Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Global citizens share an appetite for overeating
First it was Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies pulling in the crowd on the Champs Elysees, reducing French cinema to an also-ran in the era of global entertainment. Then it was English, the lingua franca of world pop culture, contaminating the Latinate purity of the mother tongue as dictated by the Academie de Francaise.
Today, the fight to preserve the patrimony of France has moved to ground zero of national identity: the dinner table. The political hero of the moment is Josƒ Bovƒ, the avenger of the French farmer, who has trashedseveral McDonald’s to the delight of his countrymen.
The French know you are what you eat, and Bovƒ insists that McDonald’s is an agent of globalization that threatens the soul of Gallic culture. The French, those masters of lifestyle before lifestyle was cool, are not the only ones resisting the globalization of food.
Under political pressure, German agro-suppliers have sworn off the production of bioengineered crops, seen as a symbol of the power of multinational corporations over a nation’s farmers. In London, protesters dumped four tons of genetically modified soybeans at Tony Blair’s doorstep after the prime minister spoke favorably of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
But if Europeans have thus far won the battle to keep vegetables with fish genes in their DNA off the table, there’s plenty of evidence that the war against global food has already been lost. Every year, more and more Europeans are exhibiting the classic symptom of a global eater: obesity.
According to studies presented at the Eighth International Congress on Obesity, held in Paris last August, the fat epidemic has spread from the U.S. to Europe and on to the Third World, where skyrocketing obesity rates coexist with subsistence diets and starvation–a telling symbol of the worldwide triumph of free markets.
More often than not, “globalization” is a code word for “Americanization,” and food is no exception. Fat is as American as eating a double portion of apple pie.
The proof is in a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
It reported that from 1991 to ’98, the percentage of Americans who qualified as obese jumped 50 percent. Like the Grim Reaper himself, fat is egalitarian: Big gains were seen in both sexes and across races and educational levels, with 18-29-year-olds, in their calorie-burning prime, and the college-educated showing the highest rate of gains.
In 1991, four states had obesity rates of 15 percent or higher. In 1998, 37 states did. Fat, the report noted, is not spreading like a chronic social problem. It is spreading “with the speed and dispersion characteristic of a communicable disease.” Obesity is less a social trend and more like the flu.
It’s little surprise, then, that this pox Americana evinces a virus’ indifference to national borders. From Paris to Pakistan, more of us are indulging in the consumer society pleasure of tying on the feedbag at the global all-you-can-eat buffet.
As Michael Fumento, author of the obesity epidemic study Fat of the Land, notes, today the standard beverage bottle in Europe holds eight ounces. Yet we need only gaze into the depths of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp to see the future of European thirst-quenching: 64 ounces of bladder-busting refreshment, packing either 800 calories worth of syrup made from genetically modified corn or a lab rat’s ration of artificial sweetener.
To eat out in America, Fumento says, is to be served dinner-plate-sized donuts, mountains of fries and steaks the surface area of manhole covers: huge amounts of highly caloric food offered at relatively low cost. The inconvenient truth is that the only way to maintain a well-
balanced, low-fat diet is to buy the ingredients of our meals and prepare them from scratch.
Of course, that’s what Americans do less and less these days, and the world follows our lead as we stoke ourselves with sugar and fat.
We hear a lot about the citizens of a worldwide consumer republic in the making: transnationally empowered consumers who exchange information, share brands and shop in a borderless world.
We rarely hear that the masters of the universe, those savvy, best-value-for-the-money global shoppers, are probably fat. We universal urbanites of the global free market will not only be dressed in the same brands, we’ll all be wearing them in the largest sizes. K