Now that I’ve attempted to make a case that culture and food are closely related, I’d like to change gears a bit while also (I hope) strengthening my case by broadening and deepening food’s relationship to the greater reality. I do this by regarding food as energy.
So, I’ll begin by giving a brief example of an energy cycle. You’ve got this big ball of gas – so big that it is a perpetual nuclear reactor, fusing hydrogen atoms into helium under its own weight. Immense quantities of energy escape this reactor, most notably, in the form of light which travels outward through “empty” space, dissipating as it goes. (You can ignore the quotes; they are there only to deflect any arguments from physics nerds insisting that space is not “empty.”)
A tiny – and I mean tiny – fraction of that light is shone upon our planet where plants, or producers, use it to fuel their own growth. Some plants are eaten by animals; others die and become food for other plants. Some animals eat only other animals, but regardless, they all pee, poop, and die – food for something in the end.
The lesson from functioning ecosystems and the proverbial food-chain is modestly simple: waste is food. Waste that is not food – pollution – is wasted energy, and wasted energy on a fixed budget of solar energy is a recipe for decline and even death for entire ecosystems. (I have to give props to William McDonough for this concept)
Clearing forests, tilling soil, and redirecting waters are but a few of the strategies employed by humans to make the environment more suitable to our needs; erosion, salinization, and desertification are but a few of the consequences of these actions. The result is the destruction of ecosystems which represent large storehouses of energy, but more importantly, they represent the opportunity for future energy income. All the while, we inundate these ecosystems with unusable wasted energy we call pollution.
Coal is the fossilized remains of old forest growth: trees, shrubs, and the like. Oil and natural gas are the fossilized remains of ancient algae which were cooked “just right” to be made into usable and recoverable resources. Together, the fossil fuels constitute a huge savings account of energy stored by ancient plant life, and the forests and other ecosystems which convert sunlight into usable energy (food) are our source of energy income.
So, every time you clear-cut some forest or till some soil, it’s like going to check-into-cash and getting a high interest loan that will keep you coming back, resulting in a continually declining income. And every time we utilize fossil fuel energy to build things, heat things, transport ourselves, or grow food, we are making a withdrawal on that massive savings – a savings we are only now coming to realize has an end and one we no longer make significant deposits into.
Viewed in this way, it’s clear what must be done: we must increase our planet’s income while decreasing our dependency on its savings if we wish to avoid getting ourselves into serious debt. We need to increase energy production, just not in the irresponsible and wasteful way that governments, corporations, and the media would have us do it – by increasing our withdrawal rate and getting more payday loans. What ought to be done may not be in the best interests of power interests, and who can blame them for looking out for themselves? Well, perhaps it’s time we take a lesson from our masters…