“The profitability of production cannot expand indefinitely. Any increase in the quantity of soil, water, minerals, or plants put into a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification. It has been the burden of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies. That declining efficiencies have adverse effects upon the average standard of living cannot be doubted.’
-MARVIN HARRIS, ‘Cannibals and Kings’
This comment made me chuckle: “The futurology future is starting to look worse than the collapse future.” This was on Reddit in response to an article about cockroaches providing the “milk of the future”:
Scientists think cockroach milk could be the superfood of the future (Science Alert)
This really does seem like The Onion at this point. Someone suggested that Reddit’s collapse and futurology boards should merge at some point. Believe it or not, they aren’t all that far apart.
We’ve already been treated to an endless litany of articles about how insect ranching will provide the protein of the future. Then there’s the meat grown in a petri-dish, and the nutrition shake cheekily named Soylent scarfed down by the Silicon Valley crowd so they can cram in a few more hours of work after popping their Ritalin. Now people are questioning whether the government should step in and force us to eat less meat.
And yet we are still simultaneously told that overpopulation and resource depletion are not a problem, and that more growth is good.
This is progress???
One of the things I’ve written about over the years is this idea that technological innovations are inherently good. But it’s clear what’s really going on: desperately trying to maintain the status quo in the face of increasing population pressure and declining resources. There’s a technical term for this: intensification.
Marvin Harris, whose works serve as a guidepost for this blog, warned us that intensification always leads to lower living standards for the majority of people in the long run, while only benefiting a tiny handful. This is a law of history. Over the years, I’ve tried to point out the difference between true innovation which solves problems or allows us to do things we could not do before, and intensification, which is essentially squeezing blood from a stone. In the former category are things like antibiotics and radio, which solve problems (killer infections) or allow us to do new things (communicate globally). In the latter category are things like electric cars (attempting to keep the unsustainable automobile infrastructure alive) and aquaculture (to make up for stripping the oceans bare of wild fish).
For the majority of people, there is no difference, since both are “growth” and growth is always good, full stop. GDP, the yardstick by which we measure progress in the modern world (which even its creator warned us against) is agnostic as to the source of growth, whether it is producing more food to feed hungry people or asthma inhalers to deal with the lung irritants from air pollution.
People tend to forget we’ve been here before.
Back during the Ice Age (late Pleistocene), we H. sapiens lived primarily off of herds of large fauna, especially reindeer, mammoth and bison. This was supplemented with wild salmon in season. The fattiest parts of the animal were the most prized and sought after. Bones were cracked and boiled to extract the grease. Most calories came from nutrient-dense meat and fat, while plants were consumed for their beneficial vitamins and minerals (plants are less calorie dense).
Then the large fauna started to die off. They died off due to a double-blow of a changing climate and increasing human predation. Scientists debate about which was the primary cause, but it’s pretty clear that whenever humans showed up in a pristine environment, the large animals went extinct shortly thereafter. Many of these animals had survived previous climatic changes, so it’s doubtful that climate change alone was responsible. Skeletons riddled with spear points provide more damning evidence for our species.
In response, we launched a broad spectrum revolution – using our omnivorous diet to exploit a wider variety of foodstuffs, particularly plant foods. This began with acorns and pistachios, but soon moved to grass seeds, sedges and pulses. Meanwhile, the prey animals got smaller and smaller, from reindeer and bison, to gazelles and fallow deer, to hares and waterfowl. Instead of the nutritious and diverse food sources of their ancestors, we became more and more dependent upon eating pulverized grass seeds, obtained at the cost of backbreaking labor for harvesting, threshing and grinding.
The human population became mostly vegetarian by necessity, and remained so for roughly the next 8,000 or so years. The problem is, a vegetarian diet doesn’t provide a lot of necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients for optimal health. Today’s vegetarians can choose from a plethora of foods year round that simply weren’t available to ancient people. They don’t have to worry about what is in season and have the entire world as their larder. In the past, however, the vast majority of people ended up subsisting on a diet of weak beer and gruel. Regular meat consumption became a privilege restricted to the wealthy upper classes, while everyone else went begging. Hunting, an activity once done by all humans everywhere since time immemorial, became the exclusive provenance of kings and princes – society’s rulers. While it is true that too much meat can be detrimental to health, too little is perhaps even more damaging. Humans are meat-eaters, and a certain level of fat and protein is required for optimal health. The protein in grains and legumes is incomplete (the body needs 22 different types of amino acids to function properly; adults can synthesize 13 of those internally, but the other 9 must be obtained from food), and there are no fats (the human brain is over 60 percent fat). Grains produce an over-abundance of omega-6 fatty acids, poisonous lectins to prevent their consumption, have low nutrient density, and high acidity. They are actually a terrible thing to base a primate diet around. But we had no other choice, thanks to intensification.
