to the loss of two Costa hot chocolate with cream and marshmallow drinks per month. Two. Just two. Even though I earn far below the nation average salary, I’m pretty sure I could manage that.

The reason this is an issue at all is that for cultural and political reasons this is an exceptionally selfish country full of people who have been taught to think that every penny possible should come to them for their own selfish use. Well, the truth is we live in communities, and communities need money.

In fact, communities need lots of money. Maybe the solution to the “problem” is that British people could stop being so selfish and think about the societies they live in.

Because Thatcher was wrong: there is such a thing as society. And we have to pay for it.

100 Years On

#100Years

#Suffrage100

#Suffragette

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Vegetarian Week, Day 5

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?

 

  1. Veganism, Freedom and Conclusions.

Would I go vegan? No.

There is one main reason that I give when I’m asked this question. In my opinion, changing from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one creates far more benefit for self and planet than changing from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one. I eat free range eggs and drink milk if it happens to be in my tea (though I never buy milk). To my mind, going vegan just doesn’t add enough to make it worth considering. Many will disagree with me.

I think the truth is a sad and predictable one about the vegetarian issue. Most people, even if partially convinced, don’t want to go vegetarian because (i) they can’t be bothered, (ii) they don’t care anyway and (iii) they would have to give up something they like. This may seem harsh, but I think it is true in the majority of cases. However, the fact is that human beings are not free to eat whatever they like. As I wrote last year in my post The Freedom Delusion, we are limited by the fact that we live on a single, irreplaceable planet:

“There is no such thing as complete freedom… That is an delusion caused by cultural narcissism, a specific refusal to accept that human beings live in communities; in societies. In fact, we human beings enjoy quite limited freedom. We are restricted by the finite planet that we live on, but also by hundreds of smaller concerns, such as the communities we live in, to which we have many obligations. But to the narcissist such obligations don’t exist. All that matters is personal freedom, to the detriment of community, of culture, of the planet.”

The more the human population grows, the less freedom we shall have. Corporate bodies and vested interests will continue to promote “consumer choice” (an illusion) and Western values of freedom (also an illusion), but the time will come when things have to change. A big reduction is meat-eating is I suspect going to be one of the main changes of the twenty-first century.

I personally found going vegetarian pretty easy. I didn’t miss meat. I didn’t miss bacon. It didn’t seem like much of a change at all. Of course, my own experience is unlike that of many other people, but I do believe that a lot of the inertia around making the change to a vegetarian diet is reactionary hype, the lies of vested interests, and good ol’ capitalist exploitation.

You have the ability to choose to do the planet some good. Make use of that ability. Live local, think global. Go vegetarian and see the difference.

2Llangollen

Vegetarian Week, Day 4

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?

 

  1. The Health Argument

Is vegetarianism really more healthy? I was sceptical for a long time, but the science tells a compelling story.

First of all there are the obvious points – meat and dairy products affect cardiovascular health, they are carcinogens in excess (although of course many things are carcinogens in excess), they affect cholesterol, and their lack of vitamins, antioxidants etc mean they are intrinsically unhealthy if eaten in a poor diet.

But there are more insidious effects. The unethical and cruel use of antibiotics in animal farming has led to newly evolved strains of bacteria which are resistant to known antibiotics. These ‘superbugs’ move from farms into the population by two routes – the meat itself, and the environment in which they exist. So the continued use of antibiotics on farms poses a considerable risk to human health. Antibiotic use promotes the evolution of superbugs, which contaminate meat and poultry, thereby causing disease in people. Superbugs can also leave the farm via workers, wind or liquid runoff, and via wildlife. But even if they don’t immediately cause illness, bacteria are able to exchange genetic immunity with other bacteria wherever they encounter them, via their plasmids (structures that can change independently of chromosomes).

Why then are antibiotics used? The majority of use is in healthy animals, to prevent infection or speed up their growth. This is particularly the case in intensive farming, where animals are kept in confined conditions. In other words, the intensive system itself demands this because it is unnatural and won’t work in any other way. More than half of global antibiotic use is administered to livestock, often to entire herds regardless of the number infected; and in some countries they are given out routinely to promote growth. This has led scientists to conclude that farm animals are a major cause of antibiotic resistance, and this finding has been confirmed by a 2018 Food Standards Agency study.

It’s not intrinsically more healthy to be a vegetarian if the only thing you do is stop eating meat. It’s just as easy to be an unhealthy vegetarian as it is to be an unhealthy omnivore. The benefits arrive when meat and dairy products are replaced with fruit, vegetables, beans, soy etc. Also, vegetarians lose their vitamin B12 intake when they forego meat, which is why products like marmite are vital. (Luckily, I love marmite!)

Another preconception is that meat-eaters are more susceptible to sickness due to tainted meat. In fact they are more susceptible, but not by much. Bacterial infections can easily be passed along by vegetables, eg the current Romaine lettuce problem (E. coli).

Nor is protein an issue. Human beings in fact don’t need much protein to live happily. Most healthy individuals need about 0.8 grams daily per kilogram of body weight. So for instance somebody at nine stones would need only 45 grams a day, all of which can be supplied by plants, whose protein is just as good as that from meat.

