Monday, November 28, 2011

The Omnivores Dilemma

America doesn’t enjoy a healthy, traditional, time-proven national cuisine.  We are bombarded by a phenomenal variety of food options, and this makes us dizzy and highly susceptible to food fads.  Our venerable nutrition experts point us in every imaginable direction, and some dietary factions have evolved into militant food jihads.  Michael Pollan was fascinated by this chaotic realm of greed, deceit, ignorance, confusion, fantasy, and flame-throwing righteousness.  He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in a heroic effort to provide us with something resembling an objective, unbiased investigative journalist’s overview of the American food system.
The first of Pollan’s three lessons discusses the world of industrial corn.  Cheap, subsidized, processed corn has become our number one source of nutrients.  Americans have become “corn chips with legs.”  Forty years ago, my Uncle Blaine’s dairy cows enjoyed a diet of delicious North Dakota grass.  I was saddened to realize that today’s milk, butter, and cheese are primarily made of corn, not grass.  A corn-fed cow consumes the equivalent of 35 gallons of fossil fuel.  Beef, pork, chicken, and eggs are also largely corn-based.  Pollan describes the mass production of corn-fed meat at Confined Animal Feeding Operations — profitable enterprises that are disgustingly cruel and filthy.
Pollan’s discussion of nitrogen fertilizer blew my mind — it’s a primary contributor to humankind’s population explosion.  Without synthetic fertilizer, it would not be possible for the human herd to exceed four billion.  Prior to 1945, we ate crops produced by solar-powered plants.  Now, a tsunami of synthetic fertilizers is using corn plants to convert fossil fuels into food.  To produce one calorie of industrial corn requires using more than one calorie of fossil fuel.
The second lesson examines the farm world beyond industrial corn.  We are introduced to the remarkably clever Joel Salatin, who excels at producing impressive quantities of grass-fed meat without cruelty, crowding, pollution, or land degradation.  His meat is superior to industrial organic meats.  Thanks to big money, organic standards have been seriously weakened.  It’s OK to raise organic beef on filthy feedlots.  Organic chickens can be raised in metal sheds where 20,000 birds are jam-packed together — and the “free range” label is essentially meaningless marketing gibberish.
Organic agriculture used to be the realm of groovy small-scale hippy enterprises, but they have been pushed aside by the rise of industrial-scale organic farming, which uses no less fossil energy than conventional farming.  Industrial organic produces large quantities of food at a lower cost than hippy farmers, and it is designed to smoothly integrate with the corporate food retailing industry.  Whole Foods isn’t interested in buying ten boxes of carrots from Henry the Hippy.
The third lesson discusses the hunter-gatherer way of eating.  Pollan foraged for greens, mushrooms, and fruit.  He learned how to use a gun, and he shot a wild pig.  He created a meal for which he had provided most of the ingredients himself.  He was fully conscious of where the food came from, and how it was prepared — a very different experience from the standard American mealtime.
This section included a thoughtful discussion of the ethics of meat-eating.  Pollan carefully explored the realm of animal rights philosophy.  I was surprised (and delighted) to learn that many animal rights thinkers have contempt for domesticated species, because they exist only to be used by their human owners.  I was also surprised (and stunned) to learn that some animal rights folks see wild predators, like lions and tigers, as being wrong or evil because they are hurtful to others.
The one notable shortcoming of the book is that it did not include a robust discussion of sustainability.  Sustainable agriculture is a rarity.  Never forget that it was low-impact, muscle-powered, 100% organic farming that destroyed the agricultural systems of countless extinct civilizations.  Any petroleum-based process is unsustainable.  But even if organic farming was done with just muscle power, most of it would still be unsustainable.  Much modern farming depends on irrigation, and irrigated agriculture commonly self-destructs.  Pollan mentions that Iowa has lost half of its topsoil in 150 years, but he fails to warn us that raising annual crops in tilled fields is almost always unsustainable, because it destroys the soil.  There are many ways to produce wholesome food without irrigation, tilling, petroleum, or animal enslavement — and they should be at the center of our attention today.
Pollan is a skilled writer and a sharp thinker, and he has written a stimulating, informative, and easy-to-read book.  I would strongly recommend it to animals who eat food.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivores Dilemma, Penguin Press, New York, 2006.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nature and Madness

Paul Shepard wrote Nature and Madness to explore a perplexing question: “Why do men persist in destroying their habitat?”  Shepard came to the conclusion that modern European-American culture was the damaged offspring of a long process of psychological deterioration.
Obviously, modern consumers live and think in a manner that is radically different from our wild ancestors who lived relatively sustainably.  This change wasn’t the result of freaky genetic mutations or the normal process of evolution.  We still have Pleistocene genes.  Newborns are still wild animals who are ready and anxious to enjoy a good life among a clan of buffalo hunters. 
It wasn’t genes that changed us, it was culture.  Culture is a tribe’s software, and cultural evolution can happen a million times faster than genetic evolution — and that’s exactly what happened.  Few, if any, newborns are now born into wild, free, salmon eating cultures.  Alas, most are condemned to spend their days in the most destructive culture yet devised.  Poor babies! 
The process that leads to the development of healthy, happy, well-adjusted wild humans is a spiral stairway, based on a calendar.  There are time windows in which certain steps in the process can be completed.  If you’ve ever read the story of Amala and Kamala, the wolf-girls of India, you know that they missed developmental windows for learning how to speak, and walking upright.  Missed windows lead to incomplete development. 
Shepard thought that modern consumers were the offspring of an incomplete developmental process.  We were immature, infantile, psychologically crippled.  By Paleolithic standards, we were childish adults, suffering from arrested development.  He discussed our downward spiral by presenting us with four snapshots.
First, the domestication of plants and animals blindsided the human journey.  We no longer lived in a wild land.  We lived in farm country, an artificial human-controlled ecosystem.  Regular contact with wild animals had been an essential part of our psychological development process.  But farmers erased our wild teachers and replaced them with what Shepard referred to as a horde of goofies — passive, submissive, dim-witted domesticated animals.  We ceased venerating the sacred totemic spirits of the land, and replaced them with a human-like Earth Mother, who sometimes fed us generously, and sometimes didn’t.  We abandoned the leisurely lifestyle of nomadic foraging, and replaced it with miserable backbreaking toil that destroyed the health of both the farmer and the land.
Next came the desert fathers, patriarchal nomadic herders who pushed Earth Mother out of the temple, and replaced her with a powerful, aggressive, authoritarian Sky Father.  He sired three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Monotheism was a fountain of world-rejecting asceticism which “tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots,” according to Shepard.  “The ‘cradle of civilization’ is also the cradle of fanatic ideology — witness the interminable desert wars…”
Next came the Reformation.  The Protestant fathers were fascinated, obsessed, and disgusted by sex, filth, corruption, sensuality, the natural world — life itself.  The puritan path led to estrangement from the body and the world.  It increased the attention paid to sin and evil.
Finally, he discussed the mechanists of industrial society.  They mostly spent their lives indoors in vast manmade urban environments that were densely populated by huge numbers of strangers.  Cities were breeding grounds for myriads of psychological problems.  The city was “the wilderness in disarray, a kind of pandemonium,” a realm of “menacing disintegration.”
Many of us are coming to comprehend that it is remarkably unclever to continue destroying our habitat.  Shepard spent years constructing his controversial explanation.  Whether or not you buy every argument, the primary thrust of the book is the rather obvious notion that our civilization has lost its marbles.  This realization is a mandatory step for any pilgrimage in search of healing, happiness, and sustainability.  We must abandon the belief that we are enjoying the zenith of the amazing human journey, because it locks us into a cage — there is no problem to fix, everything is always getting better.
Human beings thrived as salmon eaters and buffalo hunters.  We were healthy, whole, and happy when we lived in wild tribes in wild ecosystems.  Prince Charles wrote a line I will never forget: “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.”  It’s heartbreaking to watch insane zoo lions endlessly pacing back and forth in their concrete prison.  Long ago I read an article about condors.  It said that a wild and free condor soaring above the mountains was sacred, majestic, perfect.  But a condor held captive in a zoo was less — far less.  The essay concluded that condor-ness consisted of 10% condor and 90% place. 
After a thorough examination of the process of our decline, Shepard served us a solution that barely covers more than a page.  In terms of our human-ness, we still have the 10% human component — our genes.  What we’re missing is the 90% place.  Therefore, Shepard says, the solution is to raise our children in a manner similar to Neolithic society, in a wild ecosystem, so that they can fully experience a complete, normal, and healthy development process.  I was shocked when I first read this ridiculous and na├»ve idea.  But later, I realized that he was exactly correct.  It’s a perfect and brilliant solution, but it requires huge change.  Shepard pointed to the destination.  It’s up to us to find the route.
Shepard, Paul, Nature and Madness, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.  Nature and Madness was originally published in 1982 by Sierra Club Books, but they dropped it because it was controversial.
Warning!  This book is written for gray-haired professors, not a general audience.  Nature and Madness is the opposite of easy to read.  Two beautiful and easy-to-read books that explore psychological development are The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff, and The Human Cycle by Colin Turnbull.

Monday, November 14, 2011

All of the Above

I heard the news today, oh boy.  The stream of stories was like a dopey sophomoric science fiction novel from the 25 cent box at St. Vinnie’s — The Planet of the Consumers, or something.  The Republican candidates are an unbelievable freak show.  The President is a slick-talking hand puppet owned by the investment banking crime syndicate.  Lecherous football coaches are fondling slippery naked boys in the shower room.  Everyone is praying for economic recovery and full employment, so we can fire up our credit cards, return to engorging on trendy imported merchandise, and successfully complete our extermination of life on Earth.
Gosh!  Isn’t there another channel?  Day in, day out, month after month, year after year, the fire hose torrent of mindless nonsense never ends.  Many are washed away forever, never to regain a toehold in reality.  Living at the amazing zenith of technological civilization is like being an inmate at the loony bin — total madness, all the time.
Now, imagine this: a really cool science fiction novel suddenly materializes and beams you up into a universe that is rational, coherent, and intelligent.  You soar into a beautiful, breathtaking, mind-blowing, life-changing paradise of sanity — a place where the heroes care about the Earth, about life, about the future.  It’s like an LSD trip, or something.  Wow!  The novel is called All of the Above, written by Timothy Scott Bennett, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.
Oh, I’ll toss you a teaser.  Obama was followed by James Russell, who was followed by Linda Travis, the maverick governor of Michigan.  President Travis understood that industrial civilization was obliterating the planet, and it was long past time to seriously deal with huge problems.  Collapse was well underway.  
Obie, a homeless genius from Duluth, gave this advice to Travis: “We don’t need more of the same.  We need something so different that we can barely begin to imagine it.”
The President realized that her administration needed to pursue a radically different strategy.  Striving to keep planet-killing economic growth on life support would be insane.  “My job is to help lead the human race through the collapse of civilization.”  What a president!
Only the poets can save us now.  We’re marching toward the cliff of self destruction because we lack imagination, clear thinking, and reverence for all life.  We’re not going to choose a higher path until we discover that higher paths exist, and that they would be far healthier than our daffy shop-till-you-drop quagmire.  Creative people can summon the power to open our minds and blast us out of our ruts.  We are in desperate need of healthy songs, stories, and visions.  Creative magicians need to find them, bring them back, and share them with the world.   All of the Above is potent medicine, a refreshing and invigorating experience.  There are, in fact, sane people out there.  Oh boy!

Bennett, Timothy Scott, All of the Above, Blue Hag Books, Eastport, Maine, 2011. 
Tim and his wife Sally Erickson created the documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book of the Eskimos

Peter Freuchen (1886-1957) was a Dane who set up a trading post in Greenland in 1910.  He spent 50 years among the Inuit, and knew them when they still lived in their traditional Stone Age manner.  He married an Inuit woman and had two children.  Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos describes how these people lived, and provides us with a window into a world far different from our own. (Today, the word “Eskimo” is rude.)
The Arctic was the last region to be settled by humans.  It’s an extremely cold region, with just two frost-free months, and the sun doesn’t shine for four months of the year.  What’s for breakfast?  Meat.  What’s for lunch?  Meat.  Dinner?  Guess what!  They lived almost entirely on animal foods from birds, fish, and mammals of the sea and tundra.  These foods were processed and preserved in a variety of different ways, many of which would gag outsiders.  Blubber was their fuel for heat, cooking, and light.
Survival in this harsh land demanded cooperation and sharing.  Meat was community property, and no one was denied access to it (although regular freeloaders were not warmly regarded).  Spoken discourse was typically indirect, non-confrontational, and comically self-effacing.  Functional communities had no use for those who suffered from grandiose egos or other anti-social perversions.
Despite their harsh life, the Inuit had a tremendous zeal for living.  Sexually, they enjoyed great freedom.  Wife swapping was common and perfectly acceptable.  Young people (even children) were free to fully explore the mysteries of tender pleasures.  Orgies, singing, and storytelling sweetened the monotony of long winter nights.  Freuchen writes that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”
Anthropologists have shown us that nomadic foraging cultures had a number of advantages, compared to agricultural societies.  Foraging societies in warmer regions typically had a number of aspects in common.  Inuit society did not neatly fit into the same pattern of characteristics.
The common pattern is that nomadic foragers did not domesticate animals — they lived in a reality where all animals were wild, sacred relatives, teachers, and equals.  But the Inuit sled dogs were owned, controlled, and exploited (it was perfectly acceptable to copulate with a dog when she was in heat, as long as it was done outdoors, in the open).  These sled dogs were maybe 80% wild.  They would ravage the settlement and eat everything if allowed to run loose, so they were kept tied.  Their teeth were filed down to keep them from biting apart their tethers.  Sled dogs did not in any way resemble the neurotic, infantilized canines of modern suburbia.  They only responded to instructions from the dog whip.
The common pattern believes that women enjoyed their highest levels of respect and equality in nomadic foraging societies.  Abuse was one of agriculture’s many hideous offspring.  But in numerous passages, Freuchen describes husbands fiercely beating their troublesome wives bloody (“He beat her like a dog.”).  He wrote that “a woman is after all born to be the victim of men.”  But in another section, he mentioned that Inuit women had “perpetual smiles,” and noted that “they seem to have more natural grace, more zest for life than their white sisters.”
The common pattern celebrates the notion that nomadic foragers enjoyed an easy life with abundant leisure time.  They only “worked” one or two days a week.  In warmer regions, there was an abundance of food, and starvation was rare.  In Inuit country, life was far more challenging, and starvation was a major threat.  Sewing needles were vital survival tools.  If they broke or wore out, clothing could not be mended, and ripped britches could be a death sentence.  There are many reasons why the Arctic was the last region to be settled.
On the other hand, the Inuit did fit into the common pattern with regard to active population management, which was essential to their survival.  Infanticide was common and normal, and daughters were not as desirable as sons (future meat producers).  When hunting was bad, children were killed to spare the group from the misery of starvation.  One woman survived a spell of bad hunting by eating her husband and three children.  Folks who could no longer keep up with the hunting party were abandoned.  Those who were too old to contribute to the wellbeing of the community committed suicide, or asked their children to hang them or stab them — and these requests were honored without hysteria or drama, often during a party when everyone was in high spirits.
A number of aspects of Inuit life are shocking to many in consumer society.  But the reverse is also true.  The Inuit were dumbfounded by the astonishing foolishness of the Danes: “Alas, you are a child in this country, and a child in your thoughts.”  When greed-crazed Norwegians moved in and made a quick fortune by massacring the fur seals, Inuit communities starved.  Every way of life has plusses and minuses.  Unlike consumer society, the Inuit hunters lived sustainably for several thousand years — until they met the white folks.  Is there anything more precious than a sustainable way of life?
Freuchen had great respect for the Inuit, while at the same time believing that Danish society was more advanced.  At his trading post he provided guns, bullets, knives, traps, pots, matches, and other things that the Inuit had happily lived without for thousands of years.  It made him feel good that he was helping them modernize.
When hunters used bows and arrows to hunt for reindeer in flat wide open tundra with no place to hide, they sometimes had to lay motionless in the snow for two days, waiting for the prey to move within range, which didn’t always happen.  Guns allowed them to kill from far away, which led to more meat, which led to more Inuit.  Freuchen eventually came to realize that modernization was not a free lunch: “these favorable living conditions brought about an increase in the population that began to overtax the resources of the country.”  Whoops!
Modernization is what had driven Freuchen to Greenland in the first place.  When he had been attending med school in Copenhagen, a seriously injured man arrived, and none of the doctors thought he’d survive.  After six months of careful treatment, the man fully healed — an absolute miracle!  The staff proudly watched as the man walked out of the hospital, stepped off the curb, and immediately got killed by a car.  There were almost no cars in Copenhagen in 1905.  Freuchen’s mind snapped. 
Today, the modernized Inuit have guns, televisions, phones, nice wooden houses, and motor boats.  Snowmobiles have temporarily replaced the sled dogs.  What they’ve lost is a sustainable way of life, and a healthy traditional future for their grandchildren.  When the cheap energy is gone, it will be rough sledding.

Peter Freuchen, Book of the Eskimos, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1961.