Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Hand-wringing burns few calories

Last week the Centers for Disease Control reported that obesity is the second biggest killer in the United States today. Fully 64% of the American public is overweight or obese (To put it simply, to be “obese” one must meet specific criteria for being dangerously overweight).

Right away I began thinking that the extreme low cost of food in the U.S. was at that root of the problem. Gregg Easterbrook took up this theme in the Sunday (3/14) New York Times where he observed that our very success as a society is killing us.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about fat in America for some time now. Unfortunately, it will take more than hand-wringing to solve the problem. Barring some near-miraculous evolution of consciousness that enables the majority of the population to choose not to scarf down all those White Castles, it seems that we may have to rely on old-fashioned market forces to slim down. Alas, this is not a very desirable way to go, er, lose weight.

Simply put, the world works like this: in nature, scarcity of resources limits the growth of any organism or group of organisms in an ecosystem. If the limits are removed, organisms will naturally grow to fill the space. Humans are above all, natural organisms – animals. If you put unlimited amounts of food in front of someone, he will have a very hard time not eating all of it. There is only so much willpower can do. Couple animal instincts with poor education and a need for some distraction (its called "bread and circuses" -- the Romans coined it), and we’ve got a recipe for, well, obesity.

Something along these lines is the rationale for recent efforts to hold restaurants accountable for the amount of food their patrons consume. Why pick on those who sell food? The interesting question is: why is it so cheap? It might not remain so.

Easterbrook’s discussion of how we’re victims of our own success is useful here. A lot of the technological advances that enable abundant (and thus cheap) food in the United States rely on vulnerable resources. I’m thinking primarily right now of petroleum and water. As gasoline prices continue to rise (as they most probably will in the years to come), the cost of processing and transporting food will increase, raising the cost of food itself. Water resources are being depleted and polluted around the world at a disheartening rate. That too affects our food supply, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Right now, food is cheap and Americans are fat (although, distressingly, many millions in the world don’t have enough to eat). Will this state of affairs continue? Many people are working furiously to make sure it does. I’m not so sure they’ll succeed. We may face lean times in the not too distant future.

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