A few nights ago I was at a bar with a friend, and over the course of the conversation I was able to explain something that was, until then, not completely coherent in my head. It must be the alcohol that suddenly made it clear.
In any case, I want to share it here as well. What I want to talk about is the concept of a progress trap, and how it relates to my decision to stop eating meat.
This concept is introduced by Ronald Wright in his great book “A Short History of Progress” and the Massey Lectures that followed it. The idea is simple: progress is made in small steps, each of which seems to be positive, but the overall effect becomes, at a certain point, negative.
A classical example of the progress trap is the development of weapons. From the rock and club we progressed to the knife, arrow and bow, then to guns, rifles, continued to machine guns, artillery, then to tanks, air-born missiles, bombs and eventually … the atomic bomb. Each step, when viewed in a narrow context, seems to be positive. It increases efficiency in some form – perhaps in the magnitude of killing, or the magnitude of the impact (e.g., the psychological effect of using, or threatening to use, the weapon), or it minimizes the risk to the user of the weapon.
However, with a rifle we can’t destroy humanity. With an atomic bomb, we can. A bigger out-of-the-box view of the progress that led to the creation of the atomic bomb shows a gloomy view of how we can (and perhaps we are) destroying ourselves. When exactly did the progress become “bad” instead of “good”? It is hard to tell, but that is the nature of a progress trap.
Another topic, more relevant to our discussion, is the nature of hunting. At first, the prehistoric man (I think the book refers to the neanderthal man, but I don’t remember for sure) wasn’t much of a hunter. Perhaps he used rocks, clubs, and even his bare hands, but that didn’t get him much. He was partly a gatherer, and partly a hunter. Then the bow and arrows were invented, and man was able to hunt bigger animals. More meat means easier, more relaxed lifestyle, meaning more children. More children means more mouths to feed, thus more hunting, but it also means more hunters. This leads to a period of expansion until man overgrows his environment (i.e. he hunts too many animals), thus starting a period of decline – those periods could last tens of thousands of years.
A major breakthrough in hunting occurred when man discovered that he can induce complete herds into a panic-stricken stampede and push them over a cliff. A pure form of easy, piece-of-cake mass killing that feeds the entire tribe for the whole season (perhaps for many seasons, I am not sure how they could preserve the meat).
Enter the progress trap. Archaeologists now know for certain that some periods of decline in the dominance of the neanderthal man precisely followed the period in which he was most prosperous – namely the periods in which he was the most efficient hunter. The push-over-cliff hunting method is highly efficient, but it does not scale, meaning that it is not sustainable in the long run. Scalability is the key here. Man exhausted the resources from nature too fast, and induced upon himself a period of decline. A similar pattern can be seen in the evolution of agriculture.
This is, as far as I understand it, the main theme of the progress trap when it is discussed in the context of our evolution: we improve in the way that we manage and consume resources, until the point that we consume too much, and more importantly, too fast.
Nature has a way to renew itself. Trees regrow, forests expand, animal procreate. However, the process takes time. Why did sheep herders, a thousand years ago, have to be nomads? Why didn’t they stay put at one place? Because their herds graze the land, and they run out of grass and other vegetation. So they move elsewhere, but their movement is cyclical – they can come back to the same place after a few years because the grass regrows. Today it is not that simple – in most places on earth we have a problem of overgrazing (for more info, read Tragedy of the commons, or just google it).
This is a prime example of Ronald’s point that we used to live off nature’s interest. As long as nature can renew itself faster than our rate of consumption, then we are living off its interest. As soon are we are consuming resources faster than nature can create them, then we are living off nature’s capital.
Virtually all of the meat that we consume today is not hunted – it is domesticated. We eat mostly farm raised livestock. Since the last century, we have made tremendous progress in the way we raise, butcher, handle, ship and consume meat (perhaps even a few centuries. I am not sure about the time frame here). Every element, and every aspect, along the production line, from the farms at one end, to your local grocery store at the other end, has been improved. The meat that you eat is better refrigerated today than it was a 100 years ago. The health, or lack there of, of the animals is better controlled.
(This is related to the major technological advancements in our society in general; it is not just about food)
Enter the progress trap, again. Ecological markers show that until the 60s we were consuming up to, or less than, a 100% of nature’s interest. In the 80s we were already consuming more than a 100% of nature’s interest – we were already chewing of nature’s capital. In the year 2000, our consumption rate was around 125% of nature’s interest. These numbers are of course an estimate, but they show a clear trend.
As time goes by, there are more people on the planet. The prediction for year 2050 is that there will be more than 8 billion people on the planet, and that we’ll consume approximately 150% of nature’s interest. Meat will be more expensive, and there will be less of it for everybody.
I believe that our current way of growing meat is not sustainable (by “ours” I basically mean society at large). We are facing a progress trap, and we already know it. The environmental impact of growing livestock is much greater than that of growing vegetables. Pound-for-pound, vegetables require less land and less water (I can’t find the reference for this. When I do, I’ll post it). Thus, I made a personal choice to not eat meat, in part because I don’t feel comfortable with the destructive effect associated with it.
This is a pretty gloomy situation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t claim to have a solution, and I don’t know of any other way that our lives can be. I am not preaching to anyone else to become a vegetarian. I just want to use this platform to raise awareness to the issue, and at the same time to sort my thoughts on the subject.