Why I think not eating animals is a better moral choice

I’ve been blogging somewhat occasionally since October last year, primarily about animal welfare/rights in respect to our farmed animals. While researching, commenting and blogging about this, I’ve noticed an interesting thing. Almost without fail, people who disagree just don’t understand the actual point being made. Or if they do, they do a remarkable job of ignoring it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just think it’s such a simple proposition that almost everyone should be able to ‘get it’. Today’s post then, explores the proposition and why it should be so obvious and irresistible. That it isn’t rather flummoxes me!

As simply as possible, here’s what it looks like to me. We are animals and part of nature, that is true. And nature exists by way of many awful processes – most life consumes other life of some sort. The predations of carnivores or the lifecycles of parasites and so on are pretty horrible.

Human beings aren’t somehow remote from that – we did indeed once need to hunt to survive and in many places we still must do that. I have no problem with that. A community in some remote place who hunts the occasional deer or pig or whatever for food is behaving in accord with nature. The animal is free and subject to the normal laws of nature.

But in so much of modern society, this is no longer the case. Let’s take Australia as an example. We have elevated eating from a matter of survival – sustenance – to an entertainment. And as an entertainment, many many people profit from the process, from farmers to wholesalers to cafes, restaurants and supermarkets. And those companies and individuals who profit have a vested interest in promoting consumption, reducing costs, finding more efficient processes and making more profit.

This is in no way natural. It is no longer part of nature. It is an entirely artificial system we have created to service our own selfish desires. This would be fine if there were no great harms associated with it, but sadly, harm is simply integral to the process. Our farmed animals are no longer free beings subject to the laws of nature, rather they are resources bred, constrained and processed for our desires.

We eat pigs, yet there is absolutely no need to do so.
We eat lambs, yet there is absolutely no need to do so.
We consume dairy, and yet there is absolutely no need to do so.

And on it goes. And in each case, great harms are done to the animals. It takes just a moment to research each of these. I’ve commented here about the harms to pigs, and here about the harms to dairy cows.

Why are we so happy to consume more and more and harm more and more as a consequence? Why are those who say No, this isn’t OK howled down at every turn? Surely it is easy to see it isn’t right.

As a society we have been developing our ideas of morality and ethics for thousands of years, and in modern Australia at least, I think we all have a fair idea of what moral behaviour entails.

And yet, we seem to limit this behaviour almost exclusively to human beings, not other animals. And definitely not our farmed animals. Think about it – by your own standards of moral and ethical behaviour, how does humanity measure up in its treatment of all other species?

Clearly, we simply refuse to offer our farmed animals any such consideration. They are systematically treated as property, resources, units of production. It seems to me that this treatment is rooted in an abject failure of human thinking to have escaped the natural constraints of a long gone time. That is, the evolution of human thought and ethics has been woefully neglected when it comes to other animals, and in particular, our farmed animals.

Really, were we truly noble beings we’d make finding ways to avoid killing and harming for food and entertainment something of a priority. In other words, over time we’d see less farming of animals, less killing and harming, less exploitation for fun and profit. Yet we see the exact opposite. I find that deeply disappointing…

If we can produce enough of the right sorts of food to feed and sustain human beings using plant based products and prevent the harm of other animals, then why not? I’m not pretending that we can completely prevent harm – after all, the world is what it is. But surely to be noble beings, we should seek to minimise harm when we can. How can it be that so many people seem to think that a great argument for our industrialised cruelty is something as obnoxiously vacuous and self-indulgent as “Mmmm, bacon”?

It’s a simple proposition. We should not harm and kill animals in monstrous proportions just because we like to. We should seek to be moral beings and live our lives more ethically rather than put our heads in the sand to what our food choices really mean. By any standard of modern Australian thinking, choosing not to ignore this industrialised cruelty and making more informed, compassionate choices around our food is a better moral choice.

It really is that simple.

 

In 2014, the following were slaughtered in Australia:

Beef cattle    8,764,000
Calves               708,000
Pigs                 4,778,000
Sheep            10,066,000
Lambs           21,899,000
Chickens   600,000,000

 

OK, so I’m off dairy too

Right now in Australia, the dairy industry is struggling. The farmers have taken some big hits lately and many are going to the wall or really feeling the pinch. Waleed Aly recently spoke of this on The Project and he exhorted his fellow Aussies to consume more dairy, especially cheese.

Now, I’d never given dairy much thought. I happily drank my full cream milk, enjoyed some cream in my coffee, loved a bit of ice cream, and well, you get the picture. I’m like everyone else. Dairy is great stuff. So when I started to be exposed to the claims by animal activists that dairy is an evil immoral industry, I thought, what? I’ve seen the images – all those happy cows being milked, the bottles of milk and cream, frolicking calves and so on. What’s not to like?

But here it is. I recently discovered the horrors of intensive pig farming and what it means for us to eat pigs. This opened my mind to another way of looking at our treatment of our farmed animals and what I found has so profoundly changed my outlook that I cannot believe I never saw this before.

If you make that mental leap, if you truly start to consider what it means to exploit other animals for our own pleasures, all of a sudden the most innocuous things assume a greater gravity. Like dairy.

Wait a minute, I hear you say. Dairy farmers are all great people doing a great job and they are part of the backbone of our country.

Well, I think that in Australia at least, that is probably true. Many, if not most dairy farmers are almost certain to be great people, they do a great job (in the context of the actual process), and they are part of the backbone of our country given how important primary production is. But….

Let’s give some serious thought to the proposition. Now, I am NOT having a go at the farmers necessarily. I think like the rest of us they are caught in a particular frame of mind that has led us away from a more noble way to live.

Straight up, I suggest that no-one needs to consume dairy. Generally speaking, few people eat or drink dairy products for their nutritional or health benefits. Most of us do so because the stuff tastes nice. It’s a pleasure. Which of course is fine, we all like to do things that feel good. But shouldn’t we seriously consider the true equation? What does fulfilling our pleasures cost?

Before I go into that, consider that while most consume dairy for pleasure, the industry likes to play on the supposed health benefits. In fact, one dairy blogger even made this statement recently on her blog:

“I think the overwhelming scientific proof shows that the answer to this question… (should humans drink cow’s milk)… is a resounding YES. The science has consistently shown one of the reasons people in 1st world countries live longer is cow’s milk is now an easily accessible, safe, affordable and nutritious part of our diet.”

Now, I challenged her on that but she chose not to reply. I haven’t been able to research that claim, because I have no idea on what actual basis the claim is made. I won’t pretend to have done exhaustive analysis of the science, but from what I read I am not aware of any specific benefit conferred by dairy that cannot be derived in other ways.

Yes, there is calcium to be had, and that can help prevent problems such as osteoporosis. However, the amount of calcium needed daily is most likely not as high as is often represented, and there are other factors to consider (such as the need for exercise and Vitamin D). The fact is that sufficient calcium can be gained from plant foods (eg leafy greens such as kale). It is also possible to obtain calcium from various fortified non dairy products such as orange juice and soy milk.

I have read that dairy products may be of benefit in preventing certain kinds of colorectal cancers, but without reading the studies I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that these same benefits could be obtained elsewhere – I suspect that the consumption of dairy in such cases is more a matter of the convenience of dairy.

Dairy products are also associated with increased risks of prostate and ovarian cancers and may also contribute to other health risks if consumed to excess. As best I can tell, the most beneficial, least harmful quantity of dairy to consume might be as little as a glass of milk a day.

This is a good summary
This is a slightly more negative summary

On the whole, it seems to me that dairy products are generally best consumed in small quantities, and given possible risk factors, perhaps avoided entirely if we are considering it on a purely nutritional, dietary health basis. Bear in mind too that large scale consumption of cow’s milk is a relatively recent phenomenon and many people are actually lactose intolerant.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I think it’s confirmation that by and large, we consume dairy because we like to, not because we actually need to. So, let’s return to the value proposition.

If we consume dairy because we like to then that behaviour constitutes a pleasure, an entertainment. Perhaps we could simply call it “fun”. After all, what else would we call eating a bowl of ice cream, or drinking a nice milkshake. A pain? A chore? Disagreeable? Miserable? Nope, it’s a pleasure, it’s fun.

So, what’s the cost for this pleasure, this enjoyment? We get our dairy from cows, and the dairy industry exists to service this need. Dairy farmers in Australia breed and raise cows to provide milk. But the sad thing is that this process is anything but benign. I suspect most people are, like I was, ignorant of what actually happens.

Here it is, in a nutshell. You can read a more detailed expose at this link (and from what I have been able to uncover, this is a reasonably objective analysis)

Oh, and if you disagree, feel free to comment, but I’d rather you keep to the facts rather than just some emotive hearsay. I know I might be wrong but I did spend a fair bit of time researching this and I think I’m on target.

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Dairy cows are bred to produce milk. No dairy cow would exist if we didn’t create them. It is nonsense indeed to argue that if we didn’t farm them they’d suffer more. No, they wouldn’t because they wouldn’t exist.

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Cows are impregnated frequently to ensure milk production. On average I gather this is around every 12-18 months. This is done either naturally (via servicing by a bull) or artificially (someone sticks a rod into their vagina and guides the sperm to its destination by sticking an arm up their rectum).

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Calves are taken from their mothers early, usually within a day. Here is a dairy farmer’s arguments for why they should do this.

Now, while good arguments are offered for why this is so (and I think I generally concede the point here), it should be clear that cows did not evolve to be separated from their young. It IS a stressful event, plenty of research and anecdotal evidence supports this.

It also causes certain deleterious outcomes. For example, Flower and Weary found in 2003 that “Calf response to separation also increases when the calf spends more time with the cow, but there are long-term benefits of prolonged contact in terms of sociality, fearfulness and future maternal behaviour. Health, weight gain and future productivity are also improved when the calf is allowed to spend more time with the cow.”

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Male calves are generally redundant. Not being a dairy farmer, I can’t speak with authority on how such calves are dealt with. All I can report is what I find from research. Basically, pretty much all male calves are killed almost immediately, although some are kept alive for longer. I doubt many at all survive past their first year or two. Dairy farmers seem to think this is OK, it’s just a necessary drawback to farming. Umm… yeah, sure it is.

In 2015, some 630,000 calves were slaughtered, predominately sourced from dairy.
Around 50-60,000 calves are killed on-farm each year as waste. Farming guidelines suggest on-farm killing should be done humanely, but this can range from shooting to bluint force trauma (eg a hammer).

Industry figures suggest that the average age at death for calves is:

Bobby calf: 1-2 weeks
Veal calf: 4-6 months

Some farmers claim to be more compassionate and will sell their calves to beef farmers who will usually raise and fatten the calves until slaughter. This is often at around 18 to 24 months of age. I suppose that could qualify as ‘compassionate’…

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From what I’ve seen, dairy farmers who blog seem to shy away from talking about how male calves are disposed of. I think there’s a bit of head in sand going on. The majority of male calves, as best I can tell, are trucked to slaughter from as young as five days old. As soon as they can make the journey, they are off. Now, again, it’s hard to know how that feels to a calf. But I will go out on a limb and suggest it’s pretty bloody awful. Remember, this would not happen to one calf at all if there were no dairy.

