Thinking through food can help us ground our values, because food is the perfect metaphor for life.
Carolyn Steel | May/June 2012 Issue
What is a good life? The question is one we all share, whether or not we address it directly. As humans, we are driven to search for meaning—as well as sustenance—in our lives. Whatever our circumstances, we strive to improve our lot and that of our loved ones. Consciously or not, we direct ourselves toward some idea of “good.” To lead a good life, however we interpret that, is our common goal.
But what does a good life look like? What does it mean? We are unlikely to find complete answers to such questions, of course. For one thing, our conceptions of a good life are likely to differ. Yet surely there must be commonalities. Can we distill the concept of a good life to its essence? Many great minds have attempted it, and the consensus seems to be that as puzzles go, the human condition is a tough one to crack. So where in our connected, technological age does that leave us? Can we, with all our knowledge and experience, do any better than Douglas Adams’ cheeky yet irrefutable answer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “42”?
There is an old joke about a man who asks a stranger the way to Edinburgh, to which the stranger replies, “If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here.” One can get a sore head pondering the universe—or at least a stiff neck. If we want to search for a good life, perhaps we would do better to start with small things and work out how to make them better. This is what most people naturally do all the time, of course. It is how habits and traditions take root. Yet this approach also happens to form the basis of an ancient philosophical strand. Stoicism, Existentialism, Humanism, Buddhism; the thinking goes under many names, but its essential idea—that focusing on everyday matters is the key to life—remains -remarkably consistent.
By paying close attention to our surroundings, carrying out daily tasks carefully and accepting (as well as being grateful for) what we have, we access our best chance of leading good lives, believe philosophers of the Stoic-Humanist school. Not all have considered happiness possible (their views have tended to depend upon whether or not they themselves were happy), but whatever their outlook, most concur that the search for a good life is good in itself.
Epicurus, who lived in Athens shortly after Plato, embraced material inevitability in his conception of the good life. For him, the simple joys of good food, wine and conversation were the essence of living well. To take pleasure in such things was in itself a virtue; one just had to make sure to take such pleasures in moderation, since overindulgence would lead to pain, which would mar the very thing one was attempting to enjoy. A good life, according to Epicurus, depends upon one’s capacity to know one’s boundaries and live within them.
This sort of self control doesn’t come easily, of course, yet its importance is emphasized by every philosopher of the Stoic-Humanist school. Its most famous advocate was arguably Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian philosopher of the 5th century B.C. who spent many years wandering alone before achieving “nirvana,” the insight that transformed him into the Buddha (“enlightened one”). Nirvana, or the rejection of desire, is not within everyone’s reach; however, the Buddha’s realization as he attained it—that unconscious craving is our downfall—could hardly be more relevant to our modern predicament.
Few of us in the developed world need to be told that despite the many material benefits of industrialization, happiness remains elusive. Despite unprecedented choice and abundance, Britons, Americans and Japanese are no happier now than they were 50 years ago. In the developed world, we are losing trust in one another and no longer feel safe among strangers. Income gaps are widening, and mental problems are increasing. With more leisure time to spend than any previous generation, we skimp on sleep and feel constantly hassled, too stressed to enjoy life. But what exactly are we skimping/hassling/stressing ourselves to achieve? The latest iPad? A bigger house? Adrenaline highs? Sex?
Some or all of the above, no doubt; yet for those lucky enough to have adequate incomes, the relentless pursuit of “the next thing” is a zero-sum game. Research has shown that once we satisfy the basic requirements for a comfortable life (steady income, a decent home, enough food, security from threats, loving relationships), we are about as happy as we are likely to get. Beyond that, our standard of living relative to others is more likely to affect our happiness than any absolute measure (unless, of course, we achieve nirvana, in which case all bets are off). Crucially, this means that happiness, for non-enlightened mortals, is heavily dependent upon social context.
Of course, happiness is only one measure of a good life, and an imperfect one at that, since it is notoriously difficult to define and quantify. However, its social reliance links it directly to that other key ingredient of a good life: ethics. How we treat one another has a direct bearing on our happiness; indeed, helping others is a supremely effective route to feeling (as well as being) good. Ethical codes build on this win-win scenario by elaborating the principles of fairness and mutual respect. Often they are enshrined in law, but their presence is felt in our everyday acts, whenever we share food at table, sit on a bus or walk down the street.
In theory, living according to such principles seems relatively straightforward. Yet building a utopian society based on liberty, equality and fraternity has proved harder than its Enlightenment advocates hoped. Indeed, the U.S., the first nation founded on such principles, has demonstrated how far apart rhetoric and reality can get. Second only to Singapore among developed nations in terms of inequality, the U.S. now has an estimated 47 million people living in poverty. For these citizens, the constitutional right to “the pursuit of happiness” must have a rather hollow ring.
