Two hundred thousand years ago, in a land none of us would recognise, the first modern humans emerged and began to roam the planet Earth, leaving behind hauntingly beautiful cave paintings tens of thousands of years old. Paintings we still do not understand. Sadly they shed no clear light on the lives of our oldest ancestors - we do not know how they really lived, what they truly believed, or if they were even trying to tell us something with their paintings - deemed by most experts to be nothing more than abstract art. Perhaps one day we will find a key to decipher their paintings, but until then, their distant lives continue to remain a shadowy mystery to us, their descendants.
As the ages passed, the land changed and man changed with it. He adapted to his environment, settled on it and tamed it, he grew crops and kept livestock. He built towns and cities, he built roads and irrigation systems, he crafted tools and jewellry. He developed his language and methods of communication until suddenly around 6,000 years ago in the ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms of Sumer, he breathed life into his long forgotten world. For the first time in his history, he had begun to keep detailed records on clay tablets. Although this ancient language was first discovered by a European in the 1400's its strange cuneiform markings remained a tantalising enigma until 1837 when it was finally deciphered using the Rosetta Stone as the key to cracking its code. The cuneiform language of ancient man was so distant from us we first needed to decipher the hieroglyphic language of Ancient Egypt to be able to read it - and without the Rosetta Stone neither of these challenges would ever have been overcome.
Thousands of years and many empires after man began to keep records, in 1903, a mere 108 years ago, the Wright brothers flew the first powered aircraft. Then, only a few days ago, a massive one-ton rover named Curiosity was launched on an eight and a half month journey to Mars, its mission to find out if there has ever been life on a planet 556 million kilometers away from us, the distance Curiosity needs to travel to reach Mars.
Compared to the aeons that passed between the emergence of modern man and the time he began to keep records - and then the thousands of years that passed between then and the Wright brothers' inaugural flight, when technology and science were still in their infancy - we have suddenly leapt forward in the last few decades at an astronomical pace. These rapid advancements have brought with them a multitude of changes to the way we live which have altered nearly every aspect of our daily lives.
Beginning in the mid 90s, we were introduced to a virtual world of increasing ease and convenience that seemed to have come straight from the pages of sci-fi novels. The first blush to take us by storm was email; we were fascinated by the magic of being able to write a letter to someone and send it to them instantly with a mere click of a mouse button. To not have to put pen to paper, or go to the post office, or line up, or have the envelope weighed so we may pay for a stamp, or wait several days until it was delivered - this was an unprecedented change to the way we as humans had always communicated in print. Our fascination with email lasted a long time, until, one by one, new technologies, innovations and platforms began to emerge, which made email seem dull.
In as little as a decade our world changed into something we now believe we could never live without. That knowledge is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We have been both liberated and imprisoned by our addiction to the convenience technology brings to us. Being able to see what is happening on the opposite side of the world within moments of its occurrence; viewing city streets on another continent in 360 degrees as though we are there ourselves; talking face to face with friends anywhere in the world in real time; playing games online through an avatar; listening to music from years ago on personalised playlists for free at the touch of a button...it's a lot to lose. Imagine going back to the days of having to sit in one place while talking on a phone attached by a cable to the wall, and having to pay for almost every call, with long distance calls being worthy of a family gathering by the receiver. Imagine being stuck on a train and not being able to let the person who is waiting for you at the station know what is happening. Imagine having to write every letter with a pen and paper, and then send it in the post with an address and stamp on its envelope. Imagine having to listen to the radio, waiting all day for them to play your favorite song. It almost feels dirty to think about these things, they sound so archaic they seem to have come from a long gone era. However, a mere twenty-five years ago, this was reality.
Technology has compressed our daily lives into something faster, more efficient and productive, making many things much easier and smoother to accomplish. But with any upside there will always be a downside. We now work longer hours, and with smartphones, we have constant access to our work email. Bosses and zealous colleagues can contact us at any time, with full expectation of a reply, even if it's long after the cleaners have left the office. The division between life and work has become increasingly blurred. What little we have left of our private lives we willingly make public on Facebook, even to the point of posting updates and photos whilst in the midst of celebrating milestone events. If we could go back twenty-five years into the past and tell our younger selves about our new lives, I wonder would be impressed - or frightened?
As recently as two decades ago, most families regularly ate their evening meal together, a cooked meal, usually with meat, two vegetables and perhaps some salad and bread. In today's society, this practice is at best impractical, at worst, laughable. Now it's every man for himself, whenever and however he can fit the time into his day to eat a meal. Inevitably, to some degree or another, our health is being sacrificed in favour of a technologically-driven lifestyle we are only beginning to learn to adapt to in evolutionary terms. Compared to the lives we lived two decades ago, our bodies are not yet able to function optimally at the speeds we are forcing upon them. Worse, we are mostly feeding our bodies unnatural foods and drinks that are not easy for us to digest. The extra effort our body must make to break down these foods perversely ends up robbing us of energy instead of making us feel better. However, despite this, food and beverage companies' scientists have been inventing new food and drink products targetted especially at people who are living demanding lifestyles. But even though those products may look and taste good, ultimately they are unable to give us what we really need. We are becoming malnourished even as we gain weight.
A disturbing parallel to these societal changes has been the explosive growth in the global pharmaceutical industry. The question begs asking: Is there a causal link between our new technologically dependant lifestyles and the pharma industry's subsequent rise in revenues?
In 2004, the 12 largest healthcare companies' combined revenues were $252 billion. In 2009, their revenues were $434 billion. This is a 58% increase over five years.
It is interesting how in both 2004 and 2009, the 12 largest companies were (and still are) based in the US, UK, Switzerland and France, perhaps giving us a dark reflection of the US and EU citizens' increasing demand for medicine. Our demands.
It seems a tragically vicious cycle to be caught in: one lives a driven life, separated from their family by their constant work demands, squeezing every minute out of their day answering emails on their smartphone while waiting to order an espresso, or sitting for hours in front of their laptop screen, living on energy drinks and vending machine snacks which deplete the body of all the things it needs until they must turn to pills to rid themselves of their illnesses - pills which cannot cure their illness, only keep the symptoms at bay. Business is clearly booming for the pharma industry, so the million dollar question is: Do they really want us to change our lifestyles and eating habits?
The more intriguing question is: Do we want to take responsibility for our health - or do we wish to carry on as we are and let the drug companies temporarily solve our problems for us as and when they arise? We have the ability to learn how to adapt to our new technology-based world, with all of its fast-paced demands on our out-of-date bodies. We can shine with good health and succeed in this hard and fast world, and we can feel good. And surprisingly, all the things we would need to buy to become like this are readily available in most grocery stores. The trick is to be aware of what your body needs opposed to what you have been led to think it needs, based on clever marketing campaigns.
The consequences of what is now considered to be a 'normal' Western diet on our health are two-fold. First, it takes our digestive system an enormous amount of extra energy to process all the unnatural additives and chemicals in convenience foods, so the majority of energy that these foods could give you to perform is instead used in the digestion process. That is part of the reason we are tired, even though we are eating enough. Second, we strip our body of its natural protective resources to keep it in balance as we continue to eat a socially accepted diet of foods that are hard on our blood pH levels. Without getting too technical, among other things it is important that we maintain a healthy pH level in our blood, which means each day we need to eat 80% alkaline foods and only 20% acid foods. The chart below shows where certain foods fall into that spectrum. In our society how many of us eat 80% of what is in the blue and purple columns? How many of us eat 80% or more of the foods in the yellow and orange columns? The more acidic foods we eat, the harder our body has to work, while at the same time we deplete the natural alkaline levels our body provides to us to accommodate the occasional indulgence of acidic foods in our diet. When the ratio of alkaline - acid drops to 3 to 1, we put our health at serious risk for disease.
We would not consider ourselves to be malnourished if we ate a diet mainly comprised of items from the yellow and orange columns, but in fact the human body is not built to function adequately on a diet like this, so if we begin to feel unwell switching to a diet of mainly alkaline foods will give the body what it is crying out for. A chance to heal. It is possible as our world moves faster, we must maximise our chances to keep up with it, and a diet of fast food, convenience food, and acidic foods are not going to work in the long run. No matter what we believe, we are depriving our bodies and our brains of the essential nutrients it needs, and by not giving it what it needs, we will become malnourished.
Sustained malnutrition opens the door and rolls out the red carpet to illness and disease. But when we think of malnutrition, we never think of it as applying to us, living in our cocooned Western lifestyles. Rather, we think of war-torn, famine-struck third-world countries. Being malnourished does not exclusively mean one must be physically starving - not in the least. Indeed, the greater the obesity, the higher the case for malnutrition and ill health. A good exercise to get some perspective on how much convenience food and processed food dominates our food choices is to look at the shelves at your grocery store. How much of the food and drink on offer is completely natural, without additives, preservatives or any flavour enhancers? On inspection, it may seem as though the grocery store has suddenly shrunk to a much smaller size when all the non-natural foods are excluded. And this is where the challenge lies, to realise that just because we are filling up our shopping carts with food, not all of it is really food at all, at least not as far as our body is concerned. Being full is one thing, being nourished is a completely different affair.
'One of the few free choices a person has is what they will or will not eat' - Andrew W Saul, Food Matters
This is the tragic catch-22 of our wonderful modern world. We have so much to choose from at the supermarket, yet most of it is not what we really need to live a healthy life in today's society. The majority of food is made to have a longer shelf life; to be convenient to prepare; or to satisfy one of the three cravings of sweet, salty or fat. We let the experts tell us what we should or should not eat, what constitutes moderation and whether we should be taking vitamins or not, often receiving contradictory advice from one month to the next. We believe food companies have our best interests at heart and we can trust them, and if we get ill we always have the drug companies to catch us in their safety nets.
We can live much more harmoniously with ourselves and with the planet, much like our ancient ancestors who left us those beautiful, haunting cave paintings. Although, unlike them we have a choice. The question is: Will we make it?
Originally published on Paradigms Bend Dec 1 2011