Let’s have a brief chat about the future. Okay, it’s kind of long. But, it’s a way of thinking that I use when I write about the future, near and far. It was critical research when I was developing the terraforming methods used in The Fortress at the End of Time, and it’s probably going to be unpleasant to think about for very long, as an individual, because we know better than to live the way we do, but we do it anyway. And, I’m going to say this a couple times in the essay/rant below: This is not about personal choices, or personal diets. This is about herd choices, and how to shift our whole herd. This is really part of that subgenre of writing where I did all this research, and I couldn’t really inflict it upon the reader in the book, itself, so I take to the internet and dump it all on my blog.
Okay, so… Let’s talk about herd survival and dietary recommendations.
My mother, a dedicated Vegan, says this, and she is wise: “There are only two kinds of Vegans in the world. The first are currently Vegans. The second will be Vegans soon enough [when the reality of man-made climate change strikes home].”1 When I was writing Fortress at the End of Time, I pictured the agriculture that was possible on this particular colony based on the biological limitations of the scenario. It was the way I think things might look in the American Southwest in about a century, when the water runs sparse and the air, itself, is too hot for most common plants to respirate.2 It’s something I think about a lot as a science fiction writer, a hobbyist gardener, and a pudgy-ish person who enjoys eating all the most delicious food, as climate change reality is starting to take hold.
Diet is a very personal subject, and one where lots of emotions and paranoia and guilt are all wrapped up in a lot of science and research and marketing. I am neither a doctor nor a dietician nor am I selling an amazing weight-loss product. I’m just a science fiction writer, married to a farmer. I eat a plant-based diet, mostly, but I am also a little pudgy and no paragon of fitness. From an individual health standpoint, there are arguments that people make for and against a plant-based diet, and I will agree that everybody has to find the diet that works for them with their doctor and their conscience. I am not interested in the concept of personal diets. I think one of the great problems of diet in America is how we can only approach them as an individual thing, full of body-shaming and vanity and medical research that ignores herd health for individual health, along with a collective will to justify what and how we eat by suggesting everyone needs to eat a certain way, the same as these other healthy people eat, with specific dietary guidelines. Whatever you eat is what you eat, and I am not here to tell you that you are wrong, per se. I am not your doctor nor your parent. I have faith that they can guide your personal diet better than I can. The diet I am interested in discussing is larger than one person. I am interested in community diets, at the level of neighborhoods, cities, and commodity crops. I am interested in distribution networks and how they impact communities. I am interested in working to change food policy with the health of our whole community in mind and letting that trickle down to the ground level. Okay, one little lie: There is one thing that interests me about personal diets in America and that is how we have been fooled into blaming ourselves for everything we do wrong.
Please pardon this aside, but from where I sit, the standard American diet seems designed to make investors very rich at the expense of community health. The investor class sells us the junk food products designed to be addictive, convenient, and omnipresent.4 The investor class sells us the medicine that doctors prescribe to help us survive the junk food products.5 The investor class buys influence in the FDA to promote their products and services through the indoctrination mechanisms of public schools6, medical universities7, research science8, and public discourse9. The investor class owns stock in all sides of the system, and can afford a private chef and personal trainer and all sorts of other things that insulate them against the disasters of individual weakness in the face of eternal temptation, while the rest of us working stiffs are fodder for the machine. Personal freedom, personal choice, etc., is what we are taught to say, and never mind that the marketing machinery and ubiquity and convenience and frighteningly low cost create a sort of hypnosis of temptation to anyone who is working long hours for not a lot of money and has to do their own cooking and shopping on top of that. Our culture blames the individual, often shames them and feeds into cycles of eating disorders, while surrounding the blamed individual with temptation and products designed to be addictive, cheap, desirable, and ubiquitous. It is easier and often cheaper to get a half-decent candy bar anywhere in America than to acquire a piece of high quality fruit. The greatest lie in dieting in our culture is the notion that the individual is to blame for their failure when they are surrounded on all sides by temptation in every screen, every billboard, every drive-thru, radio advertisement, and social situation — construct a system that creates addicts, then blame the addicts in the middle of a drug den full of inexpensive and easy drugs for surrendering to temptation.