Even among the most confirmed Republicans, only a few believe that neo-liberal capitalism delivers a just society; what separates the political right from left is largely a matter of who is prepared to admit that. Whatever spin one puts on it, however, the fact is that our lemming-like rush off the cliff of desire has not brought us happiness; furthermore, it has taken place during an age of unprecedented waste. This irony has not been lost on commentators such as Raj Patel, who wrote in The Value of Nothing that “the perpetual quest for economic growth has turned the human race into an agent of extinction.” Patel’s title is taken from Oscar Wilde, who stated the problem with his customary clarity: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Value, of course, is critical to any concept of “good”; without it, one can have little sense of purpose or worth…indeed, one can have very little grip on life at all. As usual, Wilde was (literally) on the money: By confusing price with value, we make the fundamental mistake that Adam Smith was at pains to correct in his Wealth of Nations. Comparing water with diamonds, Smith argued that water, which is essential to life, has a high value in use; diamonds, he said, have little inherent usefulness and a high value only in exchange. The distinction becomes clear in extremis: If one were in possession of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, yet dying of thirst, one would willingly exchange the former for a glass of water. Smith distinguished between artificial and intrinsic value, in other words. Bereft of jewels yet quenched of thirst, we can see how Smith’s economics, embedded as they were in the ethical values of his time, were incapable of the sort of conceptual split we are facing today. It is only when money is detached from intrinsic value that free markets become destructive. Under these conditions, instead of rewarding good work and creativity the way Smith envisaged, markets become mechanisms for rewarding those who already have money. They become agents of inequality and unfairness. They corrode, rather than create, meaning.
No wonder we find it so hard to be happy in the modern world. Instead of living in the present, we spend much of our lives anticipating future rewards, the value of which depends on an economy detached from reality. We live in a state of constant expectation, the very opposite of the mindful attentiveness recommended by the Buddha. Our sense of intrinsic value is blurred, so we struggle to value life itself. If we want to lead good lives, we need to embed our values in reality. But how are we to do that? One obvious place to start is food. Unlike, say, a Louis Vuitton handbag, food is necessary. The staff of life, it is unquestionably the most intrinsically precious stuff we have in common. In order to live, we must eat living things; there could be no clearer indication of food’s significance than that. How bizarre, then, that we have come to think of food as something which should be cheap. There could be no better illustration of our skewed value system.In order to live, we must eat living things; there could be no clearer indication of food’s significance than that. How bizarre, then, that we have come to think of food as something which should be cheap. There could be no better illustration of our skewed value system.
Our failure to value food properly is the result of industrialization and the split it created between city and hinterland, which left the majority of consumers oblivious to the realities of food production and the struggle for survival they represent. One could argue that such oblivion is civilization’s greatest achievement, but from a moral standpoint, it is arguably its gravest weakness. If valuing life forms the ethical core of society, we damage ourselves if we fail to acknowledge life’s true cost. Thinking through food can help us ground our values, because food is the perfect metaphor for life. Like life, it is riddled with social, practical and ethical issues, ones we must address if we are to live well. Caring about food is tantamount to treasuring life; the opposite is also true. So what would be world be like if we truly valued food?
“Very different” is the short answer. Food is the seed from which we and our civilization grow; embedded in our lives at every possible level, it has unparalleled influence over us and our world. Indeed, we live in a form of “sitopia,” or food place, so profound are the effects of our appetites on our society and environment. Since we have forgotten the true value of food, we have allowed a bad sitopia to develop, full of the symptoms (high carbon emissions, rainforest destruction, water depletion, soil degradation, overfishing, pollution, obesity, type 2 diabetes, malnutrition, etcetera) of a failed value system.
To create a good sitopia, we need not just restore to food its true worth but live according to its principles. To understand what this means, consider the shared meal. Table manners are ancient rituals designed to strengthen social bonds by ensuring that everyone present behaves fairly and with mutual respect. In every past culture, how one behaved at table was of supreme importance: In ancient Athens, greed at table was taken as a sure sign of political untrustworthiness. Even today, we intuitively understand that table manners matter, and we are usually on our best behavior whenever we eat with strangers.
In a globalized world, the sharing of food takes on new significance. If we want to lead good lives, we must extend our table manners to those we have never met and to creatures at whose existence we can only guess. Sharing food in this way becomes a means of living well, both directly and metaphorically. The world produces more than enough food to go around, yet 1 billion of us are hungry, while a further billion are overweight or obese, usually because they live on junk food. Both groups—who together represent some two-sevenths of the global population—are overwhelmingly poor, and both, in different ways, are being failed by society. Since we are all guests at the same table, one has to ask: Who is hosting the meal? Governments, agribusinesses, supermarkets, trade officials, communities, mothers: Whoever our metaphorical hosts are, if they are feeding us badly, we should refuse their food and find better ways of feeding ourselves. We need a new social contract based on food, an agreement between nations and citizens that we will share the bounty of the global table fairly and not trash the furniture while we eat. If we are to lead good lives, we need new “hosts” with better “manners” to feed us: new social, political and economic systems based on ethics derived through food. We need different ways of planning, transforming and inhabiting physical space, in recognition of the vital relationship between city and country; respect for those who work in food; and reverence for the places, plants and animals from which food comes, a.k.a. the natural world.
Food is our closest connection to nature and the greatest employer on Earth, so valuing it properly represents our best hope of leading perpetuating, worthwhile, meaningful lives. Best of all, since food is our most reliable source of joy, we may as well follow Epicurus’ advice and take pleasure in all it brings. By prizing food as a substance and a metaphor, we can build the foundations of a good life. If that sounds idealistic, it is because sitopia, in its ideal form, is utopia.
Carolyn Steel is an architect living in London and the author of The Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives.