Hyper Normal Cows

hyper normal cows

This picture is from the 19th century. At the time there was a trend to breed larger livestock and over-feed them, as the chap is doing in the picture, to produce excessively large cows. It has been suggested that this was for little more than as a status symbol, the bigger your cow the higher your status as a farmer. However they were not normal cows, they were not healthy cows and would have had obscenely high levels of fat.

One of the big televisual events of this week was the airing of George Monbiot’s “Apocalypse Cow” a documentary to raise awareness of the lack of sustainability of rearing cows for food, looking specifically at Britain. My social media has erupted yet again with farmers upset at seeming to be targeted as the bad guys. This perception is bolstered by aggression directed towards the farming community by those demanding sustainability, largely extremist vegans. In reality, this is a false perception, so it was disappointing that Mr Monbiot failed to ensure this was not the ‘take home message’ of the programme. I think it’s all to do with hypernormalisation.

As a man, I shave my face. When I started shaving I experimented with various methodologies and concluded that what worked best for me was wet shaving using a traditional brush and a soap block. However, over the years getting hold of reasonable quality block soap for shaving on the high street has become ever harder. Harder because most people who wet shave purchase cans to produce their shaving foam. This is surely an inferior way to shave for several reasons:

1/ the quality of the foam isn’t as good. 2/ It’s environmentally damaging as a single block of soap will last longer then several cans 3/ the cans are much more expensive.

It seems that most men are not making the optimal choice, particularly financially. This may because of marketing. I have never seen an advert for block shaving soap, but I have seen countless adverts for cans of shaving foam on the telly and in magazines as the only way to be a “Real Man”. The reason for that is likely because the soap makers  and the retailers make more money from selling multiple quantities of the more expensive cans. Use of cans is now regarded as the normal way to shave. The whole process of how society shifted to an inferior product is an example of hypernormalisation, normalisation of something that rationally is abnormal. Everyone kind of knows that this situation is bad, yet continue to buys cans of shaving foam. It is also partly this desire to conform, to not be the oddball who buys block soap like their ‘old-fashioned’ grandfathers did.

The conspiracy theorist in me has a theory about this. In most supermarkets, you are lucky if there is one shaving block soap. If there is only one it is usually Wilkinson Sword shaving soap, this has to be the worst shaving soap ever produced; it is very difficult to get a decent lather with it. Every other block soap brand produces a good lather.  Anyone who experiments with block shaving soap is likely to trial it with Wilkinson Sword soap, so they conclude that it’s a poor way to shave and go back to the cans. It is entirely possible that Wilkinson Sword simply produce poor soap to encourage people to buy canned foam to boost their profits. This is perhaps the inherent weakness of modern capitalism.

This hypernormalisation also happens with cows. Society has become accustomed to generally buying cheap, intensively produced meat through this process of hyper-normalisation. As household food budgets are squeezed, the idea of spending more to get sustainable local produce seems crazy, let alone the hassle of queuing at the butchers on a Saturday morning. There is the idea that it is only oddballs that obsess about only buying sustainable meat, have become vegans, or indeed do really mad stuff like learn to speak Welsh as an adult.

These conventions of habit and hypernormalised thinking need to change if humanity has any hope of averting the looming climate crisis. There was a very poignant example of this in Apocalypse Cow.

One segment of the programme involved Mr Monbiot visiting a pasture based cattle farm. Mr Monbiot was accusing the farmer of not being sustainable. The farmer was visibly upset by this accusation as hers was a traditional, extensive, pasture -based farm and she was carrying on the long proud tradition of cattle farming on that farm, how was she not one of the good guys? Mr Monbiot then delved further about the feed supplements that she used, which contained unsustainable palm oil. To feed her traditional cows she was playing a part in the destruction of primary forest to release land for production of palm oil. Hence, her farm was not as sustainable as she thought. She had believed that her farm was sustainable through hypernormalisation. Both the farmer, the shaver and everyone else are victims of hypernormalisation leading to unsustainable situations like the world is in now. Everyone else buys these sacks of animal feed, it is normalised.

