Hey Euan Sutherland, how about I take my Co-operative bonus now?

I bank with the Co-op, shop with the Co-op and have a Co-op mortgage.

As a member of staff in a UK higher education institution (not this example, though) I’m entitled to an NUS Extra card which gives me an astonishing range of discounts at a number of major retailers. This includes 10% off at the Co-op. Until today I had only claimed a discount once. On that one occasion I didn’t feel great about it and decided that I’d rather give the Co-op the money than save it for myself.

Today, though, I got to the till and remembered the morning’s news that

“The embattled Co-operative Group, still reeling from a banking scandal and preparing to lay off up to 5,000 employees, faces a new storm over plans to pay its chief executive more than £3.5m in his first year in the job, while massively boosting the salaries and bonuses of other senior staff.”

and

“Salary consultants brought in by the Co-op based the proposed remuneration packages on comparisons with FTSE 30 and FTSE 100-listed companies of a similar size to the mutualised group that is owned by its 8 million members. But the huge salary increases are likely to be seen by some as at odds with the history of the co-operative movement and its traditionally egalitarian ethos.

“Under the proposals, Sutherland will be paid a base salary of £1.5m this year, plus a £1.5m retention payment. With pension contributions and other extras, such as compensation for buying him out of his previous contract, Sutherland will receive £3.66m this year. His predecessor, Peter Marks, received just over £1.3m last year.

“Richard Pennycook, the chief operating officer, will receive a £900,000 salary and a retention payment of £900,000. Six other executives will be paid salaries between £500,000 and £650,000 – and the same amount in retention. In the past, senior executives of the Co-op received between £200,000 and £400,000.

“It has also emerged that Rebecca Skitt, the Co-op’s chief human resources officer, who joined in February 2013, left last month with a proposed pay-off totalling more than £2m.”

at which point I got out my card and claimed my paltry £1.24.

Nobody – least of all a Co-op employee – should be getting that kind of money. The Co-op should shun that level of inequality. They should see through this kind of financial exsanguination – especially when they’re laying off the people who work at their farms and pharmacies.

And did I mention that I am not an effing charity?

I’m not dumping the Co-op but I do feel that they dumped me some time ago. My discount is going to make quite a lot of difference to me in the coming months and years. I should think the Co-op would be glad to have it, but it’s money they won’t get because they hired consultants from a financial tradition that has already got this country in trouble several times over, and then followed their recommendations to fleece me.

They badly need to get back to their mutual roots. They need to recognise the difference between greed and motivation.

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.

 

 

 

Greeking the EU

Lancaster University historian Aristotle Kallis has documented the suspension of moral and legal norms to establish sealed-off spaces of mass violence. Here he sketches the extraordinary surge in immigration to Greece – most undocumented immigration enters the EU through the Greek / Turkish border – which allowed the issue to dominate political competition in the recent elections, second only to the EU-IMF bailout plan, to the extent that,

“Shortly before the elections, the socialist-led government trumped the card of instituting a network of detention facilities for illegal immigrants across the country, euphemistically called “centres of closed hospitality”. It had also pursued the construction of a security razor wire fence along the land border with Turkey – a major entry-point for illegal immigrants.”

Kallis, author of Genocide and Fascism: The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe identifies a corrosive zero-sum-gain, anti-immigrant perception of existential security threat in Greece which,

“has significantly weakened the appeal of a human rights perspective on immigration or a moderate, pragmatic approach based on effective, long-term ‘migration management’.”

In the comments, Don Flynn (presumably of the Migrants Rights Network) asks,

“Whilst the political rhetoric of Syriza, favouring regularisation, etc, is welcome I would like to know what is being done to include migrants in the measures which are being taken at neighbourhood level in the most pressing immediate struggle – which is to build resilience into working class communities enabling them to survive austerity and initiate activities which strengthen the fightback.”

Only the most dunderheaded of the political left believe that this resilience is solely economic – material insecurity merely sharpens the edge of an existing but latent hostility to immigrants which Kallis observes in Greece and many observe here in the UK. Being aware of the concept of antisemitism without Jews, I was struck by the reference (also in the comments) to the findings of Charles Husband (now co-director of Bradford University’s Applied Social Science Centre) that in 1970s schools the strongest racist beliefs were held in schools with no immigrant pupils.

