The tyranny of food

09/17/2015

I’m angry! I’m angry about food. I’m angry about food because it has become an obsession for me and for many of us. The preoccupation with eating can exercise a tyrannical control over our lives. Who amongst us has not suffered from any or many of the following consumption-related issues: shame in feeling overweight; anguish around eating to satisfy unfulfilled needs; guilt associated with having plenty while others are suffering from hunger; and worries about diabetes, allergies, genetically modified food, organic food, meat consumption, artificial flavors, gluten, sugar and so on?

As members of the animal kingdom, of course we need to nourish ourselves in order to sustain life and limb. Our hunting and gathering ancestors successfully supported themselves for hundreds of thousands of years by moving, seasonally, from one food source to another. Some mythopoetic scholars identify this period as the metaphorical “Garden of Eden,” in which a bountiful earth satisfied our nutritional needs. Living in sacred relationship with the ecosystem grounded these folks in a nature-centered cosmology. 

At times, gathering and hunting failed to produce enough to share and folks went without for a while. But these small communities of nomadic foragers kept their population within the carrying capacity of the land, and their way of life survived for countless millennia. 

Now this relationship has gone awry, in more ways than one.

Toward the end of the last Ice Age some 18,000 years ago, as the planet began to thaw, a dramatic shift in human food procurement began to unfold. Food surpluses led people to settle in permanent villages, and they had the time to develop agriculture. This radical transformation probably involved an evolution in neurological structure as well as a revolution in cultural organization. With an overabundance from wild sources and the surplus produced with the introduction of agriculture, populations exploded around the globe in a relatively short period of time. Technology, empire building and what we know as civilization followed—both the dark and the light side. 

One of the consequences of the this transformation in food production, and recent technological advances, is that our desire for food no longer reflects the back-breaking labor once needed to collect, hunt or harvest it. As I compose this essay, I’m biting the bullet in what I’ve come to call my “Dire Diet.” Not recommended for everyone! Ice Age-era Neanderthal genes (comprising around two percent of my body) propel me to rake in and store as much fat as possible. In order to impose some self-control over these insatiable impulses and to keep the 30 pounds I’ve lost from being found, I severely restrict the intake of calories. Each morning I face the scale for the moment of truth. When the needle zooms beyond my 183-pound limit, I plunge into a 1200 or less calorie-a-day count—each food item meticulously recorded in a log—until I’m back on track. This proverbial battle of the bulge is an anxiety-laden discipline, but I relish the personal empowerment and the triumph over dependency.

Yet our troubled relationship with food goes beyond this biological impulse. Some time after the advent of agriculture, fine cuisine morphed into a symbol of wealth and power for the aristocratic classes in newly stratified societies. The same holds true today and may, in part, underlie our fixation with food—as a function of upward mobility. Many affluent people devote their energies to indulging in gourmet meals and dining in high-end restaurants, while the less prosperous labor to make ends meet with food stamps and junk food. Locovores deplore the importation of groceries from beyond a 100-mile radius, while impoverished nations can’t supply enough to feed their people from any source. 

But think about our astronauts, whose fare is stripped to the bare essentials. Eating high on the hog no longer reigns, and the experience of taking in nutrition becomes removed from much of the associated angst. Could we go there?  

Are there solutions to the torment many people experience about food? The collapse of civilization, from overconsumption of resources, could be the worst-case scenario. Barring that apocalypse, a few possible resolutions to this tyrannical oppression arise from the bubbling caldron. Unfortunately, they’re not too tasty and demand enhanced self-discipline and severe social change. But when my wife, Rosie, and I are immersed in the awesome beauty of the High Sierra wilderness, the deeper qualities of life shine through, and food assumes a minor role. A spiritual transformation that addresses all these interconnected issues and raises humanity to a higher level of functioning would be a most desirable vision.