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

Monday, August 4, 2008

What is Food? - An Introduction

Whatever the fate of our environment, our social systems, our political systems, our economic systems, or our legal systems; history and my experience as witness to industrial civilization have taught me that the fate of humanity – from one individual, to one family, to one community, one nation, and so on – is dependent on one thing: how we extract, distribute, and use energy. It not only determines the fate of all living things, but also determines how all things live and evolve. Despite all the magnificence of artificial lighting, heating, cooling, running water, sanitation, refrigeration, computers, televisions, telephones, washers, dryers, stovetops, ovens, microwaves, cell phones, planes, trains, automobiles, and all other modern luxuries, our existence is rather mundanely dependent on the same things as everything else: food and water.

Because these two things are so vital to our existence, our relationship with them largely defines who and what we are. Look around at any species of plant or animal and you aren’t likely to find any aspect of its structure or behavior that can’t be argued as relevant to the acquisition/storage of water and energy (and perhaps a chance to reproduce). For us, it is no different. Like anything else, we are defined by how we get our energy from the environment, survive, grow, and ultimately reproduce.

Growth and subsequent reproduction is impossible without the availability of energy (and water). So, energy is what drives life and will therefore be the focus of this series; it is the focus of this entire blog, actually.

Wait one second; did I just say that energy is the focus of this entire blog? Am I in the right place? This is a food blog, right? Well, yes it is; but it’s also an energy blog. Food is, after all, energy isn’t it? Food is the energy that sustains life, but modern humans tend to think of things like electricity and gasoline when someone mentions energy. To me, that’s a narrow view of the most vital resource we’ll ever have – a view that relegates energy to the role of powering technology and nothing more.

Peak oil – or peak energy, really – represents a major threat to almost every human system and institution on this planet simply because we’ve come to rely on fossil fuels for virtually everything. Every aspect of our livelihood is at stake, but when the chips are down, I want to know that I’ll have at least two things: food and water. I suspect anyone else would want the same. I don’t know what to do about industry; I don’t know what to do about the economy; I don’t know what to do about climate change; I don’t know what to do about the rise of neo-fascist corporatocracies, fundamentalists, and mercenary armies; I don’t know what to do about our transportation networks; I don’t know what to do about an incompetent media that looks more and more like a propaganda wing with each passing day. But frankly, I could handle a disaster in any or all of these areas better than I could handle a collapse of the food system, so that is the threat which frightens me most. Besides, I believe energy (mostly food) to be a basis from which we could address all of the preceding issues, so even though I don’t really know what to do about a food crisis either, that’s what I’d like to see us working on.

There are several points about food that I hope to make over the coming weeks. My goal is to shed new light on common knowledge, but more importantly, it is to give an understanding of where Jennifer and I are coming from, who we are, why we do what we do, and why this is a food blog instead of an issue blog when we’re clearly interested in more than just cooking. We are concerned with all crises facing humanity in the coming century, and of all the things we could be doing (you know, being ‘politically active’, etc.), an energy blog in a cooking blog’s clothes seems most appropriate for us.

What is required for humanity to weather the coming storm of declining energy from fossil fuels is a shift in thinking. That is why, aside from food and energy, this blog can sometimes be psychological, sociological, personal, and even political in nature. For each of us, it will be journey. Sharing that journey with each other will make it easier to cope with. Sharing and community are truly the heart of this blog – what started out, for me, as a remote repository for Jennifer’s recipes in case our computer crashed. Anyway, turning on topic street…

Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall being told that the Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the symbol for opportunity. It is opportunity that I hope to capture in the coming series. Among the potential solutions to an almost apocalyptic horizon, I see opportunity for positive changes that most, I believe, would find unfathomable given our current circumstance. And much of this, I think, will happen without our even trying. Necessity will dictate many of our most opportunistic adaptations; it will be up to us to recognize them for what they are.

