Increasing consumption of meat rich diets throughout the world in the 21st century raises pressing concerns about human health, animal welfare and environmental sustainability. Too much mass-produced meat is bad for us, bad for the livestock we eat, and bad for the planet on which we live.
If we want to understand how the world arrived at this point, as well as how we might change it for the better, we should look back to the Victorian period, which laid the foundations for modern globalised meat production and consumption.
Concerns today about what has become known as the “global meat complex” focus on the technologically driven overproduction and consumption of livestock. There’s a recognition in particular that “the middle classes around the world eat too much meat”, as a 2014 Friends of the Earth report put it. But the root of this problem can be traced to 19th-century Britain, when global meat markets emerged as a revolutionary way of dealing with a mid-Victorian “meat famine”.
The famine was caused by a mismatch between a fast increasing, urbanising population and a levelling out in domestic meat production. What helped stave it off was the groundbreaking development of preservation and transportation technologies that enabled the British to eat livestock that was reared, slaughtered and processed in the Americas and Australasia.
As a result of these innovations, products such as chilled and corned beef, frozen mutton and meat extracts including Bovril and Oxo became staples throughout British homes. Per capita meat consumption increased dramatically, rising from about 87lb per year in the 1850s to 127lb annually by 1914, despite the fact that Britain’s population nearly doubled in this period.
Cost was the major factor driving this change. When one can get a half-price leg of mutton from the other side of the globe, remarked one prominent food writer, one sets aside “all sentimental considerations in favour of the roast beef of Old England”.
Mass marketing campaigns alongside positive media coverage also helped promote these new forms of meat. Victorian commentators celebrated frozen meat’s capacity to feed the “energetic, flesh-fed men” required to sustain British industry and imperialism. Meanwhile “beef tea” was widely advertised as a life enhancing force in Britain’s fights against alcoholism, influenza, European rivals and imperial perils.
Meat remained a luxury for the very poor in Victorian Britain. But as the 19th century came to a close, and as more and more British consumers grew accustomed to imported beef and mutton, the idea of meat – the more the better – as an essential part of everyday meals became increasingly popular among working-class as well as middle-class meat-eaters.
As global meat markets revolutionised the dining habits of the British nation, they also changed the face of the planet. Vast tracts of American and Australasian land were reshaped as pasture that supported the British breeds of cattle and sheep that Britons preferred to eat. And selective breeding programmes meant the bodies of these animals fattened faster and could be stored more easily in refrigerated holds: animals were bred with their carcasses in mind.
The globalisation of Victorian meat eating was revolutionary, then, but it was also highly controversial. Advocates of the canning and refrigeration industries championed their capacity to deliver healthy, wholesome, inexpensive and sustainable meat supplies from Britain’s colonies and the “new world”. But home-reared meat was seen to be of better quality and safer, especially early on in the development of these industries.
Many potential customers were put off by scandals involving putrefied meat, as well as scare stories surrounding the meat’s origins. Metropolitan meat eaters feared that overseas farmers were feeding them offal or meat from diseased animals. In my archival research, I’ve even discovered concerns that boiled human babies were entering the food chain.
It wasn’t just that the British were wary of eating long dead animals from far flung parts of the world. Overseas competition provoked demands to protect British agriculture, both to preserve traditional ways of life and to guarantee food security. Animal rights campaigners too were concerned at the increasingly intensive farming methods and assembly line slaughter techniques associated with developing meat markets.
And at the same time, Britain’s growing vegetarian movement was promoting the economic, health and ethical benefits of a meat free diet. Writing in the 1880s, the prominent vegetarian and socialist Henry Salt predicted that “future and wiser generations will look back on the habit of flesh-eating as a strange relic of ignorance and barbarism”.
Salt would be horrified by a 21st-century world struggling to cope with an ever growing demand for cheap, plentiful meat. Horrified, but perhaps not entirely surprised. The unhealthy, unethical and unsustainable way that the “global meat complex” operates today is the greedy, brutal and environmentally devastating extension of what his meat eating contemporaries did to the world.
But this Victorian history can also help ongoing efforts to change the way our planet produces and consumes protein. First and foremost, it makes clear that there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about the way meat markets take shape. Hundreds of millions of people eat meat in the way and the quantities they do, not because they’re inherently designed to do so, but because of a global system set in motion by British imperial power.
And we should keep in mind that this system’s development was an incredibly controversial process, marked by fierce debates as well as dramatic dietary change. At a time of year when many of us are thinking about how to transform our lives for the better, the prospect of giving up meat, or of eating insects or lab-grown meat, provokes widespread scepticism, hostility and disgust. We’d all do well to remember, therefore, that not so long ago the prospect of eating frozen lamb from the other side of the world provoked a similar range of reactions among the Victorian population.
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A new expansion has added environmental challenges to Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest in a popular series of strategy video games that has been running since the 1990s. The expansion – called Gathering Storm – adds new features to the game, most notably anthropogenic climate change and natural disasters.
