Imagine, if you will, a teenage boy, a utopian dreamer, always thinking about how to “save the world”, wandering through a county fair. In amongst the usual merchants he spots a booth run by an organization called Technocracy. A book with the title “Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?” catches his eye and draws him in. Being shy, he grabs a few pieces of literature and wanders off. Upon reading these it seems to be the very utopian dreams he has had, and this organization claims to have the “blueprints”. He and his father quickly join the organization and become deeply involved in it.
The boy, of course, was me. After many years I gradually drifted away from the organisation. M. King Hubbert, a co-founder of the organization and author of the “study course” left the organization in the 1940s, reportedly due to dissatisfaction with the way the organization was run, not with the ideas. I would like to think that he and I would have been in agreement on a number of points.
However, my purpose here is not to critique the organization, but rather to focus in on one of the key points the Technocrats made, their idea of “energy accounting”. Essentially they proposed replacing the “price system” (our current money/debt based system) with one which used energy measurements. The Technocrats paired this idea with the “abundance” of available resources, which seems paradoxical, since the idea of measuring energy resources becomes much more relevant in an era where energy is scarce. But when Technocracy’s ideas were put together, the resources available seemed nearly limitless. It took another 40 years for us to get our first taste of energy scarcity (I have vague memories of my parents waiting in long lines to fill up the gas tank) This is the point where we needed to start looking carefully at where our energy is coming from and where it is going. Sadly, this never happened.
The more general lesson of Technocracy is that we need to look for opportunities to apply scientific methods to everything we do. The more we can quantify things with objective measurements (whether energy or otherwise) the less prone we will be to being misled by snake-oil salesmen or vacuous politicians. This also means that if evidence is shown that what we are doing is ineffective or causing harm, we need to re-evaluate what we are doing. Sadly the Technocracy movement never figured this out, and even more tragically, we, as a culture, have veered farther from this ideal than we were when the Technocracy movement first started.
Very early in my career as a programmer, someone gave me advice that I needed to aim for the “ninety percent solution”, in other words, don’t waste time trying to get the perfect 100% solution. Tom Cargill of Bell Labs provided a concise explanation: ”The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.” This is analogous to the problem of distilling ethanol, getting it 97% pure isn’t too hard to do, but going beyond that takes enormous amounts of energy, and normally isn’t worth it (that is based on fuzzy memories of college chemistry class, so forgive any technical inaccuracies).
Recently I have read a number of articles which remind me that veganism can fall prey to this 90% rule. There are a number of reasons why one may become vegan: health, environment, animal welfare and animal rights (I exclude the “imitating a celebrity” reasons that PETA works towards, as that’s never a good reason for doing anything). The problem is that all but one of those reasons can only get you to 90%.
When I first became vegan it was for health reasons. So when a friend of mine told me that “a little steak now and then won’t kill you,” I had no good answer to this. He was right. I could eat a steak right now, and the impact on my long term health would be negligible. In other words, there was little difference between being 100% or 90% vegan, when looking at the health arguments. See How the Health Argument Fails Veganism for more about this.
Being vegan for environmental reasons suffers the same problem, as the mis-titled article Veggieworld: Why eating greens won’t save the Planet shows. If your concern is the environment, being 90% vegan is a pretty clear win. But arguing for that last 10% can be very hard. So “a little steak now and then won’t kill the planet.”
As the recent decades have shown us, the animal welfare arguments also suffer from this problem. Someone who is vegan because of how animals are treated, when presented with the flesh of an animal who was free-range, fed organic feed, and was gently asphyxiated with a gold-lined silk scarf at the moment of orgasm, they would have a hard time refusing. Thus we see the parade of now-ex-vegans marching into Whole Foods to buy their “happy meat” with a clear conscience. Or so they think.
So, finally we arrive at the animal rights position. Gary Francione presents the clearest, most consistent and most concise presentation of this position: “We have no moral justification for using nonhumans for our purposes.” Here we have the 100% solution we’ve been looking for. This is where we all need to start when we tell people why we are vegan. And why they should be vegan. And why you should be vegan.