Fighting for Peace

Is it reasonable to speak of ‘science’ as one project, and ‘scientists’ as if they form not just a profession but a collective in some larger moral or political sense? Well, they certainly do speak so themselves, as, for instance, a letter in last week’s issue of Science illustrates. Arguing that scientists should take better advantage of the huge and instant audiences which some celebrities have acquired through social media, the writer speaks of “we” as needing to find “inventive strategies to educate the public, particularly in critical fields such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and sustainability.”

And there’s a tradition for it. Fifty year ago in that same journal, another letter-writer speaks similarly of a “scientific community”, and gives some reasons why its collective voice ought to be heard – in this instance, on the Vietnam war. Scientists, he says, “probably comprise the most intelligent large group in our society”. They are “more devoted to knowledge and less to wealth and power”, and accordingly “their values are humane and relatively attuned to this complex age.” No doubt he would think so, but it must be true that scientists know more than others do about such important subjects as are specified in that first letter, and also they enjoy a sort of international solidarity as a natural feature of their profession, so their outlook ought to be usefully non-partisan. We might even feel that science has made its own collective contribution to creating these world problems, and therefore might have an obligation to advise us how to address them now. This is at least a reasonable enough feeling in the case of the subject on which the scientific “we” has been vocal for longest, but which has unfortunately never lost its topicality: the subject of nuclear war.

Here, the first notable declaration was the ‘Russell-Einstein Manifesto’, put forward in 1955. Bertrand Russell may be thought of as a philosopher rather than a scientist, but the manifesto was signed mainly by Einstein’s professional colleagues: Max Born, Linus Pauling, Frédéric Juliot-Curie, and others. Out of that Manifesto came the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, with their own public statements, such as the Nagasaki Declaration of 2015. In 2018, a newer organisation, Science for Peace, will be holding its own conference at the University of Toronto with the title ‘How to Save the World’. Yet another such organisation, The Global Union of Scientists for Peace, says on its web-site by way of summary, “For over sixty years, the scientific community has issued vivid warnings about the catastrophic effects of thermonuclear war and has called for the abolition of these world-destroying weapons.”

The 1966 letter-writer was therefore not a lone voice when he urged “Let the scientists speak out as loudly as possible!” In fact that same issue of Science has an article by a scientist very keen to speak out on the peace subject: Dr Roger Ulrich, the head of experimental psychology at Western Michigan University. Ulrich specialized in the subject of aggression, and was committed to making his specialism serve the cause of humanity by showing how aggression might be better understood and managed. This particular article had the title ‘Classical Conditioning of Pain-Elicited Aggression’. We shall return to it, but first let’s meet Ulrich in his role of prophet.

In a short film issued in 1971, entitled Understanding Aggression, Dr Ulrich presented to the general public the nature and implications of his research. The film begins with a sequence of stills from the long history of violence, beginning in the primeval swamp Beckmann, Nightand working through to all the varieties of specifically human ferocity, from pre-historical savagery to modern battles, torture, executions, mob frenzies, and all-out war. Portentously eerie music backs these unpleasant scenes.

Then Ulrich himself appears on-screen. He is an engaging personality, with his sixties-style long hair, white polo-neck with smart-casual jacket, and ideology to match (“you can’t fight for peace.”). Tipping back in his office chair, or leaning informally upon laboratory equipment, he warns his audience about the dangers of aggression in the nuclear age:

We have to stop reinforcing aggression. We have to stop glorifying violence … We have to start teaching and living non-violence, at every level … We can’t say violence is bad and that it has no place in America, and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.

Even the credits at the end of the film urge this message. We are told, of the staff at the Michigan Behavior Research and Development Center, that their “highest achievement is that they practise what they preach; they love one another.” As we knew then, all you need is love.

But of course these are not simply earnest generalisations, impossible to dispute and indeed obvious as they may seem. They are conclusions drawn by Ulrich from the work done in his laboratory. There, aggressive behaviour was being studied mainly by inducing and manipulating it in various species of animal – cats, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys – and under ingeniously varied conditions. The basic stimulus seems always to have been electric shock, but one of Ulrich’s published articles says, by way of introduction to this field of research, that “some of the variables which have been studied in connection with shock-induced aggression are frequency and intensity of shock stimulation, consistency of shock presentation, enclosed floor area, fatigue and shock duration. The effects of age, social isolation, and castration upon reflexive aggression have also been studied.” The complicating effects of heat, cold, and loud noise were also investigated, as was the effect of “combined permanent vision and vibrissa impairment” (i.e. of blinding and removal of whiskers). As one witness before a House of Representatives committee on vivisection, already quoted elsewhere in this blog, remarked at about this same time, “You’d be surprised what professors and some students can think up.”

All this explains that equipment which Ulrich leans against in the 1971 film, and which indeed the film very frankly shows in use. We see young squirrel monkeys inside the perspex-fronted apparatus, receiving electric shocks and retaliating upon each other. Or we see one monkey on its own, trapped by the waist, with its tail connected to an electrical apparatus, furiously mauling a rubber bar as the shocks are administered. From these scenes we learn that pain, or by extension any aversive stimulus, will produce aggression (therefore, for instance, physical punishment doesn’t work). Or elsewhere in the lab, a large and clearly peaceable cat is confined in a small chamber with a rat. The rat, presumably itself peaceable enough by nature, is taught by rewards directed into its “pleasure centre” (a lead of some sort is attached to its head) to attack the cat, until the exasperated cat finally kills it. This tends to show that if aggression is rewarded (“glorifying violence”), it will persist, even against the true interests of everyone concerned.

That 1966 article goes a step further from the obvious, looking for clues to “apparently unprovoked aggression”. Pairs of rats in their box were conditioned to fight each other upon hearing a harmless sound or “tone”, once that tone had become associated in their minds with electric shocks. This association (which constitutes the “classical conditioning” mentioned in the title of the article) had not been arrived at without difficulty. We’ve seen in the film that aggression can be induced easily enough by painful stimuli – this was a staple of Ulrich’s laboratory – but “earlier attempts to develop conditioned fighting by pairing painful stimuli, such as electric shocks, with neutral stimuli” had formerly achieved “only minimum success”. That may explain why it took “2000 pairings of the tone with the shock”, administered every ten seconds or so over a period of about five hours, to achieve a dependable association in the minds of the rats. And the shocks in all these experiments were not simply irritants. In the film, Ulrich explains why his laboratory doesn’t use humans in these trials: they would not be willing, and could not be forced, to endure, even for science’s sake, such “extremes of pain”.