To summarise the health benefits of vegetarianism: vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters, in whom cardiovascular disease is more common; vegetarian food is typically low in saturated fat, and usually contains little or no cholesterol; vegetarians have lower blood pressure than omnivores, with some studies showing that adding meat to a vegetarian diet raises blood pressure levels rapidly and significantly; a vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling and preventing diabetes, because this diet can lower blood sugar levels and often reduce or even eliminate the need for medication; studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of the general population’s death rates.

On this last point, why do vegetarian diets help protect against cancer? One main factor is that they are lower in fat and higher in fibre than meat-based diets. But also, plants contain cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals; for example, vegetarians usually consume more of the plant pigments beta-carotene and lycopene, and therefore suffer less incidences of certain types of cancer.

The science is clear. Adopt a vegetarian diet, get some marmite, and enjoy the benefits.

Marmite

Vegetarian Week, Day 3

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?

 

  1. The Economic Argument

The economic argument in my opinion is a merger of the land use/population and ethical arguments. Economically it makes more sense to feed the world efficiently via a vegetarian diet than inefficiently using meat also. It’s also more equitable; poor and rich alike benefit, though of course the majority of the rich don’t care about such niceties.

The main aspect of the economic argument that I want to mention here is one too little mentioned in these discussions: scale. We live in nation states within an environment of global corporations, a situation made worse (some would argue) by the internet and globalism. Agriculture is in the main done on vast scales, resulting in the problem of monoculture – unnatural agriculture of one crop across vast areas. The problems brought by the adoption of monoculture are infertility – amended by fertilisers, to the detriment of the environment and of life generally – and pests, amended with life-destroying chemicals. If we did not have this emphasis on large scale agriculture then such attendant problems would be much reduced. And on the small, i.e. human scale, the pest problem is amended by such tactics as companion planting, which has been known about for centuries.

Why do we farm in monocultures? It is largely a matter of perceived economic benefit. Small scale faming, for instance for the local community, does not benefit vast corporations or large nations. It benefits people. The argument that small scale is “uneconomic” only exists if you assume in advance that life must be lived on these vast, inhuman scales: nation, state, world. The constant cry of the green economist is “small is beautiful” – and it is.

This therefore is another thing that the aspiring ethical person can do apart from become vegetarian. If you shop and live locally you greatly benefit both your local community and the planet as whole – the former directly, the latter indirectly. The man who made my last-but-one pair of shoes was a local shoemaker. I buy food – honey for example – at local farm shops to support local small businesses. I buy free range eggs locally when they’re available. None of these small adjustments is either difficult or too costly.

Which brings me to another point. It’s often observed that ‘ethical food’ is more expensive. That isn’t the case. What is true is that mass-made and mass-marketed food is cheaper. But it is cheap because the value gap is made up by unsustainable use of the planet’s resources. We live in an era of deliberately cheap food, where cheapness is masked by not factoring in the immense environmental consequences of its manufacture. When you see cheap food you shouldn’t think of your wallet – you should think, what corners have been cut to make this so inexpensive, and who suffers as a consequence?

schu

Vegetarian Week, Day 2

This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.

This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?

 

  1. The Ethical Argument

This is probably the main reason I’ve kept to my vegetarianism over thirty years. Factory farming is an inherently cruel process. It is a truism to state that if abattoirs had glass walls there would be far more vegetarians in the world, but because of the way we now live a huge gap has developed between food production and eating, which makes concealing the cruelty of factory farming much easier. And greedy capitalist corporations did not wait to exploit that situation.

I am guilty of supporting such methods, but only for a while, when I was a teenager. My first ever paying job was at a local egg farm, which had thousands of hens in tiny cages. I remember being shocked when I first experienced it, but I was too naïve then to do anything other than earn some money. These days I eat only free range eggs, which, wherever possible, I buy from local producers. If not I choose free range from the dairy aisle. This is just one of many practical ways of reducing the impact of cruelty in farming.

As a vegetarian another important issue is shoes. Here I’m far from perfect. I’ve never had any success wearing ‘vegetarian shoes’ so I have to go for the leather alternative. One way I’ve found of reducing my impact is to have one pair of shoes hand-made by a local shoemaker then have them repaired every few years. This means I buy far fewer shoes than the average person, reducing the repercussions on the world.

Another small issue for me is musical instruments. My hand drums and percussion instruments often have hides. Wherever possible I try to buy from ethical producers. Recently Carolyn Hillyer made me a shamanic drum, and this is what I read on the Seventh Wave Music website about her drum production:

“All the materials for these drums are very carefully sourced and everything is created using old (and sometimes very ancient) techniques; nothing is machine-made or mass-produced. Special attention is given to the integrity with which the animal skins are gathered and prepared. All skins are by-products of seasonal culling and would otherwise be wasted; no animal is ever killed just to provide skin for drums. Dartmoor Red Deer skins are sourced from a family-run smallholding and deer forest. Dartmoor Wild Horse skins are sourced from the wild pony herds that live on these hills.”

One argument put forward by supporters of factory farming is that animals aren’t sentient and we have a right to eat them for food. This is an argument I have a lot of sympathy for, in the sense of thinking that far too many animals are anthropomorphised. It is not however any excuse for cruel practices. Even if only chimps, gorillas, orang utans, whales and dolphins – i.e. the higher order mammals living in social groups – are sentient, all other highly evolved animals feel pain and deserve compassionate treatment. As, indeed, we ourselves do.

Factory farming and all other barbaric use or ill-treatment of animals is a symptom of human callousness and selfishness. This situation must change if the planet’s lifeforms are to be rescued.

chicken