I’m part of the way through reading a book which is similar to The Blue Zones diet book, called The Jungle Effect, by Daphnie Miller. In this book she too tries to find foods of indigenous cultures that have low risks of various types of disease. She didn’t hit up the same regions or countries that Buettner did in Blue Zones, but found yet even more pockets. The diets and lifestyles of these regions aren’t very dissimilar to the ones Buettner found. I’ll have a full review of that book in another article, but it was more the effect on the western diet on these communities that is driving me crazy.
The modern western diet, like the rest of western culture, spreads like a disease. For any of its pluses it brings a lot of minuses too, mostly in the complete destruction of local culture, ecosystems and ways of life. Cultures are not static, and the coopting of one culture’s methods for another has happened well into prehistory. However unlike in many times past there was more integration rather than wholesale replacement of the culture. So you would have an amalgam of one over the other. The modern western culture absorption doesn’t have that feature however. Instead we have a wholesale replacement of the one with the other, and no cultural system has ever stemmed its tide.
While that has brought many good things to people like the internet, vaccinations, understandings of modern science, it has also brought with it lots of downsides and destruction. The concept of a relaxed pace of life is foreign to us, expect in some hypothetical retirement or multi-multi-millionaire fantasy world. In fact not expending valuable life force to reach for those shiny sparkly things is almost considered a heresy or a waste of life. It doesn’t matter if our activities cause climate change, or mass species extinction or mass misery as long as the machine keeps moving forward.
In every culture touched on in Blue Zones and Jungle Effect you see the exact same story playing out. For centuries, and in some cases maybe even millenia, you had some twist on the same variety of culture. These were by definition sustainable cultures with hearty people living in them. Then some time in the last 100 years all of that changed. Most of these places are actually relatively remote so this effect is actually more something that began in the middle of the 20th century, so we can actually see the difference by talking with people, looking at pictures and examining records.
In every single one of these places you have the health of the population in serious decline compared to their pre-Westernization. Rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke are all on the rise. The life expectancies of these populations are heading in the exact opposite direction. While we marvel at our modern medical miracles, and we have a lot of legitimate reasons to brag about them, you can’t help but look at how much worse off on a day to day basis these people are now that Westernization as taken a firm foothold there.
You have the common examples of the current young generation, and often their parents too, who succumb to the modern Western lifestyle: sedentary life, highly processed high fat high sugar low nutrient density foods. Their health profile looks just like ours. You put them in stark contrast to their elders, the generation or two still alive that have actively worked to shun those things, and they have more problems with blood sugar, blood pressure, the other signs of aging that their elders decades older have. Some of the elders never even get to that point. This isn’t a case of the previous generations didn’t deal with these diseases because they lived a short miserable life. It’s a problem of something in our lifestyle, relative to the natural lifestyles, is horribly wrong. We correct it with our medical miracles, which aren’t aptly named because unlike legitimate medical miracles these are just band-aids that let us pretend that what we are doing to our body isn’t happening at all.
Each person is free to choose the diet and lifestyle they want so why complain if this lifestyle looks superior? There is the rub of it all. If it was a more level playing field perhaps there would be something to it. What we instead have is one side with billions of dollars in government subsidies, most of which are the fruit of millions of dollars in corporate lobbying, against the unsubsidized natural way of doing things. On one side you have corporations who along with spending millions on corporate lobbying throw hundreds of millions into their highly optimized marketing machine to convince us of their one right way to live. The counter side has nothing even close to this, but instead at best a growing but still faint voice on podcasts, blogs and books. If that were the extent of it I think the balance would be egregious, especially when it concerns the government being an arm of the agribusiness industry rather than an advocate for its citizens. However that’s not the end of it.
Because our actions extend far beyond the little plots of lands we grow the actions of this agribusiness based food culture makes living these other styles next to impossible. Farms that used to be able to produce local foods have their taxes jacked up high enough that they go into default or have no choice but to sell out to the food production machine and adopt a monoculture crop. That’s assuming that the pesticides, herbicides and farming practices haven’t decimated the landscape, estuaries, lakes and oceans to the point that they don’t even look like the places they used to, and need to, to live in the sustainable way. This was very starkly evident in Jungle Effect in the story of Kauila Clark.
Clark has been working hard for many years to try to establish the classic Hawaiian diet back to Oahu in an attempt to stave off a lot of the illness and chronic medical problems that have been afflicting that population in recent decades as they adopted a Western diet. He’s been partially successful, but only partially. Most of the agriculture that used to produce the local foods have been converted to staple agribusiness crops like sugar cane. The places that have been converted to “modern” production have also done so in a way that has caused massive erosion of the topsoil. This has made production on smaller lots more difficult as the soil fertility of the entire island is going down. Unfortunately all that run off has also completely destabilized the sea surrounding the island. This has had the effect of making seafoods that could be harvested in past centuries to be completely nonexistent. This story plays out in region after region.
Since these two systems can’t peacefully coexist the more heavily financed one, the one with its hands on the powers of government as well, are the ones that win over and over. The population of countries affected, which is now all but a few minuscule pockets dotting the planet, is the biggest loser. With enough focus on these sustainable indigenous processes I’m sure we could eventually reverse course, so all is not loss. I don’t see the tide shifting anytime soon though and the longer we wait the harder it will be to do that. Monoculture planting eventually destroys the seed diversity we would need to reestablish those older food styles. The techniques themselves often fall off into the mists of history to never be recovered. Hopefully there are enough beacons left to learn and carry on these traditions, and the seeds to make the foods to go along with them, so that if and when we as a modern culture that has totally taken over every square inch of the globe finally wake up from our insanity we have the building blocks to actually change back to the centuries proven ways of doing things as before.