Dr Ulrich briefly and sardonically notes that humans are prepared to impose such pains upon each other in the course of wars and other strife. In fact this sixties liberal (I don’t use that phrase with a sneer) has no high opinion of the human character or record to date: “the most violently aggressive of all species … the king of killers”. Yet he takes for granted our right to use this habit of violence against other species in our search to free ourselves from its effects. No doubt this contradiction is partly explained by his behaviourist model of animal life: as a disciple of B.F.Skinner, he would have discounted inner life in animals, and therefore their capacity to suffer or perhaps even to matter. But then his premise is that human behaviour too is intelligible according to that model: hence the usefulness of animal data, upon which his case depends. And the film’s preliminary pictures of violence show it arising with animal life and reaching its horrible apex in man as one evolutionary history. No, the contradiction makes no sense, and this earnest and idealistic man was simply subverting his own case as he went along. As he himself insists, “We can’t say violence is bad … and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.”

It’s certain that no scientist using animals nowadays would film his or her work with the sort of guilelessness that we see in Understanding Aggression. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the work itself has changed. And although Dr Ulrich’s self-contradiction is especially conspicuous because he was researching the very subject that he was at the same time exemplifying – the human habit of violence – still, the subjugation of other animals for any purpose nullifies non-violence as a practice or ideology.

No doubt the “science community” has important advice to offer on many important subjects, and ought to be listened to, but while animals are forced to serve human interests in laboratories all over the world, there’s no reason why we should feel any special respect for what scientists get together to say about world peace.

 

Notes and references:

The quotations from the journal Science are at 1 September 2017, p.880, and 29 April 1966, pp.591 and 668-9 (the Ulrich article).

The film Understanding Aggression can be seen at https://archive.org/details/understandingaggression. Other reports of Dr Ulrich’s research can be found in Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour, Nov.1969, 12(6) and in The Psychological Record, 15, 1965, from which the quotations surveying his field of research are taken.

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be found at https://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto/  The web-site of the Global Union of Scientists for Peace is at https://www.gusp.org/

The quotation from evidence given to the House of Representatives in 1962 is taken from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, London (Michael Joseph) 1971, p.188.

The illustration shows Max Beckmann’s painting Night, completed just after the First World War, a conspectus of contemporary and foreseen violence.

 

 

 

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Tony Benn

“I dreamed last night that the house was covered in green slime and fungus, and I went upstairs and in the bedroom was Caroline lying on the bed, and the bed was a complete mess of papers and things. She was absolutely white, her eyes were red, and a fattish woman was cutting huge chunks of bloody meat and giving it to her to eat. I said something and the woman replied, and I said, ‘Never speak to me like that again – get out!’ And she shouted at me. There was Caroline, with all this meat around her … and I woke up and Caroline was gone. Strange!”

It may be that lurid meat-dreams like this one are a common feature of the vegetarian/vegan life – or, more generally, that dreams of misused animals are recurrent in the sleep of anyone properly alive to their sufferings in the real world. I notice, for instance, a series of such dreams in the diaries of John Ruskin, the art critic and professor who resigned his chair at Oxford University in 1885 when a vivisection laboratory was first built there. But this particular meat-dream was recorded on 2 March 2009 by a more recent Oxford alumnus, the politician Tony Benn. Those who know of his remarkable life (those for instance who have seen the stage play titled Tony’s Last Tape which has been on tour this year, or who have seen the 2014 documentary film about his life, Will and Testament) will recognize some of its characterizing elements in the dream: the huge archive of papers (and tapes) recording day by day his long political career; the big old house in Holland Park Avenue, West London, which habitually let in the rain; his devotion to his wife Caroline, whom he had married in 1948 and whose loss from cancer in 2000 the dream makes him relive, in the ruthless way dreams have (how did Freud ever suppose that dreams were wish-fulfilments?).

But yes, the meat. Tony Benn had stopped eating meat in 1970. He had been persuaded by his young son Hilary (who later became the U.K.’s first vegetarian cabinet minister instarvation-text charge of food and environment) that the crops which should have been feeding the world’s poor were being fed to cattle to produce meat for the affluent. But it wasn’t a matter only of inter-human injustice to him; it was morally shocking in itself: “I am particularly revolted by religious slaughter but the slaughter of all animals is barbaric. Why breed animals simply to kill and eat them. How is it different to killing people?”

A little background to explain Tony Benn’s thoughts about animals. Although his reputation is that of a politician and political diarist, passionately involved in some of the most acute political controversies of his time in the U.K., Tony Benn should really be classified as a moralist. Bismark’s famous and worldly saying about politics as the art of the possible would have repelled him. Politics for him was a moral cause: “Is it right or is it wrong? You can argue about it, but that is really the key question to ask.” He did not call himself a Christian, but he inherited from his devout mother at least her faith in “prophets as against kings”: that is, ideas and ideals challenging and subverting authorities and powers, just as the Old Testament prophets challenged their kings. He himself was exactly a prophet, in the sense a moral teacher and visionary. He was, accordingly, too absolute in his convictions to appeal to his party’s pragmatic kings and king-makers. A successful minister in the 1960s and 70s, Benn was at one time regarded as a probable prime minister, but in fact he never again served in government after the 1979 election.

When he finally left parliament in 2001, he explained that he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was Caroline Benn’s joke, but it was founded on a serious conviction that the House of Commons was no longer where political power resided, or where the important decisions were made. All his working life, Benn had for his purpose “the democratic reform of our savagely unjust society”. Instead, he had had to watch power migrate ever further away from the people and their representatives in the House of Commons and into the hands of financiers, media owners, unelected global agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and president-like prime ministers and their cliques.

So, more and more, Benn came to trust only the radical and unmediated expressions of democracy. He told a ‘Stop the War’ rally in Trafalgar Square, “Parliament belongs to the past; the streets belong to the future.” (“They really liked that”, he adds in his diary.) He loved the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, with its brass bands, embroidered banners (at least two of them picturing Tony Benn himself), and vehement political speeches, all indeed there on the streets: “It’s a tremendously moral event really.” Latterly he was a regular speaker at the Glastonbury Festival: “Glastonbury’s always fantastic … it’s really the recreation of the old folk-festival atmosphere, so I love going.” He admired these radical scenes not as something nostalgic or touching, though they did move him very much, but as confirmations and promises of what he believed: “everything comes from underneath”. They were his hope for the future.

