First off, let’s admit we all need to eat something. All living things take something in and let something out. Whether through a cell membrane or a mouth and anus, we need to eat and expel to live. There is no shame in that.
Even the sun eats and expels to exist. We are made of the cooled matter of an old star explosion. We are lighted, warmed, and powered by our current star, and we will be eaten by it farther in the future than we can imagine. All the life we enjoy is structured by an old sun’s exploded stuff and powered by our current sun’s radiating. All the power we use in its various forms and all the food we eat come ultimately from sunlight.
This is why I like Genesis One so much, and it links to our eating well. Genesis One describes the creations process in evolutionary form. It starts with light and leads upward through water, land, plants, and animals, to humans, males and females together. But more important than the evolutionary structure and process being described in the opening page of the scripture used in common by the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, is the evaluative term used by God as S’he goes: “good.” Light is good, land is good, water is good, fishes are good, animals are good, humans are good.
Having created our natural universe and declared it good, God then goes on to provide some minimal instruction. Please note that what isn’t included here is any “You must believe and obey” sorts of divine expectation. Rather, the rules are few: “be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth” is one set. Let’s see, we do grow strawberries and apples, and we fruitfully manufacture numerous devices to suit our living. Multiply? Check. We’ve done that, doubling to six billion only recently. Replenish? Well, we take far more than we return, but we’re learning the cyclic wisdom of recycling in our back yards and on more massive scales. We could do far better at this. Our soils, oceans, and future descendents all need us to do better here. Depleting in a couple of centuries what nature slowly made healthy over several eons isn’t replenishing. We should start, and have.
Then there’s the problematic word “dominion.” We’ve taken it to rationalize our cruel and exploitative ways, as if such are our divine right. But I wonder if the word wouldn’t better be translated into “sovereign.” Instead of a king lording it over subjects who use slaves who extract from the animals, plants, lands, and oceans whatever so-called “goods” the king wants, perhaps the passage advises we live up to our own self as freely, wisely, and responsibly as we each and all can be towards living well in, with, and for all the goods God made.
Which brings us to the passage about our eating: “fruits and nuts and herbs that bear their seed shall be your meat.” We don’t often hear the final word translated as “meat” these days; rather, we hear it that these plants shall be our “food.” Either way, for those who wish to put their sovereignty to the use of living well in, with, and for the six goods of evolutionary nature described in Genesis One, or for that matter, for those who merely want to live well and sustainably, following that diet would be healthy both for people and the planet.
Now, if you’re getting your defensive hackles up over me pushing a vegan diet on you or criticizing whatever it is you eat, relax. I don’t eat vegan. I once ate vegetarian for twenty years but have gravitated back to eating fish and fowl. I even eat some sausage and hot dogs from time to time. I’m no judgmental purist out to shame you for your diet. People pretty much hunger what they’ve leaned to eat, or what they’re used to eating. But I’d be shirking my duty as a prophet to pretend what and how we eat has no consequences in our personal and planetary health. It matters very much to both.
Instead of resenting vegans for making us feel defensive about our food habits, we might honor them for eating those foods that are closest to pure sunlight and common to all our diets. Instead of thinking we have to radically stop our current dietary habits and force ourselves to eat what we don’t want, we might notice we already eat some of the Genesis diet and we could always gradually try it out. Instead of resisting information about eating well, we might open our minds, hearts, and mouths to try out this godly diet.
The opposite of a godly diet can be seen the dramatic movie based on the book “Fast Food Nation.” It shows in interconnected lives of the various classes involved in bringing a line of fast food hamburgers to the American Consumer. Mexicans and whites are all caught in a horrid process of filth and cruelty in order to present a homey place for clean and happy meals. Every one is compromised, herded into their cattle-chute jobs as surely as the cattle are slated for slaughter. Dignity and aspiration succumb to need for all until the final scene where the heroine receives the guts of the cattle she had tried to save come relentlessly for her on the disassembly line. Confinement and pain for the cows, waste of grain and waste of waste for the earth, compromised work for the lowly and lofty alike.
What isn’t shown in this movie is what such a diet does to us, which was in the documentary, “Supersize Me.” The filmmaker shows what happens to him by eating only at the McDonald’s for one month. He eats the tasty food gladly at first, but soon comes to regard it as a distasteful chore before finally almost being hospitalized by it. He grew fat and poisoned. His vegan girlfriend had to put up with the project, and then nurse him back to life with healthier food.
I didn’t think much about food and eating when I was younger. I liked baloney sandwiches but didn’t like cleaning out the pot roast pan. The fat made me gag as much then as earlier when I tried to swallow it. It wasn’t until studying anatomy and physiology that I ran into the reality that it takes more energy to break down meat into amino acids and other useable fuels than it does to eat those directly. Then Francics Moore Lappe´ wrote “Diet for a Small Planet” showing how much nutrients, water, and energy it takes to make meat relative to eating plant foods directly, and that sealed the deal for me. Like many in my culture’s wave of the health consciousness that comes along from time to time, I began to give up on eating meat primarily.
Eating meat was financing a system that takes more resources than it gives in order to make my body process a bulky load that takes more resources to digest. This leaves us prone to be sickly and it pays for the massive suffering of sentient creatures. It turns out eating well at the plant level correlates with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure. All the studies concur on this. My health, the planet’s health, the obvious suffering of intelligent, sensitive, sentient beings – these reasons led me to begin avoiding meat and discovering alternatives.
