If Americans had to be described with one word, there’s a good chance it would be ‘fat’. Americans, we are constantly told, are the fattest people on the planet. Obesity is rife. Compared with other nations the Americans are not just big, but super-size.
Yet this obsession with obese Americans is about more than body fat. Certainly there is a debate to be had about the extent to which obesity is a problem in America – a discussion best left to medical experts. But a close examination of the popular genre on obesity reveals it is about more than consumption in the most literal sense of eating food. Obesity has become a metaphor for ‘over-consumption’ more generally. Affluence is blamed not just for bloated bodies, but for a society which is seen as more generally too big for its own good.
It is especially important to examine this criticism of American affluence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. An assumption underlying much of the discussion is that, at the very least, wealth did America no good in its battle with nature. An editorial in last weekend’s UK Guardian caught the tone: ‘America is the richest and most powerful country on Earth. But its citizens, begging for food, water and help, are suffering agonies more familiar from Sudan and Niger. The worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy.’ The implication is that America’s wealth is somehow pointless.
A column in the Washington Post went even further, by advocating what it described as a Confucian approach to the question. It argued that Americans ‘blithely set sail on churning seas and fly into stormy skies. We build homes on unstable hillsides, and communities in woodlands ripe for fire. We rely on technology and the government’s largess to protect us from our missteps, and usually, that is enough. But sometimes nature outwits the best human efforts to contain it. Last week’s hurricane was a horrifying case in point. The resulting flooding offered brutal evidence that the efforts we have made over the years to contain nature – with channels and levees and other great feats of engineering – can contribute to greater catastrophes.’ From this perspective, the pursuit of economic development is worse than useless: it may be well-intentioned but it only makes matters worse for humanity.
To understand how a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina can become an occasion for attacking American affluence, it is worth examining the fat metaphor in more detail. Take Super Size Me, the documentary in which Morgan Spurlock lives on nothing but McDonald’s food for a month. Within the first minute the American flag is shown fluttering in the wind. The voiceover then says: ‘Everything’s bigger in America. We’ve got the biggest cars, the biggest houses, the biggest companies, the biggest food – and finally – the biggest people.’
Spurlock makes his assumptions even clearer in his follow-up book, Don’t Eat This Book. The first chapter discuses how America has become ‘the biggest consuming culture on the planet’ (1). He talks of how ‘the epidemic of overconsumption that’s plaguing the nation begins with the things we put in our mouths’ (2).
Other popular works on obesity make similar points. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, says at the start: ‘This is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made. Fast food has proven to be a revolutionary force in American life; I am interested in it both as a commodity and as a metaphor.’ (3) Just how the Big Mac or Chicken McNugget can embody values, let alone make the world, is not made clear. Schlosser frequently argues that such food has little nutritional value but he seems happy to endow it with incredible powers to influence society.
Greg Critser, a liberal and a Democrat, and author of Fat Land, talks about food consumption in almost religious terms. Like Schlosser and Spurlock he makes it clear that he is not talking about food alone. In chapter two of Fat Land he argues: ‘Bigness: the concept seemed to fuel the marketing of just about everything, from cars (SUVs) to homes (mini-manses) to clothes (super-baggy) and then back again to food.’ (4) In the same chapter he makes it clear that a key objection to McDonald’s is that it campaigned to override ‘cultural mores against gluttony’ (5). Implicitly at least Critser is arguing that the Deadly Sin of gluttony should be somehow rehabilitated.
Making a connection between obesity and consumption is not limited to books about fat Americans. It is a staple of many environmentalist texts. For example, Jeremy Rifkin makes a similar connection: ‘The US GDP continues to expand along with our waistlines, but our quality of life continues to diminish.’ (6) Clive Hamilton, an Australian critic of economic growth, talks of overweight people ‘revealing in such a confronting way our dirty secret of overconsumption’ (7).
Michael Moore only refers to the obesity issue in passing – in Stupid White Men he argues: ‘If you and I would eat less and drink less, we’d live a little longer.’ (8) Perhaps this is a sensitive issue for him, seeing as he is no lightweight. But he does criticise America for being number one in relation to several areas of consumption, including beef, energy, oil, natural gas and calories (9).
Such arguments seem to have won considerable resonance both inside and outside America. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey, a comprehensive opinion poll of public attitudes in America and 16 other countries, the USA is routinely seen as greedy by Western publics. For example, 67 per cent of the Dutch, 64 per cent of Britons and 62 per cent of Canadians see Americans as greedy. Perhaps most striking of all, 70 per cent of Americans see their fellow compatriots as greedy (10).
