Category Archives: PHILOSOPHY

On the consumption of meat

945 million chickens were killed in the UK last year. Raised for the most part on large-scale industrial farms, with each bird given less floor space than the size of an A4 sheet of paper… forced to stand in their own wet litter soaked with enough ammonia to blister and scald their feet, they are bred to grow as fast as possible and exist only until they have reached slaughter weight – around six weeks, though they might otherwise live for up to eight years. They are then packed into trucks and taken to the abattoir.

Modern poultry processing is a production line business. Birds are hung upside down on a moving conveyor belt of shackles at the beginning of the abattoir, and in a sort of food Fordism, carried seamlessly through every stage from slaughter to washing, chilling, cutting and packing at high speeds. Large abattoirs typically run lines at a rate of 185 to 195 birds a minute, or nearly 12,000 an hour.

[The Guardian, 2014]

But whether or not you think that the transformation of animals into standardised industrial products, packaged and sold in supermarkets in nameless and generic containers of ‘meat’, now writhing and smoking deliciously in your frying pan, is morally objectionable… it is at least revealing of the strange ways in which we relate to food, and to the individual animals from which it comes.

Factory-farmed chickens

Humans and their animals

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

[Genesis, 1:26, KJV]

Without question, chicken tikka masala is a brilliant curry that makes people very happy.

[Jamie Oliver, Comfort Food, 2014]

Flagrant disregard for the lived experience of animals is nothing new. It was set out in Christian theology and in Aristotle’s Politics that the purpose of nature was to serve man. René Descartes justified his gruesome vivisection experiments – even on a live dog – by asserting that animals are essentially highly complex machines that do not have souls and therefore cannot experience pain. Animals have been used by man for centuries in transport, war, and agriculture; for clothing, companionship, and food.

What is new is that we all like animals and none of us really like to think of ourselves as perpetrators of animal cruelty. Instead we claim to believe in evolution – that there is an essentially seamless continuum connecting us with every other species on the planet, though most of the intermediates are now extinct:

It is, of course, true that there is a continuum between us and every other species, and it’s literally a gradual, seamless continuum, except, of course, that most of the intermediates are extinct. If they were not extinct, then we would immediately see the absurdity of the speciesist double standard, whereby we treat humans as special—even human embryos as special—as opposed to chimpanzees or gorillas. We would immediately see the absurdity of that because we would be linked to those species by an unbroken chain of intermediates with whom we could interbreed. So if you really understand the implications of evolution, it becomes extremely hard to uphold the speciesist morality and ethic that we more or less universally live by. 

[Richard Dawkins, 2004]

And more than simply recognising our profound kinship with animals, we seem to genuinely like them… We own pets which we feed and take for walks and dress up and take pictures of. We develop interest in charismatic animals given their own names and stories in documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. We give our children soft fluffy animal toys to play with and Disney films to watch on DVD. We love animals!… But beneath the pretty, well-manicured appearance of our engagement with them, the appallingly short and artificial lives of the billions of animals raised on factory farms worldwide are rarely mentioned.

There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals today in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of the pig – an animal easily as intelligent as a dog – that becomes the Christmas ham.

[The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2011]

We are for instance, appalled at the thought that our burgers may contain horse meat; the horse is an animal which we carefully romanticise in books and films, a beautiful animal, a noble animal. This is a very old sentiment, and it was used by Anna Sewell to great effect in Black Beautyperhaps the most famous novel to be told from an animal’s perspective, in order to garner sympathy for the blinkered and hard-pressed horses used by London taxicab drivers.

“… it is dreadful… your neck aching till you did not know how to bear it… [the bit] hurt my tongue and my jaw and the blood from my tongue covered the froth that kept flying from my lips”

[Black Beauty, 1877]

But is a horse so different from a cow? Clearly, we do not think about cows in the same way.

“… it is dreadful… being raised in good faith, fed and fed until you are big and fat, then walked into a crate, stunned, and bled to death for a human’s dinner plate.”

This is the most humane video of slaughter I could find; click here for the nauseatingly abhorrent ‘video the meat industry doesn’t want you to see’ (US version).

