Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Rapid Erosion of What We Once Called Common Sense

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Inspired by the work and articles of trendsetters like Dan Barber, Jamie Oliver, Pavan Sukhdev, and Frank Sesno.  A new way to look at our current situation that sheds light on how we think and ultimately why we do what we’re doing…

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Civilization’s uncanny capacity to consume [i] and hyper-specialize human beings also has an isolating quality that appears to be erasing all of our fundamental human connections. In a macroscopic sense this is old news.  Look no further than the erosion of memory and practiced traditions in native cultures across the planet.  Microscopically, however, the phenomenon has been more subtle – where – even the memory, traditions, and cultural beliefs and practices of and within civilization itself are constantly eroding and being replaced by others.  And with that, people are becoming so far removed from the natural order and environment that they’re beginning to lose their connections with one another and the substance of reality itself.

Take food knowledge and reform, for example.  It’s suddenly on everyone’s hot plate, from academics to chef-celebrities to the wife of our very president.  If health care reform did anything it opened everyone’s eyes to the emerging health-crisis, its staggering potential costs, and where much of the problem is truly derived. [ii] It’s the food!  No. It’s the food we’ve chosen to eat.  It’s us.  We buy the food therefore we dictate market composition.  But we’re choosing processed garbage over whole foods that would normally provide a balanced, healthy diet.  And we’re choosing not to prepare or truly ‘cook’ much of anything anymore, making it impossible for many of us to know anything about the quality and content of what were eating.

Now it’s true that manufacturers have capitalized on our evolutionary longings for sugar, fat, salt and calorically dense nutrients.  And it’s also true that fast and processed foods are actually cheaper than whole-foods because of market forces, subsidization, regulations and oversight (or the lack thereof).  And it’s even accurate to say that fast and processed foods require little to no preparation, last infinitely longer in comparison, and get way more advertising time.  But regardless of these considerable influences, there’s something else at work here – something far more profound. We are losing our connection with food wisdom, cooking, and its vital importance to health.  Otherwise none of this would even be happening. The current incarnation of civilization – the culture it’s breeding – is doing everything possible to fill our heads and all of the empty spaces within our lives with other information and activities.  And in the process it has devalued, understated and subsequently ignored venerable food knowledge and practices as being antiquated and largely unnecessary.  Hey – there’s no reason for any of this!  Better living through science and technology! That about sums it up.  Wolf down a microwaved hot pocket, pop some supplements or diet pills (or both) and get onto something that’s actually important for God sakes, because this isn’t.

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About a month ago celebrity chef-activist and current TED prize winner Jamie Oliver discussed his anti-obesity project, and the fundamental need for re-arming children with cooking skills and food knowledge. His arguments went as follows:

(Minute 7:14) “Home – The biggest problem with the home is that used to be the heart of passing on food, food culture, um – what made our society.  That aint happening anymore. And you know, as we go to work and as life changes, as life always evolves, we kind of have to look at it holistically – step back for a moment and readdress the balance.  It aint happening – hasn’t happened for 30 years…”

(Minute 8:26) “Lets get on to schools – something that I’m fairly much a specialist in.  Okay.  School.  What is school?  Who invented it?  What’s the purpose of school?  School was always invented to arm us with the tools to make us creative – do wonderful things – make us earn a living, etc. etc. etc.  You know it’s been kind of in this sort of tight box for a long, long time okay.  But we haven’t really evolved it to deal with the health catastrophes of America, okay.  School food is something that most kids – 31 million a day, actually – have twice a day, more than often – breakfast and lunch – 180 days of the year.  So you could say that school food is quite important really, judging the circumstances.  (Laughing from the crowd)…”  [iii]

