adipose lullaby
March 19, 2004 5:09 PM   Subscribe

All This Progress Is Killing Us. "Increasingly, 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."
posted by the fire you left me (17 comments total)
Anybody else immediately recognize that it was written by Gregg Easterbrook and was disappointed that there were no inset pictures of boobies? As to the content of the article, all I have to say is:

Uphill through the snow barefoot. Both ways. I'm your crazy Grandpa.
posted by Stan Chin at 5:41 PM on March 19, 2004

Well, color me surprised!
posted by aramaic at 5:44 PM on March 19, 2004

Great post. If people paid the real cost of food, like the real cost of environmentally destructive energy, it would be a lot more expensive. All this comes back in the end there is no free lunch. With cheap energy it will pollute the environment. With cheap food it pollutes the body. Is it no wonder health care costs keep rising and is the central political issue of our day. Americans love things to be cheap and that is the problem, over-consumption. Paradoxically consumerism is touted as the cure-all to the worlds problems.
posted by stbalbach at 5:45 PM on March 19, 2004

I don't yearn for the good old days when pneumonia would kill you.
posted by Triplanetary at 5:47 PM on March 19, 2004

To give a better perspective of where we are today, its always good to look at where we were, check out this great movie from the 1930s about the problems with modern cities.
The city
Ill take the present thanks, although the utopian agrarian society that is depicted at the start looks like fun.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 5:58 PM on March 19, 2004

"The City" has a good Aaron Copland score.
posted by stbalbach at 6:40 PM on March 19, 2004

If people paid the real cost of food, like the real cost of environmentally destructive energy, it would be a lot more expensive. All this comes back in the end there is no free lunch.

Personally, I'm reminded of my good ole' logistic equations from ecology 101, just with a bit of a time delay imposed. Resource consumption increases, but if you don't pay the cost at the time of consumption, and instead put it off till later, you overshoot equilibrium, and SOMETHING has to knock you back down as those real costs catch up with you. I just hope the time delay is short enough that these oscilations in quality of life damp out rather than stay fixed or lead to other wacky behaviors.
posted by jearbear at 6:49 PM on March 19, 2004

Many of the "problems" of the developed world are not entirely accurate, they only seem acute because of the concentration of the problem.
Fifty percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coasts; about 80% within 200 miles. If you live there, you probably have a distorted picture of what life is like in the rest of the country. This is not to say that your perceptions are false, just that it's not always fair to extrapolate them.

"Overconsumption" isn't just that you have too much, it also assumes the following: what is consumed is not replaceable, or is being consumed faster than it can be replenished; and, that you are not using what is consumed to *your* best benefit; and, that by this waste, someone else could consume your excess.

"Overconsumption", therefore, is *very* specific.

Say your significant other mixes up a batch of chicken salad, more then both of you can eat. It does *not* tax the available supply of chicken or greens or salad dressing.
If you overeat it, you are not using it to *your* best benefit, *unless* you eat less for a while to neutralize the extra consumption. That evens it out.
Last but not least, you decide to donate the remaining chicken salad to somebody who wants it, and although there are plenty of people out there who want it, you cannot deliver it to them before it spoils.

So it fails on all three counts of the "Overconsumption" scale. Granted, many things can pass that scale, but fewer and fewer, if you don't consider them as isolated events. You eat too much, so you fast. You drive too much so you buy a smaller car. You spend too much so you spend less.
posted by kablam at 7:32 PM on March 19, 2004

There's no way to put this without being a prick, but I thought I was making poor people pay for my overconsumption.
posted by Stan Chin at 7:40 PM on March 19, 2004

kablam: Please read The Oil We Eat, by Richard Manning, Harper's Magazine, February 2004. Simply put: food production in North America is subsidized by industrial inputs, especially fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers. The food that North America overproduces comes from oil and other inputs that could have been used somewhere else. Not to mention that the grain used to feed the chickens could also have been sent anywhere in the world without spoiling. But the people who need it most can afford it least, so we feed that grain (read: diesel fuel) to the chickens instead.

So to go back to your three criteria:
  1. Unsustainability: Oil is being consumed far faster than it can ever be replaced;
  2. Non-optimality: We, the wealthy of the world, eat too much, and do not diet enough to compensate, and it's sending us to early graves;
  3. Utilitarian efficiency: Grain, as well as its precursor, oil, are nonperishable enough to survive transoceanic transport and long-term storage anywhere in the world. Therefore, anyone else could be consuming our excess, if we weren't eating it.
So actually, that behavior, for most Americans, does constitute overconsumption. The key here is that most of us don't self-regulate enough; the feedback loops are all out of whack, so that food prices do not create the conditions for good health, fuel and car prices do not create the conditions for livable cities, and everyone's debt keeps on rising through it all. If only people were rational! But at the present historical moment, we aren't.
posted by skoosh at 8:27 PM on March 19, 2004

What makes resisting temptation difficult for many people is they don't want to discourage it completely.

-Franklin P. Jones
posted by Keyser Soze at 8:57 PM on March 19, 2004

Well, actually, I think a lot of people's overconsumption etc. is due to a shallow mindset that doesn't consider a wider context to their actions. The same sort of people who, asked about, say, religion, say "y'know, I've never really thought about it" even though anyone who cares about anything other than day-to-day life would at least consider it. People spend all their lives thinking about the practical day-to-day stuff - at the 35-60 stage that's jobs, the rent, housecleaning, the kids, etc., but it applies at all ages, really. (Even something as seemingly non-menial as your status with your girlfriend is still a day-to-day concern). Once (if) progress reaches a point where people have lives enhanced enough by technology and efficiency that they're able to invest their allegedly limited concern in considering anything but their complicated lives, maybe they'll start thinking about the global scope a little bit.