The nutritional importance of meat consumption?

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with killing animals in order to eat their flesh. In fact, the consumption of meat was a vital component of human evolution, facilitating the development of larger brains, smaller guts, bipedalism and even language:

Larger brains benefited from consuming high-quality proteins in meat-containing diets, and, in turn, hunting and killing of large animals, butchering of carcasses and sharing of meat have inevitably contributed to the evolution of human intelligence in general and to the development of language and of capacities for planning, cooperation and socializing in particular… there is no doubt that the human digestive tract has clearly evolved for omnivory, not for purely plant-based diets. And the role of scavenging, and later hunting, in the evolution of bipedalism and the mastery of endurance running cannot be underestimated

[Should Humans Eat Meat?, 2013]

Vegans often make the claim that eating meat is unnecessary and even unnatural; that a vegan diet ‘is not only better for the planet, it’s better for you!’. But if veganism – complete abstention from the use of animal products – does not make great sense in evolutionary terms, it is not a scientifically unreasonable philosophy either. In fact, numerous studies have linked the consumption of meat with higher risk of mortality both in the USA and in Europe.

Within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) including more than 500,000 participants from ten European countries and, thus, reflecting a very heterogeneous diet, we examined the association between meat consumption and the risk for overall and cause-specific mortality…. The results of our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases but also to cancer. In this population, reduction of processed meat consumption to less than 20 g/day would prevent more than 3% of all deaths. As processed meat consumption is a modifiable risk factor, health promotion activities should include specific advice on lowering processed meat consumption.

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

But the important point here is that it is processed meat which is particularly harmful. This most recent large-scale study in fact found no statistically significant association between red meat intake and mortality, and no association at all with the consumption of poultry. By contrast, processed meat consumption  was associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Processed meats such as sausages, salami and bacon have a higher content of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol than fresh red meat; the latter is often consumed after removing the visible fat tissue, whereas the proportion of fat in sausages often reaches 50% of the weight or even more. Both high saturated fat and cholesterol intake have been found to be related to the risk of coronary heart disease. Also, processed meat is treated by salting, curing, or smoking in order to improve the durability of the food and/or to improve color and taste. These processes, however, lead to an increased intake of carcinogens or their precursors (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic aromatic amines, nitrosamines) or to a high intake of specific compounds possibly enhancing the development of carcinogenic processes (for example, nitrite).

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

Consequently, while the consumption of processed meat may be – and probably is – highly unhealthy, this in no way means that we should never eat meat, or that eating meat is ‘unhealthy’ full stop.

Although some observational studies have described the health benefits of vegetarian diets, these tend to be plagued by various kinds of healthy-user bias in which one apparently health-conscious behaviour – vegetarianism – is associated with others such as non-smoking or exercising, and vice versa. By contrast, recent studies which have controlled for this bias by examining health-conscious vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, have found statistically significant differences only when comparing the two groups with the general population.

In fact, so far as good nutrition is concerned, several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron, zinc, the long-chain fatty acids EPA & DHA, and fat-soluble vitamins like A & D. While various vegan foodstuffs and plant-foods may contain the individual nutrients required – as vegans are keen to point out – such arguments do not take into account the bioavailability of these nutrients, or the presence of various inhibiting factors and anti-nutrients within vegan diets.

The EPIC results do not show the lowest relative risks (RRs) for subjects in the lowest meat intake category, but a slight J-shaped association with the lowest risk among subjects with low-to-moderate meat consumption. This was observed for red meat and poultry. Also, taking into account the results from the studies that evaluated vegetarian and low-meat diets, it appears that a low – but not a zero – consumption of meat might be beneficial for health. This is understandable as meat is an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc, several B-vitamins as well as vitamin A and essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and to a minor extent eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids also). A sub-optimal supply of some of these nutrients due to an unbalanced type of vegetarian diet seems possible and might be associated with an increased risk for morbidity and mortality. 

[BMC Medicine, 2013]

Meat, fresh and in moderation, is an important component of the human diet. You can get by without it, and may even experience improved health outcomes if your preceding diet was poor, especially if you are eating larger quantities of fruit and vegetables. But from an evolutionary perspective, it is difficult to justify a diet low in several nutrients critical to human function.

While it may be possible to address these shortcomings through targeted supplementation (an issue that is still debated), it makes far more sense to meet nutritional needs from food. This is especially important for children, who are still developing and are even more sensitive to suboptimal intake of the nutrients discussed in this article.

[Chris Kresser]

So unless you are prepared to compromise as a vegetarian consuming liberal quantities of high-welfare eggs and full-fat dairy, or else unless you can afford to consult with nutritionists and purchase a wide array of plant foods and supplements, be wary of evangelical vegans claiming that meat is ‘unnatural’. Then again, depending on the strength of your convictions, you may see the sacrifice as worthwhile.

The ethics of meat consumption

How vile a crime that flesh should swallow flesh,
Body should fatten greedy body; life
Should live upon the death of other lives!
With all the bounteous riches that the earth,
Earth best of mothers, yields, can nothing please
But savage relish munching piteous wounds,
A Cyclops’ banquet? Can you not placate
Without another’s doom – a life destroyed –
The urgent craving of your bellies’ greed?

[Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville]

Where vegans of course tend to have the upper hand is in the ethical arguments relating to the unceremonious slaughter of animals raised expressly for their meat. Humans may have been killing and eating animals for tens of thousands of years – though many such as Ovid, Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, found this contemptible – but only since the 1960s have we been doing it in such grotesque and depersonalised ways.

The ethics of meat consumption has never been a straightforward issue, but at least humans used to work hard to justify it. Even the barbeque may originally have developed only as an offering of smoke to the gods. People rarely ate meat, but when they did they appreciated the sacrifice that had been made by the animal to afford such rich sustenance. The ancient Greek word for ‘priest’ is also the word for ‘butcher’ and ‘cook’: mageiros. People participated in the hunting and slaughter of the animal – not just the eating – and were fully aware of the individual death entailed.

But we no longer hunt for our dinner. We no longer stare the animal in the eyes and chant prayers of thanks and offering as we cook it in a blaze of fire and smoke. Instead we buy it, pre-prepared in plastic boxes. We rarely pause to consider the journey of that flesh from the farm to our fork. Inside the supermarket, even in the butcher’s shop, it is no longer part of an individual animal, but a saleable product with standard price and packaging, a commodity, a noun, a thing. A cow has been transformed into ‘beef’, a pig into ‘pork’. And in this transformation we lose our moral obligation as consumers of meat to the individual animals from which it comes. We may even forget entirely that it has come from an animal, so detached are we from interaction with the processes of birth, growth and slaughter involved, so beguiled by descriptions of how ‘moist’ and ‘succulent’ is this ‘tender’ and ‘delicious’ piece of neatly-packaged meat.

Of course, our ignorance regarding the conditions and practices of intensive livestock farming is not totally our own fault. Browsing the aisles of your local supermarket, it is easy to conclude that animals exist to serve us. Neatly arrayed on display, in familiar boxes for us to pick up and put down however we please, to peruse like CDs and cereal cartons without a moment’s thought for the individual lives involved, we are encouraged to feel comfortable with the idea that these animals were glad to service our needs and attach sustenance to our forks.

The language which supermarkets use to describe these ‘British’ animals raised on ‘farms we know and trust’, further instils in us the unconscious feeling that buying this meat is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, even a kind thing, which demands of us the same virtues of trust, loyalty and patriotism. And what of the animal from which the meat comes? We are usually given only a cartoonish picture of a single animal, perhaps just a silhouette, in complimentary colours.

IMG_0315 (1024x768)
Natural daylight, straw bales and perches, oh my!

Animals are sentient beings, capable of compassion and feeling pain; even the chicken should be regarded as an intelligent and cognitively sophisticated animal. Do we owe it to them to punch holes in the absurd rhetoric and advertising strategies of supermarkets? To fight for truth and justice and their dignity; to plaster stickers of headless bloody animals hanging in dim grey abattoirs over the images of heartlessly misleading advertisements; to stop people in the street, in the supermarket aisles, at restaurants and at their desks, and tell them TO STOP, think – look at this page – please? Are we obliged to do this, or is it enough simply to go vegetarian?

