Probably the best academic treatment of why modern foods play a role in diseases of civilization.
The De-localization of Thought
In The Atlantic, animal rights author James McWilliams takes foodies to task
Although culinary abstinence might sound downright depressing, if not sanctimonious in its own way, it's actually profoundly empowering. The discipline that permanent dietary sacrifice requires removes agency from the producers of our food and places it directly in the hands of the consumer. It is thus, at its core, activism. But foodies want none of it. Sacrifice isn't their dish. They carry forth under the impression that they can consistently have their local grass-fed beef, line-caught tuna, charcuterie cured in a special cave guarded by a troll. And they never—and I mean never—ask the critical Kantian question: what if everyone in the world consumed these supposedly sustainable alternatives to conventional food? What if their supposedly sustainable and socially just diets were universalized? The answer is that, with the exclusive turned universal, there'd be environmental hell to pay.
At paleohacks.com, a user asks "what good is a diet that does not scale?"
I'd say it's done me a lot of good. It's also done my family a lot of good and a great many others. Maybe not a million people, but for the people who have seen health improvements with this diet, it does matter.
So where does this kind of thinking come from? The idea that because everyone can't have something, it's no good? Is this some kind of socialist dreck?
I don't know, but I'm just very glad that the inventor of the laptop didn't say "Oh, well I guess not everyone can have one of these right now, so I won't bother making them." If he had, I wouldn't be typing this. I am old enough to remember when a laptop was an expensive luxury and the children in my neighborhood were so impressed that my father gave me a broken one that couldn't even connect to the internet.
Unfortunately, so many people want to reduce the world into an equation, to be able to tell EVERYONE in the entire world what is right and wrong and how we have to solve our problems. Perhaps it's a relic of our tribal past, when "everyone" consisted of less than a hundred people. Perhaps it's an unfortunate side effect of centralized government. I don't know. But there is no getting away from the fact that world is unequal and we need local solutions to local problems.
In some parts of the world population is growing, in others it is shrinking (which The Coming Population Crash points out could cause its own problems). In some parts of the world it's quite possible to grow grain sustainably, in other parts it's more efficient to raise cattle. In many parts of the world, people are making agriculture more efficient, such as Wes Jackson's grain project or this pastured livestock soil renewal program in Africa.
Many people would be shocked to know that even such low-tech methods of agriculture like composting have come a long way in the past few decades.
What if someone had just told the African's point-blank that livestock was unsustainable and they should just give it up and grow millet for gruel? I would view that as a gross disrespect of these people's desires, needs, and local environment. I understand that globalization has changed some equations, but while it has made some things more or less efficient, there is no way to make the world flat.
If you asked me about my desire for public health I would tell you that I'd like to see more decentralization. I'd like to see minimal Federal involvement in school lunches, perhaps just give school districts money to use as they see fit? This would allow states to experiment and see what works. I'd like to see food aid decentralized and focused- no giant shipments of surplus grains to destroy local markets, but instead using that money to invest in local infrastructure (Easterly's Aid Watchis my favorite blog on the topic).
Overall, I'd like to see more respect for people's own choices. Too often this is framed as a bad thing, such as this article criticizing military buffets, but those are false choices. As paleo members of the military can attest, they really are not presented with true choices.
I didn't get into paleo to save the world. I just wanted to not be sick all the time. I do think there are some broadly applicable health principles at play, but I'm more into small flexible local solutions than trying to get the world paleo. I do think things can get better for the world, but problems will be solved piecemeal. The arrogance of people with centralized solutions has caused more unintended harm than good.
Don't let people tell you that individual changes and local solutions don't matter. And don't let people tell you that your diet is "unjust" just because everyone in the world can't eat it. Look deeper into their motivations- there is a reason McWilliams isn't interested in the huge environmental impact of California strawberries or the fact that if everyone had a laptop right now it wouldn't be sustainable. That reason is that he's an animal rights activist and like many of his ilk is very much single-minded.
Edit: wow, a very timely post on Aid Watch. Here is Isaiah Berlin describing the views of Alexander Herzan:
….that no single key, no formula can, in principle, solve the problems of individuals or societies; that general solutions are not solutions, universal ends are never real ends….
…that liberty–of actual individuals, in specific times and places–is an absolute value; that a minimum area of free action is a moral necessity for all men, not to be suppressed in the name of abstractions or general principles so freely bandied about by the great thinkers of this or any age, such as … humanity, or progress…names invoked to justify acts of detestable cruelty and despotism, magic formulas designed to stifle the voices of human feeling and consience.