Therefore the following scene, recorded in Tony Benn’s diary, was wholly characteristic. In June of 2007 he was attending former American president Jimmy Carter’s honorary degree ceremony in the grand Sheldonian building in Oxford (elaborate robes, the Chancellor reading the award in Latin, etc.: “institutions love all that ceremonial stuff”). At that time, the University was in the middle of building its new vivisection laboratory, and outside the Sheldonian could be heard, as habitually at the such events, “a lot of animal-rights protesters shouting”. The University had been doing all it could, with limited success, to prevent these protests against the laboratory, or at least to move them to more manageable times and places; its recourse meanwhile was to pretend they weren’t there. Of course Tony Benn would have nothing to do with that: “when it was all over, I thought I’d go and have a word with the animal-rights protesters. I walked up and down and shook hands with quite a few of them …” From ex-presidents and other establishment tony-benn-at-demodignitaries congratulating each other, then, he came out into the street among the placards and passions – the “underneath” from which the future must come – and showed his approval publicly with that most egalitarian of ceremonies, the hand-shake. A photograph of the occasion catches him at no loss for words or commitment.

Vivisection had dismayed Tony Benn since early childhood. During family walks in London, he had seen one of those window-displays which were a feature of earlier anti-vivisection campaigns, showing a model monkey among gruesome equipment (a street-show again). When Oxford University began to build its new laboratory, and the controversy was at its height, he chaired a debate on the subject, doing his best as chairman to redress the imbalance of rank and numbers, there in the University, against the dissenting side. He was a patron of Voice for Ethical Research at Oxford, and when the laboratory was formally opened, he helped publicize VERO’s objection by joining us at Nuffield College, and speaking to the press: “Vero is one of the courageous organisations challenging outdated orthodoxy.” tony-benn-with-othersFor him, again, it was a matter of morality: as he asked  the science-publicist Richard Dawkins, during a television discussion at about this same time, “where is your moral teaching in science?”    

Tony Benn was (notoriously to some) a socialist. There may well be other political philosophies capable of accommodating the interests of animals: let’s hope there are many. (I see there’s an argument about this in the web-pages of the new online forum called Animal Justice Currents.) But more essentially Benn was a radical democrat, restlessly arguing for political powers to be passed downwards to the people – or more plausibly, as we’ve noticed, for the people to reach upward and take them (take them back, as he would have said). Perhaps he romanticized ‘the people’. Certainly he was a romantic, but then prophets have to be: “All real progress throughout history has been made by those who did find it possible to lift themselves above the hardship of the present and see beyond it to an ideal world.”

In recent years, Tony Benn became less of the public bogeyman which he had been, at least for cropped-tony-benn-17-11-08-img_3737the right-wing press, in the 1970s and 80s (“The most dangerous man in Britain?” asked the Sun newspaper). Now instead he was sometimes called, rather patronizingly, a ‘national treasure’. He was bemused by this, but quite unassimilated: “To my surprise and delight I am rediscovering idealism as I enter my eighty-fifth year.”

Animals were increasingly a part of this latter idealism. They can, after all, be viewed politically as the most ancient of the ‘folk’, battered and dispossessed even more ruthlessly than the rest of their kind by capitalist modernity. Watching his garden birds taking their immemorial part in the common pursuit of food and security, Benn indeed felt them to be “a scaled down version of humanity” (a ‘more modest’ or ‘less rapacious’ version might say it better). And since they can have no money and no votes of their own, one must suppose that the only kind of democracy which will adequately provide for the lives and interests of the non-human animals is exactly the folk-minded kind which Tony Benn prized: one that seeks the common good not primarily through the spread of individual affluence and consumerist power, urged and promised by vote-seeking politicians at successive elections, but rather by promoting the sense of mutuality and life-solidarity. As the banners at the 2008 Durham Gala declared, while the 83-year old Tony Benn stood watching them pass by from his hotel balcony (“there were moments when I was in tears”): “Fellowship is Life”, “Fellowship is All”. Yes, there’s surely a place in that scheme for all of us, human and other.

 

References:

Tony Benn’s comments on animal slaughter come from an interview he gave to Tony Wardle for Viva!LIFE (issue 31, Spring 2006).

The phrase about democratic reform, and what Benn says about progress through idealism and about his own renewed idealism, are taken from The Best of Benn, ed. Ruth Winstone, Arrow Books 2014, pp.73 and 323-4.

“Is it right or is it wrong?” and “prophets as against kings” come from the rather oddly titled but excellent Skip Kite film about Tony Benn, titled Will and Testament and released in 2014.

Other quotations are from The Last Diaries: a Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, ed. Ruth Winstone, Hutchinson, 2013: the meat dream from p.225, the Stop the War rally p.109, Durham Gala p.150, Glastonbury p.18, his question to Dawkins p.162, and the Oxford degree ceremony, where he talked with members of the SPEAK campaign, p.15.

Other material comes from a talk given for Animal Aid in December 2007 and from personal conversations. The discussion in Animal Justice Currents can be read at http://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/2016/11/06/socialism-and-animal-liberation-a-necessary-synthesis/#more-681

The photograph of Tony Benn at the demonstration is kindly provided by SPEAK campaigns. The other photographs are by Paul Freestone.

 

A Servant of the State of Nature

Among the images of national self-sufficiency called up during the recent referendum debate was, if I heard correctly, the Battle of Britain. That was a victory which Winston Churchill (himself also hauled into the debate) fixed into national memory with his “finest hour” speech. It’s true that he promptly sacked the man who did most to create the victory, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, but soon afterwards, in 1943, he made amends by putting Dowding into the House of Lords as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory (the home of Fighter Command). House of Lords etiquette requires a serviceman of high rank to be referred to as “the noble and gallant lord”, as if expected to coast his way through the remainder of life on the strength of his war record. And that’s certainly the character in

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which Dowding is now memorialized outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London: a towering uniform, with a text below it quite rightly reminding us that to this man “the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.”

In fact, like many distinguished soldiers, Dowding had no great admiration for the business of war, or for the sort of nation-state politics which create the conditions for it. And so far from resting content after the war as a British soldier-hero, he had his vision set on a far wider community even than the United Nations, and a far more ambitious conception of what would constitute peace than even the U.N. had in mind. He told the House of Lords in 1952, “we shall never attain to true peace – the peace of love, and not the uneasy equilibrium of fear – until we recognize the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.”

