I read far more than I blog; lots of clever and interesting thing bubble up across the blogosphere. Naturally, I try to fit related ideas together, sometimes working them out in this space, which is the stated purpose behind my blogging. The spark behind this post is a statement that the obesity epidemic in the United States is not the simple result of poor eating habits or other lifestyle configurations but more precisely the inevitable result of overproduction of food. So rather than “if you build it, they will come,” one gets “if you grow it, they will eat.” This may well be too radically reductive in terms of true cause and effect, which has more facets than any observation about sheer quantity of available food, but like all soundbites, it fits within our limited brain capacity. In contrast, the full cause-and-effect story would fill an entire
unread, unheeded book series.
As that soundbite floated between my ears for a while, I saw connections with other things I read, foremost of which was a statement that humans evolved in an environment significantly less calorie rich than the one we now enjoy. Supporting that idea, I also read of an American traveling in remote Africa who went for a jog, presumably part of a fitness regime many of us in the First World adopt (in part) to expend the excess calories we consume. An African met in the course of the jog was puzzled why anyone would intentionally run unless really necessary. From an African perspective, calories are hard enough to come by that using them up needlessly made no sense. The insanity of our First World behaviors is apparent when one goes to a gym and finds that in order to burn calories, we plug in treadmills and screens using even more energy (calories) just to burn our excess calories (fat) when we could just eat less or at the very least exercise outdoors without the artificial lighting, air conditioning, screens to keep us entertained and/or distracted, and other prerogatives made available by energy abundance. Similarly, if a standard adult diet should range around 2,000 calories per day, the typical diet of an Olympic athlete — swimmers and track-and-field athletes, anyway — requires about 10,000 calories daily, which are frankly hard to get.
Those two or three ideas together became an entire complex in my head. I prefer not to look too intently at evolutionary factors as provocations for human behavior. Evolutionary factors absolutely exist, but their timescale is too protracted to be very predictive of behavior occurring in a human timescale. However, the results of evolution are more easily observable as straightforward biology, which has a here-and-now facticity that requires only a little looking forward and backward in time. From there, it may be worth noting the five basic life functions:
- growth — living beings grow and develop
- respiration — they breathe and respire
- reproduction — they reproduce offspring
- nutrition — they eat food
- excretion — they eliminate wastes from the body
A more fully elaborated list goes like this:
- obtaining and changing materials into forms an organism can use
- taking in food from the environment
- breakdown of complex food materials into forms the organism can use
- elimination of indigestible material
- process by which substances are taken into the cells of an organism
- process by which materials are distributed (moved) throughout the organism
- release of chemical energy from certain nutrients
- chemical combination of simple substances to form complex substances
- incorporation of materials into the body of an organism
- increase in size
- process by which cells become specialized for specific functions
- removal of metabolic wastes
- process by which organisms maintain a stable internal environment
- process by which organisms produce new organisms of their own kind
- the sum total of all the chemical reactions occurring within the cells of an organism
What’s common to both lists is how living things consume and excrete as part of their very existence, and of course, reproduce. Humans are no different in those respects. Moreover, like many other species, we’re designed to reproduce to excess with the expectation that many of those offspring won’t survive to reproduce themselves. Often, newborn organisms don’t survive infancy, either being consumed by the parent (or each other), lacking nurture, succumbing to sickness or infection, or failing to secure adequate sustenance. (Those read like euphemisms; try instead being killed and eaten, being abandoned, dying from sickness, or starving.) In an era of overproduction, where human life is sanctified and privileged above all other, the equation is obvious: overproduction = overreproduction.
So the original statement about obesity doesn’t go nearly far enough. The current state of the world, with its outsized human population straining to grow ever larger (thanks, Catholic Church and fundies!), is characterized by overproduction, overconsumption, and overreproduction. Discussions of the population time bomb often connect these things, but I rarely see frank admissions that our very life functions conspire to create the dynamics that lead to our eventual annihilation. I’ve sometimes observed that we humans are a tragic species. That is so for a variety of reasons, but the two important ones (for me) are that (1) our particular biology has enabled us to exploit our ecological niche more completely than any other species, expanding that niche to include the entire planet and accordingly reducing all of it to consumable resources or commodities, and (2) despite our ability to understand our own biology at some level and its concomitant effects, we cannot overcome our own biology and turn back from destroying the biosphere and ourselves in the process. It’s part of our biological programming, an evolutionary inheritance that worked for a long time but has now misfired and leads to the destruction of our own habitat. By virtue of our inventiveness and cleverness, we have unwittingly triggered what one commentator called a megadeath pulse from which we cannot escape or turn back. The pulse may not be as immediate as a meteor collision or a super-volcanic eruption, having instead commenced with the development of agriculture and societies both fixed in place and sufficiently specialized to establish hierarchy and systems of law. The megadeath pulse really took off (a trajectory in the shape of a hockey stick) conceptually in the scientific era with its enabling philosophy and mechanically in the industrial era with overproduction of food and energy. That’s why industrial civilization and its collapse is tragic where previous civilizational collapses were not quite so. This time, we’re taking down everything else with us.