Wednesday, 22 February 2012

War, what is it good for?

In this episode of the blog I wish to look into whether there are justifiable uses of force and to explore this issue by analysing the environmental implications of war, the psychological impact on the people involved on all sides, and looking into whether there are circumstances when we can ethically support violence.

Wars are the embodiment of all possible destructive forces that humans can channel, and modern warfare has taken us to new levels of devastation. There are few species on the planet that kill its own kind, and none that do so in such a systematic manner as we humans are doing currently. Perhaps the systematic manner that our waring species executes its killing is what creates such wide spread and ongoing repercussions.

There have been wars raging across the face of the planet continuously for a long time, and as time moves forward the destructive power of the human race increases exponentially. Yet, against what we may instinctively feel, there are less people involved and directly affected by war than ever before. That we are in a more peaceful time for much of the world’s population is an inspiration to continue this trend and include more and more people, animals and nature. (Source: Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

A great deal of violence and murder are happening in the world right now, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Syria is undergoing a very difficult transition from dictatorship to something new. People are being killed by snipers (people with long range guns) from the roof tops as they protest against their unelected overlords. This is a situation so far from normal, for many of us, that imagining the thoughts and feelings of either side is difficult.

Despite the difficulty maybe we can take this empathy even further, to uncover our capacity to see in ourselves the dark and destructive parts of our nature. Can we actually empathise with both sides, can we recognise that feeling of standing up for what’s right despite the risks, and, albeit uncomfortable, can we see the sniper within ourselves. Is it possible that being someone willing to kill another is not as far away from who we actually are as we might like to think?


During the summer of 2011 a significant percentage of reported news concerned what was happening in Libya. I recall many journalists calling for action to support the rebels who were being violently suppressed by Gaddafi, his supporters and army. I remember when backing for the no-fly zone was declared by the United Nations there was also an out-cry against the campaign. I was perplexed, it seemed clear that something needed to do be done to stop the killing of prodemocracy demonstrators, and yet was there an intervention that would actually achieve this. With hindsight I am still uncertain, a lot of violence was used by both sides, a great many people are now dead or severely injured, and the suffering and stress for all the community will continue. They are free from their dictatorship, but what is to come?

Noam Chomsky has pointed out time and again that the situation in the Middle East and Africa is not some accidental and unfortunate unpredictable outcome of events separate from Europe and America, but that the dictatorships there are not only supported but often propped up by them as a means to acquire oil. In the light of this hope of real change is dimmed.


The psychological implications for people who live through war are severe; depression and trauma are commonplace. Veterans of modern warfare are highly stressed, and have trouble reintegrating into the society they left behind. In war a soldier has to be convinced that the killing of another person is the correct thing to do, this complicated and involved decision has to be simplified and clarified, to allow for the execution of this complex act instantaneously without question. How hard it must be to live with knowing what one has done, and how difficult it must be to adapt to a life of allowing other’s differences.
The impact on women and children is higher than one may imagine, 80% of casualties of conflict and war are women. (80% of the world’s 40 million refugees are also women.) They are raped, abused and humiliated as a means to destroy communities will to fight. An astounding figure of 300,000 children are soldiers and more female children are used to ‘service’ the troops. (Source:

Typically during times of war concern for the environment, and the laws that protect it, are far weaker than in times of peace. For this reason pollutants from weapon factories are more frequently entering eco-systems and damage to nature is greater, as seen by deforestation and water pollution.

War strategies are frequently destructive towards the natural environment, water sources, for example, are often destroyed or contaminated. In Iraq, retreating Iraqis set fire to Kuwaiti oil supplies releasing half a ton of air pollutants. In 2006 Israel bombed a power station in south of Beirut and 20,000 tons of oil leaked into the mediterranean sea. Marine life was devastated by the slick, and when it caught fire it caused wide-spread air pollution.
Two of the most dramatic impacts on the environment came from nuclear weapons and land mines. The impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions were immense; radioactive debris joined air pollutants to infect the air, and land and water sources within 7 miles of the explosion were contaminated. Many plants and animals, as well as humans, were killed by the blasts or died as a result later, just under half a million humans alone lost their lives. Multiple fires lit by the explosion burned into wildfires as the heat of the blasts had evaporated all water that could have put them out. (Source:

Land-mines are so hard to remove that it is estimated to cost 30 times as much to remove them as to put them in. This leads to maiming and killing of humans and animals long after a war is over; 80% of human victims are civilian and a quarter are children.

