Additional Issues with the Balance and Accuracy of the Anti-Musk Narrative

After posting my reassessment of Elon Musk yesterday, I saw that the initial responses were mostly positive and to the effect that my reading seemed to be balanced and fair. A couple of interesting issues and angles have come to my attention in the day that has followed.

One topic concerns whether the Tesla Model S is quite as great as some initial magazine reviews suggested. Another is the narrative that Tesla could not survive without subsidies, given the alleged phenomenon of "sales dropping to zero" as soon as subsidies end. The third is a rather surprising turn—evidence that Elon Musk has been speaking out against electric vehicle subsidies and that he has been promoting their abolition.

Not so great?

A reader pointed out that Consumer Reports, after initially reviewing the Model S with glowing superlatives was then forced to remove the car from its recommended list in late 2015. The reason was that poor reliability reports were coming in. Things were breaking and needing fixing at a relatively high rate.

I have seen superior assessments of the Model S on safety, performance, buyer experience, total buyer maintenance cost, and service relationship. That is quite a list of superlatives for an upstart company selling an entirely new type of car. It is the safest car on the road. It has the fastest acceleration. In doing all this, it is quiet. Actually, it can swim in flood waters like a James Bond boat (the manufacturer does not recommended making a practice of this though). In the area of service, Tesla employees show up at people's homes to fix the car and then leave.

Reliability strikes me as just the sort of area that would depend most on improvement over time through iterations of experience. Here we have a completely new company with a completely new type of car up against century-old companies building incremental advancements of century-old types of cars (at least in comparing the Model S to conventional luxury sedans). My prediction would be that the reliability issues should be steadily improving as specific issues are identified and fixed and the company learns from experience, redesigns parts, adjusts suppliers, etc. A small-scale version of this phenomenon is why I never buy a new number release of an iPhone, but always wait for the "S" version. Most major engineering issues are introduced with the whole number redesigns and have been eliminated by the time the upgrade iteration arrives. One can prioritize being first and taking on a higher risk of issues, or wait until the earliest adopters have already served as the Guinea Pigs. It is a matter of personal preference.

Evidence quality behind claim of zero sales without subsidies

As for the narratives that no one would buy Tesla cars without subsidies, here's one specific claim from a recent article: "After Hong Kong rescinded a tax break for EVs effective in April, Tesla sales in April dropped to zero."

I have not researched or considered any detailed multi-country or up-to-date data on this, but looking only at this one statement, it immediately occurred to me that it is quite common for buyers of higher-end items or capital equipment to be aware of the end or the beginning of major tax or subsidy changes and then time their purchases accordingly. Even much more broadly, sales always rise before a sales-tax increase, then drop off for some time after the change takes effect. There is typically some degree of "sales rush" leading up to such a change followed by a sales drop-off and eventually normalization. The particular time scales depend on the specifics of the product.

This makes me wonder just how much of this "sales dropped to zero" narrative might be an artifact of such normal smart-buyer timing. The only surprising outcome would be if buyers of $100,000 items would delay purchases until after an available discount was set to evaporate. To assess this, the whole data series in each case, including well after the change in subsidy, would have to be analyzed to account for this common factor in sales trend analysis. Or one could omit such analysis, cite figures immediately after the end of the subsidy, and thereby appear to have solid evidence for a subsidy-dependency narrative.

Does the alleged subsidy queen actually want subsidies?

The final issue I found was actually quite surprising. With so many critics painting Musk as a subsidy-seeking corporate welfare queen, I just sort of accepted this as though it must be true. I know he is a deal-maker and seeks out the best opportunities to acquire factory land, for example, and this includes getting the best possible deals from governments. But does he actively seek subsidies? According to the anti-Musk narrative, he must, right?

Just before I found the information below, it had already occurred to me on logical grounds that if some subsidies are of fixed amounts per electric vehicle, which many are, they may well have been LESS important to Tesla than to its competitor electric-vehicle makers (of course, this doesn't address the advantage relative to FF vehicles). A $7,500 subsidy on a $100,000 car (Models S and X) is 7.5% of the purchase price, the equivalent of a couple of options more or less. This same subsidy on a $30,000 car is a 25% discount. True, the latter case would now also apply more to the new Model 3, but this has not been the context for these criticisms in the past.

Just after having this thought, a simple search revealed something I did not expect to see at all:

At a May 2017 earnings call, Musk made the following statements:

In fact, the incentives give us a relative disadvantage. Tesla has succeeded in spite of the incentives not because of them...Tesla's competitive advantage improves as the incentives go away. This continues to be something that is not well understood...
I should perhaps touch again on this whole notion of—it's almost like over the years there's been all these sort of irritating articles like Tesla survives because of government subsidies and tax credits. It drives me crazy. Here's what those fools don't realize. Tesla is not alone in the car industry; all those things would be material if we were the only car company in existence. We are not. There are many car companies. What matters is whether we have a relative advantage in the market.

