“From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone” by Paul B. Thompson

The books I’ve read over the past year – particularly in relation to climate change – have undoubtedly made me question the choices I make about food. I can’t claim to have become a vegetarian, but I am eating a lot less meat, and choosing meat-free options where I can. The more I read about the ways in which we farm and consume meat in the west, the more convinced I am that change is unavoidable. We simply don’t need to eat meat every day – particularly low-quality, intensively farmed stuff which has been pumped full of antibiotics – and the longer we ignore the ethical conundrums which accompany our dietary choices, the harder it will be for us to cope with the consequences. 2015 has been the year in which the world’s leaders made their pledges at COP21; in which fires raged through Indonesia, in part as a result of the management of palm oil plantations; in which scientists discovered a gene which has developed resistance to colistin, a crisis created by the ways in which we farm meat; and in which floods have raged (and are still raging) through the UK, arguably exacerbated by the fact that our landscape has been stripped of trees for the purposes of farming. We are obviously affecting nature through our actions, in many cases with tragic results – and a great deal of this is linked to what we eat.

I have to say that I don’t relish the idea of eating less meat. I’ve always been a very willing carnivore; the emotional aspects of eating animals have never really perturbed me, and I love the culture of it – not to mention the taste. Black pudding in a fry up; the pork pies at a picnic; scratchings in the pub….there is a social bond created by sharing these foods, and it isn’t something I want to eschew. For me, the decision is wholly linked to the environmental and scientific impact of the quantity of meat we consume. We can’t maintain this rate of deforestation; methane production; and antibiotic abuse, and still hope to live within functioning ecosystems.

I was hoping that From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone would be an interesting exploration of the kinds of issues I’ve already been starting to think about: unfortunately, though, I couldn’t take to it, and upon reflection think that I’m not its target audience. It did raise some new ideas for me: whether GM foods can be ethically justified because of their ability to feed the poorest communities; whether obesity results from personal choice or genetic predisposition caused by the diets of our grandparents; and the key role that literature has played in exposing the least ethical practices within the food industry (such as, for example, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.) For me, it was too full of academic jargon, and simply too inaccessible for someone without a background in ethics – the “everyone” part of the title is perhaps a bit misleading. I also prefer something with a clear, emphatic argument – as in This Changes Everything and Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations, both of which are impassionate and wholly engaging. This is more of a neutral exploration of various ethical issues, which, unfortunately, when combined with the language, wasn’t enough to keep my attention. For someone with the right background, I’m sure this would be an excellent book. For a layman, though, it’s not very easy going.

From Field to Form

“Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.*

Internet shopping; social media; consumerism; celebrity TV shows; fast food; cheap air travel…they have all been a part of our lives for so long that it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when this wasn’t our landscape. Perhaps that’s partly why it seems to be so impossible to ingest the realities of climate change, and what it means for our society – our hyper-materialism has thrived for decades, and scaling back now seems incomprehensible. Things will change – they are changing already – and experts are telling us in unison that we cannot keep consuming natural resources at the same rate. Still, though, action remains elusive.   

Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations is a brilliantly accessible analysis of the realities of the Anthropocene, and the barriers corporations erect to prevent us from making critically urgent societal changes. In a world which is visibly and dramatically altering as a result of man-made climate change, capitalism remains supported by its trio of carefully constructed, mythical pillars: the idea that we can continue to grow our economies whilst still addressing the climate change crisis; that omnipotent corporations will in fact save us from climate change through technology; and that corporations are essentially citizens of our societies, with a human moral code. As far as corporations are concerned, then, and supported by this mythic infrastructure, climate change need not interrupt “business as usual”.

Successful decoupling (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) is shown here to be illusory. Capitalism, the authors say, depends on compound economic growth and, as such, the entire model is based on identifying a hierarchy of resources – humans and carbon are essential, whereas other species are expendable. In order to continue in this vein, and whilst society gradually begins to respond to the threat of climate change, corporations have hijacked the highly emotive dialogue around the crisis with stunning results: rather than being a reason to reduce consumption, climate change is being sold to us as  an “opportunity for growth.” It is, in the minds of corporate managers, a quantifiable risk, which is something to be commoditised, controlled, and converted into profit.

As they continue to try to shape public discourse on climate change, major car manufacturers and fossil fuel companies have spent the past few years refining their brands to buy themselves social legitimacy, whilst in the background, creating “an echo chamber of climate change denial” by engaging with the right-wing media, and funding incredibly damaging campaigns. In one section, for example, the authors note that, In 2012, the Heartland Institute, which is funded by the fossil fuel industry, even ran a billboard campaign associating those who believe in climate change with mass murderers, juxtaposing a mugshot of Unabomber Ted Kaczinsky with the tag line: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” It’s an outrageous, and so far highly successful, hypocrisy.

There are so many fascinating arguments here. In the context of an issue which can seem overwhelming, I particularly liked how the authors focused on the impact this conversation has on individuals – especially those who hold sustainability roles within corporations. In order to function both as an employee and an agent of change, managers cling on to their rational business arguments: specifically, the fact that a greener economy creates exciting space for growth. “Green” arguments are stripped of legitimacy in the board room, but if a sustainability manager can show that recycling is good for business, then she has a chance of effecting change. At home, the same individuals may be passionate advocates for environmentalism, but at work, their arguments need to be tempered by this apparent rationality and corporate loyalty. Wearing these different hats is exhausting, and it also leaves individuals with a lack of identity coherence. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures and like to be able to view ourselves as having integrity. Until acting to curb climate change is recognised in and of itself as being for the public good, without corporate carve-outs, there may be a limit on the number of people who manage successfully to work a response to the crisis into their own personal narratives – which is precisely what is needed.

It is also intriguing and hugely frustrating, that, as Nyberg and Wright say, we happily grant corporations a civic status – they are legal “people” with rights and obligations, and by implication, a supposed moral duty to abide by our societal ethics – but that nature has been denied the same respect. When Christopher Stone argued in Should Trees Have Standing that entities such as forests, oceans and rivers, along with the natural environment as a whole, should be safeguarded through inclusion in the civic sphere, the claim failed because rights for natural objects proved too strange. In short, conferring rights on the ocean seems eccentric, whereas turning companies into “people” is uncontroversial. I was relieved, then, that the authors go on to reference a tribunal in New Zealand which recently recognised a river as a legal entity, echoing analogous initiatives in Bolivia and Ecuador, where constitutional amendments have included specific rights for the environment.” It is entirely ludicrous to confer such a civic personality upon finance-driven corporate structures whilst withholding the same rights from the natural resources we depend upon; particularly when free trade agreements like TTIP  go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. Ecocide should surely be made an international crime without any more delay.

This is a brilliant book, clearly and engagingly written, offering fascinating perspectives on a terrifying crisis. For anyone who has already read This Changes Everything, this is a perfect follow-up – and like Naomi Klein, the authors end here with a road-map for change; albeit one which acknowledges how much damage we have already done: Extreme weather events, record heat, the melting Arctic, and acidifying oceans lay bare the folly of advocating “solutions” in the strictest sense. There will be no silver bullet. There will be no heroic, cure-all act of salvation. Our only hope is damage limitation.