Now the fact that fast food dominates school lunchrooms is no surprise to anyone.  However, Oliver’s passion and perspective on the subject helped to paint a clearer picture here regardless.  And at minute 11:14 when he was finally wrapping it up… well… that’s when he delivered the kicker!  He began by saying, “This is a little clip from an elementary school, which is very common, believe me.” It shows him standing before a group of about fifteen elementary students asking whether they recognize various common vegetables.  Many, if not all of the students, appear incapable of doing so. This goes on for tomatoes, cauliflower, beets, eggplant and of all things potatoes!  The clip ends with Oliver appealing once again to his adult audience to fully absorb the gravity of what just happened:

“Immediately you get a really clear sense of – do the kids know anything about where food comes from?  If the kids don’t know what stuff is then they will never eat it!” [iv]

A month later on March 17, 2010, prominent chef-scholar and New York Times op-ed columnist Dan Barber engaged in a Q&A session with TED interviewers as well.  And when asked this question…

“So for the rest of us who aren’t experts – but who want to eat responsibly and healthfully – what are a few things we can do that will actually make a difference?”  [v]

He stated the following as part of his response,

“The second thing you could do is grow your own food. It sounds crazy, but it’s not. If you’re across the street here, in New York, you could grow herbs in your windowsill. If you’re in the suburbs, you can plant in your back lawn. It’s not about providing 100% of your food; it’s about doing something that connects you to a natural system, and gets you closer to the food you’re eating.”  [vi]

Perhaps you’ve seen this type of appeal or observation elsewhere – say – from Dr. Mehmet Oz in his recent appearance on March 10, 2010 with David Letterman while stating the following:

There is a sacredness to food that we have violated today in America. And I think when we revisit these issues, and I think this is part of what’s happening – you know – In Washington we’re all talking about the healthcare bill. I don’t care which of those bills you pick, they’re all going to go bankrupt if we don’t deal with the underlying cause of loss of health in America. It’s the care of health issue they’re focusing on, not the health care. And that involves how we subsidize certain foods. It involves how we care for the food that we eat in our lives. All of this comes around circle.”  [vii]

Or maybe on February 10, 2010 in this Guardian article by Pavan Sukhdev, special adviser to the United Nations environment program’s green economy initiative:

“The living fabric of this planet – its ecosystems and biodiversity – are in rapid decline worldwide. This is visible and palpable and is variously due to commercial over-exploitation, or population pressures, or a raft of unhelpful policies, or some combination. At a very fundamental human level, however, it is due to the lack of awareness that there is a problem with human society being disconnected from nature. [viii]

Or possibly even on March 24, 2010 during PlanetForward’s interview with Robert Kenner, director and producer of the recent breakout film Food Inc.  When asked whether increasing food safety regulations are helping to increase centralization in food production, he stated the following:

“I think centralization is perhaps one of the biggest problems in the food system, and perhaps in the entire system in our country of selling not only food but everything we’re dealing with.  We have very few companies that are controlling the food that we eat today, and they have no connection to the community.  They have no connection to the workers.  Ultimately they treat them as disposable parts. And I think that they are more interested in profits than they are in their consumers.” [ix]

The cries are coming fast and furious now.  And regardless of whether they’re from consumer activists about health and safety, environmentalists about collapsing ecosystems, or scientist about emissions and climate change, they have one terrifying commonality – the realization that our ties with Nature and one another are unraveling.  Our sense of real community – of balance and interrelationships – is simply dissolving.  And with it, so too is our grasp of basic scientific principals like cause and effect. It’s as if civilization’s evolving culture has so successfully isolated, compartmentalized, and even spoon-fed consumerized entire generations that people have abandoned substantive rationality and thus the objective capacity to measure significance or danger.  And they’ve got no idea where anything comes from anymore, and what that translates to in terms of overall health, safety, and cost. Consider the following statement from Denis Hayes, President and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970.  During his recent lecture at the University of Oregon on ecology and economics he elaborated on how far we’ve gone to alienate and subsequently devalue even that of our own people:

“(Minute 49:45) Shortly after Jared Diamond published Collapse I had the good fortune to have dinner with him, and I asked him – whether in researching his book or just thinking about it – he’d recognized some common human behavior, that if we could avoid it, would dramatically boost the likelihood of avoiding future collapses. What is it? Is there a magic bullet out there that we aught to be addressing?

