Henry David Thoreau and human necessities

It’s hard to believe that this time half a decade ago (wow!), I was in the computer lounge with my classmates cramming in the final sentences of our capstones. We sported fashionable panda eyes from the lack of sleep and encouraged each other with morbid jokes about what it would be like if we didn’t finish. “Yeah, being a super senior might not be that bad.” Right now, my alma mater’s seniors just finished theirs and it’s unbelievable that I was in their position five years ago.

Capstone was fulfilling because everything I learned in undergrad came together in this project. I found my passion and was able to understand it from an academic standpoint. In this article, I’ll be tackling the endeavor of obtaining food as a necessity and how that impacts human happiness. In my last article, I mentioned “pulling a ‘Walden’” as an alternative approach to embody the philosophical values of the organic movement. Let’s delve into that further and discuss why Thoreau’s ideas are still relevant. Here we go:

“Thoreau recognized that, as a result of the changes that emerged during the Industrial Revolution, the rules of living had become more complicated with greater barriers being placed in reaching human happiness. For Thoreau, happiness implied living on the bare necessities of life. He defined them as, ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’ (Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003, Page 14.)

It was especially important for Thoreau to reflect on and establish the needs of human life in ‘Walden’ because the economic shift that took place during the Industrial Revolution distracted people from their necessities. In a systemized economy, people’s direct needs steered away from the obtainment of food, clothing and shelter. It was replaced by the pursuit of working jobs in order to earn the wages to purchase food that was prepared by someone else. Thoreau set out to simplify his life by directly being responsible for his basic needs.”

Henry David Thoreau was an American transcendentalist who famously critiqued the government for controlling people’s consciousness. He believed that every individual has a duty to act against authorities before they became “agents of injustice.” In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” originally published in 1849, he discussed how people’s actions under the government contributed to evil. One example was how tax monies collected from people were being used to fund the Mexican-American War. They unknowingly participated in inhumane causes, turning them into evil beings. This reality severely disturbed Thoreau, who took matters into his own hands and found a simpler life outside of civilization.

“Walden,” originally published in 1854, is the account of his life spent in Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts for over two years. Thoreau himself was a participant of the “mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation,” as he says in “Walden.” Refusing to let government rule over his consciousness, he immersed himself in a natural surrounding seeking to understand the state of civilization. During those two years, he lived on basic necessities with no distractions. Living in nature allowed him to emulate the rhythm of the ecosystems and reflect on what it means to be human. “Walden” convinced me that as our lives become less in-sync with the environment, the more government takes over our consciousness.

If I could live the way that Thoreau did, all my necessities would be right in front of me. That would be such a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t have to work forty hours every week to pay New York rent, buy myself food and be lured by luxury goods. Instead, I could live cozily in a cabin that was built with my own hands and eat food that grew in my backyard. With all the time I earned back from simplifying my lifestyle, I could be reading, running and reflecting. Unfortunately, this is not the way it works in society. As a participant of civilization, I have inescapable duties. And to be honest, I don’t have the courage like Thoreau did to break the law to actually stand up for my humanistic values. At least, not yet.

Let’s put into perspective the distance between people and food. In the beginning, we have the production stage where plants are harvested and animals are grown. Then they go into the processing stage where plants and animals may be cleaned, cut, roasted, smoked, or pasteurized. It can be anything else that takes natural resources and turns them into the food that we recognize today. They are turned over to another set of hands to package, transport and distribute. Once the food reaches the store, they can finally be displayed on shelves to be purchased.

It’s disturbing how much I rely on many sets of hands that make up the industrial food chain. There are efforts made to provide people with transparency and assure that they’re given “honest” food. But let’s be real. Do I personally know these people? Do they have a reputation for being reliable? Do I have a reason to believe that their storytelling and labeling gimmicks stem from honesty? No, no and absolutely not. The amount of time and energy I spend on even trying to figure out where my food comes from is tiresome. So I do what most others do. I blindly consume.

When we have this long distance relationship with our needs, we also have a long distance relationship with our happiness. Most people who live in a civilized society have no clue where their food comes from. Because of this, we become vulnerable and consciousless creatures that contribute to so many inhumane causes. There are many issues in the food industry such as unfair wages and dangerous working conditions and we participate in them as supporters by eating what we eat. That’s just the beginning and needs to be saved for a separate discussion. We are losing touch with our own consciousness by being unaware of our impact on society with our consumption habits. This disgusts me. If I truly want to bring myself happiness and the assurance that I’m standing up for my beliefs, I need to be responsible for my own needs. We can’t get simpler than that.

It’s difficult to wrap my head around the relationship between human necessities and happiness because it’s profound. For most people, the organic movement is worth supporting simply because they don’t want tarnished food. That’s fine and that’s their choice. However, there’s no doubt that our food industry is a disturbing reflection of the human condition. This movement is meaningful to me because I see it as a way to restore the relationship between humans and food. I wholeheartedly believe that this is one of the ways we can bring ourselves happiness. We’ll dig furher into this discussion in another article. I want to bring you back to this quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”




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