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.




Conformity Rules

Following on from my last post. The other aspect of a socially conservative viewpoint is the value placed on conformity to social rules. Again this is a spectrum, but perhaps the issue with it is that it’s self-perpetuating as it encourages greater and greater conformity to be viewed as a valuable member of a society. This aspect is simply bad.

The ability to follow social rules is important for a society to function, to enable people to come together to do something enriching or useful. For example I went to a Christmas play for young children before Christmas, Llygoden yr Eira (The Snow Mouse) concerning the adventures of a mouse in a snowy wonderland. We probably all know the rule about theatre, musical performances or football matches, that you don’t enter the stage area unless specifically invited by the performers and even then you must do as directed by the performers. However this was a show for very young children who could not be expected to know this rule and it was very tempting to get up and touch the wonders being produced on the stage and so the children did. The company expected this and allowed it up to a point and had a number of crew at hand to herd children off the stage when necessary for safety and coherence of the show. In many ways the show was educational is showing children what was acceptable and what wasn’t. This social rule is there to ensure that everyone can enjoy the performance as intended, it makes sense.

On the other hand the example I gave earlier of homophobia. Repression of homosexuality, because it is seen as a social value of the majority as the majority are almost always heterosexuals. However homophobia is in itself socially damaging and divisive, so there it should not be valued and is unacceptable behaviour.

As I see it, there are some social situations where you need to conform and behave in a certain way and others where such restrictions are much reduced. For example expected behaviour at a Church service and that at a music festival, where social norms are expected to be flouted. Thus society has a good balance, we learn the rules and have space to relax those rules once in a while. However it seems that some  conservatives place a value on conformity above and beyond simply enabling people to enjoy themselves or work together on particular projects.

I grew up in a very conservative part of rural Wales and it was very stifling and there were very few places rules where rules were relaxed. Indeed the popularity of local taverns as the place you could relax those rules perhaps contributed to their popularity. When such a conformity starts to dictate how you dress, how you behave, what jobs are acceptable and which discouraged it becomes painful as the rules no longer make any kind of sense.

When rules don’t make sense and there seems no logic or reason for them to exist you cannot help break the rules, you just keep breaking them as you are unable to internalise their sense. All children break rules as they don’t understand them or why they exist. That is why good parents tell children why a behaviour is wrong, such as playing with electrical wires a sit’s dangerous, but it will be some years until they get taught all about electricity at school, but the rule makes sense, as children do learn what can be played with and what is to be left alone.

As adults we expect to have learnt the rules, that is the mark of being an adult. when some conformity rules get difficult and you have to twist and bend your personality so much to fit those rules, you are no longer in control, you can’t rely on reason or experience to tell you how to behave and it then follows that you cease to be useful, trying to follow the rules takes all your time and energy to the point that you can do little productive work. If you are not naturally inclined in such a way that you are a perfect match for the these conformity rules, you fail socially, you become mentally ill and suffer from anxiety.  The upshot of this is you have a society where a significant percentage of otherwise healthy individuals cannot contribute to that society and this makes no sense. Conformity to rules is there to make social functions easier, not more difficult, that is why I don’t get this obsession with extreme conformity.

Anxiety is a terrible affliction/ Being nervous before going on stage or attending a job interview, is normal anxiety. Seeming to continually break the rules you don’t understand which no-one will take the time and effort to explain to you, makes you constantly anxious and encourage you to withdraw from society and this is not a good thing to do. If you are going to have rules, they need to make sense, and not just be a privilege for those whom through sheer dumb luck are able to naturally conform with arbitrary social rules.

I think it’s going to be one of the biggest challenges of the next years. The world is facing devastating climate change. Every person and organisation will need to make big changes to how we do things. It’s going to effect what we eat, how we shop how we work and how we travel and so many of the conformity rules that exist in Wales and throughout the world are going to have to change. In particular the quantities of unsustainable meat society consumes. I was vegetarian form the age of 15 and so many people didn’t understand  my reasoning or the importance of sustainability. I think this is partly as this social custom was rigidly enforced “If you don’t eat your meat, how can you expect to have pudding!”. Getting young children to eat healthily is hard work, but there is no need to enforce rules, purely because they are the traditional conforming rules to older children who may know a lot more about nutrition than their parents.