A healthy diet in America speaks to the privilege of the individual, not to the willpower of them. Being able to afford, for example, a strict “Paleo” diet, implies a level of privilege that few can afford. Grassfed, high quality beef is expensive, hard to source in many areas of the country, and requires time sunk into cooking and cleaning before and after meals. Time and money both run scarce for most households in America, and we tell those individuals that cannot afford the time and expense that they are to blame for their health failure. This is nonsense. People trapped in an unjust system are not to be blamed or shamed for doing the best they can inside of it, and I do not blame anyone who cannot adapt as much as they’d like. The failure is not yours. It is not your fault. Even the investor class is mostly blameless, because the system swept into its shape out of the laws that were designed to promote personal choice and free market enterprise, and simultaneously to make inexpensive food that seemed desirable, at the time, available to everyone. One hundred years ago, starvation was the problem to solve in the American system of food production. Now, it’s obesity. This all just happened, like a force of nature. It’s no one’s explicit fault. There is no blame for any individual to carry. We all do the best we can, and that’s enough. Any call to action really needs to focus on systemic solutions, and personal choice is, at best, a tiny addendum that distracts from the necessary conversations about whole herd health.
Unfortunately, the system will correct itself soon enough, one way or another, as our climate continues to shift due to human activity, and whole distribution networks collapse and change. So, I am not interested in talking about your diet or my diet or what is the healthiest diet for an individual person to have. It’s an uninteresting conversation, to me, fueled by the insidious marketing of all sorts of scams and fads and illusions. Your diet is between you and your doctor and the only thing I’ll add contrary to that is that the “paleo” diet has a stupid name. If it works for you, I’m happy for you, but the name is really stupid and I am judging you if you say that out loud not because of what you eat, but because the name you’ve chosen to use for your diet is ridiculous and wrong. In the Paleolithic, humans ate everything that didn’t move fast enough, including grain, spiders, occasionally dirt, each other… Anyway, it’s a stupid name, even if the actual diet works great for you, individually. And, at the level of communities and the planet, there will not be a viable paleo diet on a scale that can support a population soon enough, if it could even do it, right now, and that’s a more interesting angle to me to pursue, intellectually. Where will all this grassfed, high-quality protein come from? Will fish from the ocean even be safe to eat? Is it even truly safe right now? How do you get the right kind of high-quality nuts in all seasons in all climates without burning fossil fuels to ship it in at the scale of a herd?
There are other ways of thinking about human diet beyond just personal fitness, personal weight-loss goals, and our body-shaming culture. In the near future and the long-term future, what will humans eat to survive? And, is there a moral imperative in village-level dieting that supersedes our individual health goals? If the FDA were to change the focus of where our personal identity of health lies, instead, to a collective communal one, that touches every member of our species at once, and our environmental impacts on future generations, with the diet that is best for every stakeholder of food distribution at the table we all share, what would then be their dietary recommendations? This is sort of what my mom is talking about, when she says we will all be vegans soon, whether we want to be or not. We are approaching a climate reality that demands a shift in all of our diets. There’s simply not enough arable land to keep everyone in grass-fed bone broth, regardless of fitness goals, and/or love of traditional French cuisine.
With the CO2 already looking like it’s locking in above 400 ppm,10 there doesn’t seem to be any compelling argument in favor of eating meat or animal products at a community level outside of personal or religious preference or specific, individual medical necessities (like individuals with allergies that preclude major plant-based nutrition sources). The amount of CO2 that is produced by the raising and tending and slaughtering of animals at scale is tremendous, and contributes in large numbers to our own destruction.11 If the FDA had, as a primary interest, keeping our entire species alive to the seventh generation in a world that isn’t ravaged by mass migrations, extreme weather events, and droughts and all the wars that will result, the dietary recommendations would be plant-based, primarily. Any rational look at the data would indicate that there must be a huge shift away from meat and dairy if we plan to survive as a species over the next three hundred years. So, when we write the future, and think about the future, let’s all remember that plant-based is the major viable option for us as a species on the short-term, and the sooner we get there, the better for everyone at the table – not just you, individually.