As somebody else points out in the comments, it isn’t racist to discuss whether free movement between the countries of the world is a good idea – but hostility has no place in a debate about immigrants, and is no more or less than a perception. Shame is one counter-approach (one I try with some comfortably-off people in my acquaintance who hate Muslims) but it’s no protection against the kind of existential insecurity observed by Kallis. In the long term only positive arguments will work – arguments for a politics of hospitality – addressed to the prosperous in particular (Alex Balch writes and speaks on this, but ironically and unfruitfully closed access) to lay down a foundation of non-racist concern. And in the case of European Monetary Union – where proposals are afoot for those rakish member states unable to run their economic affairs responsibly, to forfeit their national sovereignty before they become an undue burden on the others – why there are better alternatives for prosperity than nationalism.

Kant and later the emigre Levinas have gone about this by relating the personal ethic of hospitality in one’s own home to a law or politics of hospitality in one’s own homeland. More on that next post.

A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Just bear with me a minute before I get started on the book. One Saturday morning in 1996 I set off by bus from Rusholme in south Manchester to visit my mother’s cousin’s family in the northern suburb of Prestwich. At some stage during my journey up Oxford Road the Irish Republican Army detonated their last Manchester bomb and when the bus terminated prematurely nobody knew the reason. The city’s response was still being scrambled and I managed to duck the cordons and skirt across Market Street to the bus station where the situation became clear. From a call box I dialed my relatives but it was sabbath and they weren’t picking up. I arrived hours late and was greeted with the raised eyebrow of a mother used to keeping student time. When lunch was produced I realised with dismay that I’d forgotten to tell her I was vegetarian. Never having encountered liver before, I had to inquire about the greyish lump on my plate. I considered what to do. I hadn’t warned her; in the sabbath-related news vacuum there was consternation about the bomb; I’d been very late; I didn’t want her to worry; I was hungry; the food was nearly spoiled and if I didn’t eat it it was going in the bin. So I ate a calf’s liver without complaint. It was claggy and tasted the way bad breath smells. To this day it’s the foulest thing ever to have passed my lips.

These kinds of dilemmas, arising from “the fact that we do not eat alone”, foment inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a book I read because I received a copy gratis from his publicist to review on this blog. I usually avoid books on this subject because the suffering of the scores of billions of animals farmed and killed each year confounds me to the point of incoherence. But remembering that I read Everything is Illuminated even though the Holocaust confounds me, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though September 11th confounds me, I accepted the book.

It quickly becomes clear that Eating Animals isn’t a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Instead Safran Foer, picking a path through this “slippery, frustrating and resonant subject” with discretion, ingenuity, and not a little guile, examines what it entails to eat animals – not only for the animals but also for the eaters of animals. Towards the eaters he extends only gentleness and understanding, and this is the book’s most fascinating attribute given the scale of the death, suffering, and malpractice he reveals. But Safran Foer is not diverted by hypocrisy. Instead he has done what all good activists do: made the object of his activism, the animals, his central concern, rather than the wrong-doings of the people whose behaviour he hopes to change.

My review below is divided into four parts, and as well as the book I also refer to Safran Foer’s January 2011 RSA interview, which I recommend listening to.

Suffering

As in the UK, in the USA most animals humans eat are factory-farmed. These animals have pain and illness bred into them and are disabled from enacting their instinctive behaviour. Broiler chickens whose ability to walk or mate have been sacrified to explosive growth and disabling bodily proportions are one example. Like me, Jonathan Safran Foer wouldn’t describe himself as an animal lover, nor do you need to love animals to object to their suffering.

The accounts of animal experiences in the cage, on the kill floor and being processed are present and graphic, but rather than dominating the book they form a pivot. Although he identifies that factory farm companies rely on ignorance to continue their cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally degrading business practices, when Safran Foer describes the brutal circumstances of these animals lives and deaths, there are no jeremiads and no relish, only a sense of duty to represent the actualities.

He quotes (p228) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”

One of the book’s recurring ideas is the need for advocacy:

“It seems to me that it’s plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one’s family. It’s probably even wrong to sit silently with friends eating factory-farmed pork, however difficult it can be to say something. Pigs clearly have rich minds and just as clearly are condemned to miserable lives on factor farms. The analogy of a dog kept in a closet it fairly accurate, if somewhat generous. The environmental case against eating factory-farmed pork is airtight and damning.

“For similar reasons, I wouldn’t eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods.” (p195)

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference … We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animal?”

Reading that, I thought of Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka which researches connections between species bias and the extremes of racism, between the slaughterhouse and the industrial genocide of the Jews. 

Here in the UK, as I have mentioned before on this blog, industrial farmers campaign to avoid animal and human welfare regulations which, because they are not global, make their business less competitive. The eaters of animals are so thoroughly insulated from what animals endure between their birth and our plates that we expect our meals to cost a fraction of what they used to cost. The book doesn’t evade the arguments of the factory farmers, but represents them. Safran Foer worked hard to surface accounts from within the industry and to a great extent he considers the farmers to be victims of the system in which they are trying to earn a living. Available on BBC iPlayer, Panorama’s recent documentary on the true cost of cheap food illustrates farmers’ predicament.

Hypocrisy

From these accounts from farmers it becomes clear that a change in consumer behaviour is the best chance for human and animal welfare – but in this respect there’s much that Safran Foer leaves unsaid. His RSA interview confirmed this unwillingness to take on the individual consumer, at least directly. Instead the book is a prelude, an effort to open up a space for decision-making between the extremes of, on the one hand, either eating meat with the defiance of say, food critic Jay Rayner or restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, both of whom spent time at abattoirs in order to achieve consistence in their defence of eating animal – and, on the other hand, eating no meat at all. Safran Foer correctly identifies this behaviour as a visceral aversion to hypocrisy potent enough to overpower all other aversions. Some people in the grip of this aversion will, like Ramsay and Rayner, confront and commit themselves to the violent deaths of animals. Others would prefer to remain fully ignorant rather than confront hypocrisy in themselves. Disgust of hypocrisy becomes an enemy of compassion because the hypocritical space in between the two extremes is an uncomfortable space.

Disgust of hypocrisy is one possible explanation for why consciousness of factory farming fails to penetrate the bovine disregard of the chewing human majority. Another the book doesn’t suggest is the defensive assertion of identity when confronted with a perceived attack on that identity. The main proposition of the book – “to allow ourselves to fill a hypocritical space” – is astute in the light of this psychology. Safran Foer cautions against the moral vanity of putting undue emphasis on the behaviour of single individuals. Single individuals do not change the world but they can become insufferable in the attempt.

So, although Safran Foer makes plenty of forays into dead-pan rationalism – in his case for eating dogs, for example – these are in service of a more profound invitation to consider how what we eat tells stories about ourselves. One key story is that of his grandmother, pursued by the Nazis and on the verge of starvation (p16-17):

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A Russian, a farmer, God bless him, he saw my condition and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

We make categorical decisions about what we eat – the “lines we draw in the sand, lines that if we cross them we cease to be ourselves”. It wasn’t a fear of hypocrisy which compelled her to decline the meat, but a will to lead a dignified, undegraded human existence according to her own principles. This is a key idea in the book.

Pragmatism

Safran Foer doesn’t relish the specifics of animal suffering, but given that he could have written “an encyclopedia of cruelty” with the testimonials of animal agriculture workers, and given these practices are clearly part of a conscious business model, he cannot well leave them out. I’d venture to say that unless he has an angelic temperament, he must have been horrified, sickened and angered by what he saw and read in researching the book. During his talk at the RSA he hinted as much when he told the audience that in writing the book he had sought the “most productive approach” possible – ‘productive’ contrasts here with ‘direct’. I’d say that this book is one of the most heroically un-self-indulgent pieces of campaigning literature I’ve encountered. This is why some of its strongest advocates have been farmers – who, it turns out, feel degraded by the obligation to produce according to Kentucky Fried Chicken protocols – and why when his book was published, the incendiary reaction anticipated by some of his writer associates didn’t materialise:

“It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way. Is it controversial that we don’t want chickens packed body to body in cages? Is it controversial that we don’t want our air and water polluted? It only happens one way: the more you talk about it the less you want it.”