To tackle climate change the world needs to become a lot more liberal in it’s worldview. However it’s then even more important to identify and protect the things we genuinely care about as positive values.

Until the cows come home

Some lovely Belted Galloways

Greta Thunberg set off this week to sail to New York to deliver a speech about climate change at the United Nations. People have attacked her for this. Not attacking why she is doing it or issues of climate change. They are attacking her for being a sixteen year old girl. Mature adults criticising a sixteen year old girl for being a young girl. What on Earth is going on here?

I remember being sixteen. I was utterly confused by the world. The crazy way society is organised, the sheer amount of plastic starting to appear in the supermarkets and simply how inefficiently the world was organised. This had already led to huge losses of forests and space for wildlife in the world. Surely, this is crazy, I thought, how is the world in general not aware of this and why aren’t things being done to sort these things out.

I could have devoted my life to raising awareness and getting these things sorted out. I didn’t because the messages as I was getting was that I was too young to understand and in any case my peer group in the farming community I grew up in thought my views were weird. I was the exception, I was the minority. I was also suffering from social anxiety, partly because I was different. However I can completely understand Greta’s position and thoroughly admire it. We really do live in a world where sixteen year olds can be right and fully educated adults can be wrong.

Nonetheless I became vegetarian and tried not to produce too much waste and kept voting for politicians who expressed a commitment to sorting out the environment and making society a little less crazy and kept talking about the issues. This isn’t enough, it’s a drop in the ocean, the actions of one strange person are not enough. To make big societal changes you have to grow a movement, find a way to get your message across clearly and fight and fight and fight until the cows come home.

One problem is that I grew up in a society that encouraged compromise: You have to behave a certain way to fit in, you have to dress a certain way, you need to do certain activities and not do others, you need to get a well-paying job and then if you do all these things you may be in a position of authority and then you can do something about it.

To get there or even just to get any job, you have to compromise for example by commuting, wasting the resources of 2 hours of car travel everyday or helping an organisation you don’t like. You have to buy plastic wrapped bananas, because you can’t afford the unwrapped bananas in the posh shop.

However this doesn’t work, it took me a long time to realise this. Firstly you end up twisting your personality into knots to try and act the “right” way, you can’t trust what you think and thus lose access to your natural abilities and do some very strange things. All these compromises stack up, you try to justify them all and and up with some very strange positions and being objective about any issue becomes more difficult. Secondly, all the authority figures aren’t doing anything useful and their ability to change things, even they really want to, is minimal.

There has been a growing awareness of these perils of conformity. Society in Wales and across Europe has become much more accepting of difference, whether it be sexuality, mental illness, race, religion, language &c. Fortunately it is now much easier to be a minority and be accepted. When I was young people people hid themselves so much more for fear of being “found out” and probably beaten up for it. BAME families had to be constantly demonstrating exceeding the highest moral standards to be accepted in society, whereas any lapses from white people were quickly ignored and forgotten about. To get to this better position took a lot of fighting, campaigning organisations, pride festivals and so on. We have started to live in a world where being in the privileged class is no longer a pass ob to a position of authority. It’s a lot less likely that by sheer luck you happen to be someone who matches the prevailing conventional personality and attitude traits so have some authority. People who cared about the environment were sidelined, fortunately that is becoming less the case.

Now that we live in a world where difference is much more in the open and that is much healthier. However  it has created a opposing reactionary force. A force that seems largely composed of those that were able to conform, that being in the privileged group no longer makes things easier for them and they don’t like it. This has created division and turned things into black and white issues. It seems that it’s no longer a question of how much of an issue climate change is, but rather that people that advocate much more needing to be done as the goodies/baddies and those that advocate not doing anything about it as baddies/goodies. The skill of being able to view arguments form the other side seems to be being lost. This ignores all the complexity inherent in the issue.

