Sunday, 5 May 2019

The Ethics of Animal Products: Does Peace Begin On Your Plate?

In April Jane Smith of Compassion in World Farming spoke to us.

Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) was founded in the 1960s by a dairy farmer, Peter Roberts, who was horrified by modern intensive factory farming. Peter Roberts wanted to end all factory farming but agro-business is global with lots of international trade eg half of all pigs in factory farms are in China. CIWF members include meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans.

What is a farm? How big? Do they just provide food or other products too? Many farmers think their job is not what it used to be. Compare a high welfare farm which considers the health of the herd, good aeration of plants and uses no antibiotics with, for example, an intensive rabbit farm with all the rabbits in cages. 

Actually there are no intensive rabbit farms in the UK. Planning permission for one in Staffordshire was refused on grounds of transport not on animal welfare considerations. In the UK it is illegal to farm for pelts and most rabbit meat is used for pet food rather than human consumption.

Sheep are usually kept outside except in the worst weather as they are difficult to factory farm. However, new breeds of sheep, without wool, are being developed which can be kept indoors all the year round.

Most free range hens do not run around the farm yard, but are kept crowded in large sheds with openings to the outside. There is no guarantee that all the hens will find the outside space. There is often a dual system with battery eggs being produce by the same company. Pullets from the UK are being sent to foreign lands.

Two thirds of all farm animals live on factory farms and factory farming is increasing at six times the rate of traditional farming. Forty percent of the worlds grain harvest is used for livestock feed.

Pulitzer Prize winning author and environmentalist Gary Snyder said that Each creature is a spirit with an intelligence as brilliant as our own.  Professor Christine Nicol of the Department of Clinical Veterinary Science at Bristol University says that Every animal we intend to eat or use is a complex individual. It is harder to think of factory farmed animals as individuals. 

Jane and her colleagues engage in farm patrols in Cheshire helping animals which have got into difficulties and are not receiving help from their owners.

Can change happen? The answer is yes. Successes so far in this country include:
1990 Banning of veal crates.
1997 Animals legally recognised as sentient beings for the first time in history.
1999 Sow stalls banned in the UK.
2012 Barren battery cages banned in the EU (but replaced by enriched battery cages).
2017 Permission refused for what would have been UK’s first rabbit farm (already mentioned).

Problems to be addressed include:
Entire animal lives still spent in cages.
The problem of male calves and chickens.
The global nature of the agro –industry.
Devastating environmental effects of Factory farming worldwide.
Live exports (however these have been reduced).
Brexit – need to keep an eye on legislation and US trade.

CIWF has a big Day of Action each year. In 2018 this was in Manchester.

They provided a demonstrated at the European Parliament when live animal exports were being considered. Even though they used relatively mild footage, some MEPs couldn’t watch it so voted to end the practice. However live exports continue between countries with lower standards than the EU.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

In March Greg Colburn spoke about Effective Altruism (EA) which is about doing the most good possible. The movement began in 2017 and uses a scientific approach with a heavy research element. Intuition is not always the most effective indicator.

Greg showed a chart indicating the number of years of healthy life (measured using DALYs) you can save by donating $1,000 to a particular intervention to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. The chart shows figures for four different strategies. The cost effectiveness in ascending order was: antiretrovirals, preventing transmission in pregnancy, condom distribution, and education for high risk groups. A fifth option, surgical treatment for Kaposi’s Sarcoma, can’t even be seen on this scale, because it has such a small impact relative to other interventions. And the best strategy, educating high-risk groups, is estimated to be 1,400 times better than that.

To take part in an EA study one must first choose a focus area and determine: How Important, How Tractable (soluble) and How Neglected Is this area. This is known as the ITN framework.

Global Health and Development is a tractable problem involving millions of preventable child deaths. See Animal suffering is neglected – tens of billions farm animals are raised each year, not always in the best of conditions. Risks to humanity Greg considers important are: Nuclear war, Artificial Intelligence and Pandemics.

Other areas to be considered include: policy reforms, mental health and happiness; tobacco; prevention of traffic accidents, particularly in the third world; US criminal justice reform; international migration and trade policies; wild animal suffering; and global priorities research.

To be involved in Effective Altruism you can work directly for a cause; choose a career with secondary EA benefits; influence funding of suitable schemes; affect opinion; or give money directly, either by a donation or a regular commitment from income (Earn to Give). Greg considers 10% of annual income not unreasonable but accepts that people in below average salaries should pay much less.

Greg’s own EA path began by giving what he could then started reading EA blogs. He quit his research job to start a business on climate change and studying to be able to do direct work on the EA staff. He donated the profits from his business and began a new project, an EA Hotel in Blackpool.

EA companies include Open Source Ecology which is developing industrial machines that can be made for a fraction of commercial costs, and sharing their designs online for free.  ALLFED is working on planning, preparedness and research into practical food solutions so that in the event of a global catastrophe we can respond quickly and save lives and reduce the risk to civilization.

Greg used his own money to set up the EA Hotel in Blackpool which now provides a low cost hub for EA start-ups and study. People can stay for free if they commit to working on EA full time. It is limited to the UK but  is inspired by the Chelsea Hotel in New York which housed writers and artists paying in kind. 

One project supported by the Hotel is RAISE, Road to Artificial Intelligence Safety.

Greg also talked about Media coverage, the risks involved in the project and the next steps in the enterprise. 

Sunday, 3 March 2019

A Rational Christianity?

In February the Reverend Phil Edwards talked to the Stockport Group about "A Rational Christianity?" beginning by saying that it is important to understand one another. 

He is confident of evolution and that creationism is ill conceived. Plenty of biologists hold religious beliefs and have no difficulty reconciling science and belief in God. He himself has a background in Physics and has joined a Science and Religious forum which holds annual conferences. He had a gap year in which he studied the relationship of science and theology.

His talk was in three sections: what religious belief is about; what science is and rationality; and conflicts between religion and science.

Many Christian sects focus on Jesus and the New Testament.  The theologian Mark Higton of Durham University says religion is about making sense of things. Theology has developed over centuries and he sees this as a strength.  Unquestioning faith leads to fanaticism. Christians get their theology from scripture, tradition and reason. Later theology takes culture into account. The Bible is a difficult book and can be dangerous. It can be read as a fundamentalist view of the world on the one hand or a great work of literature on the other. There is a middle view that, by a coming together of divine view and that of writers, it is possible to tease out what God is saying.

Biblical criticism provides important insights into Jesus Christ. The truth does not depend on the accuracy of the stories but on the validity (whatever that means). There is lots of symbolism in the Bible. E.g. In St John’s gospel water is turned into wine, in the old testament there is the Tower of Babel. There are numerous other examples.

Science explains things but there are many forms of rationality and different kinds of knowledge. People like Richard Dawkins reject supernaturalism.  Descartes made a distinction between mind and body but that brought another set of problems. You can apprehend God in all things and there is Imminence in all aspects of creation. People have huge difficulties with miracles. David Hume defined them as a violation of the laws of Nature which needs to have law-like regularity.

Some things like the weather can be unpredictable and at the subatomic level we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Can god tweak the world at that level?  If he needed to tweak the system he wasn’t a very good Creator. God’s purposes are redeemed through the processes that science discovers such as evolution, therefore there is no dualism.

Perhaps God acts as an information exchange – an influence in terms of complex systems. He rejects  interventions such as answering prayers. The Natural world is created by God with potential for evolving  - bringing about  the natural processes of the universe.  Even though someone prays for healing they usually still go to the doctor.

During the Q and A session which followed the Rev Phil Edwards admitted to being somewhat agnostic and to sharing many humanist ideas.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Capital Punishment

At our January meeting Anne Walker of Amnesty International presented a workshop on Capital Punishment exploring the use of the death penalty around the world and looking at the arguments for and against its use, especially in relation to real people who have been sentenced to death.

Anne based her workshop/talk on the 2017 Amnesty International Report on Capital Punishment. She began by providing a quiz to ascertain what people knew or thought they knew about capital punishment around the world. Questions included: How many executions in 2017, how many people were on death row, which countries executed the most people, what crimes are punishable by death worldwide and when did the UK formally abolish the death penalty for all crimes?

There were at least 993 executions in 23 countries in 2017, down by 4% from 2016 and 39% from 2015 which had had the highest number since 1989.

Most executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan – in that order.

China remained the world’s top executioner – but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret. The global figure of at least 993 excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.

Excluding China, 84% of all reported executions took place in just four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

During 2017, 23 countries are known to have carried out executions – the same as 2016. But there were five countries that resumed executions in 2017 and another five which carried out executions in 2016 did not record any in 2017.

Executions noticeably fell in Belarus, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Executions doubled or almost doubled in Palestine (State of), Singapore and Somalia.

In 2017, two countries abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes so that at the end of 2017, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Amnesty International recorded commutations or pardons of death sentences in 21 countries and 55 exonerations of prisoners under sentence of death were recorded in six countries.

At least 2,591 death sentences were recorded in 53 countries in 2017, a significant decrease from the record-high of 3,117 recorded in 2016. At least 21,919 people were known to be on death row at the end of 2017.

Methods of execution used across the world in 2017 were beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting. Public executions were carried out in Iran (at least 31).