Truly, no matter how a dairy farmer chooses to dress this up, it is horrible. Babies are taken from their mothers, jammed into a truck, taken some distance to a place of slaughter, and there executed. It is emotive to call these animals babies and mothers, but if you can come up with a more objective term then I think you are seeking to paper over the cracks in the façade of compassion.

You can see something of this treatment in the video here. Watch from 1:50 onwards. Warning – this shows graphic violence.

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Dairy cows have short lives. Now, again, I haven’t got first hand knowledge and I know some farmers claim that their cows live quite long lives. I am going to call bullshit on this for most cows however. Here is one such claim, but note that the writer is careful not to say just how many 14 year old cows she has, nor the average age of her herd:

“Farmers and cows both benefit from farming, Dennis. An Aussie dairy cow gets to roam in the paddocks, is cared for when she’s sick and, most importantly, doesn’t die a slow, excruciating death as wild cattle often do. And you’ll be delighted to know that we are milking 14-year-old cows on our farm, right now!”

What I can uncover from my own research suggests that the average age of a dairy cow is around 5 years in Australia. At the end of the day, a cow is a unit of production, and farmers cannot afford to be too generous in keeping unproductive animals. As I understand it, culling is an important part of herd management. I believe that cull rates are around 20-30% per annum, but I stand to be corrected if that figure is incorrect.

Dairy Australia notes that the current Year To Date figure for cull cows as at April 2016 is 69,648. Their website notes that “…cull cow prices are still at record highs for the year to date, with sales volume per head up 36%, and the average price up 44%”.

Note that cows natural lifespan can be as much as 20 to 25 years.

This page has some interesting data and information which provides further insight into herd management and culling of animals. I cannot vouch for its validity.

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Dairy cows are subject to a range of health risks due to the very fact they have to produce high volumes of milk. They generally tend to produce much more milk for longer than in their natural state. This can lead to significant negative outcomes such as mastitis and lameness. Both are leading causes of death and culling.

While farmers claim that they manage mastitis well, there is evidence that current trends may run counter to this. Shum, McConnel, Gunn and House said in November 2009 in the Australian Veterinary Journal:

“The incidence and causes of mastitis are largely influenced by farm management. The relatively high prevalence of coliform mastitis in the intensive high-producing herds in (New South Wales) contrasts with the low incidence reported in surveys of pasture-based herds in Victoria. If the Australian dairy industry continues its current trend of intensification, coliform intra-mammary infections may emerge as an increasingly important cause of mastitis.”

One interesting fact is that it seems that over time, dairy cows are becoming less fertile (or more accurately, harder to inseminate). I am not sure if this applies in Australia. This means that, given rates of mastitis and lameness have not also decreased, more cows are likely to be culled for reasons of poor productivity.

See for example this paper.

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Australian dairy farmers tend to argue that they farm as small family run enterprises and hence can afford to be more humane. This might be true in an abstract sense, however the trend is not in that direction. Yes, most farms are family managed enterprises, but the pressure is to find ways to do more with less. Average herd size has increased from 93 cows in 1985 to an estimated 284 currently. There is also a trend emerging to very large farm operations of over 1,000 head of cattle.

The very problems that Waleed Aly highlights is part of this. It’s also worth noting that the industry is actively seeking to secure overseas markets and like with beef cattle, this will inevitably lead to more industrialised operations. I suspect the small family owned concern may become a thing of the past if dairy continues to thrive in today’s conditions and economic climate.

Falling farm numbers do reflect a long-term trend observed in agriculture around the world, as reduced price support and changing business practices have encouraged a shift to larger, more efficient operating systems.

Note too that on the supply side, farmer-owned cooperatives no longer dominate the industry and now account for less than 40% of Australia’s milk production. The largest co-operative is Murray Goulburn (MG) accounting for nearly 37% of national milk output.

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One final comment is to do with what we as humans think cows feel. It is very hard to know how another animal thinks and feels and there is a distressing tendency for most to disregard the inner experience of animals, especially our farmed animals.

When it comes to cows, we should sometimes reflect on the natural evolution of the animal and what that means in terms of outward displays of inner experience. By this I simply mean that when a cow shows little sign of concern such as we might display in a similar situation, I don’t think it follows that we should assume that the inner experience is equally diminished.

It would make more sense to err on the side of caution. Is a mother cow distressed when her baby is taken away? Does a calf experience distress and fear when separated from its mother? Does a bobby calf have a terrifying ordeal on its way to slaughter? Are cows really happy with their increased milk production, risk of lameness, frequency of mastitis?

I cannot say, but I do not believe for a moment that cows are unthinking unfeeling beings. I suspect that their stoical nature is rather likely to be (intentionally?) misinterpreted.

As an example, cow/calf bonding is an essential part of natural behaviour and evidence for this has been noted in research. Marchant-Forde and Weary found in 2002 that “Dairy calves are… capable of individual recognition based on auditory cues at a very early age”.

Vocalisations between cows and calves increase with time after birth, perhaps indicating a survival (fitness) benefit to fewer vocalisations in the first hours after birth. This does not indicate that cows and calves are less bonded earlier as the behaviour may simply be a survival mechanism.

In other words, it may be safer for a cow and calf in nature to keep quiet in the first day or so after birth. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t bonded from the moment of birth…

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With all of this said, here is my own take on the matter.

1. Dairy is a pleasure and not essential to health or sustenance.
2. The dairy industry exists to make money, not make us healthier, or to make cows happy.
3. Dairying involves substantial harms to animals. It seems that it directly contributes to the deaths of between one half and one million animals per year in Australia.
4. Many animals suffer in dairying. Whether it be mastitis, lameness, other health issues such as Bovine Johnes Disease, the enforced separation of mother and calf, or the horrors of male calf disposal.
5. All dairy cows are units of production. While farmers most likely do care for their animals to an extent, the economic bottom line is always the bottom line. When it comes down to the difference between being profitable and not, the cows will cop it in the skull every time.
6. In modern Australia, we can happily obtain many plant-based milk alternatives. These are in many cases just as tasty or satisfying as traditional dairy.
7. As a pleasure, there is simply no compulsion on us to consume dairy if the cost in animal welfare is too high. I think more of us would do well to think about that.