The “scheme of things” which Dowding meant was one he wrote about in several books from 1942 onwards, the one rather loosely termed spiritualism. At the centre of spiritualism is the belief that life and death are not opposites but alternating states, in continuing contact with each other, leading each soul on a path towards perfection, “back to the ultimate source from which it originated”. I can’t speak with confidence about this; I don’t find it convincing or even appealing. But he did, and he was a man who had to hazard the lives of hundreds of young men, and answer for the violent deaths of very many of them, not just as a personal burden but in the literal sense of speaking to their families. One must feel respect and even awe for the conclusions, on the subject of life and death, of such a man.

Anyway, so far from the stealthy dabbling in posthumous domestic relationships which the word ‘spiritualism’ sometimes suggests, Dowding’s “scheme” was panoramically inclusive (as one might expect from an aviator). He felt a “life chain” joining all nature, “from the mineral through the vegetable and the animal to the human”. The animal part of it he became especially aware of under the influence of the woman he married in 1951 (at age 69), Muriel Albini. He became vegetarian, and was actively involved in her pioneering campaigns against the abuse of animals by the fur and cosmetics industries. He helped his wife to found and promote the pioneering charity and business Beauty Without Cruelty. And as a member of the House of Lords he now tried to get the legislature to take more notice of animal suffering.

The speeches which Dowding made in the House of Lords between 1948 and 1965 – on ‘humane’ slaughter, the training of circus animals, the poisoning of ‘pest’ animals, and vivisection – are surely some of the most urgent and radical which that chamber has ever heard on the animal subject. Several of these debates he himself had initiated, and he was determined that his case should be shown to be, not sentimental (by which he meant uninformed and subjective), but “justified by the facts”. His preparations for the debates on vivisection, in particular, had “compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty”, and he meant to make his fellow-peers, too, face this “traffic in flesh and blood”. He introduced to them, for instance, the “devilish device known as the Noble-Collip Drum”, then a quite new contrivance (and still used today) in which “the animal is very slowly battered to death”; he described the experiments on cats forced to breathe 100% oxygen at the Royal Naval Laboratory at Alverstoke, another wretched story of protracted execution; he spoke about the ‘siamesing’ of rats at Oxford University. This example of vivisection at Oxford (not the only one he instanced) had been reported to him by a doctor friend who had been allowed access to the laboratories of that university, of which he was an alumnus: “What particularly struck him was the callous attitude of people who were otherwise normal, decent members of society; and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.” Quizzed on this last point, the young scientist doing the siamesing had explained to the doctor what was useful about it: “It’s going to get me my degree.”

For the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which at that time was still regulating all such research in the U.K., Dowding had little respect: “merely a sop to public conscience”, “the vivisectors’ charter”, its machinery of enforcement “futile and delusive”. In 1949 a man convicted under the Protection of Animals Act (1911) of starving his dog had been imprisoned for three months and banned for life from keeping dogs; in that same year the Journal of Physiology reported on a long series of nutrition studies during which numbers of puppies had been similarly starved in order to produce diseases of deficiency. “Imprisonment for the amateur in cruelty; honours and rewards for the professional wholesaler,” commented Dowding. It was “a Cruelty to Animals Act in fact as well as in name.”

Of course, other speakers in these debates reassured Dowding that, Act or no Act, scientists could be trusted to do their research humanely, that they were, just like himself, “anxious to spare the animals as much suffering as possible”, and were even “enriched by their work in love and meekness”, whatever that meant. Dowding took no notice of these complacencies, and he was contemptuous of the larger fiction associated with them – that Britain was a nation of animal-lovers: “we are not animal-lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals”. By way of illustration, he spoke of a recent outcry about 300 monkeys suffocated, through carelessness, in a B.O.A.C van at Heathrow. This public indignation, which might well have been taken as good evidence of British concern for animals, Dowding turned inside out. More than 125,000 monkeys, he said, were coming through Heathrow every year:

“Those 300 were the lucky monkeys: they experienced only about fifteen minutes of slow suffocation. What happened to the others? Here are some of their experiences …

Dowding then read out a long list of vivisection horrors. At the end of it he said, “Yet about all this there is no newspaper outcry”.

In fact the concept of the animal-lover, whether person or nation, was and is delusive and irrelevant. Dowding knew that it appealed mainly to people for whom animals have no real standing of their own and so are quite properly dependent upon the interest and kindness of their superiors. Hence, of course, the preferential treatment, in the 1876 Act, of the particular human favourites, the dogs, cats, and horses: “pure sentimentality”, Dowding called that; “All warm-blooded animals feel pain and all are equally entitled to protection.”

When Dowding spoke about the spiritualist “scheme of things”, there must have been some comical unease in that 1950s House of Lords; containing as yet no women and no life peers, it was probably even less of a ‘new age’ scene than it is now. He did admit that his speeches had sometimes sounded “rather like a sermon”. But whether one shares his beliefs or not, it’s enlightening to see how they raised this apparently conventional Englishman far above his fellow-peers in ethical vision, simply by convincing him of the unity of life. Against their moral job-lot of sentiment, custom, selfishness, and improvised kindness, he brought his serene absolute (“I speak of what I know”) that “all life is one”, and all lives “brothers and sisters”. And even when pressing for the modest particular reforms which were all he could hope politically to achieve, he always kept that larger and revolutionary truth in open view, proportioning all those timid mitigations of wrong: thus, when he argued for the captive bolt gun and the casting-pen in slaughterhouses, he nevertheless told the Lords, “sooner or later, the time will come when we shall regard the eating of animal flesh as we now regard cannibalism.”

But of course one does not have to come at this great truth that “all life is one” by the spiritualist way that Dowding followed. There are many other ways to discern and represent what is, after all, at its least a worldly fact: from Albert Schweitzer’s existentialist ‘reverence for life’, through Charles Darwin’s science of evolution, down to the single word ‘speciesism’ with which Richard Ryder nailed its delusory opposite. (That Darwin’s way, the most matter-of-fact, the most patently fitted to the understanding of a materialist society, has in practice done so little good for the animals, is sad evidence of the littleness of our scientific culture.) But just now we need reminding of it in its political character. There is only one stable and non-arbitrary jurisdiction, which did not need arguing into existence and cannot be debated out of it, and to which we unalterably belong, namely the animal kingdom (etymologically ’kin’-dom). This is the one which Hugh Dowding, having rescued the merely provisional and historical kingdom of Britain, went on to serve without reservations for the remainder of his life and, as he hoped and believed, far beyond.

 

Notes and references:

The statue of Hugh Dowding, by Faith Winter, was erected in 1988. The photograph is by René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net).

