Tag Archives: Environment

Vegan Choices

While we ended up in Southern and East Africa, this journey was primarily about West Africa, so I feel I ought to come up with a blog looking back on how that went. Rather than focus on the great experience, or the scenery and the heat and the fantastic (or less fantastic) people – I will just sign off with some thoughts on what making vegan choices in the UK has to do with West Africa.

Driving through West Africa left on balance a highly depressing imprint on the memory. Passing before your eyes you see the before, during and after of human economic development in progress – and it is not a pretty sight. Human activity invariably diminishes the biodiversity of our world, but it is the impact of the current global systems of trade and consumption which have accelerated this on a frankly terrifying scale. It is also clearly driven by the continuing impact of ‘developed’ countries – which started in the colonial era when we first set out to plunder the rest of the world for resources and impose our ‘culture’ and systems. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the same cultures and systems which led to the depletion of our own local environment should lead to the depletion of the environment where those cultures are spread. Traditional colonialism is now replaced by abuse of capitalist economics, right down to keeping a few locals wealthy through corruption and property ownership to maintain power; keeping the people poor enough that their labour produces cheap produce for export to developed countries. From minerals to food, natural resources are being stripped from West Africa for our consumption – making a few people and some big multinationals lots of wealth in the process.

Then there’s the global population problem we hear about so often – and something which I touched on after the first trip. In West Africa, however, the issues are even more apparent. It is something we like to think we have got under control back in Europe? But the problem of the world’s human population is twofold – the accelerated consumption of the natural world by a growing number of people, and the increased per-person consumption which is driven by development. It seems to me that this is at very least as much our problem in the developed world as anywhere else – especially our personal consumption. Both of these elements are enabled and driven by the global economic system to feed the system’s need for growth – and well beyond any natural balance of need or sustainability. And even when we do talk about sustainability it is from a narrow, human-centric viewpoint which assumes that we own the world and all its inhabitants. Apart from being jaw-droppingly arrogant, this view fails to recognise that the long-term survival of life depends on the diversity of its species.

What has this got to do with making vegan choices back in the UK? More than ever! At home we do not produce enough food for our local population – even though we have stripped the fertile land of its biodiversity to grow a few species for our personal use. So we import food from Africa using the inherent unfairness of the global economic system to  buy on the cheap from poor people. In doing so we are driving the destruction of the African environment, directly as well as by driving up the local populations to serve our needs – making sure we keep them poor of course, otherwise we couldn’t afford their produce. But a lot of this produce is fruit and vegetables so it doesn’t seem buying vegan helps that? Well it does – and beyond the basic fact that animal production anywhere uses more resources than plant-based food production – if we stopped wasting our own natural resources on producing vast numbers of animals, and instead produced more and greater variety of plant-based food for humans, we could feed ourselves. Maybe then we could even produce real things that people in Africa need and engage in genuine Fair Trade: Exchanging things at equal value rather than abusing twisted economics to swindle them out of their  natural wealth. This is something we can all help with – our buying patterns will drive changes in production. It is the most effective and direct action an individual can take – if you care about the world, don’t consume things that damage it the most.

OK, making vegan choices won’t save the world by itself – but it is a necessary, big and easy first step in the right direction. Then we can think about where things come from and whether we should buy locally produced food, and whether the places we import from are getting anything fair in return for the trade. But if we don’t change our local production to be truly sustainable and feed ourselves, we don’t have anything of real value to trade with.

And if we don’t, what will we do when the economic tides are turned on this little island we call home?

What depresses me most about human psychology is our ability to compartmentalise our knowledge so that 3 meals a day we can make choices that are worse for the things we profess to care about than the equally tasty and nutritious alternatives. Evolution is to blame, I guess – after all this capacity to focus is part of what makes us such a ‘successful’ species…so far. But evolution is hit and miss – there have after all been more dead-ends in evolution than successes. We have the opportunity to make sure we’re not just another fossil record of failure, to avoid leaving the legacy of another geological footprint of mass extinction. But so long as we have an excuse that lets us sleep at night and feel happy, maybe it doesn’t matter?

