Why the Back to Nature Movement Failed

modern caveman on computer

The paleo diet has been popular for a while now, and it prescribes a “back to nature” way of eating that’s interesting. The premise is that humans evolved in an environment devoid of processed foods and high-glycemic carbs, so we should eat a diet that more closely mimics our paleolithic ancestors. I’m not going to try to defend the paleo diet per se, some people lose weight on it, whatever.  But it’s an interesting framework for considering what environments we as humans are adapted to and how we can apply that to the problems of modern life.

Consider depression. Two of the top cures for depression are exercise and light therapy.  It’s clear that humans evolved for at least 100,000 years, largely outdoors, moving around in the sunlight.  Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary.

Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation.  Humans are social animals, and we arguably evolved in tribes of roughly 150 members, according to the Dunbar number.  (I know that Dunbar has been supplanted by newer research, let’s just use this number as a starting point.)

Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary. . . Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation. . . So let’s consider these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.

So let’s take these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.  Sure, maybe some people still live in tight-knit, traditional farm communities that fulfill these needs, but, here in the US, economic forces have largely broken the cohesion of these rural places and we see drug abuse epidemics as a consequence.

Transhumanists can rightly argue that our need for sunlight, exercise, and social support are just kludgy legacy code tied to our messy biological bodies.  Maybe we can upgrade humans to be more machine-like with replaceable parts and we can do away with these outdated needs.  That’s a valid argument.  I don’t happen to agree with it, but it’s coherent at least.  For the sake of this discussion, I ask my transhumanist friends to acknowledge that these human 2.0 upgrades don’t seem to be right around the corner, so it probably makes sense to make accommodations for the hardware we humans are running right now.

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement. . . But what ever happened to that movement, anyway? . . I asked a fellow named Frosty, an old hippie scientist at one of my clients, who said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement.  Good old Stewart Brand was in the thick of it with his Whole Earth Catalog.  Many long-haired freaks trekked out to the middle of nowhere to build geodesic domes out of logs and get naked in the mud together.  Awesome!

But what ever happened to that movement, anyway?  What went wrong?  Brand himself said at a Long Now talk that the hippies discovered that the cities were where the action was.  I’m fortunate to work with these old hippie scientists at one of my clients, and I asked a fellow named Frosty why the back to nature movement didn’t properly take hold.  He laughed and said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Twentieth century communists in Asia attempted their own versions of the back to nature movement.  They took what appears to be a sound hypothesis and effectively implemented it as genocide.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution forced the relocation of city dwellers to the countryside, resulting in disaster.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero also involved a violent reset of the clock, trying to turn back time and force modern people to live as our ancestors did, also a terrible failure.  So yes, as Scott Alexander says, we “see the skulls.”  We need to learn the lessons of previous failed attempts before we can rectify the problems with modern life.

Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them? . . We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality. . . Maybe augmented reality will give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Not catchy, but you get the picture.

We can’t turn back the clock.  We have to start where we are and assume that progress will keep happening whether we like it or not.  Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them?  We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality.  Perhaps we can find our communities via social network technology.  I certainly feel vastly enriched by my East Bay Futurists Meetup.  I’ve made good friends there, who help me grow and teach me a lot.  Mobile technology has made it easier and easier for people to do real work on the move.  Maybe augmented reality will close the loop and give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Ahh, well, not catchy, but you get the picture.  We just need to start redesigning our cities a little bit.  Step One: More parks!

What the Corporate Lunch Reveals

a depressing corporate lunch restaurant

Last night I was thinking about the SMELL of an office.  Normally offices don’t smell like much, except for at lunchtime, when there’s this nauseating smell of microwaved meals.  It’s a savory smell of preformed chicken, warm plastic, and ramen noodle spice packets.  It wouldn’t even bother me so much, except that it’s been designed in a lab to tug at my appetite.  So I breathe it in and am tricked for just a moment into thinking that it’s something I could eat.  Is that a carbohydrate, mushy noodles with a hint of sweetness?  Especially since this smell is wafting through the cube farm around noon and maybe I haven’t eaten yet.  But then it pervades my palate, and the stale, processed nature of it hits me.  Are the amino acids of that savory protein intact?  Probably not.

