Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Questioning rational modernity 2: The technology worshippers

My first exhibition of the flawed, arrogant thinking that comes about when we have too much faith in modern rational thought comes from an article I read recently about a guy named Rob Rhinehart who has "figured out" how to replace eating with a nutrient mix he calls Soylent.  Aside from the innate "yuck"-factor many may feel at the idea of subsisting mainly on a liquid diet, I want to point out some ethical and even scientific problems with his project.

First off, I ask myself what else he could possibly be doing to merit getting rid of eating.  What else is so worthwhile?  Is he using the time he saves cooking and eating to write symphonies or help old ladies cross the street?  Part of the modern rational paradigm to which I so object is the dismissive relegation of traditional human endeavors and sources of meaning (food, culture, religion) to the realm of irrational (and thus unimportant) trifles.  It is a variation on what Wendell Berry would call the "boomer" mentality that derives pleasure only from that which it does not yet possess, as opposed to the "sticker" philosophy of simple satisfaction in what one already has and is.  The modern rational paradigm would in theory have us all pursuing pure intellectual inquiry and enlightenment instead of "wasting" our time with either base animal desires like eating and shitting, or with "primitive" human needs like community and physical labor.  But the net effect for most of us isn't that we have become a society of enlightened contemplators and researchers, but rather that we fill all of the newfound free time given us by labor-saving technologies with things like TV and video games and other consumption, which might or might not be harmful in and of itself, but which is clearly less satisfying to our primal needs than are things like working outdoors or sharing meals or spending time with our loved ones.  It seems that Rhinehart, like many people in the US, is so removed from these more elemental pursuits and joys that he is unaware of their value, doesn't mourn their absence, and detects no desire in himself to devote time to them.  In this respect, if you are already spending so much of your time working or stimulating yourself that your eating consists mainly in expensive processed garbage, then I can't object to Rhinehart's proposal to eat slightly less expensive, healthier processed food.  But it is only a slight improvement within the context of a fundamentally flawed way of living.

On this note, my second criticism of the Soylent experiment deals with cost.  I don't see how the petroleum-derived processed ingredients of Rhinehart's concoction (mainly industrially-extracted polysaccharides and vitamins) can be cheaper than real food.  His calculations show that he was mainly buying expensive, processed food to begin with, so it makes sense that Soylent would represent a cost savings.  However, in the situation of my family, and perhaps most families in the developing world, we buy relatively cheap, unprocessed food, and our food system, unlike that of the US, is not so industrialized as to make inexpensive the processed ingredients like those Rhinehart is using in Soylent.  My family's entire food budget last month worked out to about $650US.  That includes many more expensive meals out than we should have had (we were still back and forth to Bogota a few times, which always obligates us to eat out a lot).  With this we fed four people full time (one of them pregnant), plus lunch for another person most days, and quite a few other meals where two to four family members ate at our place.  So for a healthy, balanced diet of mainly fresh produce (and even including a lot of eating out), we paid quite a bit less per person than his $155 for Soylent.  Our budget would likely be even lower in the US, where lots of food tends to be cheaper.  Rhinehart's savings of "hours" daily by not preparing food also seem specious, especially considering that over half of his prior food consumption was eating out.

In a blog post Rhinehart lays out and deconstructs some of the common objections or criticisms he's received in the course of his project of doing away with food.  Many of the points he raises are valid; he finds rhetorical fallacies in many grand classes of objections people have raised to his project.  But in quite a few of his counterarguments he betrays very deeply-held, subjective preconceptions of the world, for instance when he claims, "Nature is not on our side. Most of it is trying to kill us. Nature abounds with neurotoxins, carcinogens, starvation, violence, and death. It is technology that makes our lives so comfortable."  This is clearly some major ideological baggage he's carrying, and it calls into question the objectivity of his experiment and the motivations thereof.  Given the articles on the human microbiome with which I started this series of essays, Rhinehart's view of Nature as hostile and technology as unequivocally positive seems downright factually inaccurate.  I don't begrudge Rhinehart or anyone else their prejudices, but I do object to his (erroneous) framing of himself as a rational, unbiased actor fighting against a sclerotic status quo of irrational prejudice.  Likewise I feel that he is too eager to confirm his own (uninformed) preconceptions, such as when he flippantly (and without any citations) dismisses concerns that a monotonous, liquid diet might harm the intestinal tract and the organisms that live there.

