The answer is no, it isn’t. Please stay home.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that getting sick is that big of a deal. I can handle the discomfort of a flu, and so can you. But if I had a choice between you punching me in the face and you giving me a flu, I would prefer the punch as long as you didn’t break anything.

Why is the relatively mild punch to the face clearly unethical and going to work sick is not? It’s because when it comes to getting sick, we suffer from magical thinking.  When it comes to mysterious misfortunes, we tend to rely on magic potions, magic words, magic thoughts, or magic feathers. If punches to the face were a mysterious misfortune that struck with no clear puncher or intended punchee, we would probably have a whole range of face-punch invulnerability talismans, herbs, and spells. And going to work when you might punch someone would not seem like an ethical question.

Remember how everyone in your office got the flu this winter and it was so bad that it was funny and you sat in a meeting and sympathized with a sick colleague as they described their distress, and then later joked about how you probably got it from them? That was possible only because neither of you could see the mechanism of infection or feel the viral load enter your bloodstream when you rubbed your eye. The vivid experience of a perpetration would limit the possibility of magical thinking, and going to work sick would become an obvious ethical question.

On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.

I came across this article on sex-selective abortion on The Rational Optimist (via Jad Abumrad‘s tweet), about the skewing of sex-ratios as access to wealth, abortions, and ultrasound technology increases. This, for example, is a map of China showing sex ratios by region. White areas have naturally-occurring ratios. The darker the red, the higher the skew towards males (and the richer the region). This kind of thing is happening in about half of the world’s countries, not just China, and it’s likely to increase as we get better at sperm-sorting and genetic manipulation.

This is a map of “son preference” by country:

I was caught off guard by one of the comments on the article. I realized that I had breezed past this section:

“Policy seems largely powerless to fight this problem. Sex-selective abortion is illegal in virtually all countries. China’s authoritarian “one-child policy” is in marked contrast with India’s more laissez-faire attitude to family planning, yet both have produced widespread killing of female fetuses.”

I read this focused on their point that different policies on family size were producing similar results in terms of sex-selective abortion. The part about sex-selective abortion being illegal did not catch my attention at all. And if it had really  caught my attention, I probably would have thought something like, “Oh, good for them. I wouldn’t have expected that in highly sexist cultures.” Then I read the comment:

“If a society permits abortion on demand (which many do), then it permits abortion on demand. Permitting abortion on demand *except* when this is used to achieve sex selection seems peculiarly inconsistent.”

Whenever I think seriously about abortion I am impressed by how difficult the ethics are to untangle. The simple, clearcut answers that my inner idealist wants are offered only by heavy duty idealogs, and those answers don’t make sense to me. And opinions tend to be so impassioned that it can be difficult–scary, even–to carry on a sustained conversation about it. I notice, even as I’m writing and editing this little piece, that I am tending to say less and less as time goes on…

I vote pro-choice, but that does not get to the complexities of the issue for me. My votes are acts of passing the buck to the individual women making those decisions, letting myself off the hook as best I can. At the same time, I  believe that fetal life has moral import, and feel myself getting more squeamish about abortion the more aesthetic the reasons for it. When I think about its use by people who have value-structures very different from my own to further their own cause, it is troubling. Sex-selective abortion is one clear example. Another is the rumors that the conservative support of Planned Parenthood has been a kind of race-selective abortion, because women of color are having more abortions than white women. Shudder.

Maybe I just want to avoid this discomfort, but I wish only women could vote on this issue, and let me the rest of the way off the hook about it.

In a part of the new Seminar About Long Term Thinking, “Deep Optimism,” Matt Ridley talks about the ethics of buying local. Apparently, the amount of fuel used to ship an object to a store in the US from a factory in China is on average ten times smaller than the fuel you use to drive to the store to buy it. There are other factors in the ethics of buying local, of course, but it may be that how you get to the store is a more important decision than how far away the object you want was made or grown. It makes me wonder where buying mail-order falls in terms of fuel efficiency. Will we see Amazon asking us to buy from them to protect the planet?

Ed Moses begins the new Long Now Seminar talking about the BP oil spill, saying, basically, that there’s a 30″ hole, one mile down, that’s leaking about a million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every week. Keep in mind, though, he says, that the US burns a million barrels of oil an hour.

Oh… right.