As Anton Wahlman explained (4 May 2017):

Musk's argument is that the tax subsidies are worth more to Tesla's competitors than to Tesla, and that therefore Tesla would be better off without them, relatively speaking. Musk has made this argument in previous forums before, including on a previous earnings call as I recall, in the context of California's ZEV (zero emissions vehicle) credits, which Tesla is able to sell to other automakers as a purely politically engineered 100% gross margin profit. He made the argument on the 1Q 2017 earnings call again. In that ZEV case, his argument is that Tesla sells these $5,000-a-pop credits to other automakers at a discount, whereas those automakers make and consume some of those $5,000-a-pop credits internally without applying such a discount.

If removing subsidies removes a competitive disadvantage for Tesla, this might easily be written off as simply strategic self-interested promotion once again. However, if we are engaging in a moral assessment of Musk the public figure and claiming that he shamelessly seeks to live off the public purse, his active opposition to electric vehicle subsidies still does not fit all that smoothly into the anti-Musk narrative that I sought to qualify in my recent post. In addition, it cannot have been lost on Musk that the end of EV subsidies would also remove a special price advantage over conventional vehicles, against which Tesla also competes.

Interestingly, Wahlman's article went on to explain why other automakers might also be happy to be free of EV subsidies—they come with expensive strings attached.

Elon Musk apparently looks forward to competing in a subsidy-free world (who knew?). But what about the other automakers? Wouldn't lower subsidies for electric cars mean fewer electric cars sold for them?..It sure would. And the other automakers would love it too!
Why? Because under the current regime, they are manipulated by both the U.S. Federal tax code, as well as by California's ZEV mandate, to develop and produce more electric cars than for which there is true natural free-market demand. And that means billions of dollars in investment for products that they eventually have to dump at negative margins.

In writing my reassessment of Elon Musk, I suspected the anti-Musk narrative to be a bit overdrawn, tending too far toward the negative in an imbalanced way that does not do justice to the reality and tends to dismiss valid positives in the sweep of also-valid negatives. The observations and discoveries above now seem to indicate that the evidence and thinking behind the anti-Musk narrative might be even somewhat weaker than I had been suspecting. I think the ultimate point is to strive for a realistic and nuanced assessment: to call the positives positive and the negatives negative and acknowledge that both streams are present in parallel.

A Mixed Hero: A Libertarian Reassessment of Elon Musk


Many libertarians seem to love to hate Elon Musk these days. His crime is to live at the public purse. His companies would be bankrupt without green subsidies and cheap government loans and contracts. He seeks out favorable terms from governments and angles to capture subsidies and cheap loans with no reservation and with vast success at doing so. This situation, along with certain financing practices and relationships among his companies, has led to it becoming fashionable to disdain Musk as a public figure and to characterize him with sweeping put-downs.

I have a more complex assessment of Musk as a figure. I enjoyed listening to his 2015 biography by Ashlee Vance. I tend to look for the positive things in people. One positive quality here is the ability to re-envision products from the ground up in a completely different way. The Tesla is not just the evolution of the car, but a completely new way to think about what a car is. A car is a thing with an engine and a drive train, right? True for a century, but not any more. Musk has done in the fields of cars and rockets, what Steve Jobs did for computers and phones, completely re-envisioned what they could be, how they could be built, and how they could be used.

A second quality is execution under very challenging circumstances. Anyone can have big ideas, but only the few are able to successfully execute on them in the "really existing" world. SpaceX's rocket designs and rocket reuse and the Tesla Model S were almost universally deemed impossible—until the job was actually done. Rocket reuse was just a science-fiction fantasy. SpaceX did it. An electric car "that didn't suck" was also an impossibility—until Tesla built the Model S, which has been assessed by multiple car review magazines as basically the best car in the world, bar none, on both safety and performance. It is not only as good as conventional vehicles, it leaves them all behind, not just on green measures, but on car measures as such.

So from a simple first look, at this level, one could argue that however these things were achieved, they were at least potentially positive achievements (though this assessment will be qualified further below). In addition, Musk cannot be accused of relying on subsidies to the exclusion of also having skin in the game. He has repeatedly staked recklessly large portions of his personal fortune on bridging impossible-looking financial stretches for his enterprises.

I fully support the view that actively advocating for the expenditure of public funds is immoral. The only moral way to advocate for the use of public funds is to argue in favor of their return to the people to whom they rightfully belong, namely those whose wealth was forcibly extracted, mainly the original taxpayers.

