The Paleo Zealots Dilema

“What the hell do we do if everyone actually does what I tell them to do?!”

“REPENT!! EAT PALEO OR MEET THY FATE!!” … anyone that has crossed my path in the recent past has caught the hot end of the fork on my hopes that we can all eat the way nature intended, in a way that makes sense both on a physiological and economic level,  the way we might just be able to sustain (locally, that is the point of all the following rant).

All fire and brimstone, flowing samite robes and big f*ckoff white beard asside, something has been nagging at me and I was unaware of how profoundly it was bothering me until I tried to type this post. The rattling bones in the closet for me on this all this paleo-vangelism I spew forth, day in and day out, is what actually happens if everyone listens? Not just clients, our athletes, my friends and loved ones, I would consider the vast majority of my life a success with that level of achievement. What fills me with angst is what happens if EVERYONE goes Paleo? What if all marketing sway falters and real, fundamentally natual feeding rises as the one true path to the powers of the earth and EVERYONE EVERYONE decides to stop eating grains?

Uh oh… turn away from the fan! What do we do if all of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Far East decide to eat by the sacred “Thirteen Words”: ‘Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, no sugar?’ This is not a ground breaking observation, but it’s new to me in it’s scope and leads me to some conclusions that I am not only uncomfortable with but that push my oft knee-jerk and Pollyanna neo-liberal expectations around like a skinny kid in a mosh pit.

No more nasty grain eaters, nothing but natural, Paleolithic eating, worldwide. We’d be in a world of serious trouble, oui? The 1.3 billion rice eaters in china, 1.1 billion rice/legume eaters in India and two billion stragglers that depend on starches for 60% to near 90% of their caloric intake would need how much broccoli to replace the caloric density of all that starch, exactly? What is the deficit in acreage caused by tossing all that grain in the bin and replacing it with grasslands? If we start to think of feeding the 4.5 billion people we’re instantly adding to the table on grass fed meats, do we actually have ANY primordial forest left after we clear cut for grasslands to make our Paleo ends meet?

An analogues conversation reared its ugly head the other day with a few words shared among friends about how we live in the US and our levels of conspicuous consumption. We want all the politically oppressed and downtrodden of the earth to have all the opportunities that we have… er… well… some of us do, far more profess such lofty ideals, a few absolutely oppose such a rabidly ‘worldly’ sentiments, but for the sake of argument, lets hit the middle road. We would certainly like to sell American made autos to every driving-age person in India and china, right? Wrong. Last figure thrown at me was 600liters of water per car to get it out of the factory. If we sell 750 million cars over the next few model years, we run out of water to drink, to put a really REALLY simplistic spin on the data. No mention of the resources needed other than water, a few of which might create global unrest just to get all those folks on the road: where do they park, petrol stations to feed, roads (paved and otherwise to build/maintain/rebuild. Fact is we just can’t afford to ‘LET THOSE PEOPLE HAVE WHAT WE HAVE’. Shudder, stagger, gasp! How could anyone say such a thing?!?

Switch that whole thought back to ‘eating smart’, as we would put it. My libertarian friend put it pretty plainly: ‘those who can afford it, will, those who can’t, wont.’ Am I ok with that? I am not ok with that when it comes to education, or health care, or ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’… all of which effect changes in my life from places far and wide as would a nationwide or global reduction in the illnesses brought about by ‘crap feeding’ and the financial burdens put upon the healthy by the dietarily diseased.

Ok, so I want to live in world that is un-poisoned by hundreds of thousands of tons of pesticides/fungicides/chemical fertilizers dumped on the land and washed out to sea. I want to have a vague sense that the generations to come will be healthier and there by financially more apt to survive the new challenges our food based economies will provide (food will be the ultimate resource when the worlds population hits 10 billion in our lifetime, no” if’s” about that). I want all this to be a way of life for all humans, ‘as we were meant to eat, as we were ‘designed’ by nature to thrive’… but how the hell do we pull this off?

