Light on a killer

At 10.30 after the pub I put on a 70 lumens head torch and went out into the garden.

First I quickly and accurately cut a wide variety of slugs in two just behind their heads. If I do that every night my tender young borage and poached egg plants may grow up to attract pollinators, and my parsley, cabbage, lettuce and strawberries may grow up to feed me. Slug pellets poison way more wildlife than the slugs they’re intended for and shouldn’t ever be used. But I can’t be having the slugs, and I can’t see the difference between killing them like this and killing them in any other way (even the harmless-seeming ones or the more removed ones like beer traps. I’ve tried to repel them but the barrier method (copper coil) doesn’t seem to fully work. Reading that last sentence back it sounds a bit dodgy.

I’m very touched to find what I think is a common frog on a strawberry leaf. When I gently touch it, its skin is cool and moist. It doesn’t let me kiss it so for now I just have the one boyfriend. I don’t know where it will find water – maybe there is still a pond nearby after all. I just reported it on iSpot. Barkingside is suburban.

In the light of my head torch the air is teeming with pollen grains, more than I realised there could be without me noticing them in my nose and throat. Apparently this is only medium levels. Or maybe it’s just my garden?

I move seedlings onto a table in the greenhouse for the night where the slugs won’t get them. There is no cat crap on the lawn because I strimmed it down enough to use my Bosch push mower (zero electricity, even does stripes). The lawn is soft and green. There are black slugs on it. I don’t know what these ones do – I don’t see them on my plants.

A pipe in the eaves spouts water down the wall of the house. Matt comes back, listens to a pipe in the hot water tank cupboard, then puts on the head torch and goes up a ladder to the loft where I have never been because it is very dark, dirty, spidery and gendered. I waggle pipes, and he turns one off.

The spouting stops and yippee – I don’t have to have a shower.

 

Threshold concepts and feminism

On Spiked Brendan O’Neill writes:

“… it seems to me that internet trolling, particularly the vile sexist stuff, is an unwitting by-product of the cultivation in recent years of a stringently emotionally correct society.

…In response to such linguistic stricture, such moral straitjacketing, some men, usually sad fucks, are going to seek out a space in which they can let their id go crazy and scream out certain words or thoughts – ‘cow!’, ‘slut!’, ‘rape!’, whatever. The emotional slovenliness of the trolls is in direct proportion to the suffocating emotional correctness of society at large.”

If by ‘emotionally correct’ and ‘moral straitjacketing’ he means taboos, I’d agree. I’d also agree that defensive advocates too often resort to theatrical outrage and manufactured controversy which censure expression rather than explore the sentiment.

But there may be a different angle to these distressing and frightening outbursts. In my line of work we sometimes refer to education in terms of ‘threshold concepts’.

A threshold concept may be seen as a crossing of boundaries into new conceptual space where things formerly not within view are perceived, much like a portal opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. (Land, 2013)

I know it isn’t a good idea to deal lightly with theories, and the social world is different from formal educational settings but – with that in mind and this being just a blog – I’m sometimes drawn to thinking of feminism (and other isms close to my heart like veganism, anti-racism) as founded on threshold concepts. One example might be the idea of indirect discrimination. Another might be the distinction between intent and effect, or the person and the act. Another might be the notion of non-human animal sentience. And by way of comparison, in physics, heat transfer; in economics, opportunity cost; in accounting, depreciation. All of these are ‘threshold’ because they are core beliefs without which it is impossible to develop or deepen an understanding. Their apprehension is transformative, requiring the knower to abandon familiar, taken-for-granted perceptions or (in the social world) norms and begin to think like an anti-racist, or a feminist, or an anti-speciesist.

Not always a comfortable or straightforward experience, you might guess. Perkins (2006) sets out five kinds of ‘troublesome knowledge’ which interfere with threshold concepts, summarised by Land,

“…knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert (unpractised), conceptually difficult and complex, counterintuitive, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things.”

As Richard Palmer points out (2001) learning can be deeply unsettling, leaving you bereft of your illusions. “The quicksilver flash of insight may make one rich or poor in an instant”. There’s a sense of loss, sometimes even grief. It’s then easy to become ‘stuck’ in an insecure ‘liminal’ state between relinquishing the old perceptions and acquiring the new ones. I frequently perceive this unsure state in myself, and in many reticent observers of the recent debates on feminism and immigration – the ones who don’t bring up the subject and who discuss it cautiously. There’s a mimicry of understanding, but it isn’t an authentic way of thinking. In this liminal state they’re incapable of defending a principle against the sacreligious attacks that Brendon O’Neill is trying to explain (not that they are merely sacreligious – I take them more seriously than he does).

I wonder if the liminality also brings a vulnerability to societal power relations in the form of competing  threshold concepts. Perhaps – thinking about the Twitter rape threats – the liminality is so unpleasant that some people spasmodically throw it off and rebound back to the comfortable world view they held before, decisively sealing this by expressing their vitriol against the people they perceive represent the concept they rejected?

So what?

Well, I’m out of my depth.

Daniel Dennett writes in his book Intuition Pumps (2013) that:

“…philosophers should seriously consider undertaking a survey of the terrain of the commonsense or manifest image of the world before launching into their theories of knowledge, justice, beauty, truth, goodness, time, causation, and so on, to make sure they actually aim their analyses and arguments at targets that are relevant to the rest of the world.”

Fair enough, but it relates to a pre-liminal settled knowledge and doesn’t relate to liminality, which is disorientated and bereft of commonsense. Ray Land makes some suggestions which for good reason assume students and teachers – but in any case he views threshold concepts as markers rather than tools.

I’ve reached the bottom and the end.

Incidentally, the recent mainstream media coverage of the stem cell burger with little or no discussion of cruelty indicates that views about animals are depressingly – or to use Perkins’ term – ‘defended’.

_________________

Dennett, D (2013). Intution pumps and other tools for thinking. London: Allen Lane.

Land, R (2013). Discipline-based teaching. In Hunt, L and Chalmers R (2013) University Teaching in Focus: A learning-centred approach. London: Taylor and Francis.

Palmer, RE (2001). The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics. http://www.mac.edu/faculty/richardpalmer/liminality.html

Perkins D (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In Meyer J and Land R (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Oxon: Routledge.

Loving badgers, hating cows

It’s no longer news that the Conservative-led coalition sanctions the mass murder of badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset, which at best will bring about a measly estimated 16% reduction in bovine tuberculosis for a temporary period. The farmers say they can’t innoculate the cattle because the antibodies make the milk unsellable. Innoculating badgers, says the government, is expensive and difficult. Culling is expensive, difficult, dangerous, and doesn’t work, but somehow it’s top of the list. Conservatives usually try to argue it’s in the badgers’ best interests. I suppose if plague came back to London, they’d be supporting policy to lock the infected people in their homes.

I don’t get most of the badger-defending public. Because it seems so clear to me that dairy farming causes immeasurably more suffering than badger-culling, I get confused by the outrage in defence of badgers while the industrial exploitation, slaughter and more than occasion torture of the dairy industry goes unchallenged. I think that’s what’s known as speciesism.

So, some reasons to sign the Stop the Cull petition which already has 100,000 signatures, and this petition initiated by Brian May.

Caroline Allen, senior (and local) Green Party member, vet, who reports evidence against a cull from the Randomised Badger-Culling Trial. Barkingside21 also pokes holes in the government’s flimsy evidence base. The Guardian is against it, but has a story containing some recipes for the dead badger meat, if it should go ahead. Meat is expensive, they say – they’ll be body-snatching from hospitals any day now. The Daily Mail is showing very cute pictures of badgers at the moment. Brian May. The Human Society. Animal Aid. The RSPCA. All against the badger slaughter.

Another way to solve this: admit that it is wrong for humans to drink what comes out of the mammary glands of a mother from another species and stop buying it. Meanwhile, join the consumer boycott of farmers who allow the cull on their land.

I salute the human shields and the destruction of the killing machine. It’s a straightforward one-sided war and if politics fail and the cull begins, it needs to be sabotaged. Only somebody who trades in animal lives could think otherwise – we used to do that with human lives but we grew out of it.

I have a dream that the animal defenders and the left get together and work on a financial safety net to persuade farmers, who aren’t so different after all from Afghan poppy farmers, to stop feeding this country’s lousy, barbaric dairy habit.