On the other hand, if taxpayers in their role as victims of the state accept state handouts that are already flowing—provided they do not actively advocate for the continuation of such handouts—it is perfectly moral for them to take receipt of such funds as a form of limited restitution for other damages they suffer at the state's hands on a constant basis. This includes not only direct taxation but all the myriad seen and unseen harms from the arbitrary "regulation" of many aspects of life and work, all unjust restrictions on the liberties of mutually consensual production, trade, and association.

In this context, Musk's actions in relation to subsidies and government contracts must be viewed as mixed. Green vehicle subsidies, for example, already existed before Tesla. Building a car that would qualify for them does not—in itself—constitute advocating for the subsidy program. Seeing only crappy electric cars receiving subsidies, an entrepreneur could quite reasonably set out to build a better competing car that would also receive these same pre-existing subsidies instead of the crappy golf-cart cars.

Of course, Musk certainly does promote such programs. However, only at the point where he benefits from programs the adoption or maintenance of which was actually influenced by his advocacy—does a moral case against his benefiting from them become unmistakable. The minimal conceptual dividing line is that simply benefiting from subsidies is not objectionable per se, advocating for them is objectionable, and advocating for them and then also receiving benefits as a result of such advocacy is the worst case.

In this view, I suspect that his guilt is far more mixed than a simplistic portrayal of "his company benefits from subsidies, and could not exist without them." His enterprises have surely benefited in all three types of ways, ranging from acceptable to less acceptable to not acceptable.

Context is also important. No car company would exist in its current form and at its current scale without unimaginably massive subsidies continuously provided to all automobiles over many decades, distorting not only the entire structure of transportation, but also the very formation and shapes of cities and communities. This vast structural distortion of the entire transportation industry, which systematically twists spatial relationships between residences and businesses, takes a simple form: the production and maintenance of roads provided free of charge to drivers, financed by taxation. A simple heuristic to consider while commuting is that every time one has to pay by waiting, such as in a long line or in thick traffic, the state is squarely to blame.

In prosecuting Musk for his moral position in relation to the receipt of government support, another "extenuating circumstance" of wider context must be considered. What his companies have done with the money and other advantages he receives from state entities is far more valuable a contribution than almost anything else that follows from other uses of such money and advantages.

Most of the state's money goes to "the production of bads," to use Hoppe's terminology, as opposed to the free market's production of goods. We do not want the production of bads to be carried out more efficiently. Indeed, we do not want bads to be produced at all—less of them is better.

Not only is the money the state extracts from the productive population wasted once when initially extracted, the ways that this money is subsequently used are generally quite wasteful a second time, compounding the damage to society. In the US case, most government money goes to the following types of uses: financing global military interventionism and promoting armed conflict and death all around the world, financing vast bureaucracies that meddle in all aspects of society, undermining healthy natural incentives, promoting fragility, harming employment, limiting innovation, and spreading social and cultural degeneration, high time preference, frailty, and dependency across the population.

Against this backdrop, Tesla has extracted something from the stream of public money and used it as part of a project which has produced arguably the best car the world has ever seen.

Why libertarians should want to focus vitriol on this, one of the best existing uses of the state's handouts is somewhat mysterious. Why not spend the same time complaining about the 99+% of uses of state subsidies and privileges that lead to worse outcomes than this?

It is far easier to criticize than to achieve. A sad and strong cultural tendency is to find flaws in hero figures and emphasize those flaws over their positive characteristics. But what does such cultural cynicism bring?

My approach is the opposite in two ways: focusing on the positive and focusing on qualities. I look for admirable aspects of a person. I look for actions and qualities to which positive adjectives such as heroic can be applied, rather than attempting to apply a blanket noun such as hero (or not a hero) to necessarily multifaceted persons. I always look for what I can admire and/or borrow, in both people and thought systems. If I were to look for the worst in others and focus on that, it would be simple, but would accomplish nothing, since I would always find and focus on negative aspects of persons, aspects which I did not want to emulate. If instead I look for the best in each person, I always have something available to learn from and emulate. Likewise, if I look for the best in each thought system, and dismiss the rest, I always have one new puzzle piece to add to my own global knowledge synthesis.

I agree that Musk is guilty of actively seeking to gain from state handouts. However, this is partly mitigated in that at least some of these handouts were already being handed out, and could therefore be legitimately captured as partial restitution for other damages that the state continuously inflicts. It is also partly mitigated in that the uses to which these funds are being put are arguably positive developments relative to the worse outcomes that result from almost all other uses of money derived from state coffers.