There is nothing fresh to eat in an office.  Oh sure, they bring in some delivered produce once a week, encased in plastic, the apples turning brown moments after I cut into them, leached of all antioxidants by months in cold storage.  Everything is on a conveyor belt, really.  The workers are moved into the building by rapid transit systems.  The frozen meal energy units are stamped out and packaged using some hellish alchemy that approximates nutrition to the minimum federally mandated standards.  The work product generated by these meals is emails and documents, packets of drudgery routed across vast global computer networks and spewed into the faces of recipients via glowing screens, lighting up our faces with blue light as we digest the mediocrity.  And afterwards, we eliminate the waste product in a corporate bathroom, squatting side by side in merciless stalls with huge gaps that deny us privacy.  All systems optimal and functioning as designed.

But when I try to go out for lunch, my frugal companions scowl at my madness.  How will I ever afford a house in the Bay Area if I squander my dollars on such extravagance?  No, no, we office drones must scrimp and save every penny.  Get a CostCo card and a big freezer.  Buy in bulk.  How will I afford children?  And I ignore them because I want a breath of fresh air, at least.  I know the food at the restaurants won’t be any better, though I did have a client down on Second Street in San Francisco with an organic salad place across the street.  SF systems require somewhat better fuel inputs to produce slightly less mundane work output.

But the average corporate lunch place, even here in the Bay Area, is nothing like that.  Lunch in the corporate world illustrates the depth of our descent.  White bread sandwiches with processed meats, canned soups, iceberg lettuce salads with trans fat dressings.  And don’t get me started on the decor.  Fluorescent lighting, travel photos of a beach with palm trees, faded by the sun coming in the window, a damaged dream of escape from the grinding routine of a systemized society.  So eat quickly or maybe just take your food to go and eat at your desk.  So much to do, so little time.  Choke down the calories, get on with it.   You do want your job, don’t you?

I notice the rare smokers I pass as I come back from lunch.  Only the smokers seem to take regular outdoor breaks in the corporate world, driven by the monkey on their backs to suck down carcinogens.  Do you know that nicotine actually improves cognitive function somewhat?  I assume the benefits are largely offset by the reduced lung function, but I haven’t looked into it.

And the higher up the status tree we climb, the fiercer the competition becomes.  In the ruthless furnace of Silicon Valley startup culture, white bread sandwiches are replaced by intermittent fasting.  Nicotine is a lowly nootropic.  Get your uridine stack in place and drive that motivation.  Pop the Modafinil and FOCUS, people, FOCUS.  Ship that code.  Build your brand.  Sink or swim, motherfucker.  Always Be Closing.  The Bay is a churning mass of wrestling bodies, competitors striving and scratching all around you, clutching at any advantage.  Is it any surprise that the psychopaths inevitably rise to the top?

But these modernists look at me askance when I say that maybe these systems are failing.  They are unsustainable environmentally and financially.  They are bereft of meaning, commoditizing all human experience.  It may be that the gears of these mighty systems around us will simply fall apart and fail as a consequence.  Humans have needs unfulfilled by these processes.  We need better nutrition, we need to be outside moving around basically all of the time.  We need some meaning, a supportive community, we need to cut each other some slack.  That’s my futurism.

Persistence in the Environment is the Meaning of Life

persistence-mouse

This whole postmodern slide into nihilism leaves some folks searching for the meaning of life.  Maybe things are easier for those stuck in Kegan’s Stage 3 mode, who get meaning from God and tradition.  They are here on earth in order to carry on their culture and fulfill the commands of God.  And maybe postmodernism has a nihilistic side that strips all meaning from existence.  But I am growing more and more comfortable with a mechanistic view of meaning.

