The Cultural Coma of Food
We are alive at at time in our history that is pivotal. Things are happening now that have never happened in the recorded history of our civilization. We have never been in such a volatile and delicate position where our impacts on the planet and the animals we share it with are becoming painfully obvious.
A major UN report released less than a month ago shows that our insatiable consumption habits are destroying the natural world.
The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area – and a million species are at risk of extinction. The report goes on to say that three-quarters of all land has been turned into farm fields or covered by concrete and dams. Two-thirds of the marine environment has also been altered by fish farms, shipping routes, subsea mines and other projects.
It’s becoming apparent that all is not well.
It feels less to me like it’s time to panic, and more like it’s time to get really resourceful. Getting resourceful means stopping and listening, it means becoming introspective and doing some critical thinking. It’s time that we look at how we can do just that with our food choices.
In respected journalist Dahr Jamail’s recently released book called End of Ice he says “There may be no changing what is happening, and far worse things are coming. How then, shall we meet this?”
How shall we meet this? The answer for me personally is to be the best I can be at this time. To leave no stone unturned in my own life. To be the boldest, most courageous, and most authentic version of myself, and to make choices from that place. When I do that, my life changes. And when my life changes, my world changes.
This is an invitation to explore who you are in your world at this critical juncture, and invite you to make choices for yourself that match the world you would like to live in.
This is an invitation to explore what we ingest, as a metaphor for how we choose to live.
When I think about the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, it seems to me that for a long, long time we have been creating our world from a coma. A coma is a deep state of prolonged unconsciousness in which a person remains unawakened as they fail to respond to the world around them.
Our capacity for unique thought has been so collapsed by the dominant culture we’ve lost the ability to know ourselves. Collectively we’ve not taken the big picture into account, we’ve not taken a moment to pause and become aware of the impacts of our choices, we are just blindly carrying on with business as usual, and the results are devastating.
There is one specific aspect of the coma that I would argue has one of the largest impacts on all life on earth. It is responsible for the disappearance of wild spaces, the clearcutting of rainforests, the extinction of animals, the emptying of life in the oceans, and the decay of our own living bodies. What I am referring to is how we’ve been feeding ourselves.
We live in a world of denatured, heavily processed, plasticized convenience foods that in most cases contain the organs, muscles, fat, skin, mammary or maternal secretions of once living animals. Animals that spent the entirety of their short lives in a sea of violation and suffering.
Welcome to the cultural coma of food. It’s so obvious and so massive that it is virtually invisible. It is so pervasive and so all consuming that we are blind to not only its impacts on our bodies, but to the impacts it has on all of the living systems on the planet.
The cultural coma of food is what allows us to remain compliant to the prevalent current in the culture – when the truth is we have no desire to swim in those waters at all, we are just carried by that current.
I know this current, I know the coma well, I spent almost 30 years floating downstream in the cultural coma of food. I ate what I was taught to eat, I ate what was reinforced at every turn in my world, I ate an animal based diet that consisted of a fast and junk food. And things went pretty well how one would expect them to go. I had my gallbladder removed when I was 20 years old, the victim of a diet so high in animal fats it has no choice but to scream back at me. I was “healthy” I guess. I was productive, I had a good job, and I had no idea was health really was or how it felt. It was only later when I found my way to veganism that I got to feel for the first time what a healthy body felt like.
In my case I woke up from the cultural coma of food when I realized my food choices came from the same place the trauma of my job as a Homicide Detective were coming from. As a Homicide Detective my day to day job consisted of facing brutality, violence, blood & gore. When I woke up and saw that my food was coming from a system comprised of brutality, violence, blood & gore I was done. I could not longer feed my body with the same things I was working tirelessly to prevent.
I feel immense gratitude every single day that I was able to see that something I was doing 3-4 times a day was going against everything I stood for, and I was able to walk away. I walked away from the coma as I walked away from the dominant culture of animal-based food consumption. What was waiting on the other side for me was veganism. A life of vibrancy, compassion, alignment, energy, health and a life force pulsing through my body that I had never felt before.
The thing about the cultural coma of food is that it’s thick, it’s dense, and it’s fortified. There is good news, and I know it from my own personal experience, and from the experience of working with so many others, the coma can be penetrated!
It’s simply a matter of having the courage to take a closer look at what is being spoon fed to us, and standing in a place where we can see for maybe for the first time in our lives that we can choose how to nourish our own bodies.
As I say in my book For the Love of Vegan Cooking “Veganism is not a rejection of culinary abundance, veganism is a deep connection to self, expressed through food choices”.
I encourage you to go out into the world and see the cultural coma of food in full force for yourself. When you really look at all of the food marketing, what do you see? What style of eating is being reinforced and even rewarded everywhere you look?
Here is an interesting exercise for you to do. Spend just one day noticing all of the places in your world that reinforce the eating of animals products: the burgers, the chicken, cheese, milk, ice cream etc. Notice the billboards, the food options at the counter when you pay for gas, the things that end up on the front page of your grocery store flyer. Take a look at what the restaurants in your neighbourhood serve, what the fast food establishments are offering. And ask yourself what is prevalent? What is being reinforced.
Now look for the places where eating plant-based food are reinforced. Where are the sales on organic plant-based foods? Where do you see a celebration of all things plants, a celebration of life, showing up in your world? When you spend a day or two just observing as you move through your world you start to see the massive imbalance and you begin to see the immensity of the cultural coma of food.
We’ve been doing it wrong for a long, long time. Long enough for it to now be inter-generational. There is a lot of entitlement that comes along with the statement “well it’s how its always been done” or “my parents did it this way, and they were good people”. It’s not a good people, bad people conversation. It’s a call to lift our collective heads out of the sand, to wake up and to look at the impacts our generational choices have created for us, the planet and the animals we share it with.
I want you to take a moment to think about food that comes from the predominant system that operates within the cultural coma of food. The system known as animal agriculture. Think about burgers, bacon, steaks, chicken, cheese, yogurt, eggs, milk, cream and butter. Now think about the entire process of bringing those items to market from the birth of the animals to the death of animals that were used.
For those of you just starting down this path, I am not going to get into the graphic description of the hell these animals experience – there are plenty of documentaries out there that can offer you that. I will say that animal agriculture is a nasty business, and living sentient being are treated like money making machines. There is no kindness, no compassion, there are only only profit making efficiencies at play.
To illustrate this further I want to share a passage from Deb Ozarko’s brilliant and timely book Beyond Hope, Letting Go of a World in Collapse.
“We fear death, yet we consume death. We desire peace, yet we ingest violence and suffering in every meal; never realizing the incongruity of it all. Because of our flippant willingness to accept such destructive beliefs, 5we’ve become a force for merciless violence, wreaking planetary havoc from our ferocious appetite for the flesh of suffered corpses. From the moment of its unnatural conception, every animal bred to the world to satiate this bloody belief system is cursed with a miserable life and a brutal death sentence”.
Now list the words that come to you to describe what you know to be the experiences of the cows, pigs, chickens, goats, turkeys and other animals raised for human consumption endure. Words like suffering, separation, loss of innocence, slaughter, rape, death, violation, and brutality.
Now let those words in that list rattle around inside you, really feel the immensity of them and then ask yourself a question: Do the words in this list match who I know myself to be?
In other words does the person I know myself to be resonate with that list? Is that list a good match for who I am in the world?
Having been a Homicide Detective I can say with authority that if that list does not feel like a match, the good news is you are probably not a sociopath. The bad news is, that unless you are already living a plant-based lifestyle, you’ve got a major disconnect on your hands.
When we eat cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys or any of their mammary or maternal secretions in the form of things like milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs we are bringing that list to life. We are creating those conditions. We are voting for that to be done over and over and over again. Our lives are fuelled from those words.
We need to look at our behaviour around food, and ask ourselves if we really want to continue to be predators. Our culture has driven predation into the dominant food choices around us. And usually we don’t see it because its everywhere. The dictionary defines a predator as an animal that hunts, kills, and eats other animals. It makes no difference if we are doing the killing or if the killing is done for us.
Does being a predator map to who you know yourself to be?
So why do we do it, why do we keep saying yes to this list, why do we remain predators and continue to feed ourselves food that doesn’t match who we are, food that doesn’t create the world we want to live in?
Just like the operating system that runs your phone or your laptop, our belief systems are running the show behind the scenes or our own lives.
Belief systems, like operating systems are intended to be updated and evolve with us. This runs contrary to what culture teaches. Culture teaches us to stay small small, and hold on tight to what we already know. It teaches that there is security and safety in doing what has always been done.
How can we possibly grow and live our best lives at this critical juncture when we are holding onto a belief system about food that was installed when we were 3 or 4 or 5 years old. Its like running OS 1 when OS 10 is available and expecting our email, web browser and apps on our devices to run smoothly, its not going to happen.
Like the way operating systems run in the background of our gadgets, belief systems are are just politely going about their business, running our lives when we are not paying attention.
So how do we see them? How do we even begin the upgrade when these beliefs are invisible? The only time you can see the beliefs you’ve got installed is when you go out into the world and you make choices and then you get to see the impact of your choice reflected back at you. This is how your belief systems become visible. Let me give you an example.
