|All This Progress Is|
Killing Us, Bite by Bite
By GREGG EASTERBROOK
Published: March 14, 2004
New York Times
YOUR great-great grandparents
would find it hard to believe the Boeing 747, but perhaps they’d have a
harder time believing last week’s news that obesity has become the second-leading
cause of death in the United States. Too much food a menace instead of
too little! A study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control
ranked “poor diet and physical inactivity” as the cause of 400,000 United
States deaths in 2000, trailing only fatalities from tobacco. Obesity,
the C.D.C. said, now kills five times as many Americans as “microbial agents,”
that is, infectious disease.
landings might seem less shocking to your great-great grandparents than
abundance of food causing five times as many deaths as germs; OutKast might
seem less bizarre to them than the House passing legislation last week
to exempt restaurants from being sued for serving portions that are too
recent ancestors would further be stunned by the notion of plump poverty.
A century ago, the poor were as lean as fence posts; worry about where
to get the next meal was a constant companion for millions. Today, America’s
least well-off are so surrounded by double cheeseburgers, chicken buckets,
extra-large pizzas and supersized fries that they are more likely to be
overweight than the population as a whole.
expanding waistline is not only a problem of lower-income Americans who
dine too often on fast food. Today, the typical American is overweight,
according to the C.D.C., which estimates that 64 percent of American citizens
are carrying too many pounds for their height. Obesity and sedentary
living are rising so fast that their health consequences may soon supplant
tobacco as the No. 1 preventable cause of death, the C.D.C. predicts. Rates
of heart disease, stroke and many cancers are in decline, while life expectancy
is increasing – but ever-rising readings on the bathroom scale may be canceling
out what would otherwise be dramatic gains in public health.
it’s hard to be opposed to food. But the epidemic of obesity epitomizes
the unsettled character of progress in affluent Western society. Our lives
are characterized by too much of a good thing – too much to eat, to buy,
to watch and to do, excess at every turn. Sometimes achievement itself
engenders the excess: today’s agriculture creates so much food at such
low cost that who can resist that extra helping?
other examples in which society’s success seems to be backfiring on our
health or well-being.
PRODUCTIVITY Higher productivity
is essential to rising living standards and to the declining prices of
goods and services. But higher productivity may lead to fewer jobs.
in the postwar era, analysts fretted that automation would take over manufacturing,
throwing everyone out of work. That fear went unrealized for a generation,
in part because robots and computers weren’t good at much. Today, near-automated
manufacturing is becoming a reality. Newly built factories often require
only a fraction of the work force of the plants they replace. Office technology,
meanwhile, now allows a few to do what once required a whole hive of worker
may come a point when the gains from higher productivity pale before the
job losses. But even if that point does not come, rapid technological
change is instilling anxiety about future employment: anxiety that makes
it hard to appreciate and enjoy what productivity creates.
TRAFFIC Cars are much better
than they were a few decades ago – more comfortable, powerful and reliable.
They are equipped with safety features like air bags and stuffed with CD
players, satellite radios and talking navigation gizmos. Adjusted for consumers’
rising buying power, the typical powerful new car costs less than one a
part because cars are so desirable and affordable, roads are increasingly
clogged with traffic. Today in the United States, there are 230 million
cars and trucks in operation, and only 193 million licensed drivers – more
vehicles than drivers! Studies by the Federal Highway Administration show
that in the 30 largest cities, total time lost to traffic jams has almost
quintupled since 1980.
prosperity has made possible the popularity of S.U.V.’s and the misnamed
“light” pickup trucks, which now account for half of all new-car sales.
Exempt from the fuel-economy standards that apply to regular cars,
sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks sustain American dependence on
Persian Gulf oil. A new study in
the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty showed that the rise in S.U.V.’s and
pickup trucks “leads to substantially more fatalities” on the road.
as longevity might be improving at a faster clip were it not for expanding
waistlines, death rates in traffic accidents might show a more positive
trend were it not for the S.U.V. explosion.
of cars also encourages us to drive rather than walk. A century ago,
the typical American walked three miles a day; now the average is less
than a quarter mile a day. Some research suggests that the sedentary lifestyle,
rather than weight itself, is the real threat; a chubby person who
is physically active will be O.K. Studies also show that it is not necessary
to do aerobics to get the benefits of exercise; a half-hour a day of brisk
walking is sufficient. But more cars, driven more miles, mean less
STRESS It’s not just in your
mind: Researchers believe stress levels really are rising. People
who are overweight or inactive experience more stress than others, and
that now applies to the majority. Insufficient sleep increases stress,
and Americans now sleep on average only seven hours a night, versus eight
hours for our parents’ generation and 10 hours for our great-grandparents’.
Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University in New York,
suggests that modern stress, in addition to making life unpleasant, can
impair immune function – again, canceling out health gains that might otherwise
brings many other mixed blessings. Living standards keep rising, but
so does incidence of clinical depression. Cellphones are convenient,
but make it impossible to escape from office calls. E-mail
is cheap and fast, if you don’t mind deleting hundreds of spam messages.
Internet and cable television improve communication, but deluge us with
the junkiest aspects of culture.
live in ever-nicer, ever-larger houses, but new homes and the businesses
that serve them have to go somewhere. Sprawl continues at a maddening
pace, while once-rustic areas may now be gridlocked with S.U.V.’s and power
yields continue rising, yet that means fewer family farms are needed. Biotechnology
may allow us to live longer, but may leave us dependent on costly synthetic
drugs. There are many similar examples.
Western life is afflicted by the paradoxes of progress. Material
circumstances keep improving, yet our quality of life may be no better
as a result – especially in those cases, like food, where enough
becomes too much.
maximum is not the optimum,” the ecologist Garrett Hardin, who died last
year, liked to say. Americans are choosing the maximum, and it does not
necessarily make us healthier or happier.
Gregg Easterbrook, a visiting
fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “The Progress Paradox:
How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse” (Random House).