Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Human Being in an Inhuman Age

What does it mean to be human amidst
super-human technological advances?

Conference webcast here.

A sympathetic review of Sherry Turkle's latest book using Hannah Arendt's distinction between "solitude" and "loneliness" as crucial for the development of critical thinking can be found here:

Lost in the loneliness of anti-social networks

Monday, 7 February 2011

An open letter to Gord Sellar about South Korean sci fi

Hi again Gord,

Thought I'd drop you a quick line on something I've just across expanding on what I wrote in the comments thread. I haven't got to your series of posts yet, but I can see great potential in the following pieces.

I'm impressed by the way that Kim Soyoung reworks the concept of the public sphere in terms of South Korean independent filmmakers attempting to distribute their works outside the blockbuster circuit, as well as differentiating their form and content. This is because they in part define themselves against the way that local blockbusters reconfigure cultural nationalism and globalization in terms of the government's neoliberal policy agenda:

"The key issue that local blockbusters bring to the fore lies not so much in the actual amounts of real profit they generate as the investments they show of national cultural value. These investments go alongside a consistent emphasis on the virtues of the movie industry itself as something of an exemplary smog-free, post-industrial sector by the government since the 1990s which sits well with its new purpose in the popular imagination. Notwithstanding the often outrageous marketing fees and ticket sales, the film industry as a whole in the year of 2001 made profits that were only equivalent to those of a medium-size corporation. Nevertheless, what the film industry in its blockbuster mode displays and informs are the popular imagining of the working of finance capital and mass investment culture. The ‘Netizen Fund’ set up on the internet by film companies finds enthusiastic investors, often with such volume of usage that people complain about accessibility. Both the blockbuster movies and the related dissemination of blockbuster culture appear to announce a cultural era of investment that clearly plays a critical role in strengthening the hegemonic dominance of finance capital. This cultural intervention links the perceived interests of tens of millions of workers to its own by embedding ‘ investor practices’ into their everyday lives and by offering them the appearance of a stake within a neo-liberal order." (Harmes May-June 2001) 

Might this not also be construed, along with Shin, in terms of a limitation placed on civil society/public sphere by these dominant discourses? Afterall, "trans cinema" is marginalized. Furthermore, I think it's pretty obvious that if you're forced to work within the "trans cinema", the special effects budget usually demanded by sci fi cinema is going to be out of reach. Although much could be read into Kim Soyoung's piece about the fracturing of genre, which may contribute to the relative absence of indigenous sci fi per se, I also think it is not easy to pass up on  Moon Jae-cheol's critical observation that "recent Korean films are characterized by a desire for newness, and then reads in contemporary cinema the tendency to distance themselves from grand narratives, such as progress and ideology, to prioritize image over narrative and theme, and liberate themselves from responsibility to the societal role of films". As I alluded to in the comments thread, it is difficult to envisage sci fi without such grand narratives (there I mentioned "utopia" specifically). This too, might be classified as an inherent limitation.

I've focused on South Korea's film industry, but remember, Thomas Whiteside warned us in The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing that the book publishing industry can be beholden to the film industry. So there might be something there that could account for the dearth of published South Korean sci fi as well, at least in recent years. To me, this suggests any answer is dependent on how much historical contextualization you want to use to frame how the genre has developed in South Korea. 

I'll let you know if I come up with anything else once I've read your series of posts.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Speculative Biology

Well, here's my final post for the day, and perhaps for the month as well.

Dougal Dixon has become associated with what is referred to as speculative biology". His lavishly illustrated writings have become a source of interest for sci fi fans and scientists alike. To give you a taste, here's the Wikipedia description of the incredible plot of Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future:

"The book begins with the impact of genetic engineering. For 200 years modern humans morphed the genetics of other humans to create genetically-altered creatures. The aquamorphs and aquatics are marine humans with gills instead of lungs. One species - the vacuumorph - has been engineered for life in the vacuum of space. Its skin and eyes carry shields of skin to keep its body stable even without pressure. Civilization eventually collapses, with a few select humans escaping to colonize space. The humans that manufactured these species degrade to simple farmers and following a magnetic reversal, were driven to extinction. Other humans, the Hitek, become almost totally dependent on cybernetic technology. With Magnetic reversal imminent, the Hitek built genetically altered humans to occupy niches: Genetically-altered humans include a temperate woodland species, a prairie species, a junglespecies, and a tundra-dwelling species.

Since then the genetically-altered humans must face a new phenomenon. They can no longer be genetically tweaked in a lab, so all modifications must naturally evolve. Many new forms resulted from natural selection. Socials, colonial humans with a single reproductive parent, Fishers, otter-like fishing humans, Slothman sloth-like humans, Spiketeeth, saber-toothed predatory humans, and even parasitic humans developed through natural changes.

