Friday, January 19, 2024

Life and Times – Lifestyle choices: does it make a difference? (2024)

The Life and Times column from the January 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

We’re often told that we can help to change things or at least move in the right direction by each of us making changes in our personal lifestyle. We’re encouraged for example to make sure we know where our food is grown, how ‘sustainable’ its production and distribution methods are, and, if possible, to ‘buy local’. The idea is that our food buying choices will help to reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the battle against ecological deterioration and global warming. It’s also suggested that more radical lifestyle choices like vegetarianism or veganism can play a part in this by freeing up for direct food production land currently used for crops to feed the vast number of animals raised and slaughtered everywhere in the world.

This was the theme of a recent ‘opinion’ piece in one of the website bulletins from the Scientific American magazine which regularly arrive in my email inbox and usually contain items which are both interesting and thought-provoking. This particular piece, written by Sarah C. Hull, assistant professor of cardiology at the Yale School of Medicine, was entitled ‘A Meatless Diet is Better for You – and the Planet’ . Its summary states that ‘vegetarian and especially vegan diets can promote better health, help mitigate climate change and reduce inhumane factory farming’ and it puts forward various, seemingly plausible arguments against certain commonly held beliefs about diet, for example that plant-based food does not contain enough protein and iron for adequate nourishment and that dairy products are necessary to obtain enough dietary calcium. It then goes on to talk about health benefits of a non-meat or low-meat diet referring to scientific evidence that points to a significantly lower risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Further arguments are then presented regarding the inevitable cruelty to animals involved in factory farming, the risk of epidemics or pandemics associated with the overcrowding of livestock, and the often poor conditions of work for the human beings themselves involved in this activity. Finally the point is made that meat consumption contributes significantly to climate change through deforestation and methane emissions, with food systems making up a third of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity (, and animal-based foods contributing twice the emissions of plant-based foods ( Personal dietary carbon emissions, it concludes, can be reduced by 30 percent with a vegetarian diet and by up to 85 per cent with a vegan one.

So do we all go vegetarian or vegan? It sounds a good idea to me personally, but thinking about it carefully, I can’t avoid the question of how much difference it would really make within the confines of the buying and selling system we all live in. Professor Hull clearly thinks it would make a difference. She talks about the need for people to adopt at least a ‘flexitarian approach to meal planning that de-centers meat as the focal point of meals’ and to consider that ‘even modest reductions in meat consumption and progress toward a more plant-forward diet can yield significant health and environmental benefits.’ She also quotes from the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission report on ‘globally sustainable diets’ which states: ‘Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth’.

Yet while such choices might indeed lead to different methods and types of food production, reduce the mass slaughter of living creatures and also have some impact on climate change, how much difference would they actually make to the day-to-day problems faced by many millions of people throughout the world? I’m thinking here about such problems as poverty, homelessness or precarious housing, and, above all, the need for the vast majority of us to sell our energies to an employer for a wage day in day out or find ourselves without the means to live decently. What I’m saying is whatever the method of production or the goods produced, so long as production takes place with a view to goods being sold on the market and maximising profit and people needing money to buy those things, we will still have the system we call capitalism and all the problems and contradictions it throws up. The major contradiction is that the means do actually exist to sustain all the world’s people at a decent level several times over in food and other essentials and this without polluting the environment or changing the climate. And this is the case whether we are meat eaters or go vegan. Yet, under the capitalist system of production for profit and buying and selling, those who do not have money to buy will go hungry, many more will lead insecure and highly stressed existences, human health will not be safeguarded, and the ecosystem will continue to be in imminent danger of collapse.

To be fair, Professor Hull’s apparent solution to this is not just lifestyle changes by individuals but also – and more importantly in her view – what she calls ‘large-scale, well-coordinated national and international action’ and ‘pressure on governments and organisations to enact meaningful change in this direction’. Nevertheless, however much change we are able to implement either in our personal lives or by forms of collective pressure, it stands to reason that, as long as we continue to do this within the constraints of the profit system that is capitalism, any progress will be necessarily limited. It’s a little like clamouring for freedom on the basis of slavery. So while we can’t deny that, as she says, ‘societies change when enough individuals within them alter their behaviour’, it’s not the kind of behavioural change she is referring to that’s needed, but rather change in political behaviour, or put a different way, in consciousness.

So while there’s no doubt that magazines like Scientific American can teach us a lot about how things work in the world, they are sadly no more advanced than most of those who read them when it comes to seeing beyond the social and political system in which we exist. Isn’t it time therefore for workers throughout the world to switch on to the consciousness needed to do that and to vote collectively to change that system and move to a moneyless, marketless society of free access and voluntary cooperation – which we call socialism? In that society people will put their natural human capacity for cooperation and collaboration to work and use the resources of the earth to make sure that everyone – whether they choose to be vegan, vegetarian or otherwise – has enough healthy food to eat and to secure a decent life for all.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: The Acali Raft Experiment (2024)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Have you heard the one about the sex raft? If not, it’s a story to cheer the New Year for socialists. It’s also a tale that’s so bonkers that it really needs some context.

