An entry in the How To Be Poor series
In my previous entry in the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, I argued that many people’s dietary choices reveal the sort of luxury we have available to us today in industrialized nations. By choosing what we eat from a wide variety of foods, without regard to the limitations and constraints inherent to our local landscape and personal circumstances, we often provide ourselves a diet possible only in an industrialized world swimming in cheap energy and resources. Our context is utterly unlike that of most all others throughout human history.
In making that argument, I suggested that how we eat may be as or more important than what we eat. It’s a mark of luxury that the specific foods we eat can be mulled and considered and decided upon, rather than being dictated to us by a strict set of circumstances. If, instead, those circumstances dictated our food, what we eat would not so much be the question and we might instead focus on how we eat, with that determination providing us the method of building meaning into our diets. Creating a set of moral and ethical codes around the how of eating rather than the what of eating makes more sense in a world facing serious energy and resource constraints.
Still, we don’t yet face that world, though it certainly seems in the process of asserting itself. For those of us attempting to eat well, we face instead the question of what to eat, which is an important question. I wrote in that last entry that “I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.” I think that line could come across as flippant, disavowing the importance and implications of what we eat, and that’s not at all how I want to treat the subject. No, I think what we eat is very important. As a simple matter of very specific circumstances dating back millions of years, we find ourselves in a period of human history in which those of us living in industrialized nations can choose to eat almost anything we want, regardless of the time of year or where that food is capable of being grown, raised, processed or produced. That reality places a significant burden on us to attempt to eat well. Since we don’t find ourselves restricted by our local context, I believe we’re left with the responsibility to do our best to eat in a way that is nondestructive. We should eat foods that serve well our bodies, the land, animals, farmers, our environment, other humans and the soil. Our eating should not worsen the state of the world. Ideally, it should nourish it.
And yet, that’s not how we tend to eat. Most of us eat in ways that worsen the world; that exploit farmers and animals; that destroy land bases, soil and waterways; that are built upon suffering and cruelty; that impoverish other human beings; that degrade our bodies; and that serve to further sever our connection to the world around us. We often eat fast, dirty, and thoughtless. We fail in our moral responsibility—often we fail to engage that responsibility at all.
There’s nothing surprising about that. There was a very perceptive quote from Bruce Friedrich that I first read in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. In arguing for vegetarianism, Friedrich asks, “What does it say that the leaders of the ‘ethical meat’ charge, like my friends Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and even the Niman Ranch farmers, regularly pull money out of their pockets and send it off to the factory farms? To me, it says that the ‘ethical carnivore’ is a failed idea; even the most prominent advocates don’t do it full-time. I have met countless people who were moved by Eric’s and Michael’s arguments, but none of them now eat exclusively Niman-type meat. They are either vegetarians or they continue to eat at least some factory-farmed animals.” While I’m not impressed by some of the things Friedrich says before that quote, I find this particular observation to be spot on. As I’ve noted, I started eating meat again after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma with the idea that I would eat good meat. While I follow through on that ideal a good percentage of the time, I still find myself getting the occasional hamburger at a bar that comes out of the Sysco supply chain or buying bacon from New Seasons—which is much better than Smithfield, but far from a small, local, humane ideal. The reason I fail at times is a combination of availability, convenience, and lack of will power. If I’m at a bar and I’m drinking, I’m hungry, and it’s on the menu, I’m going to order that hamburger, even if it’s not grass fed and from a local rancher. I fully understand the implications, but I give myself a pass and dig in. It’s an available moral failing and I take it.
Most people do much the same thing, either part of the time or all of the time. We don’t tend to eat with our brains but with our heart and stomach. We give in to desires—this is one of the reasons there’s a number of massive and profitable industries built around food and diet. Food is something we think about, obsess over, attach moral implications to, satisfy emotional urges with, and which provides us the very sustenance of our lives. It’s a relationship rooted in messiness and complication and the industrial world we’ve built around us has only served to complicate that already complex relationship by vastly opening the choices before us—and vastly increasing the moral implications of what we do decide to eat. The food we normally would eat has become far more corrupted via poor farming practices and the food we normally wouldn’t have available to us now is available and serves to tempt us in ways it never could before. These realities have imbued the question of what we eat with moral implications that it never had before, and as such has shifted our concerns more firmly toward the question of what rather than how.
This isn’t a good thing. While I love having the easy access to sugar and animal products, coffee, chocolate, fruits that would never grow here, ginger and coconut milk, and so many other foods that I wouldn’t eat if not for our industrialized world, I can’t endorse this availability. It’s distorted our ways of eating and skewed them toward destructive ends. It makes every meal fraught with moral and ethical considerations, often turning those meals into exhausting acts full of self-doubt and worry. Recent neurological research, as outlined in a New York Times article, suggests that as we make decisions, we deplete our will power. We become less able to make good decisions until we’ve restored that ability to our brain, which is tied to glucose levels. In other words, our decisions around food are particularly likely to be based in irrational thinking as we often crave sugar as a way to restore our decision-making abilities. But even aside from food, the need to make constant decisions saps our will power over time and degrades our ability to keep ourselves firmly within self-established limits.