After five million years of uninterrupted evolution, the descendants of modern man that retreated into space returned. Then the world changed dramatically. Earth was terraformed and covered in vast alien cities. The humans and other life forms in this new Earth must breathe air with low oxygen content. Thus the alien invaders use cyborg-technology to fuse the bodies of the few human species they find useful on the planet with air tanks and respiration systems. Genetic modification also returned and giant building humans and tiny connection humans were bred to aid city construction. Genetically created horse-like men serve as mounts for the invaders. Some engineered human species even became farmed like pigs or cattle. As with all civilization, this new era of man fell apart once again.

Eventually the spacefaring humans left, the Earth was left in ruins. With barely any oxygen left in the Earth's atmosphere, all terrestrial life on the planet perished. At the bottom of the world's oceans, at the oases that were the underwater hot springs, life continue. In the abyss, was Piscanthropus profundus, a deep-sea descendant of the now-extinct Aquatic evolved. It is implied that Piscathropus profundis would eventually recolonize Earth's surface".

I recommend checking out this Flickr set to get an appreciation of the bestiary featured in Dixon's work.

And now to the foreword by Brian Aldiss:

It has become necessary to look into the future.

There must have been a time, long past, when animals much like apes looked up into the night sky and wondered about the stars: what those pinpoints of light were, and what they were for. Only a brief while after that, the apelike things acquired language; then stories began to be told, and fantasies woven about the stars overhead. That cluster resembled a hunter and, high above, the outlines of a great bear could be discerned. Such stories, told in the Pleisto¬cene dark, kept the bogeyman away.

Animals have no interest in stars. First speculations regarding the stars represented a revolution in thought. Speculations about the future, such as this book, mark another revolution.

Future speculation is of very recent origin. Yet today no man can call himself cultured who does not occasionally look beyond his own lifetime and his children’s, if only to worry about where the cancerous growth of world popula¬tion is going. Dougal Dixon’s book is an ambitious attempt to view a future as far distant from us as those ramapithecine creatures whose fragmentary remains turn up in Afri¬can fossil beds.

The ability to look into the future is a recently-acquired skill. It has, in fact, all been done by mirrors: there was no seeing into the future until we could see into the past. It is the ever-changing panorama of past time which we extrapolate into future time.

The business of comprehending bygone ages was a hard lesson to learn. Fossils, those coinages of past life, were always of interest to mankind. They are mentioned by Greek writers, for instance, and certainly Herodotus recognized them as being the remains of once-living crea¬tures, understanding that their presence in the mountains of Upper Egypt was evidence that those areas had pre¬viously been under water. Lucretius, too, in his wonderful De Rerum Natura, pours scorn on supernatural effects and speaks of the Earth as having ‘generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts’.

The light of reason did not always shine. Huge fossil bones later gave birth (or so we may surmise) to the legend of giants walking the Earth. The perceptions of the Greeks were forgotten. Eratosthenes, some time in the third cen¬tury вс, understood well that the Earth is round, and measured its circumference with remarkable accuracy, for the latitude of Alexandria. Aristarchus of Samos, in the same period, proposed that the Earth and other planets proceeded in orbit about the sun. These perceptions were overlaid by superstition.

Greek reasoning was based on careful observation, a quality in which the Dark Ages and Middle Ages were weak. The mental world became smaller. Not until the Renaissance in the fifteenth century did learning revive. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, studied fossils and under¬stood their origins. He explains why leaves are found whole among rocks:

There the mud caused by the successive inundations has covered them over, and then this mud grows into one mass together with the aforesaid paste, and becomes changed into successive layers of stone which correspond with the layers of mud.

But Leonardo did not know the age of the Earth and, in any case, accretion of knowledge is as much subject to chance and the processes of time as the fossils themselves. Homo diluvii testis survived as a fantasy for a while, as Piltdown Man was to do later; they were, so to say, phantom fossils.

One of the difficulties in the way of understanding the past was that for centuries the past remained obdurately and orthodoxly small. Religion got in the viewfinder. A wall rather like the walls of Jericho was built about antiquity by Archbishop Ussher, a seventeenth-century divine, who, after a careful study of the Bible, proclaimed that the world began on 26 October, 4004 вс, round about breakfast time. Precision is attractive; Ussher’s calculations became dogma.

The ‘walls of Jericho’ begin to crumble at the beginning of the nineteenth century. What made them crumble was a tooth, retrieved from a pile of rubble in Lewes, Sussex, by a young Mrs Mantell, wife of a doctor Gideon Mantell. The Mantells took the tooth to the learned and eccentric William Buckland of Oxford, a man who ate his way through the animal kingdom and had gobbled down the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion. Buckland was a little weak on the Mantellian tooth. After some research of his own, Mantell named the erstwhile possessor of his tooth Iguanodon.

Buckland, meanwhile, discovered another tooth near Oxford, together with other remains, and named the fossil Megalosaurus.

