"Part of a complete breakfast": The Case for Food

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In A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright tracks the rise and decline of civilisations throughout the past five thousand years. What he reveals is an alarmingly simple cycle of growth and decline. People settle on fertile, productive land. Soon that village grows bigger and bigger and bigger and then one day it is a lively, bustling city. But as the city grows, the very land that gave rise to its wealth and prosperity is demanded by other, ‘higher’ uses. People need places to live, jobs to go to each morning, and roads to get there.One day, the city wakes up to find that the very source of life for the city has been paved over or otherwise converted to more important uses, and the slow decline begins. It is a familiar and oft-repeated story, repeated since man first climbed out of the trees and demanded single-family detached housing. The lesson is quite clear and yet...

  ...and yet the simple and obvious point is ignored: that all our wealth, and therefore, our entire civilisation is based fundamentally on our ability to feed ourselves.

We all recognise that food is essential to life, but beyond the sheer physical necessity of caloric intake, we – and I can here only really speak to the North American experience – are rather blind to the degree to which our societies are in fact cooperative responses to this very essential need.

The importance of this point can in no way be overstated, but food is more than a physical necessity. No doubt, food is the foundation of our economy, but it also stands at the centre of how we organise society from top to bottom, of our social and cultural customs. Food, and by extension the systems we employ to grow, transport, distribute, and consume it stands as the one – often tottering – pillar on which rests our individual existence, our society and culture, indeed, the entirety of our civilisation.

Our major holidays are still by and large centred around a large dinner, and eating still serves as an excuse to get together as a family, as friends, as lovers. Indeed, much of our socialising rituals are based, at least partially around the simple act of eating (and drinking of course, but that is perhaps a topic for another conversation). We offer guests food as a sign of friendship, celebrate life’s mileposts by ‘going out for dinner’, and most importantly, cooking for a (potential) lover is still a highly effective aphrodisiac.

And yet, despite the central role food still plays in our daily lives, we have more or less relegated food – its collection, preparation, and consumption – to something that is a bother, an inconvenience to be overcome by drive-thru windows and microwavable bacon!

We have, in effect, disconnected ourselves from one, if not the most basic of human institutions. We tend to think that like religion, which many of us have simply discarded as old-fashioned and obsolete, food and the relationships it fosters between ourselves and the wider world, is no longer relevant to our modern circumstances.

Food, it seems, like God, is dead. Sorry about that.

The modernist project has been to liberate us from superstition and the drudgery of a Neolithic life. But it has quite clearly, by obliterating these old forms of social organisation, put our own civilisation in danger, forgetting as we do, that all we have is built on top of these older forms.

Instead of transcend and include, we have simply fetishised transcendence!

Food is no longer the tie that binds us to each other and the place we inhabit, but rather simply, something to be bought, sold, horded, or thrown away depending on the dictates of market demand. A commodity. We have vulgarised the animals we depend on, the vegetables we grow, and the grains we turn into our bread and beer.

We have so distanced ourselves from the simple fact that food is a building block of our systems, that now when we speak of economic and social development, of progress, we speak of building more housing, larger highways, or greater hydro-electric plants.

Arguments are continually being made by our political and economic leaders that we’ll need more energy, more housing, more roads to meet expected demands. We weigh these demands against the value of farm land never once stopping to consider that we’ll have no need for housing or energy or roads once we’ve paved over the land that sustains us. We forget of course that all this ‘developments’ most likely come at the expense of food production...but as one forward-thinking British Columbia politician rebuffed opponents of a huge hydro-electric dam planned downstream from a working, and I’ll add very productive agricultural valley, “the World isn’t going to starve”!

No indeed! At least not yet.

Most of us have never even been to a farm let alone picked or slaughtered our own food. And so farming itself has become just another business to most of us, and food something bought and sold. Indeed, so distanced have we become from food that it seemed a good idea to begin using it to power our cars!

And so it seems, upon such reflection, not altogether strange that something we deal with on a daily basis, something that stands at the centre of individual and social selves has been so absent from much of our conversation until very recently.

The ubiquity of food in our societies is perhaps a reasonable explanation for this absence, but this disconnection from the very substances which give us life – when a child can reasonably answer that milk comes from the grocery store – is indicative of something much more sinister taking place.