A wholesale move away from traditional dairy and the greater acceptance of plant based alternatives would be a far nobler choice. And while many might bemoan the loss of their cream or their cheese, I think it’s weak in the extreme to argue that our tastes, our pleasures, are worth any degree of suffering by the cows that would not exist but for our selfish desires.

As for non-dairy alternatives, if this became mainstream, modern innovation would soon find a way to make plant-based options entirely palatable to all. And very soon, we’d have forgotten entirely about why we thought traditional dairy was so essential. It would really only take one generation, after all…

Vegan Cheese!

Thoughts on Consciousness in Human Beings and Other Animals

*Note to readers. This is my opinion only. I do not believe in God, nor in an afterlife. I am not necessarily right of course. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. This is just my own thinking about something complicated. If you believe in God and the soul and the specialness of human beings, you might prefer not to read this as you’ll probably just be annoyed!!

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This post is not a whinge as such, nor even a proper blog post. Rather, it is perhaps a work in progress, a placeholder to store my thoughts about that most intriguing of subjects – what is consciousness?

When I first began to take an interest in animal welfare and animal rights, I quickly ran into a conundrum. While human beings are ‘conscious’, self aware beings, there is no clear consensus about whether other animals are also conscious.

It became apparent that it is all too easy for people to dismiss the inner experience of other animals on the basis that they do not possess some property that peculiarly makes us human. Implicit in this idea is that human beings are somehow better, separate from and altogether on a different plane of existence from all other animals.

I realised that one way to defend animal interests is to find out whether indeed animals ARE conscious, whether they share with us some common quality of being that leaves us unable to completely stand apart from other life. I embarked on a long inquiry and over the course of 18 months learned a great deal. Of course, the field is extraordinarily broad, complex and deeply multidimensional and my understanding is still at a very rudimentary stage, but I think I have enough knowledge now to make an informed claim about the matter.

The first thing I learned is that although science is rapidly closing in on how the brain works and how consciousness operates mechanically, exactly WHAT consciousness is remains something of a mystery. It seems possible to defend many different ideas – we have a soul, consciousness arises from wide-scale integrated networking, there are multiple drafts of ourselves at any time but the qualia of our experiences do not really exist, and so on.

Nonetheless, I think there have been great strides in recent years and a couple of authors I have read make the best sense of all. While the broad ideas they have developed may not be exactly right, I think they must be very close.

And while too I don’t think I have quite understood them, I think my own synthesis of my learnings is similarly not too far away from the reality.

I should remark a couple of caveats before I set out what I understand from the science and my own introspection. These caveats serve to constrain to an extent just what kind of idea I have in mind when I describe consciousness.

First, I limit myself to what can be empirically tested and observed, that is it is only through our own sensory impressions/perceptions of the world that we can make any sense of it. . I am therefore more of an an empiricist than a rationalist – only by observation and experience can we deduce any truths about the nature of existence. I acknowledge that we are perhaps too limited in capacity to be able to do this with any great precision, but nonetheless I note the remarkable success of science to date in explaining our universe. I note also that any other form of inquiry ultimately delivers an entirely subjective outcome.

Yes, there could be a God. Perhaps we live in some kind of computer simulation. Maybe it is all the Buddha dreaming, or we are simply in one of a million universes foaming in and out of existence. The problem with these notions is that none are able to be demonstrated in any concrete way. We may as well propose that the sky above hides the Asgard of old and that Thor it is that causes the lightning and thunder.

I am constraining myself therefore to scientifically proposed and tested hypotheses and measured outcomes. And I ignore entirely the more extreme proposals of quantum physics for the simple reason that I just do not understand it.

This means that I also accept that there is no personal God as traditional religions would have us believe. I am not entirely resistant to the idea that the universe may have a metaphysical origin, however I think that it is easiest to argue for a universe that is what it looks like. Experience and empirical analysis appear to my mind the most effective tools for evaluating our world.

Secondly, I accept evolution as a fact and that the life we see around us has evolved over billions of years from simple proteins and amino acids into the complex multi-cellular forms of today. Every analysis of life reduces to the same simple components and processes – nothing new is introduced at successively higher levels of organisation.

My third and final point would be that in a universe without a God, in which things are largely what they seem and in which evolution is a fact, I think there can be no conclusion other than to accept that there is no underlying truth, purpose or meaning to the universe. At least, not one that is communicable to us. I completely reject any notion that human beings are ‘special’ or have any kind of anointed status. What sets us apart from other animals is simply a quirk of evolution and circumstance. Imagine our brains in a body with flippers rather than hands…

With these caveats in place, let me proceed to make a minor point of definition.

In terms of sentience and consciousness, I disagree that the two are synonymous. Generally speaking, sentience appears to mean the capacity to feel or perceive by way of sensory organs. Consciousness appears to mean something rather similar, but I think most people would think it requires something more, perhaps a mindfulness of perception.

For my purposes, I wish to draw my own distinction. Whether this is reasonable is probably open to discussion, however I think my basis for doing so is more informed than it is uninformed. I therefore offer the following definitions of common terms to better reflect my own understanding.