Science has taught us that valuable knowledge can only be gained by breaking something down into its constituent parts – a process called reductionism. Connectedness, synergy, and interactionism are lost in the shuffle of x’s and y’s, and we’ve come to believe that numbers hold the only truth. If it can’t be measured, it is not worth our attention; if it is broken, we must correct “this part here” to make the equations work again. I, for one, consider myself a ‘deductionist’; that is, the parts are of less significance to me than the system as a whole. Breaking things down into small parts leads us to treating symptoms rather than causes.

This has gone on for so long now that most symptoms we see in society today are symptoms of other symptoms, and so on. It seems like everything is caused by something that is, itself, a symptom of something else. Through this maze of cause and effect, I’ve come to see energy as having incredible importance to all things, and for living things, we call it food.


VeggieGirl said...

I agree 100% with the definition of food - great post!

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

Thanks for taking the time to write this post as well as the whole series. I think it helps folks get a better idea where we are coming from.

More importantly than that, however, it gives people a different way of viewing food, what it means to their day-to-day lives, and what it means for the fate of the planet.

And it's really well written, I am always impressed with the high quality of your writing.

Cookiemouse said...

You are dead right that we have to think systematically. As individuals we are systems that function as a whole. Society and life are the same. The centre of the earth is fire. Its crust supports us. Often all you get is a crust of bread. So our crisis is an opportunity to appreciate the crust. Whether we can develop awareness fast enough is a moot point. I believe we can.

Wet Blanket said...

Veggiegirl - Thanks; I hope the rest of the series provides more depth to my "definition".

Jennifer - Thanks/you're welcome. We've spent so much time talking about these things; it feels good to finally get it out there. I only hope that - when it's all said and done - it still makes sense.

Cookiemouse - I was a little surprised to find that 'deductionism' is not a word - at least not anymore. Science has come to resemble religion by way of disregarding its own roots and closing itself off to alternate ways of thinking. But I think we'll find we have little choice but to wake up from the slumber of materialism and the naive arrogance of reductionism when the nature of our unsustainable way of life slaps us in the face.

Cookiemouse said...

WB, you are so right. Reductionism is a fallacy that gets results, but at what a cost?

Wet Blanket said...

cookiemouse - I'd say it comes at the cost of believing we know more than we do; that we're in control; that truth and fact are one in the same; that we can play God better than He/She Him/Herself. But mostly, it means we are infinitely stupid enough that we should ignore our ignorance; it is the foundation from which we have screwed up the whole system.

Beany said...

An explanation re: Chinese Characters of crisis/opportunity.

Brett said...

Beany - thank you for the link; I suspected as much, but still prefer not to fall prey to pessimism. Otherwise, what's the point in doing anything other than sit back and watch the world go to s**t? I'll be sure to share this with the professor who put forth this notion if I'm ever fortunate enough to take one of his classes. Whether there is opportunity in crisis is a matter of individual perspective, but it is unfair to credit the Chinese language erroneously. I should be clear, though, that the opportunity I speak of does not fall in line with Western materialism, but rather Western ideals of freedom, liberty, and autonomy. I hope my misattribution of this idea does not diminish or discredit my message in your view. If you wish not to believe there is opportunity in crisis, I direct you to the New Deal, the entrepeneurs who benefitted from the market crash of 1929, the international banks which repeatedly profit from warfare, and the rise of neo-conservativism in the wake of 9/11. These are examples of elitist seizure of opportunities born from crisis, but the coming crisis is one that could potentially threaten the global power structure as much as or more than it threatens the livelihood of the public at large, so long as average people like you and I are willing to take a lesson from our masters. The climate of American politics today for average citizens is one of hopelessness and apathy. An economic crisis is likely to call attention to matters of grave importance which are largely ignored by the general masses, and it will provide those of us who have an important message an opportunity to have the ears of those who are likely to be disillusioned with the current conception of freedom. I would like to see the activist community seize this potential opportunity rather than willingly hand it over to government officials as we have always done in the past by asking for - no, demanding - their help.

Beany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beany said...

Brett, I actually agree with your points 100%. It...well...makes sense. The Chinese mistranslation is very popular in business school and business literature/textbooks/punditry. And since you asked for clarification, I provided it.

