Monday, January 31, 2011

The cooking animal

Next monday I am off to see Tim Jackson adress the topic of prosperity without growth in Malmö. I am looking forward to the lecture, and have been musing about the topic myself the last couple of days. The world is currently living through a number tof interrelated crises.

The climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, peak oil, peak phosphorus. These crises are just a few, that you easily can find plenty of internet articles about, but the truth is that whatever aspect of human ecology you look at, we are running out of resources and killing the habitats that produce them. Still world leaders flock like migratory birds in Davos to speak of a comparatively insignificant financial crisis.

At the root of everything lies two facts - an increasing population and an even more increasing consumption. In order to keep the wheels running we must buy a little more than last year, a fact that Jackson describes so well i the Ted talk below: It's a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about.

How can that be? Jackson is rather hopeful, and sees the solution in a political system that awards not only self interest and innovation, but also tradition and solidarity. If Obama or someone else can create such a system, we might be able to save ourselves.

I am aslo eager for such a political system, but have lately come to think if the problem is not deeper than that. Whereas single humans behave as rational individuals, humans en masse seem just as ruled by outher forces as any other species in the environment. And just as a sheep will eat itself to death if you let it to, humans seem unable to stop their hunger for consumption even long after we have realized that it is harmful.

Rich or poor, we tend to consume just as much as our powers let us. As Jackson points out, the only thing thing that has ever helped us curb co² emissions is not new technology but economic depressions. We have a good chance of creating a liveable world if all of us start today to live as we should - eat locally produced food, stop travelling by car etc. But the chances for that to happen are... slim.

Where does this paradox come from? How can a species that has developed biology as a science not be able to live according to its knowledge? (An even more interesting paradox is that the ability to live according to our knowledge seems to diminish the more we know - it was not a problem in cultures where scientific biology was unknown). A thought struck me yesterday, that I spent almost entirely in the kitchen - maybe all of this has to do with the cooking. Homo sapiens is not so much an eating animal as a cooking animal.

Many people have suggested that meat consumption was what developed the human to what it is today, but eating meat requires cooking. Maybe the search of tasty and healthy recipies was what really developed our brains?

The fact that we depend on cooked food has implications for our survival. Whereas most animals walk around with food freely available most of the time and more often are eaten by others than starving to death, humans loivealienated by one step from the food around them.

I can see a link between the need of cooking, and the social istitutions that has shaped us more than any other - private property. If wheat was eaten as it is, those who worked in the fields would have to be very strictly observed unless they eat their masters food themselves. It would have been close to impossible in pre-modern times. But wheat must be gathered, milled and baked before it turns into bread, which makes the theft of it more complicated than simply putting it in your mouth.

This reflects even in how we think of theft - eating an apple is hardly looked upon as a crime, whereas picking someones applesand carrying away with them definitely is. We do not really own the final product, not in the way we own its means of production. The demand for preparations and cooking creates theft, thefts creates property, and property has made inequality between humans into a qualitatively different matter than inequality within a band of dogs.

What property did is that it connected consumption with status - owning the wheat field means eating a lot, and eating thus symbolizes owning. Today, when property is often digital and invisible people around you see what you eat, not what you own. Thus we compete with each other in consumption, not owning, and even go to absurdities like borrowing money to consuming stuff that we neither need nor want.

Is there a way for politics to adress this? Maybe, but the homo sapiens is a damn tricky animal to deal with, so it will not be easy. I am eager to hear what Tim Jackson says about the issue on monday, though.

Tim Jackson's economic reality check on TED:

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