Let’s be clear: I don’t have any issue with the eating of animals as a moral or ethical action outside of addressing climate change. It seems hardwired into our teeth and bones to engage in the occasional act of interspecies murder, for those that choose that ethically and morally. I even feel like there are animal products that will be eaten in the future of near-entire Veganism, (for the privileged few, of course) but it’s not probably going to be beef or chicken — maybe some chickens, kept in rich people’s homes and slaughtered by the help, but definitely not beef. Our love affair with cattle and pork are destroying us in every way imaginable. It’s decimating our supply of functional antibiotics.12 It’s destroying the atmosphere’s ability to sustain humans. It’s destroying our health and the health of our communities with fast, cheap, salty, fatty food. It’s eroding our topsoil as the constant grain supply and huge quantities of huge amounts of grain are ripped away by larger and larger machines and pesticide regimes that decimate and destroy the complex habitat of microorganisms in the topsoil while driving runoff into the rivers and gulfs.13 Many pork products14 and all beef products15 are known carcinogens that will literally increase cancer in the community. There is no near future where either beef or pork can be realistically cultivated for food at our current scale, and, in the future, only the very rich could afford such an occasional luxury, if even they deem it ethical to consume relatively intelligent, sociable animals when public opinion and dietary recommendations shift towards a plant-based diet.
Fish oil is clinically proven to be beneficial to the developing minds of children.17 But, our love affair with seafood is poised to end, as well. In the case of tuna, because we will probably exterminate the species and that will be that.18 In the case of salmon and cod and other things less endangered, we will no longer be able to safely harvest anything out of the oceans that have not been rendered toxic by the pollution we have put into the ocean.19 Already, levels of heavy metals are rising in all sea food due to pollution.20 No amount of elaborate netting and filtering and pumping can make even farm-raised versions completely safe to eat.21 There is no such thing as clean, healthy sea food, right now. It’s all polluted. Dieticians work to balance the benefits of fish consumption against the pollution, with complex recommendations based on species of fish and gender and age of consumer, as I understand the literature.22 So, when the world is even more polluted, and that day is coming soon, the negatives will outweigh the positives and the recommendation will change. So, here’s my prescription for the herd, as a science fiction writer who projects society into the future: Do not eat fish from the ocean. Let the oceans rest. They are overfished, and will struggle to rebuild healthy populations of carbon-sinking species if we keep involving ourselves in them. Whales are a huge carbon sink, along with other large sea animals.23 When they die of old age, and sink to the bottom of the sea, they take carbon down with them, where it can be removed from the upper atmosphere. The health of the largest creatures demands the health of the smallest. Get out of the oceans as much as you can. For now, river fish might be a short term panacea, but they are not immune to pollution. Aquaponic systems offers a clean alternative for those that still wish to eat fish, though it requires some expense and time to set up and maintain, and again looks to be in the realm of the privileged, not the many.