Really, people will always think their lives alone are too much for them to handle. They need to be idle to the point of boredom at least some of the day to force them to think about, well, anything. Well, that's my own theory about the everpresent "dumbing down of America" concept, but maybe I'm wrong.
posted by abcde at 9:54 PM on March 19, 2004

You see, the thing that saved those kids playing in the gutter in Pink Fuzzy Bunny link wasn't progress, no. It was the opposite- regress. After we all went back to a pre-industrialist agrarian utopia, there are no more poor people, no more garbage (which is fortunate since we don't have any garbage trucks), no more accidents (which is also fortunate since we have neither ambulances, hospitals or medicines).

We're all happy in our agrarian utopia, where we die at 40 from pneumonia or superstition.

*looks out the window*

It was just a bad dream, thank rod.

But after reading this anti-progress tripe (and especially after seeing the movie) I begin to think that Ayn Rand wasn't such a reprehensible monster after all. (Don't worry tho' - she's still a bad writer.)
posted by spazzm at 10:08 PM on March 19, 2004

What bothers me is not the anti-progressists ("Tyler Durden rulz, maaan"), who are indeed fairly disturbing, but the many, many, many people who are at all apprehensive about progress, as if it's kind of a funny, dodgy idea all things considered. The same class of people who say "Ah, these computers, people never get up and talk to each other anymore! When I want to move a paragraph, I draw an arrow to where it should be!" (though obviously that particular variety won't be found much here). Indeed, even Rand is less horrible in some respects.
posted by abcde at 11:11 PM on March 19, 2004

The problem is that if we ditch all this new fangled medicine stuff we will have a global leech shortage. You can see it now...

"Americans use entirely too many leeches to treat their illnesses, importing them from the poorer nations and contributing to the global leech crisis (glc)".
posted by soulhuntre at 5:35 AM on March 20, 2004

abcde: That "sort of people" includes practically every one of us, most of the time. How often do you think of the child slaves of the Ivory Coast when you buy your chocolate bar? Are you really thinking about the endless manure-covered fields of Colorado's feedlots when you buy that steak? Do labor relations in the global textiles industry really hold much of a place in your thoughts when you're shopping for your kids' school clothes? I personally have thought about these things from time to time, as I'm sure you have, but not all or even most of the time. My behavior, to the extent that it is ethical, is mostly a product of cultivated habit rather than constant rational calculation. And of course, I still buy all sorts of things without a second thought. It's a complicated world, and we don't have a lot of time to think about it. We have, in fact, less leisure time than 30 years ago. But that's progress, I guess. Plus, people really aren't very rational self-interested agents.

Regarding your second comment, adults tend to be set in their ways, and more so as they get older. That conservative tendency naturally conflicts with the pace of technological change in their daily lives. That's not necessarily a bad thing: conservative impulses keep us, as individuals and as a society, from going off the deep end. Radical , systemic change can be disastrous (see The Great Leap Forward, Nauru), so conservative impulses can be adaptive in some circumstances. I never thought I'd be delivering an apologia for conservatism, but there it is.

spazzm: What makes it "tripe", exactly? Please be specific. Are you denying that Americans have grown more and more obese over the last 30 years? Are you suggesting that this is not due to an abundance of cheap food? Do you deny that widespread obesity and physical inactivity have a serious impact on public health? Are you saying that there are no social or environmental costs to the rise of the SUV? Are you saying that, even though we sleep less, work more, and are more stressed and depressed than ever, that these are not problems stemming from technological and economic change? Does "progress" not come at a price, with eventual diminishing returns? What is this "progress", anyway? Progress towards what end?

Also: the kids are still playing in the gutter.
posted by skoosh at 6:57 AM on March 20, 2004

Progress towards what end?

That is the $64 question. For example, the developed world was the first to have industrialism, then experience industrial pollution, and it was the first to both consider, then develop anti-pollution and environmental protection as a result. Importantly, it benefits by doing it *all*.

It benefits from the industrialization, and from overcoming its side effects, both changing, evolving socially, and scientifically/technologically.

When the rest of the world gets around to industrializing, the developed world can spare them a lot of grief, showing them the *right* way, the *best* way, *and* the best way of mitigating the bad stuff.

If they can deal with it. For if they can't evolve, there is no place for them in the future. Be they Taliban, or the Amish, eventually they will lose, if they don't keep up. And losing can be deadly.

But the developed world doesn't stop. "Overconsumption" is a self-resolving situation. Either you overcome the problem, or you no longer have enough--and must adapt.
Even if you are unwilling to eat less and exercise more, you can still lose weight if you can discover *how* the body makes you fat in the first place, and partially neutralize it. Even if it is a bad idea in pill form, you still learn a heck of a lot in the process.

Oil was mentioned: an excellent example. Oil use is on a curve that exceeds possible production. The end result *must* be using other forms of energy, or oil more efficiently. The developed world is spending literally hundreds of billions of dollars to develop fuel cell technology right now, just for this reason.

If the consumption curve for the developed world starts to drop, initially the rest of the world will pick up the slack, until they can get fuel cell technology, too. They will never face a dangerous consumption curve, or learn by having to overcome it, as an obstacle.

Eventually, more and more of the rest of the world become part of the developed world, join with and help in the "evolution" of ideas. And this is the progress to what end.

Someday, everyone (who remains), will be part of the developed world. Balance among ourselves will be the first grand step in finding balance in our world.
posted by kablam at 2:25 PM on March 20, 2004

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