It should be made clear that extenuating circumstances do not make it morally acceptable to advocate for the receipt of subsidies from the state. Nevertheless, guilt on this count (albeit probably somewhat more mitigated guilt than some critics have implied) should not be interpreted such as to invalidate the man's positive attributes and accomplishments.

As I read Musk's biography a couple years back, I came to view him more as the type of mixed Randian semi-hero who blends a certain heroic genius in some areas with serious flaws elsewhere. His genius is a vision- and engineering-driven entrepreneurship that has proven able to repeatedly achieve "the impossible" in practice in productive sectors of technological achievement (mainly transportation). One of his flaws is being all too gleeful in his pursuit of capturing ill-gotten gains from the state as one of the means he uses in this process.

The purest of the Randian superheroes all went on vacation from their professions in an exclusive mountain resort. Engaging with the real world to achieve great things today is often messy and complex. This is not an excuse to soften one's moral principles in action. However, Musk's own moral worldview contains no compunctions about attempting to influence state and regulatory actions, including in favor of his own enterprises. He can therefore be accused of being morally mistaken on this topic. Yet this amounts to the relatively simple claim that he is not a libertarian, which I do not think is in dispute.

I do not buy into the bases of some of Musk's bigger-picture motivations, above all global warming death hype. In addition, I argue in "The Unbearable Lightness of Martian Gravity" that his Mars colonization vision could very well turn out to be a dead-end, not on technical grounds, but on biological ones. That said, I do not criticize in order to take down a hero figure. I acknowledge and appreciate the heroic aspects of the figure, while also acknowledging the flaws and pointing out what I believe to be the errors.

Ron Paul said that if we are reducing the size of the state, the place to start is not with old ladies' state pension checks, but with outlandish militarism and a state-orchestrated monetary system that enables virtually unlimited debt financing for the state and its cronies. Probably one of the last things to cut out in dismantling the interventionist state is old ladies' pension checks, and this after other policies that have undermined responsible private retirement saving, real insurance, and natural multi-generational care practices have been long since eliminated.

Likewise, libertarians complaining about uses to which government money is being put might consider that Tesla subsidies could well be among the best uses to which such money is currently being put. They might therefore redirect their attention and vitriol to the widespread mass production of unmistakable "bads" financed by the state, those that are far worse than some of the more impressive American engineering innovations in recent memory.

Outlines of a Unified Evolutionary Theory of Human and Environmental Health


Healthy food and its production should be possible and mutually compatible. The components of what follows have been developing in the world for a long time, but in obscure corners. Now, aided by the incomparable power of the internet to spread heretical information, these insights are spreading. Evidence is being collected and disseminated in unprecedented ways. Here, they will be presented as parts of a synthesis, in which each part reinforces the others. A page of recommended resources to follow up on each topic is linked at the end.

1. Evolutionary health perspectives

Technological progress has many benefits. Yet some aspects of older styles of life, including patterns of sleeping, eating, and moving, and also aspects of food production, may have been healthier for people and environment alike than typical modern versions. Rediscovering and re-engaging some of these could raise health and well-being today.

The principle of evolution by natural selection revolutionized biology. Evolutionary theory can also help sort out the deeply confused and corrupted modern field of nutrition, though not on its own. There are several lines of evidence to go with it: biochemical pathways and interactions, controlled nutrition experiments (not epidemiological studies, which are both commonly performed and mostly useless), and archaeological and anthropological investigations of hunter-gatherer groups.

The illusion in hunter/gatherer mortality statistics

 Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, by Edward S. Curtis.

Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, by Edward S. Curtis.

One line of evidence is research on hunter/gatherer populations conducted prior to their taking up modern practices such as eating sugar and grain and sitting around a lot and snacking. Some of this research was conducted by Weston Price. These groups were found to be either free of or far less subject to the “diseases of civilization,” including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cognitive degeneration, and chronic joint and tooth decay.

A popular image of hunter/gatherer groups is that their lives were "nasty, brutish, and short." Quoting statistics on low average life expectancy among such groups is a favorite maneuver of casual critics. But such numbers conceal more than they reveal. Non-dietary factors in pre-modern life collapse the averages. These other factors include rampant infant and childhood mortality, death of mothers in childbirth, predators, prey fighting back, fights and battles among rivals, accidents and resulting infections, and infectious diseases. The overwhelming factor behind improved average life expectancy in modern times is the alleviation of such tragedies as these, above all, large numbers of babies dying before age one. Changes in such data tell us of the effects of modern hygiene and medicine. However, they tell us nothing about what we are investigating: What are the effects of nutrition and lifestyle on health and long-term degenerative conditions?