He said that collapses most commonly occur when the rich and powerful – the people who run the society – can shield themselves from the consequences of their decisions. I remembered this exchange when I read that Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz had estimated that the 2008 economic crisis had driven more than 200 million people who’d risen into the middle class back into abject poverty. 200 million more will lead lives characterized by starvation, wretched health, forfeited education, widespread violence, and mounting death rates. And meanwhile the CEOs of investment banks, whose irresponsible actions caused more suffering and death than are caused by most war criminals, cart their 100-billion dollar bonuses to their gated communities with their private security forces and their private jets; utterly untouched by the worst consequences of the crisis that they precipitated. If Diamond is right, and he’s a very smart guy who’s studied all of these things, that’s not the hallmark of a system that is designed to avoid collapse.”  [x]

I don’t know… Perhaps we’ve always been at odds with Nature.  Exploitation in one form or another has been going on now for thousands of years.  So it’s possible that our relationship here has always been tenuous, even strained at best, and that modern man has never really considered Nature as protector, but rather as just another adversary to be conquered.  If this were so it would go great distances to explain our nearly myopic focus on science and technology, and the frantic struggle to systematically dismantle, control and privatize every aspect of the living world.  More importantly, however, it would explain why people so easily lose their connection with age-old wisdom when they’re separated by even a single layer of abstraction from the natural order of things.  This comes down to a matter of respect and humility.  And if, on the whole, modern humanity has no respect or humility for the natural order or where we fit within it, then it stands to explain a lot about why we’re forgetting fundamental knowledge so effortlessly.

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A layer of abstraction – it’s like the thickness of a sheet of paper – infinitesimal compared to moving a person from, say, the farm to city life. It’s more like giving a picky eater what he wants rather than what’s actually good for him.  Reinforce this enough times – that he doesn’t have to eat the vegetables on the table – and he’ll eventually forget they exist.  That’s how you form a layer of abstraction and how thin it actually is. It’s like being in contact with all of the information necessary to capture and maintain true wisdom, but never actually acquiring it.  Now imagine what happens when this child grows up.  His parents at least provided an opportunity to see vegetables on the table.  He won’t even be shopping on the outer aisles.  And his children?  At two layers of abstraction from healthy cooking and eating, they might as well be light years away from this vital knowledge… which is exactly as captured in the Jamie Oliver video from above – kids without a clue as to what vegetables even were.  A layer of abstraction may appear so thin as to be invisible, but stack one on top of another and suddenly they become substantial, even measurable!  And that’s what’s really scary.

As strange as it sounds I personally know a couple of families with kids like this.  They grew up on farms of all places, as close to the natural world as possible, but still somehow believed that age-old food and cooking wisdom was antiquated – and that eating highly processed food was altogether better and more attuned to their modern adult lifestyles.  As adults, both live in the city and work as programmers.  And they’re both really smart people!  So how the message got lost between generations inside of farmhouses is absolutely mind-boggling!  What happened?  Were the parents too lenient?  Did they gloss over the importance of the skill-set and perspective here?  Or was it simply that moving from farm to city and living a city-centric lifestyle slowly disconnected the kids from their former reality, and ultimately that of its associated wisdom?  I have a sense that it was a combination of all of it.  The first layer of abstraction probably developed when the parents were too lenient, and the second when the kids moved into the city and started living their modern lives. Reinforcement of the two layers of abstraction probably kicked the erosion process into high gear.  And now, at about ten years into adulthood, both have forgotten almost every aspect of healthy cooking and eating.

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What’s being exposed over and again is something subtle – a fatal, but hidden flaw in human design so to speak. If you separate even the highly intelligent from the substance of reality in any way, it almost invariably eliminates the intimate connection that bonds them with the knowledge and essential truths there. For some reason people need to be in touch quite literally with the essence of the natural world – its heartbeat.  And whether that be via something as simple as cultivating an herb garden and healthy cooking principals, or as complex as organic farming or even full-blown environmental research doesn’t particularly matter.  What matters is that they reestablish the connection and then strengthen it through some sort of intimate educational process – a process that reinforces and binds this knowledge through repetition.  Otherwise they automatically become susceptible to losing it and the wisdom therein.