It reminded me of an “Oh… right” experience I had the morning of September 11, 2001, when my friend Biko told me there had been terrorist attacks. It turned out that the early death-toll estimates were way higher than they turned out to be–we had heard that it was tens of thousands–but even then, Biko said, “Well, to keep this in perspective, a lot more people than that die of starvation every day.”

It’s amazing to me how relatively small-scale catastrophes grab my attention and get my emotions going, as long as they are dramatic in some way, while global-scale catastrophes can be easy to ignore.

This also reminds me of a lecture I attended last year by Paul Slovic about how our moral intuition fails when it comes to large-scale problems like genocide. He presented an experiment in which (among other things) one group of participants were shown a profile of a starving child and were given the opportunity to give some of the money they’d earned by participating to help the child. Another group of participants had the same experience except they were shown two children. The people who saw two profiles gave way less money than those who saw only one. It’s worse than diminishing returns. It’s not just that more people in trouble get less money per person, they get less money in total. It seems that bigger problems become more abstract, and so become less emotionally pressing.

The question is, how can we motivate ourselves and others to do what is right in situations where moral intuition routinely misleads us? The person who answers that question could really change things. Imagine a world in which the recent earthquake in Haiti was not that big of a deal because we had helped them out before it hit. After all, we all knew they had been desperately poor and vulnerable for our entire lifetimes. We just didn’t care that much.

I’m taking a couples assessment class this summer, and right now I’m reading about a tension between family therapy models that Sciarra and Simon (in Handbook of Multicultural Assessment) call either idiographic or nomothetic.

Nomothetic models say that families have problems because they get out of whack in ways that families do. That is, each nomothetic model has its own list of ways that families can get out of whack and a therapist using that model is to keep a sharp lookout for those things. Structural therapists look for dysfunctional boundaries, for example. Strategic therapists look for incongruous hierarchies. Bowenians look for emotional reactivity. Emotionally-focused therapists look for maladaptive attachment styles. Each nomothetic model says that the therapist needs to assess for these underlying problems, treat them, and therapy should be successful.

Idiographic models call nomothetic models “cultural imperialism.” That means nomothetic therapists are just teaching (or tricking) their clients into thinking, feeling, and acting like them. Nomothetic therapists are forcing their culture on their clients. Calling someone a cultural imperialist is about as close to an accusation of pure evil as a post-modernist will make. Further, idiographic models say that culture (any culture) is oppressive of individuals, and that this oppression is the only reason families seek therapy. The ideographic therapist’s job (Sciarra & Simon list language-systems, solution-focused, and narrative therapies as idiographic) is to have a conversation with families about the ways they are being oppressed by their culture.

There are a couple of funny things going on here, but to understand it, first you need to know that nomothetic models are mostly “old-school” models that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, while ideographic models are newer, postmodern, all the rage, and emerged as a consequence of this nomothetic/ideographic conversation. In the 1980s, postmodern family therapists started saying that family therapy was arrogant and hierarchical and created the idiographic schools.

The first funny thing is that the old-school, nomothetic family therapy models emerged in much the same way, as a reaction to the arrogant and hierarchical field of psychiatry. The founders of family therapy said to psychiatry, “Human problems exist in the context of families. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.” Now the ideographic models are saying to the nomothetic founders, “Human problems exist in the context of cultures. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.”

Who is right? Well, that depends on your epistemology. So far, the nomothetic models have more experimental evidence to support them, and they are undeniably effective. To be fair, they have had more time to collect evidence, so in time things may go either way. And to be extra-fair, real post-modern idiographs can reject experimental evidence on philosophical grounds; experiments are so modern, so medical-model. What value system produced your research questions, anyway? That’s funny thing number two.

Funny thing number three is that, as Ken Wilber says, everyone may be right. Perhaps problems happen at every level of complexity, from our bodies to our minds to our families to our larger social systems, and nomothetic models just specialize in the family level, while idiographic models specialize in cultures. It’s a neat idea, possibly too neat, and difficult to tease out. I’ve written a little about it here.

The fourth funny thing is that the idiographic models, while broadening the scope of consideration in some ways, put the focus back on the individual in therapy. They say that culture is intrinsically dehumanizing, and that dehumanization is what an idiographic therapist talks about, but the other parties in the process are not part of the conversation. If I’m a narrative therapist and you send your depressed son to me, we will talk a lot about that depression. We will externalize it, maybe give it a name like “Mr. Funky,” talk about how Mr. Funky speaks with the voice of oppressive culture, talk about times when your son was able to overcome Mr. Funky’s influence and work on ways of increasing that ability. In the end, if I’m a good therapist, we have probably helped your son, but we’ve also focused on how your son thinks, feels, and behaves, where a nomothetic therapist would have been focusing on the whole family–how do they interact? Do the parents get along? How might this symptom of depression make sense in your son’s immediate system of relationships? Who all has a stake in this behavior and can we get them in the room too? And so on. There is a way that by ostensibly moving the location of pathology out of the family to the larger culture, ideographic models have brought the clinical focus back to individuals, which may seem like regression to the founders of family therapy.

In May, this blog got 1,082 “views,” which means that many of its pages showed up on other people’s computer screens for some amount of time in 31 days. That’s my new record, and my first 4-digit month. I got quite excited as the number approached. I was checking my stats page several times a day. It was exciting and uncomfortable. I almost decided that I would not let myself check my stats for all of June. It’s not that I was wasting a lot of time on it, it’s just that I started feeling embarrassed about it.

NME Stats at May 31, 2010

I started this blog as a way of letting my friends and family know what I’m doing and thinking about, as a way of attracting Reanna’s attention (or someone else just like her), as a way of staying connected with friends and family and recording my history as I made it, they way I used to do with a yearly zine of the same name. I knew that writing my ideas publicly made me think more critically about them, and I liked the idea of living out loud, being the same person to everyone.

I’ve accomplished all these things, and this blog has been my most consistent source of inspiration for the last coming-up-on two years. It’s been great. My excitement over breaking 1,000, though, has got me thinking. Am I also trying to be famous?

To be clear, I don’t think I’m getting famous by writing this blog. It’s just making me think and feel about it. Even if I keep this pace up, 1,082 views is only about 34 per day, and I posted almost every day this month. I get a few people I don’t know finding the blog with search engine terms that I’ve written about, like “schizophrenia diagnostic criteria” or “are anti-inflammatories bad for you,” but most of my traffic comes directly here, on purpose. I imagine that means that there are maybe 40 folks who read this fairly regularly, and that’s easily accounted for by family and friends from school and Not Back to School Camp.

Still, 1,000 views means a lot more people are reading my writing  than they were two years ago, and that number could keep going up. My friend Jeannie recently beat 6,000 views and I thought, “Wow, that would be cool!” But there’s no way 6,000 views are all friends and family. A blog with 6,000 views is beginning to hit the public sphere–almost 200 a day. That’s not fame either, of course, but I bet those numbers keep going up, and maybe I could get there too, and I’m feeling a little tension about it.

Part of the tension is aesthetic. My aesthetic ideal of fame is from my music and record production career: I’d like to become just famous enough that fans of my kind of music are waiting for my next project, but not famous enough to get recognized on the street.

I’ve always felt comfortable with that picture, but now I’m becoming a therapist, and it appears that the therapist-fame aesthetic is different. My supervisors tell me that I should be unfindable–no public phone numbers, websites, etc. Clients should not be able to contact me except through the clinic, and they definitely shouldn’t be able to find out about my personal life. I can see the wisdom in that, but I don’t want to do it. I can make my phone, myspace, and facebook private, but I’ve got this blog and my band’s website, plus I show up on other websites that I prefer to be publicly affiliated with, like Not Back To School Camp, my swing dance group ELLA, and my family‘s music sites.

Another part of the aesthetic tension is about transparency. I have to be one person to everyone on this blog. Being the same person to everyone is an ideal for me but makes me uncomfortable. I have psychology-research friends, therapy friends, and co-counseling friends, all of whom would be distressed to some degree to learn how deeply involved I am in each field. My atheist friends can see that when I say I am agnostic, I really mean it. I’m not a hedging-my-bet atheist. I think about God a lot and take the idea seriously. My religious friends will see that I mock fundamentalism pretty regularly. And so on. The more well-known I get, the less I get to show people the parts of me I think they will like and hide the parts I think they won’t like.

And then there is the ethical aspect of fame. In a way, the better known I am, the better off my friends and family are–the more traffic I can drive to our businesses by mentioning them, the bigger audience I’ll have built for books I write or records I make. I can also bring more attention to worthy causes, potential problems, things like my Headlines From Psychology, that people would be better off knowing. The more fame, the more impact. A famous Nathen would be a stronger force for good. If I do say so.

