I’m not normally impressed by Elizabeth Warren. I don’t have any particular reason to dislike her, but I haven’t felt convinced that she has what it takes. Still, she is able speak strongly at times that perks up my ears. At CNN’s climate town hall, she responded with exasperation to a question about energy-saving lightbulbs:
“This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about…They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers.”
That was refreshing. I’m very much in support of the environment. As an example, I’d like for life on earth to continue. And if possible, it might be nice to maintain human civilization without collapsing in ecological catastrophe and mass suffering. On the other hand, I hate how environmentalism can get used as a political football on both sides that distracts from actually doing anything that makes a difference, which is precisely what big biz wants.
Giving a far different kind of response while in North Carolina, when asked about a meat tax, Bernie Sanders refused to give a straight answer. He talked in vague generalities by not making any statement that would offend anyone or commit him to anything. Unlike Warren, he didn’t challenge the premise of the question. It was quite disappointing to hear this kind of waffling.
To be fair, the right-wing media was being dishonest in reporting that he supported a meat tax. He didn’t say that. He simply said as little as possible. But it is true that he accepted the framing without challenging or questioning it. His was an answer one expects from a professional politician pandering to potential voters, in allowing people to hear what they want to hear while not stating any clear position:
“All that i can say is if we believe, as i do and you do, that climate change is real, we’re going to have to tackle it in every single area, including agriculture. Okay?
“And in fact, one of the things we want to do with our farmers out there is help them become more aggressive and able to help us combat climate change rather than contribute to it.
“So we will certainly.. — you’re right, we got to look at agriculture, we got to look at every cause of the crisis that we face.”
I understand. There was no way for him to come out looking good in that situation. He has never shown any evidence of wanting to tax food in order to control the dietary habits of Americans. It’s certainly not part of his political platform. Yet when confronted with a direction question, it put him in a corner that he didn’t want to be in. Disagreeing with a supporter can lead to all kinds of problems, especially in how the media would spin it and obsess over it.
Still, it is disheartening that we so rarely can have honest political debate where people speak their minds. If campaign season doesn’t force public awareness into uncomfortable issues, then what good does it serve? Very little. That is why Warren’s short but effective tirade against the fossil fuel industry was a breath of fresh air. She shifted the focus away from artificially-created division and toward the problems that are common among us.
A little over a decade ago, a report by David Pimentel from Cornell University came out about the health costs of pollution. “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide,” wrote Susan S. Lang, “are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says” (Water, air and soil pollution causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide, Cornell research survey finds).
That is damning! It is powerful in showing the impact of our actions and the complicity of our indifference. It’s even worse than that. The harm touches upon every area of health. “Of the world population of about 6.5 billion, 57 percent is malnourished, compared with 20 percent of a world population of 2.5 billion in 1950, said Pimentel. Malnutrition is not only the direct cause of 6 million children’s deaths each year but also makes millions of people much more susceptible to such killers as acute respiratory infections, malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases, according to the research.” This is billions of people who lack the basic resources of clean water and air along with nutritious food, something that was a human birthright for most of human existence.
It’s worse still. This data, as bad as it is, maybe was an underestimation. Another report just came out, Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions by Jos Lelieveld et al. Summarized in Hurn Publications, it is stated that, “The number of early deaths caused by air pollution is double previous estimates, according to research, meaning toxic air is killing more people than tobacco smoking. The scientists used new data to estimate that nearly 800,000 people die prematurely each year in Europe because of dirty air, and that each life is cut short by an average of more than two years” (Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research). This isn’t limited to poor, dark-skinned people in far away countries for it also affects the Western world: “The health damage caused by air pollution in Europe is higher than the global average.” And that doesn’t even include “effects of air pollution on infant deaths”.
Think about that. It was a decade ago that around 40% of deaths were able to be linked to pollution and environmental problems. Since then, these problems have only grown worse, as the world’s population continues to grow as does industrialization. Now it is determined that air pollution is at least twice as fatal as previously calculated. The same is probably true more generally for other forms of pollution along with environmental degradation. Our data was incomplete in the past and, even if improved, it remains incomplete. Also, keep in mind that this isn’t only about deaths. Increasing numbers of sick days, healthcare, and disabilities adds up to costs that are incalculable. Our entire global economy is being dragged down, at the very moment we need all our resources to deal with these problems, not merely to pay for the outcomes but to begin reversing course if we hope to avoid the worst.
This barely touches upon the larger health problems. As I’ve written about before, we are beginning to realize how diet majorly impacts health, not only in terms of malnourishment but also all the problems related to a diet of processed foods with lots of toxins such as farm chemicals, hormone mimics, food additives, starchy carbs, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most of our healthcare costs go to a few diseases, all of them preventable. And the rates of major diseases are skyrocketing: neurocognitive conditions (mood disorders, personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, ADHD, etc), autoimmune disorders (type 1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s disease, many forms of arthritis, etc), metabolic syndrome (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc), and much else. This all relates to industrialized farming and food production that has, among much else, caused the soil to become depleted of nutrients while eroding what is left of the topsoil. At this rate, we have less than a century of topsoil left. And monocrops have been devastating to ecological diversity and set us up for famines when crops fail.
There pretty much is no one who isn’t being harmed. And increasingly the harm is coming at younger ages with diseases of older age now being seen among children and young adults. More of the population is becoming sick and disabled before they even get old enough to enter the workforce. For example, schizophrenia is on the rise among urban youth for reasons not entirely certain — in a summary of a study, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge” (see Urban Weirdness). So, it isn’t only that more people are dying younger. The quality of people’s lives is worsening. And with ever more people disabled and struggling, who is going to help them? Or are large swaths of the world’s population simply going to become unwanted and uncared for? And will we allow billions of people to fall further into poverty? If not becoming homeless, is it a better fate that we simply institutionalize these people so that we of the comfortable classes don’t have to see them? Or will we put these useless eaters into ghettos and internment camps to isolate them like a plague to be contained? The externalized costs of modern industrialized capitalism are beyond imagining and they’re quickly becoming worse.
Modernity is a death cult, as I’ve previously concluded. Besides mass extinction on the level never before experienced in all of hominid existence (the last mass extinction was 66 million years ago), we are already feeling the results of climate change with increased super-storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, etc. Recent heatwaves have been unprecedented, including in the Arctic — far from being a mere annoyance since it speeds up the melting of glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost which in turn releases greenhouse gases (possibly pathogens as well), speeds up the warming (Arctic Amplification), and will alter ocean currents and the polar jet stream. These environmental changes are largely what is behind the refugee crises numerous countries are facing, which is also connected to terrorism. Inequality within and between societies will exacerbate the problems further with increased conflicts and wars, with endless crisis after crisis coming from every direction until the available resources are pushed to the limit and beyond — as I wrote last year:
“As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.”
If you really want to be depressed, might I suggest reading Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK): “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you won’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.” Here is what a Vice piece had to say about it:
“You only needed to step outside during the record-breaking heatwave last year to acknowledge that 17 of the 18 hottest years on the planet have occurred since 2000. Scientists already believe we are soon on course for an ice-free Arctic, which will only accelerate global warming. Back in 2017, even Fox News reported scientists’ warnings that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Erik Buitenhuis, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me that Bendell’s conclusions may sound extreme, but he agrees with the report’s overall assessment. “I think societal collapse is indeed inevitable,” he says, though adds that “the process is likely to take decades to centuries” ” (Geoff Dembicki, The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy).
What are governments and other major institutions doing in response? Very little, despite the consensus among experts and a majority of Americans supporting environmental policies, although the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security is concerned in maintaining their own power: “Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress. Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses” (Phil Ebersole, Climate, migration and border militarization). There are many courses of actions we could take. And we know what needs to be done to prevent or mitigate what will otherwise follow. Will we do it? Of course not. The problem is too large, too incomprehensible, and too depressing. We will go on denying it, until well into the global crisis, if not the civilizational collapse. At that point, it probably will no longer matter what we do or don’t do. But until then, we can begin to imagine the unimaginable, if only to prepare for it psychologically.
Then again, maybe we’ll find some way to pull out of this death spiral at the last moment. It’s unlikely, but humans can be innovative under pressure and no doubt there will be plenty of people attempting to create new technologies and adapt to new conditions. Even if there is only minimal success, some of the population could be saved as we shift to smaller-scale societies in the areas that are still viable for farming or else escaping into ecodomes. One way or another, the world as we know it will not continue on as before and, ignoring all the suffering and death, I don’t know that will be an entirely bad thing, at least for the earth if not for humanity. Even in that best case scenario, we would still be facing possibly thousands of years of climate disruption, maybe a new ice age, and on top of that it would take millions of years for the biosphere and ecosystems to recover from mass extinction and find a new balance. So, if we humans plan on surviving, it will be a very long struggle. Thousands of future generations will inherit our mistakes and our mess.
“Civilisation is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200 000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature. This crisis is accelerating, stretching Earth to its limits, and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.”
Besides, there seems to be an inherent contradiction behind this advocacy. The report and the editorial both are praising basically what is the same old diet that governments around the world have been pushing since the late 1970s, a diet that is correlated with an epidemic of chronic diseases. The journal’s own editors seemingly admit that they see it as a forced choice between “a healthy diet” and “balancing planetary resources” — one or the other but not both. Or rather, since many of them don’t follow their own advice (more on that further down), it’s good health for the rich shoved onto the malnourished shoulders of the poor. This interpretation is indicated by how the report simultaneously acknowledges certain foods are healthy even as those very foods are supposed to be restricted. Then the authors suggest that vitamin supplementation or fortification might be necessary to make up for what is lacking. This is further supported by the words of Walter Willet, one of EAT-Lancet’s main advocates — he argues that, “If we were just minimising greenhouse gases we’d say everyone be vegan”, a highly questionable claim as the data is off, but Willett has also been reported as acknowledging that, “a vegan diet wasn’t necessarily the healthiest option”. The EAT-Lancet report itself actually discusses the health benefits of animal foods. Such a deficient diet can’t honestly be called healthy when it requires nutritional supplementation because the food eaten doesn’t fully nourish the body. Sure, if you want to be a vegan for moral reasons to save the planet or whatever, more power to you and be sure to take vitamins and hope you don’t become to malnourished and sickly. But let’s be clear that this has nothing to do with good health.
Other than the ethics of meat-eating, why is this dietary regimen near-vegan in its restriction of animal foods? It’s not always clear, in the report, when a dietary suggestion is intended to promote human health or intended to promote planetary health (or maybe something else entirely). Are they really trying to save the world or simply hoping to prop up a collapsing global order? And what does this mean in practice? “Here is another question,”tweeted Troy Stapleton, “If one were to provide a patient with advice to eat a “plant based diet” should the patient also be given information that this advice is based on environmental concerns and not their health?” This is a serious set of questions when it comes to sustainability. This EAT-Lancet diet of high-carbs and processed foods is guaranteed to worsen the chronic diseases that are plaguing us, as Walter Willet has argued himself (see below), and the rapidly rising costs of healthcare because of this could bankrupt our society — not to mention healthcare has a much more vast carbon footprint than does animal food production. That is the opposite of sustainable, even if one ignores the moral quandary of giving people bad health advice in the hope that it might save the planet, despite the lack of evidence supporting this hope.
“Research indicates that “the health of Western vegetarians is good and similar to that of comparable non-vegetarians”. However, studies also tell us that while vegetarian diets provide higher amounts of carbohydrates, omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E and magnesium (compared to omnivores) they have lower amounts of protein, saturated fat, omega-3 fats, vitamins A, D and B12 and Zinc. Vegans are usually particularly low in B12 and also Calcium, a deficiency they are likely to share with hard-core paleo enthusiasts because both avoid dairy. We use vitamin B12 to create our DNA, red blood cells and the myelin insulation around our nerves. Not having enough of it can result in fatigue, weakness, psychiatric problems and anaemia. B12 deficiency in children and the elderly is even more worrying. Studies have consistently shown that children and older people lacking B12 suffer significant cognitive defects such as memory and reasoning. The lack of long chain omega-3 fats, the abundance of omega-6 fats and deficiencies in the fat soluble vitamins A and D are also serious cause for concern particularly in pregnancy.”
I have no doubt the EAT-Lancet proponents know this kind of data. But since among the authors of the report “more than 80% of them (31 out of 37) espoused vegetarian views” and “have, through their work, been promoting vegetarian, anti-meat views since before joining the EAT-Lancet Commission” (Nina Teicholz) and since “Oxford’s Dr Marco Springmann, the scientist behind much of the environmental portion of EAT Lancet[,…] is an activist vegan not considered biased but a cattle rancher is” (Frank Mitloehner), they wouldn’t be prone to spreading this contrary evidence that undermines their belief system and ideological agenda. As these same scientists know or should know, this is not a new situation since malnourishment caused by dietary guidelines has been going on for generations at this point (consumption of nutrient-dense foods and animal-based foods has followed the same downward trend, opposite to the upward trend of simple carbs, seed oils, and processed foods). This point is also made by Nina Teicholz: “Americans have eaten more plants, fewer animal foods, and 34% less red meat since 1970. While, rates of obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed. How does it make sense that continuing on this path will improve health if it hasn’t so far?” Compare that to American in “1955 when more than half of our calories came from meat, eggs, milk, cream, fats and oils […] and adult diabetes was virtually unheard of“ (Adele Hite, Keeping it Simply Stupid) and that was a lower level of animal foods than seen before that, such that: “In 1900 our diet was 10% carbs, in 2010 it is 63%” (Carroll Hoagland). This isn’t limited to Americans since the 1977 US Department Diet Guidelines were adopted widely throughout the world, based on extremely weak evidence and bad science.