The US military uses depleted uranium and napalm in its nuclear chemical weaponry, no doubt causing cancers among its enemies, and their own troops who are exposed to them, and destruction of the environment. (Source:

Disproportionate spending on war, means that less money is used within a country for its citizenry’s health, education and wellbeing, or for the fairer distribution of wealth and welfare to other counties.


Returning to the issue of what is happening in Syria, is it possible to explore the situation there with the impacts of using force in mind to see if it is justifiable or if any alternative is possible. Earlier this month (4 Feb 2012) a UN proposal to condemn the violence of Bashar Assad’s regime and call for him to resign were blocked by Russia and China. Perhaps this demand would have made little difference, but with the death toll rising above 7,000 it seems totally indefensible to block it. Rather than focusing on arming the opposition to Assad, (For, arguably, it was in arming Afghanis against a Soviet threat that led to the formation of the Taliban.) it may be wiser to look at convincing his supporters in China and Russia to turn away from the tyrant. Russia has much to gain if Assad remains in power, but if what appears evident comes to pass; that Assad will go out of power with a great deal of loss of life, then they will have much to lose when a new order is in control. (Such as their naval base in Tartus and arms exports.)

That Syrians have not backed down in their pro-democracy demonstrations despite all the terror that is imposed on them, suggests that Assad cannot continue. They are now unstoppable. We surely must support them in a way that is neither aggressive nor passive. Turkey is willing, if there is western support for it, to create a safe haven for the opposition in North-Western Syria. This could allow the factious opposition to organise themselves. Assad would only be attacked if he were to attack it. The great hope being that this free partition of the country could allow for a more peaceable transition of power. (Source: The Economist - 11 Feb 2012)

When asked if non-violent resistance can be effective the Dalai Lama has clearly pointed out that violent resistance is ineffective, non-violence creates rather than destroys; it gives rather than takes away. In the light of interconnectivity it is against you as much as against another. (Source: Dalai Lama - The way of NonViolence - YouTube)
It is slow and its change is at times imperceptible, but we can know that change, and if we attune ourselves to it we can be that change.

May all beings be free.

Feel free to add comments, corrections or your feeling below.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

What you put into your mouth is as important as what comes out of it.

In this blog I want to touch upon the topic of food, which is a massive topic. Looking briefly at the chemical make-up of a modern diet, then looking more in-depth at the use of animals in our daily meals. As an early warning I should say this post is probably something I have quite fixed views about and will not be a very balanced account, please use the comments to keep us honest.

There is a saying “You are what you eat” and for many of us that would mean we are now all kinds of strange and creative inventions of modern times. Inverted syrups, inert stabilisers, dough conditioners, and a plethora of numbers and codes for things so plentiful they don’t even warrant the effort to be named, are added to our foods to make them look good and taste fine for longer. The mysteriousness and unnatural origination of these additives have moved many of us towards natural wholefoods, and we would often claim that they taste better too. But do they? I will leave that subjective question hanging, although fascinating to me at least, it has no corollary relation to the strangeness of chemical additives.
What happens to such things intended to preserve, improve or enhance our food when they get into our soft organic bodies? Do they improve and enhance us?
Unsurprisingly the quick answer to the second question is no. Although all the additives put into our food have been passed by food standards agencies as acceptable in the quantities that they appear, they have a magnified effect over time. The logical repercussion of adding small amounts of chemicals regularly is that, depending on the time it takes for them to pass through, they add up to a larger dose. Many additives have been proven unsafe in large quantities, aspartame (the sweetener) produces formaldehyde, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) (popular preservative) cause stomach and liver tumors, and pesticides can cause cancer.
How do we know this? We served it to animals at high doses, lucky animals.
Adding colour to food that has gone colourless may be good for that “first bite is with the eyes” moment, but if it lacks colour it also lacks the nutritiousness that the colour indicates. (Source


The other day at a cafe someone from the next table ordered a mushroom burger, the waiter asked if they wanted veg-mushroom or chicken-mushroom, they replied “Chicken is also good.” That phrase “chicken is also good” has somehow stuck in my mind. Here in India the situation for that chicken to be good is inconceivable in every way I can think of. Passing through the market place one sees stacks of cages so crammed with chickens that their white feathers are pushing through the wire netting. When someone buys some chicken meat a live chicken is pulled from the cage by its feet and its head is chopped off in sight of its siblings. As I have mentioned before I am equal parts shocked and thankful to India for not hiding away the realities of our daily life, for to see the ending of an innocent animals life I am certain that I will not partake in eating them.