You go to the grocery store and fill your grocery cart. Your bring the food home and you load up the fridge. The next time you are hungry you open the fridge and right there in that moment you can see your belief systems staring out at you. Do you see a package of beef burgers or do you see a package of veggie burgers. Do you see a carton of cows milk, or a carton of almond milk?
That one quick look in the fridge will give you everything you need to know about your belief systems around food. It will answer the question: Do I believe in consuming animal products to fuel my body or do I believe in coming plant-based food?
It’s not good, bad, right or wrong, it’s just a moment to stop and notice. In that noticing you get an opportunity to ask yourself. “Does what I see in my fridge reflect who I know myself to be?” Does what I see in my fridge contain that list or not?
If you find a disconnect between what you see, and who you want to be in the world, you are NOW in a position a power. You are in a position of power because have the opportunity to make a different choice the next time you are in the grocery store just because you noticed.
When I see ‘x’ in the fridge and I realize it does not reflect who I know myself to be, I am now empowered to make a different choice. If I don’t stop to consider what I see I never get that power in my life, I continue to eat other people’s beliefs.
Then start to look everywhere in your life. The evidence of your belief systems – will start to pile up right in front of you.
When you start to look at what’s in front of you as a reflection of your deeply held, invisible beliefs, how many of them are beliefs that you feel great about? How many would you fight for?
If there is no match, no problem, it means it’s time to make an upgrade.
We’ve been held hostage within a paradigm that continuously sends us in a new direction and tells us its all about willpower. Eat more fats, eat less fats, eat more carbs, eat less carbs, and on and on it goes. All of these things end up failing us because it’s like trying to fix a problem from within the box that the problem originated in.
If you want to eat differently or be healthier willpower will only get you so far. What’s more powerful is to open your fridge and see what stares back at you and decide if its a match.
If it’s not a match, instead of using willpower, you need to create a new paradigm for yourself, a new set of beliefs that run your life. I can just go along with what’s always been done – which is someone else beliefs about the world, or I can bring who I know myself to be into my world, and my world begins to change.
If I want a life of health and vitality, the way I fuel my body has to match that intention. I work with people all the time with physical pain and illness. They come to me looking for plant-based strategies to heal their bodies. It usually does not take long for plants to do their magic. And it’s not really magic at all, all it is is a match. Suddenly the food they are consuming to sustain life, is a match with the life-force of who they are. Healing, energy and vitality are natural side effects.
It’s not about becoming vegan or plant-based, its so much bigger than that- It’s about using food as a strategy to express who you are in this world. Are you going to lead your own life, or are you going to follow in the footsteps of others who are most likely deeply immersed in the cultural coma of food?
How truthful do you want the expression of your life to be, and how much fraudulence are you willing to bare? When your mother-in-law piles turkey on your plate at Christmas are you willing to consume her believes?
I don’t believe humans buy into exploitation of animals, the destruction of the planet and the decimation of our own bodies. So if we don’t buy into the cultural coma of food represented there, how did we get here?
How did we get to a place where 3 billion living beings are killed every single day on this planet for human consumption? How did we get to a place where animal agriculture is the dominant food system even though we know it is one of the leading causes of global warming emissions and ecological destruction on the planet? How did we get to a place where heart disease is among the leading killers of North Americans when in the words of renowned physician Dr Caldwell Esselstyn. “Coronary artery disease is a food-borne illness that need never ever exist and if it does exist it need never ever progress”
The cultural coma of food is fed to us one spoonful at at time until we can no longer taste the disconnect. It is fed to us through our cultural conditioning, and is reinforced at least three times a day over a lifetime, which means it sneaks in undetected.
It is fed to us in such a way that we don’t see the connection to the collapsing biosphere, the suffering animals, or the dissonance and disease it creates in our own bodies.
It’s so prevalent, it’s invisible. And just because its prevalent, doesn’t mean its “normal”. It does not mean its a good match for who we are at the core.
From the time we are children, cultural conditioning teaches us to simply do as we are told. When those moments of “No mommy, I don’t want to eat that” are dismissed, and we are told me must, we start to lose ourselves. Not only are our needs not heard, the voice of the other is the only voice that is reinforced.
We discover early in our lives that we have to deny intimate connection to ourselves, our own interests, our own truth, and our own needs because anything else is futile.
The result is that our “choice muscle” atrophies. When that choice muscle atrophies we have lost our capacity to choose for ourselves.
What this means is we are a collective of consumers with no capacity to choose what is meaningful to us, instead we choose what is prevalent. We get so deeply steeped in habituation that we don’t even know that the power of choice has been stripped away from us.
Unless we can reclaim intimacy with ourselves by knowing ourselves, we have no idea how to go about choosing differently. And this can become so overwhelming that we just do we’ve always done.
We have to realize that the first thing we are going to have to do is learn to strengthen our choice muscle, and to do that we must find an intimate connection with ourselves.
How do reestablish that missing connection? An intimate connection to oneself means to know who we are, what we care about, what really matters to us, and the best way to do that is to begin to pay attention differently.
The key is to just start. Start asking hard questions. Start noticing what feels like a match and what does not. When you start it might feel awkward, and you can anticipate a sense of uncertainly, even a sense of chaos. You may choose something and regret having chosen it, and then know you can choose something else.
I remember when I walked away from the cultural coma of food, from that list…I felt so lost, so alone, so angry. My path out of the coma began one evening way back when I was 29 years old, and still a Homicide Detective. I rented an innocent-looking documentary from my local video store called Baraka. It included a small clip from an egg-laying facility that stunned me. I watched newborn chicks travelling down a fast conveyor belt as they were examined and sorted by factory workers. Some were returned to the conveyor belt where they continued along to their destination, and some were dropped into a scary looking big swirling metal tube.
Despite the massive wall I had built to protect myself in those days because of my profession, I was profoundly disturbed by this scene and something penetrated right through that wall. I knew what I was seeing was terribly wrong, and in that moment of knowing I regained the lost intimacy with myself. I started to pay attention differently, I started asking questions.
The next month was a hard month for me, a month of shock, anger and deep grief as I learned the dark truth about how broken our food system was.
As I digested the reality of where my meat, dairy and eggs had been coming from, I made a commitment to never again participate in the exploitation of animals to suit my taste buds or my cultural conditioning. Through this exploration I regained my choice muscle – and my life has never been the same.
So what is the pathway out of the cultural coma of food? It as simple as this: Stop consuming other people’s beliefs. There is the appropriate me, and there is the authentic me. A willingness to choose the authentic me is the pathway out of the cultural coma of food.
I’d like to share a piece from a recent blog post written by Louise LeBrun, someone who’s work I deeply admire. She says ”It starts with me, with you, with each of us, to take control of our own body and mind. From there, much becomes possible. It does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as choosing those things over which you have 100% control and trusting where they will take you. Imagine! A conscious collective! Not because we tried to shift the collective, but because we recognize that we are the collective, individually and uniquely shifting. Simple choices that can lead to powerful and complex results. We are highly contagious – the question is: what are we spreading?”
Its time for all of us to come out of the closet of our own lives…and by that I don’t mean you have to start wearing a ‘Go Vegan’ t-shirt everywhere you go, I mean everywhere you go BE YOURSELF and tell the TRUTH. When your mother in law piles turkey on your plate next Christmas, and inside of yourself that alarm goes off and you know it’s not a match because it’s not slices of protein anymore, it’s a sliced up dead bird, get up and get yourself another plate.
Be the contagion for others to wake up to the pulse of their own truth. There is nothing more terrifying to the status quo than your truth. It means you are profoundly internally referenced and dangerous to everything they stand for. And you become dangerous to the status quo because you are no longer a consumer of what they are selling.
When there is a critical mass of people who are internally referenced, and not willing to be persuaded by the external forces of other people’s beliefs, advertising, marketing, sameness and traditions in an instant the entire animal consumption paradigm collapses.
It really is that simple. We choose differently and the world of animal suffering and predation STOPS!
What I am proposing is that you consider taking a different path. I am not going to tell you how to live, I am here to show you there is another way to live. How you choose to live is up to you.
Part of that is starting to exercise your choice muscle, and looking for the things that will bring you strength. Look for the tools and strategies that feel like a match and act on them. Think of these tools as the weights you need pump up your choice muscle.
I am excited that I have just published my second cookbook For the Love of Vegan Cooking. This book puts the power of real, healthy plant-based food in your hands. I wrote this book to create a fun and enjoyable cooking experience because that is where change begins.
There are may different paths towards resourcefulness, and what I suggest as a starting point is deciding for yourself what comes out of your kitchen. I do all the cooking in my home and when I think back on the 19 years I’ve been vegan, I’ve prepared something like 20,000 vegan meals. I’ve had 20,000 opportunities to create the world that I want to live in. How many opportunities are you willing to take, to create the world you want to live in?
This post was delivered as a talk at Ottawa Veg Fest on June 1, 2019. To listen to the recording of the talk click below.