This is how farmers who want their animals to live contented lives before they die came to be some of his most significant supporters, as well as he theirs.

I’m left with the impression of somebody who has assumed the role of mediator. In response to a question at the RSA about whether he kept in touch with the flinty, uncompromising activist whom he accompanied in breaking into an industrial chicken farm:

“It’s good to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, and she – despite my barely knowing her – I wouldn’t consider her a friend and she wouldn’t consider me one – she really keeps me honest – I have her in the back on my mind when I’m getting lazy about choices”.

I find myself wondering whether evoking the idea of Jonathan Safran Foer would keep a meat eater honest, when he makes their excuses so generously, and this question opens up a contradiction, though it’s not a particularly crucial one. Safran Foer recognises that he needs to be kept honest, while he views most meat eaters as deserving of excuses. It also occurs to me that perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Uncompromising activists also need to be kept honest – in the sense of grounded and sociological. Safran Foer’s book works in this direction.

At the same time, he allocates the responsibility for animal welfare to the industry’s policy-makers while simultaneously treating the industry as a force of nature responding to the stimulus of consumer preferences, so advancing his argument for consumer empowerment. It is left unsaid that if consumers can change this, then consumers have a degree of equal and various responsibility to change it. In the marketplace of ideas Safran Foer has not considered directness to be the most productive approach for animals. The most productive approach is one which massages us into the hypocritical space – the least uncomfortable and confrontational overtures to ordinary supermarket shoppers with their withered consciences. He would never put it that way. I think he’s right.

Accordingly, although he recognises veganism to be the ideal diet, Safran Foer urges his readers to focus on reducing the amount of animal eaten rather than increasing the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The illustration he gives is powerful: one less meat meal a week in the US would bring about a reduction in emissions equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road. “If you can’t eat one less meal a week, that begins to sound pathological”, he told the audience at the RSA.

I appreciate Safran Foer’s talent, which is to simultaneously hold ideas which scuffle – one that factory farming is a locus of atrocity and suffering, another that veganism is the ideal way to eat, and a third being an attitude of straightforward unrancorous remonstrance with factory farmers and consumers. I think this will contribute to something important – a reduction in meat meals consumed.  I also think that it will sow confusion, and in the current circumstances that can only be a good thing.

Another issue Safran Foer didn’t address is the comparative price of nourishing, convenient and delectable vegan food. In fact at the RSA he argued that vegan food was cheaper – this isn’t currently the case. Vegans are either sitting ducks trapped in a niche market, or they are given boring and uncreative alternative dishes at a cost which subsidises the hospitality industry’s meat eating clientele.

Humanity

Beginning on page 181 is a section titled ‘Our New Sadism’. It documents the perversions of violence and sexual abuse which take place in the closed environment of the industrial farm, before proceeding to talk about those which are part of the business plan.

I look at the media. Nigel Slater continues to push animal consumption despite all he has pledged to the contrary. Industrial milk producers are planning a cruel and unnatural megadairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire. One English family farmer given a tour of a U.S. megadairy for the investigative BBC programme Panorama says “This is the way that probably milk is going to have to be produced”. The World Wildlife Fund has commissioned a weekly menu intended to balance sustainability and health which I scan with growing incredulity: every single meal contains animal. There’s plenty of soya – only it’s been eaten by the animal on the menu before it gets to the human eaters. Arthur Potts Dawson of The People’s Supermarket observes the last hours of a dairy farm as it goes out of business. It turns out that most of The Guardian’s so-called ‘New Vegetarian’ Yotam Ottolenghi‘s recipes are so dependent on egg and cheese that on the whole they’re impossible to adapt for an animal-free diet. Chickens continue to have their beaks mutilated because we allow farmers to overcrowd them. The Observer has a double page spread on the premature slaughter of clapped out race horses for Europe’s meat market. In In Denial – Climate on the Couch, the movers and shakers of societal behaviour change are avoiding confronting us with bad news – rather than “Don’t”, they say “Instead”.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t go in accusations. Instead he presents readers with a vision of what it is to be human, the humanising act of declining something you want because you know that it is wrong to take it. After all, “We incarcerate people who cannot restrain their instincts to have sex” and “those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure” (p196)

“I miss lots of things and I feel good missing them. I feel better missing them than I do having them.”