All the quotations above are taken from Hansard debates in which Dowding spoke: these took place on the subject of vivisection in October 1952 and July 1957, and on the other subjects in March and May 1948, Feb 49, Nov 50, Oct 53, June 54, Jan 56, Dec 57, May 58, Dec 62, and Feb 65. They can be read online at http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/hansard/lords/ .

Dowding’s labours on behalf of laboratory animals are remembered in the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research (established in 1974 by the National Anti-Vivisection Society), and also on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, which falls on 24th April, Dowding’s birthday.

 

Revenge on the Farm

The previous post featured a Teach Yourself title of 1965, Modern Poultry Keeping, championing the new factory model for British chicken-farming nearly new, anyway, for already the toll of chickens eaten in the U.K. had increased from 1 million in 1950 to about 150 million in the year of that book’s publication. Today, it’s approaching 1 billion. And of course biotechnology has been backing or pushing the progress all the way.

Accordingly, most of the 139,000 birds which appear in the Home Office’s statistics for animal research in 2014 were so-called ‘domestic fowl (Gallus domesticus)’. These were chosen to pioneer, test, or otherwise provide information about farm-animal disease (6,512 birds), drugs and poisons (11,045) feed safety (8,553), GM possibilities (798), etc. etc.  Really the word ‘domestic’ is now a sad misnomer for this animal which research and development have done so much to evict from its own or anyone else’s home-life. As the novelist Patricia Highsmith notes, when she sets the scene for her chicken-farm story ‘The Day of Reckoning’, “not a chicken in sight!” This is a fine come-uppance story which I shall, in a moment, add to the category discussed last month under the heading ‘Animal Revenges’ (15 February). But first a little more about science on the farm.

I also mentioned in the previous post Ruth Harrison’s book Animal Machines, which at that same mid-60s time made public the immorality of the new farming. There was a very welcome re-issue of this book in 2013, and in the new introductory pages we are told that although ‘improving animal welfare’ has now become “one of the key ways a scientist can demonstrate the importance and impact of their work”, still “Ruth’s work is not yet done”.

Not indeed, and surely not even as well on the way as those words seem rather complacently to imply. As to ‘improving animal welfare’: that it has become a respectable scientific discipline is certainly a good thing (although 1,509 domestic fowl apparently had to be sacrificed for it in 2014); that it took so long to do so is something which the Royal Veterinary College might reasonably be asked to explain, if it wasn’t for the fact that, being itself a vivisector, that organisation is also itself part of the explanation. For to relegate ‘animal welfare’ (as opposed to mere animal health) for as long as possible to the realm of the ‘sentimental’ amateur has been very helpful to all such institutions. But anyway, even this celebrated advance is partly, perhaps largely, Feather coverage is greatly reduced on the birds, AFPhumbug. Most technical or biomedical innovations in the process of turning animals into food can also, with a little thought and PR, be presented as good for the animals, if that’s also good for their own “importance and impact”. Even the recent grotesque experiment in featherlessness turned out to be altruistic: with their feathers on, it was said, chickens “suffer tremendously” from over-heating in broiler sheds, at any rate in hot countries.

As to Ruth Harrison’s work being “not yet done”, it’s rather the point of that story of Patricia Highsmith’s to show that there’s only one way to get that work done, if we really do want it done, so I shall now turn to ‘The Day of Reckoning’.

The story is set in North America in the early 1970s, but like all good cautionary tales it will do for anywhere, any time a point which I shall illustrate in square brackets here and there. John Hanshaw, a young politics student, is paying a visit to his uncle Ernie’s farm or rather to Hanshaw Chickens, Inc., as it’s proudly called now that Ernie has made the change of farming method urged by our Teach Yourself title. So now there’s a “long grey barn … huge, covering the whole area where the cow barn and pigpens had been”. Ernie Hanshaw himself has turned from husbandman into the sort of engineer that Teach Yourself prefers: “Machine farming”, he exclaims to his nephew; “just imagine, one man – me – can run the whole show!” At meals, his talk is “of vitamins and antibiotics in his chicken feed, and his produce of one and a quarter eggs per day per hen.” [Title of paper to be read at the forthcoming World’s Poultry Science Association meeting at Chester University: ‘The effect of high levels of whole barley with enzyme supplementation on laying hen performance’]

What this change means for the animals, Patrician Highsmith makes plain enough. A modern reader will not be taken by surprise, except perhaps by the so-far modest scale of Hanshaw’s one shed, holding perhaps a few thousand birds. [Application at present before York City Council: plan for a broiler ‘farm’ at Rufforth accommodating 288,000 birds at any one time, with six ‘crops’ a year] The lighting system deludes these young birds into behaving as if it’s Spring, and therefore into wearing themselves out laying eggs steadily for ten months. This and their close confinement (they “couldn’t turn around in their coops”) has so disturbed them that, as Hanshaw’s wife Helen unhappily says, “Our chickens are insane”. But Patricia Highsmith also makes it clear that they have not lost the urge to live according to their nature. They are either trying to do so (“Much of the flurry in the barn was caused by chickens trying to fly upward”), or expressing their frustration at the impossibility, through neurotic behaviour which is in its turn frustrated: “They’re de-beaked. They’d peck each other through the wire, if they weren’t … ever hear of cannibalism among chickens, John?” [Advice from the Virginia Tech Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty: “Don’t take chances! Make cannibalism control part of your management program and you will save a great deal of time and money.”]

By contrast there is, not far away from Hanshaw Chickens Inc., one of those unreconstructed farms of the mixed and under-automated variety so much deplored by Teach Yourself (although, as that book’s author says, “thankfully the numbers become fewer each year”). On this farm, the hens live a more or less natural life: “They can see the sun! They can fly! … And scratch for worms – and eat watermelon!” Those cries of sympathetic pleasure are human, but not therefore necessarily more complex than the pleasures which they respond to. Still, implicit in them there is this much more, an idea of freedom which may turn into something more thought-out and purposeful. So Helen adds, “Sometimes I want to open all the coops in the barn and open the doors and let ours loose, just to see them walking on the grass for a few minutes.” And the same idea is more powerfully represented in a dream which John has that night:

He was flying like Superman in Ernie’s chicken barn, and the lights were all blazing brightly. Many of the imprisoned chickens looked up at him, their eyes flashed silver, and they were struck blind. The noise they made was fantastic. They wanted to escape, but could no longer see, and the whole barn heaved with their efforts to fly upward. John flew about frantically, trying to find the lever to open the coops, the doors, anything, but he couldn’t.

In this brilliantly imagined episode, John Hanshaw, airborne but struggling ineffectually with the man-made machinery, becomes physiologically identified with the chickens and their urge to freedom. At the same time, as a super-man, he is the one active and practical possibility to which they look for its realisation.

