Friday, August 03, 2018

Angst and Beans: How Food Ideology Feeds Despair

We live in the Anthropocene, an epoch named for the decisive changes our species has made to species diversity, biogeochemistry, geomorphology, and climate of the Earth System [Crutzen and Stoermer 2000]. It is long past time that we questioned our assumptions about our place in this system. Each of us needs to start with their own discipline, to perform a radical ("from the root") reappraisal of fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

For myself, this starts with interrogating ideologies of nature. I am currently writing a paper on acoustic ecology that critiques the foundational text of this discipline. It's not easy work, but it's necessary.

So what should arrive in my Facebook stream but an article from The Atlantic, "If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef" [Hamblin 2017]. While I am sympathetic with those who call for a re-appraisal of our diet and land use, it is regrettable to read arguments such as these, which feed the very system they mean to challenge.

Being practical, our first question might be whether beans are a perfect nutritive substitute for beef. What would the knock-on effects of such a change be? But there is no discussion here of dietary needs, which is odd considering the purported subject of the article. This is already the first hint that the author's argument is about something else entirely.

The article is based on a single research paper, that considers whether the greenhouse-gas emission goals of the USA could be met by eating beans [Harwatt at al. 2017]. The answer is... no! But this is written up instead as a positive outcome, that the country would "almost" meet the goals. This is not only self-serving, but ignorant of research that has more successful hypotheses.

For example, the family dog has more impact on our air than the family car [Hickman 2009]. If we stopped keeping animals as pets, the benefits to the environment would be immediate. No doubt this is a contentious proposal, but by considering the benefits, one might also question the value of infantilising animals and placing them in submissive roles as servants to our interests and desires.

Alternatively, consider the single-largest change we could take to help the planet. If each family had one less child, the result would be more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than switching, not just to beans, but to an entirely plant-based diet [Wynes and Nicholas 2017]. How much more effective? Seventy times.


So it seems the facts are not at all on the side of the bean-counters. This makes me curious. What is the ideology behind this article? What thinking underpins a call for a change that even the subheading admits isn't effective enough?

Dietary edicts have historically been the product of religious prohibitions. These govern which foods may or may not be eaten, and how they must be prepared. Islam divides foods into haram and halal, Judaism has the Kashrut, Hindus the prohibition on beef, and so on. These rules are cultural products, based on historical necessity, mythology, or simply disgust with certain foods. (For example the prohibition on slaughtering horses in the USA.) All such rules are symbolic orders constructed within particular cultural constraints. Is there any value in adding to these prohibitions? Does an absolute restriction on a food mark a positive way forward?

This question can be considered first in terms of the known facts, and then in terms of ideology.

Factually, the call for a pure vegan or vegetarian diet has little basis in the historical record or what we know of food production. Detailed studies have shown that dairy and a certain amount of meat are entirely sustainable, and in fact make the best use of land [Lang 2007]. A comparison of ten different diets found that a vegan diet was the third-best in land carrying capacity, behind two omnivore diets, one of which calls for replacing only two in five meals with an ovo-lacto vegetarian content [Peters et al. 2016]. Agree or disagree, but such articles at least provide a good basis for debate on the issues.

But facts are not the primary concern of The Atlantic article. Instead, the author focuses attention on psychology. We live in "dread and helplessness" but can reduce our "ecoanxiety" through food-based "empowerment". The strange thing is that this anxiety is not itself food-based. The article does not discuss bulimia or anorexia. Nor does it address the squeamishness surrounding meat, itself an aesthetic construct of our privileged position in a "first world" culture.

Instead, this anxiety derives from the realm of politics. We are deeply disturbed that President Trump has not ratified the Paris Climate Accord. The State is not moving forward to "mitigate environmental degradation", so we must take matters into our own hands. By eating beans.

Now, I am quite sure that our actions as individuals do a great deal to develop our ego structures in positive ways. I also have no issues with the ideology of "think globally, act locally". But I am not so sure we should be making environmental decisions based on our fragile ego structures. This self-centred view doesn't seem to have worked so well in the past. Put another way, geopolitical negotiations seem a strange place to look for personal life goals.

But there is something far more unsettling in this formulation. The author has abandoned politics.

The article takes as axiomatic that the political process is hopeless and angst-forming. We cannot rely on a "regressive federal administration" to represent our interests. Rather than trying to change such policies, we should enact simple (simplistic) life choices. These won't actually meet our desired goals, but boy, will we ever feel better!

This is a retreat from the social, from compromise and negotiation, from the only sphere where any true change can be enacted. This withdrawal actually emulates Trump's narcissistic inability to engage. And this is to be our solution?

Granted, the USA has no equitable political process. "Democracy is coming to the USA", sang Leonard Cohen in 1992, ever the optimist. But it is possible to recognise the desperate state of Usonian politics without losing the will to do anything about it. This article proposes hiding in a bag of beans, abandoning the political realm to those who have, since before we were born, actively worked to destroy our world.

My counter-proposal is to question absolutist ideologies, no matter how well-intentioned. Instead, adopt a healthy diet that feeds political protest and change. Facts should be enlisted as our aids, and not dismissed, hidden, or reduced to sound bites (beans good, beef bad).

Let us march on our stomachs and know what we are marching for. It's not for our own self-involved policies. It's for each other, and our shared place here on a solar-powered bubble.


Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. "The 'Anthropocene'". Global Change Newsletter 41, 17-18. Available.

Hamblin, James. 2017. "If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef", The Atlantic, 2 August 2017. Available.

Harwatt, Helen, Joan Sabaté, Gidon Eshel, Sam Soret, and William Ripple. 2017. "Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward US climate change targets", Climatic Change 143.1–2, 261–270. Available.

Hickman, Leo. 2009. "Britain's problem with pets: they're bad for the planet", The Guardian, 13 November 2009. Available.

Lang, Susan S.. 2007. "Diet for small planet may be most efficient if it includes dairy and a little meat", Cornell Chronicle, 4 October 2007. Available.

Peters, Christian J., Jamie Picardy, Amelia F. Darrouzet-Nardi, Jennifer L. Wilkins, Timothy S. Griffin, Gary W. Fick. 2016. "Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios", Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 4.116. Available.

Wynes, Seth and Kimberly A. Nicholas. 2017. "The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions", Environmental Research Letters 12.7. Available.


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