Dairy farming without legs

An estimated 84,000 workers are employed in the dairy industry. According to this June 2011 parliamentary briefing, the UK produces around 13 billion litres of milk each year, ninth in the world.  In 2010 the UK milk industry accounted for 16.1% of total agricultural output, worth £3.3 billion at market prices (the National Farmers Union puts the figure at 6bn). 51% of the UK-processed milk was sold as liquid milk, 26% became cheese, 10% became milk powder and condensed milk, 2% cream, 2% butter, 2% yoghurt, and 3% other products.

Despite this large stake in the UK economy, dairy farmers fear bankruptcy. Average production cost is 29.5p per litre, in order to invest in the industry farmers need 32p but many will receive less than 25p. Meanwhile milk retails at around 85p per litre, an enormous markup. National Farmers Union members have been campaigning to ensure three large supermarket chains Morrisons, Asda and the Cooperative pay dairy farmers according to a formula which ensures that farmers receive a ‘farm gate price’ that is at least the cost of production, and to regulate the sector to ensure that milk processing businesses (the largest being Arla, First Milk, Robert Wiseman, Dairy Crest) do not unduly influence the price with restrictive contracts.

As things stand even if, say, the Coop raises the shop floor price of milk (as it just has), the amount the farmer receives may drop even further because of the price set by the milk processor (as it just has). What processors pay dairy farmers dropped by a third over the past three years. And of course, processors are likely to cite reasons such as “continued price inflation in the commodities and food markets”.

Agriculture minister James Paice says that the Conservative-led coalition won’t regulate processor contracts. So the NFU are lobbying and the militant campaign group Farmers for Action are currently blockading milk processors in Somerset, Worcestershire and Shropshire. If they are successful, and if there are no significant efficiency savings to be made, the pressure will centre on consumer milk prices. Supermarkets may or may not decided to reduce their markup, but if shop floor prices rise higher than consumers are willing to pay, they’re likely to entertain alternatives to milk.

Just as it would have been good if Nokia had been more receptive to the smart phone concept early on, it would be good if the dairy industry were more receptive to alternatives to milk. I notice the Californian Milk Board is threatened enough by plant milks to try to create an aversion to them as unnatural – as if there’s nothing more natural than adult humans drinking from the mammary glands of a mother from a different species who is producing freakishly large amounts of milk, who needs antibiotics because high mastitis incidence has been bred into her, whose babies have not only been taken away but, when superfluous to farmers’ requirements as is often the case, carted hundreds of miles to the desolation of a veal farm, or shot at birth, who has a twenty-year life-span if left to herself, but who on a farm meets a premature death when no longer an economic asset – often because the antibiotics aren’t working and she’s too ill for her milk to meet EU somatic cell count limits. If she’s producing antibodies to heal herself, she gets the chop.

Only 3.1% of UK milk (Freedom Food or Soil Association) has more humane provenance than this, and I personally don’t accept that their regulations are humane. So milk is beyond unnatural. And that’s without even touching on the environmental degradation including the 990 litres of water it takes to produce each litre of milk. If you need milk, plant milks are better on so many levels. There’s bound to be one to suit anybody’s taste. And just like when you are encouraged to give up salt, things taste strange at first and it takes a bit of time to adjust to the taste – but everybody does.

And for the record, despite a recent butter binge, milk consumption isn’t burgeoning in the UK. I take my hat of to the NFU and Farmers For Action for being organised, solid and effective. All workers deserve a price that covers their costs and affords them padding and investment. It’s indisputable that dairy farmers and milk processors need a break and a decent living. I can’t see that dairy farming has legs. It’s obvious that ‘sustainable’ means addressing the interlocked issues of dairy farmers’ livelihoods, milk producers’ livelihoods, the environment, and animal welfare. Who is doing this? Apparently not the slumbering Vegan Society with its two news items since the end of May. Not the Food Ethics Council. Not the hilariously-named Fair Milk Campaign where the animals are voiceless. Not agricultral minister Jim Paice who doesn’t know the price of milk and so should be taken with a pinch of salt when he calls for cutting production costs (with presumed knock-on effects for cow welfare). Not the “does not consider alterations to the size of the dairy sector” Food Climate Research Network. Not DEFRA.

