Is our tendency to "dietary shrinkage" trying to tell us something?
By Leslie A. Cook, vegetatingwithleslie.org
Do you believe that intuition is a valuable tool for anticipating events? I do! And I think that sometimes intuition works beyond our personal lives. Before you start to think that I'm getting into fortune-telling or something, let me explain.
Have you ever anticipated a trend? I have, and I suspect a lot of you have as well! So maybe there were "hints" in the environment or in the culture, and we didn't even realize we were picking up information that fed our intuition.
What if intuition turns out to be an early warning system of sorts? Let's look at the example of our changing food culture...
Once upon a time the overriding issue for what we ate was survival. It is still the most basic fact today. We eat to live, although you might not realize that from the way some of us eat. There was a time when we had to do what we could with what was geographically accessible and seasonally available. These facts limited and shaped food choices.
What happened when the weather was bad one season or when the climate changed? Diets changed because they had to. People migrated. Those species that survived over time adapted and learned to live and eat differently.
Today we aren't dependent on our location or the climate or time of year. Choosing what we eat is both simpler and much, much more complex than in earlier times. Even though we have constant availability of everything, we shrink our choices in so many ways: no conventionally raised meat, chicken or fish; no meat, chicken or fish at all; no gluten or no grains at all; no dairy; no eggs; no white potatoes; no nightshade plants; no corn; no sugar; no carbohydrates; only organic produce; no GMOs; no animal products that have antibiotics or hormones in their history; only seasonal produce; only local produce. If we removed from our diet all the things we think we shouldn't eat in our current environment...we'd eat nothing at all.
This voluntary diet shrinkage is a feature of modernity and of privilege. As our options increase, our food denials increase right along with them. When options were fewer, we ate what was available. Shelves weren't lined with diet books explaining with authority why the best way to eat is the one described in that book's pages. We just ate.
Of course many of us make dietary choices for conscious reasons, but many others follow trends for . . . well, a variety of reasons, conscious and unconscious, or for no reason at all. Curiously, in our modern world, those who contribute most to environmental degradation, the most privileged, are the same people who practice the most stringent dietary denials. People living in poverty typically don't make these decisions of privilege.
What if this dietary shrinkage is an expression of intuition? Are those of us who participate at the highest levels in unsustainable living recognizing that our lifestyle is simply not sustainable and casting about for solutions before they are forced on us?
In National Geographic's eight month series, Future of Food: Why Food Matters Now More Than Ever, Dennis Dimmick, Executive Environment Editor at National Geographic Magazine, points to our rapid worldwide population growth, 2.1 billion people in 2000, 7.1 billion in 2013, and a projection of 9.7 billion by 2050, mid-century. He also points to the difficulty of supplying that population with food. Today, in the U.S. alone, 45 million people require food assistance, people in rural, urban and suburban environments.
Another speaker in the series picks up that last theme as he speaks about 1 billion people worldwide who are food insecure. At the same time that our population grows at such a rapid rate, there is a rising demand for animal protein. People all want to live like the most privileged. If the world population stopped growing, this dietary affluence would still cause an unsustainable demand for an increase in the food supply.
In addition to population growth, we are all well aware by now of climate change. Many scientists and agencies consistently predict a planetary temperature rise of at least 3.5 degrees centigrade within this century. Guy McPherson of the University of Arizona says of that kind of temperature increase, "If we see a 3.5 to 4C baseline increase, I see no way to have habitat...This (increase) guarantees a positive feedback, already underway, leading to 4.5 to 6 or more degrees above ‘norm’ and that is a level lethal to life. This is partly due to the fact that humans have to eat and plants can’t adapt fast enough to make that possible for the seven to nine billion of us — so we’ll die."
And here, I return to the issue of intuition and dietary shrinkage among the most privileged in the world. I believe there is some part of our preoccupation with limiting dietary choices that has to do with an often unconscious awareness that we are at the edge of profound changes that will impact our ability to survive on this planet. Perhaps at some level, our self-prescribed limitations are pro-active steps toward avoiding extinction. Certainly for some, the changes are purposeful in that direction.
Dietary changes I've made in my life were directed primarily toward humane considerations and only secondarily to environmental considerations. I always considered these changes my personal activism toward making the world a better place and thought my contribution sufficient. As I learn more, I begin to think perhaps it is not.
All of life is interdependent. Our survival depends on respectful, cooperative relationships, not "rugged individualism" or financial growth without regard to human and planetary costs. Every aspect of our lives must express this principle of cooperation. Our survival now, as was the case for our ancestors, depends on it. "United we stand, divided we fall" is a global reality and imperative. Every decision each of us makes must reflect that understanding.
Eating purposefully is fundamental to shaping a more cooperative mode of being in the world. In McHenry County, we have wonderful opportunities to live out our commitment to the principle of cooperation. Two food-related opportunities that come to mind are the Woodstock Farmers Market and the Food Shed Co-op, well underway to realization.
In addition to other choices we make at each moment to contribute to the survival of life on this planet, supporting these cooperative food-focused organizations is an important one.