Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: What is Food? - Food is Culture

Thursday, August 7, 2008

What is Food? - Food is Culture

This time, I’m going to try making a more difficult case, so I need to define some terms first. A society is a large group of creatures acting as a single organism, but with specialization, or “polygeneity.” So, ants and bees live in societies, but algae and fungus do not. A civilization is also a society, but its distinguishing characteristic is culture. Culture refers to how society is organized: its political, economic, and social structure, but more importantly, its customs and traditions. It is necessary for humanity to have culture to be a society because humans are not naturally born into their specialized roles like bees and ants; we must choose.

Now for my thesis: our culture does not dictate our relationship with nature. Rather, it is reciprocal such that our relationship with nature also dictates our culture.

An organism living on this planet must interact with the rest of nature in order to get what it needs to survive. Its behavior and adaptation are, therefore, subject to laws of natural selection; in other words, nature dictates the direction of that organism’s development. Together, civilization constitutes a society which, as stated above, acts as a single organism – an organism as subject to natural laws as any other. It must procure the energy and resources it needs to grow, survive, and reproduce. As the natural world changes, it must adapt or suffer in any or all of these areas. That’s the name of the game.

So, as a series of logical arguments: Culture makes civilization possible; civilization is a society which makes it an organism; organisms are subject to natural laws and must adapt to changes in the environment; therefore, culture is a product of society’s relationship with the environment. Culture is how the human organism adapts.

Looking back, we can find societies whose culture more clearly reflected their relationships with nature; customs and traditions were easily recognized as having significance to resource procurement, particularly (and for obvious reasons) food. Today, society is far larger and more complex, but hints of our past relationship with food still peek through in our cultural heritage if we’re willing to look for it.

Today’s culture is also a product of our relationship with nature. Modern humans exploit every level of the food chain and even more levels that few would call food (fossil fuels). Today’s culture is one that separates us from the natural horrors our existence extols on our environment. We no longer have the heart to look.

Humanity’s relationship with nature is one of consumption, and our culture is one of consumption. Our relationship with nature is one of usury, and our culture is one of usury. Our relationship with nature is one of power and submission, and our culture is one of power and submission. Our relationship with nature is one of reckless abandon, and our culture is one of reckless abandon. You get the picture…

And what is our most intimate relationship with nature? What aspect do we depend on most? Why, it is the energy which sustains us, of course; it is our food.


Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

This is one of my favorite parts to this series - we don't very often look at our relationship with food and nature and what that means to our environment and social culture. There will come a point, however, when we can no longer look away. A time when all the "away" places will be filled up and we will have no choice but to face the music: that we have been using nature, using each other to a point of annihilation. This cannot continue, and I hope when it becomes clear the horrible state of our current situation that we can move forward in a positive direction.

I truly feel that unless we can find a balance, we are doomed, plain and simple.

You did a really good job of briefly explaining a very complicated topic.

jessy said...

another wonderful post, Wet Blanket. i totally agree with your statement about our exploitation. i find that humans think that the world should adapt to us, that we don't need to adapt to the world. and i too believe that this will catch up with us sooner than later and the results...they're going to be nasty, and we're already starting to see so many results of our carelessness! what i am constantly frustrated by is that so many people simply turn their heads and give no second thought.

there's a quote that i always loved from george orwell: "man is the only creature that consumes without producing. he does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits...". it is true that we consume, consume, consume! we really need to reduce our consumption & our impact here on earth, and focus more on a balance, indeed! because the direction we're headed in is pretty damn depressing and scary as hell!

Wet Blanket said...

Jennifer - thank you for your kind comments. I only hope others can glean what you have from this piece. For a bit of optimism, recall that - in ecosystems of declining energy availability - it is the cooperative species that succeed, and declining energy is just around the corner.

Jessy - I can't say the future prospect isn't going to hurt like hell, and many of us will truly suffer. But I also can't help but maintain a sense of optimism in the face of all that is coming. The culture and power structure that exists today will suffer as a function of human suffering. When all is lost, people will find it hard to continue turning a deaf ear, so there is reason to believe that we will come out the other end smelling more like roses and less like the turds we are today. It's just that you and I may not have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the coming crises. I, for one, am okay with that.

spelled with a K said...

The first thing that came to my mind when I read the title was how deeply connected certain foods and practices are ingrained within cultures. Anyone who has ever been the lone veg* at thanksgiving can attest to the idea that protest often comes not from the substance of the meal but defiance of tradition.

Very interesting post, I think you have put your thumb at or at least very near the pulse of the issue.

Wet Blanket said...

Spelled w/ a K - SOUTH PARK RULES!!! I like your example; it's an excellent way of illustrating the point that I only wish I had thought of myself.