Evidence suggests rather that hunter-gatherers who survived the diseases and battles of youth tended to live long, with high awareness, robustness, and capability and little to no sign of the many and varied degenerative diseases afflicting moderns. The simplistic idea that they did not develop these diseases only because they died too young to suffer from them does not hold—the ones who lived long did not develop them either!

To The Primal Blueprint and beyond

Although I had been interested in healthy eating since my teen years, and spent a number of years as a vegetarian, the book that marked a sharp shift on my path of research and personal experimentation was The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, which I read in October 2010. This book presents a blend of open attitude, systematic information, and a balanced, principled approach that goes beyond nutrition to exercise and other lifestyle habits viewed with an evolutionary lens.

Other works soon informed my perspectives through phases. I transformed my approach to nutrition and exercise step by step based on new information and experiences. I, like quite a few others, have passed through trying primal and paleo approaches, LCHF, and fasting. I have now moved on to a largely zerocarb approach.

Beyond these many food and training changes over the years, I also took steps such as using software to alter computer and phone screen color temperature according to the time of day, switching to a standing desk for some types of work, using a sunrise-simulation alarm clock, and limiting smartphone reading in the sleeping area (audiobooks allowed). I think such measures helped improve sleep quality and reduce eye strain. Finally, I have discovered important insights into agriculture and environmental issues that connect these personal themes to larger-scale issues.

2. The Metabolic Power of Not Eating

Some key insights about nutrition come from surprising source: the practice of not eating sometimes, or fasting. A recent puzzle piece fit for me and many others has been to reduce “eating windows” and more consistently practice intermittent fasting (IF). It turns out that a positive health-promoting intervention is to just not eat for various periods, for example, 16 hours, 23 hours, or 35 hours, with occasional longer stretches (each person should consult with professionals before doing this, especially if already on a medication that might have to be adjusted).

IF can be done intentionally. However, many practitioners of very low carb and zerocarb diets report spontaneously not being hungry for long periods. In this case, IF becomes partly an outcome of the eating strategy, not just an intentional practice. That said, being consciously open to IF allows one to more easily capture natural fasting opportunities that arise when hunger is absent.

Fasting traditions have been around and recognized as health promoting for at least thousands of years worldwide. However, a contemporary challenge for the practice is that no one is positioned to profit from promoting and supporting it—except the person doing it. There is no special food to order and no special drug to consume. There is no product to be hyped and promoted as the wonder cure. The cure is what is not consumed. Via negativa.

Already being fat-adapted and in ketosis makes fasting easier. There is a certain freedom from always being locked into having to have that next meal or snack. While adaptation is required—anywhere from days to weeks and beyond—once adapted, myself and many others have reported consistent benefits from nutritional ketosis, fasting ketosis, and their interplay.

Fasting may be viewed as a way to intentionally replicate a "bad-hunting day" from the paleolithic past. Of course, no self-respecting paleo hunting group would have decided to have a bad-hunting day, but they would have had some anyway. Our metabolic systems would have adapted to these periodic fasts, would have come expect them. Yet today such pauses are largely missing. Moderns in search of optimal health may have to take steps to reintroduce them, this time on purpose.

When a bad-hunting phase lead to hunger, one should expect our bodies to send the following message: get out there and hunt, and hunt more effectively than lately. That means: more energy and enhanced concentration and attention. It does not mean getting cold and depressed in the cave, a path to non-survival.

The modern approach to dieting—reducing calories while still eating the same regular meals, just smaller ones—has a set of effects opposite to the positive affects of fasting, Dr. Jason Fung argues in The Obesity Code (2016). With chronic low-calorie dieting, metabolism sinks, energy and concentration fall, hunger is constant, and one feels colder. This is the opposite experience from fasting (especially after adaptation). However, it is this “eating less,” as opposed to true fasting, that is the one doomed constant in almost every failing modern “diet.” A central reason for this difference is now understood from controlled trial and biochemical research, Fung argues: the two conditions have completely different impacts on the key phenomenon of insulin resistance. Fasting improves it.

This section has suggested the importance of not eating sometimes. Next, when we do eat, what should be on the menu? What should humans eat to thrive?

3. The Zookeeper's Dilemma

 An inverted Zoo. Which are in better health? (Photo CCBY Greg HewGill)

An inverted Zoo. Which are in better health? (Photo CCBY Greg HewGill)

Imagine you are a zookeeper. A clear and pressing question about each animal is: What do they eat? To maintain healthy animals, the first priority is to try to replicate what they eat in the wild. Feeding carnivorous lions rice cakes and herbivorous zebras fish cakes will lead to sick and eventually dead animals on both sides of the fence.

