Eating Earth

Some things are hidden in plain sight. That doesn’t make them any the less insidious. One such hidden truth is that the earth is of a finite size. Another is that, consequently, its resources are limited. Our species is easily led, as are most herd animals. Standing out can be embarrassing. Painful even. This is the recipe, along with a generous dash of greed, that has put us on the brink of worldwide catastrophe. We live in an unsustainable system, and some of the largest culprits are our appetites. As a fan of horror movies, I can honestly say Cowspiracy is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary, not genre fiction. Scientists had generally already thrown up their hands because we’ve passed the tipping point for global warming, and then we elected ourselves the stunning leadership of Donald Trump.

No one can predict exactly what form the collapse will take, but we’ve set the key factors in place. We’ve been warned for years. Cowspiracy demonstrates something we don’t want to admit—the agricultural lobby is extremely powerful and the least sustainable aspect of life on this planet is animal husbandry. In early civilization, where technology did not exist to support large-scale farming, meat was not a staple of the human diet. Families that could afford animals gained more value from their beasts alive than on the plate. And they had only a few. As mechanization increased in the last century, we made livestock valuable commodities. When I was a kid word on the street was you were even poorer than we were if you couldn’t eat meat every day. Humans were the absolute, if blind, masters of their own domain. Now agriculture is the single largest force of degradation of the environment on the planet. And nobody wants to listen.

Cowspiracy is not an easy movie to watch, even for a vegetarian of many years’ standing. So why watch it? Because our reliance on animal-based food is destroying our planet. Not slowly either. If this is true, why haven’t we heard of it? Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn spend an hour-and-a-half exploring that in this important film. While it can’t be fully summarized here, in a word it can be said: money. There’s huge money to be made in a business rightly called animal husbandry. Wedded to profits at the expense of the very soil that gives us life, we eat our way to the grave. And we do it even when technology has already offered viable alternatives. They are also hidden in plain sight.


PandorasSeedEvery once in a while I put down my work long enough to look at where we are. It’s often a frightening experience. Not many of us would be equipped to survive the collapse of civilization, despite the many television shows that depict such future anarchy. I suppose that’s why Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival was such a compelling book. The more anthropological studies I read, the more clear it becomes that “civilization” has changed us about as much as evolution has. If not more. We have turned into something else, a creature of our own making. Wells demonstrates throughout the pages of this book how, with the first development of agriculture, we began on a track that has made us less healthy, less happy, and more dependent on technology than we have ever been. True, life as hunter-gatherers was never easy. Still, it is telling that they have much more free time than agriculturalists. And, as far as we can tell, they are better-adjusted. They are doing what we evolved to do.

Addressing issues as diverse as from how our diet has changed to genetic engineering, Pandora’s Seed is a wide-ranging and fascinating book. It does show that technology far outraces ethics and our ability to figure out the proper response to complicated questions. We often lack the time to reason things out. And yet, we live in a world where mental illness is set to become the number two natural cause of death within this century. We are profoundly unhappy. We deny climate change although it’s evident all around us. We’ve put into place a global warming that will take a millennium to dissipate even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. We deny that it’s true, we go to dehumanizing jobs, and we eat food that’s not nutritious because it’s the kind we can afford. We lack time and motivation for exercise and disease takes hold. Such a lifestyle even affects our religion.

Tellingly, Wells’ last chapter deals with Fundamentalism. Noting that humans use both logos (logical) and mythos (mystical) thinking for a balanced view of things, fundamentalisms utilize a logos system to try to explain mythos. Violence often ensues. In order to be fully human we have to admit that rationality alone does not solve all our problems, or meet all of our needs. Some of what we require is simply not material. While Wells does not suggest reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, he does suggest that the only solutions to a world of limited material goods (food, fossil fuels, fresh water) that the only way to make civilization sustainable is to learn to want less. Evolution predisposes us to gather more than we need, and certainly, to hear college career counselors talk, we have to want jobs that will bring in more, more, more. The world is becoming smaller, and people are demanding that the greed come to an end. Until that day perhaps the best solution for us all would be to take a walk in the woods and to remind ourselves how we came to be where we are.

To Thine Own Self

sexatdawnAmong the books that I would rate very important, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn would need to be on top, or nearly so. As I’ve often stated on this blog, religion and sex are very closely related. Every religion, in some way or another, intimates itself into sexuality. Like religious belief, however, it is something about which we blush, look at our feet, and politely change the subject. Perhaps it would be helpful to shift focus, then, to the subtitle: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. Well, not even that reaches the depths to which this book plumbs. Ryan and Jethá actually peer back deep into prehistory and look at the changes that agricultural life brought onto humanity. Comparing that information to conclusions drawn from evolutionary theory and serious biological study, they derive a picture of a much more equitable culture for which humans clearly evolved. Agriculture, and just plain culture, changed all that.

With culture, you see, comes the materialist idea of possession. Hunter-gatherers, even today, are the best sharers in the world. Their generosity isn’t noble, as Ryan and Jethá point out, but entirely practical. In addition, their lives are longer, healthier, and happier than those of the modern, stressed-out, perpetually frustrated, “cultured” individual. We are constantly trying to get ahead, and own more. Of course, we don’t want to mention or think about the fact that when we die, all that ownership will mean nothing. We invent complex laws that so only our biological (we think) offspring will carry on that legacy until the last bit is parceled out so fine that all that remains is a name that few will remember millennia down the road. For that we suffer nearly constant frustration. I’ve not read a book in decades that made me want to throw all of this off and head out to the woods, sharpened stick in hand. (Problematic, since I’m pretty solidly vegetarian.)

Some of the larger implications, however, that Sex at Dawn doesn’t address, are the roles that religion plays in problematizing what we’ve evolved to be. Of course, sex scandals in churches are referenced, since they are such crucial evidence. What is overlooked, for the purposes of the book, is that religions have always tried to define and control sexuality, at least since the dawn of agriculture. We don’t often consider that agriculture, in addition to making us fat, and lazy, also gave us organized religion. It may be that religion came first, but it only grew into a coercive social force with the temple culture of ancient Sumer, and it has been with us ever since, dictating who may love whom, when, and for what purpose. Sex at Dawn is not for those who are set in their ways, nor for those who take a one-size-fits-all attitude toward life. For the rest of humanity, however, there is hope that perhaps we can learn to be a little more true to what nature intended us to be, and to understand that nature may be many things, but it is seldom evil.

Eat, Love, Eat

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been on my “to read” pile for some time. I finally finished with it this week. As a vegetarian, I really didn’t need convincing that raising other beings with feelings and some intelligence for the purpose of eating them involves dilemmas. Pollan is not a vegetarian and makes the best case I’ve ever read for justifying his position. Still, I personally can’t face being the reason animals must die for my own gain. I know this is a stance fraught with difficulties. I’ve often mused that if I could get by without even eating plants, I would. I just hate to inconvenience anyone, or anything, else. But that’s not what I want to discuss. Pollan spends the first part of his book discussing corn, or maize. I hadn’t realized what a versatile crop it is, nor how prolific. The difficulty is that it is so good at what it does that it is bankrupting the farming industry. Government subsidies make corn growing the only way that big farmers can get ahead while nearly driving them broke at the same time. (It takes Pollan chapters to explain this, so I’ll need to refer you to the source on this one.) His conclusion: the free market simply does not work for food production.

I’ve long believed that the problems with our economy come from a decidedly “one size fits all” mentality. The free market rewards those who climb over others without that gnawing sense of guilt that prevents me from eating meat. Once you have lots, you only want more. No one ends up satisfied. Okay, so we’ll let Wall Street play its game. Higher education is in crisis because, like farming, the free market model simply does not apply. Guys like me (and plenty of gals too) do not spend years of our lives earning doctorates under the delusion that we’ll get rich. Many of us are idealists who just won’t grow up. All we want is to contribute to the collective knowledge of the human race and make a reasonable living doing it. Then the free market comes and whispers into university presidents’ ears that they should be making six or seven figure salaries. They should have limitless expense accounts. Universities should be all about “branding” with corporate style logos and money-sieves called sports teams. Somewhere along the way they forgot that they need teachers too. Some very prominent universities in the United States now have 70 percent of their classes taught by adjuncts. The system is simply not working.

One of the strangest anomalies out of all of this is that Christianity, the religion started by a guy who said the rich could not enter heaven unless they gave everything away, has crawled into bed with the free market. Enthusiastically. For many people to vote with conscience is to vote for an inherently unfair system that must, by its very design, consume all others. Survival of the fattest. I’m no economist, but I am certain that many other industries have gone the way of the T-rex because they simply didn’t fit the model of unbridled gain. Education is one, and the asteroid is already about to hit. What bothers me the most is that agriculture is another. Pollan ended up scaring me more than any horror flick. Our farming industry, right here in the best fed country on earth, is very, very frail. As long as we’re converting everything to the greed-based system, we should make money edible. After the asteroid strikes, during that long, dim winter, it will be the only thing left on the planet in abundance.

Fruits of the Dearth

Religions developed out of universal concerns. While I can’t hope to compete with the masterful insight of Pascal Boyer, I do have a gut feeling that as soon as humans evolved the ability of foresight we began to worry. Where is that next meal coming from? Will we survive another day? Is there any way to hedge our bets? In ancient times mortality’s unblinking stare would have been much closer to our faces. Even as recently as the Middle Ages death was much more on the mind, much more frequently seen.

One way to ensure survival is to propitiate those gods who control the productivity of the soil. Long before Demeter lost Persephone ancient people mourned the death of gods who ensured fertile soil, hoping against hope that they might come back each spring. I recall the seriousness with which Rogation Days were taken in the Midwest. At Nashotah House the earth itself was blessed. I recall a priest from Central Illinois who gleefully recounted that the University of Illinois crop experiments were always a little skewed because each year he blessed them on Rogation Days, giving Ceres a boost. CPR for mother earth; give us our daily bread.

The picture of a South Korean boy spinning a can filled with glowing embers over a field on the first full moon of the Korean New Year reaffirms that concerns are the same everywhere. In our sterilized, indoor, urbanized lives where food is grown, harvested, processed and packaged by others for simple consumption of the vast majority, we have lost one of the most poignant aspects of religion. People pray for survival against the devious plans of terrorists, or the insidious diseases that threaten those who make a living simply moving electrons from place to place. Meanwhile somewhere in a country teetering on the brink of nuclear winter, a young boy swings a bucket full of hope.