A Brief Excursion to Extinction?

A bit of a monologue from 6th April…

Camping L'Ocean Bleu
Camping L’Ocean Bleu

If the ocean is blue here, its probably more down to the prevalent colour of the rubbish than anything else. A beach strewn with all manner of human detritus…plastic and broken glass; bottles and cans, broken plastic implements and even the odd spent shotgun cartridge. Behind the beach, that strange landscape of apartment buildings apparently being simultaneously built and falling down, scattered amongst them the temporary (though probably as long-lasting) block and corrugated shacks of the less well-off.

A small sample...
A small sample…

It is no wonder we stare at the long vistas of waves breaking on the shore and out to the horizon…past the rusting ships…out to a blue haze where all seems well with the world. I sat and gestured conversation with an old guy about nothing much, facing the inland chaos which was more relevant to his life than the distant horizon the tourists come to enjoy.

Driving West from Fez, the landscape changed from flat to hilly, and from dry to damp and green. The small scale producers selling their fruit and veg by the side of the road fading away, replaced by bigger fields and more machinery. But all the way was occupied by human food production, though the rural population seems pretty low compared to other places. Nearer the coast it seemed ever more French…the road markings and signs the same with added Arabic…the bare rolling hills like an impoverished version of some of the less interesting parts of Northern France.

The roads full of overloaded trucks…through towns with whole new zones of modular smart apartment blocks laid out in rigid grids. Where are all these people coming from to fill them? Consumers and profits needed for the ever-improving efficiency and scale of agricultural and industrial progress?

So biodiversity and people don’t seem to mix. It seems to me that is not the accidental effect we like to think, and which we can do something about. At root, food production for people underlies our entire society and all its jobs and industry the rest of us occupy ourselves with. And what is this agriculture but the deliberate and increasingly efficient destruction of biodiversity? We choose a few species which we need, and manipulate the environment to produce vast quantities of those few species and systematically exclude the others. And whilst we all look out to sea at the pretty blue horizon, this all-consuming machine behind us is driven by our system of economics to  extract more and more to support ‘growth’.

The species we choose are even manipulated, through unnatural selection and even genetic modification, to produce more of the bits of them we need. Imagine what would happen if there were no people? Very few of our favoured species could survive without us, so we’re hardly doing them any favours. So basically, people are very bad for the world. Developed people are even worse as we consume more. It is with these thoughts in my mind that I arrived at the coast, ending up camping on a patch of grass and concrete in the rain between some sheep and chickens and concrete apartment blocks.

The next day was supposed to be another visa-gathering day, but I had added a trip to the Toyota dealer to see if I could find some genuine mirrors as the after-market cheap ones I’d got were busy falling apart. Sadly, the mirrors would take 20 days to deliver, and the Ghana embassy weren’t going to issue a visa in less than 10 days…at which point I gave up and headed South towards Casablanca, pitched up at l’Ocean Bleu and set about fixing the mirrors with glass-fibre paste and crossed fingers and contemplating all that is wrong with the world! And there I was going to leave you…but I prefer to end on a high note, and I had one today, so…

Today is the last day in the highly populated coastal area, as I am picking up Yury and Maria from the airport tonight and tomorrow we head East to the mountains and deserts. They requested a first night hotel…reasonable enough after travelling from St Petersburg via Frankfurt and arriving after midnight! So I booked into an Ibis in Casablanca and headed into town via petit-taxi – for lunch at the Vegan Cafe. This cafe is open for lunch in a yoga centre, a quiet oasis in a busy city on a busy coast, and the food is just delicious.

Vegan Cafe Casablanca
Vegan Cafe Casablanca

Whilst there, in my own blue horizon perhaps, it seemed that there is hope – with development comes positives as well as negatives for the non-human world if we use it well. Vegan food is a much more efficient use of resources than processing animals, so maybe that is where we go next and reduce the impact of our increasing development and growth? I still don’t think it is enough – biodiversity is the world’s protection against change, it is what keeps life going long-term. By using land and sea for our own purposes we deliberately and systematically reduce diversity wherever we are active – the long term solution has to be to reduce the places we are active and allow nature to repair some of the damage we have already done?


