The Simple Life is Not So Simple


Am I orthorexic? If so, can I have it fixed? Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defence of Food, brings us a new eating disorder – orthorexia nervosa, the obsession with healthy eating. Unlike anorexia and bulimia, orthorexia is not about being thin, but it can kill you all the same. And, paradoxically, just being the type to read the book puts you in the orthorexia ballpark.

In Defence of Food continues where The Omnivore’s Dilemma left off. Onto Omnivore’s background of the politico-ecology of food, Defence paints an altogether more personal foreground of how food culture, history and psychology come together around a few simple, practical how-to-eat rules.

As Pollan notes, foods that are actually healthy are usually (but not always) also environmentally and ethically preferable. A similar theme underlies my own book. Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness examines the paradox that the universal and single-minded pursuit of happiness seems capable of jeopardising our very existence, underpinned by the intuition that for western and west-leaning societies the fingers – environmental, aesthetic and moral – are all pointing in the same direction. That is, towards a simpler, leaner life.

Pollan starts here: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." By the end, he’s added a few more: don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food; pay more, eat less; avoid so-labelled "health foods"; eat mostly plants, especially leaves; eat meals; don’t eat anything that won’t rot; cook; grow things and get out of the supermarket.

That’s not all, but you can see the book’s subversive potential – and how subversive the next book will be, if Pollan stays on track to examine how such behavioural change, once generalised, would rearrange our lives and cities.

Here and there such thinking already pokes through, like in the fascinating passage about flour. When roller-milling (as opposed to stone-grinding) made snowy white flour generally available, it not only removed much of bread’s food value but also vastly improved its durability, ending at a blow the need for localised, village-based flour-mills.

Ironically too, the really far-flung cultures were often those most affected by this industrialisation, with white flour (and sugar) transforming the diet of, for example, many Aboriginal groups. Pollan cites an experiment undertaken with diabetic Aborigines who returned to a strict bush-tucker diet and lifestyle, and within seven weeks showed clear health improvements.

But this is no noble savage polemic. Pollan argues that any traditional diet, be it Japanese, Greek, Aboriginal or Inuit, is better than an industrialised "western diet". And anyone can do it, even those who, like him, must grow their veggies on a "postage stamp city lot". This is the "simple life", and very attractive it is. But both the analysis – like the health injunction against health food – and the implementation quickly get complicated.

Life isn’t simple, except in a complicated way. Humans are mysterious, changeable and contradictory. To make matters worse, or maybe better, they connect in complicated ways to an immensely complex universe. Simplicity, even if we could achieve it, would probably bore most of us silly within weeks, or even days.

Blubberland‘s central argument, then is survival. Simplifying our lives, as Thoreau or the Buddha or perhaps Pollan would have it, is all very well. But to survive, we must all learn to elevate our minds and hearts, to see over the back fence, into our hardwiring and maybe even something of the bigger, consequential picture. is sponsoring ‘The Simple Life‘, featuring Elizabeth Farrelly and Michael Pollan, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this Friday.

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