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.

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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

Proper Milk and Happy Farmers!

Cows-skipping

At last, an opportunity to celebrate and promote good news! I may come across as some weirdo milk obsessive (not that this isn’t entirely untrue), my grandfather did grow up on a dairy farm in Carmarthenshire, so I have a connection to dairy farming, (milk is in my blood <sic>).  I have despaired about modern society rejecting the value of good quality produce. A new dairy initiative has been set up to promote and distribute traditionally produced milk from cows that graze on grass (as indeed they should), check out  and look out for freerangedairy.org.

So, why am I so excited about this? I have been saddened as small dairy producers have fallen by the wayside as the supermarkets demand lower and lower unsustainable farm gate prices for milk. The mega-dairies have arose with cows never seeing the light of day in giant factory farms. I have found this particularly annoying, as such production methods are not as sustainable, or even efficient as pasture based systems. Basically more labour is involved in looking after the cows and harvesting grasses (or worse grain) to bring in to feed the cows, this system is really inefficient though economically cheaper only because of a distorted market.

I only buy organic milk. Well almost… not all of the cheese I buy contains organic milk, I love cheese and I wish I had better access to decent cheese made with sustainable milk,  cheese it the one compromise I make in ethically sourcing food. I digress, like intensive chicken meat, organic milk makes up 2-3% of the market in the UK currently. It has always puzzled me why free-range eggs make up >50% of the market and not chicken. I remember seeing in the supermarket a ready meal containing intensive chicken, and the label was promoting the fact that the sauce contained free-range eggs, did no-one else see the irony?

Perhaps the reason for this is simply price. People will happily pay a few pennies more for ethically sourced eggs, but not a few pounds more for a free-range chicken. Conscience, it seems, does have a price for the majority of people. So, I’m excited by this new scheme as without having to jump through the expensive hoops to certify as organic, free-range milk will only be a few pennies more than intensive milk, it can win, our environment need not be blighted by ugly smelly mega dairies.

Another thing that has frustrated me is that the family farms of upland Wales, the area where I grew up and the area I call home, are relatively poorer than farmers elsewhere in the UK. Basically because the land is less productive, however they produce a superior product in free range lamb, yet have often been unable to command a superior price for their superior product. I may be bias but i think it is true that Welsh lamb is sweeter and more flavoursome than lowland English or New Zealand lamb. Actually, the best lamb I have ever tasted came from Scotland (and it does pain my Welsh heart to say that).

Also recently, I’ve discovered a way to describe my food requirements in a way that doesn’t offend people but makes clear what to offer me. I am ‘mostly vegetarian’. The phrase is apparently widely used in India to describe Hindus who aren’t entirely strict with their vegetarian diet, yet haven’t entirely abandoned the traditional Hindu diet. The phrase ‘mostly vegetarian’ works to describe people like me who only eat free-range, traditionally produced meat products as an occasional treat (due to pricing). No longer will I have to explain myself in restaurants for taking the veggie option, then chomping through a rare steak of lovely Welsh beef at home. Basically I have often had a hard time explaining to people that I don’t eat intensive meat and some homes I’ve visited have been offended by this, so I’ve longed for a way to describe it.

I wish this scheme every success, and hopefully someone will read this and buy a pint of proper free-range milk?

Meaty Intolerance

Sometimes, I find it a challenge to be tolerant of people who are intolerant of vegetarians. Particularly such arguments as: Humans are omnivores, it’s ‘natural’ to eat meat. These arguments smack of the highest hypocrisy as the implication is that industrial intensive farming, rearing animals in cages on high growth diets is somehow ‘natural’, it isn’t, To many it’s intolerable. Yet veggies are labeled as being awkward people.

I grew up in rural Wales, in a community of small family farms, rearing animals in a traditional free range way. When I was fifteen I discovered that much of the meat I was eating was from intensive factory farming. I found this intolerable and became a vegetarian. Many years later I felt able to ethically source free range meat. This means I now eat meat once, maybe twice a week. Actually the traditional pre-industrial diet.

It annoys me sometimes that people still regard me as ‘awkward squad’ as I don’t eat meat at restaurants. when I first meet people I identify as practically vegetarian to not cause offense, until people get to know me better. The thing is that when I explain my food preferences to people, or expose urban people to the reality of food production, they tend to agree with me, but don’t act. Two reasons are often given:

1/ It’s too expensive. Well yes, but you don’t have to eat meat in every meal, meat should be a treat, not an everyday thing. It seems people are not prepared to make the changes in how they shop or cook.

2/ It’s too difficult to ethically source meat. This is true for the majority of places in the U.K. But if no-one doers this, there is no market pressure put on food production systems, so abuses of animals welfare perpetuate.

Really, it comes across to me, that people are intolerant of vegetarians yet when forced to think about it  they agree, but are simply not prepared to follow through on these convictions. I appreciate how how odd it is to go to a supermarket and ignore the vast majority of the meat section and all the products containing meat, to be lumbered with feeling an irritating sense of superiority in such stores, to feel like an outsider. But really, there is nothing wrong with being right, honest with yourself and true to your convictions. Being not true to yourself to support industries you find intolerable, is to me one of worst ways of living.

Alternative Industry

There is a common theme to all my talk of being an outsider and in minorities. Viewing the world from the outside kind of predisposes one to analyse, for one can perhaps see the wood for the trees. Where I have made commitments, in a sense it is to circumvent the machinations of industry.

I’ve never really liked the concept of ‘alternative’ yet that is how my choices are labelled. Two examples:

‘Alternative music’

As a child I loved dancing around my bedroom listening to the latest pop music from the charts. As a teenager I discovered that there was a whole world of much more interesting music than the generally bland indentikit music of the charts, music with more soul, music with the ability to touch me inside and that I could relate closely with. this wasn’t just the ‘alternative’ scene of ‘indie’ music, but reggae, folk, country, metal, world music etc. In those pre-internet days, this ‘alternative’ music was rare on the radio, not in the local shops and harder to access. Harder, because the music industry manipulated the market to make more money for itself, to lead people into commercial music rather than provide access to all music.

‘Vegetarianism’

I became vegetarian when I realised how much intensive production of meat was going on. Where there seemed a lack of respect for the sentient nature of animals, that the welfare of animals is of less importance that commercial success. In the food industry I am always shocked to discover how little many consumers understand of how their food is produced. Seeking alternatives to intensively  produced meat, again requires finding ways around industry and closer links with the producers of food.

It’s not just these two examples (see my ramblings on fashion in earlier posts), but really getting to the best products at the best price is how free markets should work, requires people to spend time knowing how the industry works and how to access the ‘alternatives’. I view this as the root of many of the troubles and sheer bonkers arrangements for human life in the 21st century.

I’m a Social Democrat. I have the fundamental belief that commerce should serve society, rather than the other way around. I suppose this is partly why I have an aversion to the mainstream. The mainstream isn’t this well thought through popular consensus, but rather this system imposed by small groups of ‘captains of industry’. There is no sense in supporting the mainstream from an economic perspective, it’s seemed geared towards inefficiency