Looking back at the route we travelled, it seems as if the waters closed behind us and it is no longer safe to travel that way.  Maybe it isn’t really much worse than at the time – our encounter with the Egyptian army was perhaps a sign that things were tense there even then. But the expansion of violence across the region is more than worrying so I’m glad we did this journey just in time.

Egypt - Human Conflict is not
El Alamein, Egypt – Human Conflict is not new to the Sahara

Having passed through the region did start me on a chain of thought – thinking about some of the horrific things people have done – for example videoing themselves cutting other people’s heads off. It makes us all wonder how someone can do that…they must have something wrong with them? It is obviously  inhuman? To be honest I have avoided seeing any of those videos – knowing they exist is bad enough. But I have also seen other things lately that I find disturbing for other reasons. I watched Earthlings for the first time, or rather I watched part of it. The abattoir sequence was too much for me as an engineer – the effort and ingenuity that must have gone in to creating a machine to manipulate a living sentient animal was really disturbing. All to make the process more efficient and make a few more dollars profit. Then there was an article on the BBC, looking into the brutal gang rape of a woman in India, and the attitudes of the perpetrators. This was in some ways more disturbing than anything  –  though I think people should read it, you have to admire Leslee Udwin who had the bravery to listen to those people, to expose and document the underlying issues. I was left speechless, I’m glad she wasn’t.

It seemed to me though that all of these things, though very different and some far more horrific than others, had something in common – the objectisation and devaluation of the victim by the social or cultural group around those perpetrating the act, and the rationalisation of individual actions on that basis. This is not inhuman – it is a very human trait. People can do almost anything if it is normalised by their peers. We find excuses for everything. I think we need to recognise that and deal with it – WE are those peers. It never starts out as these extreme examples, but the more we accept prejudice and the devaluing of others – even if it does make ourselves feel better – the more likely these attitudes form the foundations which develop into extremes?

From a vegan perspective, once we open our eyes it seems obvious that what we were led to believe was normal and necessary, was not. In most cases vegans have had to go through the process of accepting that we are wrong – since we have mostly been brought up as part of the animal-consuming society – accepting guilt for our time as non-vegans and doing something about it. I think it is important however not to stop there and keep our eyes open – being vegan is not the answer to everything, and having made that step once we should not close our minds to seeking out other opportunities to improve our interactions with the world, human and non-human. Its not easy – we natuarally fall back into habit and can’t think through every ramification of all our actions each day – even vegans mostly just go shopping like everyone else and pick the things they do every week without thinking. Its not difficult being vegan, its difficult questioning our own beliefs and assumptions then changing our habits where necessary – but perhaps we should all try that a bit more often rather than simply defending our current selves without thinking?

This trip has been a great adventure, but it is not in all ways a great example in this overcrowded world.

Our travels through Ethiopia made me wonder quite how many humans this planet can support – and not just in terms of how much food we can produce, but how many other species are forced into smaller and smaller spaces and then into extinction by our very existence.

Ethiopia - Live Sheep travel on the roof.
Ethiopia – Live Sheep travel on the roof.

Most Ethiopians consume very little compared to more ‘developed’ nations, but still we saw a country of visibly eroding landscapes where biodiversity was being ever reduced under pressure from the human population and their domesticated animals, amid a thriving international Aid industry.

Ethiopia - a beautiful country under pressure.
Ethiopia – a beautiful country under pressure.

We can give ourselves some time by moving to a vegan way of life, as well as becoming healthier and avoiding the unnecessary cruelty of animal production – which in themselves are reason enough. But in my own lifetime the human population of the planet has more than doubled – if we don’t do something serious about that soon, that time might not be enough. We all know the feeling of awe and beauty we get from the sight of a wild, natural landscape? We know it is good. Maybe we should start taking that particular natural instinct to heart and ask whether its acceptable to claim the majority of this land for ourselves at the expense of other earthlings? In Africa, there are estimated to be 30,000 lions left alive. In the same continent there are in excess of 1,100,000,000 humans. Since we have assumed the mantle of ‘top predator’, perhaps we should adjust our numbers and land claim to a more appropriate level for that position in the food chain?

