Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cultural Context

Screenshot from the Soyjoy Website.

Reading a magazine the other day, I paused at a full page ad for SoyJoy, one of the many products offered in the ever-expanding category of nutritional food bar. The ad included a watercolor of a soy plant on a tea-stained background, roots and all. Layered over the root system was a watercolor of a Chinese tea garden and an image of a Buddhist monk in meditation. The copy of the ad praised the long year history of Chinese nutrition and lauded the soybean as its pinnacle ingredient. Now, 5,000 years later, food science has distilled the soybean into a 120-calorie bar (with a few other ingredients thrown in for good measure, like Maltodextrin, derived from the thing Americans love best: corn.)

On the SoyJoy Website, you can scroll through a flash image of the soybean roots, and link to stories about the history of the plant.

This is what pops up when you click on "28th Century"

What's so funny and frustrating about American culture is that we always want to extract the essence of things, to take the unencumbered ingredient and turn it into the great panacea. In our Thoreauvian desire to suck the marrow, we disregard the whole of the animal. Soy is a wonderful example. We want to believe that we can capture the physical and mental health benefits of an entire culture, an entire way of life, by extracting one ingredient (and then manipulating the hell out of it in a food lab). We don't seem to grasp that it is the entirety of the Chinese lifestyle—the very elements of which are identified in this ad campaign—that yields the health benefits our extensive food studies tell us about. The Chinese live longer! They are not obese! They have less heart disease and breast cancer!

We forget about cultural context. We forget that soy is a mere player in a bigger vision of nutrition and lifestyle. It is an integrated component within a complex system.

I would argue that it is this same component thinking that has rendered us incapable of building sustainably in this country. We are excellent at the parts—a new facade material, a better solar panel, a high efficiency HVAC system—but terrible at the whole. The construction and design industry is just too fragmented and we have failed to effectively research the post-occupancy realities of our buildings. How are they functioning once they are up and running? We understand how one thing works in isolation, but we have no idea how they work in tandem; we just don't know how buildings work as systems, and until we do, we will never be able to meet our lofty goals of netzero energy.

On the Soyjoy Website, we are told that we can incorporate the food bar into our diet, and should consider consuming up to 3 a day. "Sometimes, our busy schedules make missing a meal unavoidable. SOYJOY® can be enjoyed as part of a meal on the go."

I wonder what the Buddhist monk featured in their ad campaign would think of that.