  • Sentience is the capacity for an organism to respond to sense impressions.
  • Conscious awareness is the capacity for an organism’s nervous system to respond to sense impressions and adapt behaviour accordingly by way of a representational internal model of attention. This reflects Jesse Prinz’s Attended Intermediate Representations theory and Michael Graziano’s Attention Schema theory.
  • Introspective consciousness is the capacity for an organism’s nervous system to respond to sense impressions and adapt behaviour accordingly by way of a representational internal model of attention and to generate an internal introspective self. This builds on Graziano’s model and introduces Julian Jaynes’ theory of consciousness as a linguistic phenomenon.

I know that sentience traditionally has been defined as the capacity to subjectively experience but I am of the opinion that there are three ‘levels’ of capacity in living things, so I prefer to define sentience as the basic or underlying capacity upon which the successive levels build. It is the foundation if you will.

Sentience therefore is a fundamental building block and is probably shared by all life, though I confess to not being certain whether we can call a single celled creature sentient, or a plant sentient. For the sake of argument, let us accept that any creature that senses its environment and responds behaviourally is sentient.

Conscious awareness is the capacity to represent internally those sensory stimuli detected by a brain. Simple animals, and maybe plants, most likely have no inner experience and simply react to stimuli. They are sentient, but not conscious. Conscious awareness requires that a brain generate internal representations of external/internal objects or sensations. These are what is generally recognised as qualia, for example, heat, colour, sound, emotions. I think it safe to say that all mammals, probably all birds, and more than likely reptiles and fish have this experience. I’m not sure about insects – my own take on this is that insects are sentient, cognitive but not conscious creatures.

Thus, the minds of consciously aware creatures must have access to qualia, although here I am a little unsettled as I am sorely tempted by Dennett’s eliminativism. I will need to think some more on just what qualia might represent or how they might be instantiated, but I am inclined to side with Jaegwon Kim that such qualia are epiphenomenal.

We know from physics and ideas about causal closure that no immaterial mind stuff can affect the physical (at least, as far as we know from science to date), and hence any qualia or mental event cannot of itself have causative effect. Dualism of any sort is effectively disposed of, at least so far as I am concerned. And it is on this basis that Kim similarly dismisses dualism and claims instead that qualia of this kind must be epiphenomenal. However he qualifies this claim somewhat by suggesting that it is only irreducible qualia such as sensations that we might classify as epiphenomenal – other qualia such as beliefs or cognitive artefacts are reducible to physical processes. This is entirely consistent with my current view as exposed in this post.

So, most animals are aware of the world in some way, they experience it through internal representations that we may take to have the nature of qualia and therefore we can assume these animals to feel pain, experience emotions, see the sky as being of some particular quality that differs from that of a tree and so on.

If an animal should behave in a way that suggests an experience of the world and adapt its behaviour accordingly (for example, seek to avoid pain) it seems most parsimonious to conclude that it is indeed conscious and having that experience. After all, the vocalisations by which we come to know of the inner experience of other humans are no more than behavioural responses. All animals, humans included, appear to illustrate conscious awareness by way of behavioural responses so why should any particular behaviour be taken as having some preferential quality?

This now brings us to introspective self consciousness, something I suspect is almost certainly unique to humans, but not exclusively our domain as evolution might endow this upon other creatures in time. This is rather more complicated, but I am guided here by Julian Jaynes’ ideas (see his seminal work, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”). It is clear from introspecting upon our own thoughts and subjective experience that consciousness of this kind depends entirely upon language. Yes, our cognitive capabilities are clearly better, but that is simply a process thing. Our brains just do that stuff better. There are other animals that in their own ways demonstrate some rather impressive cognitive capacities (take Corvids for example) so I am not prepared to embrace an absolute ‘apartness’ for humans on that basis.

No, language is what gives us an apartness and more specifically it is written language. Written language is the decider. I should like to expand upon this claim but it is rather more difficult to address in a simple overview such as is in this post. It might be something to return to in time. Let’s simply agree that here I argue that language both spoken and written generates introspective self consciousness.

Now in considering the impact of language I believe that Julian Jaynes has made a contribution to the study of consciousness that has not been properly appreciated. He argues that language has given rise to the internal introspective “I” form of consciousness that we humans possess. He may not have it exactly right, but I think he is clearly on the right track. And he suggests that this form of consciousness is a relatively recent development, perhaps as recently as just a few thousand years ago. If he is right in this, we have only been ‘conscious’ for a very short time.

What I mean by language giving rise to introspective consciousness is that if we consider what it is to be in our own heads, it is our internal narrative that we think of. It is the sense of being “me”, being some “thing” that entertains ideas, that plans actions, that can report upon my state. But this is a very shadowy and shallow thing indeed. Much of what I think many of us take to be “us” in action is in fact not at all consciously appreciated nor driven.

For example, we do not appear to have access to our thoughts. We know we have them, and we can report upon them, but we do not have access. It is of course hard to say what we mean by thoughts, but here I mean them to be those neural activities through which we evaluate our relationship to the world and decide to respond in some way. Whether that be simply to turn the radio up louder, or to put on a coat or to develop a theory of consciousness, the act of responding to the world requires that we think.

Consider for a moment that in thinking, we are never conscious of the thoughts themselves, only of the perceptual imagery that accompanies this process – verbal imagery (words in our mind) or visual imagery (pictures, diagrams in our mind). Too, we don’t think in words just which words to think, that is to say we do not plan our sentences by carefully describing in words what other words we will place in what order to produce our sentences, rather our sentences spring into being fully formed. If I think, “I am going to bed now” it is an expression of an idea or thought already formed. It has to be for the simple reason that if all conscious reports are produced by the brain, the actual neural circuitry must have done its job before it issued the orders to the motor cortex to cause us to make the words needed to report. We cannot issue the report until the work has been done.

