On being smug, blaming Pepper Pig for cavities in teeth, and three solutions to all the world’s problems

I was planning to be all smug in this post and write about how vegans can make their own milk from a packet of soy beans while non-vegans have to find a cow to milk. Unfortunately my first attempt at making soy milk created a watery and slightly gritty mess. I tipped it down the sink. I milked a cow once and it was easier. I’ll go back to buying soy milk from the supermarket.

Elizabeth told me recently that Pepper Pig is to blame for her cavities. A few years ago the dentist found three cavities in Elizabeth’s mouth. This was a shock to all the rest of us who have near perfect teeth. She now has three stainless steel caps on her back baby teeth – they’ll fall out when she’s about 10. Since that episode both children floss their teeth everyday. What has this got to do with Pepper Pig? Apparently when Pepper Pig brushes her teeth she just goes back and forth across the front and doesn’t clean the back teeth and Elizabeth says she was copying Pepper Pig and not cleaning the back teeth. I was all prepared to take the blame myself but if Pepper Pig is a willing scapegoat I’m not going to stand in her way.

I went to the allotment last Saturday after a two-week hiatus and I was expecting to see it completely overgrown with weeds. Much to my delight and gratitude a whole section was freshly dug and ready for me to plant some seedlings. There are volunteers who work at the allotments doing things like digging, painting, and various other jobs and someone had cleared a patch of weeds in our plot. Isn’t that amazing! I think some of the volunteers might be on a waiting list for their own plot while others like the work but don’t want the responsibility and maybe some are looking for a place to bury a body. Whatever the reason I feel very fortunate to be a part of this community. Every country should have allotments for its citizens. Imagine if impoverished countries had something like this? It could go a long way to solving the problems of hunger and malnutrition. I have a three solutions for most of the world’s problems: cycling, veganism, and allotments.


Cultural blindness

The following excerpt is from an article in The Times this week, Richard Dawkins: ‘When I see cattle lorries, I think of the railway wagons to Auschwitz‘.

Is this what it was like, Richard Dawkins wonders, for ordinary people in Nazi Germany? “There’s a kind of laziness if you live in a society where things are just accepted. People might have been vaguely uneasy about what was going on in Germany but also thought, ‘Oh well, everyone else is doing it’.”

What crime is it that he thinks that we, like Germans in the 1930s, are blind to? It is, perhaps, a surprising one from him: the crime of eating meat. Dawkins, 76, is not known for being a woolly, liberal, tofu-eater. He is better known for his espousal of red-in-tooth-and-claw evolutionary logic and, even more so, for his three million-selling atheist book The God Delusion. Speaking from his Victorian Gothic house in Oxford, he says that just because you don’t fear the judgment of God, doesn’t mean you don’t fear judgment.

The judgment that Dawkins fears, as he recovers from a minor stroke, is that of history. Will the 21st century’s “speciesism” one day be viewed in the same way we view the 20th century’s racism? The world’s most famous evolutionary biologist thinks so.

“We put humanity on a pedestal miles higher than the surrounding territory. A human foetus that has approximately the anatomy and brainpower of a worm is accorded more status than an adult chimpanzee,” he said. And chimpanzees have more rights than, say, cows. “When I pass one of those lorries with little slats and see fearful eyes peering out, I think of the railway wagons to Auschwitz.”

To see Richard Dawkins promoting plant-based diets in a mainstream newspaper is amazing. Veganism is no longer a fringe movement for hippies and crackpots. We now have lots heavy-weight intellectuals arguing for a meat-free diet which gives me hope for our planet.


This Beautiful Creature Must die

We’re all addicted to the new 80s-themed Peta computer game to which The Smiths have lent their 1980s song, Meat is Murder. It’s quite retro with 8-bit audio and pixelated graphics and it’s also very addictive. The song grates on your nerves after a while though. Daniel is the reigning champion with a score of 234. My best is 123.

I used to listen to The Smiths when I was teenager. Not so much because I was a fan but because I liked a boy who liked them. I even have one of Morrissey’s albums, Vauxhall and I. It’s actually quite good and not as dark as some of his other stuff. Apparently the lyrics to some of his songs have become the subject of academic study.