One sign that something is very wrong with modern human diets was expressed by Dr. Barry Groves. He pointed out that although we observe a great deal of chronic and degenerative illness among modern humans, this is largely unheard of among wild animals. However, it is seen among captive and domesticated animals, specifically, animals that are being fed the wrong food.

So what do humans eat? Are we likewise being fed the wrong food?

Well, we eat a great many things, but that does not really help our inquiry. So what is the next question?

In caring for animals, one would ask: What do they eat in the wild?

But again here, with few exceptions, humans today no longer live "in the wild" in any helpful sense, so this kind of information is also not easy to come by. Nevertheless, it is possible to investigate what ancestors of modern humans ate when they much more nearly lived "in the wild" during long, evolutionarily formative periods, say, 50,000–100,000 or more years ago.

Answers to another question would also help: What kinds of foods do we thrive on? Humans are able to eat a wide range of food and survive doing it, but what would be ideal? This shifts the emphasis to what foods humans do best on indefinitely versus merely what they can manage to stay alive on for some years.

This is a subject of extensive medical research. Sadly, much of it is flawed due to over-reliance on study designs that are incapable of demonstrating causation. Such often confounded and poorly designed "studies," however, are far cheaper to fund and then use as the basis for getting another paper published. They also form endless fodder for journalistic articles summarizing such papers, gathering clicks while further distorting what the research itself can legitimately be said to support (usually not much).

Thus, another "evolutionary" influence on the field of human nutrition is "publish or perish," both for researchers and journalists. "Arrive at the truest answers and explain them accurately" is far down the list of priorities in this system. Another angle is "follow the money." Much of it traces back to funding from pharmaceutical and "food" companies with, respectively, overpriced pill bottles and boxes of cheap food-like substances to peddle.

Highly meat-leaning

Balancing a number of different lines of evidence, I have arrived at the view that humans are basically carnivores that can also survive on plant foods as a fall-back. That is, they can survive on plant foods even for long periods, but cannot do so without suffering degenerative harm. Feeding humans primarily—and especially only—plant foods causes them to become gradually malnourished, to sicken in a variety of ways, to "fail to thrive."

This tends to be obscured for two reasons. First, such degeneration can take years and decades to progress. Second, moderns who move toward vegan diets often report feeling better, so those diets must be good, right? Third, a few people seem to do well on vegan diets even over quite long periods and these are cited as counter examples (while most of the others just suffer through or quietly quit).

On examination, however, new vegans are quite often reporting feeling much better after moving away from something rather specific—modern diets of processed foods. They are not moving away from an ancestral diet rich in fresh fatty meat, which is also already free of processed foods. After a few years of veganism, however, with some exceptions, many find their health and mood deteriorating and are forced to quit.

Just because something is better than something else by some measures, such as feeling better or losing weight, this does not necessarily mean it is also ideal or even good. It might just be less bad than something else that came before it. A conventional processed-food diet is quite bad indeed from a health standpoint. Almost anything could be an improvement over it. As for veganism itself, with some exceptions, a typical long-term vegan is both thin and sickly and will soon list up their many and varied health challenges, which they hope in vain that the next concentrated plant supplement might fix. Actions, and diets, must be judged by their results, not only their intentions.

It may come as a surprise to many that tens of thousands of modern humans have eaten meat exclusively, some for many years, many swearing by the dramatic health benefits of the change. Many only arrive at this protocol after having tried all manner of other methods that did not work as well for them, or that even worsened their conditions. We may not yet understand exactly how or why this works so well for so many, but the accumulating number of case studies leaves little doubt that this must be investigated far more carefully than it has been to date.

4. Best for people and environment

If it is true that meat eating is the best human diet for health, another question follows. How could large-scale meat eating possibly work for a modern society? Tiny populations of paleo hunters could do it, but they were working with massive roaming herds, and many of those species went extinct! Besides, isn't meat production already bad for animals and the environment, even without being expanded further?

That they are is a clear impression given in the popular press as "settled science," so "settled" in fact, that no one even bothers to call it settled. Questioning it would be a pure heresy of the worst kind. So let us proceed to do so.

Although the belief that meat production is bad for the environment has become quite popular, the balance of evidence I have seen indicates that this view is severely misguided. To explain this, we must turn to some still different perspectives and sources not directly related to nutrition.

The view that fatty meat is the healthiest primary food for Homo sapiens—that we are basically carnivores that also have a nifty ability to fall back on plant foods in a pinch—raises a wider issue. If this were true, how could modern food production possibly shift from serving carbohydrate-centric to animal-fat- and protein-centric eating patterns on any large modern scale?

