“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”:
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.