In a world without food

My mind concocts a lot of pointless hypotheticals, and lately these thoughts have been imbued with unusually florid details. Last night I was in a supermarket with a series of hot and salad bars and a cafeteria section off to one side, and imagined what things would look like if everyone suddenly lost not only their knowledge of manners and the geneal rules of order, but all concept of such things. I mean a complete and collective frontal-lobe failure. It would be a jovial yet gruesome (to an observer retaining his own standards of proper behavior) scene. People shoveling everything from carrot sticks to macaroni salad to beef stew into their mouths using their hands. Folks just grabbing what they wanted and casually bypassing the registers en route to the parking lot, perhaps soiling themselves along the way. Noisy copulation in the aisles, people braining each other with coconuts in an effort to secure the last Milky Way bar in the place. It would be Bluto Blutarsky meets Phineas Gage, co-hosting a live broadcast of Wild Kingdom: The Urban Edition.

So I slept on that, and this morning awoke with a better idea.

I found myself picturing a world in which everything was the same as it is save for our requirement for food. We would still somehow grow and develop at the same rate, in the same way and to the same proportions, but we’d be able to gain nourishment in some radically different but physically feasible way–carbon fixation, I guess. We’d be chemoautotrophs or something. Anyway, the biological aspects aren’t important. What is interesting to think about are the lifestyle implications. “A man’s got to eat,” is a common refrain among those who grudgingly keep jobs they despise because they have hungry mouths to feed–their own and, often, those of family members. But what if this weren’t true? At some fundamental level, don’t people work just so they can eat and keep doing other things, even those people with the means to collect all sorts of wonderful toys?

Maybe these considerations sprang to mind because the warming weather in the Front Range has given rise to increasing numbers of people standing on corners with cardboard signs that read HUNGRY, NEED HELP, EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS. I don’t aim to trivialize their plight, even though I know that food equals liquor to a lot of these folks, but I can’t help but wonder if there wouldn’t be a lot more homeless people if nourishment simply were not an issue. I’m not convinced this would be the case, because frankly, sufficient amounts of food is not the greatest problem facing transients in any U.S. community and especially in a place like Boulder, Colorado. Food is available at churches, food banks, and shelters, and a lot of local restaurants give away food at closing time rather than toss it (and there’s one sub shop that reportedly even makes people sandwiches if they need them). More often, it’s finding someplace warm, dry, and out of the reach of harm or the cops that poses the greatest problems, often against the backdrop of wherewithal riddled by mental illness, chronic intoxication or both.

But still: Imagine if we were the same people living the same basic way of life, but didn’t need to eat. I guess it’s fair to assume that we’d still need water, but that other beverages were useless or even poisonous, including booze. What then? Staying with the low end of the SES spectrum for now, I wonder how the complexion of homelessness would change. Would there be more homeless people? I suppose people would still treasure nice dwellings, but the impetus to provide for others would have to lapse in some ways, leading to lassitude and the spread of increasingly itenerary ways. Also, homeless people would no longer be begging for food or alcohol, so what would they do? Hold up signs that read, “NEED SUPER BOWL TIX” or I’M BROKE & SO IS MY PLASMA TV”?

We would also have to find more ways to occupy our leisure time, so much of which is centered on the inevitable need to eat. Downtowns and shopping malls everywhere would look radically different, as half or more of these places are devoted to comestibles in some way. Litter would be scarce, farms nonexistent. In the absence of predation, animals would be unlikely to kill each other and would probably just stay out of each other’s way.

It’s possible that technology would advance much more rapidly, with so much energy available to devote to areas divorced from basic human sustenance. We’re easily bored, though, so it’s likely that whatever space is devoted to food production and consumption in the world we know would go toward things like amusement parks in its food-free counterpart. Instead of Six Flags over Georgia, we’d have Six Hundred Banners over Kansbraska, with roller coasters the size of Rhode Island carrying giddy, screaming hordes on rides lasting 40 hours at a time. (I haven’t decided yet if we’d need to urinate, but defecation is off the table.) Chances are fairly decent that people would copulate more often, both for purposes of producing more kids (why not?) and in order to kill time between endless video games and ten-hour-long movies.