There just seems to be so much ignorance of the advantages privilege confers. Perhaps largely because if you are lucky enough to be privilege you don’t notice the advantages you have. In Wales, we are fortunate in that our history gives us an insight into both sided. Wales benefited hugely from being a part of the UK, as a country close to the heart of the British empire. Conversely Wales has also suffered from being a “England’s last colony”. Arguably the Welsh suffer both from the guilt of imperialism and the exploitation of a subjected people. As a Welsh white male I have benefited from being regarded as a member of the dominant group and suffered from being an outsider at the same time. Yet there must be a lot of people who don’t have this dichotomy or are even aware of it.


My social media feeds have almost been flooded by posts like the above about agriculture being unfairly attacked for the contribution of methane from ruminants to climate change [I don’t know how they got to these figures, would question them, I’ve included them for illustrative purposes]. This is largely because I know a number of small family farmers who are worried about their future. Methane is ‘bad’ as it’s a terrible greenhouse gas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any, we all fart. There is evidence that suggests than grass fed cows produce a lot less methane than grain fed cows, which small farms specialise in. So the ‘all the cows are bad’ rhetoric is overly simplistic. It’s getting worse as small farms are going to the wall as they can’t compete on price with cross-subsided big [unsustainable] ag’.

On the other hand I also see the posts of the type ‘Everyone should go vegan’. Again this is overly simplistic. Maximum sustainability includes some farm animals. Also in sustainability terms having meat from a local animal is better sustainability wise than shipping something from the other side of the world where it’s grown with stupid amounts of fertiliser on heavily degraded soil.

The sustainability answer lies somewhere in the middle, where nothing gets banned, there is just some things humanity needs to do a lot less of. The problem is that measured arguments don’t get a full hearing and drowned out by the simple messages that resonate with people: ‘Eating animals is natural’ ‘Veganism will save the planet’ ‘Welsh is a dead language’ ‘Let’s take back control’.

Such easy slogans are easily debunked and have long been debunked, yet still they somehow persist. Humans eating animals is natural and has been done since pre-history, but modern intensive agriculture of the last hundred years is not ‘natural’ by any definition. Reducing land devoted to growing food will help the environment and will probably improve many people’s diets, but won’t by itself save the planet. I think reducing average meat consumption in the Western world to something like 10% of current consumption is something like this part of the answer, but it’s how we do it that matters, not the headline figure.  Os mae’r iaith cymraeg wedi marw sut medra i sgwennu hwn [If the Welsh language is dead how am i able to write this?]Greater localised democratic control to reduce negative impacts of large scale global solutions is a way forward, this was the phrase that arguably won the Brexit referendum in the UK. Yet no-one has yet suggested any democratic or constitutional reforms for after the UK leaving the EU that will achieve this.

I’ve written before about how Brexit is divisive and lumped people into being Leavers or Remainers. The ‘Take Back Control’ phrase was more about a general despair with the crazy world we live in  (remember my second paragraph), for traditional values and communities where everyone could relate to each other (apart from the outsiders who know how to keep quiet) because the actual Brexiteers are against electoral reform (perversely in my view). I think there is also an element of wanting life to be simpler, more traditional and this view is most heavily supported by those losing privilege; the white, heterosexual, conservative older generations who did what they were told.

Maybe there is simply a frustration as people who have sacrificed parts of themselves to conform, put up with plastic and long commutes to try to get some control over their lives. Was all this personal sacrifice for nothing? I share this feeling as someone who overly tried to conform and still do to some extent to stay in employment. It could simply be that this young girl comes along who isn’t compromising. She’s travelling the world without using an aeroplane and has become an authority and has helped raise awareness and put pressure on those with power, by not compromising. This kind of breaks the conformist contract, many Western cultures have, that the feeling is she doesn’t deserve influence as she hasn’t done all the horrible compromising, so shouldn’t have a voice. The ability to conform is highly valued and gives people solace. However, she is right in my view, as I was at 16 and we all need to get over ourselves and not criticise people for being right, but instead support them and help build momentum behind sorting out the horrible mess our economy and society is in. We need to unshackle ourselves from our personal hangups to enable humanity to make it to the next century until the cows come home.