If I asked this question in 1820 the answer would be very different, not even a problem, really. So what’s changed? Population. We can’t feed us all in the way we should be fed; we won’t be able to feed us all in the way we shouldn’t be fed. Not now, certainly not in 50 years. So what do we hope for? Another man-engineered solution? Genetically altered grains and harvesting of Antarctic Krill are the only two solutions I’ve seen any data on that come CLOSE to feeding the teeming masses we will have in line for food in the next generation…. But I want none of my ‘people’ to eat that way, I haring them every day to do everything  BUT eat that way. So it boils down to its ok for my ‘kind’ to eat ‘right’ but not ok for ‘them’ to do what we do. Factually, statistically, it’s really not ok.  Is this conversation getting darker than I had ever hoped possible? If we want to feed as intended, do we rely on nature shutting down the reservation book via a worldwide catastrophic pandemic? Does the naturalist eater survive only when the seas rise and a few hundreds of millions perish? Does eating Paleo really have to cause an understanding that it’s really ‘us and them’… well, it is very Paleolithic that the strong survive/thrive and ‘those that can’t, won’t’? Am I cool with that? Are you? Do we even have a choice?

I want you to part the clouds and hand me a solution that makes some sense. Please.

4 Responses to “The Paleo Zealots Dilema”

  1. Andy C. Says:

    Wow, I’ve thought lot about this exact same issue. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks about this stuff.

    To me, it comes down to how we define our carrying capacity. In ecology, a population of a species has a carrying capacity, i.e. the number of the species that can live within that area. That’s common sense; a certain area only has a limited amount of resources, so the population tends to grow exponentially until it reaches that capacity. A growing population (for example a population in a newly discovered area) generally overshoots the carrying capacity. They overuse their resources, many of them die (and hopefully they breed less), and the population drops back down below the carrying capacity. The steeper the rise, the steeper the fall. If that population drop doesn’t cause extinction, the population increases again until it goes over the carrying capacity again, but not as much as last time. Either birth rate decreases and/or death rate increases so that it falls again, but not as far as the first crash, et cetera, until it settles into equilibrium in a kind of gentle sine curve on the carrying capacity.

    Human ingenuity has allowed us to change our carrying capacity. We spread out through the planet a while ago and reached an steady population for a long time. Agriculture allowed a few more of us to survive at the same time within close proximity to one another, albeit at the expense of our health. Incrementally, we got more efficient at getting calories out of the soil, and population of the earth rose slowly over the centuries (with the exception of the Black Plaque).

    Then the industrial revolution happened, along with all of the other technological advances of the past couple hundred years. We managed to reset our carrying capacity by orders of magnitude, and our population began the exponential growth spurt that we’re still riding today. Without conscious effort (i.e. family planning /birth control), we are bound to overshoot that capacity, and the steeper the decline, the steeper the fall. That means a lot of death, and not a good life for those people who live through it. Better medicine only makes the people who have enough food and water live survive disease long enough to eat more resources, so somebody dies. Agricultural “progress” (a la Monsanto) might inch that carrying capacity up even further, rewarded us with a steeper decline just a few more years down the road.

    You probably already know all of this. The point is, population growth ends somewhere. Any talk of sustainability without talk about population control pushing our problems back, not solving them However, we (as human beings) can make conscious decisions about how many babies we have. We don’t have to ever reach that carrying capacity at all, and we don’t have to keep stretching that carrying capacity out further and further at the expense of quality of life.

    Here’s the crux of this: I don’t think we have a moral obligation to try to max out the number of living human beings on this planet. We have already passed the point where the current population could all live as if they were Western middle class. Our population will pass the carrying point where could live if we all ate broccoli instead of rice, if it hasn’t already. Our population will also one day pass the point where we can all live off of even rice. Should your ancestors some day feel guilty because they have a full bowl of starch, which isn’t a “sustainable” meal for the whole population?

    We have to draw the line somewhere before we reach that point or the world won’t be pretty place. So why not draw that line where we can all eat the way we were meant to eat? That’s our healthy carrying capacity. It may mean that we reach the population crash a little bit sooner than if we all started living off of porridge right now, but its coming either way.

    If we want to lessen the catastrophes that are coming from overpopulation (and I think everyone should), we need to get serious about the things that cut down on population, rather than each generation getting a smaller piece of the of the pie. And that’s a whole different politically and religiously charged problem that eating rice isn’t going to solve.