Good things to eat

If like Jonathan Safran Foer you agree that a vegan diet is a good idea but you’re having trouble following one, I recommend you poke around your nearest town or city, not to mention the Web. Today I ate Ethiopian lunch from a vegan place in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. I bought solid, therefore unpackaged, shampoo from Lush in Liverpool Street Station. From a vegetarian grocery on Commercial Road something came over me and I bought ginger and orange chocolate and rasberry chocolate from Divine, the Essential co-operative’s chocolate spread (all Fairtrade), the peerless Sojade rasberry yoghurt, Viana hazlenut tofu and Taifun Hungarian-style wieners. As I write this I’m drinking red beer from the Pitfield Brewery near Chelmsford, Essex.

Like Safran Foer, the savoury smells of scorched flesh in street markets make me salivate, and like him I feel better missing meat than having it.

The book requests that we give thought to the life before the act of slaughter which dominates the attention we pay to farmed animals – if you focus only on the slaughter, you cannot attend to the lives of suffering that would have been better unlived. Safran Foer coaxes readers away from the slough of extremes and hypotheticals – in broad and deep ways don’t we all agree? he implores. 95% of people in a survey may say it’s right to eat animals, but who would condone a farm industry which contributes global warming, or pollution, or the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics? Who thinks it is a good thing to keep pregnant pigs in concrete crates without bedding and too small to turn around in? On these things all but the most marginal agree, and this consensus is the most productive and promising starting point Safran Foer can identify.

10:10 – the ethical purchase of a microwave is not straightforward

I’m a car- and plane-avoiding, local-holidaying, good energy-buying, recycling, ecos paint-using, FSC-buying vegan, currently sitting in a sleeping bag to write this because I feel bad, in the knowledge that national domestic emissions far outstrip the individual ones I’ve just outlined above, that I haven’t done the recommended draught exclusion (I will!).

Interested readers will have followed my tribulations trying to live up to my 10:10 campaign pledge to cut my emissions by at least 10% by October 2010.

Well, this weekend our faithful old microwave went crunk and a burnt smell invaded the kitchen. We have a small baby, just on solids, and a little girl coming to stay next weekend, and no way of hanging round the house waiting for a weekday delivery, so we wanted to move fast. How were we going to choose a microwave?

Here’s the problem: the ethics-oriented consumer guides (e.g. Ethical Consumer, Good Shopping) don’t care about quality and the quality-oriented consumer guides (e.g. Which) don’t care about ethics.

A further problem – Ethical Consumer’s Ethiscore for microwaves is at least three years out of date, and doesn’t tally at all with the Good Shopping score.

A further problem – the most recent issue of Ethical Consumer mag had a sunny ‘Boycott Israel Special’ news roundup, in which the only dissenting voice was a tiny expression of dismay from David Miliband. In this jolly little special, they promoted the academic, social and material boycott campaign without setting out what they hope to topple with the boycott (end Israel?), nor the ways in which they expect the boycott to effect this (clerical fascists win?), nor the endpoints for the boycott (Israel is cancelled), nor the difference between avoiding helping the settler movement on the one hand and boycotting all of Israel on the other (the difference is enormous), nor any history of the conflict (i.e. that there are two sides). I found Ethical Consumer deeply unethical, and am almost certain that they would have been promoting a boycott of Jews in 1930s Germany, simply because it was going on at the time and consumer boycotts make them happy. So I find this unsettling, as would you if you were trying to buy in such a way that you did the right thing by people, animals and the planet, and the organisation you turned to for serious input revealed some rather squalid practices of its own. To put it another way – I no longer have confidence Ethical Consumer’s judgement. Good Shopping’s write-ups are undated. Incidentally, I haven’t analysed the difference between Ethical Consumer and Good Shopping. Perhaps they split back in the day… rivalry at the top or something.

So, after toying with a Whirlpool model which cost £100 more and didn’t seem to promise any extra quality, we ended up going for a simple £64 Sanyo model. Sanyo’s a good company according to Good Shopping, and a medium scorer according to Ethiscore back in 2006, with a good score on the environmental side of things. Although Which said ‘Don’t Buy’, that was because the Reheat function wasn’t achieving 70% in the required time, or without considerable loss of the food’s volume. We figured that you’d only care about that if you are worried about being poisoned by the water-injected animal flesh you shouldn’t be eating. If we want to find out if something’s hot enough, we tend to put our finger in it.