Thus were the first two dinosaurs named. It was not until 1842 that Richard Owen defined these newly-discovered animals as a distinct group of large reptiles, and bestowed on them the label Dinosauria. A powerful new idea, a new dimension of imagination, had been born. By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, dinosaurs had become common property, and the notion of animals larger than elephants trundling about what became English watering places had caught the popular fancy.
Meanwhile, conceptions of the age of the Earth were being pushed out at a great rate. It spelt the fall of the house of Ussher. Evolutionary theories were current in the eighteenth century, for instance in the proposals, many of them charmingly rhymed, of Erasmus Darwin. In his The Temple of Nature (1803), he depicts with considerable accuracy the pageant of life from its beginnings until the arrival of mankind.

Darwin’s couplets are often neat and memorable, as he intended they should be. The formation of strata of chalk is expressed in a striking image:

Age after age expands the peopled plain,
The tenants perish, but their cells remain.
Erasmus Darwin celebrated limestone mountains as ‘mighty monuments of past delight’, thus in some way looking ahead to Jim Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the totality of terrestrial life as a homeostatic organism.

What Erasmus Darwin lacked was proof of his theories, the tooth found by Mrs Mantell and all the other evidences of remote and continuous life over millions of years which soon followed Owen’s first christening. As geology kept pushing back the age of the rocks, it was the testimony of those rocks which supported the theory of evolution presented by Erasmus’ grandson, Charles Darwin. There had to be enough time in which the whole great drama of life could be staged. Palaeontology gradually won – by a long and painstaking accumulation of facts by numerous people, learned and not so learned.

We now know that life on the planet is no less than 2500 million years old, whereas the age of the Earth is accepted as being something more than 4500 million years.

It was my good fortune as a boy of seven to be given an imposing volume entitled The Treasury of Knowledge. There for the first time I learned of evolution and of the ages preceding ours. So enamoured was I of the story of the creation of the solar system, of the dawn of life, of the dinosaurs, and of those early men - like us, unlike us - that I gave lessons on the subject when at preparatory school, at one penny a time. Although I do not recollect ever being paid, I recall the pleasure we all had drawing brontosauruses and shaggy Neanderthal men.

That precious book is still in my possession. It was published in about 1933 (no actual date printed). Nowhere does it give the ages of the various epochs of past history. A question mark still hung over that subject in the years before carbon-dating and an understanding of the nuclear nature of the sun. In one lifetime we have progressed from that grey area to knowing (or believing we know) how the universe itself came into being - though some doubt remains about the first few seconds of that event.

Until we could look into the past, until the past was seen as a story of continuous development or change, with the mutability of species which that implied, the future remained blank. It gave no credible reflection. This we can see if we read romances of the future penned before evolutionary theory became a reality in human minds. Futures were like the present but more so.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man of 1826, for instance, is set at the end of the twenty-first century. It is a bold stroke, and some play is made with travel by air balloon and revolution in England; but the Turks are still causing trouble at the eastern end of Europe. When a plague commences to wipe out all of humanity, no attempt is made to introduce innoculation or vaccination, although that would have been a reasonable proposition in the 1820s. The novel is full of interesting reflections; but the motive power which evolution could supply is absent.

It was not until 1895 that readers could take up the first novel to be formed by evolutionary thought, as a waffle is shaped by the pattern of the waffle iron. The Time Machine was written by a pupil of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s great protagonist, H. G. Weils. In this marvellous narration, Wells sketches out aeons of future time. It is part of his design that - unlike the epochs in The Treasury of Knowledge - everything has a date. The date at which the time traveller eventually arrives is 802,701: not, in fact, a credible date for the end of the Earth by today’s standards, but one well designed to seem reasonable to the book’s first readers, who had enough other marvels to cope with. Indeed, it is difficult to realize now just how subversive the book must have seemed to many at that date, for a gloomy picture indeed is painted of the bifurcation of society into Morlock and Eloi to which Victorian society is depicted as heading. Evolution is shown as not working on behalf of mankind, as was then popularly imagined.

And, of course, our species is shown as mutable, as transitory.

As the time traveller travels through time into a distant future, he observes that ‘The whole surface of the earth seemed changed – melting and flowing under my eyes’. This is a man who has read Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. ‘I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our own time, and yet, it seemed, built of glimmer and mist.’ It is not only man’s achievements, but mankind itself, which proves transitory, a thing of glimmer and mist.
Without a fresh understanding of the past, without its decipherment, The Time Machine could not have been written; or, if written, could not have been deciphered.

Following on from Wells, we have had many visions of the future. Whether mechanical, trivial, or profound, they all rest on the findings of the nineteenth century; all work as reflections of our understanding of the preceding millions of years.