Looking at the environmental impact of livestock (keeping animals for food production) is actually astoundingly shocking. It comes down to a very simple dictum; meat is unsustainable. This is nowhere near as catchy as Morrissey’s offering; Meat is Murder.
Livestock production is a major cause of a long list of environmental problems including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. It is responsible for 18% of green house gas emissions and 37% of anthropogenic methane, both of which are helping to change the climate of the planet.
Over one quarter of the earth’s land is used for grazing, and one third of all arable (farmed) land is used for feeding livestock. 70% of previously forested amazon is now used for grazing. 
Keeping animals at the scale we do pushes wild animals into ever shrinking spaces of the planet. The wide-reaching presence of human’s and their animals makes it the single largest source of water pollutants. These come from animal waste, medicines, (hormones and antibiotics), chemicals from tanneries, and pesticides and fertilisers from feed crops entering the water systems.

It is important to note that eating meat is only one way of supporting this devastation, drinking milk is perhaps equal to it.


This summer in the UK (2011) there was a proposed cull on badgers, 1,000s of badgers were planned to be shot by marksmen in the fields where they live and roam. The reason for this was that badgers are carriers of the bovine affecting tuberculosis (TB), if a cow contracts TB then their milk will not be sellable and they will often be killed. This is a terrible (financial) loss to dairy farmers and some farmers therefore preferred to have the badgers killed as a preventative.
The planned badger cull was dropped as it did not have one supportive reason to take place; more badgers are killed on the roads than would be impacted by this labour intensive cull; the likelihood of killing an infected badger was poor; plus if a sett of healthy badgers were wiped out then a TB infected family might move into the area.
But by the time the decision to abandon this had taken place I had decided to become vegan.
Although I see the cull is back being planned. (Source
The assassination of these magnificent creatures was the final straw. I would like to mention some of the other straws.
When I lived on a Kibbutz my partner and I built a mud house on the outskirts of the community, we had a beautiful view of the Jordanian mountains and the sounds of the dairy. Mostly this was the clanking of metal and machinery moving around, for a dairy is an industry more that a pastoral event. But the hardest sound of all was that of a young calf and its mother calling to each other. The calf would already have been moved to its small stall (1m x 2m) where if it was male it would live until slaughter. The mother was again producing milk so was among the productive cows. They could not see each other but they could hear each other and called for hours and hours, it was so painful, it hurts to remember it.
Cows in particular are giving large amounts of chemicals to allow their bodies to produce insane quantities of milk, some of this remains in the milk (fear-monger moment), but to me it simply feels wrong to force this on another creature of the earth.
A further consideration is in the foreshortening of the life span of a dairy cow, from a life expectancy of 20 years it is shortened to only 4. (Source Turn away now if you want to avoid the really ugly bit where the self-righteous vegan makes a cheap shot: We are the only species that drinks the baby food of another animal, and without wishing to cause insult to cows, it’s food to help the development of a large-bodied low-intelligent and somewhat docile creature. If that’s your ambition in life, so be it. It’s OK you can open your eyes again now.

Is an animal free diet healthy?
That is of course a natural concern, and some terribly unhealthy looking vegans come quickly to come to mind, yet many people live happy healthy lives without consuming animal derived products. Is protein actually that hard to find? The simple answer is no, there is enough protein in a normal balanced diet that consists of natural food. As in food that grew in a field not a factory. Good sources of protein are whole grains, nuts and seeds, soya beans, and the food with the highest percentage of protein is not meat or dairy but a blue-green algae called Spirulina. Calcium and Iron are also freely available through tofu, whole-grain bread, seeds and pulses.
With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs. (Source:


A balanced healthy diet is possible without a feeling of giving up anything. 
Nature quite clearly makes food that is indigestible look indigestible, I feel we shouldn’t be trying to fool each other. Surely a diet without synthetic or chemical additives will be easier to digest and will be guaranteed to be fresh.
I feel it’s ethically and environmentally unsupportable to use animals as part of our diets. If you feel otherwise please add your view in the comments. Personally, I feel a lot healthier on a vegan diet, although I have been following it only since the summer of 2011 I feel my energy is clearer and more accessible. I have also been vegetarian for well over a decade and feel that this is a good diet for me, I feel (and look) fit and healthy with a lot of vitality. Feel free to add your views below.