Not long before the Eat-Lancet report was published, The Lancet journal also published a paper on the large and well-controlled PURE study that showed a diet low in carbs and high in animal foods, both meat and fat increased health — including the sources of saturated fat that most often gets blamed: “Those eating the highest levels of dairy and red meat saw their chances of early death fall by 25 per cent and a fatal heart attack cut by 22 per cent” (Nick McDermot). Based on The Lancet’s own published data, the EAT-Lancet recommendations make no sense. And as EAT-Lancet was based on weak science, it is sadly amusing that The Lancet just published another paper stating that, “In the absence of randomisation, analyses of most observational data from the real world, regardless of their sophistication, can only be viewed as hypothesis generating.” I’m pretty sure the EAT-Lancet report wasn’t intended to merely generate hypotheses. So, what is the justification for these unscientific dietary recommendations? Stating it simply, Teicholz concludes, “There is no rational basis for that.” And as usual, Dr. Jason Fung shares his take on the situation: “they know they’re going to succeed with the same advice. Insanity, literally.” In another tweet, Tim Noakes concludes with a rhetorical question: “Don’t humans ever learn?”
Official dietary recommendations have been a grand failure, one could easily argue, and we have no reason to expect different results, other than a continued worsening as ill health accumulates from one generation to the next. Then again, maybe it hasn’t failed in that maybe it’s purpose was never to promote public health in the first place. When something seems to fail and continues to get repeated, consider the possibility that it is serving some other purpose all too well. If so, the real agenda simply isn’t the one being publicly stated. Not to be conspiratorial, but human nature is what it is and that means people are good at rationalizing to themselves and others, particularly in terms of system justification for the very system one is benefiting from. It is largely irrelevant whether or not they sincerely believe they have good intentions.
Perhaps the covert motive is old school social control and social engineering, and quite possibly motivated by genuine concern of paternalism. Promoting a single diet for all the world would mean more big government run by technocrats who work for plutocrats, all to make the world a better place and it just so happens to directly benefit certain people more than others. The ruling elite and the comfortable classes are starting to worry about the consequences of capitalism that has slowly destroyed the world and, in a technocratic fantasy, they are hoping to manage the situation. That means getting the masses in line. There are too many useless eaters. And if the excess population (i.e., the takers) can’t be eliminated entirely without a lot of mess and complication (World War III, plague, eugenics, etc), their consumption habits could be manipulated and redirected so that they don’t use up the resources needed by the rich (i.e., the makers). Since the teeming masses are useless anyhow, it matters not that they’ll become further malnourished and sickly than they already are. Sure, an increasing number will die at a younger age and all the better, as it will keep the population down. (Yes, I’m being cynical, maybe more than is called for. But I don’t feel forgiving at the moment toward those who claim to have all the answers to complex problems. Let them experiment on themselves first and then get back to us later with the results.)
The commissioners of the report recommend that governments use “choice editing” in order to “guide choice” (nudge theory) through incentives, disincentives, and default policy or, failing that, “restrict choice” and “eliminate choice” to enforce compliance. That is to say, “the scale of change to the food system is unlikely to be successful if left to the individual or whim of consumer choice. This change requires reframing at the population and systemic level. By contrast, hard policy interventions include laws fiscal measures, subsidies and penalties, trade reconfiguration, and other economic and structural measures.” And they are ambitious: “For significant transformation to happen, all levels of society must be engaged, from individual consumers to policymakers and everybody along the food supply chain.” This interventionism, including “banning and pariah status of key products” along with “rationing on a population scale”, would be more authoritarian in its proposed strategy than prior guidelines. I wish that were a joke, but they are deadly serious. With a straight face, the same corporate-funded interests (big food, big ag & big oil) behind EAT-Lancet are telling us that, “We support the implementation of a global treaty to limit the political influence of Big Food” (Kat Lay, Tackling obesity ‘needs treaty like climate change’). “If hypocrisy was a food group we could feed thousands and thousands of people” (Linda Snell). It’s misleading to call these ‘guidelines’ at all when the object is to eliminate choice because the masses are seen as being too stupid and weak to make the right choice.
No doubt, an austerity diet would never be willingly accepted by entire populations. In the blockade following World War II, the residents of Berlin were forced by circumstances into severe restriction of a subsistence diet based mostly on carbs while low in calories, protein and fat — not that far off from the present official dietary ideology. Writing in 1952, Dr. H. E. Magee, Senior Medical Officer of the UK Ministry of Health, concluded: “The Berlin diet was austere… and only the compelling force of hunger and the fear of political oppression would, I believe, make any civilized community continue to eat a similar diet for as long as the Berliners did” (Nutrition Lessons of the Berlin Blockade). Yet so many officials continue with the mentality that austerity diets are the way to go: calorie counting, portion control, etc. But Gary Taubes, In Why We Get Fat, shows that all this accomplishes is making people endlessly hungry with the perverse effect of gaining weight, even if initially losing it. Other than a blockade or government enforcement, hunger almost always wins out. That is why the only successful diets are satiating, which generally means nutrient-dense and high-caloric, that is to say mainly fatty animal foods. But to the modern mind built on Christian morality, the real problem is that we are gluttonous sinners. We must be punished with deprivation to cleanse our souls and expiate our sins.
As always, the elite want to tell the lower classes how to live and then to have them do as their told, by carrot or stick. “The EAT-Lancet Commission spent three years calculating the first scientific targets for a healthy, globally-sustainable diet,” wrote Nick McDermott. “But,” he noted, “the panel of experts admitted none of them were on it.” Most of them admit their hypocrisy and the others maybe are unwilling to state it publicly: “The commission said red meat should be seen as “a treat”, similar to lobster but the plan is so strict that two out of three commission members introducing the diet at a briefing in London on Wednesday said they were not currently sticking to it. Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief at The Lancet, said: “I’m close, but I have two eggs for breakfast every morning, so I’m already having too many eggs.” Author Dr Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, also admitted: “I am moving towards it, but I have young kids at home, which is driving me in the wrong direction” (Sarah Knapton, ‘Planetary health diet’: Britons urged to cut meat intake to equivalent of one beefburger a fortnight).
The billionaires behind the EAT Foundation brazenly post pictures of themselves eating meat, from massive hamburgersto squid (and at least one of them identifies as a ‘vegan’). So, do as they say, not as they do. Also pointing out the blatant hypocrisy were Nina Teicholz and Dr. Jason Fung, the former stating it bluntly about one of the rich advocates: “#EATlancet funders: Private plane jetting around the world, major carbon footprint lifestyle while telling others to save planet from global warming. Doesn’t sound right.” Connecting some dots, Jeroen Sluiter observed that this isn’t exactly new behavior for the paternalistic dietary elite: “This reminds me of how nutrition guidelines’ first villain, Ancel Keys, lectured all of us about the “dangers” of meat while frequently enjoying the most delicious roast beef with his wife Margaret.”
I was reminded of the exact same thing. In reference to Ancel Key’s “stringent vows of the dietary priesthood”, Sally Fallon Morell offers the following note (p. 157, Nourishing Diets): “Actually, Keys recommended the practice of renunciation for the general population but not for himself or those of his inner circle. The esteemed researcher Fred Kummerow, PhD, defender of eggs and butter in the human diet, once spied Keys and a colleague eating eggs and bacon at a conference for cardiologists. When Kummerow inquired whether Keys had changed his mind about dietary fats and cholesterol, Keys replied that such a restricted diet was “for others,” not for himself.” In The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz also talks about this hypocrisy: “Keys himself, according to the [Times Magazine (January 13, 1961)] article, seemed barely to follow his own advice; his “ritual” of dinner by candlelight and “soft Brahms” at home with Margaret included meat—steak, chops, and roasts—three times a week or less. (He and Stamler were also once spotted by a colleague at a conference tucking into scrambled eggs and “five or so rations” of bacon.) “Nobody wants to live on mush,” Keys explained” (p. 62). Keep in mind that Keys was the main figure that forced this dietary religion onto the American population and much of the rest of the world. With persuasive charisma, he righteously advocated that others should eat a high carb and high fiber diet with restricted animal products: meat, fat, butter, eggs, etc. This became government policy and transformed the entire food sector. The eventual impact has been on possibly billions of people over multiple generations. Yet it wasn’t important enough for his own dietary habits.
There is not enough to go around, but don’t worry, our benevolent overlords will never go without. As yet another put it with some historical context, “The elites will never eat this diet they prescribe to the masses. Meat for me. And wheat for thee. The elites with their superior bodies brains intellects and money will need special nutrition to maintain their hegemony and rightful place as leaders of the planet. Ask yourself why the silicon valley brainiacs are all on keto/carnivore. It’s a reenactment of feudal life w fatty meats for the elites & thin gruel for the peasants” (David Smith). A high-carb diet combined with low-protein and low-fat has always been a poverty diet, rarely eaten by choice other than by ascetic monks: “A vegetarian or fish-based diet was most often associated with self-denial and penitence” (Sydney Watts, “Enlightened Fasting”; from Food and Faith in Christian Culture, p. 119). Worse still, it easily can lead to malnutrition and, except when calories are pushed so low as to be a starvation diet, it’s fattening.
This general strategy has been done before. It’s a way of shifting the blame and the consequences elsewhere. It’s the same as promoting feel good policies such as encouraging recycling for households, which helps distract from the fact that the immensity of waste comes from factories and other businesses. The rich use most of the resources and cause the most problems. Yet it’s the rest of us who are supposed to take responsibility, as consumer-citizens. What the rich pushing this agenda refuse to talk about is that the entire system is to blame, the very system they disproportionately benefit from. The only way to solve the problem is to eliminate the socioeconomic order that creates people so rich and powerful that they dream of controlling the world. If sustainability is the genuine concern, we might need to return to a smaller-scale decentralized way of living where solutions come from communities, not enforced by distant bureaucrats and technocrats; or else we need a new democratic self-governance. But that would mean reducing inequality of wealth and power by bringing the resources and decision-making back to local populations and/or the national citizenry. As Peter Kalmus wisely put it, “You cannot have billionaires and a livable Earth. The two cannot go together.” That isn’t what the billionaires Petter and Gunhild Stordalen leading this campaign want, though (their organization is the EAT part of EAT-Lancet). They like the inequality just fine the way it is, if not for the problem of all those poor people.
As Herman Melvile put it, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” The rich are worrying about what will happen when the living conditions, including diets, improve for the rest of the global population. And there is reason to worry for, after all, it is a finite planet. But the upper classes should worry about themselves, with the externalized costs of their lifestyle (on a finite planet, externalizations that go around come around). Once the obstructionist elite get out of the way, I have no doubt that the rest of us can come up with innovative responses to these dire times. Locally-sourced food eaten in season, organic and GMO-free agriculture, community gardens and family farms, crop rotation and water management, cattle pasturage and open-range grazing, regenerative farming and reverse desertification, farmers markets and food co-ops, etc — these are the kinds of things that will save the world, assuming we aren’t already too late.
A local diet including animal foods will be a thousand times better for the planetary biosphere than turning all of earth’s available land into big ag industrial farming in order to support a plant-based diet. Even in the EAT-Lancet report, they agree that “animal production can also be essential for supporting livelihoods, grassland ecosystem services, poverty alleviation, and benefits of nutritional status.” They even go so far as to add that this is true “particularly in children and vulnerable populations.” Wondering about this dilemma, Barry Pearson states it bluntly: “Eliminating all people who EAT-Lancet isn’t suitable for, who is left? So far list of people it isn’t suitable for appears to include: Children. Old people. Pregnant or potentially pregnant women. People with diabetes. Has anyone identified a list of who it IS suitable for?” And Georgia Ede makes the same point, adding some to the list: “Yet the authors themselves admit diets low in animal foods are unhealthy for babies, growing children, teenage girls, pregnant women, aging adults, the malnourished, and the poor, and that high-carbohydrate diets are risky for those w/ insulin resistance.” Despite this acknowledgement, the EAT-Lancet true believers largely dismiss all animal foods, which are the best sources of fat-soluble vitamins that Weston A. Price found were central to the healthiest populations. Somehow too much animal products are bad for you and the entire planet, not just red meat but also chicken, fish, eggs and dairy (anyway, why pick on red meat considering over the past century beef consumption has not risen in countries like the United States or in the world as a whole). Instead, we’re supposed to sustain ourselves on loads of carbs, as part of the decades of government-subsidized, chemically-doused, genetically-modified, and nutrient-depleted ‘Green Revolution’. That should make happy the CEOs and shareholders of big ag, some of the main corporate backers of EAT-Lancet’s global agenda. “Ultra-processed food manufacturers must scarcely believe their luck. They’ve been handed a massive rebranding opportunity free of charge, courtesy of the vegan desire for plant-based junk posing as dairy, meat, fish, and eggs” (Joanna Blythman).