As much is true of Dougal Dixon’s book. Yet it impresses me as being startlingly original, perhaps the progenitor of a new breed, future-faction. It eschews the trappings of fiction upon which Wells seized. It presents itself as a straight record of the future, the future over the next 5 million years. It is Darwin, Lyell and Wells rolled into one. They would like this book, and be horrified by it: for we have, after all, travelled a long way since their day, and supped on horrors beyond their resources. We have lived through an age (well, men felt much the same in 1000 AD, though for different reasons) when we have almost daily expected the world to be terminated.

So here is the mutability, with human flesh a thing of glimmer and mist. Man After Man is a drama of the oncotic pressure of time on tissue. Dixon does not tell us of the things his caravanserai of creatures believes and thinks; it is enough that we know what they eat. For one of the revelations brought home by evolutionary theory is that we are a part of the food chain, along with pigs, broiler fowls and the tasty locust.

Of course the prospect is melancholy as well as fascinating. This is one of the characteristics of futurology. After all, we are looking at a period long after our own insignificant individual deaths. Everything we are asked to consider here reinforces the fact that our world and all we cherish in it is gone. We are one with Tutankhamun and Archbishop Ussher. Other beings possess the field.
Consider Knut who, Dixon tells us, lives a mere 500 years from now. Knut’s seems a lonely life. He lives in a wilderness of tundra. He subsists on a diet of mosses, lichens, heathers, and coarse grasses. He has been adapted, so he finds his diet palatable and nourishing. But the question arises in our minds: do we not find a little frightening and alien this inheritor of our world — and where did all the toast and marmalade go?

We ourselves like - need - a coarse mental diet. We pass for human, but perhaps only among ourselves. Part of us is sane but, at times of crisis, and not only then, an instinctive drive takes over. We seek to set aside the human aspect by use of drink, drugs and other means of escape, as if being human was as yet too much for us. We have a hearty appetite for apocalypse, as the history of the twentieth century shows.

With this appetite goes an obsession with the future. The futures we visualize are generally dystopian. Dixon’s is science-based, but proves distinctly ahuman. Sombre, I would call it. And sombre was also a word that occurred to Thomas Hardy when he considered the change in taste of our modern age. Hardy was a pall-bearer at Darwin’s funeral, and his writings are steeped in evolutionary thought, from A Pair of Blue Eyes to The Dynasts, the great supernatural drama he wrote in the early years of this century. In The Return of the Native, he reflects on such matters.

Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter.... Human souls may find themselves in harmony closer and closer with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.

Hardy there shows his prophetic sense. We might go on to say that chronicles of change which impress on us the transitory nature of our lives and our civilization are also in keeping with the mood of the present. The current obsession with the future may also pass away in time; but for now – just for now – Dougal Dixon has the right idea.


Apparently what we have here is an alternative to seasteading based on the idea that if you think global warming is a problem, then just wait to see what happens once the oceans start dying. Founder of the project, Dennis Chamberland, proclaims that anyone can become an aquanaut, and given an interest in maintaining a common future, he argues, we would do well to establish colonies under the sea that can monitor changes to its ecosystem. This suggests to me that the project is also some remove from Robert Ballard's ideology, which I have critically reviewed in a previous post.

Another way of looking at it, at least in theory, is as an affirmative response to William Gibson's question, "can the future be a place?" I offer this qualification though as I'm always worried about the naive idealism that usually shapes these projects, which are keen to announce their green credentials, but less forthcoming about how it will be paid for, and what restrictions that might place on "universal access." Chamberland speaks optimistically in terms of realizing his dream within a decade, but right now it is obviously premature to pass too many judgments. If anyone is to do it though, a quick glance at his bio suggests he is well qualified in many key respects:

Chamberland joined NASA as a bioengineer in the mid ’80s, just as the manned space program was starting to thunder forward. But rather than looking up to the stars, he began looking down – deep down.

As a developer of the agency’s Advanced Space Life Support Systems, which monitors the safety for all off-planet habitation pursuits, Chamberland soon became a lead proponent of research on an idea being floated by NASA at the time: using the sea as a testbed for space exploration. Before long, this homegrown explorer would become one of the country’s leading proponents of undersea habitation, and an advocate for what he calls the “space-ocean analog.”

An aquanaut and Mission Commander on seven NASA underwater missions, Chamberland has also pursued landmark research in bioengineering and become a prolific writer of science books and sci-fi novels.

But it was his work for NASA that resulted in his harvesting of the first agricultural crop in a manned habitat on the sea floor, and led to his designing and construction of the Scott Carpenter Space Analog Station, a two man undersea habitat off Key Largo. The little permanent submarine has been visited by a range of curious futurist explorers, including James Cameron and TV producer Rod Roddenberry, Jr.

Chamberland’s next goal, he explains in this episode of Motherboard: colonizing the sea. To move humans to an underwater “Aquatica,” as he calls the habitable regions of the ocean, he launched the Atlantica Expeditions, which are attempting to build the first underwater settlement for permanent human colonization.