And at this point I go back to the comment which Stephen Eisenman added to that post ‘Revenges of the Animals’, mentioning his recent article entitled ‘The Real “Swinish Multitude”’. In that article, he has proposed a way of understanding and acknowledging, as political history, the liberation efforts of animals: a “history from below” of the kind which E. P. Thompson so notably pioneered in his Making of the English Working Class (1963). Without such a history, a resistance or liberation movement lacks the self-awareness and coherent vision which it needs if it is to be cumulative in what it achieves, and if it is to be finally respected and given the place it claims: in short, if it’s to win. As Jason Hribal’s African saying goes, “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero” (see again ‘Revenges of the Animals’). And this is where even the lion must look upward, like Hanshaw’s hens, to higher (or let’s say, different) faculties than he or they possess. But not just in the writing: “All political resistance requires collaboration, mutual aid, and action in common”, says Stephen Eisenman: “… This is how animal protest occurs – sympathy and collaboration between humans and animals striving for liberty.”

Even purely human revolt is driven by a full spectrum of motive, from the most deeply buried collective instinct to flourish (“the whole barn heaved with their efforts”), through to the intellectually formulated insistence on the right to do so. Anyone who has ever been part of an impassioned demonstration will have felt this. All of the less verbalised region of motive we can share with the animals: but it is up to us, as specialised thinkers, to supply what Eisenman calls “higher level executive function”, our capacity to deal with the man-made world and its machinery, political and material. It’s what John Hanshaw tries to supply in his dream, sharing but also rising out of the common urgency of the barn to do so.

Stephen Eisenman summarises thus: “animals live in a political and not simply a biological arena; … they communicate to each other and to us their desires for safety, companionship, and love; and … their aspirations for freedom cannot be easily separated from the project of human emancipation.” It’s the meaning of Patricia Highsmith’s story too. The hens are a pathetic few months old, hardly more than children, but they have an insistent collective interest, clearly communicated, and as clearly refused by force. It’s a political situation. And bound into it is a human bafflement only slightly less poignant. For the farm is an inhuman place for the people as well as for the animals: seed sack bleak and dangerous. [See label, right, from a sack of dressed seed.] The sort of thing that happens to the Hanshaws’ kitten, run over by one of the huge service-vehicles (its flattened corpse is the first and emblematic sign of ‘life’ that John sees when he first arrives on his visit), might equally happen to one of the family and indeed does. The young daughter is caught and killed under a descending grain-container. And it’s this shock that precipitates the “reckoning” of the title. What John only attempted in a dream, Helen, the bereaved mother, gets done. The hens, themselves bereaved mothers though they haven’t ‘known’ it, come pouring out of the sabotaged barn and, though scarcely able to walk (“staggering, falling on their sides … falling backwards”), begin to reclaim their species-life, their birthright: “Look! … They don’t know what grass is! But they like it!” And John and Helen share in this liberation: they and the chickens are equally described as “mad”, a revolutionary madness perhaps.

As for poor Ernie, obsessed and (not unlike his hens) wretchedly depreciated by the mechanisation he thinks so highly of … well, the “reckoning” itself is between him and the hens, and readers of Patricia Highsmith will guess that it’s surprisingly unpleasant.

‘The Day of Reckoning’ was published in 1975, part of a collection of stories called The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. All but one are come-uppance stories, mostly told from within the mind of the animals (“history from below”, in fact): elephant, camel, truffle-pig, rat, goat, and others. The exception is a fine study, likewise from within, of a fastidious cockroach, though even he (it is a he), by making his way in a hostile man-made world, triumphs. That punning title, Beastly Murder, may initially seem to mean ‘horrible murders by animals’. But as you read the stories, the libellously pejorative sense of ‘beastly’ is worn away, and the title comes rather to mean the murders which animals might be driven to commit  in pursuit of, and within the means of, their proper nature: beast-like bids to live beast-like lives.

“Agriculture”, says the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “is applied biology, and it’s where a lot of today’s cutting edge science is getting done.” No; freedom is applied biology, and it’s in accordance with that principle that we must re-write animal history, in words and in their lives and our own.

 

[References: the 2013 edition of Animal Machines is published by CABI, and Beastly Murder (1975) by Heinemann; Stephen Eisenman’s article appears in Critical Inquiry, vol.42, no.2 (Winter 2016), pp.339-373; the quotations from research institutions and the Home Office animal research analysis can be found on the relevant web-sites; featherless chicken report from BBC Online News, 21 May 2002.]

In Prison, and You Visited Me

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The moderate antivivisection and animal rights groups,” says the Understanding Animal Research web-site, giving such groups as VERO its undesired blessing, “campaign within the law – by leafletting, peaceful demonstrations, lobbying, etc – and society must protect their right to do so.” How revealing that “etc” is! a patrician wafture of the hand towards the various other harmless pursuits of the law-abiders, not even staying with them long enough to see to the full stop. However, there’s “a small minority of radical animal rights extremists who attempt to force their views on others with illegal actions”, and to these, Understanding Animal Research devotes more sincere attention; indeed, it runs a separate web-site on the subject, at www.animalrightsextremism.info.

Illegality seems to work, then – if only to the extent of attracting attention of a kind authenticated by self-interest. Such was in fact the larger or even sole reason for what the suffragettes did in the way of illegality: as Christabel Pankhurst wrote, “Women will never get the vote except by creating an intolerable situation for all the selfish and apathetic people who stand in their way.” And of course from this safe historical distance, and given their success, even UAR has to admire what they did: you can read on its web-site a little about “the suffragette movement and its heroic struggle to win the vote for women”.

I guess that the UAR would likewise approve of what the American rebels achieved by forcing their views on Britain in the 1770s, or of what Henry David Thoreau did in 1846 when he refused to pay taxes to a government which countenanced slavery, preferring to go to prison. For there is, fortunately, a populous tradition behind the sort of “illegal actions” which UAR selectively deplores. Most, perhaps all, of the really elementary reforms have had their share of it. And of course we acknowledge it with enthusiasm in the legends of high-minded outlaws like Robin Hood and William Tell.

