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Spinoza for a #PlantPoweredCommunity

Datum:23 maart 2018
Auteur:Andrea Sangiacomo (Groningen)
Composite by Lukas Wolf
Composite by Lukas Wolf

Habits are a key component of our daily life. Our habits are all those actions that we perform so often and so regularly that we do them almost automatically and without thinking. Now, no habit was a habit in the beginning. But because habits are so interiorized and deeply rooted within us, we tend to forget about and be ruled by them. We establish habits and we need habits in order to make easier the activities and practices that we think are conducive to living better with less effort. Anyone who practices a sport, plays an instrument or leans a new skill is familiar with this. Habits are indeed a wondrous component of human psychology.

However, habits are not necessarily sustainable. A sustainable habit is one which can be maintained for a long period of time without producing side effects that will make the habit itself dangerous or counterproductive for the agent who performs it, or for the society in which the agent lives. It is not always easy to recognize whether a habit is sustainable or not. This is because (1) the side effects of a habit may not directly affect the agent who performs it; (2) the agent may resist the acknowledgement that her habit is the cause of certain side effects. We are usually too attached to our habits to assess them with an impartial eye.

Moving from non-sustainable habits to sustainable habits is a key factor in significantly improving our life and the socio-ecological environment in which we live. This transition takes two steps: (a) knowledge (at either the collective or individual level) of the reasons a certain habit is not sustainable; (b) action directed at establishing a more sustainable habit.

Now… you might wonder: sure, but what does Spinoza have to do with transitioning towards sustainable habits? Short answer: Spinoza’s moral philosophy is mainly concerned with step (b), i.e. how individuals can be determined to reorient their interactions and habits in such a way to make them consistent with what is (known to be) best for them. Spinoza suggests an interesting strategy to achieve this transition: focusing on how to get more individuals to enjoy the more sustainable habit(s) together. This social and relational dimension (the doing it together) is the key to Spinoza’s approach.

According to Spinoza, asking individuals to improve themselves on their own, or blaming them if they fail, is not going to produce any improvement. Usually, individuals are determined to embrace certain habits (especially unsustainable ones) because certain external causes (aka social conditions and conditionings) determine them and contribute to constantly strengthening those habits. Nonetheless, individuals are stronger and more rational when they cooperate. Being rational is usually understood as a rather individualistic faculty or capacity that each individual enjoys in her own private mind. I’ve become convinced that Spinoza ended up with a very different account of what it means to be rational. Rationality has to do with being able to act on the basis of those common features (Spinoza calls them ‘common properties’) of reality that capture the fundamental structure and regularities of the (physical and/or social) world we live in. Individual minds are able to know these features when they experience them by acting and interacting among each other – by cooperating. By cooperating, individuals become more capable of assessing their habits rationality, of detecting whether they are unsustainable and ultimately of resisting the power of those external causes that support unsustainable habits.

If you’re interested in knowing why Spinoza thinks so, stay tuned. I’ve a book manuscript in which I deal extensively with this issue. The book will hopefully come out at some point in the future. Here, however, I’d like to do something different, I’d like to show how a Spinozistic approach may be used to help remedy one of the least-sustainable habits we have, and this concerns... food!

Most of the world follows an omnivorous diet. Yet, animal-based foods consumption in particular is growing worldwide, with a consequent increase in meat-and-dairy production.[*]

Now, there’s a number of reasons which show that meat-and-dairy based diets are not sustainable. Here are some of the main ones:

  • meat-and-dairy consumption is positively correlated with a number of health issues;[**]
  • meat-and-dairy based diets tend to be significantly less resource-efficient and to produce significantly more waste;[***]
  • the meat-and-dairy industry alone accounts for around 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to the whole transportation sector taken together), and has a direct, devastating effect on the environment, by directly causing deforestation, ocean acidification and depletion, species extinction and desertification;[+]
  • the meat-and-dairy industry operate with procedures that any cat or dog owner would find simply outrageous and inhuman if implemented on their pets instead of cows, pigs and chickens.[++]

Meat-and-dairy-based diets are also habits. Following a diet based on animal foods is the habit of getting most of one’s nutrients from animal products on a daily basis, around three times per day, every day. What makes animal-foods consumption non-sustainable is not the barbecue you had last summer. The problem is the daily and regular habitudinal consumption of meat-and-dairy on a long term basis.

Now, from a rational point of view, the solution is pretty clear. Most people are omnivores, which means that they don’t eat meat and dairy exclusively. The problem is the proportion between meat-and-dairy and plant-based food. For an omnivore, switching to a predominantly plant-based diet would mean getting most of one’s daily nutrients from plants rather than from meat and dairy. Is this possible? Of course it is: consuming predominantly plant-based diets is not only healthy, but in most (West and East) countries this was the norm prior to the mid-twentieth century, and it is still the norm in some parts of the world.[#]

Now consider the two habits – meat-and-dairy-based vs. plant-based diets – face to face. From a purely rational point of view there are very good reasons to switch to a plant-based diet. However, the contrary is happening and meat-and-dairy consumption and production are increasing rather than decreasing around the world. Why?