This isn’t a toe-dip, or a glossy sci-architectural lark. Starting with the premise that nearly three quarters of our planet’s largest biome have long remained invisible – and are increasingly endangered – the Atlantica project seeks “a human colony whose primary purpose it is to monitor and protect this most essential of all the earth’s biomes. Soon, beneath the sea, families will live and work. Children will go to school. A new generation of children will be born there – the first citizens of a new ocean civilization whose most important purpose will be to continuously monitor and protect the global ocean environment.”

Set to commence by next year, the first expedition will be initiated by the submersion of the Leviathan, a small underwater habitat that can house up to four people. He’s not only certain that colonization of the Earth’s oceans is imminent: he’s making it happen.

Placing the Future in South Korea?

Just doing some rapid postings here of some stuff I will further investigate (in my own time, even if I don't post it here, because my interactions with Korean faculty and students of late obliges me to do so). So I don't have time to really shape this as an essay.

Anyway,  Gord Sellar is curious why sci fi hasn't put down roots in South Korea. To him, the question is perplexing, insofar as the country appears to be influenced by foreign sci fi:

In recent years, the government has advanced proposals for such insane things as robotic nannies who could teach English to children — and even a goal to put one in every home by 2015, no less (here’s where The Economistmentions it)… which should alarm those worried about government surveillance and privacy, since the bots will doubtless be running on wireless networks and a virus-susceptible Windows BotX edition. They also are hoping to get robotic patrol-botsset up to guard the DMZ. Autonomous bots! As Michael humorously points out, we’d better hope they’re multilingual, or there will be a lot of dead hakwon teachers and immigrant factory workers. Actually, they don’t seem to be coming along too quickly anyway.

Notwithstanding these parallels, Sellar wants to argue that one should be careful about mapping civilizational developmental narratives in Western terms, asking:

"Would a Korean postmodernity even look familiar to a Westerner? Need a Korean imagine the future the way an American does? Granted, Korea is likely to import whatever generalized postmodernity actually succeeds here, as it has modernity, and as academics in some fields at least have been doing for some time, but would it necessarily have to do so?" 

The essay remains inconclusive, supposedly on account of the absence of a strong South Korean sci fi tradition.  Please note though, the piece is part of a series, so I would recommend following the listed links to see where else he takes the argument. What is significant for present purposes though, is the reference to William Gibson's well-known piece, "Modern Boys and Mobile Girls", from which can (according to Sellar) be inferred that the telling difference has to do with how "Japan and China, interestingly, both share something specifically with the Anglophone West that Korea does not, which is an awkward colonialist history". Unfortunately, this aspect of the essay remains undeveloped. What I think is more telling then is how the reference to Gibson is reinforced by his most recent piece, which appeared in the New York Times. Gibson has not given up on the idea of finding the future in a place. The reality of globalization leads me to question the viability of this position. So I would instead conclude, along with Samuel Gerald Collins, that a more fruitful line of inquiry could be conducted in terms of "cultural arbitrage":

  "...the gap that opens up between global modernity and the kind of hopes and expectations people have for their lives. Looking somewhere else doesn't mean that our life will become more like their life. But it does open up the possibility for reflecting on similar conditions in the US. That is, the "gap" opens up onto our contradictory experiences and expectations and forces us to question the course of our own futures."

Hence, the said approach treats Seoul not "as as a window onto the future, but as a means for thinking about our mutual futures".

I'm very keen to see where this goes.

Hating Lucky McKee's "The Woman"

Of course, the film will benefit enormously from the free publicity, just as Godard's Hail Mary did before it, once Catholics everywhere were up in arms....

How to Wreck a Nice Beach

The vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, once guarded phones from codebreakers during World War II; by the Vietnam War, it had been repurposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians and soon became the ubiquitous voice of popular music.
In How to Wreck a Nice Beach—from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase “how to recognize speech”—music journalist Dave Tompkins traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin’s gulags, from the 1939 World’s Fair to Hiroshima, from artificial larynges to Auto-Tune.

We see the vocoder brush up against FDR, JFK, Stanley Kubrick, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, the Cylons, Henry Kissinger, and Winston Churchill, who boomed, when vocoderized on the morning before V-E Day, “We must go off!” And now vocoder technology is a cell phone standard, allowing a digital replica of your voice to sound human.

From T-Mobile to T-Pain, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music’s most provocative innovators (thanks derridata).