And this is dramatically reflected by the skeletons of ancient peoples, who show major signs of malnutrition, disease, and stunted growth. At the same time, arthritis and other signs of wear and tear make their appearance on the bones of people who now have to spend hours a day grinding grain in a saddle quern rather than fishing and chasing after wild animals. This gruel also breaks down into simple sugars in the mouth during digestion, meaning that cavities and premature tooth decay became endemic as well.
As population pressure grew, grains, pulses and sedges, once “unpalatable” dietary supplements cultivated by hunter-gatherers for times of extreme scarcity or fermentation into medicinal beverages, became the chief dietary staple for most people. At the same time, humans found themselves preyed upon by a new class of predator: their own kind, which continues unabated to this day.
In order to keep large herbivores from going totally extinct, we embarked upon what Harris called “the greatest conservation project in history”: animal domestication. Meanwhile, cheap carbohydrates from grain are what kept most of the human population alive from day-to-day for thousands of years, such that “bread” is synonymous in all ancient cultures with “food.”
All this came from attempting to exploit resources more intensively from our environment in the face of increasing population pressure.
This sad tale, memorably spun by Jared Diamond some years ago, reflects Harris’ principle: intensification inevitably leads to benefits for the few; misery and oppression for the many.
During periods of deintensifcation, we actually recovered some of the losses. This was due to either 1.) a reduced population or 2.) new lands and resources opened up for exploitation. For example, signs of health improve after the Black Death in Europe for the survivors, due to the reduced population pressure. There were more resources to go around per head. Also, the opening up of the new lands due to colonization (and the dieoff of the native peoples), brought vast new areas of virgin land under cultivation. This led to more wealth, as well as political freedoms. Serfdom waned after the black death, and the American Revolution put Enlightenment principles of representative democracy and justice into practice. Perhaps the most dramatic result came from the harnessing of millions of years of stored sunlight in fossil fuels, combined with the scientific method. This allowed many more people a higher standard of living, even in the face of increasing population and intensifying resource use. It was during this period that “economics” became the guiding principle of our civilization, and it chalked up all benefits to “institutions”–typically capitalist market institutions–rather than a temporary superabundance of energy and resources.
Thomas Jefferson once noted that the Americans in the room were all a head taller than their European counterparts. That’s what happens when you have plenty for everybody. The first Europeans in North America also noted how much taller the Native Americans were. As this article notes, in the past, Americans ate more meat than today, and were healthier as well:
How Americans Used to Eat (The Atlantic)
Eventually, the Malthusian cycle kicked in again. Population grew, the empty spaces filled up, and the frontier was closed. Increasing competition caused wages and purchasing power to drop. People gradually lost what self-sufficiency they had, allowing the elites to consolidate power. People once again began working longer, harder, for less. Sound familiar?
We intensified again – in order to keep up with the demand for meat, we crowded animals together into feedlots in unsanitary conditions and fed them cheap corn (maize), which they are not adapted to eat. To cope with the inevitable sickness which resulted, we pumped the animals full of antibiotics (which has a side effect of increasing growth). It is these miserable and tortured animals which most of us are forced to eat now, thanks to intensification.
However, domesticated meat is less nutritious than the wild variety. The Omega-3/Omega-6 profile is altered, and there are less antioxidants. Omega-6 fatty acids reduce inflammation, which is increasingly being pinpointed as the root cause of just about every disease you care to name, from autoimmune diseases, to Alzheimer’s, to arthritis, to chronic pain, depression, and cancer. At the same time, it’s been shown that grains actually increase inflammation, and are implicated in a host of metabolic diseases:
This Is Your Brain on Gluten (The Atlantic)
While grass-fed, hormone-free beef is still available, it costs more, meaning it is restricted to those with high incomes, just like in the past. And hunting is still primarily an elite sport for the rich in many places (especially outside North America). Just like in the past, the poor people trapped in “food deserts” feed themselves with cheap carbohydrates, now in the form of processed corn and sugar products made by the industrial food system, while the wealthy can purchase boutique ‘lifestyle” products at Whole
Paycheck Foods. Malnutrition now takes the form of obesity as well as starvation, although much of the non-industrialized world still deals with empty bellies, stunted growth and vitamin deficiencies, including many of those who produce export crops for the West. That’s on top of poverty and pollution.