Morrissey has long been an advocate of animal rights. The idea of animal rights might seem strange at first but if we consider that the principle of equality does not depend on biological characteristics like race or sex it follows that it should not depend on the biological characteristic of species either. When we draw the boundary of equality to include our species and ours alone, we are guilty of speciesism.

All or nothing?

Some people have expressed concern to me that I’m punishing my kids by banning sweets. But the thing is, when I say I’m banning something, it does not mean I’ve literally banned something. I never take anything to extremes. I’m flexible with practically everything I do in my life.

So what does banning sweets mean? My kids still get sweets when they go to birthday parties (if the host provides them) and I still do home baking. I almost always have home-made muffins in the pantry (although not at the moment as we’re between homes right now) and when we eat out they sometimes get dessert. They also get treats from time to time like a slice of cake if we go out to a cafe or if it’s someone’s birthday. But we don’t have orange juice or ice-cream or lollies or chocolate in our house.

I also align myself with veganism but I’m not strict. If I go to someone’s house and they offer me a cup of tea with milk and a piece of cake with egg, then I’ll usually accept it. If someone cooks me dinner and it has cheese, then I’m not going to turn it down. Veganism, to me, is not about being militant about every little thing that passes my lips. It’s more about elevating the status of animals and then making choices, when we have them, that respect the rights of other animals. And I would say that almost all of the time, I get the choice to choose plants over animals.

I’m also a teetotaller but again, I’m not strict. Occasionally I will drink a beer. Or make my vegan ice-cream with cointreau recipe. Or try mead for the first time. I enjoy drinking alcohol but I don’t like the headaches that come with drinking too much and there’s also a strong link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, even in moderate amounts. On the whole, I think the stuff is best avoided if you’re a woman, but again, I don’t adopt a militant approach to this.

I think having a flexible outlook for all these things and others makes them easier to maintain. I realise it doesn’t work for everyone and some people need to take a hard line or they fail. But I firmly feel that where veganism is concerned, it’s much easier to try your best and not get hung up on the small amounts of animal products that we might unintentionally ingest. I think many people are put off by what seems like an impossible task. But if you take a relaxed approach to it, then it really isn’t impossible at all.

Weekday vegetarianism

I saw this TED talk today about being a weekday vegetarian and thought it was quite good. I know that many people are put off by vegan/vegetarianism because it seems like an impossible task. But it needn’t be done militantly and as Graham Hill makes clear in this video, eating less meat is still beneficial in lots of ways. Here’s what he says:

My footprint is smaller, I’m lessening pollution, I feel better about the animals, I’m even saving money and best of all, I’m healthier, I know that I’m going to live longer and I’ve even a lost a little weight.

On eating plants

I thought I’d explain in this post a bit about what my tagline “eats plants” actually means. I have been reluctant to write about this here before because I don’t want to come across as judgemental of what other people eat. We each make the best decisions we can and so here I want to write about why I have made the decision that I have made. You might agree with me or disagree with me and that is fine. I hope that at the very least, it might make you think about something you hadn’t thought about before.

My reasons for mostly abstaining from animal products are primarily ethical and based on the philosophy of Peter Singer. I will try to summarise part of this philosophy here although he has written entire books about it and so what I will say only touches the surface. But it goes like this:

If we accept the basic principle of equality – that is equal consideration of interests for everyone – then it follows that this principle should apply to members outside our own species. This might sound strange at first but the idea behind equal consideration of interests is that we give equal concern to all members of humanity regardless of their sex, skin colour, intelligence or various other arbitrary characteristics because equality is not dependent on these characteristics. This implies that equality is also not dependent on the species to which we belong. 

Put simply, our concern for others should not depend on what others are like. It does not depend on their sex or race or level of intelligence. We cannot exploit a being because they belong to a different race and so we also cannot exploit a being simply because they belong to a different species. To do so would be a prejudice known as speciesism.

If species classification is not a good boundary then what is? What I think is more important than the species to which an organism belongs is their capacity for pain and suffering. And here I will quote Jeremy Bentham,

What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

The capacity for pain and suffering and also enjoyment of life is the prerequisite for any of us having interests at all. Peter Singer writes, “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.” This does not mean that all suffering is equal. In many cases an adult human is likely to suffer more than a dog because an adult human has the capacity to plan for the future and can anticipate pain and suffering. But it does mean that if it is wrong to inflict pain on an adult human then it is also wrong to inflict the same amount of pain on a dog.