The Future Eaters

Much of the argument in favour of vegetarian diets stems from an opposition to factory farms that produce meat from animals kept in appalling conditions and fed an unnatural diet. I certainly don’t think that such practices should be supported. There is, however, a lot of land on the Earth that cannot be used for growing crops, but that can support grazing or foraging animals very well. If we decided to dismiss these as a source of food and persuaded everyone on Earth to become a vegetarian, we would be reducing the amount of land that is available for producing food for humans, and thus putting even greater pressure on the existing cropland. Besides, the monocultural practices involved in much of modern agriculture are responsible for a lot of environmental damage and are certainly not sustainable.
This is particularly true for Australia. According to Dr Tim Flannery, we lose seven kilograms of soil for every kilogram of wheat we grow, whereas kangaroos can roam the country without damaging the soil and can be harvested sustainably to provide us with meat. Thus, it makes sense to include free-ranging animals in a varied omnivorous diet, as long as the numbers harvested are not so great that the species become endangered. It is also useful to consider sources of animal protein that are not commonly consumed in our culture, such as insects. Instead of trying to eliminate ‘plagues’ of locusts by spraying them with pesticides, perhaps we should be looking for ways to harvest them as food.
There is much idealism in the vegetarian movement that deplores the killing of animals for any reason at all, or, in the case of vegans, even the use of foods derived from live animals. It may seem unsavoury to think about in our present-day ‘civilised’ culture, but the fact is that animal foods have played a significant role in the human diet over a long period of our evolutionary history. It may not be wise to scorn the diet of our ancestors and expect to remain healthy as a species. Many people experience severe health problems when eating diets that rely heavily on such vegetarian staples as cereal grains and legumes, and any serious discussion of sustainability must surely include human health as an important factor.
While it is true that human civilisation would not have reached its present level without the advent of agriculture and the mass cultivation of crops, I think it is unlikely that a human diet consisting only of vegetarian and vegan foods would turn out to be truly sustainable.
Actually, this is me re-running some old arguments, in a firm and polemical way, as summarised by one, if memory serves, Barbara Shepperd. Flannery's argument, as a climate scientist, is that Australia has some fairly unique conditions that oblige us to adapt accordingly if we and the ecosystem are to survive. I'm hoping that further research can clarify the extent to which these arguments are unique to the Australian ecosystem. For example,  might Flannery's work be contextualised with respect to Jared Diamond's "collapse" thesis? It would be interesting to read Patricia A. McAnany's edited collection, Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire in tandem with the thesis of "negative classicism" developed by Patrick Brantlinger to see if there were any close parallels in the way they deterministically project the alleged decline (and whether Flannery essentially translates these projections into a scientific idiom). 

For now though, if you want to work out where to place yourself in these debates, ask yourself whether you agree with these related statements:

-- a Pleistocene environment is the optimum for planetary health and provides the healthiest food 
--  a Palaeolithic lifestyle leads to the healthiest, most fulfilling life
--  a Pleistocene environment provides optimal opportunities for exercise, activity, health, well-being and conviviality
--  healthy people manifest the optimal links between planetary health and individual health.
--  healthy, informed people will also act biosensitively, applying the precautionary principle, to optimize planetary health.
If you answer in the affirmative, prepare to defend these positions on health and fitness from an "evolutionary" perspective :