Virtually unquestioned conventional wisdom insists that not only health, but also "the" environment dictate lower, not higher, reliance on animal products. The truth, as is surprisingly often the case, may be the exact opposite. Indeed, even separate from human nutrition issues, properly managed large herd animals might be the only way to halt and reverse the large-scale environmental destruction caused by modern plant agriculture and poor land management. Moreover, whatever environmental destruction caused by grain agriculture for feeding ruminants cannot be blamed on the cattle. They naturally thrive on grass rather than grain. And they can eat grass all by themselves; that's just how they roll.

The key insight is that large heard animals and vast stretches of grassland coevolved over geologic time. They came into existence and thrived as part of a single ecological system. One of the last modern examples of this was the unending sea of bison encountered by the early European explorers of North America (before some of the pioneers systematically exterminated the animals, also further undermining cultures that had long subsisted on them).

Decades ago, Allan Savory set out to answer some pressing ecological questions. He arrived at the view that the most important and underestimated global issue is the mass desertification of grasslands. And he argues that there is only one way to effectively alter the process.

Savory's breakthrough was to discover that desertification has not been caused by “overgrazing,” as is usually thought, but by mis-grazing. Earlier effects of mis-grazing were then reinforced by misguided herd reduction or removal, which made the problem still worse, not better. More animals, properly managed, not fewer, would have been the solution. Today, he and his institute teach methods of using proper management of herd animals to recover desertified land and transform it into far more biologically productive pastures using know-how assembled under the heading “holistic planned grazing.”

Holistic planned grazing, in my view, constitutes an evolutionary approach to land management. It recognizes and builds on the ancient co-evolutionary interplay between grassland flora and large fauna. Large herds kept themselves moving across grasslands—fertilizing and tilling along the way—while staying grouped tightly to defend against predators. When they moved on, the land and flora had plenty of time to recover and regrow. The right know-how on the part of herd managers can replicate these dynamics without relying on predators to shape herd movements.

As Savory's methods have shown, such properly managed pastures naturally retain rainwater through the grass, soil, and other life that grows there, all in an evolutionary dance with the same types of animals those grasses themselves co-evolved with. Vast surfaces of the earth were once covered with thriving grasslands occupied by roving herds of untold millions of beasts. Holistic management provides a way to recreate habitats that mimic essential elements of this past in an efficient modern way. A fundamentally biological problem requires a biological solution, Savory argues, not a chemical or an industrial one. On this basis, by the way, we can already suggest that "lab-grown meat" would just further contribute to environmental problems that a vast resurgence of real animals, properly managed, could help solve.

This would happen to produce a large potential population of animals thriving in environments quite natural to them. They might then also contribute a major, nutrient-dense, modern food supply. Dr. Michael Eades arrived at a similar view after a thoughtful review of Savory's ideas and critiques of them (2 Jul 2017). He provides an exceptionally clear description of these practices. Moreover, it is politically notable that herding can be more decentralized and distributed than mass grain agriculture, enhancing local self-reliance and independence.

White Oak Pastures in Georgia, USA provides one inspiring example of transformation of a formerly conventional ranch. Using multi-species holistic management, it has not only recovered burned-out agricultural land, but has also breathed new life into a town that had been nearly deserted.

Healthy grasslands, herds, and nutrition

The foods most destructive to human health have one thing in common. They are mass agricultural crops. Sugar, wheat, and corn top the list. All of them are subsidized by governments. All of them are promoted by official dietary guidelines. All of them are highly profitable for “food” companies.

And all of them kill and maim. They just do so insidiously through their contributions to chronic systemic inflammation, excess weight, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, depression, suicide, and the modern conditions of cognitive degeneration. They are central to feeding an endless supply of sickened people into modern "healthcare" (sickness management) systems. Chronic, degenerative conditions provide much of the business for the highly profitable pharmaceutical and healthcare industries year after year. Sick people, flowing money. Who wins and who loses? You lose.

Both anecdotal and increasingly also formal evidence continues to build for beneficial roles of fasting and very low-carb and zerocarb eating in treating, and especially preventing, the entire spectrum of modern chronic ailments. However, the interests that can gain from such practices—at the strictest baseline, sellers of meat and water—are far more dispersed. Their influence pales in comparison to the concentrated financial, media, and political resources of big food plus big pharma. Billions go to conglomerates selling cheap carbohydrates mixed with toxic plant-derived oils. Billions more then go to companies selling all manner of drugs and aids, which seek to manage the chronic damage accumulating from the consumption of such alleged food.

Nevertheless, from outside of this sorry system, an unexpected larger picture is emerging, one precisely opposite the popular hypothesis that mass agriculturally based vegetarianism is best for both human health and the environment. This is the hypothesis that distributed, holistically managed grazing and carnivory are best for both human health and the environment.