In other words, deciding how to eat well is not a simple matter of rational thought, education, or strong morals. All of those things have their effect, but they’re part of a much more broad and complicated act of decision-making that is tied as well into brain chemistry, sugar levels, genetic predispositions and emotional signals. So while it’s important to acknowledge the moral importance of eating well in a world awash with bad food, expecting moral implications to lead to good eating amongst the world’s population is a fool’s game. There may be the rare person out there who is capable of eating at all times within a strict moral code, but the vast majority of us are not going to manage such an impressive feat. We’re going to make decisions that are not going to be good for the world—sometimes purposefully and sometimes not.
I recently read William Catton’s Overshoot and the final paragraph of chapter ten has been haunting me. Catton writes, “Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.” Our behavior, in other words, has been perfectly natural. If we see humans as simply another species on this planet, as I do, then we can see how we would make these poor decisions. We can understand why we would eat foods available to us even if those foods increased misery throughout the world. We can see how we would crank the heat even if we knew we could put on a sweater instead, and even if we knew that heat comes from fossil fuels that pollute the world and that are quickly being drawn down. We can recognize that we are animals, not perfect moral beings, and that we will as often as not choose the route of comfort and convenience and satisfaction, even when we intellectually understand the long-term downfalls of those choices.
So while, yes, I think we have a moral responsibility to eat well—much as I believe we have a moral responsibility to live and work well—I don’t think we can undertake such lives via morals alone. Our morality is only so strong and is only one piece of a tangled web of emotion and physicality, genetics and desire, social and cultural norms, and so many more variables. Attempting to engage all of those variables and always still make the right choice is an exercise doomed to failure, and one that will exhaust and break us in the process.
What we need instead is a life of limitation. We need less choices, fewer options, more constraints. A life lived more local and constricted by context would help to absolve us of many of the decisions and options that globalization and industrialism has foisted upon us. Such a life would necessarily be of a smaller scale, rooted in the local land and intimate knowledge, rather than resources that can come from anywhere in the world and through the debased, standardized knowledge of industrial systems. Such a life would limit our impact on the world not by forcing us to choose each time to limit our impact, but by limiting our ability to make such impacts.
This, again, gets at the absurdity of the challenge of voluntary poverty, as I wrote about in Our Distorted View. It shouldn’t be hard to live poor, but it is when you have money and so many options to live otherwise. If we’re constantly facing that temptation and constantly having to make the decision to live a modest life in the face of the ability to do otherwise, we’re quickly going to exhaust ourselves and make poor decisions. So to live a life of voluntary poverty, we need to build limitations and constraints into our lives.
Living here in an off-the-grid homestead has provided all kinds of lessons in that reality. We heat the buildings via wood stoves, which require more work than the simple flipping of a switch or turn of a dial. That leads to less heat, as the effort to produce that heat discourages unnecessary usage. Our hot water also comes from a wood stove, as well as solar hot water panels. That teaches us to pay attention to the weather and to limit our showers. There simply isn’t always hot water without some work, so none of us showers every day—which is unnecessary anyway. We have electricity via solar PV panels and a microhydro generator, but not an abundance of electricity. Generally we can run what we need to, but we’re not powering big screen TVs or using electric heaters or blow driers and we can’t run, say, the electric tea kettle and the hot plate at the same time. We further can only run devices that use small amounts of electricity (such as CFL bulbs) on a continual basis and run high-power devices in short burst. That’s fine—I quickly grew used to these limitations and they hardly impede my life. But it’s a different reality from being hooked up to the electric grid and having essentially unlimited power at your disposal.
These limitations are ingrained into life here and they quickly slip into the background, barely worth thinking about. As a part of life, they do an excellent job of limiting energy and resource usage while providing, at worst, a bit of inconvenience—and often not even that. I live a good life here, possibly better than I have anywhere else, and likely with less energy usage than I’ve used anywhere else.
That, to me, is the goal of voluntary poverty. Finding that way to live that uses less energy and resources while still providing a good life. It’s not the easiest goal in the world, but it certainly is a possibility. Yet, it has to involve the creation of limits and constraints—a context of living that naturally leads to a downsized life. As I prepare to move to a new situation, I’m going to find myself back on the grid, with more living space and constant hot water and changed circumstances that are likely to lead to me using more energy and resources. Leaving behind this off-the-grid homestead, I’m going to have to craft the context of my life to introduce some of the constraints that my current home featured by default. If I don’t do that, I’ll live larger than I want to live, too often making the easy decisions when they present themselves to me. I’ll be able to heat at the flick of a switch, to shower any time I want, to cook by turning a nob rather than stoking a wood stove. How will I deal with those conveniences? How will I stop myself from slipping too easily back into something more akin to a middle class American lifestyle?
These are some of the questions I’ll be writing about as this series continues. It will be a challenge, but I expect it to be a good one. I hope, as well, that my attempts to live in a home more closely approximating the standard American set up will help me to provide more useful information to my readers. Most of us don’t live on off-the-grid homesteads and so the constraints we need are ones we will have to put into place ourselves, as often as not. That creation of our context is going to be a main focus of this series. To lay the groundwork, I’ll be writing soon about the home I’m moving into and the decisions and tradeoffs that led me to this living situation. Those decisions were rooted in constraint, as well, and will help to illuminate some of the frames of mind we’re going to have to dispose of if we’re to live well in a poorer future.