What’s Wrong with The United States?

Living out of a backpack is easier than you might think!

I’ve spent eight months out of the last twelve abroad. On two vastly different continents, I immersed myself in families, languages, and cultures to the point that I occasionally asked myself whether I’d gone too far native.

Everywhere I went, I talked to people about my country. Often, it wasn’t really a choice, being American means an inevitable amount of intense scrutiny abroad, whether we like it or not. Just opening my mouth and revealing my accent occasionally was enough to get me into a lengthy conversation about world politics and my nation’s place in them. My favorite awkward interaction was an hour-long lecture about how shitty the economic crash was on a ferry across the Straight of Magellan, practically held hostage in the bridge by the blustery captain. He’d lost his investments. So have I. Toward the end, I purposefully antagonized him in the hope that he might let me go back to my seat. In the end, feigned seasickness saved my ass.

Yeah, the captain made me put the hat on…couldn’t escape the awkward

I’m not a huge fan of UnitedStatesian culture (including the use of “American” to describe only a tiny fraction of those who live on the American continents). When I returned from South America in August, I was just so happy to be somewhere that I could drink tap water and not fear being robbed every two seconds that the US regained some of its shiny happy glimmer that I’d seen when I was younger. But this return from Europe revealed a few things about my own culture that cause me to take a step back, and analyze why they exist and how they might be affecting us and in turn the world that we so desperately hope to influence and guide.

I think that especially after the Congressional SuperFail today and the growth of polarization (Are you for the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party?), we are in dire need of some introspection. What happens in the larger world is played out in the details of everyday life (1), and our problems on a global and national scale can be traced to the problems within the decisions individual citizens make each day.

Many people asked what specifically needs to change in the States when I wrote about my first Occupy Denver protest. I agree. We need to put forth specific problems and try to raise specific awarenesses. Over the next few days I will explore my top cultural reasons why the USA is in serious trouble, and a few ideas of how to ameliorate the situations. Next up, the political reasons.

Obesity percentages broken down by county

Cultural Failing #1-Food/Health

My new part-time job at the local mall affords me plenty of people-watching. Four hours a day, I watch as a snapshot of the American people amble past the doors of the eyeglasses shop and mill about in the local temple to commercialism. Despite the fact that I live in the skinniest state, I’ve noticed an interesting contradiction. Americans are known the world over for wearing extremely white athletic shoes in totally inappropriate situations, but t’s the largest people who seem to wear them most.

Our clothing sizes are larger than anywhere else I’ve lived. We can’t seem to get enough of stretch clothing. We complain about having to walk up a stalled escalator. Some even have to use power-chairs to get around, because their joints simply can’t take the strain of a stroll around the mall under the immense weight.

No one can claim that the obesity epidemic in the US is a mystery. Excess of food+sedentary lifestyle=obesity. Not exactly a complex algorithm. One can see the breakneck speed at which the cultural roots of obesity are changing the face (and waist) of the United States by comparing the statistics from 1985 to those from 2008. 

The difference is staggering. And it’s not just obesity that’s on the rise. Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century, especially in the developed world. Cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal illness, and many other disorders are all linked to diet and exercise (2). Millions of Americans are living without health insurance, and these are those in the income tax bracket most likely to be unable to afford decent food as well. Plus, pizza is officially now a vegetable.

But wait! Isn’t obesity a global epidemic? Yes, but it comes from emulating the American diet. In China, the growing buying power of the middle class has led to a huge increase in demand for meat, and in many nations the consumption of sugary sodas and simple carbohydrates is rapidly increasing. Part of the spread of American cultural hegemony the world over is the food paradigm that shows up in movies and TV, but despite this the people I met around the world this year had no idea how bad the food culture in the States has gotten, nor how unhealthy we’ve become.

Except those who’ve been here. My French host mother called our food culture “collective suicide.” She’s absolutely right. We are already slowly killing ourselves. The United States already has a lower life expectancy than many other countries, ranked 50th in the world and below Bosnia-Herzegovina (3). Children born in this decade may be the first generation in several to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

How can we change the relationship with food and exercise that has crept up on us? It’s an overwhelming conundrum. I suggest that each of us start by changing one thing about the way we eat or exercise. Take five extra seconds to read the labels of your packaged food. Take a page out of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and only buy foods that your great-grandmother would recognize. Make a list every time you go to the grocery store, instead of guessing at what might be needed and buying far too much.

My favorite? Ride your bike or walk to the grocery. Ditch the oversized shopping cart for a small basket. You can’t grab things on impulse if you have to counter their weight with your own strength, and you get exercise when you can only buy as much as you can carry. No excuses!

Being counter-culture is sometimes as easy as taking a second to choose your food carefully. Power to the food revolution!

Next: American Cultural Failings #2 and #3, Quantity Over Quality and The Culture of Debt.


(1) Dark Ages America, The Final Phase of the Empire by Morris Burman

(2) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002934303006715

(3) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html