At some point along the continuum of language and culture, metaphor becomes character: a word evoking our situation by drawing on a parallel or a similarity or a comparison morphs into the situation itself, “figuratively” gives way to “literally,” and rather than being like something, we are that something.
And so it is withAmericaand “Fat.”
“Getting Fat” was once invoked to chastise laziness or self satisfaction and identify their consequences, but those consequences have long since come home to roost. Fat is now who and howAmericais, our social fabric rather than a cautionary possibility, indistinguishable from our background reality and hence useless as a linguistic device with which we can gain perspective. Where Fat is concerned, our metaphor is now our identity.
This is a subject that always comes up for me this time of year when I travel cross country to vacation in upstate New York, changing planes in Chicago. O’Hare Airport there is the proverbial Mecca of Fat. One year, my daughter, Sophie, and I were waiting for our connector flight, sitting on the edge of the flow of passengers, just watchingAmericaon the move. It was a constant parade of very very large people, arms jiggling, bellies extending a foot or more over their belt line, hips half again as wide as their shoulders. Sophie, still a youngster, rolled her eyes.
“How does someone get that fat?” she asked incredulously.
“I think you have to work at it,” I said.
Judging by my annual O’Hare samplings over the years since, that work has clearly burgeoned. At least a quarter ofAmericanow qualifies as physically obese or close to it, and most of the rest of us are thicker than we need to be. This question, however, keeps coming up for reasons that far transcend just how we look or how far we tip the scales in the morning. It is the way Fat has permeated our collective being that holds my attention. Fat has become a verb, a way of living in which we steadily consume far more than we use, take far in excess of what we replace, choose passivity and indulgence over discipline and activity, and serve our appetites rather than our values. That ubiquitous dynamic is now marbled throughout our society and will leave us almost helpless in the face of the disruption about to be generated by the blowback from two centuries of ceaselessly burning carbon. Living as Fat as we do is now a clear and present danger to our collective survival.
This summer, instead of just sampling at O’Hare, I decided to make a list of five ways (not necessarily involving fast food) in which we act Fat, and how we might change them:
1. We consume a lot more than our share. With barely four percent of the world’s population and more than a quarter of its wealth, we are a hog at the trough. This arrangement has proved workable as long as the trough keeps expanding, but as physical limits begin to constrict the world’s potential for wealth, our Fat will become increasingly unacceptable to the rest of the species. At that point, it will be consume less or fight. If, however, instead of waiting, we use our current status as lead dog to reduce, redistribute, and reframe our consumption, we might just show the way through climate Armageddon. Vanquishing this Fat requires taking “Less Is More” as a personal and political mantra and enforcing it on all fronts.
2. We give little thought to consequences. It is the nature of Fat that its acolytes are guided by appetite to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Perhaps the most dangerous effect is our failure to calculate the reality of our impact and incorporate that verifiable impact in our accounting of the costs and ultimate viability of our collective behaviors. For example, the damage done in the process of harvesting and burning carbon is never included in the price of the energy we generate with it. This Fat can be counteracted by recalculating our behaviors, assessing the aftermath of actions in advance of taking them and insisting on focusing on real costs that take the entire chain of production into account.
3. We devalue sustainability. Fat is fueled by our self indulgence and premised on the assumption of growth. For the Fat, More is a constant, in both our economics and social organization. Everything is designed to escalate, often beyond all healthy proportions. And that addiction to growth is about to hit the proverbial wall as More becomes increasingly hard to come by. The antidote to this Fat is the identification and pursuit of behaviors which don’t require More and More and More. The first questions we need to ask are, Will it last? Can we keep this up for the foreseeable future? Does it require a pyramid shape to endure?
4. We prioritize the short term. A corollary to Fat’s reliance on More is its confinement to Now. This restriction to the immediate generates heedlessness and indulgence, with little thought to how our behavior plays out over time or even recognition that it does. If there is only Now, we have no chance to gain control over the Fat that’s about to become our principal nemesis. The issues facing us are how to generate behaviors that actually improve over time and how to collectively defer to those yet to come. We need to plan in decades and centuries rather than days and weeks.
5. We assume our dominance. Fat attempts to enforce its primacy on everything and everyone it encounters. Always being first in line generates smugness and self satisfaction and we have weakened our bond with much of the rest of our species as a consequence. Believing we have been chosen plays out a lot like narcissism down where most people live. This strain of Fat only disappears when we treat importance as something we share with a host of others rather than as our own signature condition. We desperately need a planet upon which we are all sideways to each other rather than on the top or on the bottom.