Freakonomics Watch: "The Primitive Food Movement"


The first Freakonomics book was a lot of fun; the second less so, as it sort of devolved into "if the scientific consensus and/or coast-hugging liberal elite are for it, we are against it" type of thing. Hence Freakonomics Watch; or perhaps it should be called James McWilliams Watch, since he appears to be the contributor to their blog with the most attitude about anything green. Now he is on about The Persistence of the Primitive Food Movement, where "Bicycles are losing gears, runners are afoot in shoes designed to create a barefoot sensation (some are even running barefoot), and men are growing bushy Will Oldham-like beards."

Now it must be said that McWilliams is on to something with his coinage; there are many of us promoting natural ventilation and awnings instead of air conditioning, growing gardens and canning instead of buying processed food, neigbourhood stores instead of malls, bikes instead of cars. It is primitive, but it works, it costs a lot less and it uses a lot less energy. I am proud to be a New Primitivist. Alas, he then he gets back to his specialty, food.

He summarizes the narrative that he thinks we all believe:

Americans once lived on small farms, ate locally-produced food, did not poison the soil with chemicals, and always knew from whence their food came. Then industrialization and urbanization hit, bringing us mass production, factory farming, chemical dependence, culinary uniformity, global trade, and, eventually, the Twinkie.

He thinks we are dreaming of an age that never existed; that we are "idealizing a mythical golden age, a time when life was understood to be simpler, people less greedy, and values more virtuous," when in fact we had lousy boring diets of often adulterated food.

Hardly. I don't think there are very many people in America who want to eat like their ancestors, (at least in northern climes). Mostly, we just want is to know what we are eating, and that it is good for us, and that growing it isn't killing the planet. As one commenter put it:

The problem with industrial food is that you do not really know what is in it or who grew it and under what conditions.

If you are concerned about your intake of salt, sugars and fats, if you do not really think that chemicals made to kill insects and other life forms are a great thing to consume in mass quantities and if you derive some satisfaction from the thought that the people who raised your food and packed it might just be making a decent living then primitive food is for you.

On the other hand, if you want to stuff yourself with the cheapest possible fodder and it makes you feel good to pay others as little as you can get away with then go industrial.

Freakonomics used to be about, well, economics; McWilliams is an historian with a particular point of view that can be distilled into the title of his last book: last book was titled "Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly." Perhaps we don't really need a McWilliams Watch; we have seen it already.

More on McWilliams in TreeHugger:

Freakonomics Looks at Plastic Packaging of Food, Eats It Up
Organic Agriculture Wrongly Accused As Prominent Cause Of Heavy Metal Accumulation In Soil
Eating Green: Locavore vs. Life Cycle
Freakonomist Gets Local Food Wrong Again
Touting Factory Pig Farming Safe, Really?

Related Content on