On the other hand, the extent of my fame also forces transparency onto my friends and family, and they don’t all share my aesthetic preference for transparency. I didn’t really get this as an ethical issue until Reanna asked me not to use her last name on the internet. She wants to control what people can find out about her, and who doesn’t? I regularly tell people who video me dancing, “No YouTube!” But it didn’t even occur to me to ask the friends and family I’ve written about whether I could use their full names, or even post their photos. I’ve been considering starting that project soon. I like using full names, talking about real, specific people. So and so said such and such. This, however, a big reason Kerouac died friendless. I guess ethics trumps aesthetics.

[Oh! Here’s my opportunity to make that project easier for myself. If I’ve used your name (or if it seems likely that I will) in NME, please email me your preference: last name or no last name.]

I wrote most of this in early June, not knowing if I my views would continue spiking. It turns out they did not. At the end of June I’m almost exactly where I was at the end of May. I suppose it’s possible that staying level is an achievement, though, since I posted almost every day in May but only every other day in June. I’ve also lost a good deal of my both excitement and tension about my stats, though I still check them every day. Maybe it’s having watched them level off again. I’m tempted to start posting every day again to see if I can get another spike, but I think I’d rather post even less frequently and give myself time for more thoughtful essays. I’ll keep you updated.

Here’s part 5 of the stuff I learned in my undergrad in psychology that I thought should have been headlines. If you missed them, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4. As always, if you are interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll give you my sources.

If You Punish Your Kids, Use the Mildest Effective Punishment: Do the mildest thing you can that stops the behavior you don’t want. The reason is that a punishment that is harsher than necessary takes the child’s initiative for stopping the behavior out of the picture. If you say “Hey, don’t do that,” and the child responds, they come to think that they didn’t really want to do that thing anyway, since such a mild rebuke got them to stop. Psychologists call these principles “insufficient punishment” and “self-persuasion.” These are research findings, not just speculation. If you sit on and beat your child to get them to stop doing something (as suggested by Mike & Debi Pearl), they will believe something more like “That activity was so great that I’ve only stopped because of that horrible punishment.” In other words, the form of the punishment affects the identity of the child–do they behave well because they think of themselves as well-behaved, or do they behave well only because they fear punishment?

You May Want Your Kids To Be Less Blindly Obedient Than Most People: One of the most famous psychological experiments of all time found that most people risked killing someone they barely knew, given an institutional setting and an authority telling them to do it. The Nazis were mostly not evil, just obedient, like most of us.

Humans Can Be Conformist to the Point of Doubting Their Own Senses:

Each Ethical Decision You Make Affects Your Future Ethical Decisions and Your Identity: If you, say, decide to cheat on a test, you will be more likely to cheat on tests in the future, think of yourself as someone who cheats on tests, and form permissive attitudes about cheating. The opposite is true if you decide not to cheat on a test.

Complement Your Kids For the How Hard They Work, Not How Smart They Are: Getting attention for being smart tends to make kids want to appear smart, which makes them choose easier challenges and lighter competition; it’s the success that matters. Getting attention for hard work does the opposite. This means that these kids will end up smarter than the kids who got attention for being smart.

Teach Your Kids to Think About Intelligence as a Fluid Property: That is, teach them that they can become more intelligent by trying. The more they believe it, the more it will be true for them.

If Your Kids Read, Don’t Reward Them For Reading: They will be more likely to stop, if you do, because they will start to think of reading as something they do to be rewarded, not because they like it. If they don’t read, reward them for reading. This goes for other activities, too.

I wrote this essay for myself, two years ago, a spin-off of and companion piece to my paper on why people become vegetarian. It was the culmination of a lot of thinking and reading and trying different ways of eating. I like it but you may not, especially if you are on an abstinence diet right now. That may be because you are, like many vegetarians I’ve met, not like me: not driven to take things all the way, not terribly annoyed by things that don’t quite add up. Bless you. I might look down on you a little for what seems like lack of intellectual rigor, but mostly I’m envious of your relaxed way of being in the world. It sounds nice. I don’t recommend that you read this. Read something fun instead. On the other hand, you may be like me, an agnostic who found religion in a diet, ready to get uptight when someone tells me I might not actually be saved. I don’t recommend you read this, either, unless some part of you is dissatisfied with your religion and you are ready for some discomfort. For everyone else, or if you plan to read on anyway, or if you are a stickler for references, I recommend you also read “Vegetarianism and Reason” for context—personal, historical, demographic—and a good bibliography.

