Or even vegan?
Just a thought!
Or even vegan?
Just a thought!
How less can be so much more.
I came at today’s post from a number of directions.
A few days ago I was catching up with a good friend back in the UK, Peter M. We hadn’t spoken in a couple of months. One of the items from my end was mentioning that I had converted to a vegetarian diet, verging on trying to be a vegan. Jeannie has been a vegetarian for almost her entire life. Having made the change to a vegetarian diet, to my surprise I had gained 12 lbs (5.4 kgs) in the last month. Peter then mentioned that he, too, had put on 8 kgs before deciding to try and cut back. Peter and I are of the same age and motivated to stay as fit and healthy as we can. Anyway, Peter’s route for losing some weight was to commit to the fasting arrangement promoted and recommended by Dr. Michael Mosley – more of this later.
The conversation also reminded me of an essay by George Monbiot back at the end of November: Wrong About Being Wrong. Mr. Monbiot wrote of his mind changes about being vegetarian. With his permission, here is that essay.
November 27, 2013
The argument seems, once more, decisively to favour veganism.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 27th November 2013
He did it quietly, and the decision is the better for that: Al Gore, according to reports in the US press, has gone vegan.
Certain things could be said about other aspects of his lifestyle: his enormous houses and occasional use of private jets, for example. While we can’t demand that everyone who espouses green causes should live like a Jain monk, I think we can ask that they don’t live like Al Gore. He’s a brilliant campaigner, but I find the disjunction between the restraint he advocates and the size of his ecological footprint disorienting.
So saying, if he is managing to sustain his vegan diet, in this respect he puts most of us to shame. I tried it for 18 months and almost faded away. I lost two stone, went as white as a washbasin and could scarcely concentrate. I think I managed the diet badly; some people appear to thrive on it. Once, after I had been unnecessarily rude about vegans and their state of health (prompted no doubt by my own failure), I was invited to test my views in an unconventional debate with a vegan cage fighter. It was a kind invitation, but unfortunately I had a subsequent engagement.
In 2010, after reading a fascinating book by Simon Fairlie, a fair part of which was devoted to attacking my views, I wrote a column in which I maintained that I’d been wrong to claim that veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue. Diverting grain that could have fed human beings to livestock, I’d argued, is grotesque when 800 million go hungry.
Fairlie does not dispute this, and provides many examples of the madness of the current livestock production system. But he points out that plenty of meat can be produced from feed which humans cannot eat, by sustaining pigs on waste and grazing cattle and sheep where crops can’t grow. I was swayed by his argument. But now I find myself becoming unswayed. In the spirit of unceasing self-flagellation I think I might have been wrong about being wrong.
Part of the problem is that while livestock could be fed on waste and rangelands, ever less of the meat we eat in the rich nations is produced this way. Over the past week, a row has erupted between chefs and pig farmers over the issue of swill. The chefs point out – as Simon Fairlie does – that it is ridiculous to feed pigs on soya grown at vast environmental cost in the Amazon instead of allowing them to dispose of our mountain of waste food. Feeding pigs on swill has been forbidden since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001.
The farmers respond that the risks of spreading disease are too great and that pigs fed on waste grow more slowly than pigs fed on soya. I side with the chefs: I believe that a society capable of identifying the Higgs boson should be able to sterilise waste food. But I suspect that they’re not going to win: the industry and its regulators are firmly against them.
I should have seen it coming, but I watched in horror as the meat industry used my article to justify the consumption of all meat, however it was produced, rather than just the meat raised on food that humans can’t eat. A potential for good is used to justify harm.
While researching my book Feral, I also came to see extensive livestock rearing as a lot less benign than I – or Simon Fairlie – had assumed. The damage done to biodiversity, to water catchments and carbon stores by sheep and cattle grazing in places unsuitable for arable farming (which means, by and large, the hills) is out of all proportion to the amount of meat produced. Wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching appears to be even worse.
The belief that there is no conflict between this farming and arable production also seems to be unfounded: by preventing the growth of trees and other deep vegetation in the hills and by compacting the soil, grazing animals cause a cycle of flash floods and drought, sporadically drowning good land downstream and reducing the supply of irrigation water.
