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…