Monocultural crop production destroys healthy soils
Ray Audette comments: 'People seem to think there is something noble about being a vegetarian. But vegetarians don't understand what the role of predators is: to prevent disease. Once people understand how the environment works, they would understand they are not saving animals by not eating them. They are causing more animals to die through [monocultural crop] agriculture, which sterilizes the land and kills off wildlife.' (article by Rebecca Sherman)
Soil health depends upon manure
Plants, insects, animals, fungi and bacteria live together in a complex system of food chains and nutrient recycling. The health of crops depends upon a supply of manure from grazing animals, generally mediated through bacterial, fungal and chemical action in the soil. When this complex system is interrupted, soil quality - and, therefore, food quality - declines.
Mixed farming can be less energy-intensive than crop production
Although the bizarre distortions of industrial/civilized meat production such as battery hens, feedlot pigs and cattle and farmed fish are energy and chemically intensive and pollution-producing, mixed organic agriculture is not. The animals involved contribute to the well-being of the ecology of their system. Mixed organic agriculture is labour-intensive (that is it 'creates jobs' - and can sustain them indefinitely) but it is rewarding for the individuals, families and communities who practise it.
Mixed farming can be less pesticide-, fungicide- and herbicides-intensive than crop production
Well-managed grassland is rarely sprayed with pesticides, fungicides or herbicides yet virtually all industrial vegetable and arable systems receive an average of ten sprayings annually through from the seed stage to the final storage of the produce. 
Replacing meat protein with plant protein
Switching to a vegetarian diet requires replacement of meat protein from vegetable sources, the most common being soy, wheat, rice and legumes. These must be used in combination to get the balance of amino acids our bodies require. On a protein-equivalent basis the greenhouse emissions are, at best, similar (mung beans have about 80% of red meat emissions per gram of protein) and in most cases actually favour meat or dairy as a protein source. Brown rice has about 12.5 times the emissions of red meat per gram of protein, kidney beans nearly five times, chick peas 1.5 times, tofu 5 times. (From Tim Vercoe)
Crops produced in developing countries often contain dangerous levels of agricultural chemicals
Many of the cash crops exported from the third world to the West contain pesticides banned in the consuming countries. The workers who produced them have been exposed to dangerous levels of these chemicals. Often the chemicals have been produced by companies operating or based in the West).
Becoming a vegetarian is a negative protest
It is akin to washing your hands of the issue. By contrast, choosing your meat carefully, as a conscientious omnivore, and insisting on a product from extensive high-welfare farming, is a positive vote for restoring the values of the contract of good husbandry and improving the welfare of farm animals. (From The Ecologist)
Tamir Katz writes (in the US context): 'The common argument is that eating a vegetarian diet saves animals, as well as the environment, since the cattle used to feed us consume many times more grains than humans do. By not eating cattle, we will help protect the environment. However, the problem isn't with eating cattle. The problem lies with the fact that most cattle [in the US] are fattened with large amounts of grain and soybeans instead of following a natural diet of grasses. If all beef farmers raised their cattle on grass by letting them graze in the pastures, there would be no need for all the grain to feed them and, in addition, the meat would be healthier and richer in omega-3 fatty acids ... if this actually happened, vegetarian diets would be causing more environmental damage because humans would be the only ones eating grains and soybeans, both ecologically disastrous crops. If humans ate pasture-fed meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and fewer grains, the environment would be better off. So rather than attack meat eating, attention should go the method by which the beef cattle are raised. You might wonder, what about the poor cattle? Even if they were pasture fed, they would still be killed and eaten. Well, the fact is that producing enough grain to feed human beings who eat no meat would result in the deaths of many more animals, as well as the reduced of animals as a result of turning wilderness areas into cornfields or rice paddies.'
Reforestation made possible by turning arable land over to trees and hunting
Pentti Linkola, envisaging a sustainable agriculture in his native Finland writes: 'Reforesting a significant portion of field acreage is the most notable step that will be taken. This will be made possible be replacing grain with mostly animal protein for nutrition. the resources of inland and coastal waters will be put to good use: annual profit will be reaped from all species of fish including fish species that have been dubbed "junk fish" because of fasion whims and popular prejudice, although they serve equally well for food. The fish catch can be sustainably increased a hundred-fold, so that it will be possible to replace a third or even half of the nutritional content of grain and other plant-food with first-class animal protein. A corrsponding proportion of fields will be forested to contribute to the binding of carbon. Hunting will also be rendered more effective, although it is a less-profitable activity than fishing. Small mammals and highly prolific rodents - and perhaps invertebrate animals too - will be added to the list of game species. Drawing on focused research care will be taken to keep food chains intact and functional through both hunting and fishing.' [3]
Meat production requires more water than crop productionIt takes 13,500 litres of water (in feed and water) to a cow/heifer to produce each kg of industrial beef. One kg of wheat, by contrast, takes around 1000 litres of water. A typical meat-eating US diet requires around 5,400 litres of water a day, whereas a vegetarian diet which was said to have a similar nutritional value [1] required around 2,600 litres daily (figures from Frank Rijsberman). These average figures obscure vast differences, however, between kangaroo meat and any other wild game (which requires water, but does not extract that water from any other human or natural system) and feedlot cattle, pigs or poultry which require massive inputs of water. Sheep meat (in Australia) is predominantly grass-fed (except in drought) and lies between the two. However, note that the figures for the water component of different foods make a rhetorical point rather than a scientifically-valid one in respect of the environment: the water 'embodied' in a food is not lost to the environment; it still exists and is continually recycled. A dairy cow consumes water in grass, disposes of it through urination of defecation where it is taken up in more grass and consumed again. Same water counted twice.
People who kill their own meat develop a compassion for life
