21 September 2009

You are now entering The Twilight Zone

Norway is an odd place. It is like an alternate reality spookily similar to our own, but with one major difference that only gets revealed to our heroes twenty minutes into the show, with disastrously jarring consequences.

Norway has the second highest GDP in the world, and according to the 2008 UNDP Human Development Index is the second most developed country in the world (after Iceland, so expect some changes there in the 2009 report)*, and the second best place to live if you are a woman, after Sweden. From 2001 to 2006 it ranked number 1 in both these categories, and given the strength of its economy should return to top position when the 2009 report is issued in October. The 2009 Global Peace Index ranks it as the 2nd most peaceful country in the world, after New Zealand. It has one of the world's largest oil and gas reserves, but rather than using the revenue generated from these to reduce tax levels it instead invests the money for future generations in what is called the Government Pension Fund. Last Monday a national election was held and the incumbent left-wing Red Green coalition government was reelected, the first time a government was reelected in Norway in 16 years, despite strong opposition from conservatives campaigning on an anti-immigration platform and a pledge to use money from the pension fund to reduce tax levels immediately. Voters rejected both the racist overtones of the opposition's campaign, and the short-sighted nature of their neoliberal economic plan.

So far Norway is sounding pretty much like paradise, and our adventuring heroes have been lulled into a false sense of security, having struck up valuable friendships with the locals in a short period of time, just strong enough to cause a sense of genuine anguish when the glaring difference between this world and ours is shockingly revealed:

(deep breath) They eat whales! (dun-dun-duuuuuuuun!!!)

Norwegians love whale meat. And Seal. And Reindeer. And just about anything else that has enough good sense to try and get away from them. On a trip around Svalbard by boat the lunch we were served was grilled whale meat**, and people were fighting each other for seconds. The supermarkets are stocked to the gills with it, though it is considered a treat rather than an everyday food. At the Tromso Polarium, a museum/aquarium attached to the Polar Institute, there are a series of educational exhibits showcasing efforts to conserve whales and other endangered species, so that future generations can enjoy them... as food.

And its not just whale, the Polarium has three captive bearded seals and as we arrived they were being trained to retrieve thrown objects. These seals are the mascots of the Polarium, and in its gift shop you can buy small cuddly plush seals for your kids, made with real seal fur. All that's missing is a cuddly plush club to go with it. And this was just in the Polarium, we didn't make it to the Museum of Hunting and Trapping down the road.

Longyearbyen on Spitzbergen was Norway to the Nth degree, still supporting as it does a small community of scattered hunters and trappers. A stuffed Polar Bear greats you on the baggage carousel in the arrivals hall of the small airport, a larger one stands over the doorway of the co-op supermarket, a slightly shabbier one stands in the lobby of the Radisson hotel. The wall of our breakfast room in our lodge had a fine specimen in rug form adorning it, and while the archipelago itself has more bears than people, I'm thinking the population of stuffed bears also gives the locals a run for their money.

The economy of the island, and indeed the country as a whole, was initially built on 19th century whaling, and unlike the maritime economies of the US and the UK there is no attempt to recognise the immoral nature of this foundation in its modern history. Norway's present is an unbroken continuation of its past, there is no shame over whaling, and when questioned it provokes a sense of genuine puzzlement, "Do Irish people feel shame over cows and pigs? Then why should we feel shame over whales and seals? Why are one group of animals acceptable to eat and not others?"

The more regular readers amongst you will know that I am a vegetarian, something even the slightly astute occasional reader will also have guessed by now, but I am not an evangelist. Vegetarianism is a personal choice for me, and I don't seek to impose it on anyone else. While those around me were munching down on their whale (for the record, it apparently tastes like gamey fish) I was asked why I was veggie. This question arises frequently, and oddly enough most people ask is it for religious reasons, as if doing it for God or gods is acceptable, but choosing not to eat meat on the basis of a purely rational decision is just bonkers.