When I was in college in the San Francisco Bay area in my twenties, a close friend asked me how she could lose weight. Maybe it was because I was, as I always have been, such a slender person. At the time I thought it was because I’d read more about nutrition and diets than most people. My advice was, “Stop eating meat and dairy products.” I said that with confidence both that she could do it and that it would resolve any problems with she had with her body. I’d been vegan for a year or two and vegetarian for several years before that, was in great health, and never had the slightest problem maintaining those diets. My housemate, who’d overheard the conversation, was incredulous: “Why didn’t you suggest something that normal people are capable of, like cutting back on snacking?” That kind of advice had not occurred to me. I knew the answer and gave it to her. These days I’m much more circumspect. I know a lot more about nutrition and diets now than I did then, but am a lot less confident about that knowledge.

Abstinence diets and arguments

An abstinence diet is a way of eating that is defined by what you don’t eat. There are many varieties of this way of eating, but the arguments for engaging in them fall into two basic categories: ethical or ‘spiritual’ arguments, and health or ‘science’ arguments. Most Americans who stop eating meat, for example, do so because they believe they will be healthier, while most vegans do not consume or use animal products on ethical grounds. My own path was the opposite, but I followed the same two lines of thought: I became vegetarian on ethical grounds and vegan (and for several weeks ate only raw food) for health reasons. These two basic tracks led me, perhaps a little too neatly, to what I’ve come to see as my five rabbit holes—thought processes and behaviors that cannot be followed all the way.

The ethical track

While the health/‘science’ track has its own rabbit holes, genuine health-based arguments do not lead to vegetarianism or veganism. I do believe that a vegetarian or vegan diet with plenty of variety is miles better than the standard American donut-coffee-burger-fries-Coke diet, but read any of the thoughtful writers on the subject—Robbins, for example, in Diet for a New America—and you will see that the health-based arguments are really advocating a plant-based diet, not abstinence from meat. Ethical arguments, on the other hand, do lead, seamless and compelling, to vegetarianism and veganism. (Check out Fox’s Deep Vegetarianism, for a great example.) The problem is you cannot follow them all the way.

Rabbit hole #1: Non-violence

On the ethical track, you base your diet on the principle of non-violence. When you become an ethical vegetarian, it is because you have realized that animals are not all that different from humans, and decided that their suffering is important. In a way, you have been able to identify with and have compassion for all animals, instead of just humans. The next step is to see that any product that comes from an animal requires that animal to be coerced and caged. It no longer has freedom. When you come to identify with animals enough to condemn their slavery as well as their slaughter, you become an ethical vegan.

Not many people stay vegan for long. It’s hard to do, for many reasons. To do so requires a hard core dedication to a nonviolent lifestyle. By this point, your ethical thinking has gone beyond animals. You are concerned about the life of the planet, for example: You probably wash out and reuse plastic bags (if you use them at all), you bike when other people would drive, you start hopping freights for longer trips, or guilt trip yourself if you don’t. You probably get interested in libertarian philosophies like anarchism and compassion-based philosophies like Buddhism. This is no longer just a way of eating.

If you are one of these serious ethical vegans, you start to hear about the next step, fruitarianism. Chances are, you are not a serious ethical vegan, so this may seem like a huge, untenable leap. It is a leap that vegans usually do not make, either, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but it is something they will consider.

Most of us have inherited the “knowledge” that plants and animals exist on separate ethical continua. It’s easy and intuitive to think that way, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to argue: Plants behave radically different than we do. They move extremely slowly. They don’t seem to have emotions and they don’t even seem to feel sensations like we do. True, but animals also behave differently than we do, so this is a matter of degree. Does something being different from you mean you can kill it? If you are really serious about compassion, use this argument with great caution. It has been used to justify such evils as genocide, racism, sexism, and meat-eating. But we grow them. They exist in their current form because of us. Pretty weak. The same can be said of cows and slaves.

And so on.