Even more concerning, however, is what becomes possible after these ties to reality and their associated wisdom are lost.  People can be conditioned to believe just about anything that defies real and really important physical and natural truths. Forget about food wisdom for a minute.  Think about something as scientifically mundane as hand and body soaps, with all of their myriad and incomprehensible ingredients.  Most people don’t analyze the efficacy and safety of a soap product.  They just accept the advertised claims and assume that it was designed for the purpose intended.  Many popular soaps, however, contain anything from known carcinogens to reproductive toxins.[xi],[xii] That even goes for children’s and baby products! [xiii],[xiv],[xv] First of all – What are known toxins doing in soap products?  And second, why don’t we really know about it?!  Besides the various functions these chemicals perform, toxins are present in cosmetics because they go largely unregulated.  And since soaps are typically classified as cosmetics, their ingredients don’t have any serious limitations and requirements regarding toxicity.[xvi] No one’s conscious of this because they’ve been inoculated against it – against the idea that “soap” could do significant harm.  I mean it’s soap for God sakes!  The same goes for a host of other skin, hair, eye, oral and sun-care products that are classified as cosmetics… and even cosmetics themselves.  To the average consumer, soap is just another harmless designer product that evolves in ways we know not how, but that are supposedly “better” than all previous iterations.  Once again – Better living through science and technology!

During an FDA public meeting in 2008, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Vice President for Research, Jane Houlihan issued a statement that included the following.  It reiterates what I’ve stated above even more informatively:

“EWG’s research shows that nearly 90 percent of ingredients in personal care products have not been assessed for safety and many contain ingredients that are known toxins like mercury and lead that are linked to very serious health problems. Cosmetics do not have to be approved as safe by the FDA before they are sold. As a result, they can contain hazardous ingredients banned in other countries.  This complete absence of accountability to a responsible government agency has not served the American public well. Instead, it has created a culture of ignorance around personal care products, where far too little is known about ingredient safety, while the industry and the FDA steadfastly maintain that all products and their ingredients are safe.”  [xvii],[xviii]

The most disturbing part here isn’t the harmful ingredients or even the lack of public awareness.  It’s the fact that cosmetics manufacturers are allowed to make money off of experimenting on people until such time as their products are proven harmful! Innocence until proven guilty… with designer chemicals… that don’t normally exist in Nature.  Does that seem right?  Exposing people to all kinds of unnatural chemicals until they’ve been proven harmful?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Well it isn’t. Even more unbelievable is how there’s no accounting for the potential interactions or accumulated effects of a person’s chemical exposure load.  Stated another way – any required testing doesn’t consider how these potential interactions or accumulated effects stand to increase the toxicity of any or all of the chemicals that a person was exposed to.[xix] Strange how this all appears to work in the manufacturer’s favor rather than that of the consumer, isn’t it?  It’s all so conveniently… 1-dimensional.  And we’ve all been conditioned to accept these protocols as being abundantly adequate.  From the cosmetics CEOs to the sales reps and even the consumers, there’s a superficiality that permeates every aspect of this business.  And almost everyone appears to be under its influence or else toxic products wouldn’t exist since, yet again, no one would buy them.  On the whole there are so many implications to all of this that I can’t even begin to count them.  Primarily though, it says a lot about our ability to suspend disbelief, and ultimately that of our concern for the wellbeing of others.  And if we can do this with each other, what does that truly say about our concern for the wellbeing of all that’s not human?

