Living and thriving in two worlds

Note: This essay originally appeared in Paleo magazine

There comes a time in every young Paleo enthusiast’s life when the magnitude of our predicament comes into sharp focus. We begin to realize that our bodies are truly ancient, sculpted over the course of tens of thousands of generations for survival in a world that, for all practical purposes, no longer exists. And now, by way of a sudden, radical transformation to culture and infrastructure, we live in a truly alien environment, a world that is distinctly hostile to our minds, bodies and spirits. Alien dwellings, transportation, lighting, food, social arrangements, sensory experience; every dimension sharply at odds with who we really are. No wonder our bodies are diseased, no wonder our spirits are anxious and depressed.

As we learn more about our predicament, these insights gain power and momentum; today’s world begins to look poisonous, destructive and hostile to everything we hold dear. We become increasingly disturbed, motivated and then passionate. We set out to change the world or at least educate its inhabitants to the dangers of modern life. But when our passion meets inertia and resistance, we become frustrated, then strident, then extremist. We adopt a high-contrast, black-and-white view of the world; we romanticize the deep past of our ancestors and demonize the present. We dismiss the modern world as a dystopia of disease and disempowerment; the sooner it collapses into chaos, the better. Naturally, this hard-core view wins us allies in the extremist community, but in general, it fails to inspire or transform.

Our impulse to reject modernity is completely authentic, legitimate and understandable. Indeed, it is almost a prerequisite for membership in the Paleo community. And yes, there can be no question about it; the modern world is a powerful source of disease, stress and unhappiness. But by itself, anti-modern zealotry will lead us nowhere. In the first place, modernity simply isn’t going away; the agricultural-industrial-digital juggernaut has too much momentum. Blanket rejections of all things modern are simply impractical and impossible to sustain. Like it or not, we’ve got to use cars, computers and other technologies if we’re going to be effective agents for change.

And as for going backwards to a primal utopia, this too is an impossible fantasy. Primal habitats and ways of living have almost entirely disappeared; for most people, there is simply nowhere to go. You may want to give up all your possessions and live naked in the Australian outback, but you’ll have a hard time getting any friends to go along for the ride.

But even worse, our Paleo-militancy leads us into a dangerous personal and existential trap. That is, we begin to blame the modern world for all our personal ills, even in cases where modernity has nothing whatsoever with our individual predicaments and struggles. In effect, the modern world becomes a scapegoat for everything that ails us. Whatever our problems, our anxieties, our pains or misfortunes, it must be because of our modern environment. Our personal insecurities, our social and career misfortunes; these problems would all disappear if we lived in the golden age of hunter-gatherer primalism. Our rage, our depression, our frustrated dreams–it’s the world’s fault, not our own. In this process, our relationship with the world becomes adversarial and in turn, we become isolated.

The challenge before us is integration. It’s tempting to trash modernity in all its manifestations, but there’s good and bad in every age. Just as the African grassland inflicted misery on our bodies in the form of heatstroke, carnivore attacks and snake bites, so too does the modern world offer up a host of genuine benefits and wonders. For all its poisonous foods, invasive technologies, destructive ideas and disempowering conditions, the modern world can also nourish us. We have a cornucopia of knowledge and opportunities at our fingertips. We are swimming in a sea of innovation and curiosity. We are surrounded by millions of authentic, creative people who are doing great work. Vaccines, antiseptics, antibiotics and modern diagnostics have saved us from unimaginable suffering. For all its perversions, greed and excess, the modern world has delivered a wealth of innovation, opportunity and yes, health.

So maybe we need to keep a foot in each camp. Our challenge, as Paleo-cardiologist James O’Keefe puts it, is to find and adopt “the best of both worlds.” Adopt as much of the primal experience as we can, but take advantage of modernity’s wonders too. Go outside, get dirty, cold and hungry, lost and awestruck by the natural world. Challenge your body with primal movements, long-distance travel and exposure. Then, enjoy what modernity has to offer: the hot shower, the clean clothes, the good book and the warm place to sleep. Taken together, these two approaches will produce an even more vibrant state of health.

And health, of course, is precisely what we need for effective activism in this world.