Friday, December 21, 2012

Overeating and tradition

It's the time of year when many Christians, former Christians, as well as those who want to jump on the bandwagon, so to speak, celebrate the end of the calendar year with at least one feast day, Christmas. It's no coincidence that the day to honor Christ's birth falls around the winter solstice. It is the gloomiest part of the northern hemisphere year, the start of winter, and a time for embracing any excuse for indulging in light, heat, and ample food (and drink). The Roman (pagan) feast of Saturnalia falls around this time, and we all know that the Romans were party animals.
Today is one of the two ironic days of the solar year. It marks the beginning of winter - yet tomorrow the days start growing longer until we reach the summer solstice (around June 21). That day is the first day of summer, of course, but it also heralds the shortening of the daylight hours all the way up to Dec. 21 or 22.
If you look at a calendar from 100-200 years ago - say, 1800 - you will see how many saints' days there were. People were expected to fast on certain days, feast on others. I suppose this was a system that had been worked out (not necessarily "planned" by an elder or a committee, though who knows what kind of control went on, way back when?) to help with food distrubution amongst the populace. It was normal to go without all food for a day or two, or without certain foods - usually scarcities like land animals and their products - for a longer period, e.g., Lent. Later, there was a feast of some kind. The entire year was broken up into this on/off pattern, not just at major holidays like Easter.
When people now laugh about overeating at Christmas, they are simply honoring tradition, if you really think about it. The trouble is, they do not honor tradition all the time! They never fast. They never go without certain foods as a way of 1) respecting scarcity; 2) valuing the foods they consume by going without them from time to time (absence makes the heart grow fonder). That lopsided "traditional" behavior contributes, no doubt, to the epidemic of obesity in Western countries, the plague of food waste, the proliferation of intense farming operations, and the attendant environmental pollution and animal cruelty. More appreciative consumers would better honor the living beings who feed them.
Maybe it's time to bring back some of the old ways - while we still have the freedom to choose to abstain. Any future scarcities - leading to local or widespread famine - will force us to go without luxuries and maybe without minimal daily nutrients. How about starting a fashion for pre-holiday fasts? They wouldn't involve starvation, just selective abstinence and calorie reduction. How much better roasted bird and high-calorie desserts would taste after a week of bean soup and dry crackers!


Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday vs. BUY NOTHING DAY

It started, like so many trends, in the U.S.A. But now the phenomenon called Black Friday is coming to Canada.
Joy. (Sarcasm.)
What society doesn't need is another reason to pursue ephemeral thrills (=dopamine rushes) like some kind of basic human right/rite. But creating a ritual around a shopping frenzy (often with only pseudo bargains, as it turns out) seems to be doing just that.
Business may have depended on convincing people to buy ever since business was invented, but the past two decades or so have seen this model getting more and more into our collective psyches. I buy thereofre I am could be the modern credo. It seems that we have forgotten how to be happy without involving a commercial transaction. Shopping has gone beyond "retail therapy." The image that comes to mind is the old experiment where rats with electrodes poked directly into their so-called pleasure centers press a lever to stimulate themselves at the expense of everything else - even eating.
We need to stimulate our pleasure centers -- whatever those are -- at the expense of any kind of serenity or simplicity.
And as greater minds than mine have noted, purchasing something in order to feel "happy" creates a hole that can never be filled.
We have forgotten the meaning of the word "enough." In fact, I think the word is disappearing from our lexicon.
Business wants it that way. If you realize that you have enough clothing for the next year or so, you stop buying a new dress as a pick-me-up. If you stop eating when you're full, you eat less overall, and therefore need to throw less into your basket in the supermarket. Maybe you will stop going to a megamart and start frequenting independent stores instead. But business can't have that! They want you to think it involves too many decisions about quality and price.
If you do what you're supposed to do, you'll keep going to the same enormous store with the plummeting prices - they're plummeting because they say so ... how can you tell if you don't go elsewhere to compare? - and obediently fill your basket with needs and wants.
What business has already accomplished is the blurring of needs and wants in the average brain. We can hardly tell one form the other anymore!
Let us resist. Let us examine our lives, determine our true needs in quiet moments, far from the seduction of fancy ads and in-store "specials," and put things back that we really don't need. Not only will we have more money left for saving, or even for spending on better quality things that will last longer, we will have less to worry about.
See the "Reverend" Billy's tirade about shopping here.
The more you have, the more you have to lose. It's not freedom. It's a trap.
Buy Nothing Day, the day after American Thanksgiving, asks us to resist. Put away your wallet until you need something. Don't shop for comfort or solace or entertainment. Find those precious things in people, animal companions, wildlife, community, good works, solitude, the arts.
Long live the philosophy of BUY NOTHING DAY!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Brain Porn (!?)

