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....