Yes, I know that in complex or abstract thought we do actually use sentences, words, to construct other sentences, but I suggest this is an iterative feedback looping process by which we seed the underlying neural activity. This idea that our brains can respond to an internal iterative looping process simply means that we can respond to our own speech, our own narratives, as though they were issued by others. The brain mechanism that enables us to hear others’ words and act upon these also acts as an internal feedback loop in responding to our own speech. This mechanism most likely rests upon the recently discovered “mirror neurons” although I acknowledge there is still some degree of controversy over just what these are and whether they truly exist. I suggest this mechanism, this feedback loop, is precisely what Professor David McNeill has dubbed Mead’s Loop, based upon the ideas of the early 20th Century philosopher, George Herbert Mead. Mirror neurons in Mead’s Loop are “twisted” to respond to one’s own gestures as if they were from someone else.

We can see then that verbal reporting, or internal narration, is not really the physical act of thinking itself, but rather a descriptive or metaphorical representation of the neural circuitry in action. Thoughts are not directly apprehensible at all. The metaphorical representation however is exactly what we apprehend and what we take to be “us”.

Thus, the process by which our brain processes its sense data and other information is not actually what we mean by introspective consciousness or what we think of colloquially as “me”. The model of awareness that we share with other animals gives us the sensation of qualia, and I think this is ably described by Graziano and Prinz, but the sense of “I” is generated by way of language and metaphor.

Another way to think of this is to imagine what would be in our heads without language. What would be left of you, had you no language or learning to operate upon? I suggest no “you” at all, beyond the immediacy of existence. In this respect, it is instructive to recall Helen Keller’s words in her essay “Before the Soul Dawn”:

“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.

I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.”

And her awakening upon beginning to know language, when she first appreciated the relationship between a finger-movement against her palm and the idea of ‘water’:

“That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought”.

(As an aside, notice here the striking contrast between the non-world of conscious unconsciousness first described and the bounding, fulsome world of metaphor that springs forth in that final paragraph).

Without language, there can be no “me”. If we do not have language and hence an introspective “I” in our heads, what then might we have? The answer appears to be that we do not have anything at all. At least, not of that nature. Our brains construct Graziano’s model of attention sure enough because without that we are not going to be able to adapt our behaviours, but beyond that we simply do what we do. And that in itself is pretty much what we do most of the time anyway – we don’t accompany our every moment with a running commentary upon which our actions depend. Rather, we just do things.

With language of course comes a more complex “me”. But “I” am still simply a narrative, a description of how my brain works. The linguistic “I” exists to permit social communication, to permit more adaptive flexible behaviours. It is an evolutionary adaptation which confers not some ineffable spirit but rather a metaphorical representation of representations. If you think about this kind of consciousness, it becomes apparent that it has a spectrum quality, that it must exist as a continuum across place, time and culture. Introspective consciousness depends upon cultural context, knowledge, local customs and frameworks of behaviour. This consciousness is a cultural construction derived from the necessary evolutionary pressures of social cohesion.

In other words, there is NO “me”, certainly not in the rather spiritual way that most of us think of ourselves. We do exist as organic beings with brains and nervous systems and a disposition to behaviours in response to stimuli. But there is no spirit, no essential me-ness, inside our heads. “I” am an illusion. A useful illusion, but an illusion just the same. Around us are other illusions – organisms responding in complex ways to changing environmental conditions, always with a cultural context to those behaviours and apprehensions of the environment.

The problem here of course is how we apply an ethical framework to creatures that respond to stimuli in complex ways but for which no actual causative agent exists. How do we determine what values or behaviours are right? How can we even know what ‘right’ is? What individual or personal responsibility exists if we can do no more (or less) than our nervous system decides to do?

Personally I am very happy to work on the illusory basis that I exist, I experience the world and I am responsible for what I do. But if people generally were convinced of the physical reality that none of that is true, where to then for meaningful ethical frameworks? In an uncaring world without objective meaning, any behaviour is OK because it carries no moral value.

I have no answer to this. I therefore believe that moral and ethical frameworks have no intrinsic properties but can only derive from some cultural process, be that democracy or autocracy. There is no higher authority to which we might appeal, beyond the obvious notion that for survival and social cohesion, “good” must be considered to be something that assures a fitness advantage.

And thus “right” and “wrong” depend entirely on place and time, and the workings of history.

There is no ME, and right and wrong depend for their truths upon a social contract between consciously introspective organisms.

What the response to the Australia Day lamb ad tells us

Recently the Meat and Livestock Association released its annual ‘lamb ad’. This is an advertisement aimed at encouraging the over consumption of lamb on Australia Day, the suggestion being that it is somehow patriotic to eat more lambs.

Now, each year this ad causes a degree of controversy, but mostly any sentiment against it is more rooted in the intent of the ad rather than the content of the ad itself. This remains true in 2016. However this time around there was a short scene that engendered substantial pushback from vegans and others who believe in a more compassionate approach to treating animals as a food product.

The ad is actually moderately humorous if one can ignore its intent, presenting a story in which Australian forces are travelling the globe at the behest of an M-like figure (Lee Lin Chin) to bring Australians in distant places back to Australia to have them celebrate our national day by scoffing lashings of fresh lamb.

The offending scene depicts members of this force wanting to liberate a vegan, found sitting on the floor in his humble abode. On learning he is a vegan, the liberators are shocked and quickly blast his bowl of kale with a flame-thrower. Just to ensure we understand the symbolism, Lee Lin Chin venomously spits the word “vegan” at the viewer.

To many, this was going a step too far. While the device is somewhat absurd, there is nonetheless a dark undertone in that rather than simply saying sorry and leaving our erstwhile vegan to his kale, the liberators feel it necessary to lay waste to his apartment in a bid to eradicate any evidence that he isn’t eating meat. This does carry a suggestion that a violent response to any hint of veganism could be considered a reasonable behaviour, perhaps even quite funny.

