In the 1960s and 1970s, the modern environmental movement was born. We were starting to see the impact of our actions on the planet, and it wasn’t pretty. Scientists, policy-makers, industrialists, and activists began to grapple with the looming threats of industrial pollution, exponential population growth, environmental degradation, and species loss. There were no easy answers.
In 1973, philosopher Arne Naess stepped in to remedy what he saw as a pervasive but short-sighted approach to solving the environmental crisis. In a classic paper, Naess spelled out the differences between Shallow Ecology and Deep Ecology — and in so doing, birthed the Deep Ecology movement. This groundbreaking work provided a foundation for an entire generation of environmental thinkers and activists, and had a profound influence on ecopsychology, environmental ethics, and the Green movement. In short, Shallow Ecology is about managing pollution and ‘resource’ depletion to enhance the quality of life of the affluent; Deep Ecology is about restoring balance between all humans and the rest of the planet in a sustainable long-term way. Shallow Ecology is egocentric, Deep Ecology is ecocentric. Shallow Ecology wants to maintain the status quo; Deep Ecology is about deep questioning and deep change.
Why am I talking about all this stuff? Quite simply: the contemporary paleo movement is in a similar position to the environmental movement of the early 1970s, and a similar framework will help us move forward.
We are at a low point in human history. Our physical and mental health are abysmal. The health of the planet is no better. We’re witnessing a massive extinction — of species on the planet, and of the wild human soul. As the climate crisis creeps ever more tangibly into our lives, we stare into our smartphones, hoping for likes.
Our greatest hope for human happiness and survival as a species comes from a Deep Paleo perspective: one that acknowledges that we evolved for millions of years in an environment that was dramatically different from the modern day, and that most of our ills stem from the vast mismatch between our ancestral environment — built deep into our DNA — and the current Standard American Life we find ourselves living.
The Deep Paleo movement is a far-resounding call to action: we need to heal ourselves, we need to heal our relationships with one another, and we need to heal our relationship to our entire ecosystem. I believe that the only way for us to heal and regain vibrant health and happiness is to incorporate ancestral wisdom into our modern lives in a deep and disruptive way. This reincorporation process is unprecedented in human history. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s time to take action, and create a new way ahead.
And so, let’s dive into the shallow and the deep of this young, unruly, and often-misunderstood movement:
The Shallow Paleo Movement
It’s all about me. I want to look good. I want to be thin. I want to be healthy and strong. If I eat certain foods and avoid others, I’ll look good and feel good. If I learn to do certain things better — like exercise and sleep — I’ll look and feel even better. Cavemen? Agriculture? Sustainability? Whatever. I look awesome, and I can lift a shit-ton of weight.
The Deep Paleo Movement
It’s not just about me. In fact, it’s hardly about me at all.
The Deep Paleo movement represents a massive shift, as with Deep Ecology — from egocentric to ecocentric. In this highly narcissistic age, this shift is not a trivial one. But it’s a crucial one, if we’d like the human race to survive a while longer on this planet. So get rid of the ego. And focus on the eco. Where to start? The platform below will help.
I. FOUNDATIONS: IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU
1. Know your history, and apply it
The whole basis for a Deep Paleo perspective is the science of evolutionary psychology/biology. Here’s the crux of things: our ancestors spent millions of years evolving in a natural environment. Primates arose around 75 million years ago, the species Homo around 2.5 million years ago, and Homo Sapiens around 200,000 years ago. Our DNA, and thus our deepest programming, reflects the environment in which we spent most of our history. Our brains aren’t blank slates — we come equipped with all sorts of innate tendencies. So because our modern world is profoundly different from the evolutionary environment, we have lots of problems, which evolutionary medicine calls ‘mismatch diseases’ (e.g. diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression).