The greatest abomination

Illness and the enviroment

In considering our answers, it is important to recognise that the state of modern agriculture and intensive livestock farming is not a question of ethics alone. In fact the lack of our engagement with these issues and our lack of concern for the animals which provide us with food, in poorly regulated systems intent on minimising running costs, produces a great number of highly serious yet under-appreciated problems.

The Guardian has in fact just recently published a report on ‘the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry’; that is, that two thirds of fresh retail chicken in the UK are contaminated with campylobacter, a potentially deadly bacteria linked to poor hygiene standards:

The concern centres on the bacteria campylobacter, which at the last count was present in two-thirds of British fresh chicken sold in the UK. Although the bug is killed by thorough cooking, around 280,000 people in the UK are currently made ill each year by it and 100 people are thought to die. Contamination rates are known to have increased in the past decade.

[The Guardian, 2014]

The Guardian investigated the weak links in the chicken chain, gathering material from undercover film, photographic evidence and whistleblowers, to determine why campylobacter is so prevalent in UK chicken meat.

Just last month – on a not untypical day, according to sources – at a vast chicken abattoir in Anglesey owned by the UK’s largest poultry company, 2 Sisters Food Group, something of the nature of the problem is revealed…

The pump system has broken down again, and the channel that is supposed to drain away the innards from the tens of thousands of chickens killed and processed each day for supermarket orders has been blocked for a prolonged period. Guts and offal extracted during a process called evisceration are piling up to form a gory heap of high-risk material. The floor around is wet with blood. Campylobacter is carried in the guts and faeces of chickens and evisceration is one of the key points in the processing chain at which contamination occurs.

[The Guardian, 2014]

Here is a picture of the broken pump system at the 2 Sisters abattoir in Anglesey, which supplies chicken for ready meals sold by Tesco, M&S and Asda – imagine these guts on the floor of the supermarket next time you visit the meat aisle.

Poultry offal piles up during a pump system failure at the 2 Sisters factory in Anglesey.

And then aside from the issues of bacterial infection, antibiotic resistance ‘sending us back to the Dark Ages‘, parasites, cancer, bird flu… there is also the question of the environmental degradation associated with animal agriculture.

Agriculture is in fact the main driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss worldwide. And it is animal agriculture which is particularly devastating.

“There are basic laws of biophysics that we cannot evade… The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans.”

[Bojana Bajzelj, Cambridge University]

In all, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planetThe amount of vegetable protein fed to the US beef herd alone would feed almost the entire populations of India and China – two billion people.

These statistics are important, because, as populations rise and global tastes shift towards meat-heavy Western diets, increasing agricultural yields will not  be able to meet food demands of what is expected to be 9.6 billion people by 2050 – making it necessary to bring more land into cultivation.

Recent studies show that current trends in yield improvement will not be sufficient to meet projected global food demand in 2050, and suggest that a further expansion of agricultural area will be required. However, agriculture is the main driver of losses of biodiversity and a major contributor to climate change and pollution, and so further expansion is undesirable.

[Nature Climate Change, 2014]

Indeed deforestation is not problematic simply because of its effect on global biodiversity – and currently we are experiencing the highest rate of extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – but because deforestation is directly linked to climate change and pollution.

The great rainforests represent the detoxifying lungs of the planet, and their clearance to make way for agricultural land makes very little environmental sense. Especially so since increasing populations of cattle – prolific producers of methane – alongside the industrial processes involved in manufacturing fertiliser for farmland, are likely to cause greenhouse gas emissions from food production to increase by almost 80% by 2050. This will put emissions from food production alone roughly equal to the target greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 for the entire global economy.

If we maintain ‘business as usual’… then by 2050 cropland will have expanded by 42% and fertiliser use increased sharply by 45% over 2009 levels. A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests would disappear over the next 35 years.

