Weighing in

I wonder if the friends sending me emails which have been forwarded a million times, or Facebook friends who repost words of wisdom which have been posted and reposted read and really think about the words they “like.” Often when I skim through the thought for the day, I too think, “Yeah, that’s right!” When I think more carefully, however, I find myself uncomfortable. Do the easy platitudes and fine sounding generalizations about politics, politicians, love, young people, teachers, parents, men, women, religion really reflect what my friends and family believe?

Many of the postings seem to advocate a philosophy that everyone is on their own. All we have to do is take care of ourselves and the world will be just fine. Not only should we all just take care of our own, everyone else (especially government) should stay out of my business. What I do is no one else’s concern.

Is that really what we believe?

Last week I listened to a scientist talk about the future and how we are going to feed the world’s growing population in fifty years. This researcher, Dr. Ian Roberts, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has studied the effect of obesity on the ability of the earth to sustain future populations. His hypothesis is that it takes substantially more resources to maintain an obese person than one of a normal, healthy body mass index. We should, Roberts maintains, not only be looking at how many people we will need to feed, but how many pounds of human flesh we need to maintain. “Increasing population fatness could have the same implications for world food energy demands  as an extra half a billion people,” states the abstract of his recently published paper.

The idea makes sense. It takes more energy to move four heavy people around in a car than four lighter ones. Airplanes take more fuel to take off when filled with passengers with a higher average weight. It takes more resources to make bigger seats in stadiums, theaters, and hospital waiting rooms. Health care costs are higher for people classified as obese and nearly a third of all Americans now fit in that classification.

Responses to Dr. Robert’s research accuse him of attacking overweight people and trying to blame those of us who weigh more than our ideal for the woes of the world including global climate change. In reading his research paper, however, I don’t think that is his point. If we can stop being defensive about our own expanding waistlines, we might take another lesson from his conclusions.

Even such a personal thing as our own weight has effects on others. How much we weigh is not just our business. It effects others around us and others across the world. My point is not to make anyone feel guilty for having a greater than perfect body mass index. I fit that category too. I think there are many reasons for our growing corpulence. We are being affected by the actions of others as well as our own decisions. What effect does exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals have on our weight? Do advertisements for junk food affect what we eat? Do subsidies for sugar and corn contribute to how many calories we consume? Does the weight of the people we hang out with affect how much we weigh? How much of our weight control problems have to do with the diets we ate as children? What does the decision to build communities without sidewalks have to do with our weight? Just as our weightiness affects others, so  is our weight affected by decisions made by others about all kinds of seemingly unrelated issues.

Science increasingly tells us what religion has alway taught. We are our brothers’ keepers. We are all in this together and what we do always affects the lives of someone else. The world will only be a better place if we look out for each other and consider how our actions either make life better or harder for someone else.  Our society seems to teach us that it is alright if there are winners and losers and it is the losers own fault if they have nothing. My weight is my busienss. Reality is, however, that in the long run, when some of us eat our fill and others starve, when we use more than our share of the earth’s finite resources and others have none, when we burn all the earth’s generously stored energy and change our climate for the future generations, when we ignore the long term for our own short term comfort, everyone loses.

It’s not just our own business.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains