Original Date: December 2010
In order to predict the future of nature, or more accurately, humanity’s future relationship with nature, it would be prudent to focus on a single aspect and use that as a lens through which proper judgments can be made in the proper context. The lens that will be chosen is that of the eating habits of western society. While this choice may seem to be a strange one, the fundamental necessity of people to eat, and the demands this makes upon the environment is a significant relationship that cannot be overlooked. Eating is not only a necessity though; it also serves a social role which is ingrained in human culture. This role, and its evolution over time reflects how people interact with one another but also to what degree they interact with the world outside their city walls. It extends beyond mere necessity and like colored glass, shades the world in a way that causes them to view nature in a different light. Nutrition is one of these colors and is an apt topic in which to focus.
Nutritionism is a popular trend in the western world, especially in the United States, and is a glaring instance of one the most significant current relationships people have with food and through it, nature. Nutritionism is the belief that the foods people eat should be defined and evaluated only by their individual ingredients and quantities, not by their particular combination let alone what particular food item contains them. Michael Pollan believes that nutritionism is a pseudo-religion that requires a priest-like class of experts to interpret and disseminate knowledge about the foods society chooses to eat. But unlike the traditional priests of religion who seek to gain understanding through a perspective and interpretation of what they study, food scientists often wear blinders in order to become experts on narrower and narrower sub-topics within their field. This specialization produces islands of facts fragmented from one another and enveloped by esoteric terminology that often does not provide wisdom or understanding to the layperson. With this ignorance and/or misunderstanding, the layperson then ventures forth with the best intentions but oftentimes on the wrong path to their well-being. The human knowledge of food has become too vast for a human mind to hold while giving it any meaning. Facts replace wisdom and knowledge usurps understanding. For instance, the average American knows that HFCS is bad but at the same time can’t find out how to eat a healthy diet that results in weight-loss. Hence the current trend of so-called healthy eating but at the same time increasing rates of obesity and weight related health conditions. This is also coupled with the commoditization of food. Unlike in times past, food is very easy to come by and little effort is spent to obtain or prepare it.
With food being easy to come by, little thought is placed into how and where it is obtained. What was once a central aspect of western society and its relationship with nature is now kept at an arms distance as a minor aspect of daily life. Interacting with the wild world on a daily basis is no longer a necessity for survival and as a result no longer weighs upon the mind. This pushes nature into the realm of irrelevance, and with the expected increase in scientific advancements in the future regarding food it can be predicted with confidence that this trend with continue. This trend though is not necessarily a positive one for all parties involved. As the irrelevance of nature to the common person continues, so will the irrelevance to what negative results impact nature. The commoditization of food has led to specialization in the types and ingredients by which it is made. This promotes the success of certain plants and animals over others. The chosen ones then compete for and dominate the natural resources that other plants and animals would have used, putting them at existential risk. While science is responsible for making this possible, it is not to blame for its means of integration into the western world. people demand readily available food for little cost, and companies willingly oblige to meet the demand. As companies are primarily focused on profiting, they too put the well-being of nature at a lower priority They use the specialized knowledge of science where it is applicable to maximize productivity whether it be increasing crop yield or increasing the size of livestock. The side-effects of this process, both good and ill are largely ignored.
The side-effects of food production aren’t always irrelevant though to the common man, especially when the unexpected side-effects get out of control and cause significant harm. In the desire to increase crop-yield, science has developed numerous chemical fertilizers which almost miraculously increase food yield beyond what Malthus could have believed. But as a side-effect, the fertilizers contaminate local water supplies which lead to negative health effects and/or negatively impact water sources which impact the fish stocks and other life in the aquatic environment. When this side-effect or another arises from food production, a scientific or legal solution is developed to correct the specific problem. Though while the symptom is cured, the underlying cause remains. Since food is obtained for most people separately from the environment, the direct mental connection between the individual food and the negative side-effect of its production is rarely made. A side-effect doesn’t have to cause significant harm to gain relevance in a person’s mind. There is an awareness of the necessity to consume a variety of foods to remain healthy. Since the advent of readily available industrialized food, the quality of that food has diminished. As a result, people have become somewhat conscious of the fact that certain nutrients/ingredients are necessary for survival, thanks in part to nutritionism. But nutritionism is specialized knowledge, as is the industry’s desire to provide a specialized product to fulfill a specific demand. As was alluded to earlier, even though consumers are conscious of certain necessary ingredients, they are for the most part unaware of the combinatorial effects of consuming their food choices the way they do. This parallels the picking and choosing of problem solving in the natural world. As a specific problems arises, a specific solution is developed, and the natural problem is only a problem once it intrudes upon the unnatural world of modern society.
The specialized existence of modern society contrasts sharply from traditional society as well as the interconnected existence of the natural world. Consumers unwittingly pluck at the web of nature by plucking at the individual ingredients of the foods chosen to eat through a misguided specialization of nutrient knowledge. As they pluck, the ripples propagate through the web of interdependencies leading to more and more unexpected consequences. But specialized knowledge is not even in and of itself, a problem neither is the way in which nutritionists practice it in their research. While true that the common consumer may not understand the implications of the researchers’ discoveries and may in fact come to many false conclusions in regards to changing their respective diets, it is not practical to demand that nutritionists be responsible for unraveling all potential consequences of individuals applying their research results in the layperson’s daily life.
So what does the future hold if the relationship between humanity and nature is dominated by a lack of involvement in the natural world? If the rough divide between mental relevance and environmental impact continue, it can be expected that the numerous negative side-effects of this interaction will continue. Studying the modern food industry and its interaction between consumer and nature aptly parallels the average person’s interaction with nature in other aspects of life. If the important subject of how food is obtained and how it’s produced impacts other aspects of life, it would lead to a higher quality of life and a reduced environmental impact. Currently the feeling of personal responsibility for eating of food is shrugged off onto an industry that may very well be just as indifferent to the impact of its activities.
What alternative system would better help people cope with and improve their relationship with nature? With food being such a necessity for survival, and since food comes oftentimes directly from the environment, it would be an excellent conduit through which a new relationship could grow. Changing the interpretation of food may be the best approach for a long term change in the way this interaction could occur. Perhaps by re-introducing and evolving an older tradition, or by developing new food traditions that promote more emphasis on reducing environmental impact while promoting better eating would practically improve quality of life. Religion already uses this idea in some degree in the way that it seeks to promote and maintain a variety of food traditions. Without delving into the specifics of individual religious beliefs such as Jewish Kosher foods or Catholic diet restrictions, it can be sufficed to say that their maintenance of a particular food tradition, in this case a tradition of what foods are okay to be eaten, can be considered a safe bet upon which to grow. Since the major world religions are centuries old, it is an existential proof that what has been eaten thus far has not impacted people or the environment in a significant way that is unsustainable. For example, it is unheard of for a Jewish or Catholic practitioner on a strict traditional diet to die of malnutrition or starvation as a result. There is also little evidence of any particular species of animal becoming extinct as a direct result of the teachings of one of these specific religions. It is not being argued that current eating practices be replaced outright by an existing religious tradition, nor that related. beliefs beyond the respective food traditions be adopted, but rather that numerous existing traditions can provide an instance of Chesterton’s Fence from which one can evolve. If these are tempered with the knowledge obtained through the scientific discoveries of nutritionists and dietitians, it could reduce the migration tax of existing diets, and more readily adopted by western society as they would already be familiar to most and not consist of foods alien to the palette.
In the future I might expand on and return to the priest-like class of experts in a conclusive paragraph.