The low-carb/high-fat and paleo-oriented nutritionists on the one hand, and the ecological herders on the other, have independently arrived at different pieces of a single puzzle. The synthesis of these streams of thought and practice has profound implications. The results suggest a food system based around a modern planned pastoralism enhanced with holistic management practices that mimic the co-evolutionary conditions of grasslands and herd animals.

Summary claims of a paleo-carnivore/holistic management synthesis

  1. Humans tend to live best mainly on a blend of fatty acids (fat) and amino acids (protein) derived from animal products. Animal products are the best sources of energy, structural materials, and highly bio-available micronutrients for humans. In contrast, eating large amounts of carbohydrates, especially processed ones, and artificial industrial foods such as seed oils, produce gradual metabolic derangement, foremost chronic insulin resistance and its many associated degenerative conditions. Even vegetables, generally considered the unquestionable banner of good health, lack much usable nutrition at all per unit of weight and carry a range of irritants and anti-nutrients (chemicals that block the absorption of nutrients), evolved in a chemical warfare strategy to protect them against being eaten by punishing those who eat them.

  2. The best single source for the nutrients humans thrive on is large herd animals. Seafood is also a good resource, though generally lower in fat (a con, not a pro). Early Homo sapiens and some of their cousins may have contributed to the extinctions of many of their preferred larger, higher-fat species long ago, such as paleo elephants and mammoths, but we still have cattle and buffaloes, which work reasonably well. We also now have property rights (to some degree), which defeat tragedy-of-the-commons overuse issues. Notice the word commons in the phrase "tragedy of the commons." It is there for reason: the tragedy happens when legitimate property rights are too poorly defined and defended.

  3. The best way to halt and reverse mass desertification and alleviate related water crises is to manage large herds in ways that sufficiently mimic the natural movement patterns of their original evolutionary contexts. This is also so independently of food production and human health issues.

  4. Humane and holistic ranching practices provide ideal living environments for herd and other animals. Compared to their evolutionary contexts, animals on holistically managed multi-species farms are protected from random and violent death from predators. Their supplies of food and water are reliable and secured.

  5. Mass grain agriculture practices lead to mass destruction of wildlife and long-term soil deterioration. Some of this grain is fed to animals. Grain feed-lot methods are associated with poorer health and living conditions for animals. The grain system replaces multi-species environments with monocultures, which are vulnerable to disease and soil degeneration and require constant attention, often including irrigation and farm machinery, to prop up. In contrast, cows eat grass all by themselves and grass grows all by itself (a little help from holistic management better replicates natural herd movement patterns that co-evolved with predators to support natural grassland water retention, even in dry climates).

5. Implications

A concluding summary must be far, far shorter than the journey itself. For understanding of food production: biological/ecological problems require biological/ecological solutions. Understand where plants and animals have come from and how they co-evolved, then apply that understanding to modern practices. This includes herd animals, grasslands, and people too! For personal use, the principles are: eat meat, drink water, lift heavy, sleep, play, and sprint once in awhile. These are quite reminiscent of Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint laws, but the ones on food are further specified.

These practices appear to have dimensions beyond physical pragmatism. Many who have tried a plant-free diet for a sufficient period to transition (30 days is often recommended for a trial) have reported profound health and well-being improvements, not only in a range of physical conditions, but also in psychiatric and emotional difficulties. One practitioner in 2009 described the improvement in emotional state after starting an all-meat diet thus: "The noise has stopped and the music has begun."

Many also report a profound sense of freedom from former obsessions with food. All of the decision fatigue associated with whether to eat this or that, when, and how much, vanishes. Former cravings decline and eventually fade. Faced with foods that one had previously considered objects of craving, it is hardly possible to believe that one actually ate those things regularly in the past.

Hours formerly spent on food can now be spent on engaging productively with the world and pursuing one's missions. As Dr. Shawn Baker put it, “If you look at any other animal on the planet, they aren’t looking at a menu and scratching their head.” As human animals with oversized brains and imaginations, we all have better things to do than spending inordinate amounts of time managing and balancing a long list of plant addictions. Freedom from them is possible. The power of being human can be unleashed from the travails of plant-consumption/plant-addiction management.

Hunters act and act smartly. Human hunters have thrived to an apex level through our wits and ability to work together. The "apex diet" is both the origin of this capability and continues to support it today.

I kept references in the text to a minimum for readability. The following page provides links to some of the best resources I have found on these subjects, including papers, blogs, articles, and lectures. To follow up on the many topics and perspectives in the foregoing synthesis, continue with Evolutionary Health Resources.

[This article was revised from its original version, mostly shortened and revised for clarity, on 2 July 2018].