I have not mentioned taking life here and that is because this is quite a complicated topic and so I will leave that for another post. I thought I would end with this interesting history lesson from the women’s rights movement. The English philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote a book in 1792 called A vindication of the rights of women in which she argues for equality for women. A year later, Thomas Taylor wrote a parody of her book called A vindication of the rights of beasts in which he suggests that the same arguments used by Wollstonecraft to champion rights for women can similarly be applied to beasts which, according to Taylor, would be absurd.

In praise of change

I’m an impatient person. I also relish change. I’m not one of those people who fears it and who rejects everything new. Perhaps this is partly why I have no objections to implementing the changes needed to stem global warming and am perplexed why so many people fight against them.

I read this great tweet yesterday which illustrates so well to me the bastardisation of the word skeptical by those who want to continue with business as usual and the ultimate melting of all of the ice and heating of our planet. These people have hijacked the word skeptical and given it new meaning. Bob Ward defines this new word.

I am fairly apathetic politically speaking but I do want politicians to act on climate change and many of the solutions seem fairly straightforward to me and easy to implement. I thought I’d write here about some of the changes I think are necessary if we want to keep most of the ice frozen and a temperature on our planet that does not stack the odds in favour of giant snakes.

If I were Prime Minister, I’d redirect the colossal and wasteful spending that goes on roads and motorways to off-road cycle paths instead. Every city would become a mecca for cyclists. For particularly hilly places, I’d implement solutions like the Trondheim bike lift. The money saved from lower congestion and pollution (for every $1 spent on cycling infrastructure, $3.88 is returned to the community) could instead be spent on public transport for longer distances and for people who cannot cycle . The spiralling costs of public health care – due to inactivity – would start to taper off and decline. This money can then be redirected to research and development in the areas of renewable energy, nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage.  If anyone is rolling their eyes at me right now then just let me ask one thing, do you want great legs and a toned arse? Cycling will give you both and if you have to cycle to get to school, work or the shops, then you don’t have to bother making the effort to exercise at other times. In these instances, exercise just happens as a consequence of daily activities.

I would also introduce a congestion charge similar to the scheme operated in London to every city. Every car parking space would also be charged. There’s nothing uglier to me than parked cars in a car park. This charge could be called the ugly tax for unnecessary and ugly infrastructure.

Next I would tackle food. This one is tricky because no-one likes to be told what to eat but it’s clear that we cannot sustain a population of 9 billion people if everyone consumes meat and dairy. I see a few solutions here. The first is that the cost of food needs to reflect the impact it has on the environment in the same way that shoe company PUMA now puts an environmental cost on all of its products. The reason for this is that when I go to the supermarket, cow’s milk is considerably cheaper than soy milk. Why is this? Soy milk has a lower carbon footprint than cow’s milk so it ought to be cheaper but it isn’t. This suggests to me that the current cost of dairy is not a true reflection of its cost to the environment.

I realise that I am not going to convert the entire planet to a primarily plant-based diet but that is not my intention. There is no one size fits all as far as food consumption goes but leaping changes are still needed. Part of the solution may lie with science and the ability to grow meat in a lab like this lab-grown hamburger. I think another part of the solution lies with insects. See Grub’s up: can insects feed the world? The Western diet contains far too much red meat anyway and the World Health Organisation implicates the consumption of red meat in dietary-related cancer.

Then there’s consumption and our love of infinite economic growth. British economist, Tim Jackson, has this to say about our current cycle of consumption and growth:

It’s a perverse story, a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about.

He also asks the question why don’t we do blindingly obvious things like buying energy efficient appliances and energy efficient light bulbs? He thinks we’re too busy doing the mundane day-to-day tasks to bother with these simple solutions. Tim Jackson thinks the solution lies partly in institutions that have “ecological and social goals written in their constitution”. The example he gives is the company Ecosia which gives 80% of its profits to the protection of rainforests. We need to dispense with the single goal of profit in our business operations and give equal weight to social and environmental factors for more meaningful prosperity.

Here’s Tim Jackson’s TED talk – An economic reality check – which is well worth watching.