Thursday
Jan272005

« Supersized, Yet Downsized »

I just watched Supersize Me tonight. I had been meaning to see it for a while now. For those who are under a rock, it's about a guy who charts his progress through a month of eating nothing but McDonald's food in a cruel and unusual (well, not very unusual) form of masochism. Checking in with his doctors before this whole experiment showed him to be in good health, trim and fit. His vegan chef girlfriend watched in horror as he turned himself into a fattening, more depressed, lethargic repository of cholesterol, fat, and sugar. Oh, and his peepee didn't work well by the end of this whole ordeal, according to his girlfriend. This Morgan Spurlock dude kept a good deal of humor in the film, despite some downright scary statistics about obesity and heart disease and all the other great things that go along with the American diet. In fact, this was one of the funnier movies on the topic of how to reverse decades-long climbs in life expectancy for the most prosperous nation on earth.

Several months ago, almost a year now I guess, in my English 205 class at Mesa, we were given an in class exercise centered on an article by Robert Samuelson in Newseek that proclaimed we were not the victims of poverty in this nation, but rather we were victims of prosperity. Quite the opposite of what any of us are conditioned to expect, and worthy of a raised eyebrow or two. Samuelson was citing the quality of life issues we have from all the leisure time and conveniences that are all around us. Basically, it was that we are increasingly afforded a lifestyle of laziness and over a couple of generations, have had all sorts of issues related to that. The obvious ones are obesity and other physical health issues due to the extremes of inactivity or hyperactivity, but I seem to remember reading about the damage to family life when everyone has options and leisure time aplenty that ends up undoing family connections due to disparate interests and the ablilty to actually live out these activities as individuals. We've evolved into a sick and dying population. Wow. Impressive.

Depressive is more like it.

In a lot of ways, the US is culturally shallower than a kiddie pool in summer. For a good long part of our history, I understand that we needed to build our physical environment. Before the 1500s, the stuff just wasn't here. But after the middle of the 20th century, we really could have stopped building stuff. I don't think our work now adds much if anything to real human life. In fact, a lot of it doesn't even relate to human living. That's not to say we don't consume things, but I am talking about more than consumption. I mean, the stuff that makes life worth living is sidelined. We work now more than so many other places in the world. We work, I think, to forget what miserable lives we lead. Of course, work itself is too often a direct injection of said misery. So if we are working to avoid misery but get misery in turn, why the useless exercise?

I guess it's a good solid conditioning backed by hundreds of years of nation building on our parts. But now that we have all the conveniences of modern life, and don't need to work, what do we do? WE WORK! Hey, it doesn't make sense to me either. Supposedly the idea of advancing civilization is to enjoy life more, maybe developing as artists, thinkers, poets, writers, musicians. But no, we charge ahead with an insistence that we are no one if not being "productive." The added irony is that we put people out of work because they aren't as productive as their fellow worker, or certainly as measured against a computer or robot. So then we get a population that is slowly becoming more out of work, and contributing less than ever to the all-precious economy. That is, they aren't actually adding to it by making things of worth. Apparently being low income or otherwise disadvantaged doesn't slow people from pigging out. So in that regard, the economy is kept afloat. But down the line, we are getting into a terrific health crisis of epidemic proportions, and I just know that has to run into some serious money loss as people have to get medical attention to address their obesity and diabetes well after the damage was done. I don't know that people that bad off are much help to the all-precious economy, but they can buy some waytoofuckingoverpriced prescription drugs, so maybe it levels out once again for someone in the economy.

Eric Schlosser was in the DVD release of Supersize Me, and he summed up a wide variety of things I love to talk about. I read his book Fast Food Nation in 2002. It was one of the books that got me started on a lot of these issues which I write about. It was good to see an extended interview with him. He is youngish (40 or so), relaxed in blue jeans and casual shirt, shaven. He looked like a million graduate students and activists. He wasn't stuffy in the least. He said he still ate some fast food, but was not letting his kids eat the stuff. He said there were good alternatives to the corporate food chain, and that not all fast food needs to be bad. He was enlightened about things but not radical. But he rattled off one instance after another that says why fast food is killing us. Well, it's all these things.

