The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

On July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviours in human and non-human animals. This gathering, the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, led to a declaration on the agreed understanding of those present about what modern science concludes in regard to the experience of other animals.

The Declaration was signed by the participants at the conference in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK.

The Declaration states:

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Simply put, this declaration suggests that science is increasingly led to conclude that many, if not most, non-human animals share with us the capacity to experience the world as subjective participants – that is they, like us, are conscious.

Now, many people tend to see non-human animals as somehow unconscious or unfeeling beings, perhaps even as lesser beings in every way that counts. Why that might be probably depends on the person. Some would have it so on the basis of religious ideas about the world, others contend that we can do more with our bigger brains – we are smarter. Indeed, there are many scientists who would disagree with the declaration above.

But when it comes to this matter of subjective participation I think we should be guided by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who observed of other animals “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

In this we can see a resonance with the Cambridge Declaration. Humans are clearly smarter than other animals by our measure of smartness, but when it comes to being alive in the world what is the difference that we can point to? I submit that as the distinguished members of that conference observe, mammals, birds and many other animals have all the nervous machinery to be conscious, to feel themselves to be alive. When it comes to feeling in this way, it seems there really is little difference at all.

Other animals may not ponder upon their purpose or be aware of themselves in quite the same way we are, but in the moment what can we say of their ability to sense and make intentional choices? Do they feel pain, can they experience happiness and sadness, can they perceive fear and uncertainty? And in having these feelings, can they make choices about how to behave in response?

The evidence increasingly supports the idea that yes, the animals we farm for our food experience their lot in very similar ways to us. The trend in the research, in the philosophy and in intuitive everyday common-sense leads us to this conclusion.

Jeremy Bentham’s question has been answered in the affirmative. They do suffer. When we see videos of pigs struggling to escape the pen in which they will be gassed, or lie in their own filth with the light of madness in their eyes, or squeal with pain as they are manhandled to their death, we should accept that what is happening for them is almost certainly what we might feel in the same circumstances.

And it’s a simple step from there to ask of ourselves one simple question. Is the experience of flavour and texture on our tastebuds worth that kind of suffering? Were we to learn of some persons in some remote and wild place who had taken a group of five year old children, penned them away from the sun and the wind, fed them to fatten them and then slaughtered them one by one at the age of eight to supply the tables of the happy gourmands of this wild place, we should feel rightly appalled, disgusted and outraged. What horror and revulsion might we feel at learning of this awful thing? Yet when it is pigs that suffer so, we turn away with hardly a thought because the ‘fun in eating’ transcends such considerations.

Do you really believe that?

Over 5 million pigs are killed every year in Australia.


The Imponderables of Renewables

With the growing awareness of climate change, the push to move the world to a sustainable energy platform has been gaining momentum. The received wisdom seems to be that we need to be 100% renewables by 2050 if we are to save the world. But really, how likely is that? The attraction of coal and oil is how cheaply it can provide electricity. Yes I know there are all sorts of arguments about that, but at the end of the day it’s how much the consumer pays, and how much electricity there is, that counts to most people. That’s what determines whether you can run a heater or an air-conditioner or have a few big screen TVs.

So, I wonder.

The challenge for someone like me is to be able to get enough objective information to be able to make a reasoned judgement about the actual suitability or effectiveness of 100% sustainable renewable energy. When I try to research this matter, I find widely diverging opinions and facts that are usually biased in the direction of the particular stance of the group or person concerned.

But one thing does stand out. The West’s lifestyle is incredibly profligate. And countries like China and India are relentlessly pursuing parity. I don’t see too much genuine commitment to stepping back from the pursuit of prosperity, growth, material satisfaction etc. This means that energy demands will continue to grow over time.

The question then is how well can renewables satisfy this demand and what is the real impact? Often times I have seen countries like Germany, Denmark, Iceland etc held up as examples of how it can be done, but really, is this true? I’ve done a little research and what I’ve found suggests a less than rosy outlook. Now, I won’t pretend to be an expert or even to have a deep understanding of the issues, but I can read well enough to be suspicious.

