Becoming a Sumbiovore and a Sumbiotarian

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It’s time to include plants in the realm of sentient creatures. Sentience is defined as “… possession of sensory organs, the ability to feel or perceive, not necessarily including the faculty of self-awareness.” (Animal Liberation Front). A creature does not need a brain to be sentient. We now understand that plants have at least 20 different sensory capabilities, can learn, store information, use memory to react to stimuli and share resources via symbiotic fungal and root community networks. The hard-headed conclusion, based on this information, is that if it is wrong to eat sentient animals because they feel pain and suffer, it is wrong to eat plants because they too, as sentient living beings, can experience suffering in some form. We cannot judge animal suffering to be more ‘serious’ than plant suffering because that would be ‘sentientism’ or the unjustified elevation of animal sentience over plant sentience. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett put it, ‘cerebrocentric’ thinking is but one form of intelligence. Chlorocentric thinking and the ‘wood-wide-web’ is a plant-based form of the acquisition of knowledge and its use (intelligence).

Does this mean we  violate sentience even when we make vegetarian/vegan food consumption choices? The answer is yes. Do we then stop eating on the basis that all forms of food consumption are unethical? The answer is no.

The taking of life to give life is a universal feature of life. It is how  life is taken that is the key ethical issue now that sentience has been removed from the menu of primary ethical choice. Modern industrial forms of agriculture maximise an unethical relationship to those things we eat because they violate the very foundations of life. By polluting the local environment with excess nutrients, introducing toxins and carcinogens (cides) into the food chain, using genetically modified organisms that present an irreversible risk to human and ecosystem health, removing biodiversity and being fossil fuel dependent, industrial agriculture is a short-term food production system but a longer-term life-destroyer. The overcrowding of animals and the unnatural conditions within which they live is also a feature of industrial forms of agriculture. Keeping life confined in ways that violate natural instincts to move, fly, bathe, dust bath and be part of a community of beings is ethically repugnant. Killing animals after they are herded, transported long distances and placed in stress-maximising facilities (abattoirs) is also ethically unjustifiable.

Becoming a Sumbiovore*

(*from the Greek sumbiosis, from sumbioun, to live together, from sumbios, living together)

Humans have already created agricultural systems that respect all forms of life and maintain the fertility of places that produce food sustenance over the long term. Sumbioculture in the form of permaculture, organic and biodynamic farming, agro-ecological farming and other forms of genuinely sustainable animal and vegetable production are consistent with the health of whole, complex ecosystems. They are all viable alternatives to industrial agriculture. Sumbiotarians understand that health is a delicate balance of the parts (harmony). They know that at the local scale the symbiotic role of fungi, manure, compost and bioturbation all assist in maintaining ecosystem health. At the larger scale, bio-geo-chemical cycles such as those that determine the balance of nitrogen, carbon and water are what determine the health of The Earth. When the total system is healthy and human life is harmoniously integrated within it, then sumbioculture has a ghedeistual element to it.

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About glennaalbrecht

Farmosopher at The Wallaby Farm, NSW: Glenn Albrecht retired as professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia in June 2014. He is now an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney. He was at the University of Newcastle as Associate Professor of Environmental Studies until December 2008. He is an environmental philosopher with both theoretical and applied interests in the relationship between ecosystem and human health, broadly defined. He pioneered the research domain of 'psychoterratic' or earth related mental health and emotional conditions with his concept of 'solastalgia' or the lived experience of negative environmental change. Solastalgia has become accepted worldwide as a key concept in understanding the impact of environmental change in academic, creative arts, social impact assessment and legal contexts. Glenn Albrecht’s work is now being used extensively in course readings, new research theses and academic research in many disciplines including geography and environmental studies. His work is also being published in languages other than English. He has publications in the field of animal ethics and has published on the ethics of relocating endangered species in the face of climate change pressures and the ethics of the thoroughbred horse industry worldwide. With Professor Phillip McManus (Sydney University) he has completed a book which was published in 2012 by Routledge on the thoroughbred industry. He also published with Professor McManus on the newly emerging domain of ‘psychoterratic geographies’ (McManus and Albrecht 2013). With colleagues, Nick Higginbotham (University of Newcastle) and Linda Connor (Sydney University) under Australian Research Council Discovery Project grants, he has researched the impact of mining in the Upper Hunter Region of NSW, Australia and the impact of climate change on communities, again in the Hunter Region. He has researched the impact of gas fracking and coal mining on people and communities in the Gloucester region of NSW. Glenn has also been involved as a Chief Investigator in an ARC Discovery Grant Project on the social and ethical aspects of the thoroughbred horse industry worldwide and was a partner investigator on ARC Linkage Grant funded research on the ethics of feral buffalo control in Arnhem Land. He has held an NCCARF grant at Murdoch University to study the likely impact of climate change on water provision in two inland cities (Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie). Glenn Albrecht is also a pioneer of transdisciplinary thinking and, with Higginbotham and Connor, produced a major book on this topic, Health Social Science: A Transdisciplinary and Complexity Perspective with Oxford University Press in 2001. His current major transdisciplinary research interest, the positive and negative psychological, emotional and cultural relationships people have to place and its transformation is one that sees him having a national and international research profile in an emergent field of academic inquiry where he has been recognised as a global pioneer. International citations to his academic works are now increasing annually and reference to his concept of solastalgia in global art and culture is now too extensive to fully document. Glenn now works as an independent academic based in the Hunter Region of NSW. He continues to research and publish in his chosen fields. He is a current grant assessor for Commonwealth Ministry of Arts grant applications and an Honorary Associate in the School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney.
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40 Responses to Becoming a Sumbiovore and a Sumbiotarian

  1. Pingback: Why it's impossible to actually be a vegetarian - Macleans.ca

  2. cool work, makes a lot of sense – even your re-transliteration of the Greek

    Like

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  22. msaustin says:

    Congratulations on understanding the food chain. Have you ever grown food? It might be a good idea to meet some people who do it full-time, before re-discovering basic biology [rolls eyes]

    All the same, it’s nice to see someone connecting with the facts of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, I live on 5 acres and grow as much of our own food as possible. I also keep chickens and practice permaculture. When an academic, I was a professor of sustainability (I am a philosopher) and would take my students to real farms so that they could experience the way agriculture works … both intensive and organic. I am amazed that most people have no idea about basic biology but it does not surprise me that most people do not know about symbiotic fungal networks and plant physiology. Many of the discoveries are recent so they open the eyes of many who do not have access to such material.

      Like

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  27. Dogulas says:

    Please read a introductory book on neuroscience or even just general biology before writing blog posts like this which may confuse uninformed readers. Reacting to the environment =/= sentience. 100+ years of neuroscience research has confirmed over and over that conscious awareness ie. sentience is only possible with a functional central nervous system, meaning it’s impossible for a plant to being sentient. Botanists are discovering that plants can react to the environment and process information in much more complex ways than previously thought, but there is no brain in the plant making conscious choices. Conscious thought evolved as a way to plan movements in order to evade predators and search for food, both things that plants are incapable of doing.

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