Sea vegetables, kelp and the like, are probably going to become an important food source in more parts of the world as the cultivation of land vegetables gets to be less cost effective compared to seaweeds that aren’t as susceptible to drought and extreme weather events, but there may be impacts of disease and heavy metal toxicity there, as well.24 Among food sources that otherwise cleanse the oceans and benefit the environment, like oysters, the rising temperatures create ideal environments for things like the Vibrio bacteria,25 so even among things that could help a little, in their cultivation where acidification26 doesn’t do them in from the get go, the conditions of the ocean will still be contrary to healthy eating. Bacteria love warm, wet conditions. The oceans will be warmer, and there will be more bacteria. And, again, due to meat production, we are at the cusp of the end of effective antibiotics. There will still be fish we could, theoretically, eat occasionally, but it needs to be grown in tanks, separated from nature. It will be expensive, and an occasional luxury for those that choose to pursue this form of animal protein, instead of things like purslane, that replicates the Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon found in a plant-based source currently considered a weed across most gardens in America.27
I am no Malthusian. I suspect we will be able to figure out a way to survive and thrive, and already technology exists to permit us to terraform our villages to success. I even see certain, specific avenues of meat consumption for the wealthy. Tilapia is already well-adapted for aquaponic farms,28 and I suspect it is going to be the chicken of the sea of the future. It thrives while cramped into tanks, having evolved to do so out of the crowded rivers of Africa. In a controlled aquaponic situations, the pollution that makes other fish toxic can be filtered and mitigated, by those that can afford to construct and maintain elaborate tank and pump systems for an occasional meal. Hunting will likely still be a thing, though hunters will likely be more useful as environmental protectors than meat providers. Wild pigs, in America, are a destructive, non-native menace that can do lasting harm to fragile ecosystems.29 Their continued hunting is probably a good idea for the conservation of wild ecosystems, among them that are willing to do the killing of sociable, intelligent animals. In Australia, rabbits are a good protein target for the same reason.30 Eating what is killed makes sense. Many cultures enjoy insects, and I suspect ours will come around to it.31 (Not me, thanks. Blech.) But, none of these are going to be the sort of daily meat that we have championed in the post-war American period. There is currently an animal product at every meal and snack available for nearly all people, rich or poor, all of the time. That simply will not stand against the rising tides. Hunters will eat meat when they hunt it, with the right licenses and certifications and time sunk into the hobby. Tilapia and other fish that can thrive in aquaponic tanks will still be available, though not cheap, and require skilled maintenance, and seasonality. (Aquaponic systems are often shut down in icy weather as the freeze kills the fish, for example.) Bugs might be available for those who don’t mind eating them, in regional diets. Meat, as we currently know it, though, will be far too expensive otherwise, and outside of the budget of most households. The culture will shift away from meat, by economic necessity.
So, in the future, we will be mostly Vegan, whether we want to be or not. On top of all the climate impacts that need to be stopped before they are permitted to get worse, we are also going to be squeezing more people into less land. The rising oceans and mass migrations are going to pinch our arable land tight and hard. There is a finite supply of arable land on Earth, and this supply will shrink with the rising oceans and droughts and weather shifts. We are not the only species that relies on that land, either. We will have hard choices to make about what we keep and what we destroy once the tide really turns and Florida is underwater32 and large portions of the Southwest become too hot in the summer to permit plant respiration. There are a lot of farms in those areas. How many habitats will be destroyed to feed our condensing communities? Hydroponic and/or aquaponic solutions do not solve every problem. Not every common crop thrives in greenhouse conditions. Apples and oranges don’t grow hydroponically at scale. Avocados don’t grow hydroponically at scale. I’m sure you can do one or two here or there, but the size of the root ball and the need to stabilize the trunk on top of plant nutrition needs makes this prospect simply not cost effective compared to something like strawberries. Most grains often don’t grow hydroponically in a cost-effective manner.33 What nature will we preserve? What nature will we sacrifice to feed our crimping population our beloved apples and oranges and avocados?