I could have answered that I am vegetarian on the basis of a belief that all life is sacred and nothing should have to suffer so that I can live. I could have answered that it is unsustainable to eat meat at the levels of current western consumption, given the amount of land and water required to farm cattle, in addition to the climate damaging effects of gaseous emissions from domesticated ruminating animals. I could have argued that, as anyone who has read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" knows, the health practices associated with the meat industry are horrendous and the quality of the meat you ingest is suspect at best.

All these external reasons are valid, but none are the reason why I continue to reject meat. I am vegetarian to escape my programming.

I am the product of over 3.5 Billion years of evolution. My species emerged onto this world between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago, and 10,000 years ago figured out that by farming they could ensure a consistent supply of food, allowing civilisation to bloom and humanity, as we know it today, to arise. Our current western industrialised society has evolved to a point where one is not forced by environment to subsist on a specific diet, never before in the history of our species have so many options been available for nutrition. The privilege of the position I find myself in as a member of this species and society at this specific point in time cannot be overstated.

I am not Usain Bolt, I am not Stephen Hawking, but I am still the pinnacle of all of life's processes that have led to this one point in time where I, as a living being, have a choice about how I live, how I power myself on a daily basis, and what I do with that life. Although I can eat meat, by choosing not to I am celebrating this process of evolution and the privileged position that I find myself in. My physical programming still cries out for an omnivorous diet, the smell of rashers frying in a pan still sets my taste buds on fire, but the power of my mind is enough to overcome this desire. By not eating meat I prove that I am a creature of thought and will, and my mind is stronger than my baser instincts.

That is the triumph of evolution, and that is why I am a vegetarian, because I can be, because I can choose to be.

This was not the answer my whale-eating compatriots were expecting, and they shuffled off somewhat nervously as they mentally raised me from 'Elevated' to 'High' on their Crazy Scale.

Regardless of my Darwinian foibles, I reckon most folks outside of Norway and Japan would still do a doubletake at the sight of someone chomping down on a Minke burger, and that is the conundrum of Norway; that arguably the most evolved country in the world happily snacks on something also fairly evolved.

And that has left me somewhat disturbed by the whole trip.

For a counter argument on the whole meat-eating thing, check out posts from Tadhg and Tim. They both raise valid points, but aren't nearly strong enough to make me change my mind.

* Interestingly Ireland ranks 5th, ahead of the US in 15th and the UK in 21st place. I would also expect some changes there in the 2009 update.

** When we said we were vegetarian we were offered salmon. We finally managed to explain that fish was not a vegetable, and then they cooked us up a nice rice dish.

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At 11:30 am, Blogger Snag Breac said...

Thats an interesting arguement. Conversely though, we all have our specific diets because we *choose* to have them - at the moment I am eating roadkill, homebutchered chickens and have just started occasionally buying organic meat, also because they are the ethical choices I have made. Yes, we have developed these ways of feeding ourselves and keeping ourselves healthy, and can now afford to think about what we are eating and why we are eating it, but surely you have more reasons than to escape conditioning, unless I've misunderstood there. I also feel I am escaping my conditioning - to not think about what goes in my mouth - instead I think very carefully and make careful and considered decisions, each based on the merits of the particular food type, how it was produced etc. I feel the same, that we have a wide range of choices and can make informed decisions. For example one choice for me is trying to eat less soy products. But escaping our conditioning doesn't neccesarily mean a specific diet. It means choosing our own diet according to our own ethical/moral choices surely, and that can lead to different diets according to the different priorities of the eater.

In that way I would feel I am a whatever-you-call-it-ivore also because I choose to think about it.

That all said, I have to admit to first wondering what whale would taste like, and then thinking oh shit, WHALE?! But then that also reminds me of us digging up and burning the bogs in Ireland...whole other story there!

At 2:09 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Just read your own post on the subject and wanted to publish the link here (http://ansnagbreac.blogspot.com/2009/09/peat-meat-and-choices.html) Its pretty interesting to see so many divergent views on the subject.


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