Economic growth is making you really, really fat
According to Andy Warhol, everyone has their “15 minutes of fame”. Looking back at four decades of work as a health scientist mine will probably be the development of ‘GutBusters’, the world’s first men’s “waist loss” program in 1991.
GutBusters lasted for over a decade before it was taken over by Weight Watchers and closed down for being unprofitable (men won’t admit to having anything wrong with their health and hence won’t pay for it).
This is despite the fact that it achieved (and still has) world-wide acknowledgement as an ethically-based and economic scientific weight loss program. Those are rare, by the way.
So my 15 minutes stretched a bit longer than 15 minutes. But if the truth be known, I probably would have closed it down myself.
Not because of its commercial failure. But because of my unease in taking money from men who almost invariably lost a lot of weight but put it all back on when they went back into the “obesogenic” environment that we have created in the modern developed world.
There’s a tendency to think that obesity is a genetic problem. And this is encouraged by the fact that some families are more prone to weight gain than others. True.
But in the absence of an environment that promotes obesity, there are only a tiny minority (those with REAL gene problems) who would get fat. Hence, the history of humanity is one of leanness, rather than fatness.
So the question then is: what is it in our modern environment that has made 67 per cent of Australian men and 56 per cent of women fat, given that this epidemic only began around 1980?
The answer of course lies in our food (highly processed, high fattening - but very tasty and easy-to-get products) and inactivity, particularly through leisure-saving and entertainment technology like cars, TV, computers, fork-lifts etc.
But any good health scientist doesn’t just look at the immediate cause of a disease. S/he looks at the ‘cause of the cause’. So what, in turn, has led us to fattening food and an inactive lifestyle?
Quite clearly, our affluence from a system of macro-economics (economic growth) that began around the time of the Industrial Revolution and was kicked along by post-Depression policies.
There’s no doubt that economic growth has been the biggest single positive influence on human health throughout history. Our life-spans have more than doubled and infectious diseases have all but been eliminated (well, not quite, but we’ll discuss that another time), all as a result of increased growth.
Does this mean such improvements will continue indefinitely? In economic terms there comes a time when further investment leads to diminishing rates of return on that investment.
Growth beyond this is therefore no longer rewarding, but begins to turn sour. As stated by one writer: “growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer.”
In other words, things grow, hit a ‘sweet spot’ where all is the best it can be, then proceed to decline.
Unlike animals, that run away and leave a good meal if frightened by predators, humans have a tendency to want to milk a sweet spot to its maximum. Like Cinderella, we often stay too long at the ball, only to find all our carriages have turned into pumpkins.
It’s a well recognised phenomena used in explanations like the Peter Principle, where someone will rise to a level above his or her competency in a work environment in an effort to find an even nicer sweet spot.
Economic growth hit the end of its sweet spot in the western world around 1980, the time at which the obesity epidemic got its kick-start. Since then obesity rates have increased almost in parallel with increases in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that ridiculous measure of human achievement that we all cling to so voraciously.
But the economic sweet spot, like all sweet spots eventually had to come to an end.
And contrary to the belief of many economists (and politicians) about the current economic crisis (GFC Mark 2 - 2011) being a problem of “not enough growth”, a more reasoned view would be that it’s a sign of the death throes of the 200 year growth era, because, even as JM Keynes, the great Post-Depression economist said “nothing can grow forever”.
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it even more succinctly recently when he said: “Economic growth is a train you ride until you get to your destination. Then you get off.”
But stopping the growth train (even though it’s heading for a cliff) takes a long time. And few have even thought about stopping it at this stage. The turmoil in world financial markets may make this the time to do so.
After all, it was an economist who said “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Garry Egger will be speaking at the 2011 Adelaide Festival of Ideas (7-9 October). For more information go to the website.
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