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The Paleo Movement: The Naivete of Idealizing the Past

We think that we can clean up the mess of the present by going back to the past.

We are stardust

We are golden

And we've got to get ourselves

Back to the garden

Oh how those words from Joni Mitchell touched me in the Woodstock Days. Listening to her sweet voice and simple music, you couldn’t help but believe that you were “a cog in something turning” and that it was indeed a special ‘time of Man”, in which we were finally facing the reality that humans were despoiling the natural world. How badly we needed to get back to the garden, back to Eden, back to the pure unspoiled healthy world humans were fouling up, the world the way it was supposed to be, except for, well, except for us.

How sweet it was, to be so passionately black-and-white certain, and, looking back, so innocently naïve. We have indeed done despicable damage to the natural world. But Nature is way more resilient than classical Back to The Garden environmentalism gives it credit for, and it operates on far grander time scales than our anthropocentric arrogance acknowledges. Long before we were here, Nature was going about its inexorable business, and long after we’ve gone and left behind a nature altered by the human animal, just as the biosphere has been altered by so many other natural forces over the last 4.5 billion years, it still will be.

Yet we see the natural world through the lens of human time, centered on human existence, and adopt the back-to-the-garden idea that nature before humans was better, and that to save ourselves going forward, we need to get back to an idealized past. It’s hard to say why we devote ourselves so ardently to this rescuing hope. Perhaps it’s a way to deal with the guilt and powerlessness we feel about how inexorable and profound are harms seem. Whatever the reason, the appeal of back-to-the-garden shows up in so many ways;

  • in agriculture - organic food, small farms, eating locally
  • in medicine – natural and herbal remedies, homeopathy
  • in energy policy – the faith that the natural power of the sun and wind can provide all the electricity the modern world requires.
  • And now, in the Paleo diet, and beyond that, the Paleo movement (succinctly captured in this recent piece in the NY Times), the idea that if we ate and lived more like our paleo ancestors did, the more natural way, you know, the back-to-the-garden way , we and our world would be better off. Or as one paleo diet website puts it;

“Just like any other animal, humans suffer when we stray from our natural diet, but when we return to it, everything changes.”

Some refer to this concept as Ancestral Health, a phrase that brilliantly captures both the appeal of the idea, and it’s dangerous naivete. Consider this description from the website of the Ancestral Health Society;

“Modern humans suffer from numerous diseases linked to the metabolic syndrome, such as diabetes, yet these health maladies were virtually nonexistent during most of our ancestry.”

Which may be true, but that stupendously simplistic view ignores the brutal health realities that humans faced in the past. And not just the caveman Paleo past we so blithely idealize. As recently as 130 years ago, back when diets were closer to Paleo, life for most people was brutal, riven with all sorts of diseases (plague, smallpox, cholera) and general health problems (decline in vision, decline in hearing, decline in the number of teeth necessary to chew food), and way way shorter than it is now. In 1880, average life expectancy worldwide was around 30 years. It’s up to roughly 70 now.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of the Paleo diet. I can not judge those nutritional battles, for lack of expertise, and because my own poor diet disqualifies me as objective. (My five basic foods groups; solid, liquid, fatty, salty, sweet.) What I do suggest is that there is a danger in what the Paleo diet and movement essentially propose; a rejection of modernity in order to improve human health and establish a way of life more in synch with and less harmful to nature.

That is back-to-the-garden naivete. There are massive benefits as well as harms from what modern industry and technology have provided, and the Paleo movement, and all the other movements that worship the false idol of the idealized past, ignore those benefits at our peril. The simplistic view that the past was cleaner (it was) and therefore better (not necessarily) and healthier (it definitely was not) breeds resistance to modern technologies and products, like;

  • biotechnological improvements in agriculture that can improve food security and make agriculture more sustainable, but which beloved environmental advocate Vendana Shiva has called genocide.
  • carbon and particulate-free power sources like nuclear energy, which classical environmental advocates just can’t bring themselves to support, even in the face of climate change
  • modern medicines, including childhood vaccines, rejected by a small group of back-to-the-garden parents who say they would prefer that their kids get sick from diseases that could be fatal, because “at least the diseases are natural.”

Joni Mitchell did acknowledge this conundrum in her beautiful anthem writing in the last chorus of “Woodstock” that we are “caught in the devil's bargain”; the trade-offs between the benefits of the modern world, and its costs. The problem is that Joni, and classical environmentalism, and general public concern about the dreadful damage we’ve done to the natural world, see only the costs.

And that actually puts us at greater risk, because by ignoring the benefits of the modern economy and its processes and products and only lamenting its harms, we blame modernity as the problem and think that the solution lies in moving back toward a naively idealized past that was hardly as ideal as the back-to-the-garden idealists make it out to be. And that makes it harder for us to realize the all the potential available in a careful application of modern tools, tools which might actually help us reduce some of the harm that our rush into modernity has certainly caused.

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