So can I follow Al Gore, and do it better than I did before? Well I intend at least to keep cutting my consumption of animal products, and to see how far I can go. It’s not easy, especially for a person as greedy and impetuous as I am, but there has to be a way.
Back to the conversation with Peter M. about fasting. He spoke enthusiastically about Dr. Mosley who one quickly discovers,
Michael J. Mosley (born 22 March 1957) is a British journalist, medical doctor, producer and TV presenter. He is probably best known as a television presenter of programmes on biology and medicine, particularly his series on the workings of the human body, Inside the Human Body and his regular appearances as the friendly medic on The One Show.
He was interviewed by Steve Wright of BBC Radio 2 back in January, 2012 and that interview is on YouTube:
That BBC Horizon programme is no longer available to watch but a 4-minute extract may be seen here:
Inevitably, Dr. Mosley has a website Fast Diet that is packed full of valuable information.
So just as soon as we have the water back to the house and I can have a long, hot shower I intend to adopt the 5:2 diet.
A fascinating point of view of the relationship between humans and animals.
Jean and I were at our regular gardening college class yesterday. It was all about the growing of vegetables. OK, I can hear you thinking, what on earth does that have to do with today’s topic? Simply because the tutor, Cayci V., mused at the start of her lesson how gardeners were great animal lovers and then proceeded to list all the animals she and her husband kept at their home in Globe, about an hour from Payson, Arizona. Cayci admitted to having 5 dogs, 15 cats, 2 emus, 2 llamas, numerous chickens. She also had 2 bison that recently died having been poisoned by Oleander cuttings. Anyway, to the article.
A recent article on the BBC News Magazine was about the need for humans to have contact with animals. It was presented by John Gray who is a political philosopher and author of the book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism which argues that free market globalization is unstable and is in the process of collapsing! H’mmm. John is also the author of the book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, a book that was described by the British Observer newspaper thus,
There is unlikely to be a more provocative or more compelling book published this year than Straw Dogs. A long-time scourge of the delusions of global capitalism, John Gray is one of the most consistently interesting and unpredictable thinkers in Britain. He is unpredictable because, unlike most political commentators, he never ceases to question the underlying assumptions of his own beliefs and prejudices.
Anyway, I’m at risk of digressing, as many of you will regularly notice! The article by John Gray on the BBC News website was published over a couple of weeks ago and, therefore, I feel it not too great a copyright sin to reproduce it in full on Learning from Dogs. It’s a fascinating article.
Why does the human animal need contact with something other than itself, asks John Gray.
Many years ago an eminent philosopher told me he’d persuaded his cat to become a vegan. To begin with I thought he was joking. Knowing a bit about cats, I couldn’t take seriously the idea that they’d give up their predatory ways.
“You must have provided the cat with some pretty powerful arguments,” I said jokingly. “It wasn’t as difficult as you may think,” he replied rather sternly.
He never explained exactly how the transformation was achieved. Was his cat presented with other cats that had converted to veganism – feline role models, so to speak? Had he prepared special delicacies for his cat – snacks that looked like mice but were made of soya, perhaps?
Beginning to suspect that the philosopher might after all be serious, I asked if the cat went out. He told me it did. That answered a part of my puzzlement. Evidently the cat was supplementing its vegan diet by hunting, natural behaviour for cats after all.
I was still a little perplexed though. Cats tend to bring their hunting trophies back home and I wondered how the philosopher had missed seeing them. Had the cat hidden them out of sight? Or were the cat’s trophies prominently displayed but disregarded by the philosopher, marks of atavistic feline behaviour that would eventually disappear as the cat progressed towards a new kind of meat-free life?
The conversation tapered off and I never did get to the bottom of the mystery. The dialogue did set me thinking. Evidently the philosopher thought of the cat as a less evolved version of himself that, with a lot of help, could eventually share his values. But the idea that animals are inferior versions of humans is fundamentally misguided.
Each of the millions of species that evolution has thrown up is different and particular, and the animals with which we share the planet aren’t stages on the way to something else – ourselves. There’s no evolutionary hierarchy with humans perched at the top. The value of animals – or as I’d prefer to say other animals – comes from being what they are. And it’s the fact that they are so different from humans that makes contact with them so valuable to us.