So there’s the closet of bones on something as simple as soap.  Now here’s the science.  Basic soap “cleans” by binding with oils to remove them from the surface of the skin.  Washing up is a matter of “washing away” oils and any dirt, bacteria and viral matter that are caught up in the slurry.  It’s not about killing anything! [xx],[xxi] It’s a simple process of encapsulation and expulsion more than anything else.  And yet, among other things, we automatically assume now that soap’s purpose is to “sterilize and remove” rather than simply “remove”.  Why?  Because that’s what we’re being fed by the latest commercial overload.  There’s enough reputable research out there to prove that antimicrobial products aren’t any better at “cleaning” than simple soap products. [xxii] There’s even research showing how long-term use could act to enhance microbial resistance.  But all of this is being lost on the public, just as food wisdom was after being subjected to years of misinformation from media and commercial outlets.  And so we continue forth, blindly consuming the latest soap products regardless of the absurdity of their evolving ingredients or claims – be they antibacterial, age defying, or whatever.  Bottom line?  What soap was a hundred years ago is what it should be today – a basic, nontoxic product that “cleans” in the simplest, not the strictest or most convoluted sense of the word.  And everyone – Everyone On Earth – should know this and vote accordingly with their pocketbooks and purchases.  This alone would make great strides towards cleaning up the toxic mess that we call “cosmetics.”

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All told, what we have here is effective conditioning rather than substantive rationality. And it was realized because of a divergence from the natural world’s absolute sense of reality to one that’s been fabricated to drive consumption and sales volumes.  Extrapolate this to just about everything we think we know, and it becomes clear that a lot of our beliefs and behaviors may have just been fashioned to grease the monumental gears of civilization rather than insuring any semblance of global health and sustainability.  The problem is that civilization is so well structured and ridiculously consumptive that it can sustain a variety of realities, however misguided, unhealthy, or unsafe.  It just depends on what you want to believe, are willing to ignore, and ultimately how easy you want it all to be.  Once again, Denis Hayes…

“(Minute 33:26) This shortsighted, consumption dominated economy is a relatively recent chapter in human history.  I mean can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower suffering an attack on the dominant New York office towers and going on television the next day to urge Americans to go shopping? That wasn’t how we used to respond to these things.

My parents never had a credit card.  They never had a mortgage.  They saved for years until they could finally buy a home for eighteen-thousand cash.  They were of modest means so they didn’t buy much.  But when they bought for example furniture, they bought the finest furniture that they could afford in the hopes of passing it on to me, and my brother and my sister.  They thought that it would be part of our family for a long time – the accumulated treasure of the family.

Today people buy furniture that’s made out of sawdust and glue and it disintegrates quickly.  So they have to go buy some more.  In fact it’s designed to disintegrate quickly.  Planned obsolescence has become an essential core of the economy.  The faster the rate of throughput, the faster the wood goes from the forest to the dump, the more the economy prospers…

(Minute 35:56)  The primary engine of global economic growth for the last few decades has been the willingness of Americans to buy junk that they don’t need with money that they don’t have.  I’m going to say that one more time because I think that may be the single most important thing I’m talking about tonight. The primary engine of global economic growth for the last few decades has been the willingness of Americans to buy junk that they don’t need with money that they don’t have. China at times had a savings rate of 18%, 20%, 25%.  America had a savings rate that was occasionally as much as 1% and 2% and occasionally in negative territory.  By pulling equity out of our houses as a nation, we were actually spending more money than we were creating. That can’t go on.  That’s just nuts. [xxiii]

Where exactly are we going with all of this?  It’s as if we’re in some sort of desperate race to get somewhere, but no one knows where that is or even why.  Keep in mind that “Progress” and “Growth” mean nothing in the absence of meaningful context.  And right now I’m not sure that there is any.

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[i] In terms of their energy, time, focus, etc.  Not to be taken literally… mostly.

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[ii] Big Food vs. Big Insurance, AUTHOR:  Michael Pollan, DATE:  Sept 1, 2009

Health Reform Should Begin at the USDA, AUTHOR: Nils Bruzelius,  DATE:  Feb 5, 2010.

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[iii] Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food, POSTED:  February 2010.

[iv] Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food, POSTED:  February 2010.