Needless to say, breaking the law doesn’t prove anyone right, any more than leafletting does; it just makes being right that much more crucial, and being wrong more deplorable and tragic. (There’s a finely sardonic song by Georges Brassens on this theme, entitled ‘Mourir pour des Idées’.) Either way, the activist takes that risk and, if caught, endures the penalty. And the penalty is commonly a much more severe one than society imposes upon those more routine criminals who abide by its more general principles of greed and selfishness, and offend only its rules, not its mind-set. Certainly it has been so for animal rights activists. One such has written, from prison, “They’ve arrested us, made sure we got totally disproportionate and excessive sentences, and separated a lot of us into different jails across the country in a vain attempt to isolate us and break our spirits.” In fact the few things which I’d like to say about breaking the law for a political cause, and paying the penalty, I shall say as far as possible in the words of those who have known what it means from experience, especially words written in prison, which surely have an almost hieratic claim on our attention. (True, Mein Kampf was written in a sort of prison – though an extremely comfortable one, more of a political salon – and it’s a great pity that it wasn’t taken more seriously outside Germany at the time.)

The first thing to acknowledge is that the law as it stands is always the principal obstacle to reform; after all, it’s what any really important reform has to start by altering. Hence what the anarchist/pacifist Emma Goldman, charged with inducing others to resist conscription, said to a U.S. court in 1917:  “no new faith – not even the most humane and peaceable – has ever been considered ‘within the law’ by those who were in power. The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside the law.” Accordingly she got two years, followed by deportation to Russia.

Henry Thoreau was more fortunate, spending less than 24 hours in prison (someone paid his fine for him, much against his will). Even that brief sojourn had a profound effect upon his thinking (It was like travelling into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.”). Out of the experience came his celebrated essay Civil Disobedience, in which he put the question, very much as Emma Goldman was to do, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

You note the word “do”. Thoreau, for different reasons, shared UAR’s low estimation of the politer campaigning arts, and its practitioners: “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret.” And later he says, “Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.”

Yes, “the perception and the performance of right”: here we begin to see that breaking the law may after all be its own kind of demonstration, aimed not at making a noise and nuisance about a desired change, but rather at instancing that change. Probably there was some element of that in the suffragette campaigns, conclusively demonstrating, as they did, that women have more than home-making powers: strength of will, bravery, daring, ability to organise, all the powers which had been traditionally cornered by men.

Most of the animal rights illegality has indeed been of this kind (although less well-judged or downright wrong-headed stunts have often been given more media attention): that is, they have demonstrated the justice and beauty of animal freedom by effecting it. An early example was set in 1977, when the so-called ‘Undersea Railroad’ liberated two dolphins from their barren tanks in a Hawaii University laboratory. A note left on site said simply “Gone Surfing”. When right is performed in this way, we don’t need a leaflet to explain it: the life within ourselves, which we share with all the other animals, recognises it at once, and rejoices in it. So must it also at the sight of dog-animal-testing-research-picturewrecked hunting-towers, broken cages, smashed traps and the like: every one of these is an appeal to the moral imagination, an emblem of freedom.

The two students who freed the dolphins in Hawaii made no attempt to avoid detection; on the contrary, they signed that note and made their reasoning public at a press conference, and they were in fact subsequently charged and convicted. But even if the intention is to evade the law, such actions are necessarily a test of earnestness, and therefore constitute a tribute, paid in public (that is, in the sphere of criminal law), to the importance of a cause. So Emma Goldman said in court, “Your verdict may, of course, affect us temporarily, in a physical sense – it can have no effect whatever upon our spirit. For even if we were convicted and found guilty and the penalty were that we be placed against a wall and shot dead, I should nevertheless cry out with the great Luther: ‘Here I am and here I stand and I cannot do otherwise’.”

Is this ‘forcing views on others’? No, it’s showing what having a ‘view’ ought to imply: that is, doing “what I think right” and enduring the consequences with as good a cheer and undimmed a spirit as one can bring for testimonial to the cause. Emma Goldman illustrated the point with the story of Thoreau being visited in prison by his friend, the great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Emerson said: ‘David, what are you doing in jail?’ And Thoreau replied: ‘Ralph, what are you doing outside, when honest people are in jail for their ideals?’” I suspect that this charming set-piece didn’t really happen, monkey-cages-lab-animal-testing-picturebut it accurately dramatizes something which Thoreau does say in Civil Disobedience: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” And who can be less justly imprisoned than animals?

I have not, of course, been talking about terrorism properly so-called, though the judiciary, in moments of hysteria, has occasionally used that term about animal rights activists. As the Observer said in 1992, “It’s a strange sort of terrorist campaign to say the least that is waged for 20 years without killing anybody.” In fact they are no more terrorists than Emma Goldman was, or Thoreau, or Emily Pankhurst. One of them has said, “I object so greatly to the use of violence that I joined the ALF. I separate violence against the individual from damage done to inanimate objects. The latter moves me not a jot, the other always will.” That doesn’t mean that they’ve always or even ever been right in what they’ve done. On the other hand, that they have been selfless, idealistic, motivated by compassion, and courageous, is certain, and those, after all, are the qualities which more or less define heroism.

From time to time, the animal rights groups which have been set up to look after the interests of imprisoned activists have published their letters from prison. I shall end with some quotations from these letters. To find oneself in prison is necessarily a painful shock, except perhaps to the habitual recidivist. The place itself is oppressive, ugly, sometimes frightening. The time spent there is not intended to be pleasant. I’ve spoken of good cheer and undimmed spirit: these letters show them not just surviving in those hard circumstances, but downright shining there.

All in all I’m in the shape of my life and very strong.

There is so much to laugh about in jail and we all do, often!

Having the privilege of being a United States prisoner, I still have it better than most 3rd World people do in their homelands. And nothing they do to me could even come close to the plight of animals.

I think humans are obsessed with the pursuit of selfish happiness, and animals live in the joy of now. It’s up to us to ensure they get the chance.

My personal ethical and moral beliefs haven’t changed one iota, nor will they.

It’s very similar to being back at my old boarding school!

They really must believe that caring for animals is the worst crime possible. I’m sure they are trying to send us a message, although I don’t understand what that message is because their dirty tactics only serve to make us stronger.

Everything here is great. I’ve kept busy while in prison at the gym, doing art and pottery and gaining a Btec qualification in Media Production.

I’ve had some wonderful visits this month and feel so loved and supported, for which I am so grateful – many women in here literally have no one and I wonder what prison life must feel like for them.

I may be in prison but I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else in the world. I am so glad I am who I am and feel the way I feel.

 

References:

The Pankhurst quotation comes from Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts, Allen Lane 2001, p.256.

Emma Goldman’s fine speech can be found in The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, ed. Brian MacArthur, 1996, pp.448-453.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience was first published in 1849; it’s a short essay and is readily available, including online at http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html.