These myths are so easily entrenched, most of us exist in these self-confirmatory social bubbles, telling us that we are the good guys and the baddies are elsewhere. The uncomfortable truth is that we are kind of all the bad guys when it comes to the environment, our intentions are good, but we have been misled through hypernormalisation. The vast majority of farms in Wales fail to achieve sustainability, even the hill farms I grew up around.

I’m currently reading John Davies’ ‘History of Wales and here are some quotations from the book:

“Welsh rural communities experienced greater changes in the thirty years following the Second World War than they had in the previous three hundred years. The key change was mechanisation… Between 1950 and 1970 the number of sheep in Wales increased from 3.8 million to 6 million, cows from 369,000 to 528,000 and a decrease in hectares under grain by 45%”

That is a substantial change. If we imagine the  practises of my grandfathers’ farms compared to them now the differences are substantial, but aren’t at first glance. I think it is reasonable to suggest that those farms were sustainable; they grew fruit, vegetables and grain for human consumption and as winter supplements for their herds, didn’t use pesticides and fertilisers as has now become normalised and probably had greater areas of the farm as nature refuges, such a trees and hedgerows, where the soils had time to recover from grazing, to get the nutrients back into the grasses. Those processes are likely now reduced due to modern practises, they may have passed a tipping point on many farms.

It can be understood that through these changes we have made Welsh farming unsustainable. We are losing biodiversity and the ecosystem services provided to keep the soils, plants and animals healthy and full of quality nutrients at a rapid rate. Where Wales is fortunate is that to develop sustainable agriculture should not involve major changes to our farms. Welsh farms can be sustainable with relatively minor changes to practises compared to much of world agriculture. We do kind of need to return to the ‘Child’s First Farm Book” with a pictures of cows and sheep, a couple of pig sties and chickens pecking around the farm yard, surrounded by abundant wild birds, because it it is mixed farms that are the most sustainable and productive.

My other criticism of Apocalypse cow was the suggestion that all of the UK under pasture can be rewilded and we can eat instead food from bacteria grown in vats. The problem with academics or ideas people is they ask the “What if?” questions. Attempting to answer those questions leads to some big useful numbers, so we can predict how much carbon is stored in the remaining parts of the Amazon rainforest. However this scientific, big picture thinking doesn’t break through very well to the general public, it doesn’t relate to our understood reality or the farm next door.

We may indeed as a species need to grow food in vats to get us through this environmental crisis. However we are still going to need some fresh fruit and veg and the most sustainable way of doing that is to also rear some animals on the land to facilitate nutrient cycles. It is often said we need to ‘Think global, act local” however this message makes it look here as though farming itself is to blame, rather than the broken system of capitalism at work that is responsible for all this hypernormalisation of unsustainable practises.

We are all the bad guys. We all know it’s wrong to buy so much plastic, so much food from the other side of the world and many of us non-farmers in the developed world drive to work. we kind of know this commuting is wrong, but we have to do it to have a job, we have little choice, so we can buy food to put on out tables and only have time to visit supermarkets in the evenings when the butchers is closed. Farmers are no more to blame than the rest of us, so we should not pick on farmers as being the bad guys here.

The real bad guys I suppose are the beneficiaries of our broken system of capitalism, the fat cats of big ag’, multi-national corporations and corrupt governments run by people far removed from the land and the everyday life for regular people. The people who allowed it to be decided that promoting cans of shaving foam, sourcing animal feed from primary forests was an okay idea and not tackling the housing crisis forcing so many of us to not live where we work.

So, how do we resolve all these problems? They are big and complicated and they are powerful vested interests in not changing them. I believe that what we need to do is work together, gather data, share ideas and best practise, and support those making an effort. What will hinder us is the divide and rule of the rich and powerful, who will set Farmer against Vegan , Brexitier against Remainer, Town against Countryside, Welsh against the English. If we can get beyond that and work together we can have a better quality, more sustainable quality of life, with wonderful productive farms with the highest animal welfare standards so that even those who believe it is morally wrong to rear animals for meat can accept those farms providing a service for those that don’t believe so.

We have to get beyond this black and white, good guys and bad guys, the reality is always more complicated.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys

On a personal note, I think the best way to achieve this is stronger democracy and more local government by people who live in and understand our communities, from the bottom-up  rather than the top down. That is why I support Welsh independence.