At least five people were executed in Iran who were under 18 at the time of the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In many countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards. This included the extraction of “confessions” through torture or other ill-treatment, including in Bahrain, China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The report goes on to give a regional analysis.

As well as the Quiz Anne divided us into two groups and invited one group to provide arguments for the death penalty and the other to provide arguments against.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Environmental Legacy of Conflict

In November Laurence Menhinick, of The Conflict and Environment Observatory, gave a talk on The Environmental Legacy of Conflicts - an overview of the past 100 years.

CEOBS- the Conflict and Environment Observatory was founded in 2018 and builds on the work of the Toxic Remnants of War Project. Its aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the environmental and derived humanitarian consequences of conflicts and military activities. Laurence has worked with the Toxic Remnants of War team and is now one of CEOBS trustees.

The War Damage Act of 1965 is an Act of United Kingdom Parliament which exempts the Crown from liability in respect of damage to, or destruction of, property caused by acts lawfully done by the Crown during, or in contemplation of the outbreak of, a war in which it is engaged. It abolishes the rights at common law to compensation for certain damage to, or destruction of, property.
There are many types of war including: invasion; civil war; and external engagement, such as the French in Mali. It is often difficult to establish responsibility for clear-up and remediation.

Laurence gave a long list of conflicts which have taken place over the last hundred years, but said that there are many we never hear about. The direct results are Toxic Remnants of War due to military weapons contamination, damage and loss of access. Indirectly there is often loss of governance; lack of property; trafficking, theft and dumping; and minimal health monitoring.

World War 1 left much ground contamination, a devastated landscape and piles of shells, exploded and unexploded. Shells were made of heavy metals lead, copper and bronze, fuses of copper and zinc.

Ammunition contained noxious chemicals. Other sources of contamination are: leaky unexploded ordnance, open-pit burning of waste, poor storage of chemical weapons and corpses.

The Post War clean up involved filling in the trenches, removing barbed wire, and rebuilding/repairing 293,000 dwellings.

To deal with soil contamination, areas were divided into zones, designated Red, Yellow and Blue. Red Zones were considered impossible to clean and were just fenced off. Most are still there as evidenced by a map shown to us by Laurence. In other areas there was de-mining; disposal and burial of the dead; clearing up of dead animals and a clean-up of chemical weapons. Clean-up was poor until the mid-1970s. Today 30 tons of explosives and ammunition remnants are recovered each year.

The Yellow and Blue zones are now mostly cleaned up and a limited range of activities is allowed in them e.g. woodland management, remembrance tourism, ghost villages and military activity. A Hundred Years on there is no end in sight for a total clean up.

Chemical Weapons were banned by the 1925 Geneva protocol, but many are still produced “in case the other side has them”. Many of these weapons were disposed of at sea (maybe up to 1.6 million tons). There is a possibility of leakage and a chance of them being caught by trawlers.

1972 brought The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and The London Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution. In spite of these Conventions the Americans were able to use Agent Orange, a mass defoliant, and Napalm as both were said to have other primary uses. An estimated 73 million litres of chemical agents were deployed. 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange and 3,100,000 hectares of forest were defoliated, not to mention the water contamination and the effect on wildlife. 

Nuclear fallout and depleted Uranium (used in weapons and armour) affect large parts of the world not just Japan and Iraq.

Industrial contamination when factories are bombed, as in Syria, is characterised by release of toxins from pharmaceuticals, textiles and plastics.

Oil contamination is also widespread in the world. Some examples are the 1989 NATO bombing of Novi Sad, when refineries were targeted resulting in contamination by 73,000 tons of crude oil products. The Oil Well fires in Kuwait in 2007 left a black deposit a foot deep on the desert.

There are many indirect consequences. Loss of governance in The Yemen and the Civil War there pose a risk to the Red Sea Ecology. Floating Storage and Offloading terminals (FSOs) are a disaster waiting to happen. Large refugee camps e.g. in Jordan, make demands on water supplies, firewood etc. and produce pollution because of lack of suitable infrastructure. In many countries where war has resulted in lack of governance there is illegal exploitation of natural resources. Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo results in DNA damage in children.

CEOBS, the Conflict and Environment Observatory, wants the United Nations Environment Program to be broadened beyond the post-conflict environment and to take the principles of International Law into wartime. They aim to gather data for better monitoring, push for recognition of the needs of civilians, and push for remediation action. 

For further information go to 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Living in Styal (Prison)

At Stockport in September Eddie Tarry, Community Engagement Manager at HMP and YOI Styal talked to us about the history of Styal Prison, the daily life in the prison and the activities delivered to benefit women on release.  He called his talk Living in Styal “Building Hope, Changing Lives”.