When we scraped the oceans clean of fish and poisoned our air and waterways due to industrial pollutants (e.g. mercury ash is a side effect of coal power generation) we turned to fish farming, (aquaculture) – one of the favorite high-tech “innovations” of the futurist crowd. But farmed fish are nutritionally inferior to wild ones. Wild fish travel widely and get their food from a great variety of sources. This means that they have a much better Omega-3 fatty acid profile (which prevents inflammation and helps brain growth). But farmed fish have to be fed. This means their diet is far more restricted, and hence their meat less nutritious (more Omega-6’s). In fact, salmon needs to be fed a pill in order to turn them pink so that consumers will buy them since their meat does not develop its natural color from their diet. As Spencer Wells notes in Pandora’s Seed, were now doing for fish what we did for ungulates some 8000 years ago: a desperate attempt to preserve what remains. Farmed fish is replacing wild fish in supermarkets. As with grass-fed meat, the wild variety is now sold at a premium affordable only to those with high incomes (sound familiar)?
In each and every case, intensification had led to far more work for ultimately inferior products. This is always the result of intensification in the long run.
We are constantly told we can’t go back to hunting and gathering (even if we wanted to). Why is that? What’s left unsaid is the reason: too many people and too much environmental degradation as the result of 6-8,000 years of intensification, which also brought about disease, governments, wars, taxes, poverty, inequality, and so on. Now we’re told we’ve got to eat less meat (which means more grains), live in small, tightly sealed houses, use less water, take shorter showers, and so forth. In essence, that we will “innovate” our way to success. But all of these are signs of lower living standards. And no wonder: seven billion-plus people, all quarters of the earth occupied and brought under the plow, rain forests being chopped down, the most easily accessible fossil fuels plateauing, toxic pollution of the air, land and water, overpumping of ground water, and the stable climate of the Holocene threatened by carbon levels. Intensification caused all of these things; it is not the solution. The next phase of intensification isn’t going to lead to better living standards any more than the last few rounds. Yet we’ve been tricked into thinking it will, because we don’t realize that fossil fuels are what are ultimately responsible for our current living standards (us Westerners, that is), not intensification. And even then, given the levels of stress, overwork, social dysfunction, health maladies and mental disease in industrialized societies, we might be tempted to wonder if even our living standards are all that great to begin with.
Furthermore, we are told that a healthy diet centered around pastured meat, plants and nuts is just not possible because it’s too damaging to the environment, or too “expensive.” That is, “we” need to “feed the world!” But according to the elites (the ones who benefit from intensification, remember) the answer isn’t less people, or curtailing economic growth. No, instead it’s new “innovations” that are profitable to the parasitical corporate owners of this planet: lab-grown meat, hydroponics, vertical gardens, meal-replacement shakes, protein powder from ground-up crickets, steel-and-glass human anthills. “The futurology future is starting to look worse than the collapse future.” Maybe that’s because the collapse future has more room to grow actual real food, live in a house you built yourself with your friends and family, spend time in nature, work less, play more, and get in touch with what we really are, deep down, instead of what industrial society wants to mold us to be.
Now, for the record, I have no problem with eating bugs. The Permaculturist in me says we should exploit all sources for sustenance in our environment such that they work together in a sustainable, harmonious way in line with the earth’s natural ecosystems. Raising insects, as we now do with bees, makes sense. And, yes, the overconsumption of Americans is grotesque and makes us unhappy, and we’d be better off ditching it (which I already do voluntarily). So to be clear: what I am criticizing is not eating insects or deriving milk from cockroaches per se. Nor am I defending the overconsumption produced by status-driven consumer capitalism. Rather, I am critiquing the idea that these futurology trends are signs of progress rather than collapse. Which is why r/collpase and r/futurology increasingly appear to be turning into the same thing.
P.S This comment nails it.
19 thoughts on “Soylent Burgers and Cockroach Milk”
Great (albeit frightening) article. Though Snowpiercer was a SciFi movie and not realistic, there was a scene where the proletarian class of the train discovers that their rations are made from insects. In fact, the whole movie can be seen as a sort of extended metaphor that touches on the points you made above. I wonder if you’ve seen it/are familiar with it.
Yes, I saw it a few months back. I thought it was kind of the opposite of Elysium – the scenario was unrealistic and the setup was kind of dull, but it got better towards the end instead of worse. The ending made some interesting and controversial philosophical points–that leadership is not oppression but a necessary burden reluctantly embraced by chosen people, and that many of the supposed forces of “liberation” are actually in cahoots with the leadership all along. Food for thought, indeed.
A lot of people on the Reddit sub mentioned the movie too.
This kind of thing all starts with ‘hey, cool, cockroach milk, let’s try and get a grant to study that!’
