Tuesday, September 13, 2005

How Much Consumption Is Too Much?

Whew! I need to wake up at 6 AM more often. I've already read the Times and Post, most of my favorite blogs, and just moved on to Arts and Letters Daily. There's an essay there today from Spiked, titled "Why people hate fat Americans," that manages to be thoughtful, detailed, coherent, and interesting, while also getting nearly every important detail wrong, but in such a nuanced way that it's sometimes difficult to notice exactly where he goes wrong. I'll try to do that here.

The bones of the essay are strong. Daniel Ben-Ami, the author, looks at the most notable recent books and other documents on obesity in America -- Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Greg Critzer's Fat Land, and others -- and notes that the overconsumption of unhealthy food usually is made to serve as a stand-in for American overconsumption in general. He (rightly, in my opinion) points out that this move has more of a symbolic resonance than a real connection. It taps into anxieties about American power and affluence, but covers over the genuine achievement of the American/Western/modern food supply chain, which gives people healthier food both more consistently and more cheaply than ever before in human history. There's a puritanical streak, Ben-Ami notes, in most diatribes against American consumption, as though we need to revive prohibitions against gluttony. The engine of consumption in fact ultimately produces more capital for everyone; what we need to focus on is scarcity in the developing world, or why poor people have so little food, not why rich people have so much.

I'm not going to spend much time criticizing the free-market assumptions guiding Ben-Ami's thinking. There is, though, a weird moment where he goes off on how the idea of finite resources is a myth. Now it may be true that consumption by one person doesn't always have to come at the expense of someone else, but there really is a finite amount of usable oil, water, and land, and how we use those resources (say, by mass-producing chicken and beef for fast food rather than higher-yield grains and legumes) might say something about how the excesses of American diets bear on world hunger. (It also might reveal how the developing world squanders its limited resources as well -- I read recently that in Niger, for example, poor people spend too much money for millet because it's a staple of their diet rather than foods with more nutritive value.) Instead, I want to look at the other assumption Ben-Ami runs with, namely the equation "fat=Americans=rich."

Fat people are rich people, Ben-Zion thinks; it's quite likely that this is what people elsewhere in the world think as well. At the end of the article, he writes: "Our aspiration for the world should be to give the poor the advantages of affluence enjoyed by those in the West. Living standards in countries such as Ethiopia and Niger should be, at the very least, as high as those in America today. In that sense we should all aim to be fat Americans."

In America, however, fat people typically aren't rich people, at least by American standards, but rather the working poor, along with the working and lower-middle classes. Poorer people are also, unsurprisingly, much more likely to regularly eat fast food than rich ones. They're less likely to have access to health-food stores or even ordinary supermarkets, not to mention nutritionists, diet counselors, fitness trainers, or warning doctors and dentists. (Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote in the New Yorker, in a flossing-inducing section of "The Moral-Hazard Myth," how uninsured Americans' tooth loss prevents them from, among other things, getting proper nutrition.) They're certainly not able to get cosmetic or even life-saving surgeries. And so poor Americans are more likely to die from obesity-related conditions than their rich counterparts.

This is the populist nuance of the anti-consumption message of the recent anti-obesity books that Ben-Ami completely misses. It's not really about how rich Americans consume relative to the rest of the world. It's about how one group of Americans get rich off of the consumption of other Americans -- and the structural, economic, and cultural reasons why poorer Americans continue to consume things that they not only don't need, but demonstrably hurt them. Fast Food Nation is really another version of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? And I think this also suggests the other reason why the world -- especially the upper-class European world -- hates fat Americans. It's not because we're rich -- it's because we're uncultured, undereducated, politically backwards, and just plain dumb. It's European condescension towards poor Americans that drives its animosity towards obesity. And to some extent, there's an upper-class American disgust at poor Americans that drives that animosity here.

It may be difficult to sort all of this out, but I hope it's possible. I'm still a good athlete, I'm strong, and can run for two miles not far off the pace I ran at high school, but my weight's crept steadily upward over the past five years, when I last weighed 230. I now weigh 300 pounds -- an unbelievable figure to me, even on my big, 6' tall frame -- and I don't want to die.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Right on, Tim.