Poor Cows

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 November, 2018
Editorial: 252
Fecha de publicación original: 30 enero, 2001

Men err, donkeys bray

The crises unleashed by Mad Cow Disease and the depleted uranium used by NATO in Kosovo have a number of elements in common, almost all related to key aspects of the Information Society. First and foremost, apart from the way that European governments –and the US in part– have dealt with both affairs, they have created an enormous breach of confidence. It is a wound that is going to take years to mend. As far as Mad Cow Disease is concerned one can almost understand the reaction of doctors who claim that “known” fatalities recorded so far, 85 in Great Britain over the last ten years, hardly constitute an epidemic. But that’s as far as figures go. The real epidemic is the one we all have on our minds. Our confidence in what we are eating has been shattered. And this pathological disorder is much more serious than any other public health statistic.

Consumers have lost confidence in their politicians, whose plotting and scheming over more than a decade is just coming to light at present. They now view the very institutions supposedly created to protect them from such excesses as the use of animal feed of animal origin, with suspicion. Despite daily proof of such behaviour, consumers are still shocked and surprised when they discover that the European Union decided 10 years ago in a confidential official document to blame the press for (exaggerating) Mad Cow Disease and deny all knowledge of the problem. And obviously, it confuses consumers that they are now planning to rescue a sector, which applied insane industrial logic to one of the most basic elements in most people’s diet, with pantagruelic aid programmes. It is European Union doctrine that “those who pollute, pay”. And it is not very clear why they are now suspending this dictum and substituting it with “those who are poisoned, pay”.

Today’s soldiers must be suffering from similar feelings of anxiety, no matter how much armies professionalise. Wars, or rather the so-called peace-keeping activities of industrialised armies, have developed into a strange juggling act to cover up the number of victims on both sides. On the one hand, one poisons the enemy’s environment with high precision bombs to cause collateral damage. In plain language: one saturates the battle zone with artillery that supposedly kills only the baddies, but whose explosive charges leave a trail of long-lasting contamination. If it’s radioactive, all the better. And if it disguises other even more dangerous ingredients, better still. Then you get friendly troops to invade. And, if they are really good friends, you warn them to cover their mouths and breathe as little as possible.

The barbarities of Kosovo, and Iraq before it, have already been perpetrated. But which handsome general or NATO secretary (remember Javier Solana, the socialist?) will order invasion in the next war, oops sorry, peace-keeping mission? It seems to me that the next war episode is bound to turn into a drama of great proportions in the barracks, long before key decision are made. As is only natural, soldiers will ask to see the prospectus of each and every bomb and to study its specifications under the microscope, getting their lawyers to read the small print and demanding that their superiors sign a document saying, “this bomb might damage your health unless the following precautions are taken….”. And then they will demand that they are taken.

Nevertheless, in both crises, Mad Cow Disease and depleted uranium, only the rich victims have so far been heard. We are still only concerned about those who eat well and soldiers in wealthy armies. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. When, 10 years ago, the EU decided in the Veterinary Commission that no-one should be alarmed by this strange disease that affected cows, England exported 40% of its production to North Africa. In fact, as the FAO admitted last week, the Mad Cow crisis could still take on universal proportions because contaminated meat has been exported worldwide without warning or care for more than a decade.

For the fact is, that the majority of importing countries were not only unaware of the disease but had no means of detecting or defining the incidence of this contamination among their population. In fact, up until very recently European countries were unable to do so either. No-one knows, or will know for years to come, what has happened and is happening in African countries and other latitudes who regarded the “Made in England” stamp as a guarantee of quality and security. Just as no-one knows, or will know for years to come, what is happening to the population in Kosovo as a result of depleted uranium use. So far, the only valid reference has been from studies conducted by United Nations agencies and other independent bodies in Iraq. And the results are catastrophic, although, as usual, industrialised societies prefer to look the other way. “That’s a long way away and, anyway, what do they want so many babies for?” .

For the moment all we can do is take a look at what is happening to us, because now we are victims too. Mad cows and depleted uranium are just the first of a long line of horror stories which are bound to unravel over the years to come as a result of foolish industrial policies applied to food production and NATO’s “precision” bombings. And one of the ingredients of these horror stories is our defenselessness against present political structures.

This crisis has proved that, despite what many people say, a lot of information is still not enough. Especially when this information is cloistered in expert committees, secret political meetings and a press that doesn’t show its teeth until the cake is on the table and the bodies in the morgue. It’s going to be a long time before that so-called state of excess information so many claim we have already reached, gets to the point of info-saturation. As far as they are concerned, thousands of millions of web pages are almost a threat to democracy. Above all to the corporations and professions that have so far been regarded as the pillars of the present political system.

However, this is exactly the point, the very essence of the problem. If the Information Society has really got some radical role to play it lies in reformulating policies for the processes of information and communication generation and in the possibility of opening up new spaces where citizens’ organisations of all types, with all kinds of different interests, can weave a new social fabric, networks relevant to their own particular interests. The mad cow and depleted uranium crises have brought the urgency of this social agenda to the fore. Both demonstrate that the absence of articulated arteries of information with political agendas independent of the established powers, mean that our efforts lead only to a dead end. And, on the other hand, that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to “make policies”, even “military policies”, without taking into account the possibility of opening up new channels for political intervention via networked communication.

Little do the cows, mad as they are poor things, know how much they have contributed to consolidating certain aspects of the Information Society.

Translation: Bridget King