The past 10,000 years have been particularly rough on humans — this was the period in which we shifted from a hunter-gatherer society to an agriculture-driven one. Yes, shifting to a grain-based diet was bad for our health. But there was much more that suffered. Out of agriculture came accumulation of resources, and culture changed dramatically — from egalitarian to hierarchical and patriarchal. The outcome? Welcome to our modern world: runaway overconsumption, profound inequality, deep alienation from ourselves and one another, and systemic violence against those whom culture does not privilege. It is only in recent years that humans have been using principles of evolutionary psychology to try to correct the mismatch and reconnect with our primal humanity.
So here’s the upshot: most humans are in a pretty sad state right now. Imagine raising a monkey in a barren cage, alone, on a diet of processed pellets. Now imagine taking that adult monkey and releasing her into the jungle. She’d be completely bewildered and vulnerable. What to do with the monkey? Good question — read on.
2. Embrace a sustainability outlook, and become a systems thinker
Fortunately, we are living in a period of enormous and unprecedented change. The effects of our unbridled lust for accumulation of resources at all cost are becoming too destructive for many people to ignore, and we are entering an age of correction: the Sustainability Age. Some people think it’s too late to save our species, and that we’re headed for massive population extinction in the next few decades due to the effects of climate change, resource shortages, etc. And some people think that if we get our act together and start focusing on regenerative practices, many of us will make it through just fine. It’s impossible to know who’s right, but if there’s a chance of survival, we’d be pretty narcissistic if we didn’t at least try to improve our collective plight.
Sustainability is about much more than food — it’s about living in a way that allows our species to survive into the future. Many people within the sustainability field prefer to use the term ‘regenerative,’ but we’re all talking about the same thing: if we don’t make radical changes to every element of our lives, we’re screwed. What do we spend our time doing? What do we spend money on? What energy sources do we use to heat and cool our homes? How do we get around? What do we feed ourselves, and where do we get it? What do we do with our waste? What do we wear? What sorts of businesses and organizations do we support? Which politicians do we support? What do we do to improve our lives? What do we do to improve the lives of those around us?
A sustainability orientation is a systems thinking one. Most people are not educated to be systems thinkers, but with time and an open mind, anyone can get there. Systems thinking is at the core of the Deep Paleo movement — it means looking at the full impact of every choice we make, every action we take, seeing the world as a richly interconnected web. I can’t afford organic food, says the non-systems thinker who downs $40 in cocktails every weekend and spends $400 a month on clothing. Systems thinkers understand that there are tradeoffs and impacts with every decision, and they push themselves to make the best choices for the greater good, rather than blindly choosing what mainstream culture encourages us to consume.
3. Define paleo, and educate others
One of the reasons paleo has such an uneven reputation with the mainstream is that a lot of people (including journalists) seem to misunderstand it. Cavemen lived short lives! Eating all that meat is bad for you and the planet! Brownies aren’t paleo! Why would we want to go back to living in caves?
Here is my take at defining the Deep Paleo movement. Use it liberally, and hopefully the critics will stop complaining and join the tribe.
Paleo does not mean going back to living in caves. Paleo does not mean eating a lot of factory-farmed meat. Paleo does not mean eating only what somebody 100,000 years ago would have had access to. Paleo is a way of living that takes into account the knowledge that we have from the cutting-edge field of ancestral health, so that we can flourish in this modern world.
Paleo recognizes that our species is suffering from a slew of mismatch diseases — from cancer to heart disease to depression — and that by tapping into what we know about ancestral health, we can be radically happier and healthier. Paleo isn’t an all-or-nothing meal plan, it’s a directional guide to move away from the Standard American Diet and towards foods that are sustainable for our bodies, and for the planet.
Crucially, paleo is not just about what we eat. It’s a systems-thinking, sustainability-oriented approach to living, which considers all of our actions in the context of personal, community, and planetary impact. We call into question many precepts of the Standard American Life, and we believe that a paleo approach, when widely adopted, will transform our lives for the better on a micro and macro level.
…to be continued in next week’s post. Stay tuned to find out what you can do to live a Deep Paleo lifestyle.