population, vat grown meat and techno utopianism

In the last couple of weeks I have come across, not for the first time, discussions about two apparently distinct issues, yet ones that have common themes. What I have found of note is not the commonality, rather that this common issue itself is left unconsidered. This unconsidered issue is the role of technology in the human universe, and the two discussions relate to concerns about human population and the production of ‘vat grown meat’. I have commented on the latter some 2 years ago—on this blog and more widespread.

In itself, non-consideration of ‘technology’ is an indicator of its pervasiveness—alongside how blatantly and blindly anthropocentric ours species is. Before I expand on this, I will first outline some of the key issues I see put forward in discussions about human population. Such discussions are often heated debate and typified by passionate and heated exchange. To out myself, if not clear, I hold the position that there are far too many people on the planet and we need to resolve the issue very very soon.

The resurgence I have noted in the debate about human population is linked to the current ‘food crisis’. This specific aspect aside, for the moment, it is worth reflecting on the oft-touted and simplistic response to the population issue: birth control. What form this takes is often a source of heated exchange. In imposing on people (whether literally or morally/hegemonically) a restriction on procreation, the issue of equity is often raised. Race (as in white hegemony and western values) is the most prominent influence (marked or otherwise, frequently the latter) in the ‘control’ position. The racially based assumptions pervasive in western societies are linked to Enlightenment ideas about ‘other’ cultures and their perceived inferiority. Sadly, this continues to be widespread and entrenched in western societies.

Whilst I am a proponent of population decrease, I clearly distance myself from naïve and (unmarked) racist assumptions often tied to the birth control position. That said, whilst the ‘population control targets women’s fertility and restricts reproductive rights’ argument does expose some of this tripe, it is also somewhat naïve. Discussion can be had about population and/or birth control and have a developed awareness of ‘complex circumstances’, class and race issues, and exploitative power relations in society. Sadly, many discussions do not—and they often involve men (arguing for control without detailed consideration of the issues).

Moving on, the issue of consumption disparity is often used as a basis to challenge concerns about human population. Again, often well founded given racist scapegoating and naive western perspectives. Whilst people in western societies consume far-in-excess of all others, this is not a basis to dismiss concerns about population. If everyone lived in a similar manner to cultures with a significantly smaller ecological footprint to westerners, there is no doubt that the human impact on the planet would be reduced. This, however leaves one issue aside. Before I come to that, a figure often referred to to challenge concerns about population is one produced by the United Nations (UN). The UN predicts that the world population will eventually start in another 70-odd years at around 9 billion. Whilst some may found comfort in that, there are still close to 9 billion people too many.

To return to the crux of the issue, and the basis for this post, requires a brief comment on recent thoughts I have heard about the idea of ‘vat grown meat’. There are some who support the production of such a ‘foodstuff’, often citing environmental or animal welfare concerns. Some animal activists have called for its implementation, with PETA even announcing a $1-million reward for its commercial production—covered widely, including the NY Times (23 April 2008). Whilst I have issues with these positions, in focussing on another, I can focus on the underlying non-considered techno-utopianism at the root of both the ‘vat grown meat’ and population debates.

Some recent comments about vat grown meat, in light of the PETA announcement, have outlined an argument why ‘ethical vegans’ would not eat this. Much like responses to concern about the population issue from progressive activists, the response (aside from making some sound arguments about carnism and speciesism, and some not-so) perpetuates an unabashed faith in technology that French theorist Jacques Ellul would label a soteriology. At the centre of the population is not the issue, consumption is the issue style of argument and the it’s better than eat vat-grown meat than consume ‘actual’ animals rationalisation are western notions, rooted in Enlightenment thought that technology will inevitably come up with a solution to all out ‘our problems’. The latter of the two rationales is linked with the notion that it’s better to not harm the animals. Whilst a strong argument, it is playing off one issue against another—the issue is more than the exploitation of animals in the direct sense inferred.

The pervasiveness of this unabashed, hegemonic and non-considered western faith in technology to save us is a serious issue—and sadly one that, by its nature, is left widely unconsidered. I (not very) patiently await the day when environmentally aware and progressive folk will shun this naïve and misconceived faith in science and technology as the source of human salvation. As a species we must overcome this, lest we continue to subject all other species to the genocidal implications our whims.

To tie this all together, at the core of supportive comments about ‘vat grown meat’ is a faith in technology. This is similarly central to the deference that the human population will stabilise, and the mobililsation of this prediction is an attempt to destabilise and delegitimise concerns. For every person on this planet, for every seed sown, every action taken, we take away from the ability of animals to simply live. Finding a balance is a moral conundrum that has no sound resolution. Yet to base a defence of the human population on a predicted stabilisation in some 70-odd years misses the point entirely.

