The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism

I am a great admirer of Robert Paarlberg, but I did NOT expect to like this book, The United States of Excess. Yes, it is about obesity and gluttony. It appears to blame the person for becoming fat, but more blame seems to be placed on the food available, particularly processed food. The book is so much more than a blame game, however. It is a data-driven description of America’s weight problem with a meticulous interweaving of the author’s points into an elegant web to explain how we became such gluttons. Paarlberg is the first author I have read to tie in overconsumption of food and fuel in this way. As such he provides a perfect segue from diet and obesity, last month’s theme on this blog, to sustainability, this month’s theme. Political campaigns have described American exceptionalism as a positive virtue, but this author turns the concept on its head.

“America thus emerges as exceptional among wealthy countries, both in its tendency to overconsume fossil fuels and food calories and also in the weakness of its public policy efforts to correct these tendencies.” We have become double victims of our own design. Americans pursue unsustainable lifestyles as the threats of global-climate change and chronic diseases associated with obesity become more real with each passing week. As if that isn’t enough to scare us, we have a government unable to act to effectively confront impending crises. We see this in the paralysis to solve the short-term crisis of a partial government shutdown, to an intermediate one such as immigration reform, to the longer-term and more nebulous challenges posed by chronic diseases and climate change. Other countries approach these issues with consumption taxes on fossil fuels and calorie-dense foods or ingredients. Intense lobbying and split governmental functions are hallmarks of American democracy that prevent takeovers from determined minority interests but also make quick responses to crises difficult if not impossible.

“Food price differences by themselves can therefore have significant impacts on body weight.” Paarlberg is particularly gifted at compiling data from different sources to demonstrate emerging patterns. He is able to connect the dots in a country-by-country analysis to directly link obesity and economics. I find this link to be both enlightening and disturbing. Enlightening in that it shifts blame for our obese state from the person and the food to the price structure of food in the country. Disturbing in that it places an inordinate amount of responsibility on tax policy. Fortunately, that is not the whole story he tells as to why we are so fat.

Grocery Cart photo by Tom Montville

Photo by Tom Montville

“Individualism leads to eating behaviors less disciplined by social or family routines. Once modernity makes food ubiquitous and continuously available, unstructured eating and in some cases nearly continuous eating becomes a problem in individualized societies.” We are a society that is on the go. We need to eat, but eating alone and in a hurry helps us get done what needs to be done without the interference of others. We seem to have lost a communal spirit, which, according to Paarlberg, squelches overeating. We eat everywhere including our cars. When I was working, I ate many meals in my car on the go. One of my favorite road meals consisted of a large diet Coke and three Krystal cheeseburgers, easy to hold in one hand while driving with the other and suitably sized for gulping in three normal bites. The danger of individualized eating is to encourage chain eating, and generally more calorie-dense food. During my working life I found banquets to be worse than eating in my car. The meals were balanced with bread, a meat, two vegetables, and a starchy side, but the alcohol and dessert added too many calories.

“America’s cultural optimism emerged in part from its fortunate geology and geography, as a nation rich in natural resources and protected by two oceans from most geopolitical danger.” Our bounty of natural resources makes us less appreciative of what we have and more likely to waste them frivolously. Our geography makes us more independent of worldly concerns and thus less restrictive in protecting these resources. Our emphasis on rugged individualism creates a culture that is less social and communal which ties back to eating alone in front of electronic screens. All of these trends increase the likelihood of a population becoming obese and dependent on fossil fuels for transportation, entertainment and temperature-controlled internal environments.

 “While many Americans say they reject the claims of human-induced climate change, they are far more inclined than Europeans to trust that science and technology will provide a response, a factor that lowers America’s climate anxieties.” We tend to believe that no matter how bad things get in our environment, technological solutions will save us from ourselves. I remember discussing potential problems with my superior officer when in the Navy. He was not a planner as he assured me that if there were several problems coming down the road, most of them would end up in the ditch before they got to us. Apparently, this concept came from a Calvin Coolidge quote. As a society, we are not very good at contingency planning. In addition to looking askance at the wonders of science and technology, Paarlberg states that Europeans are also more skeptical of big business and the influence of money than Americans. Countries on the continent directly across the Atlantic are more likely to anticipate the problems down the road and develop nuanced solutions to them than quick fixes typical of Americans.

“When threatened by their own overconsumption, societies can either find a way to consume less or they can continue the excess and look for new ways to cope with the consequences. The first response is conventionally labeled mitigation, and the second adaptation.” The United States of Excess introduces a third factor to blame for obesity, what is described in other sources as the built environment. As such we can deflect blame from person and the food for obesity to our daily exposure to an obesogenic environment. I found this concept described but not named in either Ever Seen a Fat Fox? or The Diet Fix, but Paarlberg seems to make a stronger case for us being the victim of our daily existence. He also suggests that the same factors fuel our need to consume much more than our fair share of energy. As Americans we are not likely to seek mitigation as we do not like to be told what we cannot do. Thus, we seek ways to adapt by coping with the consequences of overconsuming food and fuel. Such a perspective has implications not only for those of us in the United States of Excess, but also for our neighbors around the world.

I am pleased to recommend The United States of Excess to any reader perplexed at why Americans are such gluttons when it comes to food and energy consumption. It is a short book that could be read by the fire in a few hours on a cold night accompanied by a bag of high-calorie snacks. Anyone interested in the problems we face as a country and the world with respect to overconsumption of food and fuel will find the book engaging and inspiring, but also frightening. The assessment of American culture is harsh, clear solutions are not readily available, and future prospects are bleak. If you have a chance, I encourage you to read this book!

I will devote the rest of the posts this month to the issue of sustainability. Be prepared to read more about mitigation and adaptation.

Processed food in the news include a piece on my quest to defend it and how processed food is an experiment that has failed.

Next week: Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System

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