  2. Chef Says:

    Andy,

    You hit many nails on the head. If you look at a long term graph of human population, our ability to sustain growth in a given enviroment has determined our population. Almost all explosions in population, local and global, are brought about by ‘energy’. Very early on it was wood/peet for fuel and material for building structures, available water sources, etc that predicated where we lived and how comunities expanded, but more importantly it was ‘machinery’ that produced the work for those efforts that determined if we stay or migrate. That machinery we human hands. Run out of hands to do the labor? It’s time to go conquer the Hittites and enslave more ‘energy’ to get the work done. Then pack animals, beasts of burden, horses, what have you.

    The OFF THE CHART explosions in expansion were brought about by discoveries of fuels. The use of coal to generate steam, then the mother of all big bangs: the discovery of oil in little ol’ pensylvania was followed up by a level of productivity that just removed human hands from the equation almost entirely and population went apeshit.

    As a nation we surpassed both the ability to survive off local ‘energy’ and resources just prior to the Spanish American War (many suggest that conflict was brought about simply to keep the pathways to the far east open and keep the philipines ‘ours’). Now we neither can survive on our own resources, so we must ‘pilfer’ them from abroad and MUST sell the product we create with those resources overseas or the entire house of cards goes flat.

    I am, sadly, absolutely convinced that only a catastrophe of biblical proportions will supply either the impetus for change or the solution in and of itself.

    … and this selfish f*cker writing this wants to be clear of all that excrement bouncing off the global fan. Not entirely tongue in cheek: what’s a mensch to do? start becoming a survivalist and begin burrying fuel/supplies in the north woods in my armed to the hilt compount? Me thinks not, but I am absolutely without answer to the most pressing problem that faces us all.

  3. Andy C. Says:

    I guess all you can do is look out for those close to you now, and try to do what you can to get people to realize that there are too many of us, even if its a lost cause. That doesn’t really satisfy me, either.

    Personally, as somebody who entered a career of trying to protect the environment, its deeply depressing, because it makes me wonder about the meaning of my work. Since nothing is sustainable given a high enough population, am I just trying to make sure that a couple more generations can live in a healthy environment? Am I trying to put enough protections in place so that when that catastrophe of biblical proportions happens the survivors still have enough of a functioning ecosystem to start over? Am I just trying to protect the US, so that we can live in relatively good health while the rest of the world goes to $hit around us? None of those things really keep me going as a mission in life.

    And the really frustrating thing about it is that I had to come to my realization myself, because even though its common sense, talking about overpopulation is a politically and religiously charged issue, so we collectively avoid talking about it.

    But people who are educated and have information about family planning have fewer babies. Education, especially educations of women, works. Of course, there are the religions and politician of the world standing in the way of that happening, but at least it’s something to work for.

  4. AnnaSara Says:

    Yes, the global population is still increasing exponentially, and I just graphed some data, and it is still one of those go-to-infinity graphs. But I think that progress has been made. Education and family planning have been improving the world over. There is a lot of stuff to be depressed about, and still a lot to do, but I don´t think we need to lose hope that humanity will survive.

    On that track, Hans Rosling (see video), awesome smart guy, points out that birth rates have actually converged in much of the world, including China, India, Pakistan, and the like, at a low birth rate. It´s the two billion poorest of the poor who are left with a population explosion. Even a lot of religious leaders are behind family planning, at least when you frame it as child spacing, because they see the benefits to families when they are able to better care for the children the do have.
    Video that is cool: http://www.gapminder.org/videos/population-growth-explained-with-ikea-boxes/

    Now about the paleo eating. I am thinking some sort of relocation of world population so we are less densely living, with more local farming (of non-grains) and local eating. Hmm. Most people now live in urban areas though (the world population recently switched from majority rural to majority urban), so that may be difficult… I´m going to go out on a limb here and say that trains are the answer. Yup. At least that is what just came to me. We need people to be able to get where they are going quickly and efficiently, with fewer greenhouse gases and other crap. Therefore, we need trains. That way, people can live a little more spread out, sustain some farms, and live better? Argh. Trains need energy. Farms need space. And there are a LOT of people. Well, my thoughts have run out… But I hope I added something to the conversation.

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Borrowed Wisdom

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by Henry Rollins