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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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity