In addition to the concerns over antibiotics and food quality, our modern chemical world must take some heat for the health problems we are having. Simultaneously with the introduction of antibiotics as a public health initiative and the push to improve crops genetically for production, we also introduced an explosion of synthetic chemicals into our environment at every level from the household to the farm. Thousands of pesticides have been developed in the past 75 years and, in our enthusiasm for the new post-war technological revolution, we just as readily doused ourselves with DDT as we did the fields around us.
Today, the love affair continues: when we leave the house, we spray on ourselves and particularly on our children any number of chemicals that we have been told will protect us from the environment. We load up with mosquito sprays, sunscreens, skin lotions, hair sprays, antibacterial lotions, lip glosses, and loads of daily doses of medicines, vitamins, herbals, and tonics. Our clothes, cars, carpets, furniture, and computers are laden with chemicals that emit chemical byproducts. Every object we buy is encased by a variety of plastics, at least half of which are known to produce toxins as they slowly age and break down chemically.
None of these compounds that we are literally inundated with, both awake and asleep, were present before 1950.
Although we can point at antibiotics and some other factors that lead to disease in humans, our clear understanding is hindered because we have not come to grips with the fact that we are not truly individuals in the biological sense. Our individual bodies contain highly complex ecosystems that interact with the host system in uncountable ways. When we argue about the causes of modern diseases, whether in children or adults, we continue to think as we always have. That is, we ask, “What is the single factor responsible for this problem?”
We naively believe that if we can identify that factor, we can eliminate it and cure the problem. Perhaps the pharmaceutical companies can cure us or protect us from the cause. And so, we have been asking simple questions regarding rather complex problems. Are antibiotics to blame? Is our food to blame? Is a chemical to blame?
For all of these questions the answer is yes, but the problem is that we don’t know to what degree. It is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship. The number of variables and the direct and indirect interactions between those variables is staggering. How many variables do we not know about? And of those variables, time is the one that science and medicine will never adequately deal with because time implies a changing context. Some things may affect us more as an infant than as an adult. It may take years to see the effects of the interactions. Some genotypes among us may react faster than others or not at all. Do some people have “good genes” while others have “bad genes”? Or is it the health of the microbiome and the lack of a million or so bacterial genes?
And so, we find ourselves confused. We are too simple to understand the complexity of ourselves. We are overwhelmed by choices. We aren’t sure about believing the health industry when it says a simple pill will cure the problem (if it doesn’t also kill you). And we are told to reduce stress and get more sleep because stress exacerbates the problems. That’s just great.
But perhaps the answer is easier than that.
From individual to ecosystem to environment
Part of the problem, a big part, is that our thinking about the world is not keeping up with the information we have gathered about the world. Our environmental context has changed, but our viewpoint has not. For example, when rural families move to the city, those parents were born and raised in the country, their children were born in the country and raised in the city, but the grandchildren are born and raised in the city and think and act like city dwellers. Each extended family possesses a variety of viewpoints about the world and how it works, but each generation is referring to a different set of conditions. It often takes a new generation to truly understand the new environmental context.
We are currently learning a mountain of new information about who we are as biological entities and we are not able to keep up with it. The information is coming so fast, the breakthroughs of 20 years ago are being re-interpreted in entirely new ways, and we are unable to mentally organize our understanding. As a starting point, we must think about ourselves as biological entities in a different way and then we can try to see the path forward with that as our new context.
We behave as individuals in every way in our daily lives and this has worked fine for millennia. But the consequences of living in a culture that treats each of us as if we were no more than an individual may be a disastrous combination with the other technological changes we have made. In a very real way, the sound you are hearing, the call to arms regarding the state of our environment and the growing number of ugly new diseases in our world, is a call to save ourselves as a species.
Our broader environmental focus is typically on the effects of humans on the ecosystems around us, but it’s time to think much more about the effect of our surrounding environment on our health as humans. If we focus on correcting what the environment is doing to our internal ecosystem, we will have taken a huge step toward correcting what we have done to the environment that created this crisis.
At no point in history have our actions literally threatened the entire species, perhaps with the exception of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But I want to make a point about this: the flood of negative effects we are seeing in our health are related to the microbiome, which is related to everything going on in the external environment in general, both at the microscopic level and at the macroscopic level.
While it has now become necessary for us to focus on the internal microbiome, we cannot ignore the incredible importance of the external microbiome to our internal health. The problem is not specifically the devastation being wrought on the internal microbiome; the problem includes the multiple paths we have taken that have altered our external environment that have brought us to this point.
If I could boil it down to a single word, that word is simplification. When humans interact with the world, we simplify it. We reduce natural diversity by eliminating species and environmental complexity. We do this because we redirect the flow of energy in the ecosystem as a way to produce more resources for us.[i] In our less sophisticated days, we were much less able to simplify our surroundings.
Historically, the human population was usually too small to dramatically simplify the world around us although we certainly tried mightily to do so. History is replete with civilizations that completely transformed their environments, particularly around large cities, but history is also a retelling of how such a transformation often led to the fall of those civilizations.[ii]
However, we turned a corner some 250 years ago. The Industrial Revolution, John Deere’s invention of the steel mouldboard plow, steam engines, the internal combustion engine, factory-style production systems, and other associated developments, accelerated and expanded the intensity of the impacts we could have on our environments. The results weren’t just rapidly expanding urban areas, but the amazingly rapid conversion of diverse wild spaces to simplified cultivated spaces.
Cultivation and agriculture are processes that eliminate the huge diversity of plants and animals in a particular location and replace it with a single species of plant. In agriculture, there is zero interest in any animal presence, unless those animals are livestock or pollinators, such as bees. The change in diversity is so profound that the physical conditions of the farmed area are changed. Shade-loving plants die, weeds are favored. Rainfall and sunlight hit the soil directly. The structure of the soil is destroyed by tilling and by the negative effects of sunlight, heat, and dry air on fungi, bacteria, and the many tiny animals. Wind and water erosion strip away the topsoil. Birds, butterflies, spiders, and ladybugs are gone. Literally nothing about the modern farm resembles a natural ecosystem.
While this may be the cost of growing food, our poor understanding of what “healthy” means begins here. What was a healthy ecosystem is now supremely unhealthy. We grow our food in a system that is made unhealthy for all other organisms, but we consider it healthy for us. We modify our crops to reduce genetic variation (an unhealthy thing) and to ramp up the speed of production and at tremendously higher levels of productivity (an unhealthy thing). We don’t see the contradictions.
Technology assists us in tweaking and re-tweaking every aspect of food production as we race toward greater and greater production and efficiency with no real acknowledgement of changes in quality as long as the result is changes in quantity. And now we are so far into this way of living, we cannot see the damage we have wrought, we cannot see alternatives, and still we cry out daily for more technology to solve our new problems. Simplification is a problem technology cannot solve. Simplification is the result of applying technology to complex systems.
We have taken a similar approach toward the way we feed our bodies. We are told that a normal diet is 1500-2000 calories. The government provides guidelines for what sorts of foods should make up the portions, but with no understanding of how food affects the microbiome or our immune system, or how individuals differ from each other. We live in increasing isolation from the environment, all of our food is delivered from an unknown place to our grocery stores. We aren’t told that winter produce is from Chile and spring produce is from Mexico, and that a rapidly increasing proportion of produce comes from factory-style growing conditions such as greenhouses and hothouses.
We want to believe that food is food in terms of quality and its effects on our bodies and our internal ecosystem. We want to believe that preservatives in our food are protecting us from things that will make us sick. And the list goes on and on, whether we are talking about food, drugs, chemicals, and even the clothes we put on our bodies.
The fact is, our world has changed dramatically, especially in the 75 years since WWII, and we neither know how to judge quality any more nor who to believe about claims of quality. In fact, those who can remember life before this incredible modernization are at the ends of their lives and the memories of that world will be lost to later generations that never experienced it. Technology has so completely swamped our culture that we have lost our ability to interact with the world in a more natural way. And so, we feel lost and don’t even know what to eat or how to protect ourselves from the artificial simplicity that now defines the modern world.
This is where the answers might get easier.
We don’t have to look outward for diversity and complexity in a highly simplified world. Each of us possesses it inherently and it can respond and re-emerge literally overnight. A recent film provides an example of the strength of our internal ecosystem and how those species will work day and night to maintain the health of their own ecosystem.
In the documentary film “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” (2010), Joe Cross changes his life, and then the lives of others, using an entirely plant-based juice diet. The primary focus of the diet is to lose weight and regain control over health and this works because of the immense increase in food quality and plant-based nutrients for those people on the juice diet.
However, what almost certainly happened with the switch from the highly processed Western Diet to a plant-based diet consisting entirely of fresh produce was the massive increase of minerals and vitamins for the body and food diversity to the starved microbiomes in the dieters. While the juice diet does not include most of the indigestible plant material, it does include a significant amount of fiber and plant chemicals.
That massive shift from nearly 0% to 100% prebiotic content was guaranteed to shift the composition and complexity of the dieters’ microbiomes. Among other changes in health status was the disappearance of some auto-immune problems and allergies, which had nothing to do with the diet per se. These changes were almost certainly the consequence of harboring a healthier microbiome.
What this movie exemplifies is that life in this simplified, technological, polluted world can be healthier, even for a 430-pound truck driver, with a relatively simple change to a diet that more closely resembles the diet of our country-living grandparents and great-grandparents. That is, a shift toward a fresher, plant-based, higher quality diet. OK, but before we get to that, let me take a slightly different tack because merely eating fresh produce is not the entire story here.
[i] Carl N. McDaniel and David N. Borton. 2002. Increased human energy use causes biological loss and undermines prospects for sustainability. BioScience 52:929-936. [ii] Jared Diamond. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Press.