Despite the huge volume of discussion on American obesity the key arguments put forward by the critics can be reduced to a few simple ingredients. Each of these is open to question, although it is unfortunately rare for them to be critically scrutinised:
* Over-consumption is not just about food. Food is being portrayed as simply the most conspicuous example of a society that consumes too many resources.
* Consumption is widely seen as a problem. At the very least it is regarded as incapable of making Americans, or any other people, happy. At worst it is portrayed as having a down side or even being akin to a disease. So in their best-selling Why Do People Hate America?, Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies argue that ‘the “virus” of American culture and lifestyle replicates so readily because it is founded on the premise of abundance, the lure of affluence’ (11). Similarly, an American documentary and follow-up best-seller on affluence was called Affluenza (12).
* The sin of gluttony, it is widely argued, needs to be rehabilitated. Usually the argument is put in secular rather than religious terms but the content is the same. What is being suggested is that a morality of limits needs to be popularised. People should apparently be encouraged to limit their consumption – whether the limits are voluntary or imposed by law. Often controls on advertising are also favoured as it is seen as somehow propagating the culture of consumption.
Let us examine each of these arguments in turn. Then we can consider why the attack on consumption has come to the fore in recent years.
The end of hunger
The first argument has some truth to it, in that there is a close relationship between food consumption and the use of resources more generally. So criticising the pervasiveness of cheap food in rich societies can also be a way of attacking affluence. In other words, the wide availability of food can become a metaphor for large-scale consumption more broadly.
But critics of cheap food forget that its attainment is a considerable historical achievement. Most of human history involved a constant struggle to find enough food. The battle against hunger was the norm. This is still true in much of the developing world, where the World Bank estimates that 815million people ate too little to meet their daily energy needs in 2002 (13). So to have achieved a situation where, at least in the developed world, food scarcity is virtually eliminated is a tremendous achievement. As well as being good in itself, it also allows people to spend more time on other things rather than struggling to meet their most basic needs.
Of course this does not mean that obesity cannot have negative consequences. But it should be recognised as a problem associated with success. Food today is more plentiful and of better quality than ever before. No doubt quality can improve still further in the future and other factors, such as insufficient exercise, can be tackled. However, these are relatively small challenges compared with the historic battle to rid the world of the scourge of hunger.
Is consumption the problem?
As for the second argument, that consumption is in itself somehow bad – that is deeply flawed. On the contrary, humanity has benefited enormously from economic growth and the attendant increase in consumption. It has allowed people to live longer and healthier lives than ever before. It also has brought enormous cultural benefits, as people have more leisure time rather than focusing their entire lives on survival.
Critics of consumption start from the incorrect assumption that there is a finite amount of resources in the world. From such a narrow perspective any consumption by one group of people is inevitably at the expense of another. It also assumes, wrongly, that the world is in danger of running out of resources.
Food provides a good example of the flaws in this argument. Just because people in America are well-fed it does not follow that they are depriving those in, say, Ethiopia or Niger. There is no reason why with higher productivity – more production of food per person – everyone in the world should not have enough to eat. The problem is not too much food in America but too little food in the developing world. The aspiration should be to raise the levels of consumption in poorer countries to match those in the West. Instead, the anti-consumption campaigners seem to want to concentrate on reducing the level of consumption in the rich world.
What is true for food also holds for other resources. It is not as if there is a set amount of resources which will be used up as society becomes wealthier. On the contrary, as the world becomes richer the amount of resources available to humanity also expands. For example, for Stone Age man, or even in the early twentieth century, uranium and plutonium were of no use to humanity. But with economic development it became possible to use them as power sources.
A wealthy society can utilise more resources and use them more efficiently than a poor one. That is why the doom-mongers’ arguments about the world running out of resources – which have been made in one form or another for over two centuries – have always been proved wrong.
Consumption and happiness
As for the contention that economic growth does not make people happier – that is less clear-cut than is made out. It is certainly true that, objectively speaking, Americans are better off than ever. As Gregg Easterbrook writes, comparing today with the ‘Golden Age” of the 1950s: ‘[I]n real dollars almost everything costs less today than it did then, healthcare is light-years better, three times as many people now make it to college, and the simpler, more innocent ethos of the 1950s denied the vote to blacks and job opportunities to women.’ (14)
Whether people feel subjectively happier is a more complex question. In Britain there are certainly those, such as Richard Layard, who argue that beyond a certain point society becomes no happier as it becomes wealthier (15). It is also widely assumed that Americans are less happy than those in other developed societies.
But there are some grounds to dispute this view. According to the conclusion of a recent opinion poll by Harris Interactive: ‘The big picture is that Americans are much more satisfied with their lives, much more likely to believe that their lives have improved and much more likely to expect their personal situations will improve than most Europeans.’ (16) The poll found that 58 per cent of Americans said they were very satisfied with their lives in 2004-5 compared with 31 per cent of Western Europeans in a similar European Union survey. Only the Danes, with 64 per cent saying they were very satisfied, were happier than the Americans.
But let us assume that, as many polls seem to indicate, there is a pervasive sense of unhappiness in American society. It does not necessarily follow from this premise that economic growth is necessarily bad or should be downplayed. On the contrary, its objective benefits should be clear. The widespread sense of disaffection certainly raises interesting questions about American society and about the developed world more generally. In particular, why, despite greater affluence than ever before, is there widespread foreboding about the future? By simply assuming that economic growth is the problem, the anti-consumption critics avoid asking difficult but critical questions about the prevalence of social pessimism in contemporary society (17).
Finally, let us examine the idea that consumption should be limited in some way – that, in either a secular or religious form, the notion of gluttony should be rehabilitated. The call for limits is a central element of contemporary politics, whereas in the past the focus was on how best to make society wealthier so that everyone could benefit.
The discussion of food and healthy eating clearly provides a metaphor for placing limits on consumption more generally. It is a useful way of illustrating the argument that individuals should consume less. In addition, the assumption is that people should eat what the anti-consumption lobby designates as healthy food rather than ‘junk’. Underlying all this are the implicit assumptions that consumption needs to be limited and pursued in a responsible way. In other words, there is a strong element of moralism from the preachers of limited consumption. If they came from a traditional preacher, such views might be laughed at. But placed in the context of health – for individuals or society – they are taken seriously.
Support for limits is also expressed in more general terms by contemporary thinkers. George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner, is a prime example. In his view, the world has reached the stage where ‘the interests of global society will be served primarily by restraint’ (18). Although Monbiot is often seen as a radical critic of society it would be more accurate to see him as a mainstream advocate of imposing limits on consumption.
The case for limits was put in more theoretical terms by Christopher Lasch, a prominent American social critic who died in 1994. In The True and Only Heaven he developed an intellectually coherent case against progress. Lasch, who was generally associated with the left, criticised liberals for not seeing ‘the positive features of petty-bourgeois culture: its moral realism, its understanding that everything has a price, its respect for limits, its scepticism about progress’ (19).
Such views are not simply social theory but they have become embodied in contemporary policy. For example, the concept of ‘sustainable development’ has been accepted by international agencies, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as by national governments. The notion of sustainable development itself embodies the needs of limits. Our Common Future, a landmark UN report first published in 1987, clearly defined sustainability in these terms, describing it as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs’. It goes on to say that sustainable development contains ‘the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs’ (20).
The UN has also more explicitly spelt out its assumptions in relation to consumption. Its Agenda 21 report to the 1992 Rio Summit made this clear. One of the principles of the report was ‘to achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people’, and it called on states to ‘reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies’ (21). More recently the 1998 edition of the UN’s annual Human Development Report was on ‘consumption for human development’. Although it starts by acknowledging the advantages of consumption it soon changes tack to talk of its downside: ‘Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating.’ (22)
National governments have also taken on board such ideas. For example, under President Bill Clinton the USA had the ‘President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD)’ (23). One of its task forces, created in 1994 and reporting in 1996, had the specific role of looking at population and consumption (24). The arguments in this report were posed in terms of finding a better balance between consumption and population on the one hand, and the environment on the other.
The sin of gluttony
So it should be clear that the idea of limiting the growth of consumption is mainstream. Gluttony has, in a subtle way, been reinstituted as a sin. It does not apply just to food but to consumption of resources more broadly. The need to impose limits on consumption is accepted by national governments and by influential multilateral agencies.
Of course, many would go along with the idea that limits should be placed on consumption. They might reject the use of religious language but they would accept the notion of sustainability. After all, such a view has become the conventional wisdom.
However, those who hold to this view should remember that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to raise the level of consumption in the world. This is most clear in relation to the poor countries. According to the World Bank, 2.7billion people were living on less than $2 a day in 2001, of which 1.1billion lived on less than a dollar (25). A lot remains to be done to raise a large proportion of the world’s population to the consumption standards we enjoy in the West.