Came across this interesting (and quite funny) article in THE NEW STATESMAN today.
It's about the proliferation of brain science - or shall I say, pseudoscience - in the past five years or so. U.S. authors like Malcolm Gladwell and the recently dethroned king of accessible neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, have led the trend. But many others from the U.K. as well as the U.S. have jumped on some sort of bandwagon. The bookstore shelves are full of them, and I'm sure many are soon to be published.
Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist (and you can be, too!)

I have to say that I'm glad people are publishing articles and books about one of the most fascinating things in the universe, the human brain. (For one thing, I hope to turn this blog into a book one day, and I have another [smaller] book in the planning stages.)
However, I am alarmed that, like many fashions that pop up overnight like mushrooms after a rain, this one could be easy-come, easy-go. Once people catch wind of the insubstantiality of most claims, they will lose interest and move on to something else - something less solid underneath. After all, neuroscience on its own isn't exactly snakeoil, it's a perfectly respectable study of a highly challenging subject, with plenty of legitimate results. The trouble is, many of these so-called science writers don't bother to weed out the flimsy findings (that may sound wonderful) from the well-supported ones.
I like how this writer describes how neuro-everything is spreading throughout popular culture, largely due to the use of brain imagery, or "scans."
In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.
 I wish someone would pay me to read a pile of these books (without the scan, thank you) and do a compare-and-contrast for a magazine - after I check some of each book's central thesis with a trusted source, of course.
I'm all for caveat emptor: but how would the average consumer ride out this latest tsunami of fashionable cure-alls?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Abundance & Waste

Went to the local farmers' market the other evening. In one of the regular fruit stands, a woman was cutting up pineapples, a nice service for those of us afraid to cut ourselves in the process. But the waste piled up - some of which could have been eaten.
 It reminded me of the frightening statistics concerning food waste. Every year, in a single country like Canada, millions of tons of food are discarded. Some of it is household refuse - you know, the stuff at the back of the fridge that is starting to move - and the rest comes from restaurants, outdoor venues, etc. etc. The richer the country, the larger the waste of otherwise usable material.
No surprise there. But since so much money could be saved, not to mention the ever-diminishing available area in landfills, you have to wonder how this problem has gotten so out of hand.
Abundance must do something critical to the human brain, more than just causing us to salivate, in the case of fresh food. It causes us to take chances, which we wouldn't dare do in times of scarcity. (Wasteful people in famines get hungrier faster, and probably die sooner.)
I wonder if the sight of multiple items of the same category - such as the squashes below - creates different responses from , say, an all-you-can-eat buffet with a variety of items?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Future of Food