So the researchers go for a grant, and get framed by economism. To get grant funding, you need to address a concern of the investor class: in this case, feeding perpetual growth. The scientists didn’t mean it, but were forced (by being wage slaves) to put something like that in the proposal.
Now the news picks up on a ridiculous excuse to discredit science. Why discredit science? Because it might provide an alternative to economism, the only true belief! Remember people: there will never be shortages! The Market will always provide! There *cannot* ever be shortages: before a shortage occurs, price will rise to temper demand, and then other suppliers of the good will be magically provided by the Market!
Yup, economism has been busily denying the ideas put forward by the first “official” economist-Thomas Malthus. The problem is that intensification driven by overpopulation does lead to lower living standards in the long run, but over the last 150 years people have directly experienced the opposite thanks to a raft of fossil fuels and scientific discovery. So it’s very hard to convince people of that (see the comment by ‘Frank’ below).
Now science is being used to intensify to a degree never before possible, preventing the collapse “release valve” seen in past civilizations. That’s one reason why collapse predictions have been so far off in the past (e.g. the Green Revolution). This leads to smug complacency. Note that the inventors of the Green Revolution and antibiotics both warned us that their inventions would cease to be effective if used unwisely.
It’s an interesting paradox that capitalism depends on science and yet has to deny many of its conclusions in order to keep itself going (and constantly spend huge amounts of money to bamboozle the public!)
Forgot to mention: Michael Polanyi writes at length about this sort of thing – in reference to the function of science in the former Soviet Union. You think we ‘won’ the Cold War? 🙂
In which writings? Just starting to get into Karl’s brother.
‘Personal Knowledge’. Big book, starts real slow. Worth persevering tho 🙂
At the point where the bold future of futurology seems worse than collapse I think you start to have real problems controlling people and a police state and maybe an instilled sense of random terror and constant distraction. Pokemon Go and ISIS events seem appropriate. As a person of the hard left I struggle with the issue of technology and intensification. I am, of course, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian but we were always told that technology and growth under the sole control of the working class would be beneficial. These days I’m losing my religion in that regard. I still think a collective response is required to just about everything and I can’t stomach capitalism in any form or elitism but maybe we need to drop the idea that growth, technology and forced economies of scale (internationalization) are necessarily good.
That seems to be a fundamental divide between the reform-minded nowadays, specifically between the so-called Economodernists and, well, I’m, not sure who you’d call them (anarcho-primitivists? growth skeptics?).
This book takes one side the divide:
Of course, the opposite view would be that of, for example, the Unabomber: that technology, by its very nature, cannot lead to human flourishing for any but a select few:
Chris Smaje has done some great writing on this:
People in developed countries are taller and longer-lived than ever. The exceptions are those who can’t exercise impulse control, especially the drug users. These are facts. Telling tall tales of worsening health, other than for undisciplined white degenerates (You did see that movie deliverance, didn’t you, or just bgoogle mama June, that’s type of people we’re talking about) just weakens your argument.
That was not my argument. My argument was not that humans got taller in the twentieth century or are living longer than in the distant past. Of course those things are true, but they are totally irrelevant. My argument was instead:
1.) Intensification causes the quality of food to decline.
2.) The quality of foods is declining for large amounts of people all over the world.
3.) Even though we are living longer, the declining quality of foods is inflicting us with a large amount of chronic diseases–we’re living longer, but we’re living sicker
4.) If this trend continues, we will be eating a very degraded diet short on protein and necessary vitamins and minerals, and long on processed carbohydrates and manufactured Frankenfoods.
5.) In the past, the quality of the diet was higher during periods of abundance and low population density, such as the Paleolithic period, and the early days of colonial America. Mitigating factors such as disease burdens and poverty kept health measures from being optimal. We have very few indicators besides life expectancy to indicate how healthy people actually were, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate people in the past were much more robust (no major decline in old age, etc.).
6.) More intensification will cause health measures to continue to decline for most people, even as we find new methods of treating the effects.
The fact that we are living longer is not incompatible with the declining quality of nutrition. In fact, heights around the world have actually stopped increasing, and in many cases are actually declining. For example, see this New York Times article:
Most measures of physical conditioning show a continuous decline in robustness. For example:
Are you going to argue that the food quality today is getting better? Are you going to argue that we are actually getting healthier, despite the increases in cancer, diabetes, obesity, and sedentary lifestyles? Because those were the points of what I wrote. Sorry if you missed it.
Did you even look at any of the links in the article? Do you deny that there is an obesity crisis, or that poor nourishment is as much a factor in obesity as it is to malnutrition? Do you deny that increasing populations relative to the degradation of the natural world’s ecosystems is a contributor to this, as is the relentless drive to make food as cheap as possible? Do you deny that much of the research into Frankenfoods and entomophagy, and the drive to decrease protein consumption are signs of decreasing, not increasing, living standards and greater intensification to cope?
