The Paleo Movement and the New Naturalistic Fallacy

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 had fouled up, the world the way it was supposed to be, except for, well, 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 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 world 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 when we view the natural world through the lens of human time, it can be tempting to adopt the idea that nature before humans was better, 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 the profound ways we have harmed the environment, to pretend we can undo the mess. Whatever the reason, the appeal of back-to-the-garden thinking shows up in countless ways: in agriculture (organic food, small farms, eating locally), in medicine (homeopathy, natural and herbal remedies), in energy policy (the faith that wind and solar energy can power the modern world), and, most recently, the Paleo movement. As this recent New York Times piece sums up, Paleo purists believe that if we ate and lived as "naturally" as our ancestors did, we and our world would be better off. 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 its dangerous naïveté. 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.

While this claim may be true, it is a stupendously simplistic view that ignores the brutal reality of human health in ages past. And not just the caveman past we so blithely idealize: as recently as 130 years ago, back when diets were closer to Paleo, life for most people was brutal, disease-ridden (with plague, smallpox, cholera), and marked by unavoidable health problems (decline in vision,  hearing, and the number of teeth necessary to chew food). It was also way, way shorter than it is now. In 1880, average life expectancy around the world was around 30 years. It’s up to roughly 70 years now.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of the Paleo diet. I cannot judge those nutritional arguments, both for lack of expertise and because my own poor diet  disqualifies me as an objective observer. (My five basic foods groups are solid, liquid, fatty, salty, and sweet.) I do judge, however, that there is a danger in what the Paleo movement essentially proposes: that rejecting  modernity will improve human health and establish a way of life more in sync with, and less harmful to, nature.

This is back-to-the-garden naïveté. Industry and technology have brought immense benefits as well as harms. The Paleo movement, like all the other movements that worship a premodern past, ignore those benefits to 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, which are rejected by a small group of parents who prefer "natural" (and potentially fatal) diseases to "unnatural" interventions

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

That puts us at great risk. By ignoring the benefits of technology and focusing only its harms, modernity itself seems to be the problem and a return to an idealized past the solution. The sad irony is that the back-to-the-garden viewpoint makes it harder to realize how a careful application of modern tools could reduce some of the harm that our rush into modernity has caused.

Image credit: Wikimedia


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