The game involves developing a civilisation from its humble beginnings in the Stone Age to nowadays and beyond, while choosing from a vast array of technologies and cultural policies. As the game and the ages progress, your energy choices become increasingly important. Indeed, Gathering Storm is based on a simple model of global warming wherein CO₂ emissions from energy sources induce sea level rise, as well as more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as droughts and storms. In turn, these can have potentially devastating effects on your cities and units, pushing the player to think about different adaptation strategies such as flood barriers for coastal cities.
The game even progresses into a “future era”, where players are offered options like carbon capture and storage technologies or “seasteads” to house segments of the population. From early on, this new expansion compels players to think about some of the potential long-term consequences of actions that may offer short-term benefits. One example would be chopping down forests to accelerate production or convert land for other uses which, in the long run, renders a city more vulnerable to flooding and reduces the carbon sink capacity of your civilisation.
When asked about whether Gathering Storm was somewhat of a political statement, the lead developer, Dennis Shirk, remained largely agnostic: “No, I don’t think that’s about making a political statement. We just like to have our gameplay reflect current science.” It is certainly true that the game does not coerce players into taking any particular pathway, yet it does include a “World Congress” in which climate or deforestation treaties and humanitarian aid can be ratified. We would also argue that the very inclusion of anthropogenic climate change and an associated system of incentives and punishments is inherently a political act. Moreover, in the social studies of science, what one considers to be “current science” has political ramifications.
In the case of Gathering Storm, for example, in most scenarios a player could probably continue to be a “free rider” and rely solely on technological solutions. That is only possible because those technologies are known in advance and players are given virtually perfect information on the different stages of climate change and its effects. One of the consequences is that the game essentially eliminates the very uncertainty which is inherent to the “current science” on climate change and conveys a sense of technological optimism whereby innovations alone can sustain human prosperity.
We are not suggesting that the developers are necessarily liable or even responsible for promoting these views. Rather we wish to illustrate how different depictions of the future can restrict or encourage certain courses of action. The developers could have chosen to make the effects of climate change and access to mitigating technologies more random (although we do not know how difficult that would be to implement in practice nor its effects on gameplay).
In contrast to this incidentally optimistic outlook, there is an interesting Polish video game by the name of Frostpunk. Frostpunk is set in a dystopian alternate reality in which a volcanic event has triggered a colossal global ice age. The game’s primary scenario consists of surviving the winter – which gets incrementally colder as time progresses – in “New London”: a settlement of survivors clustered around a large coal-powered generator. The player must choose between a number of difficult policies and options to ensure the survival of the population. These include 24 hour shifts, child labour, corpse disposal strategies and, more drastically, whether to welcome refugees or refuse them entry.
While Frostpunk does not directly address the issue of anthropogenic climate change, it evokes extreme scientific scenarios (from the 1970s and 1980s) of global cooling and nuclear winters. The game also takes place in what we understand is Victorian Britain, epitomising the industrial revolution and the onset of the new geological era we now live in: the Anthropocene.
Both these games go a long way in engaging and educating their players on climate change, forcing them to deal with the kinds of political and ethical trade-offs that exist in real world decision-making. We highly encourage these innovations, not just in video games but more broadly in bridging the gap between science and the digital arts.
In the academic journal Environmental Communication, we argue that science and the humanities (including the arts) need to work together in the case of complex issues such as climate change, so as to better communicate scientific thinking and its political ramifications. Video games – as interactive and playful products – offer truly exceptional opportunities to do just that. We welcome these initiatives with open arms, so long as they remain responsible and stimulate critical thinking.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Noam Obermeister, PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge and Elliot Honeybun-Arnolda, PhD Candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. Read the original article here.
Evidence of the devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change are stacking up, and it is becoming horrifyingly real. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis has arrived. Yet another “shocking new study” led The Guardian and various other news media this week. One-third of Himalayan ice cap, they report, is doomed.
Meanwhile in Australia, record summer temperatures have wrought unprecedented devastation of biblical proportions – mass deaths of horses, bats and fish are reported across the country, while the island state of Tasmania burns. In some places this version of summer is a terrifying new normal.
The climate disaster future is increasingly becoming the present – and, as the evidence piles up, it is tempting to ask questions about its likely public reception. Numerous psychological perspectives suggest that if we have already invested energy in denying the reality of a situation we experience as profoundly troubling, the closer it gets, the more effort we put into denying it.
While originally considered as a psychological response, denial and other defence mechanisms we engage in to keep this reality at bay and maintain some sense of “normality” can also be thought of as interpersonal, social and cultural. Because our relationships, groups and wider cultures are where we find support in not thinking, talking and feeling about that crisis. There are countless strategies for maintaining this state of knowing and not-knowing – we are very inventive.
The key point is that it prevents us from responding meaningfully. We “succeed” in holding the problem of what to do about the climate crisis at a “safe” distance. As the crisis becomes harder to ignore – just consider the current batch of shocking reports – individually and culturally we will dig deeper to find ways to strategically direct our inattention.