We got the new microwave from Curry’s because they recycle our old one – less car trips (should we have waited and recycled via council facilities, though?).

All this took a while. I’m not happy. Do I really have to check everything in this life? In the absence of good ethical international law about manufacture, distribution and investment, can somebody sort out a merger between, for example, Which and Good Shopping?

In other news, when we gutted our house I kept a working fireplace so we could eat and keep warm in the event of the power cuts I predict. This year, because of 10:10, I have finally got a draught-excluding chimney balloon. (Why not a bin-bag filled with bubble-wrap, you ask? Too dirty when you take it out and hard to store when you want the drafts in summer.) Pathetically, half of my procrastination was down to a dread of putting my hand up the chimney to take its dimensions. To do – end the drafts in our still-gutted kitchen, including the terribly windy keyhole. Get sausage dogs for the doors (but are they too much of a trip hazard?)

10:10 is living proof of the power of a pledge.

Update: I should mention work too. Last week I prevented the purchase of a laminator by lending ours (which is mostly unused). A setback though – a new colleague prints out emails for me even though I’m one of the addressees, and uses fresh paper as scrap paper, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Well, I offered to do his recycling (it’s on my way). Maybe if he realises somebody is concerned about such things he’ll also be concerned, out of natural supportiveness. It’s easier with my other colleague – I just use his daughter’s future well-being as a stick to beat him with (we have a very married-couplish relationship, so I can get away with it, moreover he is a big-minded kind of bloke who rises above the discomfort of a guilt trip and considers the issues at hand). Also at work I successfully suggested a recycling scheme for a certain type of oil-based product which, though very durable, is thrown away nearly-new on a horrifying scale as if it were disposable, but which is always in demand. It went to the top, they liked it and apparently there will now be boxes for these objects in each department. It remains to be seen how long it will take (I’ve been warned). But it feels very urgent… landfill tax…

Saying yes to things, watching Duncan Jones’ Moon

On (give or take a month) the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, Mitch invited us to watch Duncan Jones’ Moon at the Stratford Picture House.

I could feel myself about to say “I think I’ll stay in tonight” when I remembered Matt telling me about a podcast he’d listened to where a bloke had decided to say “Yes” more, so I said “Is it PG”? No, it was Certificate 15. But where violence is concerned I have the viewing-age of an under-twelve.

Sam Bell is an astronaut in charge of a mine works, based alone in a station on the moon without a live communication feed. His sole helper and companion is a robot called GERTY. Two weeks away from the end of a three-year contract he has an accident and when he wakes up, he finds he is not alone any more.

The British Board of Film Classifications explained exactly why it was Certificate 15. I decided to go, because it sounded like a very good film and, as a user of the BBFC’s extended classification information (to me, ‘spoiler’ is a misnomer) I was fairly confident about avoiding the bad bits (but there’s no spoiler in this post). And it’s time to grow up.

I spent the first half hour in a neurotic crash position, two fingers in my ears and four more pressing my eyes shut, my heart beating  “like a little guinea pig” Matt observed unkindly, and as ever astonished by my own pathos.  But the situation was unbelievably claustrophobic, there were sharp implements used by the protagonist, a robot gave a haircut, there was heavy working industrial machinery everywhere, and the noises were menacing. All I could see was sharp or heavy danger, and his impending accident.  I take of my hat to today’s film makers for sheer power over our souls. Watching the old fashioned films this one referenced – 2001, Dark Star – is fine, but modern cinematography penetrates your psyche like a knife into butter.  All the same, there is something a little wrong with my reaction. A film made me jump once and I never got over it.

Then, between the penultimate violent event which caused the 15 certification and the final one (which couldn’t happen because the plot hadn’t sufficiently thickened) I began to watch properly. It was really worth it.