Many complained to the Advertising Council; last I heard complaints numbered over 600 and were on track to make this the most complained about advert in recent times. While I myself am not especially offended by the ad content in that sense, I can certainly see what those who are offended are concerned about.

It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think of the response were someone to torch a Koran, or an Aboriginal flag. You might say that’s a ridiculous parallel as these are far more meaningful and of greater import. Well, yes, to an extent. But the bowl of kale was used in a symbolic sense – it represented the entire notion of veganism – and the scene itself is a metaphor for how ‘normal’ society should marginalise, abuse, indeed ‘flame’ those who choose to be vegan. Veganism is a philosophy, not a simple choice of diet, and therefore is a belief system. To symbolically demolish a belief system in that way IS indeed a form of abuse, it IS discriminatory.

Still, that is largely a matter of personal judgement I think. Plenty of people would have found the ad funny and not read anything much at all into that scene beyond its comedic value. What I am more interested in is the reactions that played out on social media, and in the media itself.

Simply put, anyone not a vegan or sympathetic to veganism appears to have completely missed the point and focused instead on some supposed humorless, self scourging stereotype. Typically comments sought to disparage vegans and verbally harass and bully any who spoke up in defence either of the philosophy itself or the simple notion of choosing kindness rather than self-interest. I engaged with many people via Facebook, particularly on the Channel 7 Sunrise program’s page. Almost without fail, those people who are not vegans were aggressive, dismissive, insulting and in some cases downright bullying.

I saw comments – comments that were hurtful and hateful, clearly intended as put downs – directed at people who had done little more than suggest that others should reconsider their food choices so as to spare so many animals from unnecessary suffering. I know of at least one woman who was told she needed “a good root and some protein”. All the ugliness of human nature was on display in spades.

Now this doesn’t surprise me – I’ve seen it before many times. I was heartened though by the sheer number of people willing to get on social media and declare their support for a more compassionate approach to food choices. Sure they were vastly outnumbered but to my mind there is now a significant percentage of the community thinking more about what our society is doing to animals in the name of pleasure and money. The Daily Telegraph ran a poll, and although these things are notoriously unreliable as serious barometers of public opinion, they do carry some generally indicative weight. While the Murdoch press has trumpeted the results as evidence of the overwhelming support for the ad, I’d suggest that the consistant 20% or thereabouts vote against the advertisement – in a conservative tabloid – speaks volumes.

Now, if this were all that we saw, I’d be disappointed but not greatly concerned. However, there was another dimension to this controversy that I think should be noted. And that is the active and unashamed vituperation of vegans and what they stand for by mainstream media. Channel 7 seems to have led the charge, though I admit to not closely examining all media outlets. There’s no doubt the Murdoch press openly dismissed vegan sentiment about the ad, and even the ABC wasn’t backward in offering a dismissive tone in its reporting.

But Channel 7 through its Sunrise program stands out for its remarkable stance of encouraging the marginalisation of people who, it seems, had committed the outrageous sin of suggesting that just maybe the prolific consumption of meat for pleasure results in unnecessary cruelty and harm to innocent animals. Let’s say that again. The people in our community who speak up for the voiceless, for perhaps the most oppressed creatures on the planet – our food animals – are considered by Channel 7 to be the deserving subjects of merciless criticism and parody.

The bumbling Sam Kekovich was wheeled out in a segment on Sunrise commenting about the complaints and was encouraged by the hosts to hold forth in spectacularly boorish fashion. In a several minutes long tirade, he suggested that vegans are devious and treacherous, perpetually hungry, unable to attract a partner, angry, and in dire need of a good lamb chop. Oblivious to the fact that many vegans feel very strongly about their philosophy, the overweight Sam held up a lamb chop and invited vegans to try one so that their “life will change”. Kochie and Edwina laughed hysterically throughout, supporting Channel 7’s clear objective of showing vegans as people deserving of whatever discriminatory abuse and labelling might be sent their way.

Now, I’m sure that the same people who stridently argue that the advertisement itself is just a bit of harmless fun would equally defend Sunrise’s piece as just harmless Aussie larrikinism. But I wonder how the community might react were say Andrew Bolt to feature such an interview dismissing the ideas and feelings of people engaged in other Australian social activism, for example standing for refugees or against domestic violence? I’d suggest the reaction would be quite different.

In this whole sad affair we cannot help but notice that at the heart of it all is not the question of whether vegans are right or wrong, but rather that an entire sector of our society that believes and fights for an idea which on every possible interpretation is about reducing human impacts on the natural world, that argues for an informed and compassionate approach to modern living, is considered a legitimate target for condescension. Our community is actively encouraged to reject not just the idea, but the people themselves.

What the controversy and in particular Channel 7’s efforts have shown unequivocally is that in modern Australia, to stand against a societal norm for noble reasons is worthy not of praise but derision when that norm is held by the gatekeepers of public opinion themselves.

It shows that vilification and discrimination, so actively denounced by social reformists and government bodies everywhere, is actually fine when it comes to asking Australia to think twice about how much harm to animals is acceptable in our community.

Australia has spoken – care, compassion and nobility of spirit is off limits when we apply those qualities to other species.

Thank you Australia, you make me proud.

The Conscious Lives of Animals

I’m currently reading Carl Safina’s “Beyond Words: What animals think and feel”, and to back it up also watched a DVD of the BBC TV series “Inside the Animal Mind”.

Both are quite recent and summarise some of the current thinking around animal cognition and consciousness. Now, this is a field that has long suffered from a rather strangely oppositional stance by science, and before that by a remarkable assumed ignorance by human beings.

