We need a new politics of nature

The furore over cloned meat shows how alienated man is from the natural world.

What do the swine flu pandemic, a chicken factory, cloned meaty snacks in the food chain and a bacon panini have in common? The answer; they are all symbolic of the synaptic schism between human and animal.

This morning, performing the daily commute to work, I reflected on the offer put to me by the crackling voice on the train's PA. A litany of "delicious snacks" was described as being available from the on-board shop; bacon paninis, burgers, a duck-and-hoisin wrap and more, all for less than a fiver.

Tempting as such a breakfast was, my imagination, drawing on the vast repository of past experience, filled in the gaps left by the announcement with brutal reality.

I visualised the true nature of the panini: a limp and pale blanket for the shrivelled strip of meat sleeping within it. I wonder if such products, sold in our supermarkets and garages or on trains, all come from the same factory, with only their particular arrangements of plastic and cardboard packaging to distinguish them.

I know this because I have worked in such a factory. "The chico", as it was affectionately known, was a monolithical temple of death, into which live chickens would come and from which fillets would leave, elegantly postured on a polystyrene tray. My role was to drape a strategic slither of skin decoratively over the cuts in the name of aesthetics.

The cognitive disassociation between neatly packaged meat and the animal (or animals) from which they come has grave implications for us all.

A taste for flesh

Dating back to the Enlightenment, the Cartesian separation between man and nature is the root of the mega-exploitation of the planet that so defines our age. This schizophrenia is most perfectly represented by our relationship with animals -- dogs are revered and described in the lingo of anthropomorphism, while many other animals are kept in the cruellest and most degrading of circumstances.

A recent study from the University of Edinburgh has found that about three-quarters of the human pathogens to have emerged in the period 1980-2005 are directly traceable to livestock farming and the often bizarre methods employed to bend nature most efficiently to our needs. The swine flu outbreak of 2009, "the pandemic that never was", was just the latest of these.

And as one crisis ends, another begins. The furore over cloned animal products infiltrating the British food chain has been growing steadily, even making the front page of the Daily Mail. The response? A hapless farmer becomes the focus of Mail rage as people lament the possibility that the slither of meat in their child's lunchbox might be from sci-fi livestock.

The more fundamental questions raised by these issues, hlowever, are rarely addressed.

In the UK alone, we eat about a million tonnes of beef per year. To maintain this diet, an ever greater share of land and resources is turned over to meat production and all-out war is waged on the environment. The sections of the natural world that are of no use in the production of meat, such as undesirable cuts, are discarded and disregarded.

As a result we are, according to a recent report from the UN, facing the biggest extinction event since an asteroid harkened the demise of the dinosaurs.

And the reason for all this? To sustain the voracious appetite and addiction of a junk-food island. An island of more than 1,200 McDonald's restaurants, 700 Burger Kings and countless less well-known fast-food outlets where roughly a quarter of the population is obese. The response of our governments, under pressure from powerful lobbies, is piecemeal, consistently failing to bring the junk-food companies to heel in any meaningful way.

Pandemics are here to stay

The faux outrage over cloned meat is hypocritical and short-sighted. Likewise, the panic buying of medicines, though of great benefit to Big Pharma, will do nothing whatsoever to head off the possibility of future pandemics.

There is a dynamic relationship at work between food and public health, with one profiting from the other and human beings the passive consumers and contractors of both.

If we are to tackle the evils of obesity, pandemics, climate change and cruelty to animals, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with nature.

As Bruno Latour argues, we need a politics of nature. A politics which sees no distinction between society and nature but understands the dynamic relationship between the two. A politics which realises that swine flu and the unintended consumption of cloned meat are not accidents, but precedents.

Liam Thompson is a freelance journalist and writer.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear