How can we eat whatever we want?
There’s a saying that triggers me a lot these days. It goes like this: “Everyone can choose for themselves whatever they want to eat”.
It triggers me because in my opinion it’s just completely false.
It triggers me even more because so many people use it all the time to justify not taking responsibility for actions that have a negative impact on others.
But, I will try to stay calm as I take you through the reasoning on why I see it this way. Moreover, I will try not to be grudgeful, I will actually come up with solutions so we can eat more of what we want to eat.
And at the same time, this whole thing will teach us something about freedom, philosophy, economics and ecosystems.
The Carnivore and the Vegan
As a vegan, I recently had a heated argument with a carnivore (someone who only eats animal products).
We knew the debate was going to go hard, but in order to avoid a bloody cock-fight we commenced the conversation by sharing our values. We wanted to see where we had common ground so we could build up from there. The funny thing is that we found out that our values are extremely similar. We both want:
- Equality: providing equal opportunities to all human beings.
- Sustainability: We want this planet and our society to thrive for as long as possible.
- Health: We want all to be healthy: physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Our values are very alike, but when it comes to applying those values we have very different approaches. Hence carnivore vs vegan.
Having differences is fine, yet, what I don’t like is when people cannot see inconsistencies in their way of thinking and their actions.
I believe that choosing an animal based diet is inconsistent in translating the above values into actions for the simple reason that with current agricultural methods and output (and even with ecosystem farming methods (2)), it’s impossible for everyone on this planet to have an animal based diet (1). Meaning: Not everyone can be equal.
The carnivore is giving up equality, and sustainability for the (presumed) sake of maximising health.
Yes, one might argue that animal based diets are more optimal because animal products are more nutrient-dense, and those nutrients are easier to take up by the human body. However, the difference really isn’t that large(3). Moreover, there are so many extra variables that also have an influence on nutrient-uptake and health.
And even then, even if an animal based diet would be more optimal than a plant based or omnivore one: Is it really worth it to risk the wellbeing of our planet’s ecosystems in pursuit of those extra percentages in health? Is it really worth it to risk our future just because we want to be able to eat as much animal products as we can?
Or should we act a little bit more responsible?
Honestly, I’d really wish that everyone could have the freedom to do and eat whatever you want. But…my friends, the numbers are the numbers (ref 1 & 2)…it’s just not possible.
The truth is that only the lucky few are able to have an all animal based diet.
The solution is of course very simple: Change our food production systems to be in sync with this planet’s ecosystems, and identify the boundaries of those ecosystems in order to know how much we can eat without destroying those ecosystems.
And this, my friends, sparks a new and interesting question: If there are limits to whatever we can do and eat…what is freedom then?
The 2 types of freedom
A lot of political & philosophical work has already been written on “Freedom”. I definitely need to mention John Stuart Mill and his harm principle, yet the one I want to use here is Isaiah Berlin with his 2 concepts of freedom (4). In essence Isaiah Berlin describes freedom as being divided into negative and positive freedom:
(1) Negative freedom = Freedom from interference. Example: Nobody can forbid you from going into the forest and harvest some berries, or nobody can forbid you from burning down the forest.
(2) Positive freedom = freedom to be able to do something. For example: The freedom to be able to go into the forest and harvest some berries.
We can already understand the interaction between positive and negative freedom when we look at the case where somebody took the negative freedom to burn down the forest. This inevitably leads to the loss of the freedom to be able to go and harvest some berries in the forest.
Negative freedom has the potential to destroy options open to us, hence it can destroy freedom.
On the other hand, positive freedom can only be maximised when we actually give up some of our freedom. In this example we can maximise the freedom to pick a lot of berries when we give up the freedom to burn down the forest (we actually do because it’s illegal to burn down forests).
But let’s repeat that: Negative freedom can destroy freedom, positive freedom can only be maximised when we give up some of our freedom.
Sounds weird, but this just makes the whole idea of freedom even more beautiful, don’t you think?
