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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.