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[v] Q&A with Chef Dan Barber: Can organic farming feed the world?  POSTED:  3/17/10

[vi] Q&A with Chef Dan Barber: Can organic farming feed the world?  POSTED:  3/17/10

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[vii] Search Google Videos for “Dr. Mehmet Oz on David Letterman on March 10, 2010”.

The CBS archive for the Letterman Show is impossible to find, let alone search through.

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[viii] Putting a value on nature could set scene for true green economy.

AUTHOR: Pavan Sukhdev, special adviser to the United Nations environment program’s green economy initiative and leader for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study.

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[ix] Webisode 111: Robert Kenner (Director of “Food, Inc.”) Takes Your Questions

INTERVIEWER:  Frank Sesno, GW University, Planet Forward.

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[x] “Is Prosperity Incompatible With Posterity?”,  DATE:  3/4/10.

SPEAKER:  Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation.

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[xi] General product scores for bar soaps

Search:  “Dove Bar”

Search:  “Dove Beauty Bar, White”

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[xii] Pesticide in Soap, Toothpaste and Breast Milk – Is It Kid-Safe?

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[xiii] Getting Contaminants Out of Children’s Bath &  Personal Care Products

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[xiv] General product scores for (skin care baby): baby soap

Search: Johnson & Johnson – Johnson’s Moisture Care Baby Wash

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[xv] Where you can find Triclosan in your home

EPA study gaps leave children at risk

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[xvi] Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both? (Or Is It Soap?)

Cosmetics Laws and Regulations

Cosmetics safety virtually unregulated by Federal Law (More)

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[xvii] EWG News Release: FDA Creates Culture of Ignorance for Personal Care Products

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[xviii] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – 2010 News Coverage

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Press Releases

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Reports

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[xix] What Toxicology Won’t Measure – And What To Do

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[xx] Triclosan no better than plain soap (More) (More)

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[xxi] Body Soap Chemistry (More) (More)

Does bar soap work better than liquid soap?

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[xxii] Triclosan no better than plain soap (More) (More)

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[xxiii] “Is Prosperity Incompatible With Posterity?”,  DATE:  3/4/10.

SPEAKER:  Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex on April 21, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    How relevant is “cooking”, “food culture”, and “food wisdom”? It’s not as if these are infinite parts of our developmental history but part of our recent cultural revolutionary past, part of the “food processing” lore that led us to corn flakes. We’re instinctively attracted to cooked foods thanks to the Malliard reaction, because it turns everything into sugar. At the same time, cooking processes a lot of foods for easier digestion, so that we are better able to extract nutrients that would not otherwise be bioavailable. It frees us to use our calories, efforts, and time for other than hunting and gathering. We can say much the same about the advent of agriculture and our grain based diets. Our not so very remote ancestors did not subsist on the way of grains, and when they did, they were plants with a few pathetic seeds or kernels, not the long rows of corn familiar to us today. Food technology allowed us to become human, precisely because of the ease of caloric and nutritional availability.

    I’ve been pondering the nature of evolutionary complexity. In rich epochs, biodiversity flourishes until a shock event occurs, reducing life to a more basic, more primitive state. In such times, the omnivores and the scavengers survive. This is the natural order of things. In the current era, *we* are the shock event that is bringing the Earth back to its primitive state, destroying ecological niches, reducing vegetation to monoculture suitable for our consumption. Alpha predators usually have that effect to some extent, and we are the mother of all alpha predators. Can we exist in the jellyfish/corn/algae world? Look at the current state of food processing. I bet we can.

    Reply

  2. Posted by CCT on April 21, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Did you get a chance to read the rest of the article? It gives other examples – relevant ones – as well. What you stated about food above is actually part of the knowledge that goes with food wisdom, ironically enough. However – I’ll have to disagree with you about turning everything into a sugar. Many times over-cooking reduces the health benefits of a food because of just this reason. The slow food movement is all about avoiding overly processed (or in this case – cooked) foods in order to prevent rapid uptake of sugars… which is something that our bodies are not suited properly for over the long haul.

    Reply

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