Throughout history, human society has experimented in many ways with trying to maximise negative and positive freedom. And still today our challenge is to find a healthy balance between not taking away too much negative freedom, while collaborating to maximise and grow our positive freedom.
There’s still no blueprint or system by which we can measure how much freedom we can take to, for example, eat what we want.
Or is there? I promised you I’d come up with solutions. So here I go!
A healthy doughnut
When Kate Raworth created “doughnut economics” (5), she also made a magnificent visual representation of the dance between positive and negative freedom.
- Inner boundary of the doughnut (aka social foundation) = the positive freedom of basic social needs: Education, health care, energy, housing,…
- Outer boundary of the doughnut (aka ecological ceiling) = positive freedom provided by the planet’s ecosystems: oxygen, stable climate, biodiversity, atmosphere, water,…
- The doughnut itself (aka the safe and just space for humanity) = The negative freedom to do whatever we want.
The doughnut system is not the only system out there, but it’s definitely one of my favourites. It allows us to communicate and collaborate with 8 billion people around the globe about everyone’s positive and negative freedom.
And what’s even better: We can actually expand the frontiers of the doughnut. We have the ability to fulfil more basic needs and create more ecosystems, allowing ourselves more negative and positive freedom. As there are multiple options to do this on multiple levels, here are some examples of what we can do:
- Cultural: Upgrade our ethical standards and have more respect for ourselves, our fellow humans and nature. We could also get rid of self destructive habits like smoking, fast food and addictive social media. Another good way of expanding would be to have more self knowledge and live with more integrity.
- Political: We definitely need more efficient political structures, local and global. We also need to increase global accountability, and a political framework for restrictions on the exploitation of natural resources (ecological ceiling), and the distribution of those very resources to the whole world in an equitable and just way.
- Economical: Guided by a healthy political framework, we need an economic system where we are rewarded for maintaining and even creating ecosystems, where we are held accountable for its destruction, and where ecosystem services are not only recognised but also valued. Technological innovations can definitely help here: Lab-meat, gmo’s to grow forests in the desert, vertical ecosystem farms, vertical forests (Bosco Verticale), creating sea-farms that increase biodiversity in the oceans, and even creating ecosystems in space and on other planets.
This list of possibilities is not complete AT ALL. But the bottom line is: We can create so much more freedom if we put our minds together and make it happen!
Let’s do this!
After writing this piece I feel so much better. I will be much calmer when someone says: “I think everyone should be able to eat whatever they want”, using “freedom” as an excuse to not take responsibility for directly destroying the freedom of so many other people.
I still might get angry, but now I will just be able to point them towards this article.
Because I believe that it’s super important that everyone starts realizing how freedom works. How negative freedom can destroy freedom overall, and how collaboration and giving up some freedom, can actually create more freedom.
If more people truly understand this, we will be able to create a local and a global society with a blueprint like doughnut economics.
Because in the end, this is all essential to be able to provide as much freedom as possible to everyone in this planetary civilization.
Author: Zjef Van Acker
Editors: Simon Ghiotto and Amy Reygaert
- Land use for agriculture: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2013) — “Land Use”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. — Link
- Amazing presentation by Prof Imke De Boer on optimal land use for circular farming, — Prof Imke de Boer presentation at WUR about circular farming — Link
- Difference in uptake between animal based proteins and plant based proteins: Berrazaga, Insaf et al. “The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review.” Nutrients vol. 11,8 1825. 7 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11081825 — Link
- Isaiah Berlin’s Positive and negative freedom: Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) — Link
- Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth — Link
ps: You want to be part of the solution? Listen to some podcast conversation with people that are already part of the solution:
#101 — Simon Ghiotto about Belgian politics (Dutch)
#102 — Radu M. Giurgiu about high tech ecosystem farming (EN)
#103 — Ayşegül Sırakaya about international law around restoration and use of natural resources (EN)
#106 — Grace Crain about Space farming (EN)
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I ask therefore I am (IATIA) investigates the philosophies that are at the foundations of our civilisation, starting there IATIA builds solutions to complex problems.