Our grain production methods are also often quite destructive. Feeding the whole world from the corn-belt of the American midwest, or the Chinese equivalent, is not so great for the regional ecology and food supply, and puts all that corn at risk of a localized extreme weather event. Grains, and most vegetables, I suspect, will have to go back to what they used to be, when every region had their adapted specialty varieties bred with traditional seed selection by local farmers. One grain that seems poised to take over the world is amaranth.33 It’s relatively drought-tolerant, very easy to grow, has edible, nutritious greens, and produces a gluten-free, tiny, fluffy grain that tastes something like millet crossed with quinoa. It makes pretty good tortilla flour; it’s also puffed into sticky, sweet desserts.34 Drought-tolerance is going to be a critical component of large-scale grain production, and adaptability to extreme weather environments and high-density hydroponic situations. Amaranth meets all of those requirements, and is already growing wild across much of the semi-arid regions of the world.35 It’s a weed in the corn patch that folks invent increasingly toxic and elaborate sprays to kill, if you can believe it.36 It’s also quick to adapt to spraying, and one of the notoriously difficult weeds to eradicate. Instead of struggling to cultivate corn against the adaptable, indomitable amaranth, we could be just be eating amaranth, instead.
I could have a long discussion of GMO seeds, but I’m going to shorten it: The technology is fascinating and has a place in the future, but over-reliance on it is risky and expensive. It is better and cheaper just to shift to different plants and animals that can thrive in the regional conditions we face instead of altering plants and animals at the genetic level into chimeras that suit our perceived needs. GMO is currently, generally, a tool used to prop up systems of production that prioritize large-scale extractive business models over sustainable, regional practices. Not evil, not as dangerous as most critics believe, just a single tool of good science that’s used by people who can afford to use that tool in their business model. It’s actually very expensive and challenging to develop and test a useful GMO variety.37 It’s often being used as a golden cudgel to make the soil do things our way, with the crops we want, and the production tools we already have invented. So instead of adopting sustainable agricultural practices or adjusting around reality at the level of the seed and the soil, we reinvent the seed every year to force the soil to do our bidding. GMO technology has a place, and can save lives and prepare plants for the non-terrestrial growing conditions we will face when Elon Musk takes off for Mars, but if we rely on extreme measures to survive year after year, it will only work for so long before it doesn’t work anymore, and the critics will (very loudly) tell you that we simply don’t know the long-term effects of unleashing artificial gene-lines into nature. Nature isn’t a laboratory setting. If something is dangerous or destructive, and gets out of the fields and gardens, it can’t just be put back into the laboratory. It reminds me of how a hundred years ago, it was considered wise to introduce new species and plants to environments unaccustomed to those intrusive, invasive newcomers, to solve the problems of the region. Kudzu was once championed by scientists and the government and all major news outlets seeking to solve the problem of soil erosion in drought-stricken farms during the Great Depression. GMO proponents say “Why worry because it hasn’t proven harmful, yet.” GMO skeptics say, “If something that proves, in time, to be harmful gets out, how do we stop it? Once something leaves the laboratory, how do we put it back in?” It’s been nearly a hundred years, and the kudzu vines are thick and strong. So far, with GMO-technology there hasn’t been anything catastrophic, but there is always a slight chance that new technology will prove harmful. Repeat the game enough times, that slight chance becomes a serious problem. Our future environment is simply not going to be as robust as it was in the past, with all the mass extinctions that have already wiped out ecosystems of diversity and possibility. My take on GMO? Slow down, and try other tools first. Shrink the scope and shift the risk-reward factors of those major agribusiness farm corporations to encourage the biggest players in the game to think regional instead of international. Bring back regional crop lines from the traditional breeding methods that go back thousands of years as farmers have selected high-performing seeds season after season in their specific conditions, that harmlessly creates natural adaptions to local growing conditions. Use FDA policy to shift towards smaller, regional food production over the kind of large-scale agribusiness that is not only the primary driver of agricultural environmental problems, but also rapid GMO adoption, and the decimation of the arable land and topsoil. Slowing down change is the goal, not out-pacing it. This will also insulate against extreme weather events that can wipe out a whole region’s season. If a huge percentage of our corn and soy comes from Iowa, and an extreme storm strikes Iowa, that’s a huge percentage of our corn and soy that’s lost. It has been said by others, but bears repeating: Civilizations that relied heavily on annual crop production versus perennial crop production have always, historically, fallen.38 It only exacerbates the problem to concentrate the major production of annual crops into specific areas.