What they don’t explain is how the world’s poor are supposed to eat this way. That is no minor detail being overlooked. Most of the population in the world and in many developed countries, including the United States, are poor. This idealized diet is presented as emphasizing fruits and vegetables. But in many poor countries, fruits and vegetables are more expensive than some animal foods. That is when they are available at all which is often not the case in the food deserts that so many of the poor are trapped in. The authors of the report do admit that animal foods might be increased slightly for many demographics — as Dr. Georgia Ede put it: “Although their diet plan is intended for all “generally healthy individuals aged two years and older,” the authors admit it falls short of providing proper nutrition for growing children, adolescent girls, pregnant women, aging adults, the malnourished, and the impoverished—and that even those not within these special categories will need to take supplements to meet their basic requirements.” It’s not clear what this means, as this admission goes against their general recommendations. The proposal is vague on details with neither food lists nor meal plans. And, oddly, the details shown don’t actually indicate greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, as the plant-based foods mostly consist of nutrient-deficient carbs (according to Optimising Nutrition’s Should you EAT Lancet?, the calorie breakdown should be: 70% plant-based including sweeteners; with 46% carbs; only 3% vegetables & 5% fruits; & a remarkable 5% for sweeteners, about equal to allowance of meat).
In the harsh criticism offered by Optimising Nutrition: “You would be forgiven if you thought from their promotional materials that they were promoting more vegetables. But it’s not actually the case! However, I admit they are promoting primarily a ‘plant based diet’ if you count corn, soy and wheat (grown using large scale agricultural practices, mono-cropping and large doses of fertilisers and chemical pesticides) and the oils that you can extract them as ‘plant based’.” I eat more actual vegetables (e.g., leafy greens) on my low-carb, high-fat and animal-based paleo diet than is being recommended in the EAT-Lancet report. Just because a diet is ‘plant-based’ doesn’t mean it’s healthy, considering most processed foods consist of plant-based ingredients with most junk food being entirely vegan (potato chips, crackers, cookies, candy, pop, etc). Even commercial whole wheat breads with some fiber and vitamins added back in to the denatured flour are basically junk food with good marketing. Heck, partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup are both plant-based, not to mention the soy added into so many products. The EAT-Lancet diet is basically a fancied up version of the Standard American Diet (SAD), as it has fallen in line with decades of a Food Pyramid with carbs as the base and an emphasis on unhealthy seed oils — more from Optimising Nutrition:
“The thing that struck me was the EAT Lancet dietary guidance seems to largely be an extension of the current status quo that is maximising profits for the food industry and driving us to eat more than we need to. Other than the doubling down on the recommendation to reduce red meat and eggs, it largely seems like business-as-usual for the food industry. With Walter Willett at the helm, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that this looks and feels like an extension of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the whole world, complete with talk of United Nations level sanctions to prevent excess meat consumption. […] [I]t’s the added fats and oils (mostly from unsaturated fats) as well as flours and cereals (from rice, wheat and corn) that have exploded in our food system and tracked closely with the rise in obesity. The EAT Lancet guidelines will ensure that this runaway trend continues!”
The report, though, isn’t entirely worthless for it does correctly point out some of the problems we face, specifically as part of a global crisis. But it most definitely is confusing and internally conflicted. Even if it genuinely were a diet high in healthy produce, it’s not clear why the dismissal of all animal foods, including eggs and dairy that are enjoyed by most vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. If the issue is feeding the world with highly nutritious and healthy foods, it’s hard to beat an egg for cost effectiveness and it accomplishes this without need for the kind of subsidization we see with high-yield crops; and pasture-raised eggs would be even better for health, environment, and ethics. When I was poor (or rather more poor), I survived on eggs with the expensive ingredient being the few frozen vegetables I threw in for balance and variety. Eggs are filling, both satisfying and satiating. Also, they make for a quick and easy meal, an advantage for the working poor with limited time and energy. For any poor person with a small patch of land, you’d do more good for their diet give them an egg-laying hen so that they could produce their own nutritious food without any need for a factory farm. There are already similar programs to give milk-producing goats to rural families in poor countries.
We are being told, though, that eggs are part of what is destroying the world and so they must be severely limited, if not entirely eliminated, for the good of humanity or else the good of the earth. “While eggs are no longer thought to increase risk of heart disease, Willett said the report recommends limiting them because studies indicate a breakfast of whole grains, nuts and fruit would be healthier” (Candice Choi). So, there is nothing unhealthy about eggs, but since they are made of protein and fat, we should eat more carbs and sugar instead — “According to EAT Lancet, you can eat 8 tsp of sugar but only 1/4 egg per day” (Nina Teicholz). After all, everyone knows that American health has improved over the decades as more carbs and sugar were eaten… no, wait, it’s the complete opposite with worsening health. That is plain fucked up! Explain to me again why eggs, one of the cheapest and healthiest food sources, are being targeted as a danger to human existence in somehow contributing or linked to overpopulation, environmental destruction, and climate change. What exactly is the connection? Am I missing something?
Whatever the explanation, eating less of such things as eggs, we are supposed to eat more of such things as vegetables, at least in taking at face value how this diet is being sold, if ignoring the inconvenient details. Let’s pretend for a moment that the Eat-Lancet diet is accurately described as largely oriented toward fruits and vegetables and that, as a sweeping recommendation, this is fully justified. Consider that, as Diana Rodgers explains, “Fresh produce is not grown year round in all locations, not available to everyone, and by calorie, weight, and micronutrients, more expensive than meat. Oh, and lettuce has three times the GHG emissions of bacon and fruit has the largest water and energy footprint per calorie. I didn’t see this mentioned in the EAT Lancet report.” We forget that our relatively cheaper vegetables in the West, although often more expensive than many animal foods, are actually rather uncommon for much of the world, excluding starchy plant foods that are more widely available.
We only have such a broad variety of inexpensive plant foods here in the West because its part of the government-subsidization (direct and indirect) of high-yield farming, which by the way has simultaneously depleted our soil and, as a consequence, produced nutrient-deficient food. Also, there is the American Empire’s neoliberally-rationalized and militarily-protected ‘free trade’ agreements that have ensured cheap produce from around the world, but this simultaneously makes these foods often out of reach for the impoverished foreign populations that actually grow the produce. I might be fine with subsidizing vegetables and much else, but I’d rather see the subsidization of sustainable farming in general that promotes nutrient-dense foods, far from limited to plants. Anyway, how is telling poor people to eat more expensive and, in some cases, problematic foods going to help the world’s population that is struggling with poverty and inequality?
“And what are the things individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint?,” as also brought up by Rodgers. “According to a recent meta-analysis, having one less child (in industrialized nations), which was shown by far to have the biggest impact, followed by living “car-free”, avoiding one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight, and buying “green” energy have much more of an effect on our carbon footprint than our dietary choices.” Most people in the West are already having fewer children. And most people in the rest of the world already live without cars. We know that the birthrate goes down when life conditions are improved and this is already being observed, but this dietary regime would worsen life conditions through austerity politics and so would make people feel more desperate than they already are. As for transportation, many things could lessen the externalized costs of that, from well-funded public transportation to increased local farming: “New research from the University of California also recently concluded that grasslands are an even better and more resilient carbon storage option than trees.” (Danielle Smith, If you care about the planet, eat more beef); “These multiple research efforts verify that practical organic agriculture, if practiced on the planet’s 3.5 billion tillable acres, could sequester nearly 40 percent of current CO2 emissions” (Tim J. LaSalle & Paul Hepperly, Regenerative Organic Farming); see also this Ted Talk by Allan Savory and this paper.
Cattle aren’t the problem, considering that the earth for hundreds of millions of years has supported large numbers of ruminants without pollution, erosion, or any other problems. The United States maintains fewer cows than there were buffalo in the past and furthermore: “Ruminant herds have been a feature of our ecosystem since before the fall of the dinosaurs. Yes, they produce methane (so do we), but the atmosphere is accustomed to that level of methane. I can’t find data on total global animal biomass trends, but as the population of humans and domesticated animals has increased, so populations of wild animals (and particularly megafauna) has decreased. What is concerning is releases of methane that has been sequestered from the atmosphere over thousands or millions of years – melting permafrost, drained peatbogs and swamp forests. Methane is a significant greenhouse gas. But to get back to where we started, methane is a natural component of the atmosphere; the carbon from farts comes from the food that is eaten and is recycled as new food that grows; there is no evidence that I’m aware of that the total volume of farting is increasing.” (Simon Brooke). An accurate and amusing assessment. More mass industrial farming to support this top-down dietary scheme from EAT-Lancet would require more mass transportation and inevitably would create more pollution, along with environmental harm. One has to be insane or ill-informed to believe this is the solution or else one has to be well-paid by self-serving interests to claim to believe it.
Just to throw out a crazy idea, maybe the neo-fascist tyranny of transnational mega-corporations is the problem, not the answer. “Just think about it. EAT Lancet is the processed food industry telling us that eating more processed food is good for our health & planet. That’s like oil industry stating burn more fossil fuel will save planet. Vested interests think we are that gullible?”, in the words of Gary Fettke, an outspoken surgeon who (like John Yudkin and Tim Noakes) was bullied and harassed when challenging the powers that be, for the crime of advising an evidence-based low-carb/sugar diet. “This Poison Cartel of companies,”writes Vandana Shiva in reference to the corporate alliance behind EAT-Lancet, “have together contributed up to 50% Green house gases leading to climate change, and the chronic disease epidemic related to chemicals in food, loss in diversity in the diet, industrially processed junk food, and fake food.” The Lancet Journal itself, from a new report, is now warning of us the exact same thing, in that many corporate sectors (including those backing EAT-Lancet) receive $5 trillion in government subsidies: “Big Food’s obstructive power is further enhanced by governance arrangements that legitimize industry participation in public policy development” (Swinburn et al, The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change).
The whole health and sustainability claim is a red herring. The EAT-Lancet commissioners and others of their ilk don’t feel they have to justify their position, not really. They throw out some halfhearted rationalizations, but they fall apart under casual scrutiny. Furthermore, there is far from being a consensus among the experts. The Associated Press offered some dissenting voices, such as “John Ioannidis, chair of disease prevention at Stanford University, said he welcomed the growing attention to how diets affect the environment, but that the report’s recommendations do not reflect the level of scientific uncertainties around nutrition and health.” Ioannidis, a non-partisan researcher in dietary debates, was quoted as saying, “The evidence is not as strong as it seems to be.” That is to put it mildly. We are in the middle of a replication crisis in numerous fields of science and, as Ioannidis has shown, food-related research is among the worse. When he says the evidence is not strong enough, people should pay attention. ““There are few exceptions, but the status of epidemiological literature is not at a level to allow us to make these types of very detailed, specific recommendations,” Ioannidis tells me. For that reason, the health claims in the EAT-Lancet diet are “science fiction. I can’t call it anything else”” (Sam Bloch, World Health Organization drops its high-profile endorsement of the EAT-Lancet diet).
For emphasis, consider what kind of scientists are involved in this project. The lead researcher and author behind the EAT-Lancet report is Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department. He was recently rebuked in science journal Nature (editorial and feature article) for his unscientific behavior. Willett has many potential conflicts of interest with, according to Nina Teicholz, “many 100Ks in funding by a host of companies selling/promoting plant-based diet.” This is the guy, by the way, who inherited the mantle from Ancel Keys, an ‘honor’ that some would consider very low praise, as Keys too has regularly been accused of a sloppy and bullying approach to diet and nutrition. Willett is particularly misinformed about what is a healthy fat in his blaming saturated fat on the same flimsy evidence going back to Ancel Keys, but back in a 2004 Frontline interview from PBS he did make the surprising admission that it was carbs and not fat driving the disease epidemic:
“Well, the food guide pyramid that was developed in 1991 really is based on the idea that all fat is bad. Therefore [if] fat is bad, and you have to eat something, carbohydrate must be wonderful. So the base of the pyramid is really emphasizing large amounts of starch in the diet. We’re told we can eat up to 11 servings a day, and if that wasn’t enough starch, the pyramid puts potatoes along with the vegetables, so you can have up to 13 servings a day. That’s a huge amount of starch. […] Fat’s up at the top of the pyramid, and where it says explicitly “fats and oils, use sparingly.” It doesn’t make any distinction about the type of fat, and it tells us to eat basically as little as possible. […] Well, this pyramid is really not compatible with good scientific evidence, and it was really out of date from the day it was printed in 1991, because we knew, and we’ve known for 30 or 40 years that the type of fat is very important. That was totally neglected. […]
“In some ways, we do have to credit the food industry with being responsive to what nutritionists were saying. They did believe or accepted the evidence that vegetable fats, vegetable oils, would be better than animal fats, and that really led to the development and promotion of the margarine industry and Crisco, baking fats that were made from vegetable oils. But they were made by a process called partial hydrogenation, which converts a liquid oil, say like soybean oil or corn oil, to something like margarine or vegetable shortening. As it turns out that was a very disastrous mistake, because in the process of partial hydrogenation, a totally new type of fat is formed called trans fat. The evidence has now become very clear that trans fat is far worse than saturated fat. […] Unfortunately, as a physician back in the 1980s, I was telling people that they should replace butter with margarine because it was cholesterol free, and professional organizations like the American Heart Association were telling us as physicians that we should be promoting this. In reality, there was never any evidence that these margarines, that were high in trans fat, were any better than butter, and as it turned out, they were actually far worse than butter.”
In 2010, Walter Willett is again quoted in The Los Angeles Times declaring this same message in no uncertain terms: “Fat is not the problem […] If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases” (Marni Jameson, A reversal on carbs). He has been defending this consistent message for a while now. Why this sudden turnabout in defense of carbs by blaming fats once again? Is he just following the money as a scientific mercenary for hire to the highest bidder?
Considering animal fats are among the most nutrient-dense foods available, let me return to nutrient-density in my concluding thoughts. Feeding the whole world is the easy part. But if we want humanity, all of humanity, to thrive and not merely survive, this is what it comes down to — as I previously wrote (A Food Revolution Worthy of the Name!): “We don’t need to grow more food to feed the world but to grow better food to nourish everyone at least to a basic level, considering how many diseases even in rich countries are caused by nutrient deficiencies,” even as Westerners are eating too much, “(e.g., Dr. Terry Wahls reversed multiple sclerosis symptoms in her self, in patients, and in clinical subjects through increasing nutrient-density). The same amount of food produced, if nutrient-dense, could feed many more people. We already have enough food and will continue to have enough food for the foreseeable future. That of equal and fair distribution of food is a separate issue. The problem isn’t producing a greater quantity for what we desperately need is greater quality. But that is difficult because our industrial farming has harmed the health of the soil and denatured our food supply.” Animal foods, of course, are the most nutritious foods available, not to mention the most concentrated source of calories.
From that piece, I suggested that nutrient-density, especially if combined with low-carb, might decrease food consumption worldwide. In comparing locally-raised meat versus mass-transported produce, Frédéric Leroy made a related argument: “When protein quality is factored in, the data show a completely different picture. Assessments usually overlook nutrient density. Expressing environmental impact per unit of mass (g) has little sense, we should care about *nutrition* not quantity.” And for damn sure, it would improve health for those already eating so little. As I wrote, “What if we could feed more people with less land? And what if we could do so in a way that brought optimal and sustainable health to individuals, society, and the earth? Now that would be a food revolution worthy of the name!” This is very much an issue of inequality, as at least some of the EAT-Lancet commissioners acknowledge — Dr. Lawrence Haddadsays, “Most conflict is driven by inequality, or at least a sense of inequality. Work by UNICEF and others shows that inequality in terms of malnutrition is actually rising faster within countries than it is between countries. So inequality within countries in terms of things like stunting and anaemia is either not improving or is actually worsening – and we know that inequality is a big driver of violence conflict.”
The EAT-Lancet report itself mentions this in passing, mostly limited to a single paragraph: “Wars and disasters cause food insecurity and highlight the issues faced when nutrition is inadequate and food becomes scarce. Wars and natural disasters also provide opportunities from which the food system can be transformed. However, only at the end of World War 2 was a global effort and commitment introduced to redirect the food system.258 New institutions were created or revised at the global level such as WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Bank, which allied with new and renewed national Ministries of agriculture and health to stop pre-war food problems caused by market distortions, environmentally-damaging farming, and social inequalities.259 However, the negative consequences of the post-war food revolution are now becoming increasingly clear (ie, negative environmental and health consequences, as outlined in this Commission).”
I’ll give them credit for bringing it up at all, however inadequately. They do admit that our food system has failed. That makes it all the more unfortunate that, in many ways, they are demanding more of the same. As others have noted, the diet they have fashioned for the world is severely lacking in nutrition. And they offer no convincing suggestions in how to reverse the problem of malnutrition. It won’t help to eat more plant-based foods, if they are grown through chemical-dependent high-yield farming that is depleting the soil of minerals and killing earthworms, microbes, etc: “Veganism is a huge misinterpretation of what a responsible diet might look like. It fully supports and exacerbates industrial farming of grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables through high inputs, maximising yields at all costs and depleting soils.” (Cassie Robinson). The idea of nutrient-dense foods as part of traditional farming and healthy soil is simply not on the radar of mainstream thought, especially not within our corporatist system. That is because the largest portion of the most nutrient-dense foods don’t come from plants (especially not high-profit monoculture crops) and, furthermore, aren’t compliant with the present industrial agriculture and food production of profitable big ag.
That isn’t to say we should necessarily be eating massive amounts of meat, as opposed to eating more eggs and dairy, but animal foods have been the key element to every healthy population. In fact, compared to the United States, the top two longest-living countries in the world (Hong Kong and Japan) eat more animal foods by some accounting, including lots of red meat. According to Dr. Paul Saladino, the average lifespan of the Hong Kong resident is 85 and their average meat consumption is a pound and a half; and he puts that into the context that research on Asian populations show that people eating more meat are healthier (see video and transcript). That said, Americans are probably ahead of those two countries on dairy foods, which taken together is an argument for animal-based diets. Even among vegetarians, the healthiest are those with access to high quality dairy and eggs, along with those eating food from traditional farming that includes many insects and soil microbes mixed in with what is grown (the latter was shown in a study that vegetarians in a region of India were healthier than in another, and the difference was the unintentional insects in the diet from traditional pesticide-free farming). In the above linked video, Dr. Paul Saladino was talking to Dr. Steven Gundry who mentioned that primates in the wild intentionally seek out fruit that is bug-infested and will otherwise throw it away, as they are looking for protein.
None of that, as far as I can tell, is discussed in the EAT-Lancet report. The authors offer no helpful advice, no long-term vision that can move us in a positive direction. Their ideology is getting ahead of the science. A sense of urgency is important. But impatience, especially the EAT Foundation’s self-described “impatient disruption”, won’t serve us well. It was careless hubris that got us here. It’s time we learn to respect the precautionary principle, to think carefully before collectively acting or rather before the ruling elite goes forward with yet another harebrained scheme. If as a society we want to direct our sense of urgency toward where it counts, that wouldn’t be hard to do: “World: Stop wasting a third of the food produced. Stop wrapping it in needless packaging. Stop transporting food half way round the world. Stop selling food at below-cost prices. Stop undercutting our produce with low standard alternatives. Then I’ll discuss how much meat I eat” (David Hill). It would mean drastically transforming our political and economic system. Capitalism and corporatism, as we know it, must end for the sake of humanity and the planet.
As a member of the ‘liberal’ class of paternalistic elites, Gunhild Stordalen (founder and president of EAT Foundation) knows how to say the right things. Listen to how she sets up this brilliant piece of rhetoric: “What we eat and how we produce it drives some of our greatest health and environmental challenges. On the other hand, getting it right on food is our greatest opportunity to improve the health of people and planet. This will require concerted action across disciplines and sectors – and business will be a key part of the solution.” Much of it sounds nice, too nice. But the only part of that statement that was honest was the last bit. All one should hear is “Blah, blah, blah… and business will be a key part of the solution.” And she isn’t referring to small family farms, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and local co-ops. This is a corporatist vision of concentrated wealth and power. These people are serious about remaking the world in their own image. As Anand Giridharadas put it in another context: “Elites, he wrote, have found myriad ways to “change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all”. The people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change – often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.” No thanks! We don’t need a corporate-owned nanny state telling us what to do.
If scientific and political institutions weren’t being manipulated, if the corporate media weren’t used to propagandize the citizenry and manage public perception, and if powerful interests weren’t spreading disinfo and division, it would be a lot easier for we the people to become an informed local and global (i.e., glocal) citizenry able to figure out how to democratically solve our own problems. We could even figure out how feed ourselves for health and sustainability. Despite it all, that is what we’re working toward. None of this is to attack the average vegan, vegetarian, or other plant-based advocate who sincerely is seeking a better world and taking personal actions they believe matter. Even if for those of us who disagree with their evidence and methods, we can wholeheartedly support their ethical and environmental intentions. Most of these people are leftists and liberals, as am I and many others. Our disagreement is not necessarily based on social, economic, and political ideology. But we should be worried that good intentions, along with rhetoric, have been co-opted by reactionary forces that use them to greenwash powerful and dangerous interests that are anti-leftist, anti-egalitarian, and anti-democratic. We often should support these grassroots advocates and activists in their overall goals that we might share. They aren’t our enemies. Rather than further getting pulled into false divide and conquer tactics (leftist vegans vs right-wing carnivores), we need to reach out to others in creating a populist movement that will be a powerful counter-force.
A truly effective global solution to the problem of human nutrition and environmental impact must be replicable, transparent, and supported with correct quantification of its impact. Unfortunately, the report did not meet these criteria.
It’s shocking that after years of promoting a groundbreaking report, EAT-Lancet’s own analysis shows the Commission’s recommended diet has almost no environmental benefit over business-as-usual scenarios. While EAT-Lancet claims its reference diet would decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the Commission’s fundamentally flawed data fail to account for methane reduction that occurs naturally, as methane remains in the atmosphere for only 10 years. The carbon emissions from all the flights required for the Commission’s global launch tour will have a much longer impact than that of methane from livestock animals
Frank Mitloehner, PhD, UC Davis
Meat and dairy are easily the most nutrient-dense foods available to humans. [The recommendations… are not only unrealistic but potentially dangerous for healthy diets…
Jason Rowntree, Associate Professor, Animal Science Department, Michigan State University
Human beings, especially as we age, cannot do without protein. The EAT-Lancet Commission’s recommendation to cut beef consumption to just a quarter ounce per day (7g) is a drastic departure from evidence showing meat and dairy improve diets.
Stuart Phillips, Professor; Director, Physical Activity Centre of Excellence. McMaster University, Canada.
The report’s recommendations do not reflect the level of scientific uncertainties around nutrition and health. The evidence is not as strong as it seems to be.
The cornerstone of a healthy diet is still meat and dairy. Take those out and you’ll have under-nutrition and frailty. It’s unavoidable.
Andrew Mente, PhD, Associate Professor & Nutrition Epidemiologist, Population Health Research Institute, McMaster University
The #EatLancet Commission work does not reflect consensus among scientists. We need to invest in research to inform dialogue on what is healthy and sustainable. We should not base recommendations based on assumptions and 40+ year old confounded cohorts. Scientists must stop making premature recommendations based on opinion and weak data like in the past (e.g., eggs and fat). Unintended consequences happen folks. Let’s not make the same mistake twice!
What start as academic and scientific debates become political arguments thataredangerouslysimplistic and may have several detrimental consequences for both health and the environment. Of course, climate change is real and does require our attention. And, yes, livestock should be optimized but also be used as part of the solution to make our environments and food systems more sustainable and our populations healthier. But instead of undermining the foundations of our diets and the livelihoods of many, we should be tackling rather than ignoring the root causes, in particular hyperconsumerism. What we should avoid is losing ourselves in slogans, nutritional scientism, and distorted worldviews
To confine all our attention in eliminating animal-source food (#meat, #eggs, #milk) in our diet as solution to climate change is to limit human ability to solve challenges. Options’re available to abate impacts of livestock through investment
As a cardiologist, I’ve made healthy lifestyle recommendations to thousands of patients, and it is clear that the best lifestyle is one people can actually maintain over the long term. It turns out that animal protein and fat are uniquely satiating — thus keeping hunger at bay — and therefore a friend to any dieter. It is lamentable that the EAT-Lancet authors should want to impose their ideas about healthy diets on all populations worldwide.
This is what the new EAT Lancet report remind me of. After years of abject failure with ‘plant based’, low fat, low calorie diets for metabolic health, they know they’re going to succeed with the same advice. Insanity, literally
The environmental science is as murky, unevenly applied & ideologically driven as the nutrition science. There isn’t a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to “healthy diet” or “sustainable food system” because we are dealing with situated, idiosyncratic contexts in each case
Those who feel that meat eaters are as bad as smokers and should eat their meals outside of the restaurant are obviously not coming from a place of reason and should be removed from decisions involving dietary policy.
What concerns me is that people will give this report the same weight as Dietary Guidelines that go through years of discussion, must be based on scientific evidence, analysis and vetting by a team of experts that have to disclose COI – unlike this report.
I work as a renal RD, & so I experience daily the actual impact pseudoscience like the #EATLancet study can have on society. It’s nonsense like this that has caused so many of my patients to fear meat—which improves clinical outcomes—more than highly processed foods.
The #EATLancet diet: Nearly eliminates foods with important nutrients (dairy and all other products from animal origin). Will lead to an increase consumption of calories. Will have similar impact on climate change.
In the late 1970s in America, the idea that a plant-based diet might be the best for health as well as the most historically authentic was just entering the popular consciousness. Active efforts to demonize saturated fat had been underway for more than fifteen years by that time, and we’ve seen how the McGovern committee’s staff were in short order persuaded by these ideas. Even so, the draft report that Mottern wrote for the McGovern committee sparked an uproar—predictably—from the meat, dairy, and egg producers. They sent representatives to McGovern’s office and insisted that he hold additional hearings. Under pressure from these lobbies, McGovern’s staff carved out an exception for lean meats, which Americans could be advised to eat. Thus, Dietary Goals recommended that Americans increase poultry and fish while cutting back on red meat, butterfat, eggs, and whole milk. In the language of macronutrients, this meant advising Americans to reduce total fat, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, sugar, and salt while increasing carbohydrate consumption to between 55 percent and 60 percent of daily calories.
While Mottern would have liked the final report to advise against meat altogether, some of the senators on the committee were not so unequivocally confident about their ability to weigh in on matters of nutritional science. The ranking minority member, Charles H. Percy from Illinois, wrote in the final Dietary Goals report that he and two other senators had “serious reservations” about the “divergence of scientific opinion on whether dietary change can help the heart.” They described the “polarity” of views among well-known scientists such as Jerry Stamler and Pete Ahrens and noted that leaders in government, including no less than the head of the NHLBI as well as the undersecretary of health, Theodore Cooper, had urged restraint before making recommendations to the general public.