The big change between when America was "less prosperous" and now is that we don't make our own food now, but had no choice until the age of mechanized farming, chemical and biological tampering made it possible to separate ourselves from our actual livelihood in food production, and then manage to overeat at the same time. So we've abandoned time honored professions that actually sustain life in favor of a range of jobs that are simply window dressing as we let others do the work for us. And, to hear some tell it (albeit romanticized), the old work was not so bad. I think people derive actual satisfaction from meeting their needs and working with family and friends, and I think that our "civilization" has removed a lot of that from our lives, and replaced it with a poor substitute. I mean, I often think that maybe I need to relinquish my modern life and go for something else that harkens back to my great grandfather's existence on a farm or in a small town or something. Maybe I am just being romantic about it. But then I think, well, that would mean more than getting some animals and planting some carrots in my yard. The cows and goats are illegal in town, and maybe the carrots will die. The yard probably has too much poison in it from the things that go on here. I couldn't really dig up the street to plant more crops, even if I was confident, and even if I did dig up the street, would it have too much petroleum residue from years of cars dripping oil? I don't know. I'm a product of a society that has given up on living like we were meant to live. Close to the land. I have to work a job that gives me things I can't wear, eat, or put over my head. My wife and family and friends are in the same boat. Ah, prosperity.

McDonald's is not a replacement for a farm. A suburb is neither a city nor is it place in the country. An economy of Wal Marts and Home Depots and car dealers is not an economy of need. I'd gladly make no money if there was a way I could eat and be clothed and sheltered, and could indulge myself in meaningful activity. For me, some of that would be music, or writing or some sort of visual art, or just talking to people. It is hardly a productive lifestyle according to people now. But at what cost, productivity? Before oil allowed us the privelege (or the right or whatever we call it) to become fat and lazy, we used to have to work to feed our bodies and our minds. But now we are spared the inconvenience of working for either. It all goes hand in hand. Some work is very hard. It alone can stand in the way of obesity. Civic engagement and cultural pursuits give the soul a workout. That can be better for us than all the TV and movies and video games we now fill our time with. Suburban design encourages and even demands the use of cars and other means of mechanized transportation, instead of walking.

I think everything about the average suburban lifestyle has sucked the soul out of a lot of us, while simultaneously injecting fat into us. And yet, it's not like a nightmare we can just wake up from. We spent a good century building up the system in which we now find ourselves. My hero Jim Kunstler calls it all the American Drive-In Utopia. Well, utopia is an optimistic word (he does us the term with a heavy dose of sarcasm). I think it's hell on earth. I think six decades of the easy life has ruined us. I really do. And then it doesn't help to realize how perilous a place we occupy in the world now, losing our dollar to the Euro, and all the trust that goes with it. And then there is the peak oil thing around the bend. I think this nation is really a has-been. I think that if the dollar plummets, it will come at a time when we have already lost our factories, our farming culture, our oil, our forests, our ability to make decisions that revolve around anything but the quarterly profit statement. We'll be fatter than ever, more diseased than ever, more divided than ever. A plummeting dollar will make it impossible to dodge the full effect of peak oil—we'll never have the manufacturing might we once had to address such problems as failure of interstate trucking and international shipping. Or of all the jobs that will cease to be of consequence due to high fuel costs. But then we'll also be stranded in cities. Suburbs are already slums in the older developments, and they won't mean much to a population that needs to get on with the business of finding and growing food the old fashioned way.

While I was watching the DVD, I heard about the rise in deaths attributed to diet. Hmmm? An epidemic of deaths due to overeating? That might be today's dilemma, but try to fathom a nation with its agricultural fabric torn asunder, and hundreds of millions left to figure out how to eat without the "help" of McDogfood's and KFC and Kroger or Wal Mart, while learning to adjust to reduced energy usage, conflicts over the energy that is available, and an economy that is in crisis once the debt bubble bursts. All this will be faced when any transportation will become more expensive, the most detrimental being the food distribution networks that service us in all corners of the country. I don't think that overeating will ultimately kill most Americans. I'm bracing for starvation being the real killer, at least until America makes a critical reversion to locally grown and traded food. Places that can't grow food will be worthless. The $500,000 house I live in might be a termite ridden shack, gutted of its metals and other recyclable items, once I find that food is too hard to grow or buy or trade for here.

It takes a few leaps in reasoning, but I think America could face a terrific irony: starvation deaths as a result of prosperity.

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