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As junk food goes, so goes the planet

For 14 years, I worked for the Worldwatch Institute (publisher of the annual State of the World ), and during that time the scientists whose work I edited or reported made increasingly urgent calls for humanity to shift to a more sustainable course. In 1992, for example, more than 1,600 of the world's leading biological, physical, and climate scientists issued a “World Scientists' Warning to Humanity,” declaring that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.” The document stated that the single most important action needed—worldwide—was to sharply reduce our burning of fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel emissions were principal drivers of both climate change and biodiversity loss, which together could well doom civilization within the next century. The warning wasn't just ignored; it was scorned and buried in a heavily funded campaign of oil- and coal-industry disinformation (from an organization that called itself the “Global Climate Coalition” until it was outed as an oil-industry arm and subsequently re-cloaked itself under other names). That's not to mention the Iraq War that followed, which Alan Greenspan—soon after leaving his post as chairman of the Federal Reserve—admitted had been fought largely to secure American interests in oil. Around the same time as the World Scientists' Warning, the 2,000-plus climate scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued their first warning of the likely impacts of fossil-fuel emissions, which was similarly scorned and countered with heavily financed disinformation.

And the general public? Duped by the propaganda, about half of the American population has shifted over the past two decades from self-indulgent disinterest in ecological or climate science to outright hostility toward science. Incredibly, national polls now find that the number of Americans who believe in either evolution or global warming has actually declined. The easy explanation for this shift is that our population is getting ever more dumbed down. Or as the politically incorrect humorist Bill Maher has put it, Americans have become unbelievably “stupid.” And while that might not be completely wrong, it begs the question why ? Genetically, all people—from South Carolina to South Korea , or Moscow to Mumbai—are the same species with the same genetic capability not to be stupid. There has to be a deeper explanation.

In pondering the reasons for this lack of progress—this potentially cataclysmic failure of progressive argument—I have come to a fairly radical view: that we can never have a sustainable civilization unless we first achieve sustainability as individuals. Billions of us (not just a few million) will need to embrace lower-consumption, more thoughtful, more ecologically conscious lifestyles with the same personal passion that is today wasted on free-market profiteering, religious proselytizing, or yearning for power and control of other humans. And if I had to identify the single most daunting barrier to that kind of embrace, it is our pervasive intellectual and emotional disconnection from the living planet we evolved on. Our knowledge is almost hopelessly fragmented now: our science is reductionist, our media are broken into hundreds of TV channels, thousands of radio shows, and 2 million websites, and our health-care professionals are so specialized that most of them know very little about what the others are doing or thinking.

But perhaps the most elementary kind of disconnection is in the most basic of all human experience—our food. When I walk into my local Albertson's store (though this would be equally true of Safeway, Walmart, or any other supermarket or superstore), I can't help noticing how cigarettes are sold a few feet from inhalers; “no transfat” products are displayed next to products loaded with partially hydrogenated (transfat-rich) products; and empty-calorie junk-food products are displayed a few feet from vitamins and nutritional supplements. If you asked the store manager or marketing executive about this, I suppose his rationale would be that it gives consumers a choice. But that response would be absurd, because its implication would be that the store wants you to have a choice between getting sick and getting healthy, or between wheezing and breathing easy. The real explanation, I fear, is that the executives and store managers aren't thinking at all. They're not looking for connections, so they don't see connections. In a country where seeing connections is not a priority in the education of our young, it's no wonder that we can reach the age of 40 or 50 and still be so oblivious to dis connection.

What the supermarket managers are looking for is profit, and if profit comes at the expense of your health or life, it isn't because they are sociopathic or nefarious, but because they aren't conscious of any connections at all between what they sell and anything else. All that matters, really, is their personal security and pay. I've met a few Albertson's and Safeway managers, and they've all been nice guys. And maybe the people who process or package or advertise junk food are nice guys, too. (And if you meet one of those evangelicals who put liberals in their crosshairs, but you're careful to just talk about football or the weather, they'll probably be nice guys too.) Hannah Arendt once wrote of the “banality of evil,” and her point was that contrary to popular impressions cultivated by TV or movies, evil only occasionally manifests itself in a Hitler, Stalin, or Osama bin Ladin; most often it is right under our noses—in our own obliviousness or in the mental and moral disconnection of our supermarket managers.

One day recently, I looked at the label of a snack product called “T.G.I. Friday's POTATO SKINS”, and nearly became ill on the spot. The name had attracted me because I like potato skins. When I bake potatoes at home, I like to eat the skins. Sometimes, I'll fry them in a little olive oil. So, I expected to see three ingredients on this label: potato skins, vegetable oil, and salt. Instead, I found 45 ingredients, none of which were specifically “potato skins” (one was dehydrated potatoes, which presumably included dehydrated skins).

I decided to do a little Internet research, to find out what might be the health effects of these ingredients. The following findings linking the product's ingredients with the possible health effects of someone who eats this product were taken mainly from the website of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The site lists specific health impacts found in credible studies, and for some ingredients simply indicates that a consumer should regard that ingredient with “Caution.” Here are a few of the more questionable of the 45 ingredients, and their reported health impacts:

  • Monosodium glutamatej (MSG): Caution. In studies of mice, MSG destroyed nerve cells in the brain. In some people, there are allergic reactions.
  • Artificial color: Depending on the color (other than yellow #6, below, the label didn't specify), studies have found brain cancer, tumors in the testes, thyroid tumors, and allergic reactions.
  • Partially hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil: Partial hydrogenation creates transfats, which promote heart disease.
  • Yellow #6: Tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney.
  • Dextrose: Caution.
  • Ascoryl palmitate: Can increase blood cholesterol level.
  • Disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate: flushed skin, burning sensation around the mouth, numbness around the mouth, and sometimes numbness in the chest and arm; and migraine headaches.

All this in addition to the usual offenders in junk food: refined sugar, corn syrup, saturated fat, and salt, which have been widely implicated in hypertension, heart disease and cancer. Not to mention any pesticide or petroleum-chemical residues found in non-organic cottonseed oil, sugar, or grains.

Why all this garbage (and poison), when the product could be made from just potato skins and vegetable oil? Simple answer: More profit. (Or, to elaborate, more profit for a few at the expense of the many.) The chemicals, etc., add shelf life, crunch, color, and artificially intensified flavor—the basic requirements for addiction. The connections to your need for energy, sustenance, and life-long health are abandoned.

To a very small number of people, this is not news. The poet-farmer Wendell Berry, in his 1977 book The Unsettling of America , wrote:

The modern urban-industrial society is based on a series of radical disconnections between body and soul, husband and wife, marriage and community, community and earth. At each of these points of disconnection, the collaboration of corporation, government, and experts sets up a profit-making enterprise that results in the further dismemberment and impoverishment of the Creation.

The conundrum we face is that restoring our ability and inclination to see connections can't be achieved by legislation or public policy, unless that legislation or policy is directed with unprecedented, revolutionary resolve toward how we educate ourselves and our children. If we were to switch the enormous resources we give to military weapons and war (and to subsidizing some of our most life-destroying industries) with the anemic allowances we make for our schools (which now resort to rummage sales or begging to pay for books and supplies), it would be a start. Beyond that, however, we'd have to somehow get over our heads-in-sand habits of myopic and reductionist thinking, and begin learning to see the world as it actually is, instead of in pixilated fragments. But it's very late, and by now, to see our world as it actually is may be too much to hope for.

Ed Ayres publishes the website www.willhumansendure.com. He is a retired editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute (publisher of the annual State of the World). He is also the author of "God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future".

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