We are probably right to think that the plants in our garden do not suffer the way animals suffer, but that does not mean that the death and mutilation of the plants that provide us with root, leaf, stem and flower foods are not a form of violence. The ethics of eating seeds is dubious, too, from that standpoint. We grind or chew them up and they are no longer able to serve their purpose of propagation. The only parts of plants that have been designed for eating are fruits. They are often brightly colored to attract our attention. They are often sweet. They are nutritious. This is all supposedly so that animals will eat the fruit and inadvertently spread the seeds. A true fruitarian eats only fruit that has fallen off of its parent plant. (I do not know if they also try to poop in useful places. They really should.) There are people who eat a fruitarian diet, too, though their numbers are so small (and presumably the time spent on the diet is so short) that the evidence for its efficacy is sparse and anecdotal. So, unless you try and love the fruitarian diet, your easy, morally convicted choices have been taken from you and you are left with a continuum of diet choices to make based on your level of comfort with violence to various creatures.

Rabbit hole #2: Transcendence

This is the “spiritual” or “ascetic” rabbit hole. I believe that many eating disorder based abstinence diets fall into this category, but look up orthorexia if you are interested in that. I’m more familiar with the diets based on the ascending spiritual tradition—most likely a misunderstanding of that tradition.

The basic idea is that human beings are perhaps part animal, but divine, immortal, non-material beings at our core, and that our job is twofold: Use meditation practices to strengthen our spiritual self, increasing our awareness and compassion until they extend to the entire universe, and at the same time, subdue our animal nature using such disciplines as celibacy and fasting.  Abstinence diets from vegetarianism all the way through to fruitarianism are quite appealing from this standpoint. They seem like permanent fasts, but come along with the promise of great health. The problem is, until you die, there is always somewhere purer to go, and fruitarianism is not the end of the line. There is also breatharianism, where you live on air and sunshine alone. I have never met a breatharian, but I’ve read about and heard of a few, including one in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If you are on this track, consider that the Buddha went before you and then decided on the Middle Way. Be kind to your body and skip the asceticism!

The health track—Rabbit hole #3: Information overload

There are two major health and science related rabbit holes. The first has to do with information. There is so much ‘information’ out there about diet and human digestion! Most of it is pure metaphysics–assertions of Truth with only passionate belief to back it up. And metaphysics aside, without the blinkers of ethics it is very, very difficult to find an uncontested assertion about what foods are best to eat. If you dive in deep, the density and spin are quickly overwhelming. And that’s just at the macro-level, talking about stuff like apples and pooping. Human health also happens at the level of the quadrillions of chemical reactions that happen in your body every second, the way those reactions act as nodes in networks, and the networks of networks that emerge in the process. Vast amounts have been written in scholarly journals about it and we are still so far from figuring it all out. Furthermore, the folks at university labs studying intracellular protein transport and stuff like that are far removed from the questions you and I have about diet. They probably eat at McDonalds on their lunch break and don’t think twice about it.

Then there’s the question of human biochemical individuality. Are there foods that are good for me but bad for you? Probably, but this makes finding the ideal diet for you even more difficult and makes it less likely that a simple abstinence diet like veganism will be the answer.

Rabbit hole #4: The Fall

The second health and ‘science’ (read ‘metaphysics’) related rabbit hole is based on theories of human evolution. Veganism seems to be the jumping off spot for a huge number of diets. If you are vegan and still frustrated by ill health or low energy, what do you do? You will come across a diet whose argument is basically the myth of the Fall: “We were doing great until….” Raw foodism, which tends to mean “raw veganism,” is the most popular of these, maybe because it throws veganism a bone: You’ve got it all right except that you are destroying the nutrients in your food by heating it up! And, according to the format, all of humanity was doing great until we started using fire. Then, if the now raw vegan still feels bad, they may continue looking and come across the information that there is no evidence of any indigenous people who didn’t consume animal protein. It makes sense, now, that if you were an early human and came across a bird’s nest or frog or whatever, you would take advantage of that concentrated source of protein! This brings us to the multitude of what to the uninitiated seem like crazy diets, including Paleolithic (wild, raw plants and animals), Anopsology (anything raw except dairy + other rules), Essene (raw dairy and plants), Primal (raw meat, dairy and plants) and Traditional (only unprocessed foods, mostly raw, with raw meat and lots of raw dairy). Some of these diets include eating animal feces, too—raw, of course—and intentionally rotting the (raw) meat before eating it. This all makes perfect sense from the right jumping off spot! I’ve been there. I still have some interest in trying the Essene diet and I’m fascinated with some aspects of Anopsology, but I have yet to try them. They are so elaborate that it’s hard to imagine having, simultaneously, the money and the social support required to maintain them.