[Cambridge University]

The authors of this most recent study published in Nature Climate Change say we should all think carefully about the food we choose and its environmental impact.

“It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland. Food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter.” 

[Bojana Bajzelj, Cambridge University]

“This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets… Managing the demand better, for example by focusing on health education, would bring double benefits – maintaining healthy populations, and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment.” 

[Keith Richards, Cambridge University]

This is not a straightforward issue by any means, and migratory cattle herds may be used to fertilise desert regions in the future, though this suggestion has been criticised.

Many of these arguments – as well as the difficulty of making any headway against the hugely influential and powerful meat industry – have been highlighted by the upcoming documentary, Cowspiracy:

Think deep

Each year, meat eaters in Britain consume their own weight in animal flesh. Over the period of a lifetime it amounts to: 5 Cattle / 20 Pigs / 29 Sheep / 780 Chickens / 46 Turkeys / 18 Ducks / 7 Rabbits / 1½ Geese. [Viva!]

How much is your life worth? How much is theirs? Do not be fooled by the easy appearance of meat in supermarket aisles and on restaurant menus – it comes at a price. And for all the arguments of scientists and activists, for all their most shocking facts and figures and disgusting pictures, you are the one who decides the value of that price… Animals must die, and we must die with them, but for all the existential meaninglessness of our existence on this tiny blue dot in the midst of space… we can decide in what kind of a world we want to live, we can decide what kind of people we wish to be.

So whenever next you see some laddish bunch of men, wolfing down sausages and burgers at the local all-you-can-eat grill, remember it is not greed or cruelty which they offer with the blood staining their fingers and trickling down from their lips… it is disconnection, it is alienation, it is the absurdity of existence. What is right? What is wrong? Whether you are vegan or vegetarian or simply a very grateful consumer of meat, thinking more deeply about our food and where it comes from, can only be a very good thing – for us all here on Earth.


Rebel Kitchen

On its way to a shop near you… tearing up convention like a guest ticket to Weight Watchers… a healthy snack with a badass personality.

Gone are the days of not-so ‘innocent’ smoothies (a company owned by Coca-Cola) masquerading their high-sugar contents as angelic sources of goodness. Of healthy nutrition being a matter of boring food and cod liver oil sipped reluctantly upon rising. A new gang is in town…

Forget oily denims and bar brawls – we’re vigilantes fighting a new kind of battle. A battle against illness, obesity and snacks that taste like rubbery old boots.

Yeah, we’re hard-wired to like salt, sweet and fat because in nature we didn’t get much of it and had to work hard to find it. But mother nature didn’t plan on big corporations processing food within an inch of it’s life, lacing it with too much sugar, salt, fat, additives and preservatives, where the lists of ingredients are so long and so hard to pronounce that they are no longer even food. We’ve been delivered a bum deal for far too long.

[Rebel Kitchen]

Rebel Kitchen offer a range of dairy-free mylks with ‘no additives, no preservatives and so no worries!’ … and it is refreshing to hear a company talk about health in such terms. The Hell’s Angels would no doubt have been appalled at the adoption of a rebellious aesthetic by a health food business. But the times have changed.

banana rkitch
From the 200ml kids range

Rebels past and present

The outlaw biker gangs of the 1950s and 60s – of which the Hell’s Angels became the acid-tripping, jailbird archetypes – were the losers of American society, alienated and cut off from an American Dream which recognised them only as a problem….

… like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarters asked and none given…

[Hell’s Angels, 1966]

Theirs was an existential battle intended to reclaim a sense of agency in a hostile world, though they may not have realised it at the time…

The Angels don’t like being called losers, but they have learned to live with it. ‘Yeah, I guess I am,’ said one. ‘But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.’

[Hell’s Angels, 1966]

Rebellion today must work from a different starting point. And at a time when illness is becoming mainstream, disdain for the status quo may lead in a very different direction.