Some philosophers – not many it must be admitted – have in the past understood this. The 16th Century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, loved cats because he knew he would never be able to enter their minds. “When I play with my cat,” he asked, “how do I know she is not amusing herself with me rather than I with her?”
Montaigne didn’t want his animal companions to be mirrors of himself, he wanted them to be a window from which he could look out from himself and from the human world.
Never more than partly domesticated, cats are never fundamentally humanised. Montaigne found them lovable for precisely this reason, it wasn’t that he was suggesting we should emulate cats. Wiser than the philosopher who believed he’d converted his cat to veganism, he understood that the good life means different things for animals with different natures. What he questioned was the idea that one kind of life, the kind humans alone can live, is always best.
It’s true that cats don’t have some of the capacities we associate with morality. They seem to lack empathy, the capacity of identifying with the emotions of others. This may explain what has often been described as cruelty in their behaviour, toying with captured mice for example. Attributing cruelty to cats seems a clear case of anthropomorphism – the error of projecting distinctively human qualities onto other species.
Cats are not known to display compassion, but neither do they inflict pain and death on each other in order to gratify some impulse or ideal of their own. There are no feline inquisitors or suicide bombers. Pedants will say that this is because cats lack the intellectual equipment that is required to formulate an idea of truth or justice. I prefer to think that they simply decline to be enrolled in fanaticism, another peculiarly human trait.
Dogs seem to be capable of showing human-like emotions of shame, but though they are more domesticated they still remain different from us. And I think it’s their differences from us, as much as their similarities, that makes them such good companions.
Whatever you feel about cats and dogs, it seems clear that the human animal needs contact with something other than itself. For religious people this need may be satisfied by God, even if the God with whom they commune seems too often all-too-human. For many landscape gives a sense of release from the human world, even if the land has been groomed and combed by humans for generations, as it has in England.
The contemplation of field, wood and water intermingling with wind and sky still has the power to liberate the spirit from an unhealthy obsession with human affairs. Poets such as Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes have turned to the natural world in an attempt to escape a purely human view of things. Since they remained human and used human language in the attempt, it’s obvious that they couldn’t altogether succeed. It’s also obvious that searching for a way of looking at the world that’s not simply human expresses a powerful human impulse.
The most intense example of this search I know is that recorded by John Baker in his book The Peregrine. First published in 1967 and recently reissued, the book is seemingly a piece of nature writing which slowly reveals itself as the testament of someone struggling to shed the point of view of a human observer.
Baker records his pursuit of two pairs of peregrines, which had arrived to hunt in the part of East Anglia where he lived. Alone he followed the birds for over 10 years. Concentrating the decade-long quest into a single year in order to recount it in the book, he writes of the peregrine: “Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom of the hunting life.”
He tells us that he came late to the love of birds. “For years I saw them only as a tremor on the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion.”
In time the human observer seemed to be transmuted into the inhuman hawk. “In a lair of shadow,” Baker writes, “the peregrine was crouching, watching me… We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men.”
Note how Baker switches suddenly from describing the hawk watching him to describing how “we” flee from humans. Baker found a sensation of freedom in the feeling that he and the hawk were fused into one. Sharing in the “exaltation and serenity” of the birds’ life he could imagine that he’d shed his human identity, at least for a time, and could view the world through hawks’ eyes.
Of course he didn’t take this to be literal truth. He knew he couldn’t in the end be anything other than human. Yet he still found the pursuit of the peregrine deeply rewarding, for it opened up a temporary exit from the introspective human world.
John Baker’s devotion to the peregrine hadn’t enabled him to see things as birds see them. What it had done was to enable him to see the world through his own eyes, but in a different way. His descriptions of the landscape of East Anglia are exact and faithful to fact. But they reveal that long-familiar countryside in a light in which it looks as strange and exotically beautiful as anything in Africa or the Himalayas. The pursuit of a bird had revitalised his human perceptions.
What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy, it’s admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves. Unless it has contact with something other than itself, the human animal soon becomes stale and mad. By giving us the freedom to see the world afresh, birds and animals renew our humanity.
A fascinating, beautiful and incredibly thought-provoking essay.