So, where does this leave us?—Rabbit hole #5: Epistemology

What can you really know about the food we eat and its effect on our body? We know what we have read about it. We know what has been said to us. Those paths lead us to the other rabbit holes. We also know, though, what foods we have actually eaten, what they looked, smelled and tasted like, and how we felt before and after eating them. Shouldn’t that, over the years, add up to a lot of perfectly legitimate and applicable information? Can’t you observe yourself like a science experiment?

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with that. First, there is no control group. In order to know the actual effects of the experiment, you need to be able to see what you would have felt like had you not eaten that slice of cheese or whatever. The subtleties of human sensation render our “experiments” dubious at best. You may find that every time you eat that slice of cheese you throw up. That’s pretty clear; you should probably stop eating that cheese. Unless, of course, you ate the cheese with other foods and you can’t really be sure it was the cheese and not the pickle, or maybe the combination of the cheese and the pickle, or maybe you just were trying to eat too early in the morning or late at night, or maybe it was because it was the cheese you always ate with your ex-girlfriend…. That gets to the second problem with our experiment, and probably the most important. How can you separate your physiological responses to foods from your psychological responses? They have the same feedback mechanisms: sensation. Do you feel good because the ice cream reminds you of nursing as an infant or because that ice cream is benefiting your body? Or because you are a sugar addict, getting your fix? Or is it because humans evolved a craving for sweetness and fat to survive in a calorie-scarce environment?

I’m sorry to say that you can’t know. You really can’t.

I’m assuming that if you’ve read this far, you are involved enough in this debate that is obvious to you that eating from your local food coop is better for you than from McDonalds, that turnips are better for you than twinkies, that eating a variety of foods is better for you than just a few, and that eating in ways that make you remarkably fat or thin are probably not good ideas. This is for you. This is the only advice I can give that I am completely confident of concerning diet: You can’t know what the best way for you to eat is. You have to guess. But when you guess and while you are guessing, you can also feel happy, comfortable, excited and flexible about your guesses and the fact that you are guessing. And, more important, enjoy your food! Savor how it looks and smells and tastes and feels in your mouth and stomach. Love your food and love your body every moment that they are interacting.

Thanks to my editors, Ce Rosenow, Grace Llewellyn, Joseph Kwiatkowski, and Reanna Alder.

This is my first ever official endorsement of a celebrity. For some reason I’m leery of the practice. I usually stick to endorsing my friends. Maybe I tend to side with Lord Acton; great men are almost always ethically compromised men. Becoming a household name generally requires you to leave some people and principles in your dust. It’s the price of fulfilling such extreme ambition.

But what the heck. This guy deserves it. Micheal Pollan is a hero. His writing is thoughtful and his ideas are important. He is doing exactly what I would like to be doing if I were a journalist: writing great, thoroughly researched books about food, eating, and agriculture, and selling millions of copies of them. Well, it would be nice if those millions of copies were printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper, but I can’t lay much of the blame for that on him. There’s Penguin Press, his publisher, and… well, a whole host of things. That’s another rant entirely.

Here’s Michael Pollan, interviewed by Amy Goodman. His new eating guideline is “Don’t buy any food that you’ve ever seen advertised.” Watch the clip. It’s good.

You know what? While I’m at it, I’m going to endorse Amy Goodman, too. I’ve just started exploring the Democracy Now! archives, and she seems like a hero too. Here and here she is interviewing Noam Chomsky. Hmm… How about Noam Chomsky? He was largely responsible for the fall of the behaviorists from control of experimental psychology, which was definitely a good thing. I don’t think he’s been able to accept the way some of his linguistics ideas have not held up to scientific scrutiny, but I don’t hold that against him much. They were great ideas, they just didn’t all pan out. He was one of the first people to get me to wonder why I would value the welfare of people living in America over that of people living in other places. I like the way he describes the complexity and the interests of all sides in international affairs. He reminds me of Buckminster Fuller in that way. He sees the systems.

It’s past my bedtime, but let me add Buckminster Fuller to the list. He decided to make his life into an experiment: What could he accomplish if he dedicated his life 100% to the welfare of human beings? Some would say the answer was ‘Not much,’ and it’s true that his inventions, while creative, have not had much of an impact on human welfare, but he lived with such integrity and such devotion and developed a truly world-centric view. He has been an inspiration to me. I checked around youtube and couldn’t find a decent clip. If you’re interested, check out a lecture of his called “Only Integrity is Going to Count.” I think you can get it as an audiobook.

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