Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What Should a Science of Human Ecology Be? --Menus and Food Riots

The food supply relative to human numbers has been shrinking for some time. I hope that I will not have to keep repeating that increasing numbers of people and decreasing availability of farmable land and of fishes in the sea have been contributing to food shortages, hunger, starvation, and even the spread of food riots.

Let’s stop for a minute though to think scientifically about what we mean by “food supply.” Scientifically speaking, people have to eat to stay alive – sure! One issue though is do they have to eat so much mammal meat?  The answer is no!!

An awful lot of our farmland goes to raising grain to feed to livestock. This takes a lot of high-energy inputs like fuel for tractors and shipping and fertilizers and pesticides and fertilizers and so on. And then the darned livestock use up most of the energy in the grain just to keep warm! Then we put yet more energy into shipping and slaughtering them and getting their pieces into grocery stores. And of course there are enormous federal subsidies coming out of your pocket to help all this along. You would think that meat must be incredibly healthy to justify all this cost and ecologically inefficiency. You would think that it must be very adaptive to eat a lot of meat.

Of course meat is nutritious, but experts agree that “modern man” tends to eat far more than is necessary. In fact we eat so much that this contributes to obesity, heart and artery problems, cancer, and reduces longevity.

In short yes we do have to eat! -- But we do not have to eat so much meat, or shrimp cocktails, or cakes and pies, and so on. For some reason the modern world has developed a taste for, a craving for such things. They are luxuries and habits.  

University ecologists are trained to think of humans as animals that have population sizes and metabolic budgets and nutritional needs and to think in terms of tons of available food and tons of food needed to support populations. This is THEIR toolkit. But food is a much more complicated subject than this and in part because of the uncomfortable fact that people eat types of food in amounts that don’t necessarily make sense in terms of the body's energy requirements. When faced with this fact, scientists with ecological training tend to throw up their hands and are not sure what they can contribute -- either because they are not deeply interested in cultural habits in a practical sense or they don’t have time to learn how to think about how cultures develop historically or cultural habits are maintained and spread.  And yet how can we really hope to understand the ecologically significant aspects of human behavior, the attitudes and behaviors that impact the way we live on the earth, without giving due attention to culture? And culture of course includes religions, and the diverse religious mentalities are complicated topics in their own right. 

How is it that have we modern folks developed such a craving for meat? I don’t mean to imply that Hindus and other peoples who are vegetarians or largely vegetarian are not modern, but actually the fact that I have to qualify this helps to illustrate the issue!! A great part of our craving for meat is that our culture has developed the idea that a high-meat diet is progress and a sign of being “modern” and of luxury living. How has this reputation of meat in fact, theories aside, actually happened? How in the general sense do such things happen? With this question we would be getting into the area of social theories, and there are several to consider – and some of those that seem most attractive are actually too easy, too simple. So please expect that we will be poking about a bit, tossing ideas around.

Advertising certainly helps to maintain the craving for high-meat diets and is helping the habit spread around the world to growing economies like Japan and China. Ecologists DO know that this spread, cultural diffusion of values and life styles, means increasing pressure on farmland to produce animal feed, and costs for the various inputs, and reduces the amount of food for direct human consumption. But again, about all they can say about the CRAVING is that it seems unnecessary biologically and has something to do with desires for a more modern life-style, like smoking tobacco with all the risks of heart disease etc.

Wait! -- Advertising! Glamorous images! I will bet that over half of the population thinks that glamorous advertising images don’t influence people’s minds, cravings, or behaviors. So how can I dare to bring advertising in here as something that contributes to human behavior? 

The fact is that plenty of studies show that regardless of what the consumers think, the shrewd businessmen who spend hundreds of billions of dollars and hire expensive designers and promoters are in fact getting something significant for their money. It is like negative political campaigns. Most people hate them and want them to go away. So why do political interests keep spending money on negative campaigning? You would think this would backfire, but in fact the professionals know that even if people hate it, nevertheless it gets results!!

So why do most people think that they are never influenced by glamour in advertising and by negative campaigning?  Why do most people think that THEY are the exceptions? We need to understand this working of the human mind, this aspect of human nature, if we are going to understand human behavior on our planet. This quirk of the mind is something that does influence consumption patterns and whole economic networks and voting patterns and political representation, and even sometimes wars, and of course personal and neighborhood values and behavior.

The short of it is, first of all, that PEOPLE DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE WORKINGS OF THEIR OWN MINDS very well at all. We are taught by mother culture to flatter ourselves into thinking that we are rational and objective. Often it takes a crisis in life for one to realize that this may not be true and then one may turn to a psychotherapist to get help working to sort out what went wrong with one’s supposed rationality and objectivity. Sometimes the person in crisis does not have the guts to really break through into their core and their past. Sometimes they get swept up in cults that offer them emotional support and new ways of thinking and in effect they turn themselves over to a new herd, and all too commonly to a convincing shepherd with a few loose screws.

A second factor is DENIAL, and this can be related to the lack of self-understanding that I just mentioned. But denial is not just a lack of understanding, it is something that the brain does automatically that protects one’s identity and ego from challenges to the way one see’s oneself and/or expects others to see them.   If we are really going to understand the mechanisms of human behavior and the impact of humans on the planet then we have to have a good grasp of human psychology and that includes ego-defense mechanisms and how they can keep us blind to realities, or cause us to rationalize them -- a sub-species of the same problem with the brain. Let’s be sure to keep this in mind when reading posts on this blog. 