It is our propensity to see things in isolation, as somehow separated off from other things, where we confuse symptoms for the disease that has rendered us unable, and some might insist, unwilling to see the complex systems we are immersed in. And so we see obesity and we see a disease, an epidemic. And yet, obesity is a broader symptom of a civilisation that has ceased to move, that has traded its health for the convenience of a sedantary life. We attack it with diets, fitness clubs, new pills and surgeries always considering it from our particular angle, each one describing a different part of the elephant.

But obesity is not so much an issue of what we eat or how much exercise we get (although those are indeed essential components!), but rather about how we eat.

We eat on the run, in our cars, always quickly as though there were something more important to do. But what could be more important than eating? We eat without consideration, without thankfulness and gratitude, without consciousness and then wonder why we have diabetes and have trouble getting up from the couch.

We see fragmented and broken communities as themselves the problem, the product of an ever-faster society. However, by failing to consider the central role food plays in the construction and maintenance of healthy communities, we are also unable to see that fast food is not so much a product of a rapid age, but instead a means towards it. It would be wrong to assume clear cut causal relationships when dealing with such fluid systems as those produced by human beings, but it would also be inadequate to see the now ubiquitous drive-thru window as a mere product of an age seduced by speed. It is no doubt also an agent of it. It liberates us from a time-consuming ritual and it breaks the link that once stood between eating and socialisation. Eating is now merely one of many opportunities we now have to avoid contact with others.

The fact that we now need to spend only the minimum of time together as a family, friends or what-have-you getting food, preparing dinner, and cleaning up (consider that we now spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history—slightly less than 10 percent—and at a mere average of thirty-one minutes a day, including clean-up, a smaller amount of our time preparing it than ever before!!) is astonishing in itself, but consider what this means to the broader health of society. Without even these most basic rituals of bonding, of connecting with others, how, one wonders, can there be any sort of integrity on any other level.

Having just participated in a large Thanksgiving dinner with about a dozen or so folks, it became clear thirty minutes after dinner was served and everybody was beginning to feel a bit drowsy, the four or five hours that it took to cook was in fact the most important part of the meal; eating was merely the culmination of a much broader, and more important social ritual...the get-together.

Indeed, it is only very recently that we have seen a resurgence in our interest in food. The reasons for this are many and multifaceted, so let’s just agree that there is now a growing food consciousness floating around out there. A plethora of books, movies, and local and international movements have begun to capture the popular imagination and we have – most topically those of us here at Beams and Struts – started to take seriously the pivotal role food plays not only in our individual lives, in our health, and in our broader social interactions, but also in how our society actually functions – or doesn’t!

From the perspective of integral thinking it makes sense that food and farming should become a locus of our attention. Food as a general topic touches all four quadrants and connects them. Within it are contained all of the problems facing us from obesity to environmental degradation and climate change to African development. Our food system is the one system that ultimately sustains us, and from which we build all else. All other human (sub)systems are dependent on our food system, and our food system is dependent on the health of the larger eco-system.

At a more practical, day-to-day level, food is the place in daily life where rabid corporatization, and the larger logics of consumption and control can be most vividly felt. By the same token, positioning food at the centre of our analysis can offer us one of the shortest, most attainable (and delicious!) paths out of these narratives.

In other words, food offers a path to new forms of civil society. By understanding the role food plays, we are able to make immediate and real impacts against the dominance of corporations and their tendency to insinuate themselves into any aspect of our lives from which they can profit. It gives us an opportunity to free ourselves, if only moderately, and form new communities, new connections and relationships beyond the blandness of homogenised, corporate dining, anonymous supermarket checkout lines, and tasteless California strawberries.

It behooves us in this project of integral thought, in our attempts at deeper understanding of the connectivity and integration of our social, economic, cultural and environmental systems – previously siloed off into separate knowledges, and logics – to acknowledge the central place that food needs to play in our understanding and analysis of the world.

Food stands as the idea that captures all other ideas, the problem that underlies all our other problems, and the solution that will provide all other solutions.

The future, my friends, is delicious. We need only begin to demand it be so.


I began writing this with the intention of producing a short introduction to an open letter written by Michael Pollan – an incredibly integral thinker in his own right – to the President of the United States of America. As you can see, it got out of hand.

So instead of providing the full text within this article as I had originally intended, I have simply attached a link at the bottom of the page. I would urge everyone to read the piece, though.

... http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/farmer-in-chief/

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  • Comment Link Matt Lewis Friday, 29 October 2010 22:44 posted by Matt Lewis

    I thought Wright's point also included how empires were founded on some easily accessible energy source and that expanding beyond the limits of that energy source was the main driver of an empire's downfall. Am I 'misremembering' this?


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