Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, cancer- they are all the result of our modern diets. Or at least, this is the thesis put forth by proponents of the Paleo diet, which I am reading about this morning at breakfast (while stuffing my face with the processed deliciousness that is white bread).
You’re probably familiar with this idea given our national obsession with food trends, but for those of you who aren’t, the premise is this: archeological evidence suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more or less free of chronic disease. (Their most common cause of death was external injury.) Anthropologists have reason to believe, thanks to studies comparing historical data with data collected from existing hunter-gatherer people, that diet is the biggest contributing factor to their good health. Basically, our love affair with processed foods is killing us. If we give these up and mimic our ancestors’ dietary patterns, we will be able to protect ourselves against these diseases.
Critics of the Paleo diet argue that much of our agricultural produce today has been modified so drastically thanks to years of cultivation such that they bear little genetic resemblance to the wild variations that were consumed by our ancestors. They are less nutritious, contain fewer anti-oxidants and are more caloric than wild plants since we want them to taste sweeter, and hence bred them to contain more sugar. Similarly, the quality of meat from grain-fed, domesticated livestock cannot match that of wild animals.
In order to reap all of the benefits of our ancestors’ dietary habits, we have to forage and gather and hunt the way they did. No shortcuts allowed. Writer Daniel Vitalis calls this process of returning to a pre-agricultural way of life ‘rewilding yourself’.
So this is where I started to pay attention, because Vitalis does more than just talk about diet. According to him, rewilding is the “redesign of your life” that realigns you with “your intrinsic nature”- your wild side.
Returning to the wild in order to be happy?
Industrialisation ruined everything, and Vitalis has embarked on a path to reclaim whatever is left of the world’s wilderness and live life as a free, undomesticated man in a modern world. This includes honing survival skills like fire-starting, hunting, identifying edible fungi, using herbal medicine and even self-dentistry.
That all sounds exceptionally foreign to a Singaporean who has never experienced a countryside lifestyle (because sadly one farm-stay in Australia when I was two years old definitely does not cut it). What I found particularly fascinating was the idea that communing with nature does more than benefit your physical wellbeing. It also impacts emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Research botanist Arthur Haines makes the case for adopting a philosophy of ecocentrism rather than athropocentrism and applying it in our daily lives as a way of defending ourselves against the stress and anguish brought upon us by modern society. City life, he says, is so overstimulating (noise and light pollution are just two obvious examples of this) that we are forced to desensitise ourselves to sensory input in order to cope. We become less attuned to our physical environment, and this emotional distance we create between ourselves and our surroundings translates into our disrespect for and exploitation of our environment. We become convinced that we need to control it to live within it successfully.
Haines says that what humans need is not to assert their dominance over nature (which has caused strife, disease, stress and unhappiness) but to come back into close connection with it and to reprise their true, ‘wild’ role within the larger ecosystem.
Animals in the wild, he argues, are inherently happy, at least in the sense that they know their purpose in life and their capacity for life. To such living creatures, the self-actualised state that the ancient philosophers called ‘eudaimonia’ or ‘the good life’ is inherent in their beings, it’s not something that requires… well, philosophising.
Humans, on the other hand, suffer from a species-wide existential crisis because we have been living in an unnatural state for the past 10,000 years since agrarian civilisations first emerged. We have a false sense of need. We ‘need’ to accumulate more wealth, in order to consume more goods. To do so, we ‘need’ to work 50 hours a week because that provides us with the economic power to consume. And as a society, we ‘need’ to progress in terms of technology and manufacturing to improve our quality of life and to keep improving it. Because without commerce, science and technology, how could we possibly survive the unforgiving forces of nature?
Industrial technology has become a crutch, says Haines, which is precisely what hinders us from thriving in the natural environment. He argues:
“[Domestication] of the human species has led to an inability for most to nourish, heal, and care for themselves.”
What we really ‘need’ to live the ‘Neo-Aboriginal Lifeway’, essentially relearning how to live off the land.
Now, this might sound like a whole lot of hippie hokum to you. But Haines is not alone in this movement. Authors like Dan Flores, Abel James and Daniel Quinn each condemn human zoology and have come to similar conclusions about the detrimental effects of our captivity within modern civilisation on our experience of happiness, or more specifically, satiety.
What are our fundamental human needs?
Even economists are joining in the chorus. While Keynes predicted that our generation would work just 15 hours per week as the human population on a whole got wealthier and thus could afford more leisure, the opposite seems to have occurred. People are working longer hours than ever before, because there just never seems to be an end to the need to earn more money. Modern humans are using wealth as a yardstick of happiness.
In their book How Much is Enough?, economist Robert Skidelsky, who wrote a biography on Keynes, and his philosopher son Edward Skidelsky proposed an alternative measure of the good life- seven elements, or basic needs, that they claim are universal and indispensable. These are: health, security, respect, personality, friendship, leisure, and harmony with nature.
The first few were pretty intuitive, they sounded like Maslow’s higher order needs. But then there it was, harmony with nature. Resonant again was the idea that we must reconnect with the environment to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. When a person “knows and respects the potentialities of nature”, he derives profound joy from all of his interactions with it.
But unlike the previous writers mentioned, the Skidelskys view wilderness as something that will eventually be tamed and tended to like gardens. We have to make a conscious decision to protect and retain wildlife, or else it will disappear beneath the looming shadow of industry. Conservation, much like gardening, requires us to step in and intervene in ways that are far from natural. Nitrate fertilisers and wildlife reserves are both human innovations, impossible without the advance of science, research and development.
There in lies the paradox that so fascinates me: when wildness is deliberate, it can no longer be wild.
To me, being able to ask the question of what it means to live a good life, to reflect on what it means be human, means that you have already denied your wild nature. Whoever can rationalise the concept of rewilding, advocate for change and most importantly, imagine alternate realities and better lives, has automatically transcended that primal state of being content with being that they wish to return to.
That is the great tragedy of this movement, because we can envision what a wonderful, liberating existence it might be to possess this heightened awareness of the present without a debilitating anxiety about the future. We can believe that a wilder experience of life might be better, but for us to experience that, we have to let go of belief altogether.