 If it has not become clear by now, the human food supply is not secure. We didn't need a major drought in most of North America to think this, but I imagine many people lived their lives from day to day without giving food security a second thought until the recent food price increases. (And more are ahead. Climate change is here to stay.)
Why should they have worried up to now? When something does not require your attention by being irregular, even occasionally difficult or nonexistent, we stop thinking about it.
Well, maybe now we will stop taking our food for granted.
Sure, the subject has come up many times over the decades of our supposed wealth and prosperity. But the talk has mostly been a part of aid programs to other countries. Those "other countries" are still hungry or nearly so, but now we have ceased to regard a steady flow of foods and food products from producer to consumer as a given.
People are talking more about old-school solutions to food insecurity, to add to the new-fangled ideas dreamed up by scientists and politicians:
  • Home gardens;
  • Community gardens;
  • Urban agriculture (as in parts of Cuba);
  • Alternative foods (see below);
  • Better versions of existing crops;
  • Different ways of growing all sorts of crops, such as intercropping - the old way mostly tropical farmers will plant two to four species all together, thus minimizing sun damage, water loss, invertebrate and vertebrate predation, and weeds.
The key seems to be redundancy: back-up measures already in place in case something fails. Hospitals have generators in case of electicity black-outs. Cities should have local food production in case of delivery problems, droughts, etc.
And what about "alternative foods"? As John Vidal says in his article in The Guardian, insects and lab-grown meat may provide most of our protein one day. The husbandry of large animals like cattle may become undeniably unsustainable, due to loss of pasture to drought, loss of feed to direct human consumption (instead of indirect, i.e., via the cow which eats it first), and low water supplies. (Cattle require loads of water to drink in their lifetimes, and the slaughtering process is also very water-intensive.)
As the human population continues to grow, and most people insist on animal protein every or nearly every day, we're going to have to find solutions.
Grasshopper soufflé anyone?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The "Usefulness" of Nature

To many people, NATURE is a place "out there." They fail to notice how indebted we are to the natural world - and how much a part of it we still are, despite thousands of years of trying to separate ourselves from it. It is neither supermarket nor recreation site nor messy menace we should keep out as much as possible.
Our food certainly continues that thread of intimate connection, even if some people would happily try to sell you lab-grown meat and genetically modified plants. In fact, our diet has probably been one of the biggest problems. We have evolved strategies to separate good from not-good food, and that mindset has led to separating "good" (useful) nature from "bad" or useless.
I think many would agree that we have messed up spectacularly in this dichotomy.
World-renown marine biologist Sylvia Earle says this about saving apparently useless species frome extinction. (A larger part of her essay appears here.)

[W]e need the leatherback, the panda and the worm because they might be useful to us. We have all heard about medicines that come from the rain forest. That is true. But consider this. With all of the millions of species on this planet is it possible that there is a cure for colon cancer in the genetic information of a beetle, a plant or a fungus in the forests of Costa Rica? The earth is like a house overflowing with wedding presents. When the bride and groom come home from their honeymoon they decide it is too crowded and throw out some of those gifts. A few weeks later they find that they don’t have a toaster or a vacuum. They were there but got thrown away. That is what we are doing, throwing away the gifts of biodiversity before we even unwrap (study) them. There are scientists who question whether biodiversity is needed for the stability of ecosystems. We might want to keep that biodiversity around until we figure that out.
 I see her approach, but it saddens me. In order to get people to agree with her, she's playing into the same dominant social paradigm that causes the problem.
In future posts I will try to wrestle with these issues.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Omnivore Goes Shopping

One reason I started this blog was to discuss the brain - one of my favorite subjects. I certainly enjoy talking about food as well! The study of food involves almost every university course you can think of - from economics to physiology. Being a generalist, this suits me perfectly.
The omnivore brain evolved, I believe, to find us food in the best way possible - but the results have had influences in every other or almost every other part of our behavior. I hope to be discussing these in future posts.
One came to mind this monring, while I was reading, a U.S. environmental news site. Have a look: subject was clothing - how cheap clothing harms the planet. Adjusted for inflation, the price of most clothes has never been as low as it is now. So everyone, rich or poor, can have a wardrobe packed with many, many clothes. Unfortunately, these items may be low quality. They don't hold up after several washes, the sewing is inadequate, and the colors are cheap. The more a person has packed in her drawers and closet, the less she is likely to wear any particular item - in fact, she may forget she even has it at all! That's false economy - for her. (Anything she paid - even if she got the dress at 75% off - is 100% wasted if she never wears it.) For the businesses and the workers who labored to get that item to the store, it's also a kind of waste. And the rivers polluted with textile effluence, the cotton and flax fields loaded with pesticides ... enough said.
Why do we buy many cheap things instead of a few good quality things that look better and cost about the same or even less than the total paid for the garbage? It's not simply a "bargain-seeking gene" at work. It's not simply the fact that many people do not add up how much they spend. It's the matter of the omnivore brain: it delights in abundance. Like the way it overeats fat, sugar and salt when the opportunity arises, because these nutrients were always in low supply in nature, it goes a bit overboard when anything seems easy to gather all at once - a rack of tank tops marked down twice could be a field of ripe blackberries to that part of our brain.
If we know the brain has these built-in tendencies, it's easier to control them. It involves self-awareness, for one thing: realize that you lose your common sense when you see a SALE sign, and maybe leave your credit card at home! Education also helps: my mother taught me from an early age to wait to buy one pair of good shoes instead of blowing a few dollars on a cheap pair that would hurt my feet (and end up in the trash). More education in the schools about sustainable fashion (teens go through these cheap-and-disposable clothes more than anyone) would help. However, my personal environmental agenda aside, I think that putting the emphasis on fashion instead of sustainable would convert greater numbers of buffet-style shoppers into wardrobe-building style mavens. Bring in someone who looks terrific on a small number of stylish, high-quality, long-lasting clothes and accessories, and let the class judge with their own eyes.
Meanwhile, society has to change as well. We are allowing business and its emphasis on high turnover to tell us how to shop - at the expense of low-paid workers in other countries, and the land where everything comes from and returns to....

