Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Emperor and the Nightingale

There is a children's story about an emperor who loved to hear the song of a nightingale that perched every night in a tree outside his bedroom window. The nightingale, seeing how much the emperor appreciated her song, eagerly returned every night to sing for him.

One day, the emperor received a gift from a courtier seeking his favor: a mechanical nightingale that played a sweet song both night and day. This pleased the emperor very much. He no longer needed to rely on the whims of a wild bird; he could hear that song any time he wished. Seeing that the emperor was now taken with his artificial bird, the nightingale flew sadly away. Then, one day, the mechanical nightingale broke, and wouldn't play anymore. Only then did the emperor realize his mistake in choosing a fake bird over the real one. In some versions of the story, that was it; tough luck. In others, the real nightingale came back, and once again sang nightly for the doting emperor, and they both lived happily ever after.

Why am I bringing this up?

For millennia, humans needed to hunt, gather, and grow their food. Then commerce brought the option of bartering and trading for food. Much later, a commercial food industry developed, offering processed food products that made eating much easier, more convenient and enjoyable. Eventually, food science came along, enabling the creation of brand new foodlike products with unusual, intense flavors made from artificial ingredients. Food got a lot cheaper, too, because science also made it possible for both plants and animals to be grown closer together, in greater and greater numbers, using petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically altered seeds. Monoculture began to replace biodiversity, favoring volume over variety. At long last, people could eat as much as they wanted, whenever and wherever they wished--and with very little effort. The crowd went wild.

After some time, as a result of eating all this unnatural, highly processed foodlike stuff, people got fatter, and they began to develop health problems they never had before. Cardiovascular disease,  fatty liver, diabetes, and various forms of cancer. Animals began to develop their own diseases from the cheap, unnatural feed they were given, and from their filthy, overcrowded living conditions. Eventually, certain animal diseases began to jump from their imprisoned hosts to the human population, sparking fears of worldwide epidemics. The waste from animal farms began to invade the waterways, infecting even the plant food, sickening and killing more people. The wonderful new food system that had been so much fun for so many people had begun to backfire on them. Cashing in bigtime on the very human wish for secure, convenient, reliable comfort and pleasure, the food industry had hijacked the modern population's taste buds, and now it was all going terribly wrong.

In one version of this story, that was it. People continued to eat degraded, adulterated, genetically altered, artificial food, stubbornly addicted to their self-destructive choices. They had come to believe that their way of eating had always been part of their culture and heritage--that there was nothing wrong with it. They explained their unhealthy diet away to themselves, repeating the hopeless falsehood that if they could just eat a little less of it and exercise a little more, everything would be fine. Mass delusion. In this version, the great lumbering system that supplied the world's food became unsustainable, destroying fragile ecosystems like a voracious parasite that kills its host. Blights that in the past might have taken only one or two varieties of plants made quick work of wiping out entire swaths of the world's uniform food supply. Famine, hoarding and barbarism inevitably followed. The End.

I prefer the other ending, in which the people began to wake up and miss the days--not so long ago--when natural food tasted good all by itself; when it took a little effort to cook and eat at home, but the effort was rewarding, the food was more satisfying, and dining was a pleasurable, shared experience. Slowly, a few people began to revive the noble art of organic gardening, saving heirloom seeds, promoting biodiversity, and replenishing the soil. Small farms began to revive, supported by people everywhere who had come to understand the value of real food, grown by genuine farmers. Highly refined food became a thing of the past, abandoned by the marketplace in favor of nutrient-dense, natural foods. Finally, people came to understand that there was no need to have animals process plants into protein for them; that they could process their own food, spare the animal suffering, and avoid the diseases caused by over-consumption of animal products. In short, the nightingale returns. The emperor finally understands the value of what is genuine, and willingly submits to the natural rhythm, enjoying the nightingale's song on her terms.
 
I know this is over-simplistic, but that's the nature of fables. The point is not to hammer out all the details. The point of any fable is merely to spark a glimmer of understanding, to turn the human course just a fraction, so that down the line--hopefully--this might lead to a happier destiny for all living things.

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