• samwrenlewis

Enlightenment Now? – Sustenance

Famine is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. That’s the good news, but can we do better for people and planet?

So far, we’ve looked at what Steven Pinker has to say about the progress modernity has made in the fields of Life and Health. This week, we’ll be looking at what he says about Sustenance. It’s a similar story to the past couple of posts — over the past 250 years, humanity, as a whole, has made tremendous amounts of progress at alleviating hunger and famine around the world.

We’ve already heard this story in terms of increases in life expectancy and decreases in illness and disease. But, in each of those fields, we can still ask questions that Pinker leaves unanswered.


In the case of significantly increasing the human lifespan, we asked what impact this has on our values, mindset and view of reality. We used to see our lives as limited, mortal, vulnerable. Now we see our lives in terms of their instrumental value — what we can do with them. People (including ourselves) become objects we can use to make things better. Natural ecosystems and non-human animals become resources we can control and manipulate to our liking. This way of thinking may substantially improve our lives, but at what cost? When do we stop producing more and more things of instrumental value and start asking who and what all this progress for?


In the case of advances in health, we asked whether we can continue to make progress with regards to a broader view of health — one that includes social, relational and mental wellbeing. Our mental and social lives are incredibly complex and not easily fixable through pharmaceutical or therapeutic means. Our spiritual and emotional health is largely determined by the social systems we are a part of, not just our biochemistry or emotional coping strategies. To have a healthy life, we need to be engaged in projects and relationships we view as intrinsically value, not merely a means to something else, such as happiness, freedom or security. This is the opposite mindset to the one encouraged by modernity — where everything can be used to make things better, to make progress. Again, at some point, we need to start de-prioritise the accumulation of more resources and opportunities and instead prioritise relationships that give us a sense meaning and connection.


None of this is to discredit what Pinker says. I’ve been hugely enjoying reading and writing about his book because it is, to some extent, “the greatest story never told”. The amount of progress humanity has made over the past 250 years has been astonishing. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask fundamental questions about this progress, from the perspective of the past, present and future: 1) Does the progress we’ve made sufficiently account for the injustices of the past, such as slavery and colonialism? 2) Does this progress make our lives more meaningful and connected, in addition to providing us with more resources and opportunities? 3) Is this progress likely to continue, especially in the face of increasing social complexity and inequalities and rapid environmental degradation? In answer to all these questions, I think we can recognise the huge achievements that have been made, yet still see important and fundamental ways in which we can do better.


The field of sustenance is no exception. Pinker, as usual, highlights the tremendous amount of progress that’s been made since the 18th century. Referencing Robert Fogel’s The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100, Pinker notes that the energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the 18th century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year. He shows that, in 1965, 35% of people in the developing world were undernourished. That figure is now 13% — still far too high, but a significant improvement, especially given the increases in population that have occurred over the same period.


These improvements can largely be put down to advances in agriculture, in particular the mechanisation of production, storage and transport. Industrial farming produces vast amounts of food at scale, with significantly less labour costs. Over the past century, the amount of food that can be bought with an hour of labour has multiplied across the board: in 1901, an hour’s wages could buy a pound of butter, now it can buy 5 pounds; 12 dozen eggs can now be bought for the price of 1 dozen; 49 pounds of flour can be bought for the price of 9 pounds; and so on. These reductions add up. Famines were previously an endemic problem in Europe and Asia. China, Russia, India and Bangladesh used to be labeled the “land of famine”. But since the 1970s, famine has resided only in Ethiopia and Sudan. Again, we should strive to make famine a thing of history. But that is exactly Pinker’s point — that’s the direction we’re heading in.


As usual, Pinker does not dwell on the unintended consequences and externalities of these major advances, such as the problems industrial agriculture causes for human health and climate change. He speaks little about the environmental degradation caused by industrial, non-organic farming, to the extent that, according to estimates from the UN, we only have 50–60 harvests left before we lose the entirety of the world’s top soil, rendering current farming practices untenable. Intensive farming is also partly responsible for the loss of 20% of the Amazon rainforest over the past 50 years. Much of this deforestation is caused by livestock farming, which requires significantly greater land use than small-scale farming and produces unsustainable amounts of greenhouse gases. Is this progress? If find it hard to believe that killing 74 billion animals each year for food is a better world.


Putting these arguments aside, I think the most important question to ask is where do we go from here? For Pinker, the answer is likely to be do more of the same — more advances in mechanisation and genetically modified crops. Even if this is partly true, it seems that we can also do better than that. We can invest more money into small-scale, predominantly plant-based and environmentally regenerative agricultural practices. These methods may be less efficient than industrial ones — less yields for more hours of labour — but are better for both people and planet. Again, at some point, we need to ask ourselves what we do with all the progress we’ve made. Pinker’s answer is invariably to make more and more progress. I think this is only part of the story. We also need to consider what kinds of progress to make and for who. If we can afford to make progress that is both more sustainable and compassionate to all living beings, that should be part of the story going forward.


To finish on a personal note, over the past few years, I’ve become a part-time baker and wheat farmer, in addition to all the writing. I am under no pretences that the kind of small-scale farming and sourdough baking I do can efficiently feed the world, let alone my local community. But I’m convinced it’s better from a nutritional and environmental point of view. Moreover, I see no better way to use all the resources and opportunities available to me than to feed people healthy bread and help restore natural ecosystems. That’s what I’ve personally chosen to do with all the progress that humanity has made over the past 250 years. Perhaps I could choose a much more efficient project, one that would produce an even greater amount of progress for humanity? Maybe. But, with all the resources and opportunities we now have, in addition to maximising what is useful, we can also afford to do what we believe is right — what is meaningful, beautiful and true.

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