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Minor Trauma: Eating Away From Home

Ever wonder why many cities are starting to look the same? I mean, if you travel a fair bit, or you watch the details on mainstream movies. There are fast food chains almost everywhere (and the same kind of chains; I won't honor them by listing even a few). Is the world simply becoming less imaginative, allowing the insidious creep of homogeneity to flatten out our food choices? Are people in other countries eager to have fun "food" instead of their tradtional fare, so they can be "like us"?
Yes, all of these are probably true. But these chains proliferated across North America in the first place, before going overseas, because many people were used to seeing those brands, and the familiarity comforted them, perhaps even more than the taste or texture of the foods themselves. Eventually, the companies expanded wherever they could.
Eating new food, even if you are only in a neighboring county, let alone in an entirely new culture, is a potentially dangerous venture. Part of being an omnivore - the by-now famous "omnivore's dilemma" - is the need to balance fear and desire. (It has that in common with life in general, I suppose!) You desire novelty, because new foods may be more nutritious or simply tastier. An ancient human who scorned new foods would have had to be extremely lucky that his tried-and-true favorites never became scarce. On the other hand, if you are too eager to try new things, and aren't careful, you could eat something poisonous or toxic. Ever wonder why we evolved to eat in groups? Watching others eat something and suffer no ill effects is a great reasurance in the hazardous world of omnivory.
Individuals vary greatly in how they balance fear of and desire for novelty. Conservative thinkers are less prone to poisoning, perhaps, but they lack variety in their diets. The disadvantages of this monotony may extend beyond the pleasures of the palate: they may lead to hard-grained habits that will never budge, even if the doctor orders a change of pace for health reasons.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the cowboys of cuisine, the daredevils of the diet. I don't need to mention their names, because those people already make plenty of money by attracting attention to themselves (what better entertainment for an omnivore than the chance to watch someone foolish enough to eat something still alive or fermented to the point of putrefaction?).
Back to travel. Being away from home is risky in itself. Then add new customs, perhaps a new language or two, and try to find something to eat! Everything looks kind of ... odd, until.... Hey, there's that hamburger place we used to go to back home! It's a bit boring, but at least we know what it's supposed to taste like, and we won't have to worry about the local dishes!
Understandable, yes, but you wonder why some people bother to travel at all, if they're just going to eat "at home" while they do!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Omnivore perspectives from Down Under

How the time flies!
I have meant to keep this blog from sliding into oblivion, the place where all good intentions tend to end up, but y'know ... life got in the way.
I have been focussing on various kinds of nonfiction and fiction in the intervening months, always busy thinking and writing and reading. There is more about the human brain coming out every day, in the media, and in published papers and books. All encouraging.
Nice to have more to read, but the pressure to get my own theories sorted out and set on paper/screen is greater than ever!
I found this blog entry today from a former correspondent, Peter Grant, a fellow generalist in Hobart, Tasmania. Here are his thoughts on omnivores:
It's interesting that he uses bears as his prime examples of omnivores. Like us, they are intelligent, selective, and wasteful. Studying the way bears navigate the food web may shine some light on our own habits.