October, 2010

October 7th, 2010

What can nutrition science teach us about climate response?

Famously, Michael Pollan has offered the mantra that the key to our nutritional, agricultural, and environmental quandaries may be as fundamental as eating less while spending more on the food we do consume. It’s a useful rule of thumb that fits nicely into the need for most of us to see the world in simple, concrete terms.

Nutritionist Kate Geagan reminded me of “Pollan’s law” while a group of us tried to make sense of the impressive body of research being presented at a unique international gathering of passionate, inspiring scientists working on solutions to our growing human, agricultural, and environmental crises, being held this week in Greece. As deeply complex data are discussed among peers that add dimension to human understanding of the interactions between nutrition, genetics, food chemistry, and lifestyle, it becomes the job of nutritionists and dieticians (and those like Pollan) to absorb, analyze, and then distill pertinent information for a mainstream, food-consuming public that, especially in the United States, seems programmed for black-and-white oversimplification: low-fat diets, high-protein diets, high-fiber diets, French diet, Greek diet, nuts, chocolate, red wine, and so on. We seem only able to process silver bullets – which seem to change with mind-blowing frequency – making the job of the popular nutrition community impossibly daunting.

While the world is never that simple, there is general agreement, fortunately, on the keys to good health. Good, whole food with key nutrients and regular exercise – with a lucky dose of good genes – is a reasonable guide for the lay public. But it doesn’t diminish the need for healthy scientific inquiry about how to understand connections more clearly and how to think about the future of nutrition in a world with complicated food production challenges, climate zones, and resource realities. Consider the fact that a primary source of the Omega 3 fatty acids that so many scientists believe is an essential part of a healthy diet is fish. A panacea? Perhaps, but only if you are able to see beyond dramatic collapses in fisheries worldwide or the economic cost to consume that fish in the first place.

It’s not difficult to see how these same issues present themselves when we think about climate change. We’ve chosen not to want to understand the complexity of climate change or the interactions between very real human impacts and very real natural cycles. We believe it’s happening or we don’t. We believe it’s human-induced or we don’t. We believe the only way out of the problem is massive expansive of nuclear energy or we don’t. We want quick answers to questions that truly can’t be framed that way. As with nutrition, we want to know the one thing that will save us from ourselves. We can’t handle complexity, nor the behavior change that could address it.

Rather than engage the public in a dynamic discussion about improving urban design to boost physical activity, investing in transportation choices, expanding organic and local food production, motivating consumers to assert real influence on corporations, and vastly diversifying the way we produce energy at all scales, advocates for climate protection are forced to perform like nutritionists. We’re asked to offer oversimplified views of the world. If we don’t seem to support single, large-scale approaches to the problem, we’re dismissed. If we don’t prescribe to political compromises that are designed to create limited accountability for business, utilities, or individuals, we’re pushed to the fringe.

The fact is that a multi-faceted response to the climate crisis can create elegant solutions to so many of the issues we seem unable to connect efficiently. Certainly, there are the national security and domestic job creation benefits of climate-friendly energy policies so many have talked about. But what about climate-friendly land use that shortens the distances to schools and downtowns and jobs and gets people out of cars, on their feet or on bicycles, and in better health? What about incentives that improve nutrition and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to produce their own high-quality foods or support local producers? No number of silver bullets can be nearly as beneficial to our communities or to ourselves.

Still, the urge to find them remains. Physician Ole Faergeman offered one on climate change in his keynote address to launch the conference: “Eat plants, plant trees, and leave the coal in the ground.” It’s probably not that simple, but as in nutrition, it certainly makes the point.

Wood Turner is the executive director of Climate Counts and is currently posting from Greece from the Stonyfield Farm-sponsored Inaugural Conference of the World Council on Genetics, Nutrition, and Fitness for Health. He and others are tweeting from the conference at @climatecounts using #greekhealth, and also on Facebook.

October 6th, 2010

Is it time to be philosophical about climate change?

With apologies to another ancient Mediterranean civilization, is it useful — when in Greece – to do as the Greeks might have when it comes to addressing climate change? In other words, with a crisis that demands such urgent and widespread human action, do we have time to be philosophical?

Dr. Ole Faergeman, a renowned Danish cardiologist and co-chair of a groundbreaking international conference on the intersection between sustainable agriculture and land use, human nutrition, and climate protection opening this week in Olympia, Greece, has invoked Aristotle when trying to make sense of ongoing challenges to mobilize people globally on climate change. Certainly, Aristotle had no concept of global warming, but some of his ideas may help us with our own.

In addition to the political, journalistic, and economic challenges that have shaped our unwillingness to acknowledge the current and future impacts of climate change on our lives, persuades Faergeman, we may also be confounded by a certain “giddiness” as we stare into the abyss of time, both past and future. Climate scientists have shown again and again the alarming rates of atmospheric greenhouse gases today versus not only other times in human history but also prehistoric time. But does science’s ability to help us see eons into the past and to project decades, even centuries into the future hurt us more than it helps us?

Does climate modeling make us dizzy with our insignificance in the grand scheme of things? Does it render us powerless? It must be the only reasonable explanation for why we seem incapable of doing things like reach a meaningful international target for emissions reductions (a la the frustrations of COP15 in Copenhagen) or pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation in the US. One can almost imagine aging members of the Senate attributing “no” committee votes on cap-and-trade (or any other bill attempting to reduce climate impacts) to the clear futility of human existence.

In addition to being mercifully oblivious to the impacts of the future industrial age on the environment, ancient Greeks also had no concept of “deep time,” no sense of where time was going or where it had been. The result was a fixation on the personal, rather than the global, not only in terms of the quest to find meaning but also of the role and ability of human beings to affect events. As a result, they seem to have lacked the paralysis that too many of us bring to enormous global challenges like climate change. For Aristotle and other thinkers of his time, the choice of pathways was simple: logos or tragedy? The implications of a tragic trajectory – like our current one – are clear.

But logos implies a rational, even optimistic approach to dealing with catastrophe. Aristotle and his fellow Athenians might have first acknowledged the obvious effects that fossil-fuel burning humans have on the atmosphere, if for no other reason than for the way those effects would affect human quality of life – even the pursuit of happiness that so motivated founding Americans. They might have then said, “Conditions are changing that are affecting the safety and health of human communities, as well as our ability to produce and source food, so we must simply use common sense to fix the problem, whether through behavior change or technology.” Interestingly, the ancient idea of logos is not terribly different from a rational human view in aspects of our modern world, for example, a market economy, but it is largely missing from our collective response to climate change.

Some will inevitably argue that being philosophical about something like global climate change is the definition of absurd. But perhaps existential philosophy is precisely what has been missing from our response to climate change so far. As Faergeman urges, it’s time to be like the Greeks and think big thoughts about what we are going to do – for our own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment – without worrying too much what the universe ultimately has in store for us.

Wood Turner is the executive director of Climate Counts and is currently posting from Greece from the Inaugural Conference of the World Council on Genetics, Nutrition, and Fitness for Health, made possible with support from Stonyfield Farm. He and others are tweeting from the conference at @climatecounts using #greekhealth, and also on Facebook.

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