May 08, 2002


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ALTHOUGH I, like most of the rest of my fellow Americans, have spent years and years soaking up television ads for McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Little Caesar's, and countless other such fast-food concerns, it only recently dawned on me that there is something surreal about advertising food – or at any rate food product. As if we wouldn't eat otherwise. The basis of advertising is selling people items they don't need, but we all need food; we seek it, find it, eat it, and enjoy it, continually if not continuously. Eating is a need, a desire, a satisfaction that has very little to do with the rational mind.

And yet, because eating is not entirely divorced from rationality, it is possible for essays like Eating to Save the Earth: Food Choices for a Healthy Planet (just out from Ten Speed Press, $9.95), by Linda Riebel and Ken Jacobsen, to make some difference in the way we go about our most basic act of consumption. The book is full of disturbing statistics ("We use so much machinery, pesticides, irrigation, processing, and transportation that for every calorie that comes to the table, 10 calories of energy have been expended"), helpful tips (don't take more napkins than you need if you happen to find yourself at Mac's), and a certain authorial dissonance (she's vegetarian, he isn't); but it skirts the two issues that drive all the others.

The first of these is, simply, the population bomb, the ongoing explosion in the number of human beings crowding the planet. Ever increasing human demand for calories means more rainforests cleared for planting, more fisheries overfished, and all the rest of it. Buying your muesli in bulk and bringing your own hemp bags to the market are nice gestures, but the question of whether to have children – and how many! – reduces them to virtual meaninglessness. Having even one baby is a vast ecological act.

The other issue is – how to put this politely? – our gluttony. The authors want everybody drinking soy milk and eating veggie burgers, but really things could be made considerably better if we just ate less of everything, if we shifted our interest from quantity to quality, if we stopped ordering such bloating items as the 72-ounce steak (that's 4 1/2 pounds of beef – plus shrimp cocktail, potatoes, and bread) available at a Texas restaurant the authors are too discreet to name.

Americans, says a report from the World Watch Institute, "are essentially trading diseases of dietary deficiency for diseases of dietary excess." We are being sickened by our money. And by our unwillingness to ask whether bigger and more are always better, or what price they carry.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com