Is our addiction to super-sized consumption worth
eating an Australian - or even a Canadian?
Outside of Bangor, Maine - on a long road trip to
Boston - I pulled into a coffee shop and ordered a
large cup of my favorite addiction. I was expecting a
generous cup - a sizable snort of get-up-and-go. But
what arrived was not just a big cup of French Roast,
nor even a giant mug of black java. No, what arrived
was a bucket of coffee. I was incredulous.
Later, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I stopped at a
family restaurant for dinner. And as with the coffee,
what the waiter placed in front of me was an
exaggerated indulgence: a plate piled impossibly high
with food. Again, I was incredulous. But looking
around, I was amazed to see that all the plates were
similarly piled high. And stranger still, the food was
being eaten - all of it, every bite.
Later still, as I neared my destination in Boston, I
looked around with greater care. Not only were the
cups of coffee oversized, and the plates of food
oversized, but so were the cars, the trucks, even the
And while staying at my friend's place, I read in Time
magazine that designers were actually incorporating
the growing girth of Americans into their work: the
clothes were now oversized, door frames oversized,
even furniture oversized - right down to the seats in
the movie theatres. I felt I was suddenly a traveler
in Gulliver's land of the giants.
When I gently broached the subject of wide-eyed-consumption-without-limits with my friend, suggesting that perhaps moderation might be in order, she suggested that moderation was un-American, an attack on freedom of choice.
I couldn't help thinking back to the words of that
great modern-day defender of freedom, George W. Bush.
When searching for the right words of comfort after
September 11, he urged his fellow Americans to buy
Maybe my friend was right: moderation was un-American.
Back in Canada, high taxes - if nothing else - kept jumbo-consumption at bay. Or so I thought. When I returned home, I started looked around with greater care. To my horror, I watched people at the fancy new movie theatres sitting in new over-sized chairs with new buckets of Pepsi washing down new grocery bags of popcorn. And I surveyed the new jumbo-sized houses being built on the outside of town and realized that the age of the super-sized had arrived in Canada.
Long ago, I once started writing a science fiction
story about a race of super-sized people. Rippling
with fat, their mouths made wider by natural
selection, these super-sized simian sorts aggressively
consumed the Earth - until all the food was gone. Only
the super-sized people were left orbiting the sun with
nothing left to eat - except each other.
Of course, I abandoned the story as being too silly,
too far fetched. But after my trip to the land of the super-sized, I got to thinking: maybe my story wasn't so silly, as much it was deadly serious.
Look: we are eating the planet, the whole damn thing,
right down to the last blade of grass.
Our ecological footprint is one way to understand the
degree of this consumption. If we measure the world's productive land - and graciously grant that a modest 12 percent is necessary for the biodiversity of other species - what remains is the productive land available for sustaining humanity.
When the math is done, and the productive land is
parceled out - relative to our present population -
every man, woman, and child is entitled to 1.8
hectares of productive land to sustain the Earth and
its humans. And if the human population peaks at 10
billion - as is expected in the next 30 years - then
the land per person shrinks to one hectare.
Our problem, of course, is that we consume far more
than that. The ecological footprint of the average
American is 10.3 hectares (first place, globally), of
the average Australian, 9.0 (second place, globally),
and of the average Canadian (globally in third place),
7.7. Comparatively, India's footprint per person is
0.8; China's, 1.2; and Bangladesh's, 0.5.
The world ecological footprint average is 2.8 hectares
per person. That is, we presently need an additional
world as a resource to happily continue on our
Maybe that's why George Bush wanted to settle Mars.
Now before I prattle on about driving efficient cars
or no cars at all (for most cities, cars are the
single greatest source of pollution), about eating
less meat or no meat at all (a meat-based diet
requires seven times more land than a plant-based
diet), or about using less fossil fuels or no fossil
fuels at all (wind and solar are here and ready for
use), we first need to acknowledge our problem:
We eat too much. We buy too much. We want too much.
We are the super-sized people in my science fiction
story, busily eating our way through the Earth, busily expanding our jiggling girth and growing our wider mouths. And we do see moderation as an attack on our freedom.
And frankly, we just don't care.
In the climax of my story, the corpulent Canucks are
left sharing the empty cosmos with the portly Aussies
and the super-sized Yanks, all preparing to consume
each other in the great Battle of the Wide-Bodies.
Given the gruesome prospect of having to eat a
Canadian, an Australian, or an American, I hope my
story remains fiction.
But somehow, I doubt it.
Steven Laffoley is an American writer living in
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. You may e-mail him at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org