We will also need to train the marketplace to eat new things, different things, and seasonally-available things.As consumers, we drive GMO technology because we refuse to adapt our diets to sustainable crops that may cost a little more. Farmers generally don’t want to plant a GMO crop, and generally don’t want to spray and spray and spray all sorts of toxins on the ground around it. But, they serve the consumer, and we offer the farmer little alternative with our demands of non-adapted crops, continuous availability, extreme beauty, uniformity, and price point. Educational outreach efforts and government-sponsored marketing does little to mitigate this fact that the consumers, as a collective entity of economics, are ultimately responsible for the rise of the very GMO crops that public opinion is divided against. At the level of the village, it is thoroughly illogical and makes me question the wisdom of crowds.
My interest is in the large scale policy, and hopefully we will all urge our governments and local officials to begin the serious adaption towards a regional plant-based diet in our schools, and our farming system. For individual consumers interested in this issue, I advise adaptation of locally-adaptable foods into a seasonal diet, as best you can manage. In drought-starved, over-farmed regions, like my region, I see a lot of amaranth coming. Use it like rice. It’s great in Tex-Mex dishes and porridges. There’s this fruit out of China that’s very popular there as a candy and a tea that thrives in dry heat with low irrigation.38 It’s something of an acquired taste, at the moment, but that’s mostly because Americans don’t have access to the varieties and breeding and recipe-development that has happened in Asia. It’s a little, red date, called Jujube (juh-JOO-bee). It tastes like a raisin crossed with an apple. The fruit is difficult to pick in ripe condition for the novice, but otherwise it can be quite good fresh and dries into something like a red-colored date. The dried fruit’s texture is oddly spongy and requires some skill as a chef to prepare for unfamiliar eaters. The best apple butter I’ve ever had was made with jujubes, not apples, though. The tree is tough, spiny, spindly, and productive. On my own seedling jujube tree, it has produced two full crops this summer, its first year producing. The fruit is very nutritious and sweet, and the adaptability of the productive tree makes it a strong candidate for what we will eat when climate change will make adaptability and drought farming important components in our agricultural future. Try it out, home gardeners, but watch out for root runners and thorns!
Anyway, get ready for the diet of the future. We all must do the best we can in the system and health situation that we have. I am merely proposing what my mother says. There are two kinds of vegans. Soon, we will all be eating a heavily plant-based diet. Even if you are unwilling to stop eating animal products, I do not judge you, nor do I hope you feel shame or guilt from this little rant by a science fiction writer and hobby gardener, who is not a medical doctor nor am I a scientist nor am I a farmer – just a fan of doctors, scientists, and farmers. Individual actions feel relatively meaningless against statistical likelihoods and the full weight of economics and government policy, but every little bit helps, and it will prepare your life and your family for the climate change future we face together. A lot of little changes actually do add up to something big. And, our little life adjustments will change our mindset to remind us all what is important when it comes time to vote.
I believe we can make it through the time to come, despite all the risks we face. I set my novel, The Fortress at the End of Time, in a place and time quite a bit after this current crisis, and adapted my imaginary desert world, Citadel, to the sort of agriculture that will likely work to keep us alive in our own earthly future, as well as our future terraforming new planets. I took as a reference Gary Paul Nabhan’s book on dryland farming, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land – Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty, and the work of farmers and food activists in inner cities and food deserts like Will Allen in Detroit and Ron Finley in Los Angeles. Inside my own little book, there is amaranth, jujube, and tilapia, and other things less obscure. I also recommend highly the books of Kim Stanley Robinson, Paulo Bacigalupi, and Analee Newitz to get a glimpse of different ways of adapting to the future we have already created with our insistence on pumping carbon into the atmosphere despite the warnings of every major scientific organization involved in climate science. These stories need to be told, so we have mental models prepared to pave the road to what comes next, when we may not have the luxury of an ideal choice, and the choices we have in front of us may be both confusing and critical.