Like tobacco, high meat diets are promoted and made to seem glamorous by large advertising budgets.  They have also become cultural habits. A treat for many people is still a steak dinner at an expensive restaurant. I enjoy the ritual of the backyard barbeque as much as anyone else. It tastes good, and it is a fun way to be social and maintain relationships. But lots of meat and ice cream are nevertheless luxuries in my culture and there is no non-cultural, strictly nutritional reason to overdue these as we do. Our culture has come to see such things as “quality of life” -- and in their push to “modernize” the Japanese and Chinese seek to imitate us and to “reach” what our “modern Americanized” society tells the world is the one and only good life profile.

By the way, they say that the Japanese began to ban raising animals to kill them and eat their meat under the influence of Buddhism and with the Emperor Temmu in A.D. 675. There were plenty of fish and so they could get enough protein and developed a rich cuisine without a lot of meat in it, but enough protein. Then around 1854 Japan made plans to Westernize and become a world power and its elite tilted the worship of the masses toward Shinto, which stressed ambition and competition, and the Emperor Meiji began to promote the Western luxury meat and it slowly began to catch on. [But only slowly with regard to meat – and that in itself is interesting.]

What is this drive to imitate all about? Is it simply that “modern life styles” have been hyper-glamorized by television programs, films, and the media? Certainly this is part of it. [For some reason the film El Norte comes to mind, in which a brother and sister in rural Guatemala have dreams of living in the US from American magazines that portray a rich quality of life. They discover that the realities of life in the US for them are far from what they expected. Modern life is a mixed bag.] 

Imitation is indeed part of the workings here, but not all of it. And we cannot drop the original question of why has our own culture defined “quality of life” the way it has, and in such a way that “modern society” leaves what conservation biologists call a huge “ecological footprint.”  I will have more to say about this in future posts.

Questions, questions!! What I am trying to get at right now is to SKETCH THE SORTS OF THINGS that we need to know if we want to understand how and why humans think and behave these days and especially in ways that make us the species on the planet that has the biggest impact on the thin covering called the biosphere. Again, biology, culture, history, and economics would all be part of a true science of Global Human Ecology if it were not for the academic boundaries that tend to keep them apart and to keep cross talk poor. C.P. Snow famously referred to the Two Cultures of the sciences and humanities in intellectual life and in universities. But there are certainly more than two!!

Let’s talk about “political economy.” What’s that? For now, let’s simply say that “political” means power and “economy” means organization and say that political economy books began to be written back in the late 18th century to refer to the ways in which the power of states, kingdoms and nations, was based on the organization of people, national institutions, finances, arms, and foreign relations. “Economy” split off from this integrated way of looking at a state or nation and national power because what we call today “economists” took up and tried to develop predictive powers about certain details having to do with the flow of money through the machine of power, and the flow back and forth between other national machines of power. This is of course important to understand and it is like thinking about a nation as a body and its patterns of circulation and metabolism. But it wanders from the Big Picture.

Similarly, “political scientists” split off their specialized studies and writings from political economy because narrow specialization was thought to be important especially where there was voting (to try to understand voter behavior). And after all, somebody had to talk about theories of formal government in the abstract and where democracy might fit in, and how other national machines of power could be formally classified. And so on. This is the easy stuff, of course. You’re not going to get tenure and promotion trying to study and teach general principles about back-room deals, the Mafia, bribes, lying or crooked politicians and bureaucrats, voter ignorance, arms dealing, psychopathic ambition, and so on. These are all very real dynamics in politics and power, but there has not been much if any of a job market at universities for scholars who might like to focus their studies on these sorts of dynamics in the system.

So anyway, the entire kingdom, including the entire population, was thought of as the king’s house or estate, and economy meant the way his house was organized. Think of political economy as the study by his staff of how to make and keep him powerful and help him to get to be even more powerful. And keep in mind that as Plato and other great thinkers have pointed out, running a state is all about managing herd psychology.

So how does the king’s system inspire people -- his herds -- to be ambitious so that they will serve their roles in his machine and with determination? His advisors set up a system of rewards and social levels. Some writers call this “a prestige system.” The system gives out ranks, titles, medals, awards, salary increases and bonuses, and perks, perks, perks! These are distributed so to define the workings of his power machine.  The idea is to make “a machine that will run of itself.” Then the king can sit back and play croquet and still be powerful. This even works for systems where there are no kings or dictators.

Thus, people work hard to get status symbols, and because of the particular system of rewards, in doing this their energy and ambition serve the system and the machine spins along generating power for the guy or guys at the top.

Back to meat: Meat has been a status symbol in a lot of cultures for a very long time. It is indeed nutritious and has been harder to come by than other foods whether it is hunted or raised. In many societies livestock were currency used for bride prices, land sales, reparations, and so on. Look at all the religions in which people were supposed to sacrifice animals to their god or gods, and then the priests got to eat them -- and this perk was a dramatic sign of the high status of the priests. This was true for the Western religions in the days of Moses and Abraham, and only threatened to go out of vogue around the time of Jesus and Paul when some followers of Jesus gave up eating meat and Paul had to argue that they should not be self-righteous about it.

"One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." (Romans 14:5-6)

Thus when the Emperor Meiji broke many centuries of tradition and made an example by officially serving meat he installed an expensive status symbol into his system of power, along of course with others. In a few decades Japan industrialized and became a world power, and meat may have played a small role in this vast project.

Food habits decidedly have an impact on the use of land, trade patterns, human misery, and even political stability and war and peace. The causes of food habits should be something that citizens and scientists should seek to understand for insights into global human ecology.  This will require broad rather than narrow perspectives that fully respect an understanding of culture as well as agriculture and nutrition, and history as well as economics, and sociology as well as population growth, and how the mind works as well as how brain tissue is put together, and religions as well as mathematical formulas.

James Thurber once gave us some words to ponder -- "The brain of our species is, as we know, made up largely of potassium, phosphorus, propaganda, and politics, with the result being how not to understand what should be clearer and clearer is becoming easier and easier for all of us." 

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