Hazelnut milk is good in coffee, hot chocolate and sweet cuisine and currently costs a pound at Sainsbury’s as part of a three-for-£3 multibuy which includes other plan milks. Soya grows in this country now and the taste of the milks has improved immeasurably. Alternatives to this primeval habit of stripping breast milk from cows and feeding it to grown-up humans are looking more and more feasible every day. But there are certain to be obstacles.

I wish that Animal Aid, the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, The Vegan Society, &tc would combine their resources to fund research work – complementary to the work carried out by FCRN and FEC above – into alternative economies to sustain the 84,000 people currently employed in the dairy industry.

Only human

I often think about the slugs I have been cutting in half to save my vegetables.

Analogous to racism and sexism, speciesism is the belief that, or behaviour as if, humans were inherently more important than non-human animals.

Richard Ryder, Oxford University psychologist who first coined the phrase ‘speciesism’ in the 1970s later developed the ethic of ‘painism‘, where suffering pain or distress becomes the basis for rights. Richard Ryder’s thinking is behind the NC3Rs, the UK’s National Council for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. His work for the RSPCA took the organisation in a European Union direction which led to an impressive if gradual number of pro-animal statutes. He’s also a former Lib Dem activist, which must have been formative of his interest in suffering.

Painism is an attempt to find a way between Utilitarianism and dominant approaches to Rights Theory. Utilitarianism prescribes the suffering of a minority for the sake of a majority. It takes a tallying-up approach as if ‘the greatest good’ of ‘the greatest number’ were a good that is felt more intensely by each person the more people feet it. Rights Theory places emphasis upon the importance of the individual but does so with “mysterious references to telos [purpose] or intrinsic values” and becomes hamstrung with “the trade-off issue – which is really one of the central problems of ethics – by invoking ad hoc conflicting rights such as the “right to self-defence” to get themselves out of difficulties.”

Painism holds that 5 units of pain for the Prime Minister is the same as 5 units of pain for a mouse, and a 100 units of pain for the Prime Minister is far worse than 1 unit of pain for each of 100 mice. Rather than attempting to aggregate suffering, “the badness of an action can be judged by the level of pain felt by the individual who suffers the most by it – the ‘maximum sufferer’”. So when an animal is forced to grow so fast that its muscles tear, a long and painful preamble to a terror ordeal culminating in an agonising death – so that some of the 1500 customers in London’s newest and heaviest MacDonalds can fatten themselves on a burger, it’s not so hard to work out what painism would do differently. Painism also incorporates emotional pain documented by Jeffrey Moussaief Masson in his embarrassingly-titled 2004 study of animal consciousness The Pig Who Sang to the Moon. I haven’t read any of the books so I’ll stop there.

Approaching release is Speciesism, a documentary by Washington D.C. law post-graduate Mark Devries. It’s lucky you’re reading this because you’re unlikely to learn about it any other way. 67 donors on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter raised $15k to promote it and it will be previewed at the 2012 Animal Rights Conference – whose web site is a tattered cobweb of longterm failure – and after that, definitely not your local Odeon. Speciesism features several philosophers, some industrial investigative journalism, a neo-Nazi and at least one Holocaust survivor who identifies with the creatures in the clutches of the humans. On the Dr Don Show you can hear a l-o-o-o-o-n-g but never tedious radio interview with Mark Devries which probes the main philosophical and social arguments. Dr Don is a man whose web site sports a non-hilarious self-caricature dressed in scrubs perched on a dribbling cider keg, literally wringing eggs out of a hen. This isn’t touched on in the interview.

Well, you’ve read Safran Foer’s Eating Animal, now see Speciesism, get yer Jewish subtext here Snoopy, and may providence send more lawyers to save us from our rottenmost selves.

I hope the slugs died instantly. They seemed like they did.

 

 

 

The world has plenty of other delights

This is not by me – I am much too angry with Hugh Fearnley Witless and Marco Pierre Twat to write anything like this – but by Victoria Coren. It is quite good.

“A long time ago, I had a cat called Graham. When I was working, he used to hop on to my desk, put his little paws on my shoulder and lick my ear. God, that was annoying. No wonder I ate him.

I didn’t really. I loved that cat very much. Of course I wouldn’t eat him; I know you were revolted by that idea. Shivering with horror, you think you would never consider eating cat of any kind. (Although, if your school lunches ever had “turkey fritters” on the menu, I’m afraid that ship has sailed, my friend.)

So perhaps you were among those who slammed the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for suggesting that puppies could be farmed for their meat.

“In principle,” Hugh F-W told the Radio Times, “I have no objection to a high-welfare organic puppy farm.”

I love Hugh for banging the welfare drum. He has always argued that we have a moral deal with the animals we eat: a good life in return for the meat. How much better a man he is than Marco Pierre White, who argued the case for battery farming with the amazing words: “I know you have these TV programmes where members of the public get shown around huge chicken farms and start crying. Probably because the film crew squirted onion juice in their eyes. Boohoo. Come on. Grow up.”

White says that poor people can’t afford to be namby-pamby about whether animals have been squashed into fetid, windowless barns and stuffed with antibiotics. Heaven forbid he’d recommend we just eat less meat. Not while he’s got an endorsement deal with Bernard Matthews Farms, anyway.

See if you can guess what it was in this quote, from an interview Marco Pierre White did last year, that made me realise he had an endorsement deal with Bernard Matthews Farms: “I hate food snobs. When people attack modern-day farming, they attack the consumers. Why attack the weekend tradition of the normal family sitting down to a turkey?”

Genius. Worth every penny they’re paying him. Oh, that old tradition. The good old weekly Sunday turkey. I hope you’re keeping it alive in your household. That and Britain’s long-time favourite breakfast: turkey porridge.

Frankly, we should prefer to eat an organic puppy than a battery chicken, for a variety of reasons, possibly not including “the taste”. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never eaten dog. There are some animals I absolutely will not eat. Unless they’re ground up and made into a Turkish sausage, in which case: Sagliginiza! (which is Turkish for “minimum 17% mechanically retrieved meat products”).

But we all know what the problem is with cooking a puppy for dinner. That’s right: it’s too small for two people, too big for one. The answer? Freeze the leftovers, do a curry.

Oh, stop making that letter bomb. The problem with eating puppies is that they’re playful, trusting, lovable and loyal.

But then again, so are pigs. Rabbits are lovely pets yet considered edible. Why should we eat a rabbit, but not a weasel? Perhaps you think a weasel simply doesn’t look like food. And a prawn does?

Hugh’s argument (although he did admit that he personally would eat a dog only if he were “on the point of starvation”) is that we ought to be able to see all animals equally and thus, if well treated, eat them all.

But the truer conclusion to his argument is that we should not eat any of them. The better logic is not: “If you eat a sheep, you could eat a puppy”, but: “If you couldn’t eat a puppy, you shouldn’t eat a sheep.”

Come on, we know we shouldn’t. It’s a bloodbath out there. When they read about our dietary habits 200 years from now, it’ll look like a holocaust. Millions of animals mistreated, slaughtered, sliced up and delivered to our plates in such a way as to look as unlike “a chunk of corpse” as possible. It’s cruel and it’s foul. Imagining it isn’t is part of a bizarre mass self-hypnosis.

You might say it’s “natural” because Primitive Man ate meat (albeit far more rarely than we do). I say: come back to me when you’re happy to shit in a cave.

I’m not a vegetarian, by the way. I used to be. I crumbled because I love the taste of meat. But the truth is, I feel just the same way about smoking. I smoke because I “enjoy it”, yet it’s imbued with a sense of shame and I wish I didn’t.

Perhaps, by the time you read this, I won’t. I’m planning to quit smoking this weekend. I was going to give up in July, but my summer plans went wrong. Time for a new way of thinking and an winter offensive. If I fail, I’ll try again.

What I do understand, and believe is now culturally ingrained on a wide scale, is that there’s nothing good about smoking: it brings nastiness and death and its only defence is a fleeting pleasure that may be illusory anyway.

What has failed yet to take hold, socially, is that the same applies to eating meat.

I’d hate it to be banned, but should we not find our enjoyment a little bit ruined by guilt, just like with cigarettes? That is the road to positive, voluntary rejection. I might start by imagining, every time I take a bite of steak, that it was once a terrier.

A bit joyless, I know. But we’re too old and wise to take thoughtless pleasure in what’s unhealthy and cruel. The world has plenty of other delights to offer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’ll always be mushrooms on toast and PG Wodehouse.”

Hope her Observer co-writers, the grim reapers Jay Rayner and Nigel Slater, read that. Those two are carnage incarnated.