The United States leads (if that's the word) the world in consuming things, and certain related factoids have become legendary: that the U.S. population, though only 4 percent of the global total, consumes 25 percent of the energy, for instance. No other nation has so fetishized consumption, nor worked harder to forget that consumption ought to serve life, not the reverse.
As evidence, consider a hilarious recent Harper's profile (by Frederick Kaufman) of eating contests and a champion "gurgitator," a descendant of frontiersman Daniel Boone named Dale. Dale Boone ranks ninth among gurgitators worldwide, and once downed 20 hotdogs, with buns, in 12 minutes. Dale's dream, Kaufman writes, is "the dream of endless, involuntary process. When he eats, he touches the infinite." Boone faces off against opponents with names like Chew Chew Phillips (aka The Locust) and caps his victories with an ear-splitting "Yeeeeee-haw!"
Taken as a metaphor for the U.S. way of life-consumption elevated to teleology-this is simply irresistible. Americans seem not so much obsessed with consumption, as possessed by it. The dirty secret, however, is that this immoderation not only disappoints-Americans' reported happiness has not improved in decades, despite vast increases in consumer spending-but also sickens and kills. Consider obesity, which results from several factors but especially inactivity and overeating of the wrong things. U.S. adults are often overweight, and the prevalence of obese U.S. children has more than doubled in the last 40 years, according to the World Health Organization. Overweight-which is no respecter of political or socioeconomic boundaries and already afflicts more than 1 billion adults worldwide-is a root cause of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other deadly threats to health.
These costs make it hard to understand why we continue. Simple ignorance is always a possibility, but perhaps we're also inspired by our history. Like Dale Boone's famously restless ancestor, Americans like to think of themselves as pioneers. The western frontier was declared closed in 1890, but the consumption frontier seems to expand forever. Maybe it is just our fate, despite the bad example it sets, to pursue and explore it in advance of the rest of the world. Who else could have invented cheeseburger-flavored french fries?
So waddle onward, America! Let us pile on the flapjacks and supersize the Slurpees. Let us build the McMansions and cram them with 40-inch Sonys and unused stair steppers. Let us fill our driveways with Hummers and Expeditions and hang their rearview mirrors with pine-scented air fresheners. Let us leave every light burning. Give us the 48-ounce porterhouse steak, the 100-acre shopping mall, the all-you-can-eat buffet, the walk-in closet stuffed with 75 pairs of Manolo Blahnik mules and sling-backs. You can't argue with destiny.
Thomas Prugh, Senior Editor