After the horrors of World War 2, the dispiriting conviction grew among dinner party navel-gazers that civilisation was only a skin-deep veneer under which lurked Hannah Arendt’s famous ‘banality of evil’. A fad arose for novels about innate evil, notably Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, and especially Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. This deeply nasty tale about marooned children regressing to murderous savagery immediately became (and still is) a standard UK school study text. It’s well written, but so are a lot of books, and the fact that it continues to be shoved down children’s throats in the name of education suggests that it is a useful element in ruling class ideology. Humans are feral beasts, it tells us. Rule by force is all we deserve and can ever expect.

Nor was this dark perspective confined to the gentle arts. In an age when ethics committees were not yet a thing, people also tried to demonstrate the inner beast in practice. Thus the world was treated to notorious and pseudo-scientific atrocities like the 1961 Milgram torture and 1971 Stanford Prison experiments, whose supposedly damning but actually rigged conclusions are still the stuff of received wisdom even though they’ve been pretty comprehensively debunked (see, eg,

Enter at this point the Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés, who in 1973 concluded, from reading studies of monkeys, that ‘most conflicts are about sexual access to ovulating females’ ( Instead of writing a boring and forgettable academic paper, he decided with the élan of the truly deranged to try out his theory in practice. And he knew just how to do it, having previously crewed on Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Ra expeditions. He had the 12×7-metre raft ‘Acali’ built for sailing across the Atlantic with a crew of young and attractive men and women, in the expectation that 100 days of confinement and irrepressible sexual desire would drive them into promiscuity and, very likely, explosions of jealous violence. Genovés would go along as a disinterested observer in order to document the fun.

Nowadays this is reality TV material, but he saw it as serious scientific research, and was highly displeased when the media dubbed his endeavour the ‘sex raft’. Nothing about it was random. He wanted a global microcosm, and carefully selected volunteers from diverse countries, ethnicities and religions. He offered free adventure, and in return made them sign away all right to refuse any instruction from him. To wear on their nerves, he designed the raft to offer them no privacy, even when defecating, wrongly supposing that this would crush their inhibitions leading to rampant sex in the open. He had them sail straight into hurricane season without an engine, having chosen volunteers with no useful shipboard skills. The exceptions were the Swedish captain, the French diver, and the Israeli medic, all of them women, and chosen because he believed this would stir a festering pot of male resentment.

But when the conflict failed to materialise, he began to try to engineer it. He banned book reading to increase the boredom, and when this didn’t work, publicly read out confidential questionnaire answers they had given about each other. When the diver proposed to go under the raft to repair the rudder, he insisted on going himself despite having no diving suit or experience, almost drowning in the attempt. His male resentment duly festered when the diver took it upon herself to make the repair secretly at night. When Maria, the captain, wanted to pull into port to avoid a hurricane, he took command himself, imperilling them all. Later, when they were about to be hit by a large freighter, he panicked but Maria kept her head and saved the situation. The crew then mutinied, putting Maria back in charge, and he withdrew in a sulk while she steered the rest of the way.

He succeeded in creating conflict on his epic ‘Peace Project’ voyage. But it was all directed at him. His manipulative, often abusive and sometimes dangerous behaviour got so bad that at one point the crew, fearing for their lives, contemplated murdering him and dropping his body over the side, to explain away later as an unfortunate accident at sea.

Aside from this, the crew got on with each other extremely well, and cooperated smoothly and without fuss, even when facing serious danger. So strong were the bonds they formed in adversity that forty years later, when a documentary team came calling, the surviving crew members proved to be still close friends, if somewhat traumatised by what Genovés had put them through. ‘He was a master of manipulation, a control freak and a dictator’, said the director of the 2018 documentary The Raft. Despite his megalomania, Genovés simply couldn’t make his volunteers behave the way he wanted them to, even when he’d rigged the entire experiment to achieve just that.

The Acali Raft Experiment failed in spectacular and comedic fashion to prove what many people still hold to be an ugly but inevitable truth, that humans resort to primal savagery when under pressure, and that therefore they cannot sustain a cooperative, caring and egalitarian society of the sort socialists describe. It stands as a companion-piece to the equally obscure but true story of the ‘Real Lord of the Flies‘. This was a bunch of children who in 1965 were marooned on a desert island for 15 months, during which time they ‘made a pact never to quarrel’, cared for each other, even successfully healing a broken limb, and cooperated until they were rescued. They too remained friends for life afterwards. These are the life-affirming stories that schoolchildren really deserve to hear about, not mean-minded and made-up tales designed to make them hate themselves.
Paddy Shannon

Blogger's Note:
See also,  'But Flies Are Not Human' (August 1993 Socialist Standard)  and 'After shipwreck' (WSPUS website 2020)