The most moral Australians are those who slaughter their own meat, says Dr Tim Flannery, in a new book, Country, which calls for kangaroos to be reintroduced into some areas where they have become extinct. Dr Flannery, the director of the South Australian Museum, said people who killed their own meat developed understanding, courage and compassion for life fundamental to human decency - values 'those of us who receive our meat in plastic trays have little opportunity to achieve'. The sanitization of society from the origins of our food and other resources was exactly why Australians were so disconnected from the environment, he said. 'We must also be willing to face the difficult decisions that are inherent in our role as the most powerful force in the environment. That is why I think people who kill their own meat, in as humane a way as possible, are the most moral of us all. It is as if we are inhabitants of a great feedlot - albeit an urban one - which robs us of control over our lives, in particular our consumption of energy, water, food and material goods. Worse, it compromises our morality. The link between morality and meat-eating occurred to him in the late 1970s when he watched a farmer in western Queensland shoot and then slit the throat of a steer in order to get some steaks for a team of palaeontologists. 'Its end was, I suspect, significantly less painful and traumatic than the slaughterhouse-bound majority, for the creature went from calm grazing to the stillness of death in a few seconds, avoiding the round-up, transportation by road and queuing before the slaughterer at an abattoir'.
Personal health 
There is no evidence that a meat-containing diet consumed as part of a Palaeolithic lifestyle has any deleterious impact on human health. For one thing, vegetarians think often about what they eat, how they exercise, limiting alchohol, avoiding smoking etc. and make conscious choices to avoid certain foods; those who are part of the dietary mainstream are more inclined to eat what comes to them and so will not make choices as frequently. That is, vegetarians are a self-selected group of people who are more conscious of the importance of food and lifestyle choices and so we would expect them to be healthier for that reason alone. Studies that purport to show associations between, say, a form of cancer and meat eating / vegetarianism do just that and no more: they show an association, not a causal link. Such studies are generally reductionist and fail to address adequately the influence of total lifestyle between the two groups.
But just what is meat, and what is not? 
Recent analyses of the genomes of fungi show that they are more like animals than they are like plants. This explains why it is that mushrooms can be advertised (presumably to vegetarians) as " the only plant source of vitamin B12".
1. The Rijsberman figures cannot be for a diet of identical nutritional value, only a similar value as the vegetarian diet will lack vitamin B12 and the fats needed by humans (notably - but not exclusively - the Omega-3s). There is also the issue of whether the selected vegetarian diets, those actually consumed, rather than theoretically feasible, will have as complete a range of proteins. They may also have a potentially less healthy carbohydrate content in terms of glycemic load and may also - in real life in Western societies - contain more processed foods with the usual range of industrial additives. Packaged foods use water in their manufacturing processes (particularly in cleaning - which, in turn, has pollution implications).
2. I sent this letter to our local newspaper on 6 July 2009: "Roland Miller McCall (Save the planet – eat less meat, CT 6 July, p 9) has strung together a series of non sequiturs to convince us we can “save the planet” by becoming more vegetarian. In fact, there is nothing about eating meat that has any impact at all on climate change, let alone on the future of the planet.
"The facts are that some meat comes from ruminant animals which belch methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that quickly breaks down into carbon dioxide and water. Ruminants include cattle, sheep, goats, antelopes, giraffes, yaks and others. Other animals that humans use for meat: pigs, poultry, kangaroos, horses, whales, fish are not ruminants and their methane emissions are negligible. All the listed animals, however, exhale carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. Humans also exhale carbon dioxide (at about 40,000 ppm).McCall’s argument for eating less meat falls apart at this point. He might as well have urged us to “save the planet” by wearing less wool or leather. His argument can, on the evidence, justify nothing more than a reduction in the global population of ruminants. In fact, if belching ruminants are a problem, we should eat the lot of them!
"Climate change is an important issue, but we have to be wary of single-issue zealots using it to forward their own, unrelated agendas. Especially zealots who tug at our heart strings and slice and dice the facts to suit their predispositions – distracting us from the real game." Back to text
3. Can Life Prevail?, by Pentti Linkola, 2009. Linkola is a retired Finnish fisherman and self-declared deep ecologist. A review of Can Life Prevail? can be found here.     Back to text
ReferencesThe Ecologist, October 2004, published a debate between a vegetarian and a farmer who practised the 'contract of good husbandry'. Some sentences of their debate have been copied into the above (
Tim Flannery, quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 2004
Rebecca Sherman, 'Neander-Guy', from the Dallas Observer, 6-12 July 1995
Tamir Katz, TBK Fitness Program, 2003, available from Tamir's site
Lierre Keith, The Vegetarian Myth 2009, this is an outstanding analysis of vegetatianism/veganism written gently and also from within an evolutionary framework. It's an easily-read introduction to human evolution and has many examples drawn from hunter-gatherer life, human ecology and co-evolution
Frank Rijsberman, at the International Crop Science Conference, Canberra Times, 29 September 2004

Tim Vercoe, letter to The Canberra Times, 31 March 2009 (These figures are not referenced and have not been confirmed from other sources.)
Evfit home   On to foods   On to What is Paleo?   See also our page on the psychology of climate change 

A Paradise Built in Hell

With the flooding and the cyclone currently ravaging parts of Australia, a timely reminder is due of Rebecca Solnit's work. It's disappointing-- although certainly not entirely unexpected-- that the media haven't taken any time out from their feeding frenzy to place events in a larger context, by referring to Solnit's study. The way the communities have pulled together, with complete strangers volunteering to help each other, bears out her general point. Namely, natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society.  Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the elite panic of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations.

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster- whether manmade or natural-people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities?

Solnit explores major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis. This is a timely and important book from an acclaimed author whose work consistently locates unseen patterns and meanings in broad cultural histories (thanks derridata). 

Interview with the author here.