Let’s take Iceland. Simplistically, it’s a no-brainer for Iceland and easily achieved. Abundant hydro and thermo, a small and centralised population, limited need for costly dispersed infrastructure and so on. I think Iceland’s situation is so atypical as not to be relevant in considering how Australia for example could become 100% renewable.

What about Denmark? These guys seem to have embraced a plan to be 100% renewables by 2050 and we often hear how well they are going. Heck, just recently it was shouted from the rooftops that they had generated something like 120-140% of their needs by wind alone. But that was on an unusually windy day, what’s it like the rest of the time? And let’s bear in mind that in a similar way to Iceland, Denmark is small (50,000 sq/km) with a small population (5 million or so). Not as much of a challenge as for Australia I think.

Here’s a graph of their progress:

Interestingly, this shows that in 2010, something like 70% of energy was produced by fossil fuels. In fact they won’t get to less than 50% much before 2030. This short summary gives us some sense of the plan:

Well, I wish them luck, they certainly have a lot of favourable conditions on their side. But I think it’s very hard to claim a victory here when it’s so early in the piece. When we hear about Denmark’s success, let’s bear in mind that it’s still a long way off and right now they are using mostly fossil fuels for energy generation.

Here is an article that touches on some of these points, and offers another look at Denmark. I won’t argue for its veracity, but it at least illustrates that there may be more to the story.

How about Germany? Long held to be the poster child, a deeper analysis is not so positive. Briefly, Germany has completely committed to a renewable future by way of its Energiewende program. And they have had notable success. But, there are problems, and given the extent of these problems so early in the program, I am most interested to see how things pan out there.

For example, their implementation is outstripping their ability to keep up with infrastructure such as cabling, and they are throttling back the rate of deployment to ease this problem. However that then means that their schedule is compromised with commensurate economic impacts. They now have an over-abundance of generated capacity when the wind is blowing and the sun shining, so they tend to push these spikes to neighbouring countries who are not happy about that. Poland as an example is considering technology to prevent those spikes entering their grid. When the wind is not blowing, the lack of effective storage technology means that coal-fired power must be kept online, yet such power plants are increasingly not viable, so the government is forced to subsidise this older technology in order to retain capacity. And many of these plants are increasingly using lignite, a dirtier coal, because Germany has substantial deposits of this fuel and it’s cheap. Coal fired generation is likely to be a major player for at least another 30-40 years. There’s much more besides, for example the second highest domestic electricity costs in Europe which is projected to continue to rise by as much as 1-2% per annum for the next 10 years or more. The final point I’d make is that Energiewende is likely to need as much as half a trillion Euros invested over the next 20-30 years to fully achieve its aims.

Now the successes are well known – wind and solar provide impressive contributions to the grid when conditions are right, there is widespread support for the strategy, and many local initiatives are helping (for example rooftop solar etc has meant a large proportion of domestic demand can be met from renewables).

But I can’t help but think Germany might be digging a hole for itself that will be hard to get out of. Add in the additional economic burden of what I think is an incredibly foolish border policy which has seen hundreds of thousands of genuine and economic immigrants and I would not be surprised to see disaster in the years ahead.

I might of course be quite wrong on that. My point is more that it’s difficult to get a clear idea on the move to renewables. A modern lifestyle and commitment to growth seems completely at odds with a commitment to renewables and sustainable energy. Germany seems to illustrate this well. There are many other considerations. For example, wide-scale deployment of wind and solar brings with it huge environmental impacts. Geographic footprints for energy generation become enormous, visual pollution from windfarms as well as their impact on wildlife, the costs of production, maintenance and cabling, and so on. To say nothing of how you actually keep industry going without coal or gas as a fuel source (think steel production for example)

Everything I can see points to one inescapable conclusion. To continue on our current trajectory of material wealth and growth is completely incompatible with a move to sustainable energy. This path will bring inevitable problems, problems perhaps far greater than the current dependence on fossil fuels brings. I think we’d be way better to continue to use fossil fuels and invest in research programs that can more effectively migrate us to other energy sources over the next 100 years.

However even that may not be enough. Really, if we believe that we need to provide a better future for all, then the only answer is to reduce our lifestyles and to expect less from our world.

Or so it seems to me.