One in 30,000
One in 30,000

Instead, we are on course to accelerate our uncontrolled growth – the UN’s population projections are really quite alarming, especially in some of the resource-limited regions. I’ll leave you to go check those details – Wikipedia is actually a fairly good starting point. But even here, we are inclined to look at it as a regional problem – we’re OK because we are developed countries and our population isn’t increasing so fast. We’re doing OK then and its not our problem? And anyway when we talk about resources and population, the definitions are all about how much food for humans the world can support – being vegan will solve that too…

Abu Dhabi - Sustainable Population Growth with Local Resources?
Abu Dhabi – Sustainable Population Growth with Local Resources?

But human population is not a geographically localised problem. Our actions back in Europe have direct consequences all over the world. Botswana has a very low population density – but vast areas of the country are given over to beef production for export, and they built huge fences to prevent the wildlife migrating (partly to meet European disease control standards). This not only cuts down the range of wild animals, but has led for example to large scale deaths of zebra when they couldn’t migrate from dry areas to areas with water. It IS free-range cattle, probably cheap for Europe – but at what cost to wildlife? But moving on into South Africa it was obvious that these current pressures on wildlife and biodiversity are just the latest in a long succession, and not by any means all are related to animal farming. We can be just as speciesist, albeit indirectly, while being vegan – when we buy fruits, vegetables and drink wine from Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) we are using the best land, long claimed for ourselves and fenced off to exclude other species. That has the same effect – reducing biodiversity and the capacity of wildlife to survive by migrating. Is it enough that vegans use less of this exclusive best land?

South Africa - This Land is Our Land
South Africa – This Land is Our Land

Even the game reserves and national parks often have the appearance of little more than a grand scale zoo for human entertainment – often fenced, nearly always featuring artificial waterholes to concentate the wildlife at suitable viewing spots. And then we create more problems – fencing the wildlife in, taking away their ability to migrate and concentatrating them in specific locations. The local environment can’t support this concentration and there are said, for example, to be too many elephants.

Floodlit Artificial Waterhole - Bringing the Wildlife to the Guests
Floodlit Artificial Waterhole – Bringing the Wildlife to the Guests

People lobby to have them culled to control the numbers. Is this always our solution? There are not too many elephants – there may be in certain areas that we have concentrated them in – but the real problem is too many people. And unlike elephants, the human population is a global problem – our global markets mean we have an impact wherever we are. Yes, being vegan reduces that impact considerably and we could sustainably feed everyone if we were vegan – but we continue to treat the entire planet as our personal food factory. For me, that is not acceptable. When will we start to do something about our own population rather than resorting to culling and ‘managing’ other species to treat the symptoms? We can be a very self-deluding species at times – always defending whatever it is we want or makes us feel better about ourselves with excuses in the guise of reason, rather than being open to self-criticism and change. That much is clear from our treatment of each other.

I do feel guilty about the amount of resources we have used in our Western lives and travels – especially in this last round trip to Europe to finish the trip to Cape Town. I have some making up to do. If we are to survive, we can’t go on with this number of humans using more and more resources. It is too easy to make a small step and then settle down into thinking we’ve done enough since we have done more than most. Its not enough. Go vegan, stay vegan – it is easy and takes nothing away from our enjoyment and quality of life – there is no sacrifice in doing that much, so no excuse not to. And don’t increase the population. Doing these things would be a start. But only a start.

I’m glad to have seen so much of this world, but despair at our apparent inability to control our own destruction of it. Isn’t it time we stopped looking at each other and finding excuses not to take responsibility for our own actions or inactions…all of them and not just our own pet issues?

“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess” Martin Luther King, May 5th 1966. The year England won the football World Cup. Now there are more than twice as many of us. Those 3 lions on an England shirt may soon be all the lions there are to watch outside a zoo.