I look forward to the day when there can be an informed discussion about population, yet one that does not have naïve deference to racists stereotypes on one side or the notion of ‘reproductive rights’ on the other (yet another ‘rights’ argument). We need to move beyond a non-consideration of the pervasive and unabashed faith in science and technology deeply embedded in western society. Until we do so…

the othering of violence

I have again been thinking on the eternal debate about tactics amongst activists. Anyone who has taken some time out to reflect will be aware of many things – notwithstanding my critique that many who criticise nonviolence do so from a position of not having actually read much of the theory (explored in many other posts). I have again been involved in discussion and debate regarding nonviolence v violence in social justice movements. This is something that I think will continue for some time – and should. I find problems with numerous views on nonviolence and violence. These include many pacifists (nonviolence and pacifism are not the same, despite people conflating as such), proponents of principled nonviolence, proponents on pragmatic nonviolence (which I have heard referred to as negative nonviolence, as analogous to negative peace) and proponents of various forms of violence through to political assassination. The issues, ideas and debates that have and will continue to emerge, I am sure, will find their way into many more posts here. For now, there is something I have been thinking about of late that I want to put onto paper – I will try to spell this out as I have thought through it.

From cultural studies theorists through to activists challenging racism, the concept of othering is widely considered a central (and essential) part of racism. This is also the case for many other forms of oppression including those based on gender and sexuality. We tend to other someone, a culture, etc., to separate them from us. Once we have created this separation, it makes it easier for us to perpetrate actions we would otherwise not fathom. It also removes the negative connotations of associating these perceived/imposed traits with ourselves. A well-used example is where you have a neighbour, work colleague, etc., who does things we do not like. If they are of a different culture, we take their actions as representative of their culture (much like vegans/radicals/etc are lumped in the same basket) . Whereas, if they are of the same culture as us, we do not consider them representative of us/our culture. Rather, we have issues with them/their actions as individuals. To generalise, progressive folk I discuss ideas with seem not to have an issue with this concept.

From discussion I have had with activists, it seems people do not see this in considering violent actions. For us to perpetuate violence against another requires othering. This need not be race or culturally based. We see it in the actions of those who, for example, make threats against the well being of those who work for companies that inflict untold pain and suffering directly (vivisectors) or indirectly (corporate whores). This othering is clear in how animals are treated in society, and Carol Adams (amongst many others) has shown how women are dehumanised to enable their subjugation.

To call on a base value of anarchism, there is a means/end equivalency – the means reflect the ends. This is at the core of the differences between anarchists and state (amongst other) socialists. It may be obvious where I am going with this. To other someone, whether they be a vivisector or a relative tearing into the flesh on their plate, is a form of dehumanisation. If we are opposed to the dehumanisation of animals, women, other cultures, races, sexualities and more how can we perpetuate violence on others. This is not some hippy attempt at moralising, and I agree with many of Ward Churchill’s criticisms of moral adherents to nonviolence in this regard. I will leave this there for now as it is something I need to think more on. I want to explore this much further and refine. It is something I think requires much more thought and expansion/clarification…

I will come back to this, as well as the many other things I have left open (as indicated in previous posts)

APEC and police/state PR…

Adding to the very specific and targeted media campaign to detail new laws, weapons and technologies to be used by police, as agents of the state, at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Sydney, recent news coverage included details about how 200 people who are under periodic detention order will be given that weekend off – as in they can stay home [link]. The way this is being framed is that it will make facilities available (i.e. gaol cells) for the ‘mass arrest’ of ‘up to 500’ critical of the summit and its economic-rationalist agenda. The major aim of this detailed and long-planned public relations campaign is largely two fold – and it appears to be working. One aim is to further demonise those who are willing to stand up and so no, not any more, not in our name. This is clearly having some impact. Another is to create a culture of fear in the sense that people who may have been willing to join in on the spectacle of a peaceful march are very concerned that their attendance will place them in one of many threats to their liberties or personal safety. What these threats are requires a brief outline.

Over past weeks, stretching back over several months, in a sustained effort at reinforcing the intended ‘heavy-handed’ police ‘interventions’, a variety of new laws alongside a number of new technologies have been paraded before the press and subsequently filled homes via the nightly news programs. The approaches to both of these have been distinct for specific reasons, yet at times quite similar. For the most part, the addition of new laws have been portrayed as in the interest of protection – the populace, public order and participants at the summit. Whereas the new technologies of repression have at times been portrayed as tools necessary to quash the actions of violent dissidents – the typical broad brush. The flagrant and direct demonising appears far more overt (orders of magnitude) than has been seen before in Australia.