I've been fascinated with the 1929 crash ever since I first heard of it. For one its a fairly recent event and as you mentioned, gave birth to many industries that are giants today. I've been somewhat obsessed with the crash and have gone back to the 1800s to see if it could have been predicted. There are so many similarities the preceded the crash of '29 that are similar to the financial one today (mainly people buying excessively on credit). The one disctinctive fact seems to be the creation of the Federal Reserve and the establishment of an official monetary policy - which through its various incarnations have lead to the financial crisis today (devaluation of dollar/interest rate fluctuations/etc).

I don't feel apathetic or hopeless as much much as...well I don't know the right word. But if I know this is what the policy is and that is what the policy makers are doing, there is less reason to get angry at an action than when an action seems completely unprovoked and arbitrary. Example being bailing out of banks, when in reality that is what the Fed is supposed to do per their own policy.

Currently I'm reading a book entitled "War and Peace and War" and its shedding light on the fact that group cohesion is the single standard by which groups of people can overcome almost any difficulty. So I suppose that what ever group (be it activitist/government/corporations) is able to convince a majority to band together toward a single cause to face off against a perceived/real threat/enemy, will things change.

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

Beany - Brett isn't much of a reader, so I generally read the books and we discuss the content. Thanks for telling us about this one, I will add it to my ever-growing list of books to read.

We both too are very fascinated by the 1929 market crash, the Federal Reserve and all the crazy stuff that has happened since then. We recently saw a documentary on exponential growth which at least to me, indicated that this could not continue on in this fashion forever.

It is pretty uncanny, and also scary, how similar the economic climate is today to what is what back then - but the talking heads on the television would never elude to such a thing (and I imagine they wouldn't have in 1929 either) - but banks are shutting down, Americans are bogged down with debt via credit, and really, when you get down to it, it's just another "house of cards" that has been built that will eventually tumble again.

You are too right about group cohesion too - that is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany, you get a group of vulnerable people (the citizens of Germany) and a very passionate person (or corporation, whatever) who says they have the keys to solving all their problems and the next thing you know...

Let's just hope we band together around a sustainable future and not some sort of weird nationalistic, neoliberal, anti-immigration, sort of thing. At least in my readings of history, many of the "threats" we've banded together around were far more "perceived" than "real". Does history repeat itself? I guess we'll find out...

Brett said...

Beany - Thank you so much for the clarification. I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your comment as disagreement; it was hard to tell because the author on the link provided made it clear that their opinion was one of crisis in opportunity being a crock. I understand Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is a good illustration of what we're talking about here.

The concept of "social cohesion" makes me a bit nervous; it was the basis of Nazi Germany, and interestingly, it is also the basic underlying principle behind neo-conservative theory. I think the main difference between what is about to happen and what has happened in the past is that the threats (resource depletion, climate change, closing democracies, food "shortages", etc.) are very real, and the perceived one (scapegoat = terrorism) is already coming to be seen for what it is.

I believe that centralized global authority is unlikely to be realized due to resource depletion, particularly with respect to energy because the only viable long-term alternatives are decentralized. I can't go into further details here as I would be giving away the climax of the final installment of this series (which will publish at 1:05 AM EST), but what I will say is that massive social cohesion under a single goal may not necessarily be the right way to go here. That method has always led us to disaster.

The principles of sustainability (if you can call 'em that; I think they're still being hashed out) are not universal to all locations; geography will ultimately decide what is best in any given community, so there is no single approach that will work for everyone. But the basic principles of sustainability will likely resemble a set of philosophical principles that - like religion - provide guidelines without being too specific about what to do - just what NOT to do. So, I would hope for something akin to a religious movement based primarily in sustainability and permaculture to right the wrongs of the past (recall the rise of Christianity coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire). How that leads to more freedom, liberty, autonomy, and self-determination I hope will be illustrated by the finale of the series. It's not just about food; that much is probably clear by now, but since a good majority of our readers are mostly interested in food, that's the approach I took to this series.

Please do come back tomorrow where we can discuss this and other ideas more fully. I greatly appreciate your participation.

muebles said...

I completely agree with the post.