Some contend sentience, saying, “How do you know an apple doesn’t suffer as much as a cow?” Well, the apple doesn’t scream and try to escape. The apple is part of the trees’ sex life; it “wants” to be eaten on the chance that its seed will sprout in new soil. Those who deny the suffering in sentient creatures should try eating their own pets. Once you name a creature and have a relationship with it, it isn’t so easy to kill and eat it. If a pet isn’t close enough to our respect for sentience, how about your own family? How about your own arm? Does eating your own arm awaken you to the reality of pain? When does that reality of pain and sentience extend past you to your family and pets to the cramped, un-natural life of cattle, pigs, chickens, and so forth? I think relative sentience very much matters. It matters whether you finance systematic confinement and cruelty of intelligent creatures that you don’t know or name, yet exist.
It also matters to our planetary resources of water, soil, nutrients, and foods. Far more energy goes into a meat-based food supply than simpler foods. Though estimates vary, they all agree on various forms of waste. A pound of hamburger takes a hundred gallons of water, twelve pounds of grain, some liters of gasoline or diesel, and over a pound of soil that took 500 years to build. The greenhouse gas emissions equal a six mile drive in a car. These costs don’t show up in the market though. Lost rainforest, soil, fuel, and water don’t accompany the sale price.
Finally, it matters to our own health. Besides being implicated in the suffering and waste inherent in large-scale meat production, there is ample cause for concern for our own health. Comparative diets show those who eat a plant-based diet to be generally healthier than those who center on meats. Seventh Day Adventists and many Hindus live their whole lives never eating meat, yet they’re healthy and strong. As the Japanese grew wealthy and began losing their simple diet for a heavy meat-based one, they grew fat and sick, getting the same clogged arteries our people have long died from.
Again, I’m not out to shame you or me for our diets. I don’t eat as ethically and healthily as this talk would recommend. Rather than resent and resist such information we could incorporate it into our lives so as to try out other eating options. When salad bars first came out they were unusual and scanty. Now, some are sumptuous. We build what we pay for. We can try new things. When we go to a potluck, bringing a vegetarian-based dish assures that anyone can eat it. As we try new dishes we venture away from cruel, wasteful, and sickly habits towards ahimsic, efficient, healthy, and tasty ones.
I agree with Marie Antionette, “Let them eat cake!” Except, unlike her haughty and callous ignorance of the food needs of the many, I would have the many eating cakes that please and nourish. Our cakes and pies can be full, healthy meals of nutritious goodies. As with our so-called energy crisis, when we put our minds and hearts to the ingenuity of how we eat, abundant answers and delights will emerge.
I’ve been dating Aletha, who only eats a raw vegan diet. I haven’t adopted that, and I like it that she follows her diet without laying it on others, but I’ve come to enjoy new ways of eating. Raw foodists remind us that cooking food often destroys some of the most valuable parts of that food. Enzymes, which catalyze our digestive process, are fragile chemicals that quickly break down with heat. If not otherwise supplied, our body gives up its store of them and loses the ability to fully digest our food. Eating raw keeps our enzymes up.
But is this hard to do? Not really; it’s easier. Instead of heating up a pan to fry my food I often just combine things in the blender. I take various leaves from the garden (lettuce, mustard, kale, chard, cilantro, parsley) and mix in an apple or pear, some orange, some strawberries, some juice or water, some celery for a salty flavor, some ginger for some zap (or even a bit of jalapeño or cayenne), and blend and sip. The cleanup is easy – just rinse out the blender and compost the scraps. Variations are fun and interesting.
You’d think I’d go away hungry, but I don’t. I am surprised at how tasty and satisfying such a meal is. I’m not weighted down, it tastes good, and it digests easily.
(I suppose the only diet closer to the sun than this is eating sunlight itself, which a few rare individuals claim to do. One man claims to have been studied by NASA, confined to an experiment where he ate no food other than his gazing at the sun as it rose and set. He claims to be able to garner sunlight into “food.” He claims NASA confirmed his long stay without any other input.)
I don’t expect you to eat sunlight, raw, vegan, vegetarian, or any other special diet. I’m comfortable with sausage, ham, and steak at the table. But I’ve come to realize the affluence we have achieved is costlier to the animals, planet, and our health than I ever knew. I don’t want to finance the cruel treatment of sentient creatures even if I don’t know them personally. Bit by bit, I adjust my habits, avoiding paying for the meat system and putting my money and health in line with a tasty, healthy new approach.
Or is it new? Apes can eat meat and occasionally do. But mostly they eat plants. Some even make sandwiches, wrapping their fruit in their leaves. Like us, their digestive systems are long to get the full value from what is consumed. Sharks and other predators have short, acid-laden systems that quickly break down and expel their meat. We can eat meat, but only a bit compared to our ideal diet.
Returning to Genesis One, I don’t assert that because it offers a diet of “fruits, nuts, and herbs that bear their seed” that we must follow it. But I note it comes in conjunction with the advice to “replenish the earth and subdue it.” In our world, where fully a third of humanity is malnourished, I wonder what an intelligent approach to eating well might look like. I note further that in Genesis Nine, after the flood, the diet is opened to allow meat, but that it comes at a price, for, “the fear of you and the dread of you” will reside in the creatures, whether they’re hunted or herded. Alienation resides where mercy is lost.
We needn’t be exploiters of suffering and wasters of resources for diets that make us sick. We can eat well from sources close to our home that won’t hurt our heart. We can eat well from foods that are colorful, full of vitamins, enzymes, and nutrients, and tasty. We can eat well for our planet and ourselves. Bit by bit, bite by bite, we move from sacrifice to satisfaction. We eat cakes and pies and crackers and soups and all the things we discover to like that don’t cause suffering, waste resources, and leave us lacking. Eat well!
For the UU’s of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© May 3, 2009