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Avoid Cancer, Lose Weight, Look Great, Attract a Mate, Be Happy ... and Stop Global Warming
Alan AtKisson, 15 Nov 07
Article Photo

The industrialized world seems to be rushing its inhabitants towards a kind of choice point, a Meaning of Life Moment, an existential fork in the road.

The choice is this: Do we want to be happy, healthy, safe, and wise? Or stressed out, sick, scrambling for protection from terror-bomb blasts, and cursing ourselves for having been too stupid to act wiser, sooner?

One hopes the right choice is obvious. And yet, our behavior as a subspecies (homo sapiens consumptionus) is enough to make one wonder.

The most rigorous study on cancer ever, by the World Cancer Research Fund, has recently released its findings. Based on over half a million published studies, as reviewed by nine institutes over a six-year period, researchers concluded the following:

To avoid cancer, don't eat too much. Stay lean. Avoid red meat. Walk.

Oddly, recommendations like these turn up on virtually every list of virtues one should cultivate if one is also to help save the planet -- or to be somewhat more precise, to save the planetary biosphere's climatic stability, ecosystem resilience, and biological diversity.

And it hardly needs a literature review to establish the fact that staying lean and healthy does no harm to a single person's chances out there in the relationship market.

It turns out that "being good," you might say, is good for you, good for your sex life, good for the environment.

Why, then, is it so hard to be good -- at least in the sense of taking care of our physical bodies? In summarizing the recent cancer research, The Economist magazine noted that "It is an irony that evolution has shaped people to enjoy fat, sugar and indolence -- things in short supply to man's hunter-gatherer ancestors, and desirable in the quantities then available. Unfortunately, human bodies have evolved neither to cope nor, easily, to resist." (3 Nov 2007, p. 86)

Consider that, while evidence has been mounting about the risks of overeating and not exercising (a list that includes not just cancer, but heart disease, diabetes, and more), overeating is mounting as well. Global sugar consumption increased over 30 percent between 1990 and 2005. Cow meat consumption went up over up 40 percent globally (the Argentines are eating less of the stuff, the Albanians a whole lot more, etc.) -- while chicken consumption increased nearly 120 percent. Overall, food consumption went up globally by about 40 percent, while population increased by around 20percent during the same period. (Sources: FAOSTAT, http://faostat.fao.org/; and Population Reference Bureau, http://www.prb.org)

So the world's bellies are getting fuller. For the malnourished, this is good news. But for the increasingly-overnourished folks (e.g. Americans, whose chicken consumption went up over 60 percent) this was not necessary food, but simply a number of pleasant McNuggets indulgences -- with increasingly life-threatening consequences, and many obvious links to global warming.

Is it so great a stretch to see a link between people's growing-larger bodies and their growing-larger cars? Houses? Blue jeans?

Meanwhile, to make things even more complex and dire, food and fuel are becoming one and the same. In modern times, it has always been the case that, in metaphorical terms, industrial humans "eat oil:" that is, we eat food that depends for its cultivation and transportation on a vast river of fossil fuel. Without oil, no fertilizer, no tractors, no fancy plastic packaging, no refrigerated trucks, no airplane ride from field to fork.

What about food to the poor, who do not shop in gleaming supermarkets? Well, the "green revolution" is also, to a large extent, colored a lovely dark-chocolate brown: the color of crude oil.

And increasingly, what we eat is also what some of us burn in our fuel tanks -- so much so that demand on "food as fuel" (e.g. corn-based ethanol) is affecting the price of tortillas in Mexico City, causing protests, and racking up new worrisome warnings from leading analysts like Lester R. Brown. Best to listen to this man, who is the founder of not just one, but two institutes dedicated to warning us about emerging mega-problems (Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute), when he says the following:

"We are used to having a food economy and a separate energy economy. Now they are starting to merge: food prices will go up in line with oil prices if no one does anything to prevent this, and so far, no one has." Now, Brown goes on, "the 840 million people who drive cars are competing for the same raw materials with the two billion poorest people." What does that sound like a recipe for? (Note: Lester Brown's words were translated from English to Swedish, by Stockholm's Metro newspaper on 12 Nov 2007, and then back to English again, by me. Apologies if the wording varies a bit from what Lester Brown actually said.)

A year ago, I gave a speech in Tokyo to business people concerned about climate change and systems thinking. I reminded them that most of the actual "fateful moments" that affect fossil fuel consumption are not consumer decisions, but producer decisions. Take a look at the hands turning the actual economic spigots on oil consumption, and they are nearly always hands working on salary for a company. Business, I argued, has the greatest responsibility for making different decisions -- regarding investment, production methods, marketing and the like. These are the decisions that will actually reduce the conversion of ancient, buried, carbon-based life residue into today's ever-thicker planet-warming blanket of greenhouse gas.

But the primacy of business's role in implementing change hardly releases the rest of us from responsibility. There is lobbying to be done, activism, research, policies to enact (especially where voluntary or free market-based measures fail to cause actual emissions reduction). And of course, consumers do have an enormous role in this process, as well as an enormous responsibility -- especially, the responsibility to take care of ourselves, to be healthy, to practice some level of self-restraint in the face of evolution's counter-productive default settings in our own biology.

Want to save the planet, save your figure, save a life?

Take a walk.


© 2007 Alan AtKisson

Image credit: flickr/kate...

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Comments

"Oddly, recommendations like these turn up on virtually every list of virtues one should cultivate if one is also to help save the planet."

Thank you for putting into words what my intuition guided me to many years ago: concern for one's health and concern for the planet's health are really one. I live in awareness of the interconnectivity of all living things (an idea John Muir more eloquently expressed).


Posted by: Kristine K. on 15 Nov 07

"Oddly, recommendations like these turn up on virtually every list of virtues one should cultivate if one is also to help save the planet."

Thank you for putting into words what my intuition guided me to many years ago: concern for one's health and concern for the planet's health are really one. I live in awareness of the interconnectivity of all living things (an idea John Muir more eloquently expressed).


Posted by: Kristine K. on 15 Nov 07

Sorry about the multiple posts -- something slow on the server or my browser.
~K


Posted by: Kristine K. on 15 Nov 07

Is it the businesses that need to change? Or is it the rules that govern the behaviour of businesses, ie. the rules of our economic systems? Or is it all of the above


Posted by: Allain on 15 Nov 07

"The choice is this: Do we want to be happy, healthy, safe, and wise? Or stressed out, sick, scrambling for protection from terror-bomb blasts, and cursing ourselves for having been too stupid to act wiser, sooner?"

Of course everyone wants the former. But we've landed in the latter situation through our desire for happiness, health and safety.

It's about time we dropped the "rational agent" model of economic activity, and accept that while life can be improved, utopia is nowhere to be found. Realizing this with compassion might help move toward the improvements we can make.


Posted by: Gyrus on 16 Nov 07



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