But even in the developed world there is still much to do. For example, there is much talk of a ‘demographic time bomb’, meaning that it is not possible to provide a decent income for pensioners. However, with economic growth, and higher consumption levels for all, there is no reason why this problem cannot be solved. A more productive economy is key to solving what is often wrongly cast as an intractable problem (26).
Perhaps the most misleading aspect of sustainable development is its supposed orientation towards the future. It wrongly assumes that curbing consumption growth will benefit future generations. The opposite is true. Holding back on economic growth means that future generations will be less wealthy than they would otherwise be. It means that they will be in a weaker position to tackle their problems and live an affluent life. The worst that we can do for the future is put limits on economic growth in the present.
Before examining why anti-consumption sentiment has come to the fore it is worth saying something about advertising. The whole anti-fat genre makes much of the fact that fast food companies spend a huge amount on advertising – particularly aimed at children. In itself, the discussion of advertising is not new. Back in 1957 The Hidden Persuaders, a study on how the American advertising industry was shaping personal behaviour, was first published (27). What is different today is the power attributed to the power of advertising across the whole of society. It has now become mainstream to rail against the advertising industry. Anti-consumerist campaigns such as Adbusters are highly respected (28).
What is rarely commented on is the elitist assumptions on which the anti-advertising campaign is based. Their starting point seems to be the snobbish view that people are somehow duped into consuming by the advertising industry. Yet, in reality, consumption is popular precisely because, for obvious reasons, people like to be better off. This is the big weakness of the anti-consumption movement. It wants to persuade people to curb their consumption but, from a common sense perspective, individuals rightly prefer to be richer rather than poorer. Advertising might persuade them to eat in, say, McDonald’s rather than Burger King, but it is not necessary to persuade people to enjoy consumption.
The pervasiveness of attacks on affluence, despite the benefits of consumption, begs the question of why they are so popular. Criticisms of consumption are not new. Back in the late nineteenth century Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist, coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ (29). But they have never been so pervasive. From the 1970s onwards, anti-consumption sentiment has moved from being an elite preoccupation to the mainstream (30).
There are many reasons why this shift has occurred. A complete explanation would demand a comprehensive examination of how society has changed in recent years. But a key part of the reason is the institutionalisation of the idea that there is no alternative to the market. Capitalism, in one form or another, is seen as the only realistic way of organising society. In terms of political debate there is what Thomas Frank, a liberal social commentator, describes as ‘the systematic erasure of the economic’ (31). In other words, cultural matters are open for debate but fundamental economic questions are not. Or as Will Hutton, a British liberal commentator, puts it: ‘The allegedly futile and empty materialist culture [is] deplored by conservative, liberal and religious fundamentalist alike.’ (32)
One way to understand this point is in relation to consumption and production. Matters related to the sphere of consumption are open to debate. This includes not just the literal act of consumption itself but related questions such as brands and identity. To the extent that the economy more broadly is discussed – whether by critics or those who are pro-business – it is from the perspective of consumption. Areas such as advertising, brands and marketing are given inordinate importance.
In contrast, the productive sphere is seen as fixed. This is not just a technical question of the manufacturing process for, say, semiconductors or plasma screen televisions. It means that the possibility of developing a qualitatively better economy is denied. Humanity’s creative potential, including the possibility of transcending the limits of the market, is banished from discussion.
As a result, a one-sided view of humanity has taken hold. The consumption of resources, important as it is, is given too much weight. Human beings are seen as parasites on the planet using up the world’s natural resources. In contrast, the creative side of humanity, the ability to solve social problems and create a more productive society, is at best downplayed in importance. At worst, the capacity of human beings to create a more productive society is seen as a problem, a destructive characteristic, rather than the positive quality it represents.
That is why fat Americans are so widely hated. Overweight Americans represent, in caricatured form, the affluence of US society. They are the personification of a society in which scarcity, if not eliminated, has become marginalised. Yet we live in a world in which consumption is seen as a problem and the possibility of creating a better society is seen as unrealistic.
By focusing on fat Americans the critics of consumption are saying, implicitly at least, that people should consume less. They are arguing for a world in which Americans become more like those who live in the poorer countries of the world. From such a perspective equality means levelling everyone down rather than raising the living standards of the poor. It means giving up on the battle to resist hurricanes or to reclaim land from the sea.
Yet implementing such a viewpoint is a super-size mistake. 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.
Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))