This brings me to my last criticism of Rhinehart's Soylent experiment, which cuts to the core of my questioning of rational modernity:  he is too eager to presume absolute certainty after obtaining a bit of information, as opposed to constantly considering that he may not have the whole picture.  In his case, he assumes that our current basic, brute understanding of nutrition is complete, and that whatever he hasn't included in his Soylent isn't necessary for a functioning body.  Indeed, Rhinehart's experiment is in many ways a refinement of a larger-scale experiment that has been undertaken on the US diet over the last half-century or so (without prior consent from the public).  Scientists and food companies have insisted that the human body just needs a few given nutrients to function, and it doesn't matter if those nutrients reach us in the form of Twinkies or pasture-grazed bison or denatured liquid Soylent.  But these assertions that food is little more than a faceless agglomeration of chemical components have been accompanied by all sorts of diet-related illness and dysfunction in our country.  For this and many other reasons, I'm not buying the argument that "parts is parts" when it comes to food. 

We've seen in farming that merely injecting a mix of base elements doesn't make for the best plant or soil health.  Adding only mineral fertilizer to a soil, even a very complete mineral fertilizer that includes microelements like boron, makes for sick plants and a sterile soil over time.  On a larger scale, the Biosphere experiment also seemed to indicate that there are many things in the functioning of life that we do not understand, and that any attempt by humans to completely control natural systems is doomed to failure due to the countless little factors we know nothing about.  There are things far beyond our understanding, and to ignore the limits of our knowledge is dangerous hubris.

This point is again illustrated in this article about a natural fix for bedbugs.  Apparently bedbugs get stuck in the fine hairs on the surface of bean leaves, and the remedy of strewing these leaves around an infested bed has apparently been used in many cultures.  Now scientists are trying to replicate the shape and function of these bean leaf hairs, by designing a patentable, petroleum-based commercial fix.  These researchers find it more logical (and certainly more profitable) to make a whole new textured polymer than to have a few bean plants in your backyard to spread around the bed.  They are opting for a technological fix when a perfectly operable natural one already exists, but they are running up against the limits placed on them by incomplete knowledge of complex natural systems.

Rob Rhinehart seems honest and sincere, and he is not in any way doing something immoral in the sense of destroying something for personal gain.  But therein lies the problem.  The rational modern paradigm is full of well-meaning, purportedly objective, unbiased, ethical thinkers, who possess the fatal flaw of unthinkingly worshipping technology and the new.  In the name of modern rationality, they succumb to a very primitive, irrational tendency to unquestioningly devote themselves to an ideal without thinking of the harm it might entail.  They invent something new with the best of intentions, but end up inadvertently destroying some part of the natural and cultural infrastructure that has assured a more or less stable existence for humanity during millennia.  As Wendell Berry says, rational modernity has taken us from a wise knowledge that "our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of" to a childish belief that our intelligence can "transcend all limits and to forestall or correct all bad results of the misuse of intelligence".

As such thinkers come and go, each chips away a bit at the foundations of sustainability for our species and our planet, until we've gotten to a very precarious state today in the 21st century.  The tech-worshippers pursue their gee-whiz ideas, but ultimately their pursuits of rational curiosity (tinged with an irrational awe before novelty) involve all of us, and because of the way the market functions, they obligate all of us to conform to their "great idea", even if we don't want to.  Author Steven McFadden addresses the issue of loss of autonomy and free will in the case of corporate imposition of genetically-modified food on the general public, but his argument is valid for any number of scientific novelties whose originators were surely driven by honest intellectual curiosity, but which are ultimately imposed on the rest of us by the dynamics of our modern rational world.  To again quote Wendell Berry (who was referring to corporate capitalism, but whose words can also be applied to techno-worshipping), it is an "oppression that [involves a] mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds. It was not, that is to say, a political oppression. It did not intend to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the 'side effects.'"  Everyone has a right to new ideas, but why should all of us be in thrall to the ahistorical, acultural new developments that the tech-worshippers and the consumerist system impose on the rest of us?

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