Eddie spent five years in the Royal Navy before joining the prison service and was also a football referee for 25 years.

The prison has 16 houses each now holding 16-20 women (formerly 36) set in 32 acres of land of which 2/3 is grass. About 70 women, some of whom have never had a job, work on the grounds. 

The place was originally built in 1890 as an orphanage which was closed in 1956 to be used for holding Hungarian refugees.

The first female prison opened in 1962 with prisoners being transferred from the then women’s wing at Strangeways. In 1985 a Young Offenders Unit was added and in 1999 a new remand wing was added because of the closure of HMP Risley remand centre. The remand wing is called the Waite Wing named after Terry Waite who used to live in Styal Village. It was designed to hold 180 but this has now been reduced to 140. The wing is painted in bright colours.

In 2013 Styal became a Complex Prison costing £16 million per year to run of which £8.2 million is spent on health care. Healthcare is provided by Spectrum Community Health CIC. In 2014 it became a resettlement prison, in line with all female prisons in the country, where prisoners are held for the last three months of their sentence as near to their homes as possible. In 2015 an Open House Unit was added for 25 prisoners in Open Prison conditions.

He went on to discuss a profile of the offenders. 46% have suffered domestic violence and 53% have suffered emotional physical or sexual abuse as a child compared with 27% of male prisoners. 23% self-harm compared with 5% in the total population, and 48% will be reconvicted within a year of being discharged.

On arrival from the courts prisoners are processed in the reception area. They receive an initial induction, a medical assessment, and risk assessments including cell-sharing risk assessment, following the death of a male Asian sharing a cell with a violent racist.

Attempts are made to reduce reoffending. The main focus is on addressing the offending behaviour. Programmes available include Thinking Skills Programme, Drugs and Alcohol Recovery Service, and Victim Awareness. Restorative Justice done on a voluntary basis can work.

Education is also important and concentrates on functional skills. Foreign nationals with little or no English, such as Colombian Drugs mules, are offered English as a Second Language courses.

Vocational courses include: hairdressing, beauty therapy, Industrial cleaning, IT, Horticulture and Radio presenting. Pay for work in the prison is about £9 per week.

Work in the community includes the Clink Restaurant which employs 14 women per session and the chance to get an NVQ level 3. Recycling Lives is a recycling charity that takes women on strict criteria and supports them on release. Silk ties made in the prison are sold in John Lewis. Fruit and vegetables grown in polytunnels are sold to staff and prisoners. Styal prison has had an entry in the RHS Tatton Flower Show for six years and has received 5 silver medals and one silver gilt.

Eddie showed a DVD of the work done by Recycling Lives but unfortunately the sound did not work very well.

Sunday, 2 September 2018


Julia Marwood of Manchester Stoics described how she became interested in Stoicism during her times as a student including going to Stoic Week. She downloaded a handbook of exercises and then joined Manchester Stoics. She recommended the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, which describes principles that can help with anxiety.

She gave a short history of Stoicism, comparing the Greek and Roman philosophers. In ancient times Greek stoicism was aimed at developing morals, while in Roman culture it was about gaining tranquility.  Zeno of Citium (333BCE) from Cyprus was considered the founder of the Stoic school of Philosophy which taught that Reason was the greatest good in life. He taught in Athens from about 300BCE. Other Stoics included: Musonius Rufus, Roman Stoic philosopher in the 1st Century BCE; Epictetus, born a slave, but ended up as a Stoic philosopher in Greece; Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor known for his philosophical interests especially Stoicism.

In more modern times Rene Descartes’ ethical philosophy was influenced by stoicism - his ethics gives a central place to the notion of appropriate action in a sense reminiscent of the Stoics’ kathekon (appropriate behavior). Within this category are included a human being’s duties to God and to other human beings, and actions whose aptness stems from their promotion of the survival and health of the body. 

Victor E. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and a holocaust survivor, had a philosophy based on Stoic Principles. He said; Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist who in 1955 developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which led to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He said: The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. 

Modern Stoicism is the home of Stoic Week, Stoicism today and Stoicon (conference). Donald Robertson was one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism and Stoic Week, and is the author of: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010); Build Your Resilience (2012); Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).

Massimo Pigliucci, scientist and philosopher wrote How to be a Stoic.

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is a translation of selections from several stoic philosophers including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Zeno and others. It aims to provide lessons about personal growth, life management and practicing mindfulness

Stoic techniques for a happier life include:

The dichotomy of control (DOC) - the assertion that some things are ‘up to us’ (within your power), and others are ‘not up to us’ (not within your power).

 Negative Visualisation- appreciating what you have by imagining being without it.