Obesity has reached epidemic proportions according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that more than one billion adults worldwide are overweight – at least 300 million of them clinically obese. And obesity is a major contributor to the growing global burden of chronic disease and disability.
But here’s a provocative thought: what if obesity isn’t so much a by-product of modernity, but a symptom that something else is fundamentally awry? The idea is that the relentless emphasis on economic growth has led to “sweet spots” for both environmental well-being and human wealth being overshot.
In a sense, obesity is not only a signal that there is something wrong with the health of an individual, but when it reaches epidemic proportions, a marker that something is wrong in the broader environment. For Garry Egger, professor of lifestyle medicine at
Southern Cross University, and Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University, both in Australia, “Obesity is the canary in the coal mine that should alert us to structural problems in society.”
The two Australian-based researchers produced a recent book,
(Allen & Unwin, 2010), which argues that as obesity is endemic, it cannot be merely dismissed as a result of sloth and gluttony on the part of individuals. Obesity is an example where human success has reached and exceeded its peak, says Egger. “We can be said to be entering a ‘sour spot,’ where the very success we have achieved is threatening to unravel centuries of improvements in the standards of living, levels of health and ever-increasing life spans.” Planet Obesity
For much of human history, life was a struggle for survival, so people remained relatively lean. In modern times, it is no wonder that waistlines expand with access to the fruits of production, such as energy-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods with high levels of sugar and saturated fats. This, along with low relative food prices, reduced physical activity and sophisticated marketing, has led to skyrocketing obesity rates.
For example, compare what has happened in Australia and China. From a base of almost no obesity in the 1950s, Australia has become one of the heaviest nations on Earth. In the last 20 years, obesity rates increased faster than in any other OECD country. Today, 61% of adults are overweight or obese. And the proportion of people overweight is projected to rise a further 15% over the course of the next 10 years.
In the 1980s, the Chinese referred to visiting Australians as “jelly bellies.” China was only in the initial stages of market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping and the widespread starvation experienced in the 1960s was still fresh in the national memory.
Fast forward to 2011: China, now an economy in transition, has experienced a threefold increase in obesity. The overall rate is still below 5%, but in cities it is already over 20% and rising. While this is low compared with Western countries, the size of the country’s population means that one-fifth of the one billion overweight and obese people in the world are Chinese.
Obesity is an example where human success has reached and exceeded its peak Garry Egger Egger and Swinburn make clear that the issues around obesity and health are complex. Indeed, much of the chronic disease associated with obesity could be linked to a low-grade body-wide inflammation influenced as much by behavioral and environmental factors as by obesity. However, it is clear the modern lifestyle is becoming a major health risk for diet-related chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and stroke, and many forms of cancer. The consequences range from increased risk of premature death to serious chronic conditions that reduce the overall quality of life.
So, where technological advancements once made us healthier, now they make us unhealthier. The reason why, argue Egger and Swinburn, is that humans tend to maximize rather than optimize any experience, such as plentiful food, and in so doing accelerate its demise.
Churning through the Earth’s resources
As with health, so, too, with the environment. Technological advancement once brought benefits. However, now we are passing the “sweet spot,” the point when the benefits begin to turn sour. Using the metaphor of obesity, overconsumption of the earth’s resources has led to a point where we are threatening our own health through degradation of the environment and the build-up of carbon dioxide. Literally, Egger and Swinburn state in the subtitle to
Planet Obesity, we are eating ourselves and the planet to death.
“What we are asking is for is a reconsideration of the ultimate purpose of the economic system. This should be the advancement of human welfare with all its connotations – environmental sustainability, biodiversity, equity and health,” explains Swinburn.
“If material growth is reaching a point where we do not get a return in terms of human health, well-being or happiness, then you have to question exactly what it is we are doing. Are the costs now so high that they are overtaking the benefits?”
Egger chips in, “We shouldn’t be selling plastic ducks simply for the sake of economic growth if it is to our detriment.” Theirs is a bold and contentious leap in argumentation. Economists largely prefer to deal with measurements such as GDP and not notions such as “happiness.” Yet with humanity currently churning through the Earth’s resources at 1.5 times the rate nature can replace them (and this over-consumption is accelerating), it is an issue that will soon have to be addressed in economic models – whether we like it or not.