Greta Thunberg on her way to America

Ethically Sourced Meat

I was a vegetarian for 15 years because of concerns over animal welfare and my inability to ethically source meat as a teenager. Having lost an argument over dairy products (I was being inconsistent), I decided to take up ethically sourcing meat and dairy products and became mostly vegetarian. I often explain my position to people and often people find my position appealing, they then ask ‘Is it easy?’ to which the answer is sadly ‘no’. Ethically sourced meat is basically meat from animals that have been reared in a traditional manner, where animals can express natural behaviours, generally grazing outside during the warmer months.

Ethically sourcing meat isn’t easy for two reasons. Firstly there is a lack of a clear labelling system. In the UK food labeling is a bewildering array of labels and standards, whether publically regulated (state level) or independently regulated (where you have to trust the labeling body). The second issue is a lack of direct connection between the consumer and the farmer, it is difficult as an individual consumer to monitor welfare levels at each farm, hence the need for labeling). Basically it all comes down to trusting the source

So, my solution has been to take a precautionary principle, sources of meat are investigated and then personally approved. Then the products have to pass a more important second test, this is a visual test of the meat itself, as free range meat looks and tastes differently to intensively produced meat. This second test involves identifying the quality of the meat by the presence of marbling (deposits of fat in the muscle which is indicative of an active life) and colour (active muscles are generally a darker hue), these qualities are then confirmed by the taste test.

My system is actually fairly inefficient, as I have to invest time and effort when sourcing meat products. Indeed, occasionally i consider going vegan for a simpler life! Really a proper labeling system would be more efficient, instead of every individual consumer conducting investigations, a single body can do the job for everyone, which would be much more economically efficient.

The system sometimes fails due to geography. In rural areas it works fairly easily, as relationships are built up with suppliers such as local butchers and other independent stores, who can state where and how the meat was reared and it is possible to check up on claims, so trust is established. In urban areas it gets a lot more complicated, as any followers i may have are aware, I was living recently in an urban area of Southern England, which had no local butcher shops and only supermarkets were available within convenient shopping distance for a weekly shop. what happened was that my meat consumption dropped to barely one meat containing meal a week. The issue was that the supermarkets only had a very limited range of ethically sourced meat and generally charged a very high premium for it. I could have ordered meat online, but being available for delivery of  a refrigerated product was overly burdensome.

What it is is that the British public do tend to want ethically sourced meat, but are constrained from doing so, by the post-industrial way our society is organised. Since free-range eggs have been labelled and regulated  consumption has increased from 2% to over 50%, the demand is there. Economic efficiencies of scale enable urban living and diversity of industry, yet with meat the industry has developed without popular consent for welfare standards and to have industrial efficiency in meat production and distribution requires labelling. Sadly the state, the UK and EU governments have failed to develop a comprehensive food labelling system that the consumer can trust. This lack of economies of scale hits farmers, where farmers do produce a high welfare, sustainable and tasty product, as individual small businesses, it is very difficult to get their produce to the the market for higher quality produce. Local farmers to me, sell on their high quality product in the same way as producers of low quality produce, because once the animals are sold at market, the high quality status is lost into the vast pool of meat that goes off for export to England and beyond.

Another question to address is will a comprehensive labeling system ever come about? There is a desire from politicians in both the Welsh, UK and EU government to implement a system. However, there are hurdles in place caused by international trade laws and there is potential under the proposed TTIP trade treaty for this process to become more difficult. Far from promoting free trade, these international laws stifle free trade by blocking regulatory systems, as states cannot breach these laws by implementing ‘non-tariff barriers’, by which having a local labeling system is difficult as it favours local businesses over foreign ones who can’t readily buy into the labeling system. Potentially TTIP will require a common labeling system to cover all of the EU and all of North America, it may take a very long time, if ever to reach a consensual agreement.

So, potentially, this leaves the consumer to regulate themselves, develop individual relationships with producers. This seems to be a failure of laissez-faire capitalism, where once economies of scale were thought to come from increased international trade, these economies are actually prevented by the system itself as consumers increasingly resort to local level solutions, rather than industrial solutions. It seems that no longer can individuals trust their local state democratic apparatus to regulate markets and thus free up there time to be more economically productive, there is no longer perhaps a ‘once size fits all’ approach, everyone has to do everything themselves, it does increasingly feel like it!