Here, Spinoza can help. To move towards a sustainable habit, some knowledge is required. Obviously, replacing all your meat, eggs and dairy with lettuce alone won’t do the work and may even be counterproductive. As with any habit, establishing a new habit or changing an old habit requires some effort and some study. We’ve forgotten that even becoming meat-and-dairy eaters in the first place required that effort and study, when we were kids and were learning how to eat and what to eat (yes, we had to learn that, like any other animal!). However, the point is that knowledge alone obviously won’t be sufficient to create an actual change.

Acting rationally (‘under the guidance of reason’, Spinoza would say) is matter of sharing practices and cooperating with others. If lowering meat-and-dairy consumption and production can be recognized as a rational choice, then the problem is to make this choice a common and shared one that individuals can make together (rather than individually). Spinoza’s suggestion here would be the following: in order to make individuals act more rationally, you should first let them act together on the basis of a common intention, goal or plan. In the case of food, there is a straightforward way of doing this. Sharing food and meals is one of the oldest and most convivial activities in human society. Human society grew up, indeed, around food – and in order to make the obtaining and sharing of food easier and possibly more enjoyable. Every day, people still enjoy their food with others, both in private and public contexts.

When people share food, they form a community insofar as they are sharing and cooperating in the same activity. Whether this community is large or small doesn’t matter too much: the point is that individuals are stronger when they share and agree on common values and goals.

Now, sharing a plant-based meal has clearly beneficial consequences, in terms of sustainability. It’s also relatively easy to arrange. Most omnivores are already familiar with plant-based food and they enjoyed it in the past (haven’t you ever eaten a vegetable soup? A bowl of rice or quinoa with legumes and seasonal greens? Never tried tofu, tempeh or seitan stir fry or stew? Never used almond or rice milk with oatmeal for breakfast? – If you haven’t you’re missing some very delicious and nutritious foods...). By having a plant-based meal, nobody is really depriving herself of something or throwing herself into the ‘unknown’. Plant-based foods are easily available in most restaurants, supermarkets, canteens and home kitchens. In fact, I bet that anybody reading this post has at least a few friends with whom she has enjoyed a plant-based meal in the last week.

By going for a plant-based meal together, we can better see, and demonstrate, that we do have the power and resources to progressively adopt more rational and sustainable habits. Moreover, by doing that together with others, we’re arguably going to produce a snowball effect that will impact and involve more people. 

How to take action? It’s easy. Let’s start a #PlantPoweredCommunity campaign. If you subscribe to it, then the next time (today, tomorrow, this week) you’re in charge of anything that concerns food (taking people out for a meal, organizing an event, designing the menu at your institution or facility etc.) then you do two things:

  • ensure that the food offered is entirely plant-based;
  • ensure that you inform people of why the food is entirely plant-based and encourage them to do the same on the next occasion.

This will create a community of people who share a commitment to lower meat-and-dairy production and consumption – a community that is not based on deprivation of things we like, but on embracing other things that we like as well, which we can share together while being faithful to our own values and interests. 

Personally, I have been adopting this policy (without flagging it so explicitly) in all the academic events I’ve been organizing since the first Collegium Spinozanum (our Groningen Spinoza summer school) in 2015. In my experience, nobody ever complained, and the food side of these events remained delicious and convivial, while also healthier, more sustainable, and more just. And I found that it actually takes a very little effort to do this. It often just requires ticking the plant-based menu among the options you order. Everyone can do that. But if everyone would actually do that consistently over time, many of our biggest problems today would be on the path towards a solution.

If you find this idea reasonable, join the #PlantPoweredCommunity. After all, we’re more rational together.

  

 

Notes

[*] Statistics on meat consumption and production are available here: https://ourworldindata.org/meat-and-seafood-production-consumption 

[**] The main diseases positively correlated with high meat-and-dairy consumption are:

  1. Cardiovascular disease – see e.g.:
    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4597475/
    2. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2016/10/25/dairy-fat-cardiovascular-disease-risk/
  2. Obesity – see e.g.:
    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2697260/
    2. https://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news86602.html
  3. Diabetes – see e.g.:
    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942738/
    2. https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2012/01/a-diabetes-link-to-meat
  4. Alzheimer’s and dementia – see e.g.:
    1. http://www.americancollegeofnutrition.org/content/western-diet-increases-alzheimers-risk
    2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160825102121.htm
  5. Cancer – see e.g.:
    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4144110/
    2. http://www.medicaldaily.com/who-confirms-eating-meat-causes-cancer-how-did-once-healthy-food-become-so-deadly-358944

 For a free documentary that summarizes some of these findings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl8zNztsoGg

[***] A good synthesis of the main reasons why high levels of meat-and-dairy production are unsustainable on a large scale is provided here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00139157.2015.1025644.

[+] For data and studies on the environmental impact of the meat-and-dairy industry (including fish) see:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_impact_of_meat_production
  2. http://science.time.com/2013/12/16/the-triple-whopper-environmental-impact-of-global-meat-production/
  3. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-18002-1_1#enumeration

 For a documentary summarizing some of these results, see Cowspiracy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgbGGwwUk6c

[+++] Yes, animals suffer when they are slaughtered, and there is no way of ‘efficiently’ raising billions of animals per year while also treating each of them ‘humanely’ (e.g. as you would treat your own pet). On this point, see Melanie Joy’s TEDx Talk on Carnism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=o0VrZPBskpg

[#] See for instance T. Campbell’s China Study (2005) – for a summary see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_China_Study

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