In particular so far as the food industry should be concerned, obesity has become a highly visible problem over the last forty years: in 1972, 2.7% of men and women in the UK were obese. Today, more than a quarter of the adult population of the UK is obese, and these figures are set to worsen:

In 2007, the Foresight report estimated that by 2025, 47% of men and 36% of women (aged between 21 and 60) will be obese. By 2050, it is estimated that 60% of males and 50% of females could be obese. More recent modelling suggests that by 2030, 41% to 48% of men and 35% to 43% of women could be obese if trends continue.

[Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2014]

BEFORE: Marlon Brando, Wild One
BEFORE: Marlon Brando, Wild One (1953)


Hairy Bikers
AFTER: The Hairy Bikers, TV chefs and authors of a diet book (2014)

Dietary advice and the obesity crisis

Many researchers have offered analyses and explanations of the obesity crisis. Zoe Harcombe for instance links the obesity ‘epidemic’ to flawed diet advice propagated by food manufacturers:

This book will take you on the journey that I have been through, as an obesity researcher, from thermodynamics and peanuts under Bunsen burners to obesity organisations sponsored by food manufacturers and carbohydrates being confused with fats. Out of an illogical assumption that people have made themselves obese (when this is the last thing that they want to be), through being greedy and lazy, may come a different logical conclusion that our current diet advice a) doesn’t work and b) worse – that it is actually the cause of the obesity epidemic that it is supposed to cure.

[The Obesity Epidemic, 2010]

The particular dietary advice Harcombe refers to is the government recommendation to replace traditional ‘energy-dense’ sources of fat with carbohydrate-rich starchy foods:

UK obesity levels were remarkably constant and small for decades… Suddenly, in evolutionary terms, and dramatically, in amounts, obesity levels increased from 2-3% in the 1970’s to 25% today… It seems so obvious that the starting point for understanding the obesity epidemic should be – what changed in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s? Was there one thing that happened that could explain the sudden and dramatic increase in obesity?

Yes there was. In 1977 the USA changed its public health diet advice. In 1983 the UK followed suit. A more accurate description would be that we did a complete U-turn in our diet advice from “Farinaceous and vegetable foods are fattening, and saccharine matters are especially so” to “base your meals on starchy foods”. Obesity has increased up to ten fold since – coincidence or cause?

[The Obesity Epidemic, 2010]

Even if Harcombe is correct, dietary advice and the food industry will not change overnight. The combined revenues of the (food, drink & drug) partners and premium sponsors of the American Dietetic Association are $467 billion… Illness and obesity are highly profitable industries, but things may yet be changed from the bottom-up:

I say in this chapter what I think will happen, rather than what would save the most lives the quickest – (immediate and unequivocal government leadership back to real food). I think that change will happen with a bottom up evolution of enlightened individuals. The sensible ones will realise that nature can feed us best and will eat nature’s produce. The gullible ones and the processed food addicts will likely continue to eat man-made food and will suffer obesity and various ailments as a result.

[The Obesity Epidemic, 2010]

Rebel Kitchen is just such a bottom-up venture, showing also that healthy eating can be made commercially viable.


[Rebel Kitchen]

Being rebellious/Being healthy

Listen up: healthy eating is no longer a matter of boring food and doing what you’re told. It’s much more exciting than that… Against the vested interests of food manufacturers, even government advisers, good nutrition involves independent thought versus the faulty and failing recommendations of a consumer society…

It is not a political thing, but the sense of new realities, of urgency, anger and sometimes desperation in a society where even the highest authorities seem to be grasping at straws.

[Hell’s Angels, 1966]

Rebel Kitchen: keep fighting on.

Stoic wisdom #2

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor of the second century AD who wrote a long series of aphorisms and reflections into a diary, as he had time to set them down. Written to provide personal consolation and encouragement without any thought of publication, the Meditations have been called ‘one of the greatest of all works of philosophy’. Elle Macpherson even named her son ‘Aurelius’ after the emperor.

The Meditations offer thoughts on life and death, on the beauty and purposefulness of Nature, and on man’s duty as a part of that ‘Whole’. Mostly written while campaigning along northern frontiers far from Rome, they allowed Marcus to retreat into his own ‘inner fortress’. Whether feeling anxious or frustrated, they may encourage you to do the same…

Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life.

