Deutsche Bauernhöfe 1937

Paleo, the Backlash, and Returns Forward

The “paleo” trend, especially prominent with the paleo diet, but also producing advice for many another area of life, is one of the more fascinating things to consider from an ‘ecohappy’ perspective.

After all, it wants to be based on our evolutionary ecology – the basic argument being that we should eat (and live, or at least sleep) as we adapted to doing – but misunderstands a very basic aspect of what that means.

It is all the more interesting because it is also another one of those cases of something that environmentalism has long been criticized as (supposedly) meaning re-emerging with a suddenly positive spin.

It was sacrifice “for the sake of the planet”, giving up affluent living and conspicuous consumption, that environmentalism was accused of calling for; then suddenly, we were supposed to sacrifice for the sake of the economy and its growth.

It was “back to the Stone Age” that green partisans supposedly wanted (or threatened) to lead everyone, and it was reason enough for many to claim that environmental concern was nothing if not stupid.

With paleo proponents, at the very least eating like our Stone Age ancestors supposedly did, has suddenly turned from sacrifice and sacrilege to modernity into the way to return to health and fitness.
Add outdoors sports and natural training, sleeping without the artificial light of screens and streetlamps, and out go the negative effects of the supposedly greatest mistake humanity made, the shift from living as hunter-gatherers to agriculture.

That mistake, by the way, goes even deeper than the critics of paleo have recently written about; it is not just that agriculturalists got shorter and sicklier. Moving to agricultural societies also meant rather more labor than in the “original affluent societies” that hunted, gathered, and had rather more free time as well as more diverse diets. (See John Green starting around minute 2…)

Then again, however, it is only the energy surplus (and stock to keep for lean times) from agriculture, as well as the social stratification that went with the organization it required, which led humanity to complex societies with all that we now tend to consider civilization. There is quite an element of self-serving chauvinism in this interpretation (with the more advanced and modern being seen and presented as that which is to be found in one’s own society), but there truly are advances, too.

(And again, Crash Course World History fits only too well, now at the start of its second iteration:)

Now, there are big problems with “paleo.”

Oftentimes, health and longevity of earlier humans may be exaggerated, and the diets which were eaten are almost certainly misunderstood. Whenever someone claims that something was not eaten for health reasons, it is safe to assume that, actually, some perfectly appropriate food item was not consumed out of social/religious taboo, while pretty much anything that could be found was eaten.

Grains and legumes. Grubs. Definitely, honey – read: simple carbohydrates – whenever it could be found. If a Stone Age man had come across a pizza, you could be sure he would have chased it down…

Our bodies haven’t remained the same since the Stone Age, either. Several human groups have developed lactase persistence to remain able to digest milk all through adulthood. The bacterial makeup of our guts (the microbiome) has also changed, for better or worse, in keeping with our diets.

Most of all, much of paleo advocacy is as removed from the basic foundation of ecology as all of hyper-modern life: It completely forgets that diets, like all ways of (making a) living, have traditionally always been adapted to and adapting with local environmental conditions. It isn’t the body (and mind) that is the foundation of an adaptation, it is the environment in which a species lives and develops that sets the tune to which bodies and minds march.

Deutsche Bauernhöfe 1937
School poster of “German” farmsteads from 1937. Nice illustration of different forms ‘fitting‘ local conditions and traditions (and problematic for the historical background it was trying to present)

Human diets, and human cultures, are as diverse as the environments in which human groups live, as diverse as the resources they therefore find, hunt, gather, extract, and are able to make available by agriculture and animal husbandry.

When you live in the arctic, you just can’t go vegan (unless if your nutrition is based on flown-in fruits and vegetables, nowadays).
When you live in the tropics, eating a meat-heavy diet and forgetting about the plethora of fruit that is likely available to you is rather more likely to give you food poisoning than it is to do you good.
When you want enough energy, you’ll better go for all that can deliver that to you; and grains as well as starchy tubers are excellent sources of carbohydrates, a body’s main fuel, that can be produced easily. They could also be produced still better, for our health and that of ‘the planet’, while paleo wouldn’t work for the population numbers we now have. In localized ways, all the less.

There are enough criticisms like that, at least of the non-ecological points, and a new backlash against some of the “paleofantasy” seems to have just started. Elizabeth Kolbert goes there in The New Yorker; Grist adds ecological-social issues.

One final point goes unnoticed when the paleo criticism throws out the entire idea, though: Even as such things as diets are misunderstood when, well, they are imperfectly understood and presented in uniform ways, without any consideration of the connections between environments and diets, localized as they have always been, the basic tenet is not a bad idea.

We clearly are living in ways that are different from those our ancestors have experienced and we are, evolutionarily, adapted to. They are better in some ways, so “good” that they are of negative effect in others.

The challenge, then is neither to return to times that we couldn’t possibly return to and would, for the most part, not even want to return to, nor to just go bravely forward with whatever we’ve recently created and had created for us, but to “return forward” by using the best of our knowledge of what’s truly good for us to create better lives and ways of (making a) living.

Paleofantasies of single diets aren’t it, but more real foods and less industrial fare overly rich in fats and sugars probably are; localization alone probably isn’t it, either, but greater local diversity and the heightened resilience that can come from combining it with supraregional trade as appropriate or necessary probably can be… and it can achieve greater health, personal and environmental alike, greater flavor, and with all that, greater and deeper wellbeing.

Two recommendations here:

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