Yet this hesitation turned out to be too little too late to stop the momentum that Mottern’s report had set in motion. Dietary Goals revived the same argument that Keys and Stamler had used before: that now was the time to take action on an urgent public health problem. “We cannot afford to await the ultimate proof before correcting trends we believe to be detrimental,” said the Senate report.
So it was that Dietary Goals , compiled by one interested layperson, Mottern, without any formal review, became arguably the most influential document in the history of diet and disease. Following publication of Dietary Goals by the highest elective body in the land, an entire government and then a nation swiveled into gear behind its dietary advice. “It has stood the test of time, and I feel very proud of it, as does McGovern,” Marshall Matz, general counsel of the McGovern committee, told me thirty years later.
Proof of the report’s substantiality, according to Matz, is that its basic recommendations—to reduce saturated fat and overall fat while increasing carbohydrates—have endured down to today. But such logic is circular. What if the US Congress had said exactly the opposite: to eat meat and eggs and nothing else? Perhaps that advice, supported by the power of the federal government, would have lived on equally well. In the decades since the publication of Dietary Goals , Americans have seen the obesity and diabetes epidemics explode—a hint, perhaps, that something is wrong with our diet. Based on these facts, the government might have deemed it appropriate to reconsider these goals, but it has nevertheless stayed the course because governments are governments, the least nimble of institutions, and unable easily to change direction.
One hundred and eleven years ago a scientist in St. Petersberg Russia fed rabbits meat, eggs, and dairy. Not unexpectedly for a herbivorous animal, it built up in the blood vessels. It also built up in the ligaments, the tendons, the muscles, and everywhere else in the rabbits body without any evolved mechanism for excretion. This yellow goop in the rabbit’s aortas looked just like human atherosclerosis, which had only been described four years earlier. This started science down a misguided pathway of focusing on fat as the cause of hardening of the arteries. A pathway that future historians will likely call the greatest tragedy in terms of years of life lost in the history of humanity.
Initially it was eating cholesterol that was blamed for causing of hardening of the arteries. Then in the 1950s an American physiologist, who had such an affinity for hard compacted refined carbohydrates that he designed soldiers rations featuring it, expanded the blame from cholesterol to all fat, especially animal fat. Carbohydrates should be increased and fat excluded, that was the battle cry! In the 1970s this unproven theory drew the attention of the US senate, and within a few short years blaming fat for atherosclerosis became a worldwide revolution. This time period, interesting, also marks the beginning of the obesity epidemic that has gripped the world’s developed countries. Tragically, what everyone seemed to have missed was the fact that there was no conclusive scientific evidence for this theory, and over time much of that thinking has actually been proven wrong. I have little doubt that issuing these guidelines without conclusive scientific evidence will eventually be viewed as the most significant blunder in the history of science.
I am an ICU doctor. I see the carnage that this cavalier and misguided attitude towards food guidelines has caused every single day, up close and personal. The tears of families suffering loss. The premature death of those who should have had long lives. Parents burying their adult sons and daughters. Atherosclerosis, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, when grouped together represent the top conditions for admission to adult ICUs everywhere on earth where our unhealthy Western Diet is consumed. And approximately one in five don’t survive their ICU stay. But what makes me the most angry is the fact that those people who draft these misguided non-scientific food guidelines, with their biased agendas and misrepresented studies, sit in government offices and ivory towers completely remote from the devastating impact of their work. Is it any wonder that the doctors of the world represent a large portion of those leading the charge against our current misguided food guidelines. Doctors are not remote to the problem or blind to the devastation. It is here every single day at work.
This has to stop. Food guidelines need to be based on rigorous science. How many more thousands of people have to die.
Before getting to the topic of essentialism, let me take an indirect approach. In reading about paleolithic diets and traditional foods, a recurring theme is inflammation, specifically as it relates to the health of the gut-brain network and immune system.
The paradigm change this signifies is that seemingly separate diseases with different diagnostic labels often have underlying commonalities. They share overlapping sets of causal and contributing factors, biological processes and symptoms. This is why simple dietary changes can have a profound effect on numerous health conditions. For some, the diseased state expresses as mood disorders and for others as autoimmune disorders and for still others something entirely else, but there are immense commonalities between them all. The differences have more to do with how dysbiosis and dysfunction happens to develop, where it takes hold in the body, and so what symptoms are experienced.
From a paleo diet perspective in treating both patients and her own multiple sclerosis, Terry Wahls gets at this point in a straightforward manner (The Wahls Protocol, p. 47): “In a very real sense, we all have the same disease because all disease begins with broken, incorrect biochemistry and disordered communication within and between our cells. […] Inside, the distinction between these autoimmune diseases is, frankly, fairly arbitrary”. In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote (Kindle Locations 3834-3850):
“Inflammation has been a game-changer for our understanding of mental illness. For many years, scientists and clinicians held a classical view of mental illnesses like chronic stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Each ailment was believed to have a biological fingerprint that distinguished it from all others. Researchers would ask essentialist questions that assume each disorder is distinct: “How does depression impact your body? How does emotion influence pain? Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” 9
“More recently, the dividing lines between these illnesses have been evaporating. People who are diagnosed with the same-named disorder may have greatly diverse symptoms— variation is the norm. At the same time, different disorders overlap: they share symptoms, they cause atrophy in the same brain regions, their sufferers exhibit low emotional granularity, and some of the same medications are prescribed as effective.
“As a result of these findings, researchers are moving away from a classical view of different illnesses with distinct essences. They instead focus on a set of common ingredients that leave people vulnerable to these various disorders, such as genetic factors, insomnia, and damage to the interoceptive network or key hubs in the brain (chapter 6). If these areas become damaged, the brain is in big trouble: depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all associated with hub damage. 10
“My view is that some major illnesses considered distinct and “mental” are all rooted in a chronically unbalanced body budget and unbridled inflammation. We categorize and name them as different disorders, based on context, much like we categorize and name the same bodily changes as different emotions. If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.”
What jumped out at me was the conventional view of disease as essentialist, and hence the related essentialism in biology and psychology. This is exemplified by genetic determinism, such as it informs race realism. It’s easy for most well-informed people to dismiss race realists, but essentialism takes on much more insidious forms that are harder to detect and root out. When scientists claimed to find a gay gene, some gay men quickly took this genetic determinism as a defense against the fundamentalist view that homosexuality is a choice and a sin. It turned out that there was no gay gene (by the way, this incident demonstrated how, in reacting to reactionaries, even leftist activists can be drawn into the reactionary mind). Not only is there no gay gene but also no simple and absolute gender divisions at all — as I previously explained (Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?):
“Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary (1, 2, 3, 4, & 5), as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way.”
The attraction of essentialism is powerful. And as shown in numerous cases, the attraction can be found across the political spectrum, as it offers a seemingly strong defense in diverting attention away from other factors. Similar to the gay gene, many people defend neurodiversity as if some people are simply born a particular way, and that therefore we can’t and shouldn’t seek to do anything to change or improve their condition, much less cure it or prevent it in future generations.
For example, those on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum will occasionally defend their condition as being gifted in their ability to think and perceive differently. That is fine as far as it goes, but from a scientific perspective we still should find it concerning that conditions like this are on a drastic rise and it can’t be explained by mere greater rates of diagnosis. Whether or not one believes the world would be a better place with more people with autism, this shouldn’t be left as a fatalistic vision of an evolutionary leap, especially considering most on the autism spectrum aren’t high functioning — instead, we should try to understand why it is happening and what it means.
Researchers have found that there are prospective causes to be studied. Consider proprionate, a substance discussed by Alanna Collen (10% Human, p. 83): “although propionate was an important compound in the body, it was also used as a preservative in bread products – the very foods many autistic children crave. To top it all off, clostridia species are known to produce propionate. In itself, propionate is not ‘bad’, but MacFabe began to wonder whether autistic children were getting an overdose.” This might explain why antibiotics helped many with autism, as it would have been knocking off the clostridia population that was boosting propionate. To emphasize this point, when rodents were injected with propionate, they exhibited the precise behaviors of autism and they too showed inflammation in the brain. The fact that autistics often have brain inflammation, an unhealthy condition, is strong evidence that autism shouldn’t be taken as mere neurodiversity (and, among autistics, the commonality of inflammation-related gut issues emphasizes this point).
There is no doubt that genetic determinism, like the belief in an eternal soul, can be comforting. We identify with our genes, as we inherit them and are born with them. But to speak of inflammation or propionate or whatever makes it seem like we are victims of externalities. And it means we aren’t isolated individuals to be blamed or to take credit for who we are. To return to Collen (pp. 88-89):
“In health, we like to think we are the products of our genes and experiences. Most of us credit our virtues to the hurdles we have jumped, the pits we have climbed out of, and the triumphs we have fought for. We see our underlying personalities as fixed entities – ‘I am just not a risk-taker’, or ‘I like things to be organised’ – as if these are a result of something intrinsic to us. Our achievements are down to determination, and our relationships reflect the strength of our characters. Or so we like to think.
“But what does it mean for free will and accomplishment, if we are not our own masters? What does it mean for human nature, and for our sense of self? The idea that Toxoplasma, or any other microbe inhabiting your body, might contribute to your feelings, decisions and actions, is quite bewildering. But if that’s not mind-bending enough for you, consider this: microbes are transmissible. Just as a cold virus or a bacterial throat infection can be passed from one person to another, so can the microbiota. The idea that the make-up of your microbial community might be influenced by the people you meet and the places you go lends new meaning to the idea of cultural mind-expansion. At its simplest, sharing food and toilets with other people could provide opportunity for microbial exchange, for better or worse. Whether it might be possible to pick up microbes that encourage entrepreneurship at a business school, or a thrill-seeking love of motorbiking at a race track, is anyone’s guess for now, but the idea of personality traits being passed from person to person truly is mind-expanding.”
This goes beyond the personal level, which lends a greater threat to the proposal. Our respective societies, communities, etc might be heavily influenced by environmental factors that we can’t see. A ton of research shows the tremendous impact of parasites, heavy metal toxins, food additives, farm chemicals, hormones, hormone mimics, hormone disruptors, etc. Entire regions might be shaped by even a single species of parasite, such as how higher rates of toxoplasmosis gondii in New England is directly correlated to higher rates of neuroticism (see What do we inherit? And from whom? & Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology).
Essentialism, though still popular, has taken numerous major hits in recent years. It once was the dominant paradigm and went largely unquestioned. Consider how early last century respectable fields of study such as anthropology, linguistic relativism and behaviorism suggested that humans were largely products of environmental and cultural factors. This was the original basis of the attack on racism and race realism. In linguistics, Noam Chomsky overturned this view in positing the essentialist belief that, though not observed much less proven, there must exist within the human brain a language module with a universal grammar. It was able to defeat and replace the non-essentialist theories because it was more satisfying to the WEIRD ideologies that were becoming a greater force in an increasingly WEIRD society.
Ever since Plato, Western civilization has been drawn toward the extremes of essentialism (as part of the larger Axial Age shift toward abstraction and idealism). Yet there has also long been a countervailing force (even among the ancients, non-essentialist interpretations were common; consider group identity: here, here, here, here, and here). It wasn’t predetermined that essentialism would be so victorious as to have nearly obliterated the memory of all alternatives. It fit the spirit of the times for this past century, but now the public mood is shifting again. It’s no accident that, as social democracy and socialism regains favor, environmentalist explanations are making a comeback. But this is merely the revival of a particular Western tradition of thought, a tradition that is centuries old.
I was reminded of this in reading Liberty in America’s Founding Moment by Howard Schwartz. It’s an interesting shift of gears, since Schwartz doesn’t write about anything related to biology, health, or science. But he does indirectly get at environmentalist critique that comes out in his analysis of David Hume (1711-1776). I’ve mostly thought of Hume in terms of his bundle theory of self, possibly having been borrowed from Buddhism that he might have learned from Christian missionaries having returned from the East. However he came to it, the bundle theory argued that there is no singular coherent self, as was a central tenet of traditional Christian theology. Still, heretical views of the self were hardly new — some detect a possible Western precursor of Humean bundle theory in the ideas of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).
Whatever its origins in Western thought, environmentalism has been challenging essentialism since the Enlightenment. And in the case of Hume, there is an early social constructionist view of society and politics, that what motivates people isn’t essentialism. This puts a different spin on things, as Hume’s writings were widely read during the revolutionary era when the United States was founded. Thomas Jefferson, among others, was familiar with Hume and highly recommended his work. Hume represented the opposite position to John Locke. We are now returning to this old battle of ideas.
Cradle to Cradle. This is a sustainability model popularized by William McDonough. But he isn’t the originator of this line of thought. The basic sustainability ideas he argues for have been around for a while. Even the phrase “cradle to cradle” was used by others before him, which makes it irritating that he tried to trademark it. He has a habit, as some have noted, of stealing ideas and claiming them as his own while demanding high fees. So, maybe he is a bit of a self-promoting egotist or maybe he is simply greedily self-interested. His being a thought leader might be equal parts real influence and aspirational fantasy, whether or not that is problematic to the sustainability movement. It sometimes takes big egos to push big ideas, as long as a personality cult doesn’t get in the way.