The standard narrative for a piece like the one I’m writing here, as a social scientist, is to now say something about how the crisis could be better communicated. The billion-dollar question, of course, is whether this most recent disaster can be used to motivate real change. No doubt it is important to keep this kind of commentary up. It is key that we consider how to give the climate crisis traction in a culture so accomplished at distancing us from uncomfortable realities.
But let’s be honest. No one really knows what works. We have never been here before. And I’m starting to think that more of this kind of analysis is, perversely, another example of distancing us from that crisis. Intellectualising terrifying climate crisis stories as an issue for “communicators” and “the public” is another way of detaching ourselves from their reality, from the relevance to me and you.
So let’s cut through all that and stop invoking an imaginary audience. Many terrible things are happening as a result of climate change – their happening is being reported. How are you receiving it? How does it feel? Are you shocked, horrified, scared, bored, tired? What do you do with the terror? Do you compartmentalise it somewhere “safe”? Perhaps like me, you know you care. You attach importance to climate change, you want to act correctly, avoid risking other lives, damaging homes and habitats. Perhaps you know you are scared too – scared of contemplating what we have already lost or of what will happen as the crisis gets closer still. Scared of what you are being asked to give up.
Add in some residual guilt and you might then engage in a defence of some kind, consciously or otherwise – telling yourself that others are more responsible, there is nothing we can do, everybody else seems to be carrying on as normal. As the crisis deepens, the walls close in, you might double down on those defences.
So where do we go from here? How might this knowledge help us – you and me? We must make a commitment, but not of the kind you might imagine. The shocking reality of the climate crisis is making its way into the webs of everyday life, emotions, thought processes, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears. Perhaps we should commit to letting it, as an alternative to doubling down on our denial.
We can do this individually, but more important is collectively acknowledging our fears about actual and anticipated losses. Fears about the loss of species and habitats, but also our established ways of life. This leads to more constructive questions, about what we want to hang on to, what are our obligations? I don’t have ready answers to these questions, but I am still confident we can find ways to keep doing the things we really care about – for ourselves, each other, the places we live in. But we need to talk about these choices.
Such a process is still miles apart from many “sustainability” agendas. Halting the climate crisis is still predominately framed as a matter for individual choice and change – use less plastic, cycle to work, fly less. But the behavioural response required is way more complicated than that.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the personal is political. I am talking about a politics that grows from opposition and critique of our current systems. This is evident in young people organising school strikes and protesters willing to get arrested for their direct action. But we also need to pay more attention to what is lost, to who and what we care for, to other possible ways of being.
Some conservation scientists, at least, see recent cultural change as a hopeful sign of a growing sense of care and responsibility. So stop feeling guilty, it’s not your fault. Be attentive to what’s going on, so that you might notice what you care about and why. What are you capable of, and what might we be capable of together, when we aren’t caught between knowing and not knowing, denial and distress?
See what obligations emerge. There are no guarantees. But what else do we do?
The newest addition to a generous list of 520 (!) candidates for the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, was senator Cory Booker. On February 1st, Booker announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.
Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate started his career in politics in 1998 as a Member of the Municipal Council of Newark with an upset victory. Between 2006 and 2012 he served as the 36th Mayor of Newark and assumed office as a US Senator in 2013, making him the first Black senator from New Jersey.
As Senator Booker joins the most diverse Democratic presidential candidate pool in history with five women, one LGBTQ+, one Latino and two Black candidates (as of February 4th 2019) he’s also making history as the party’s first vegan candidate.
A vegetarian since 1998 and vegan since 2014, Senator Booker often speaks about how switching to a plant-based diet has improved his life both mentally and physically. Alongside advocating for a plant-based diet for personal health reasons he is also very outspoken about the negative effects of the animal farming industry on the planet and on the lives of fellow humans.
In an interview with plant-based magazine VegNews Booker said:
“You see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet. We’ve seen this massive increase in consumption of meat produced by the industrial animal agriculture industry. The tragic reality is this planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of environmental impact… We will destroy our planet unless we start figuring out a better way forward when it comes to our climate change and our environment. ”
Booker’s dietary preferences stand as a stark contrast with the current president ’s notorious diet of steak with ketchup and twelve diet cokes a day, as does his central message of unity and grassroots action.
Cory Booker is not the only vegan US politician who’s running for future elections. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, a vegan advocate who has several initiatives such as promoting vegan lunches in local school districts, will be running for mayor of New York City during the 2021 elections. A fellow New Yorker and vegan, Council Member Helen Rosenthal will also be running in the 2021 elections but for New York City comptroller.
Many people have declared 2019 the year of the vegan and the plant-based diet the future of nutrition. A new way of eating with the premise of a flourishing planet and better lives for its inhabitants is making its way through our society from music to technology, and now outspoken vegan politicians with a real shot at the office in the country that is the world’s largest meat consumer.
All signs point to a plant-based future.
Speaking of a plant-based future, our first Kinder Conversation on the Future of Meat is fast approaching. We'll talk about the 'new meat' and how as a society we can (and should) reduce our dependency on animal farming. Get your tickets before we sell out: http://bit.ly/KinderMeat
Header image is by Sean Davis via Flickr.