If you sit down with the neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon, you will hear his theory about the origins of life.  It goes something like this.  Some molecules bind together and form chemical reactions and structures that persist.  There is nothing really remarkable about this idea.  Molecules are bumping around and forming chains and capturing other molecules and behaving just as chemistry would dictate.  And they come together to form these dynamic processes that look like self-maintaining systems.

And pretty soon you have little living things.  Strange bundles of molecules that are chemically compelled to use the energy in the environment to maintain their structure.  It might seem strange to think of the goal of a single celled organism.  But if it can be said to have a goal, persisting in the environment isn’t a bad guess.  You might subscribe to Dawkin’s selfish gene idea and insist that it’s the replicator, the DNA, that has the goal of persisting, and I won’t argue with you.  But basically, if you don’t persist a self-sustaining structure, then nothing can stick to you and increase your complexity.

So there you have it.  Survive and reproduce.  In that order.  First and foremost survive.  If possible, reproduce.  The meaning of life.  Have a nice day.  But no one is ever satisfied with that damn answer.  It’s too easy these days for some of us First World crybabies to survive.  Or at least the survival part is easy if you are rich enough.  The reproduction part is complicated, as we know, with more educated women choosing to have fewer babies.  But I don’t really worry about that since persistence is the key.  Some parental investment strategies involve having lots of offspring and giving them little parental care, and others involve having fewer offspring and giving them greater parental care.  One offspring with greater survival skills will persist, where a multitude of offspring with fewer survival skills may fail.

I don’t have kids, but I feel that I contribute to life persisting by paying my taxes, giving to charity, and working in renewable energy, which will help all of life on earth persist.  In other words, it’s not necessary to have kids to contribute to the persistence of life.

Things that don’t take the necessary actions to persist aren’t around for us to even observe.  So it’s a pretty solid baseline for a good preference to have.  But is this really MEANINGFUL?  Sure.  If you are a fairly primitive creature, just surviving and reproducing satisfies your goals.  As you move up the ladder of complexity, you might care about your family and their persistence becomes the meaning of your life.  Even bacteria that form biofilms sacrifice themselves for their families.  Move up a bit further and the persistence of your tribe becomes meaningful.  This expanding circle of empathy represents more advanced beings finding meaning in the persistence of a broader and broader range of organisms.  Every animal is a DNA replicator just like us, after all.  We even share 50% of our genome with potatoes.

Hedonists say that pleasure is the meaning of life.  Some would want to offload persisting to a godlike AI and plug into a virtual reality, nonstop orgasm.  Gah!  Good luck building that infernal contraption, first of all.  Secondly, I predict that you can’t find meaning there, because if something’s meaning could get hacked, it would have stopped existing long ago.  But sure, go be a hedonist if you insist on deluding yourself about the nature of living things, which is to persist and to replicate.

Even my beloved Seligman’s PERMA model makes sense when viewed through the harsh lens of persistence.  Positive emotions give us something to look forward to.  Engagement generally occurs during the exercise of skill, and skills generally further the cause of survival, even unlikely ones like video games, which have been shown to improve some types of cognition.  Relationships matter to us social animals because we stick together in order to survive and of course we need others to reproduce (for now).  Meaning in Seligman parlance is being involved in something greater than ourselves.  On one hand, this could just be an extension of our social nature.  If we derive meaning from building cultural institutions like churches or academia, these things provide frameworks for survival.  On the other hand, if we see ourselves as part of a greater whole of all DNA based replicators, that’s a pretty awesome project to be part of.  And as for Accomplishment, I am quite satisfied with a Hansonian explanation of this.  We need status to maintain social standing and we need social standing to survive.  And really any account of flourishing or self-actualization that didn’t provide tools for persisting in the environment would be very hard to explain from an evolutionary perspective.

Is that still not good enough?  What about art and love, you ask?  Well, I just argue that those are super tools for persistence, of course.  Still not enough for you?  Well, get out and persist into the solar system and then outer space, persist into the light cone.  We are just living things.  Persisting is what we do and who we are.  Get with it.