Whatever the case, he could still be right about what he (and many others) have advocated. The moral merit and practical value of those ideas is a separate issue from what some deem to be his personal weaknesses or failings. The point is that I wouldn’t argue that there are necessarily problems in the ideas themselves, but underlying motives are always of concern in what they point toward. It’s a question of ascertaining and assessing what is behind the rhetoric and to what end that rhetoric might be used. It’s the same issue that motivated my writing about Foster Gamble (Thrive: Libertarian Wolf in Progressive Clothing) — and I might note that it was the same friend that brought them both to my attention, a very good friend I might add whose opinion I respect, but he admits to being drawn into and sometimes misled by libertarianism (something I can empathize with, considering my own libertarian inclinations).
My doubts began when I read an article about McDonough (the one specifically recommended by my friend): Industrial Revolution, Take Two by Matt Tyrnauer. As often is the case, I had a mixed response. It is one of the many nice-sounding libertarian dreams and not one that easily fits into the left-right spectrum. The problem is, even when well intentioned, these dreams are too often used to rationalize nightmares or else the resulting obfuscation (intended or not) makes it hard to tell the difference.
What stands out to me is that McDonough doesn’t seem to discuss democracy at length or at the very least he doesn’t clearly prioritize it, which opens the door for anti-democratic opportunists and reactionaries. To be fair, he does occasionally, albeit briefly, mention democracy. On his official website, in talking about one of his projects and the principles its based upon, he explains that, “In essence, they will extend the rights and responsibilities of a democratic government and its citizens into the realm of nature and design.” He rightly worries about “the fundamental challenge to democracy,” that “If our actions today rob our children of their right to choose, we are practicing intergenerational tyranny, an affront to democratic traditions.” And about regulations, he writes that they:
…are a legitimate transitional response. And when technologies such as nuclear energy and genetic engineering threaten to generate irreversible environmental changes, perhaps more urgent action is called for. Addressing the possible impacts of these industries would be an expression of democracy, for irreversible ecological change robs future generations of the right to choose: Once you’ve altered the genetic code there’s no turning back; once a species is lost, it is lost forever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “life is for the living,” and diminishing the life and the choices of our children and grandchildren is a kind of remote tyranny. Regulations that preserve choice and environmental health preserve democracy.
This Jeffersonian idealism is a major strain in American thought. And it resonates deeply. I might add that this was the basis of the early notion that constitutions, patents, and corporate charters should never last longer than a single generation — that is to say no generation, once dead, has the natural right and moral justification to (immortally and in perpetuity) impose anything onto following generations, be it constraints or costs. McDonough also is able to put democracy into a larger global context:
Today, we might try waging peace on the scale of the Marshall Plan with the widespread application of intelligent design, a concerted international effort to develop products, industrial processes and social systems that support sustainable economic strength, cultural diversity and environmental health. From this perspective, sustainable design can be seen as one of the essential paths to peace and security. Consider resource dependency. From the viewpoint of both sustainability and international relations, reliance on a single, non-renewable resource to fuel economic growth is a signal of a design problem. In Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for example, we see oil generate wealthy elites but no democratic institutions and no emerging intellectual infrastructure to support long-term social well-being or economic growth. In America, there are strong democratic traditions, but today the U.S. spends up to $50 billion annually, as well as lots of international good will, to protect the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. South America is now emerging as the new, unstable oil arena.
But strangely democracy only comes up once in his book, Cradle to Cradle (p. 23), and even then only in the context of industrial capitalism:
The advantages of standardized, centralized production were manifold. Obviously, it could bring greater, quicker affluence to industrialists. On another front, manufacturing was viewed as what Winston Churchill referred to as “the arsenal of democracy,” because the productive capacity was so huge, it could (as in two world wars) produce an undeniably potent response to war conditions. Mass production had another democratizing aspect: as the Model T demonstrated, when prices of a previously unattainable item or service plummeted, more people had access to it.
I give him some credit for discussing democracy at all. But the above commentary of his from various sources is about a page worth in total and, as far as I can tell, it is about all he has ever written on the topic. It’s merely something about which to make a rare point in passing. But it’s not central to his argument or, if it is in the background of his thought, it isn’t a rhetorical frame overtly used to construct his worldview. Even when democracy does come up, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it in relation to self-governance, political process, anarchosyndicalism, etc. At most, McDonough’s view of democracy appears to be as a general concept of a democratic society and a broad tradition of Western civilization, in the mainstream sense and not with clear radical and revolutionary implications.
Maybe this is unsurprising. He argues against any ‘ism’ for, in his mind, ideology inevitably means extremism. This indicates that he considers the radical and revolutionary to be a bad thing. He wants moderate and gradualist reform within the system, not wholesale transformation of the system. And so he argues for a balanced approach that doesn’t go too far in any direction, which obviously means some kind of claim for centrism (a position that puts me on guard). The problem is that the denouncing of ideology is an old strategy for smuggling in an unstated ideology. This was powerfully used by Southerners before the Civil War in attacking supposedly radical ideologies of the Northern states such as abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, red republicanism, etc. Anyway, it’s clear that McDonough does have an ideology, something along the lines of mildly progressive soft neoliberalism leaning toward social semi-libertarianism. On the positive side, he seems to be a pragmatist of sorts (self-perceived pragmatism, after all, is a core neoliberal justification) and so maybe open to persuasion… or else just ideologically confused.
There is no doubt that cradle to cradle is a beautiful dream. But it won’t be primarily created through technology and industry but through democratic revolution that helps create a democratic political and economic system. Otherwise, such technology and industry will lead to yet another authoritarian social order. Libertarian (or pseudo-libertarian) techno-utopias won’t save us from the more fundamental problem of anti-democratic corporatism with its concentrated wealth and power, no matter how paternalistically it is wielded. Change will have to come from the bottom up, which is problematic that McDonough directs his arguments toward those at the top.
To my mind, this seems part of an old game… no matter if McDonough understands his own part in it. It has been played well by right-wing libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists for generations, co-opting rhetoric as necessary. There is always a beautiful dream involved. It’s hard to argue against it on its own terms. If the rhetoric matched reality, I’d be on board with almost every beautiful dream that came down the pipeline. But the reality rarely matches the rhetoric. The political right loves to complain that liberal and leftist reality is inferior to right-wing fantasies. Yet they feel no responsibility to ever concretely prove their fantasies should be taken seriously. Neither neoliberalism nor neoconservatism, much less libertarianism, have spread freedom around the world. The wealth has not trickled down and all boats have not been lifted. We are still waiting on the promises of prior utopian visions. Repackaging old rhetoric is the opposite of helpful, if that is all this amounts to (and I hope not).
To continue, here is something else from Tyrnauer’s piece:
“How many environmentalists do you know who say growth is good?,” McDonough asks. “We celebrate growth. Abundance is something we want. Our idea is to make production so clean there’s nothing left to regulate.” This, he notes, is extremely appealing to people of all political persuasions, from those who love the environment to those who want commerce free of regulation.
I can guarantee you this much. Such rhetoric will be used to attack environmental regulations and regulatory agencies by right-wing think tanks and media, lobbyists and politicians. As Chomsky advises, we the public need to develop some serious intellectual defenses against the power of rhetoric, especially when it becomes mass-produced and widely circulated propaganda. Millions, if not trillions of dollars, are spent every year in researching, developing, and implementing more effective ways to monopolize the public mind, manipulate public perception, and manage public opinion.
The fact that corporations and corporate media have already latched onto this “cradle to cradle” rhetoric should greatly worry us all. It maybe already has been turned into yet one more ideology of technocratic paternalism, the reason the investor class and the creative class love it so much. It portrays a world led and ruled by the tech industry and its pseudo-libertarian visionaries. Denying its status as an ideological ‘ism’ makes it even easier to be co-opted for nefarious ends. Such sustainability visioneering is an answer coming from on up high, not being developed from below among the democratic masses. If failed government is eliminated without filling the void with democracy, all that would happen is for corporate bureaucracy and privatized authoritarianism to take its place. Tech and industry is a means, not an end. Only democratic process can lead to democratic results.
Give the lower classes ability and freedom to solve their own problems — some possibilities: community self-governance, direct vote determining government budgets, corporate charters determined by and limited to the public good, tax free co-operatives, employee-owned factories, locally-operated municipalities, every neighborhood with a creativity lab, tools and machinery made affordable to the lower classes, public education and professional training provided as a right, educational and research resources freely available to all citizens, all or nearly all scientific research and academic books openly accessible to the public, a publicly-maintained internet system of knowledge and ideas, strong platforms of public media and public debate, and whatever else along these lines.
I’m thinking of examples like the young guy in an isolated poor village who was able to build a windmill to pump water for his community and he did so by using knowledge from the internet and spare parts nearby. And I’m thinking about the experiment involving computer terminals that were put into poor neighborhoods that allowed uneducated kids to educate themselves (English, mathematics, etc), even though no one was telling them that is what they should do. I bet, if given the resources and opportunity, the poorest of minorities out of necessity would be more likely to come up with brilliantly innovative ideas than rich white guys like William McDonough and Foster Gamble.
If there is an environmentally sustainable societal and economic ecosystem to be developed, it will come from the common folk because they have the strongest incentive for improving society. It won’t come from the world of transnational corporations nor from corporate media and corporatist government. Big biz is a threat to our survival, not our savior. All that big biz and its cronies will do is use the techno-libertarian rhetoric to dismantle environmental regulations and protections while they spin some PR and throw out a few token efforts and symbolic actions. They will enact their ultimate capitalist dream of endless guilt-free hyper-individualistic consumerism that replaces community and civil society, the commons and the public good.
But it will sound great in theory. The corporatist media will push the propaganda model so as to make these rhetorical schemes into some variety of ideological realism. The pundits will preach it with such inspiration. The thought leaders will give their TED talks. The Koch-funded academics will indoctrinate the young. The think tank intellectuals will spread the word. And the professional politicians will halfheartedly repeat the talking points. Any alternative will be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or attacked.
Let me finish with one last quote by Tyrnauer:
One of the things that is holding back the environmental movement and its proponents, says McDonough, is the collective burden of guilt about the ills of our society. “They say they want durable products that last a long time. Like a 25-year car. I’ll tell you why that’s not good. That car will still be made with toxins in the adhesives, compound epoxies. O.K., it amortizes its damage over a longer period of time, but it’s still a car that is damaging. You also lose jobs, because people don’t buy enough cars. You are using outdated technology on the roads for a longer time.” The solution that he and Braungart suggest is a five-year car that allows for industry to “transform the technology at high speed toward the Cradle to Cradle concept. The five-year car is a car whose materials are all coherent and tagged. In fact, all materials in the car have ‘passports.’ So we know where they come from, and we know where they’re going”—back to the auto-makers—“after five years of utility, so the car could be recycled and updated with the latest in safety and efficiency. All done with the same materials that you—in effect—lease from the auto company. They keep making the cars out of the same stuff.”
Meanwhile, one of the things holding back actual environmental sustainability, protection, and thriving is corporatist power and rhetoric. The ruling elite force guilt onto us about our demands for a political and economic system that serves we the public of this society and we the inhabitants of the living biosphere, calling us such names as ‘takers’ and ‘welfare queens’. They shift the guilt onto us in order to avoid the legal and moral guilt of those who have created the mess and made government seem dysfunctional, even as government serves their every need and demand — like Reagan complaining about big government as he grew the military and created the permanent debt. If guilt really were so powerless to influence change, it wouldn’t be a target of those most guilty. Social science research shows that guilt is quite powerful, such that people will punish the perceived guilty even at high costs to themselves. That enforcement of public morality is what the powerful fear, as it is the fuel of populist outrage that has forced major changes throughout history.
Besides, environmental regulations won’t ever be eliminated. In any society, there will always be public policy about how natural resources are used, how costs and benefits are allocated, how social norms are enforced, how wrongdoing is punished or compensated. etc. The issue isn’t for or against government, as long as we want to maintain a complex society. Rather, what we must choose is a free society of self-governance or an authoritarian regime of self-destruction. Government regulations are most dangerous when there is regulatory capture. Eliminating the power of government doesn’t eliminate the dangers of the very corporations that took control. That would simply lead to privatized authoritarianism, corporate bureaucracy, and plutocratic monopolization.
Simply put, I don’t trust sirens of laissez-faire salvation and plutocratic paternalism, even when dressed up with environmentalist buzz words and social democratic pleadings. It doesn’t matter how enticing is the futuristic utopia they promise. The challenge before us is the sifting out the good from the bad, the intentions from the results, the rhetoric from the reality. We should dream big, but we must guard those dreams jealously. We must defend them against those who would co-opt and abuse them, turning the radical and revolutionary into the reactionary and regressive. The solution isn’t to curtail big dreams but to unleash them from the forces of small-minded dreamers. If these dreams are to serve the public good, the public must claim them.
I’ll leave it to others to judge the likes of William McDonough, one of the glittering gods on Mount Olympus. It is ultimately irrelevant. He doesn’t own any of these ideas, despite his attempts to do so. If he helps give voice to what needs to be heard, well then good for him. But he better get out of the way for those who will need to do the hard work. And so I’ll look to the ground for what will be emerging next in the world. The much needed radical revolution will come in unexpected forms, like a god in the gutter. A new living generation will inherit the earth and they will do what must be done. Cradle to grave, grave to cradle.
