Sometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler than they look. Take America’s “obesity epidemic,” arguably the most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that today’s children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.
When I was a kid growing up in the early 60’s, anybody could have told you exactly what the future of food was going to look like. We’d seen “The Jetsons,” toured the 1964 World’s Fair, tasted the culinary fruits (or at least fruit flavors) of the space program, and all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.
The first time I heard about the Slow Food movement, recently arrived on our shores from its native Italy, I thought the whole idea sounded cute. Here were a bunch of well-heeled foodies getting together to celebrate the fast-disappearing virtues of the slow life: traditional foods traditionally prepared and eaten at leisurely communal meals.
Add another to the string of superlatives wreathing the world’s greatest power: Americans are now the fattest people on earth. (Actually a handful of South Sea Islanders still outweigh us, but we’re gaining.) Six out of every 10 of us—and fully a quarter of our children—are now overweight. Just since 1970 the proportion of American children who are overweight has doubled, a rate of increase that suggests the fattening of America has a specific history as well as a biology.
The first time I opened Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Preposterous as it might seem, to supporters of animal rights, what I was doing was tantamount to reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on a plantation in the Deep South in 1852.
On the second day of spring, Joel Salatin is down on his belly getting the ant’s-eye view of his farm. He invites me to join him, to have a look at the auspicious piles of worm castings, the clover leaves just breaking, and the two inches of fresh growth that one particular blade of grass has put on in the five days since this paddock was last grazed.
Here in southern New England the corn is already waist high and growing so avidly you can almost hear the creak of stalk and leaf as the plants stretch toward the sun. The ears of sweet corn are just starting to show up on local farm stands, inaugurating one of the ceremonies of an American summer. These days the nation’s nearly 80 million-acre field of corn rolls across the countryside like a second great lawn, but this wholesome, all-American image obscures a decidedly more dubious reality.
Garden City, Kan., missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions of cattle. These feedlots—the nation’s first—began rising on the high plains of western Kansas in the 50’s, and by now developments catering to cows are far more common here than developments catering to people.
SOWING seeds is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you are doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighbourhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And I found myself thinking what existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s.
The way we think about and deal with pollution has always been governed by the straightforward rules of chemistry. You clean the stuff up or let it fade with time. But what do you do about a form of pollution that behaves instead according to the rules of biology? Such a pollutant would have the ability to copy itself over and over again, so that its impact on the environment would increase with time rather than diminish. Now you’re talking about a problem with, quite literally, a life of its own.