As boring and sterile a vista as this may appear, keep in mind that we wouldn’t know what we’re missing, any more than we now feel deprived because we don’t have multiple sex organs sprouting out of various locations on our bodies that are in need of stimulation every five minutes. Even if some of us act as if we do.

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  1. #1 by Warren on March 14, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    I’m not convinced that capitalism or its predecessors would even have got off the ground. If you look at most financial and governmental systems as methods of controlling access to goods, you can see that a lot of civilization as it exists now is a form of imposed scarcity.

    That is, if I have more power than you, I simply control more assets in one form or another. Well, what’s the single greatest asset I might be able to control, for which you’d do virtually anything? Food, right?

    So if there’s no need for food, there’s no way for me to impose that basic artificial scarcity. I snap up hectares of land – so what? I build walls around my pastures and granaries – to what purpose? I don’t even have granaries to begin with.

    If I can’t control or dominate you by threatening your nourishment, what other means may I have to control or dominate you? Not too bloody many.

    So a world without food might look a bit like cetacean societies: Loose aggregates of individuals that bond socially, gambol more or less freely, are generally good-natured and more or less safe from predation, and don’t recognize boundaries.

  2. #2 by Barlow on March 14, 2011 - 5:50 pm

    nice. I like thinking about this type of stuff. People would still kill each over land disputes or religion or because someone showed some sign of disrespect. Open areas would get messed up with over use and development since our population would explode. Migrations of animals in the wild would be ruined and that would cause a lot of species to go extinct. If all liquids are poison, a blow job could be a death sentence.

  3. #3 by Barlow on March 14, 2011 - 6:05 pm

    Warren, I disagree. Land would become scarce. And as Kemibe pointed out we would look to other forms of entertainment since food takes so much of time now. Things like mp3 players and TV and movies and anything else that would stimulate our other senses would be in greater demand. Those would become scarce since everyone would want them and want better and better ones. Copyright laws would be probably be tighter. People would want to protect the rights of those who can develop music so there would be a incentive to produce good music, books, and movies. I’d invest in exercise equipment since poorer people without the means for other forms of entertainmentn would be fucking all the time and dropping kids out since they had nothing better to do. If you went for a run outside in a park you would probably have to run through a maze of poor teenage guys guys swinging their dicks around hoping to find a mate.

  4. #4 by kemibe on March 14, 2011 - 6:27 pm

    One thing I neglected to mention is that for whatever reason, human lifespans would remain the same. People’s cellular machinery would age and wear out just as it does now. Alternatively, people would never functionally age once they passed 30 or so, and would live at their physical and mental peaks until suddenly exploding between the ages of 75 and 80. Society would get used to this, and with pain being minimal, so too would grief be reduced.

  5. #5 by Warren on March 14, 2011 - 6:53 pm

    Barlow – those scenarios might happen if our current need for food was removed; however, if it was something we’d evolved with, I’m not certain most of the things you mentioned (MP3 players, copyrights, parks) would ever have been developed, simply because you wouldn’t have the artificial scarcity imposed by governments or religions controlling access to food.

    I know that sounds like a hell of a big leap, but bear with me for a moment here. Some of humans’ earliest technological advances appear to have been developed primarily to pursue and acquire food.

    Those who were able to acquire more food than others ended up more powerful; they were in a superior position relative to others.

    Those individuals who then went on to establish cities created a kind of scarcity. Local assets (fields, game ranges, etc.) were meant for the city, not the surrounding loose clans, and would have to be defended. After all, the citizens had to be fed.

    So you get more technology in terms of defense (walls, architecture), you get specializations (farmers, hunters, butchers), you get hierarchies to control who gets what, who does what, who can have what (laws, enforcement, punishment). All of this requires both creation/innovation, and a lot of force to keep it all under control.

    It’s not so big a jump any longer to equate food availability with money, or artificial scarcity with perceived worth, or innovation with methods to keep the system in place.