Walter Stahel, an architect, economist, and one of the founding fathers of industrial sustainability is credited with having coined the expression “cradle to cradle” in the late 1970s ; even though Braungart and McDonough claimed to have invented it . Stahel intended to reverse the crude and wasteful linear industrial system the world has inherited from the industrial revolution, which depletes finite resources, creating toxic products that largely end up in landfills to poison the environment. Stahel developed a “closed loop” approach to production and founded the Product Life Institute in Geneva with the main goals of product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities and waste prevention. Kodak, DuPont, the BBC and Bosch are among its clients.
“Cradle to cradle” as propounded by Braungart and McDonough means to go one step further; they want industry not only to close the loop by recycling, but to redesign the industrial processes altogether. Instead of concentrating on making the current system more efficient (less bad), we can redesign the system to be thoroughly good. Recycling and reuse is not a solution if the product or material is toxic in the first place, it will inevitably end up in the environment to poison us more slowly, but still surely.
So, we must eliminate toxic materials and processes altogether, to make products that can be safely recycled and reused or else composted to support plant growth. There are already impressive successes (but also notable failures that critics accuse McDonough of ignoring, or still claiming as successes ).
If, like me, you expected to find a coherent theory behind the cradle to cradle approach, then you’d be disappointed and frustrated as I was, until I learned of the successful actual implementations (see Box), which serve to remind us that good intentions can often work. On the other hand, a coherent theory may improve the success rate, and at least, provide criteria for judging success.
Three comments. First, this book does not suggest any radical change in behavior for the typical reader. (Have lots of kids, drive lots of cars, buy lots of stuff – what a break through!) This book is, rather, advice for architects, corporations, and municipalities. It is intended to free the typical reader of guilt. I think it should do something else as well, namely urge us to political action, to demanding of our democratically elected representatives that the earth-saving innovations described in the book be taken advantage of. All the descriptions in this book of common household objects, such as sofas, “off-gasing” toxic particles makes me want to take action to change things or at least buy a mask, not go shopping.
Second, the examples of new materials and building and product designs described in the book all build on the environmental thinking that McD and B so loudly reject. Reducing pollution to zero is not a “new paradigm” from reducing pollution to a teeny bit – it’s just better.
Third, the vision of rendering mad self-indulgence completely beneficial to all other species is far from a reality, and even the dream described by McD and B would not, in any way that I can imagine, make it possible to place an unlimited number of humans on the planet without hurting anything – more humans than under current practices, yes — an infinite number, no. But let’s remember that most of the people now on the planet do not do nearly as much damage as we do in this country. How many billion Americans the Earth can hold has not been answered.
There is also a disturbing thread of anti-government corporatism in the book. Ford and Nike and other corporations for which the authors have worked are described as heroes for their positive efforts, while their destructive practices are passed over. The authors repeat a distinction (citing Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival”) between Guardians and Commerce, i.e. paternalistic government and noble corporate heroes:
“Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.”
Is this a joke? Do these guys believe press releases they read from, say, Enron? (Apparently so, because later in the book they write: “…the summer of 2001, when unusually high energy demand in California led to rolling blackouts, skyrocketing prices, even accusations of profiteering….” Accusations! High demand or restrained supply? What rock have these intelligent authors been naturally cooling themselves under? Well, at least they recognize the concept of profiteering, even though it fits poorly with the inherent honesty of commerce.)
Immediately following the “inherently honest” comment (page 60) Mc D and B go on to equate regulation with partial pollution reduction, and to conclude that because complete pollution reduction is desirable and possible, regulation is bad. Instead they should conclude that rather than allowing limited pollution, regulators should ban it entirely (through whatever stages of phasing in that policy prove feasible). Later the authors claim that their design to allow a factory to reuse its effluent as influent “eliminated the need for regulation.” This should at the very least have been stated more clearly: it eliminated the need to monitor effluent. It did not eliminate the need to ban harmful effluent. Nor did it provide any reason to think making environmental behavior “voluntary” would cause other factories to employ similar solutions, however easy or profitable they might be.
What’s the summary of the summary? McDonough is an impressive man, but he dreams on a scale much larger than he can deliver. His impressive gains are frustrated by his personal desire for wealth – Cradle to Cradle had incredible potential until he slapped on such high fees licensing fees. By attempting to control and own everything he created, potential partners were alienated and the growth of his ideas stagnated.
The future lies with green architecture and manifacturing, but it does not lie with William McDonough.
As someone who believes that “commerce is the engine of change,” as he puts it, McDonough has never confined his ambition to the high plains of principle. The virtue of his cradle-to-cradle idea is that it offers a virtuous result — infinite abundance with no waste — through an unabashedly commercial channel, namely manufacturing. If he could establish himself in that chain as the arbiter of clean products, there is no limit to what it might yield — for everyone. “The faster and larger our business grows,” he told me, “the better the world gets.” […]
McDonough is not above poetic license. When I ask him which building marked the genesis of the sustainable-design movement, he points to the office he designed for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It was the first green office in the U.S.,” he says. Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: “Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office… . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done… . I hate to see false myths perpetuated.” Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn’t his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, “Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it.”
For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements — those whose labors rarely reach the ears of Laurie David — an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. “He’s been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary,” says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that’s where the guys in the trenches get frustrated.” […]
The Oberlin case is part of a larger pattern, some of his former colleagues say. “McDonough doesn’t care if the facts are wrong,” one told me, “because he’s a self-mythologizer. His job in the world is to convince people that a positive future is possible, and it doesn’t help his cause to admit there are hiccups and failures along the way.”
Inscribed near the entrance of McDonough’s architecture firm in Charlottesville is a favorite mantra: design is the first signal of human intention. He repeats it religiously, and for him it means that every object contains clues to whether it was created with the earth in mind. It is one’s intention, McDonough believes, that one is judged on.
McDonough’s willingness to let good intentions obscure very mixed results appears to have sometimes clouded his own — and others’ — view of his abilities. […]
Critics argue that McDonough’s work is not transparent or consensus based, and that because he sometimes consults for companies whose products he’s also certifying, the whole endeavor is conflicted, if not unethical.
K • 9 years ago
I too was there at UVA school of architecture when McDonough was there and was unimpressed. Sure, he’s an amazing motivational speaker, who regurgitates the same speech over and over. Then, if you get to meet any of the people he champions (as I did, when I took his class, ‘Environmental Choices’) what you really learn is that what he’s doing is taking the messages of people who are really ‘doing the work’ and ‘breaking ground’ and making like they were his own.
Now sure, not everyone is a good salesman, and I do think there’s a niche for someone to ‘get the word out’. But there is no good reason to make yourself look amazing on the backs of others and not really give them credit. Also, once you heard the people speak he was ‘borrowing’ from, you realized how great they were and how vacant some of the stuff he was saying was- because he wasn’t a specialist, just a salesman.
And a somewhat overinflated one at that. Champion people for the right reasons I say. McDonough has an amazing flair for the pitch, but you really can’t count on him for substance (from experience).
Anonymous • 9 years ago
I was at UVA’s school of architecture when McDonough was there. My former classmates and I, including people who have worked for him and his firm, have been telling anyone who will listen that he is not all that he seems for almost 10 years. Funny how long it’s taken for word to get around.
To denigrate the “cradle to grave” tyranny of social democracy and public welfare has, of course, been a staple of reactionary right-wing political invective for generations. But I want to direct attention to a variation of this same polemic at the heart of what is often peddled as a progressive, environmentalist discourse — the so-called “cradle to cradle” design ethos.
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart has come to be a sort of bible (together with Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and Bruce Sterling’s periodic papal-imperial declarations about blobjects and spimes and whatnot) for the so-called “Bright Greens” and the whole green design crowd more generally that more or less arose out of or together with Stewart Brand’s California libertopian retro-futurology-qua-ecology.
In a characteristic passage (pp. 59-61) from Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart summarize a formulation from the great Jane Jacobs that they take up and divert to their own ends, describing “two syndromes of human civilzations: what [Jacobs] calls guardian and commerce”:
The guardian is the government, the agency whose primary purpose is to preserve and protect the public. This syndrome is slow and serious. It reserves the right to kill — that is, it will go to war. It represents the public interest, and it is meant to shun commerce (witness conflicts over campaign contributions from vested interests).
Commerce, on the other hand, is day-to-day, instant exchange of value. The name of its primary tool, currency, denotes its urgency. Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can’t do business with people if they aren’t trustworthy.
Notice that the attribution of slowness and violence as definitive of government, and then of efficiency and creativity to commerce are very straightforward Anglo-American right-wing Movement Conservative pieties (an assimilation to neoliberal discourse I think Jacobs herself resists better herself, if not enough).
One need not pretend that all representative politics and social administration are transparent, efficient, fleet-footed, and fair to feel hesitant about declaring governance as inevitably and exhaustively and quintessentially bloated and jackbooted as conservatives nowadays are so often keen to do, usually all the while singing arias to celebrity CEOs and commercial culture as though corporations and salesmen are gloriously immune to bureaucracy, dysfunction, conformism, cronyism, fraud, aggression, and waste.
Although it might seem the authors are somewhat evenhanded in a characterization noting the indispensability of government to the “public interest,” they undermine this apparent balance when they go on thereupon to depict government action exclusively in terms of war-making and then stealthfully re-attribute public interestedness to the commercial sphere declaring commerce, astonishingly, as inherently concerned with long-term interests and trustworthiness.
Notice, by the way, the authors’ rather typical handwaving away of the well-known critique that a focus on short-term profit-taking tends to happen at the expense of thinking about longer term consequences with their chirpy collapse of this conflict into a seamless “seeking [of] short- and long-term advantage,” a phrasing that refuses to concede such a problem even exists. Also, notice that the authors seem to consider trustworthiness logically entailed by the structure of enterprise and that the endless empirical instances to the contrary anybody can effortlessly call upon are apparently irrelevant to their abstract celebratory point. It is also intriguing to say the least to note that fairly widespread concerns about the impact of corporate money in the United States’ flabbergastingly corrupt and wasteful campaign finance system are regarded by the authors as straightforward expressions of hostility to free enterprise, as if innovation and fair trade somehow require a “democracy” controlled by millionaires instead of majorities.
As a historian, I often think about how the carrying capacity of the planet has changed. Six hundred years ago, it would be unimaginable to think that we could live in a society of plenty where nobody had to die of famine and where we would see life expectancies of 70 years and more. Medieval Europeans believed that only in Eden had such a state existed and, furthermore, there was no reason for man to live hundreds of years like Noah and Methuselah. A short life sufficed to find salvation and a long life only served to encourage vice. As it turns out, they may have been right about that one – a long lifespan has given us the chance to use up a lot more resources per person, but hasn’t necessarily made us into better human being. In any case, though, we forget that at one time the wheeled plow was high tech and it created the possibility of feeding far more people. Similarly, changes in land tenure, the increased use of horses and so forth, made it possible for fewer farmers to feed more people.
So I believe that McDonough is right. Faced with the alternatives, we can come up with products that are non-toxic. They will be infinitely upcycled if industrial products and just simply thrown “away” if they are biological products that can be simply composted. Under such conditions, what is to stop infinite growth? In a word: energy. Thus far, almost every shortage we have faced on the planet has been solved by throwing more energy at the problem. As we see the looming problem of climate change, though, we see that using more energy in the forms we currently use it is, in itself a problem. I have no doubt that if we can solve the energy question, we can shift to a planet of plenty where every necessary product is produced safely and sustainably. Some products, it’s true, might get prohibitively expensive, but for the most part we will see those as unnecessary. There is a limit to planetary population, certainly, but history has shown that we have no idea what that number is (and to some extent that’s a value judgement – can we plow up all wilderness in order to grow food?). But the energy question is one that is looming imminently. That’s the one part of the puzzle that McDonough doesn’t really address and that may be the fundamental problem. As he says, efficiency is not enough. A more efficient system just runs out of resources more slowly. Granted, energy is not on McDonough’s agenda – he designs products and buildings and does his best to make them energy efficient (that bad word again), but leaves it up to others to find sources of energy that are as eco-effective as McDonough’s designs.