Please refrain from commenting unless you are in some way contributing to the argument. If I wanted to be snarky, I might point out that your reading comprehension skills seem to be sorely lacking. And your reference to “undisciplined white degenerates” indicates a troubling degree of sociopathy.
Your example of r/collpase becoming like r/futurology was a cross post from r/futurology – bad example. It’s a little competition that goes on between the two and also r/darkfutrology sometimes too. I have been banned from r/futurology for posting stuff that was too “doomy”. I can’t say for certain because I have not been on r/futrologly for a couple years, but IMO r/collapse has become even more dark and I see much despair from many young people (mostly guys). I could be filtering because I don’t pay attention to any new tech fixes other that to see the headline. If it makes it to production gets up to scale then I’ll take a look.
Moving on, here is an excellent book by British primatologist Richard Wrangham “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human”. Tons of stuff on our ancestors early eating habits and how they evolved and a very interesting hypothesis with much compelling evidence. Very cool.
“Speaker Series lecture by Dr. Richard Wrangham, Professor at Harvard University and co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project
Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. Renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Dr. Wrangham will show that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.
When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began.
Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.
Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, Dr. Wrangham sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A pathbreaking new theory of human evolution, Dr. Wrangham will fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins or in our modern eating habits.”
Yes, some other people pointed out the r/darkfuturology subreddit, which looks like a repository of all the ways the future looks worse than the present. A nice counterpoint.
Who is right? Well, forget the headlines and look at the theory. Harris’ point that intensification leads to lower, not higher, living standards once you exclude the exceptions is pretty robust.
I’ve been familiar with Richard Wrangham’s catching fire hypothesis for a while now. It makes perfect sense – extrasomatic energy would have affected human evolution. It answers a lot of questions, and I think it’s a pretty convincing argument.
See also the endurance running hypothesis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endurance_running_hypothesis
The comment you link at the end was made by me. Thanks so much for fleshing out the point I was lazily trying to make with such detail and reason.
Thank you. It was a good comment, and much more succinct than my overlong ramblings.
So, I have one of those new and growing chronic pain conditions that cannot be explained by the many mechanical injuries I have sustained in my younger years. 3 months ago I switched to a grain free diet. It’s really simple. I only eat a few things – all green leafy stuff, canned tuna, eggs, meat (mostly pork and chicken) regular salad dressings, mayo, little bits of onion, cheese and lots of spices. Coffee, tea, diet pop, heavy cream and mega water. In that 3 months, I lost 30 lbs, did not count calories, was not chronically hungry and have a good amount of pain reduction and especially with whole body flare up’s. Now when I go for walks or do small handyman jobs there is less of a pain price to pay which in turn reduces the medication and stress. Even though i am still consuming some franken foods, just eliminating the grains, sugars and most pre packaged stuff has made quite a positive difference in only 3 months. I don’t buy beef hardly ever and usually only eat it when I’m a guest. Not that big on it, but if I wanted all the organic veggies and range free, grass fed stuff, I would need to go back to full time employment to be able to afford that and plugging myself back in the matrix is last thing I want.
You know, about the same time I noticed the exact same thing. I’ve been having joint pain, and sometimes it’s pretty severe. I noticed it was always worse when I had a lot of sugar or grains. But when I avoided those foods, my joints wouldn’t hurt even after strenuous physical activity.
I’ve been trying and failing to stay on the Paleo bandwagon for a while. My latest temp job evaporated, so I don’t have enough for grass-fed meat anymore (which is pretty easy to get here), but I still try and avoid breads as much as possible (sugar and alcohol less successfully-they are pretty much my only joys in life anymore). Fortunately, I have more time to cook now, though.
The biggest diet advice I would give anyone is just to cut out the three “white poisons” – flour, sugar and salt – to the greatest extent possible and avoid all processed foods. Going hungry is better than eating bad stuff (and in fact is probably quite beneficial in small doses). I struggle to practice what I preach, though. Everything in the American diet comes wrapped in bread and/or pumped full of sweeteners. That’s what happens in a profit-based food “industry.”
Excellent post. A small detail: the use of antibiotics in livestock is primarily because they cause the animals to gain weight faster, not strictly to prevent disease, and hence the resistance to curtail them– they are now required to be economically competitive. It has baked itself into the system and represents an additional example of intensification.
Yes, that’s true. I did mention that, but the growth factor is the larger reason for the use of antibiotics, which makes it possibly even more tragic.