… will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here?

Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.

[Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Martin Hammond]

Aurelius: a lot to live up to

On being animal

Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognise our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it. The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiased mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties.

[Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871]


He was often ridiculed at the time, but Darwin is now celebrated as the father of evolutionary biology. He even has his own statue in the Natural History Museum, an appropriate reminder of the relevance of natural history to human beings.

Because we are part of the animal kingdom. The human genome is 99% similar to great apes and 95% to pigs. Genetically, humans can be seen as only slightly remodelled chimpanzee-like apes.

This relation becomes frightening in the context of the global extinction crisis:

Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago… Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day… Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans.

[Center for Biological Diversity]

One Health

The ‘One Health’ movement has responded to this situation by stressing the interrelationships between the health of humans, animals and ecosystems:

The convergence of people, animals, and our environment has created a new dynamic in which the health of each group is inextricably interconnected. The challenges associated with this dynamic are demanding, profound, and unprecedented. While the demand for animal-based protein is expected to increase… animal populations are under heightened pressure to survive, and further loss of biodiversity is highly probable.

On top of that, of the 1,461 diseases now recognized in humans, approximately 60% are due to multi-host pathogens characterized by their movement across species lines. And, over the last three decades, approximately 75% of new emerging human infectious diseases have been zoonotic. Our increasing interdependence with animals and their products may well be the single most critical risk factor to our health and well-being with regard to infectious diseases.

[American Veterinary Medical Association]

Although focused on the spread of disease, the implications of ‘One Health’ are important. Because we have always lived alongside and depended on animals. In thinking about health we might be able to learn something from them:


Stoic wisdom #1

Stoicism was for centuries the most influential philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world. Designed as a way of reaching the summum bonum, a life of supreme moral qualities, Stoicism enabled a man to become ‘self-sufficient’:  immune to suffering, superior to the injuries and upsets of life. Even a slave so armed could be called ‘free’, since even a king could not touch him.

Although the Stoics condemned ambition, luxury and greed as obstacles to self-sufficiency, this has not prevented businessmen and self-help ‘gurus’ from appropriating their aura in grossly misrepresented form. To combat such bollocks this series will provide extended, unadulterated (if translated) quotations from a uniquely terse and uncompromising set of philosophers.

To start: Seneca, a Roman who humanised Stoicism by recognising the impracticality of the summum bonum, his writings emerged rich with practical advice and cutting humour…

‘Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold.

So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.’

[Seneca, ‘On the Shortness of Life’, trans. C. D. N. Costa]

Seneca: white hair and wrinkles?
Seneca: white hair and wrinkles?

On hoping

When Pandora opened her box all the evil in the world poured out. Disease and poverty and misery and death. But according to some versions of the myth, Pandora let something else out too:

‘It fluttered from the box like a beautiful dragonfly, touching the wounds created by the evil creatures, and healing them. Even though Pandora had released pain and suffering upon the world, she had also allowed Hope to follow them.’

Hope is something usually reserved for fairy-tales and children’s books. A comforting delusion which leaves us gazing up passively at the night sky, humming along with Jiminy Cricket:

When you wish upon a star…

But if hope can be a dirty word in scientific circles, optimism is not. Psychologist and neuroscientist Tali Sharot has even suggested that the human brain is wired for optimism:

‘Most of us are optimistic. Although good things may transpire, on average our expectations exceed future outcomes. We are not necessarily aware of our bias… Nevertheless, science has shown us that our minds tend to engage in thoughts of sunny days. We think of how well our kids will do in life, how we will obtain that sought-after job or that house on the hill, how we will find perfect love and happiness.’

[The Optimism Bias, 2012]

Why are we optimists? 

Because optimism confers significant evolutionary advantages:

  • it protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds, thereby reducing stress and anxiety.
  • it is essential to progress, enabling us to imagine alternative realities and believe that we can make them happen.
  • it has even been linked to mental health and enhanced immune function.