The fusion of transhumanist and neoliberal ideas has played an important cultural role in Right libertarian digital utopianism that has emanated out of Silicon Valley, and through Wired magazine. End Times Ecology provides the backdrop narrative informing all kinds of different modes of environmental activism. In some senses they can be seen as reinstating in new ways the catastrophe/cornucopia binary that has run through environmental politics since the early 1970s. Nevertheless, a great deal of contemporary science ﬁction, from the work of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to ﬁlms such as Gattica (1997) and Elysium (2013), are attempts to grapple with worlds confronting both neoliberal hybridities and ecological collapse. Much of this literature thus unsettlingly suggests that these two discourses could in fact be different sides of the same coin. […]
It is interesting to note that bright green literatures often work with multiple political narratives. Some of the less compelling interventions are directed at business leaders who, it is believed, will act out of enlightened self-interest to implement forms of eco-innovation (see McDonough and Braungart, 2013). However, other currents (see Mostafavi and Doherty, 2010) provide more layered accounts of multiple possible entry points available for the dispersal of such innovations well beyond the conventional “entrepreneur/CEO as hero” model: from forms of industrial redesign that are promoted by local, municipal, regional or national governments to full scale public urban planning, from ﬁrm-based innovation to innovation driven by government regulation or social movements. Reading beneath the green business uplift narrative, many bright green authors acknowledge that much more radical regime change will be required to make their visions possible. This observation is rarely made explicit in this literature, but it outlines the necessary terrain of engagement that must take place between the critical environmental social sciences and Bright green sensibilities (see White and Wilbert, 2009; Hess 2012, 2014). […]
Given the technocentric and power-free nature of much post- environmentalist analysis, it is easy to see how the post-environmentalist vision of a “good anthropocene” could converge and merge with the hybrid neoliberal vision. A post-environmentalist ecomodernist future can be envisaged where the afﬂuent live in high security, Dubai-style dense, green “smart cities.” Such forms of fortress urbanism could be underpinned by corporatist public-private governance structures, mega-energy technologies, hyper-industrial agriculture and global industrial supply chains that are all serviced by dispossessed classes living densely and eco-efﬁciently in the urban periphery. This decoupled, carbon- constrained, ecomodern world would, of course, exist within a broader “re-wilded” planet where perhaps “non-moderns” and those who have refused to be “modern” or those who have escaped from the neo-corporatist ecomodern smart city live off their wits, taking their chances while plotting different futures. […]
If end times ecology looks upon our unfolding hybrid worlds with horror and resignation, we have also seen that diverse hybrid neoliberals, bright green and post-environmental currents – whatever their differences – have sought to reframe the environmental debate as questions of technological innovation and inventiveness. All these dis-courses present technological innovation as deﬁning
invention. As a result of this, there are strong tendencies to present social life and politics as the realm of inertia. More generally, it could be observed that the primary voices that are seen as drivers of change are “entrepreneurs,” policy makers, technocratic experts and design professionals. The public, or publics, as potentially sentient, creative, informed and knowledgeable political actors with their own insights, are absent.
Andrew Barry (2002) has observed quite usefully that this conceit, that we live in technological societies that are driven by technologies, has become central to the understanding of many people in the afﬂuent world. Barry suggests that “technological societies” are not necessarily any more technological than past societies, but they are societies that take technological change as the model of invention. The irony here, Barry suggests, is that the endless technological churn that contemporary “technological” economies generate do not necessarily give rise to particularly inventive worlds. Barry indeed observes that periods of rapid technological change can drive anti-inventive forms and behavior. Patenting knowledge or making endless upgrades of software or hardware packages can merely facilitate forms of defensive innovation generating technological changes that are conservative in their implications, “maintaining or rigidifying existing arrangements between persons, activities, devices, and habits of thought; they may restrict and displace the possibility of alternative developments” (Barry, 2002:212). We should not then simply equate technological novelty with inventiveness. Rather, Barry suggests:
Inventiveness should not be equated with the development of novel artifacts, or indeed with novelty or innovation in general. Rather, inventiveness can be viewed as an index of the degree to which an object or practice is associated with opening up possibilities. In this view, scientiﬁc and technical objects and practices are inventive precisely in so far as they are aligned with inventive ways of thinking and doing and conﬁguring and reconﬁguring relations with other actors. From this perspective it is possible to identify forms of invention that are not technical but rather involve the use of a device in more creative ways. In short, just because an object or device is new does not make it an invention. What is inventive is not the novelty of artifacts and devices in themselves, but the novelty of the arrangements with other objects and activities within which artifacts and instruments are situ-ated and might be situated in the future. (Barry, 2002:211–212)
Barry’s observations prompt the question as to whether there are ways of thinking about an inventive politics, an experimental environmentalism and a public ecology (Luke, 2009) which could open up the making of our hybrid worlds to many more perspectives and voices.
Progressive Utilization Theory, also known by the acronym PROUT, is a collection of socioeconomic and political ideas created by Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, envisioning “a decentralized, community-based world economy of self-sufficiency; economic democracy; small business; and limits on the accumulation of wealth.” From a PROUT perspective even the most idealistic sustainable models will inevitably confront capitalism’s inherent contradiction: that self-interest and profit are the main drives of the economy and also the main causes of economic exploitation and environmental degradation.
Sarkar explains: “The contradictions in capitalism are due to the self-centered profit motivated psychology and the accumulation of wealth for the benefit of a few rather than for the welfare of all. Hence, capitalism is not congenial to the integrated growth of human progress.” In other words, in a capitalist economy, no matter how green, there will always be a tug of war between the bottom line (profit) and the second bottom line (sustainability). And the bottom line will always win.
Sarkar’s keen insight into this fundamental flaw of capitalism is the reason why PROUT advocates a radical restructuring of the entire economy. PROUT’s alternative to capitalist reform is its three-tiered structure—small private enterprises, worker owned cooperatives and enterprises owned by state, regional or municipal boards. The inherent problems of profit-motivated greed can thus be checked and balanced by limiting capitalism itself. In other words, without curbing the growth of private capitalism—which is driven by its profit motivation– it will be impossible to maintain social, economic and environmental balance, no matter how “sustainable,” “green” or “natural” the economy is.
As we have seen, the main enemy of democracy is inequality of wealth (and therefore power). When Big Money calls the shots, most people are disenfranchised like cattle. There is no evidence that wealthy elites make better decisions than the American people as a whole would make if the institutions of our democracy were working properly (media, schools, courts, legislatures, labor unions, law-making and policy bodies, local businesses and local economies, plus electoral systems for judges, legislatures, governors, and presidents).
If inequalities of wealth are the greatest threat to democracy — and are the hallmark of an unsustainable society — then we could protect democracy and promote sustainability by protecting the institutions that reduce inequalities of wealth.
Most Americans are surprisingly far to the left of the plutocratic and kleptocratic establishment. Most Americans support left-wing healthcare reform (single payer or public option), maintaining the Roe vs Wade decision, stronger gun regulations (including among most NRA members), more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment of criminals, drug legalization or decriminalization, etc. They are definitely to the left of Clinton New Democrats with their corporatist alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Hillary Clinton, for example, has long had ties to heavily polluting big energy corporations.
Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn that the American public, both left and right, is also to the left on the issue of climate change and global warming. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up issue of environmentalism and public opinion. Labels don’t mean what they used to, which adds to the confusion. But when you dig down into the actual issues themselves, public opinion becomes irrefutably clear. Even though few look closely at polls and surveys, the awareness of this is slowly trickling out. We might be finally reaching a breaking point in this emerging awareness. The most politicized issues of our time show that the American public supports leftist policies. This includes maybe the most politicized of all issues, climate change and global warming.
Yet as the American public steadily marches to the left, the Republican establishment uses big money to push the ‘mainstream’ toward right-wing extremism and the Democrats pretend that their conservatism represents moderate centrism. The tension can’t be maintained without ripping the country apart. We can only hope that recent events will prove to have been a wake up call, that maybe the majority of Americans are finally realizing they are the majority, not just silent but silenced.
The environmental issues we are facing are larger than any problems Americans have ever before faced. The reality of it hasn’t fully set in, but that will likely change quickly. It appears to have already changed in the younger generations. Still, you don’t even need to look to the younger generations to realize how much has changed. Trump voters are perceived as being among the most right-wing of Americans. Yet on many issues these political right demographics hold rather leftist views and support rather leftist policies. This shows how the entire American public is far to the left of the entire bi-partisan political establishment.
When even Trump voters support these environmental policies, why aren’t Democratic politicians pushing for what is supported by the majority across the political spectrum? Could it be because those Democratic politicians, like Republican politicians, are dependent on the backing and funding of big biz? Related to this, the data shows Americans are confused about climate change. Could that be because corporate propaganda and public relations campaigns, corporate lies and obfuscation, and corporate media has created this confusion?
It is quite telling that, despite all of this confusion and despite not thinking it will personally harm them, most Americans still support taking major actions to deal with the problem — such as more regulations, controls and taxes, along with also greater use of renewable energy. The corporate media seems to be catching on and news reporting is starting to do better coverage, probably because of the corporate media simultaneously being challenged by alternative media that threatens their profit model and being attacked as ‘fake news’ by those like Trump. The conflict is forcing the issue to the surface.
This growing concern among the majority isn’t being primarily driven by self-interest, demographics, ideological worldview, political rhetoric, etc. False equivalency has long dominated public debate, in corporatist politics and corporate media. This is changing. Maybe enough people, including those in power, are realizing that this is not merely a political issue, that there is a real problem that we have to face as a society.
According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.
This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.
It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.
Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.
Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.
Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.
The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.
So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.
Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.
Externalized costs have been on my mind for a very long time. Ours is a self-enclosed biosphere. All costs are ultimately internal, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.
My sense of the political has been rooted in environmentalism, from early on in my life. This worldview has been informed by a larger environmental sense of the world, including the social and economic environment. It’s always been how I experience reality, as something far beyond the false divisions we create and reify—between individual and collective, self and world, society and nature.
My young political sensibility was expressed in school papers I wrote about externalized costs, a gut level intuition about what was being lost. These papers were about overpopulation and pollution. Now here I am as an adult and everything has gotten far worse, some might say beyond the point of no return.
Pollution and environmental destruction knows no boundary. The natural world cares not about our ideological beliefs. It doesn’t matter who is fault when the costs come due. The free market is and always was bullshit. Nothing is free, even if we don’t see the price tag. In fact, capitalism is rather costly. The ultimate cost might be greater than we can afford.
These costs are highly personal. I’ve talked many times about lead toxicity, the costs of which are numerous and yet still measurable. For every IQ point lost to lead toxicity, it is a specific amount of money lost in lifetime earnings. Multiply that by many IQ points lost for untold millions of people. The costs are devastating and that is considering just one of many costs.
Considering all pollution and environmental degradation, that is the cause of 40% of the deaths worldwide. Those deaths include working men and women who were helping care for family members. Those deaths represent human potential thrown away. Those deaths didn’t just happen instantly but followed years or even decades of illnesses, suffering, and healthcare costs.
Other costs are also economic on the larger scale, which also can be measured. For a long time, I’ve suspected that many corporations would go bankrupt if they were ever forced to pay for their externalized costs. This was shown to be the case with a recent UN report:
“The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.”
This means these industries are environmentally a net loss to the global society. They aren’t contributing more to society than they are taking away. All the rhetoric of capitalism, meritocracy, and progress is lies built upon lies.
We obsess about individual problems when that isn’t the real danger we face. We make people feel guilty about recycling at home while corporations throw out so much potential recyclables as to make all the rest look minuscule. Similarly, almost all the pollution comes from big biz, not from people driving their cars too much or whatever. If we wanted to make a dent in these problems, we’d tackle it at the largest level of the most major contributors to these problems, instead of tinkering around the edges.
Meanwhile, these companies that profit from human misery, from the forced sacrifice of present and future generations lobby the world’s governments so that they’ll make even greater profit. They get tax breaks and subsidies. They hide their profits in fake businesses and secret overseas accounts. We debate about whether taxes are too high when any rational and moral person is forced to admit that taxes don’t come close to offsetting all the costs these filthy rich corporations force onto the rest of society.
Why do we tolerate this? Are we mentally deranged? Are we suicidal?
If the unsustainable costs of industrial externalities doesn’t incite mass outrage and force systemic global reform, then there is no hope left for humanity. We are doomed. Saving capitalism from communism will be the least of anyone’s worries.
Is anyone paying attention? It’s only the survival of civilization as we know it. No biggie. Have we grown so cynical and fearful that we can’t even face reality barreling down on us like a freight train? We are looking at a nightmare scenario.
Costs can be externalized and deferred. But costs can’t be denied.
Even if we are lucky enough to die before costs become due, do we really want to be such sociopathic assholes in the legacy we leave for the coming generations, for our children and grandchildren? They will curse us for what we did and failed to do.
We will be among the most hated generations ever born. There will be no forgiveness for us. Memorials will be built in memory of the evil we committed and the destruction we caused.
Of course, we could in this moment begin to lessen some of this harm. We could prepare for the consequences we’ve unleashed. We could give these next generations a fighting chance. Will we?
I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.
I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.
Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.
At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.
It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.
I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:
Here is the sad result of living in a farming state with the richest soil in the world. I can only assume that this is mostly a result of the transition from small family farms to big agribusiness. The following is from “State Park Paths 2013” by Mark S. Edwards, formerly for 30 years the Trails Coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources:
“Iowa started our state park system around the early 1900’s because there was so little left undisturbed. Even before we could designate these areas as parks they had been clear-cut, mined, plowed and heavily grazed. Iowa struggled through the 1930’s Great Depression, along with dust bowl days, unimaginable droughts and economic collapse to expand a state park system for all Iowans.
“By 1937 we lead the nation in the establishment of state parks. Today we compete with one other state for the very bottom in state parks and public lands. We are the most biologically changed place in North America. Roughly 98% of Iowa’s 36 million acres have been altered for agricultural use, cities, and roads.
“There are no old growth forests left to study or enjoy. We drained 98% of our wetlands, cut 80% of the trees, and plowed up 99.9% of our prairies. We have the most polluted surface water, the least species diversity and are at the bottom in environmental spending in the nation. This makes these parks very, very special not only for people but for the remaining critters.
“If we combined all our state parks together in one place we have 55,871 acres or a square just over nine miles on a side, a short day’s walk. The city of Des Moines covers 71,000 acres or a square about ten10 and half miles on a side.Urban sprawl in Iowa alone has increased 50,000 acres in the last ten years. Farmers converted around 50,000 acres of grassland, scrubland and wetlands from 2008 to 2011.”
You must be logged in to post a comment.