    Thus, civilization as we recognize it today might never have had any reason to get started, if we didn’t have a need to eat.

  6. #6 by Barlow on March 14, 2011 - 7:56 pm

    I agree things would have developed diffrently but we would still have scarcity issues but it may not be as different as you think.

    Instead of food, areas where there was other natural resources would be in demand.

    For example, an area with trees would be value. People would want the trees to build shelter and for fires at night and for warmth in the winter. Areas that provide material for transportation vechicles or for energy would be demand once people saw those areas or resources are a valuable item.

    Lets talk about an area with trees. A family would live in an area with trees. Then you would have families protecting say the area they live in near the trees from other people coming in and taking the trees in there area. Then they would form into tribes to protect a bigger area so some people can work security and others can plant trees and other can harvest the trees others to help when people get injured. Another person might figure out new uses with the trees like developing the trees into a book or make a toy. Eventually you get something similar to where we are now.

    If one set of parents see little Jimmy’s friend has a toy that Jimmy loves, those parent will want to buy little Jimmy that toy. People will still want to give their kids a good life beyond giving them food. They will want to provide them good and a safe place to live. And with a lot of people running about safe places would cost money so they will want to work to get things beyond food.

  7. #7 by Barlow on March 14, 2011 - 8:07 pm

    I meant their area.

    Anyway, without food and the rituals and time spent getting it, people would have a ton of time on their hands and there would be a lot of fucking going on. I am not sure how disease is going to work in this world.

    I am trying to figure out what the limiting factor to population increase would be. War and disease?

    I guess since we still need to drink water that big areas of desert big areas of desert would be inhospitable. But since we haven’t planted crops we won’t have as much desertification.

  8. #8 by Warren on March 15, 2011 - 6:34 pm

    Range is probably a factor here. Some of it would have to do with how nutrition was received, quite possibly. However, I’m still not sure about the territorial concerns. Our closest cousins, chimps and bonobos, don’t have territorial disputes*, which makes me wonder if we would either.

    As for tree-dwelling societies – by and large, they seem to have been doing quite well, until civilization interferes. Again, there’s no sense of resource scarcity, so there’s little conflict. If my neighbor’s kid has a toy, how hard would it be for me to go out and make a similar toy?

    I’m assuming there would still be the usual causes of death, such as age, illness (disease would still exist, since bacteria and viruses behave as they do without necessarily seeking food so much as a means to reproduce), accident, predation, etc. Our range as a species is very large now, but it wasn’t always so, and the only thing that’s let us spread as we have is civilization. Take away that prop, and you have hunter-gatherers living in little pods, rather than tower-builders. Take away the hunter-gatherer component, and you don’t even have much motivation for anyone to go anywhere in the first place.

    War is one of those things that happens because of resource scarcity, or perceived resource scarcity (largely, anyway). Yet we don’t see it happening in other species. When one wolf pack rubs up against the boundary of another, there’s no plotting of a hostile takeover; there’s just a reading of scent markings and a concomitant adjustment of range. This may be partly due to the fact that wolves probably don’t fear running out of prey – they don’t have a sense of resource paucity. Thus they don’t have much reason to invade another pack’s domain.

    It’s not impossible that local amenities might be desirable enough to incite boundary-making (and thus disputes), but it’s difficult to think of something as totally abundant as trees being such an obsessive focus of desire that it would seem more worthwhile to corral and control them, than to just pull up stakes, move a mile to the east (or west, or whatever), and take up habitation in a place where you don’t have some jackaninny declaring all the local deciduous to be his exclusive property.

    Getting back to the initial question – would there be homelessness if we didn’t need to eat, and everything else remained the same? – yes, because we’ve become accustomed to the myth that there aren’t enough things in the world for everyone, so we set up careful social institutions to ensure that we will always have enough, whether or not that means others will suffer.

    ==

    * Jane Goodall has been one of the people to recant chimp territorial disputes, not the least because it was her introduction of timed release of bananas from locked enclosures that imposed artificial food scarcity on local chimps. There’s little to no evidence that chimps, if left unmolested by humans, engage in territorial dispute to any significant degree.

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