We need to hope. It inspires and sustains us. But it must be the right kind of hope. A kind which does not turn us into victims, but invigorates us with energy and imagination.

A punk version of the Pandora myth?

How about a kind of hope where, instead of a cute dragonfly fluttering out of a box to comfort us, a studded panther emerges… lithe and rippling… It soon stalks off to hunt down all the bollocks set loose in the world, but only after it has whispered softly to Pandora according to the words tattooed across its chest: life is good.


On being cool

She is cool.

Kate Moss

He is not cool.

Louis Walsh


But what does cool even mean? According to Joel Dinerstein, who has been teaching, lecturing and publishing articles about ‘American cool’ for more than a decade, it is the aesthetic of relaxed intensity:

 ‘In effect, the mask of cool represents a certain stylised suffering and compels wonder in an outside observer: Who is this person? What has she or he experienced?… It is a performance of emotional self-control that demands the suppression of a range of emotions. In its stylish stoicism there is a mix of hardness and vulnerability. Without the vulnerability it would be stone cold and unfeeling.’

[American Cool, 2014]

Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Madonna, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando: these are cool people says Dinerstein.

Physiologically cool?

Our attraction to these people becomes more interesting upon consideration of what ‘relaxed intensity’ might mean in physiological terms.

And the answer has unintentionally been supplied by the Institute of HeartMath, an internationally recognised  research organisation.

The results of the Institute’s research are that the brain is not the seat of all knowledge and being, but that it works in partnership with the heart:

‘Most of us have been taught in school that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not as commonly known that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.’

[Institute of HeartMath]

When this partnership between head and heart is functioning efficiently, it is called ‘coherent’:

‘Psychologically, coherence is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.’

[Institute of HeartMath]

Does that sound like relaxed intensity?

Coherence has been associated with enhanced emotional clarity, immune function, focus and creativity. Why are cool people cool? Maybe we just envy their coherence.


Existential crisis?

Everything means nothing and the universe doesn’t give a flying fuck about you.

This is the basis of existentialism.

It can be a liberating perspective: why should I care what others say or think about me? They are insignificant life-forms on a tiny rock hurtling through space. Yolo.

But it can also be dangerous: why should I care about anything? My feelings are empty and transient and I am a tiny, pathetic, insignificant creature on a tiny rock hurtling through space.

Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards: an existential crisis?
Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards: an existential crisis?

Philosophers have provided some answers:

  • Good emotions are intrinsically worth all the crap we must endure to attain them.
  • An understanding of nothingness must be balanced by an understanding of the miraculous nature of life, existence, consciousness within that void.
  • The absurdity of our fate can be overcome if we accept and celebrate its terms.

These are incredible, inspiring, uplifting arguments.

But we are not all philosophers. It takes a lot of strength of mind to convince yourself of the miraculous nature of life when you wake up tired, bored, bloated, miserable.

Why is this? Because our biology is an intrinsic part of who we are. There will always be emptiness to fight, to beat, to conquer. Health is surely a part of this process.

How do you think about health?

Blogs hypersaturated with exclamation marks. People carrying Whole Foods bags. Supplement labels. Personal trainers. Pulp advertising.

Health so often gets presented like a superficial, clichéd, lame, boring lot of nonsense.

the generic result of a search for ‘health‘ on Google images

But it does not need to be so uninspiring. Our bodies are mysterious things, the legacy of millions of years of life and death. How far do you really know yourself? How far does anyone?

The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe:

‘The next revolution will be understanding the organ that made all the previous revolutions possible. Your mind, your ambitions, your love life, even what you regard as yourself, all of it is the activity of little wisps of jelly in your head.’ – V.S. Ramachandran, ‘the Marco Polo of neuroscience’

‘Biohacking’ is a thing now. It means to use science, freely accessible online, in order to improve health through self-experimentation. It claims that health is not a result: it is a process with no fixed end. It can be developed and is worth developing. Much work has been done.

Some ‘biohackers’ are very weird. But you do not need to be a nerd in order to improve your health. You do not need to be lame or superficial or effeminate. You only need an open mind and a belief in your own potential.