To start the new laws, the most efficacious of these is the touted ability to detain people for the entire duration of the summit without charge based solely on suspicion. Added to this, those detained will be denied the ‘presumption of bail’. Whilst some have supported this on the notion that suspicion is enough (i.e. the Dr Haneef scenario – some people still attempt to defend his incarceration and subsequent political intervention in the legal-judicial process), the full details of the changes are important. At the end of this summit, those detained can/will be released without charge or conviction – albeit with their details most-certainly added to a little black book… Corresponding with these changes, a fleet of new white ‘buses’ specifically designed as cells on wheels were paraded in front of the press several weeks back. This is linked with the recent announcements about freeing up gaol space. To give you an indication of the status of electoral politics, shadow attorney-general Greg Smit countered that there are numerous sport grounds that could be used to detain people over this period. Aside from not really being any form of opposition, perhaps a softer approach, it indicates how ridiculous the changes to the law are. Those proposed to be detained are such a threat that they can be kept at a sporting stadium…

Along similar lines to the softer approach of a sports stadium was another public statement that is somewhat novel. Before I introduce this, it is worth mentioning that Ward Churchill has referred to this concept many times: public protest props up democracy. What needs to be noted is that this is protest that is approved by police/other state apparatus. In this specific instance, the leader of the state opposition party (conservative) Barry O’Farrell, called for the creation of an ‘additional protest zone’. Whilst normally critical of any form of protest, part explanation can be attributed to real politik. It can also (more based on the actions of the police) be seen as partof a strategy to further denigrate participants in the actions. To illustrate, O’Farrell called for the Domain (an open air park/amphitheatre in the city) to be designated as an official protest zone during the summit. Extending from this (whilst also independent), the Deputy Police Commissioner in NSW stated that if ‘protest organisers’ do not agree to changing their plans to what the police want – in what is perhaps a sign of things to come – they will take action in the Supreme Court.

To give you an idea of what has already planned, a 5km long 2.8m high ‘security barrier’ was announced months ago, and stated it would be in place from September 2-9. This will be extended even further from September 6. Not to rest on the laurels, as of today, barriers were being erected today. The exclusion zones created already restrict public access, with the aforementioned police actions regarding ‘official’ zones for protest further attempting to restrict this. Such proposals could also be more sinister. With broad public opposition emanating from the perceived disruption the summit will cause, it appears this action affords the opportunity for any further disruptions to be blamed on those refusing to agree to police terms for acceptable protesting. The NSW Police Association is also critical, given that 20% of the states police being in the Sydney CBD…

Shifting in focus, the most recent technology paraded is a new high-pressure water-cannon – far more powerful than those already used by the police, acquired at a cost of $600,000. Media coverage specifically resulting from the public relations campaign does two things worth noting, one being a further attempt to exacerbate fear. The other implying that it is those critical of the APEC summit are the reason why such repressive anti-people technologies are needed. It does not address any of the reasons why such a large number of people have serious concerns about the summit and the broader direct impacts of the policies of the entity.

There is much more I can go into here, though will leave that for another time. Aside from my ongoing outrage (I have not had dismay with government for a long time) at what is transpiring, a brief conversation this morning – if it could be considered as such – inspired me to write. This extends from discussing similar issues with other people over recent weeks, with there being direct linkages between the APEC summit and the Dr Haneef situation. Concerns about my intended participation in criticising the APEC summit and my non-consent for what is transpiring have been raised. A significant basis for these concerns is a fear for my personal safety at the hands of the police. Somewhat contrasted though indicative, was framing such concerns alongside supporting the police intentions – delegates to the summit ‘need to be protected’. Without denigrating this person, a number of things are left unconsidered. Whilst they do not necessarily agree with the extent of the pending police interventions, they have uncritically bought into staying away partly based on a fear of the implications (injury, detainment, etc) – not that they would participate anyway (which I will come back to). By not being critical, we provide tangible (at the least) support for what will transpire. This is implied consent. As we have seen very clearly and starkly very recently, actions that do not directly challenge the status quo, irrespective of how many participants, have little impact. The demonstrations calling for non-involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq by/supported by a handful of countries – despite being arguably the largest every in the history of Australia – achieved very little (notwithstanding the benefits to those who participated).