For a highly readable account of direct action and the animal liberation movement, mostly (and very well) written in prison, see Keith Mann’s From Dusk till Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press 2007, from which the quotations in the paragraph about terrorism are taken (pp.16 and 21): this is a remarkable and important book, strongly recommended. See also Tim Jordan, Activism! Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society, Reaktion Books 2002.

Photographs are by Brian Gunn, Secretary General of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals (www.iaapea.com).

I’d rather be bonkers than ignorant …

Before her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, Kerry McCarthy was interviewed for the Viva! Life magazine. In the published article she states: “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Unsurprisingly, this generated a lot of media interest owing to her much publicised appointment as the Shadow Minister for DEFRA. All the nationals covered the story, and they all used a variation of this banner headline: “Treat meat eaters like smokers, says Labour’s vegan MP.” Obviously, this a distortion of what she actually said, and one paper described Viva! Life as “a magazine for vegans” (which means nobody else could possibly be interested in reading it?). Anyway, KM’s main point was that eating meat is unhealthy, and the more you eat the greater the risks. Therefore, people should be encouraged (via government health campaigns) to reduce or stop eating it. This makes perfect sense to anyone with the slightest awareness of the impact of increased meat consumption on the nation’s health. Basically, there is a direct correlation between the amount you eat (especially red meat) and the risk of serious medical conditions and reduced life expectancy. The biggest killer in the western world is heart disease, and saturated animal fat is the crucial factor.

Subsequently, on R4’s Any Questions (25/9/15) a specific question was asked about KM’s comment in Viva! Life magazine. The panel of esteemed idiots rose to the occasion with these statements. Firstly, Dr Ruth Lea (chair of Economists for Britain) stated: “I thinks she’s bonkers. Meat eating is, on the whole, meant to be good for your health. I don’t think anybody would dispute the fact that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s just not comparable [with eating meat]. The comment is just bonkers.” Secondly, this was followed by the dazzling insight of Sir Vince Cable (ex-Business Secretary in the Coalition Government). He stated: “The remark she made is fatuous. The problem with smoking is passive smoking; it harms others. I’m trying to work out what passive meat eating is [audience laughs] and how you harm other people by eating meat.” At this point the chairman (Jonathan Dimbleby) interjected: “Gas is given off by cows, and this damages the atmosphere.”

Where to begin with these comments? Firstly, they demonstrate a staggering level of arrogance and ignorance. Do these people really have no knowledge about the modern western diet with its high intakes of saturated animal fat, and the diseases of affluence (obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, etc)? Secondly, the huge environmental impact of meat production. At least this was mentioned by the chairman, but are they really unaware of the fact that the vast global livestock population is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all of the world’s transport systems? Thirdly, Ruth Lea and Vince Cable should have a basic understanding of the economics of sustainability. It’s pretty simple really; if (for example) red meat production requires a feed conversion ratio of 10:1 (that’s 10 kilos of feed for each kilo of meat) then it’s unsustainable. In fact, it isn’t just unsustainable, it’s bonkers.

Paul Freestone

 

VERO invites “the greatest man in politics” to speak in Oxford

Former LibDem MP and Home Office minister Norman Baker will be in Oxford on 19 October to speak for VERO on the title Animal Experiments: an Inside View from the Home Office.  The place is to be the Friends’ Meeting House at 43 St Giles, anDSC04759d the    time 7 p.m. The event will be chaired by VERO patron Sir David Madden.

Of course Norman Baker isn’t “in politics” any more, having lost his Lewes seat in the general election. The heading phrase was suggested back in 2007 by Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail (of all newspapers) when Mr Baker’s two-year campaign to make the House of Commons publish MPs’ travelling expenses had at last produced the requested information. As things turned out, that was only the start of the great expenses saga, throughout which Norman Baker continued to take a leading part. Even that was only one aspect of his campaign against secrecy and spin in British politics: a campaign which also led to Peter Mandelson’s second resignation, and to a book about the dishonesties and evasions which led to the death of the weapons expert David Kelly.

As to animals, Norman Baker’s concern for their interests was already there in the early days of his political career. In fact when in 2000 he formally asked MI5, under the Data Protection Act, what information that organisation held about himself, an anonymous letter (the only definite reply he ever got) told him that it was his part in environmental and animal campaigns in the 1980s which had earned him a file there. He says in his political memoirs Against the Grain, “I was uncomfortable with the Christian ethos of humans having dominion over all other living things. The key word for me was respect.”[1]

Accordingly he made sure that a policy of promoting alternatives to animals in scientific research was written into the coalition agreement which prepared the ground for the 2010-15 administration. In due course he was made Minister of State at the Home Office, with responsibilities which included animal experiments. During his short time there (early 2013 to late 2014), he made very clear his conviction that the “scientific and economic arguments to use alternative methods are now as strong as the moral one.”[2] Under his direction, the Home Office issued a substantial document entitled Working to Reduce the Use of Animals in Scientific Research. This was not placatory PR, but an attempt to set a definite course for the future, with required reviews of progress – such as the one that was published in March of this year (under the same title, with sub-title Delivery Report). Both publications can be read on the Home Office web-site. Neither makes thrilling liberationist reading, of course, but to have got this much that will make a lasting difference, out of a Conservative-ruled Home Office, is a notable achievement.

Also on the Home Office web-site you can see another part of Norman Baker’s legacy: published reports of the investigations conducted by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit into violations of the law. These reports, started during his regime, are anonymized in a style reminiscent of Yes, Minister’s Humphrey Appleby, and are in all sorts of ways unsatisfactory, but they provide the first systematic public viewing of laboratory practice, not as the Act idealizes it but as it actually goes on and goes wrong. It’s a very great pity that the review of Section 24 – the notorious secrecy clause of the 1986 Act – was not completed and acted upon while Norman Baker was still at the Home Office. There’s no doubt what he would have wanted to do with it. (Incidentally, where has that review got to?)

Norman Baker’s last speech in the House, on 3 March 2015, came during a debate which he himself had instigated on another aspect of the animals subject: endangered species. That was also the theme of an EP of his own compositions which he released in the same week: Animal Countdown. If you watch his performance of the title song (it’s on YouTube), you may or may not like the music but you will see that his theme is not just biodiversity, or our grandchildren’s prospects; it’s individual animal suffering. You’ll also notice that he means what he sings, just as he has always meant what he says, and pressed others in politics to do the same.

[1] Biteback Publishing 2015. The quotation is from p.362.

[2] Foreword to the 2013 report of the Animals in Science Regulation Unit