There are some problems with the exposition – for example, it beats me why a company with a monopoly and machinery as sophisticated as GERTY would require a human to staff the station, and why only one human, and why for three years with no vacation? But’s probably best not to ask the plot to carry more weight than it can – there are just some things you have to take for granted in order to get to think about the more interesting stuff.

moon-gertyOne reviewer called Moon “a study of loneliness” but for me it was more of a study of humanity. The way Sam and GERTY (whose voice was Kevin Spacey) related to each other was one of the most interesting things. GERTY’s design was also intriguing – he was not anthropoid but he had a small screen for displaying yellow emoticons. Throughout the film GERTY was confronted with new situations, and the interplay between his range of expressions, the rapid shift between them, and their frequent incongruity were some of the funniest moments. They were some of the most interesting insights into the values of GERTY’s programmer. I think GERTY’s processor would have been some kind of neural network, software which can learn on the job. In an understated way you could see GERTY learning, and this became very important as the plot began to explore what ethical values meant to sophisticated computers, and to the relations between humans and sophisticated computers – what does it mean when GERTY says he exists to keep Sam “safe”? – and relations between managers and their human and non-human staff.

This is no dehumanised technological dystopia flick, and in a really interesting way I can’t go into without giving away the plot, it’s a counter to both technophobia and conspiracy theory films. Watch it.

Then today I regressed; I have just said “No” to something I originally said yes to. There’s a free showing of Joseph Cedar’s Israeli warfilm Beaufort at the Free Word Centre tonight. I had tickets but Matt couldn’t get back in time, and although I had thought, based on the BBFC, it would be alright, one Internet Movie Database reviewer said “I jumped in my seat like I never had before”. So I called them and freed up the tx. I need somebody to hang onto. I need to make the screen go small by looking at it in their spectacles. I’m ashamed.

On Animal Ethics, a critique of a critique of moral vegetarianism

Have just noticed that Animal Ethics is republishing Michael Martin’s ‘A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism’ in instalments with commentary:

“A third of a century ago, when the modern animal-liberation movement was in its infancy, Martin published an essay entitled “A Critique of Moral Vegetarianism,” Reason Papers (fall 1976): 13-43. This was two years after Robert Nozick discussed the moral status of nonhuman animals in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974) and one year after Peter Singer published Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975). I read Martin’s essay only recently, having discovered it by accident. I propose to publish it in 13 installments, commenting on it as I go.”

Start from the bottom and read up. I haven’t finished yet. Not sure, but I’d imagine the environmental consequences of each of us attempting 10 meat meals a week hadn’t made themselves apparent at the time Martin was writing.

After exposure to the latest edition of Compassion In World Farming magazine and two protein-derelict vegan meals at a conference, I’ve been fairly upset for days. Exascerbating the upset are thoughts of what Al Gore neglected to mention in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. He talks about how his family farmed tobacco, even after the link between smoking and lung cancer was recognised, and even after his sister died of the disease. Now do you know what his family farm? Aberdeen Angus cattle. And you know what?  ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ didn’t mention meat-related emissions at all.  An inconvenience too far. Where is the hope?

Part of my problem is that I have a very simple regard for animals: knowing that pigs, cows and chicken have interests, we must free them, never farm them, and only eat them when desperate. Alternatively (and also) breeding pigs, cows and chicken is a significant impediment to mitigating climate change, a cause of environmental degradation, and resource consumption, so we must stop, for reasons any socialist must acknowledge – we live in a shared environment and what we want for ourselves should be no more than what that environment can afford.

I’m poor at reasoning this myself – the horror about the death of sentient beings intrudes on the requirements of making a cool, scientific climate change argument – but when people take a more nuanced view, I’m disarrayed. How could there be a more nuanced view of death and degradation which is so clearly, it seems to me, a matter of individual responsibility? Isn’t the evidence yet known to anybody with a television, a Web connection, and a social conscience? Don’t we now understand that a massive change to the way we live in the industrialised world, not just diet, is necessary? I am seriously upset.

Statistics: Mark Bittman’s TED talk (TED is the RSA of the US) on ‘What’s wrong with what we eat’, which touches on the artificial demand, pollution, diabolical health consequences, climate consequences, and also that

“…there’s no way to treat animals well when you’re killing 10,000,000,000 of them a year… That’s just the United States”.

Peter Singer at the RSA.

Rajendra Pachauri of the UN’s Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, speaking last autumn. The slides and the recorded highlights.