I think that in the past (and to an extent even now) the religious ideas of Western civilisation held sway and influenced general views about the relationship between man and other animals with its inherent sense that man is something apart, something different and divinely inspired. And as science grew out of religious inquiry into the nature of God’s creation, it perhaps hasn’t entirely rid itself of this underlying outlook. Descarte’s notion of a divine essence in particular seems to have resonated broadly and the Cartesian idea of a central dualism to man’s being persuades many people to believe that we are indeed different, beings standing at the pinnacle of creation. Or perhaps it’s simply too challenging to our own sense of meaning and identity to see ourselves as just another animal, or – vice versa – that animals are not so different from us.

Safina observes early in the book that it seems ridiculous to deny animals an internal subjective experience of the world when they share the same nervous system, the same general cognitive centres, and largely the same behavioural responses. Why should it be that an animal that expresses fear, or joy, or pain, is not actually experiencing anything when a human in the same situation is? Yet for far too long, that is exactly what we have done – ignored the evidence of our own eyes. As he notes, “… we desperately need to believe we are not just unique…but that we are so very special, that we are resplendent, transcendent, translucent, divinely inspired, weightlessly imbued with eternal souls.”

Safina considers the lives of elephants, one of the smartest and most social of animals, today under immense threat from the predations of human beings. When ivory can offer a man a lifeline to keep poverty and starvation at bay, the inner lives of elephants and the close social bonds of their family groups mean little. Nonetheless there IS meaning in the lives of elephants and Safina shows in empathic and sympathetic vignettes of everyday encounters a glimpse into the experience of the largest land animals, and in doing so invites us to feel some degree of familiarity with how they live in the world.

He goes on to examine the lived experience of wolves and whales and throughout he weaves a story of the unfolding evidence for animal consciousness, but even more than this, he highlights what I think is a fundamental insight into life on earth. Evolution has built upon a common foundation and we should not be surprised to find many of the core capabilities of human beings in even the simplest organisms. Humans are not so much apart as inherently part, a wrinkle on a theme at once more complex and more capable of wringing great change and yet far less capable than many other animals. It is when we look at animals in the context of their own meaning, through the lens of their own relationship to the rest of life and the world, that we can truly see their measure.

Yet there is a long history in the common and scientific outlook that would deny this angle to our inquiry into animal conciousness, a history steeped in what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesism’. Safina offers this thought: “Are they intelligent like we are? No, and therefore – we win! Are we intelligent like they are? We don’t care. We insist that they play our game; we won’t play theirs.” In this book, he shows us that caring is key if we wish to understand how animals think and feel and by extension better know our own relationship with and place in nature.

The BBC video examines the cognitive prowess of animals, from the problem solving abilities of crows to the remarkable behaviour of dolphins watching themselves in a mirror. Science, it seems, can no longer completely hold at bay the idea that animals do indeed think, feel, experience and look at the world in ways not so dissimilar from us.

One of the most illuminating learnings in this video is that relative brain size (ie brain to body mass) is a strong predictor of brain ‘power’ where brainpower equates to cognitive abilities such as problem solving and abstract thinking. And it turns out that by and large, the most social of animals have the largest brains relative to body mass. Humans, Great Apes, Wolves, Whales, Corvids and Elephants for example all share this trait and all are remarkably competent problem solvers.

This reflects something fundamental about the evolution of the brain (and consciousness). For social animals, it is important to be able to evaluate the behaviours of others. Early in the development of brains and nervous systems it became necessary for animals to be able to determine what other animals were doing, where their attention lay and what their next action might be. For example, a predator that has its eye on you is a greater danger than one that doesn’t. Being able to assess and predict the behaviour of peers and predators can be critical for survival. Similarly once animals begin to cooperate as social animals do, predicting the behaviour of fellow creatures becomes useful, as does the ability to adapt your own behaviour to suit. It’s only a small jump from there to being able to influence or manipulate your fellows’ behaviours in pursuit of goals or outcomes (think hunting as a pack).

It’s easy to see where that leads in regard to human beings. Our use of language and high order cognition means that we can work cooperatively in coalitions of considerable size. In effect, human beings can construct societies of almost unlimited numbers with consequent adaptive advantages to the species as a whole.

Coming back to the ideas in Safina’s book, we are struck by the fact that rather than consciousness or intelligence being something that humans have and other animals do not, it is in fact something of a continuous spectrum. Most animals – that is to say birds, mammals, maybe reptiles and fish – have a basic toolkit of awareness and the ability to adapt behaviour on the basis of perception. How this is applied varies between species and has achieved substantial specialisation in some, but on the whole we tend to find that the simpler forms of cognition and awareness are shared between most animals. Consciousness itself is similarly a spectrum event, with humans perhaps at the top of the tree due to our use of complex language.

I think this is the take home message. Conscious awareness of the world is not some special ability enjoyed by humans but not other animals, rather it is common to most animals and can be expressed in more complex ways depending upon application. Social animals with larger relative brain size seem to exhibit the most complex cognitive abilities and so we can conclude that the human experience is not that much different from that of creatures like the elephant and dolphin. That said, pretty much all the animals we hunt and farm for food can be said to be aware, conscious and experiencing. That means we really should be re-evaluating our relationship with the rest of nature. For too long we have stood apart and in our apartness felt we had the right to treat other animals as mere objects to be used. Science and religion both tacitly encouraged this idea, but finally the tide is turning and it becomes harder to ignore that our fellow animals are exactly that, our fellows.

Albert-Swinestein-2bSafina summarises: “Just as all humans are the same and each human differs, all species are the same and each species differs, and within that, each creature, too, is an individual”.

They are like us, we are like them. Perhaps in the end, we all just are.  We should try to remember this simple fact so long ignored.

 

Photo credit: Carrie Brock

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:

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/denmarks-climate-plan/blog/50625/

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.

https://www.masterresource.org/false-claims/denmark-part-i-intro/

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.