Yes, “ought”.

Certainly, “should”.

Deal with it.

Milgram’s findings reproduced

Stanley Milgram was the Yale psychologist who found that all but a few of the participants in his 1960s experiment inflicted what they believed to be painful punishment on other human beings when ordered to do so by an authority figure. His were seminal studies of social influence and its effects on behaviour.

Some people (I can’t remember who) raise the possibility of methodological flaws round recruitment for these and subsequent studies. Possibly the newspaper ads, emails, posters etc attracted people who were not after all ordinary and unremarkable but in fact the type of people who would cooperate with the investigators in any experiment.

The reporting of these experiments is so gappy and research ethics so evolved that I expected to keep this hope alive for some time to come.

However, today we learn (a year or so after it happened) that Jerry Burger and colleagues  reproduced Milgram’s findings, as reported in the BBC, Time, and Mail. I haven’t read the paper so I don’t know about recruitment and whether or not the participants were aware of Milgram’s work, which is famous. The research ethics criteria for conducting the study involved taking many measures to safeguard the wellbeing of participants – they seem like an exceptionally sane group of people – but what drew them to participate we don’t know.

Setting out to investigate not obedience, as Milgram did, but rather the extent to which virtual characters can substitute for real humans in social situations – Slater and colleagues reproduced Milgram’s findings with a virtual female character as the learner back in 2006 at UCL. They told recruits that they wanted to find out whether discomfort helped the virtual character learn to associate words. Administering electric shocks to the virtual character – seen and heard by two-thirds of the participants and animated, as you can see from the vids, to seem very much present – aroused all sorts of sympathetic physiological responses in the participants, some of whom withdrew from the study and others of whom attempted to interact with her in unscripted ways.

“The Learner had a quite realistic face, with eye movements and facial expressions; she visibly breathed, spoke, and appeared to respond with pain to the ‘electric shocks’. Not only that but she seemed to be aware of the presence of the participant by gazing at him or her, and also of the experimenter – even answering him back at one point (“I don’t want to continue – don’t listen to him!”). Finally, of course, the electric shocks and resulting expressions of discomfort were clearly caused by the actions of the participants.”

There was a fair bit of early withdrawal in this one, but withdrawal wasn’t reliably predicted by displays of empathy, which was interesting. Although they were not studying obedience, the investigators comment:

“We argue that whether participants complied because of ‘obedience to authority’ or politeness, or respect for expertise does not really matter. The fact is that they continued to carry out a task that they found to be unpleasant, when there was no reason for them to do so. Unlike the situation in, for example, the military, there were no real negative consequences that would follow from withdrawal – indeed participants had been advised that they were free to withdraw at any time without giving reasons. Hence, our experiment shows that it is possible to set up a situation in virtual reality where people will comply with requests to follow instructions that appear to cause pain to another entity thus causing discomfort to themselves. Explicitly they know that there is no pain, but it may be that the totality of their perceptions in that situation results in an implicit knowledge that indeed their actions are causing another entity to suffer. This idea fits with the evidence that participants in the VC tended to wait a relatively long time before giving the shocks after the Learner had stopped responding. From the point of view of their explicit knowledge waiting made no sense, but it did make sense at the implicit level.”

It’s also kind of comforting to separate obedience from willingness to enact violence – also based on Milgram’s work, there was a study (sorry, no ref – I learnt about it in a documentary about our collective propensity to fascism) about willingness to give up seats on public transport when the person making the request on behalf of the (perfectly healthy-looking) person who wanted the seat was wearing a uniform. In that case the participants were randomly selected, but they were almost all prepared to give up their seat.

So I suppose we’re always ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” and then, if we’re not satisfied with our own answer, ask the person who is making the request the same question. And if we’re not satisfied with their answer, then we change our behaviour accordingly. And either way, to carry on examining ourselves (without making a sport of it) in case we’re ethically complacent. Which it is very easy to be. Our own conscience – our guiding light – like any lighthouse requires regular, careful cleaning and can go up for sale. But it’s definitely all we have.

It’s interesting about the participants in Slater’s study who refused to even go through the motions. Sometimes conscience is more about ‘us’ – our need to cohere morally to our own satisfaction, and how we interpret this – than about ‘them’.