Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to ban super-size, sugar-containing sodas has gotten a lot of press recently as it approaches a vote. Public opinion seems to be against it, according to a NYTimes story.
The arguments against it follow a familiar pattern arising every time some governmental body attempts to regulate consumption in one way or another. It took years and years to put a warning on cigarettes and raise the taxes to act as a disincentive. But cigarettes are still out there. Some of the voices captured in the story railed against the “nanny” state, claiming that individuals can make better choices that some authoritative body. Others argue that the data about the unhealthy consequences, a tie to obesity, of drinking large amounts of sugary sodas are unscientific, in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. As in many other cases, the opposing issues center on public health concerns versus individual liberties.
The plan has galvanized a national debate over runaway obesity rates, and New Yorkers who agree with the ban pointed to its potential health benefits, particularly in combating obesity… But those opposed overwhelmingly cited a sense that Mr. Bloomberg was overreaching with the plan and that consumers should have the freedom to make a personal choice — the exact same points used in an aggressive marketing campaign led by the national soft-drink industry in an effort to beat back the proposal.
“The ban is at the point where it is an infringement of civil liberties,” Liz Hare, 43, a scientific researcher in Queens, said in a follow-up interview. “There are many other things that people do that aren’t healthy, so I think it’s a big overreach.” . . . Bob Barocas, 64, of Queens, put it more bluntly: “This is like the nanny state going off the wall.”
I see another important issue in the background, one that failed to show up in the article; the addiction to consumption rampant in our society. Sodas are just one example of that addiction. They add little to our health over what plain old tap water does. The sugar provides a momentary rush for many, but has unhealthy outcomes. The ordinance being proposed does not ban sodas, only anything larger than 16 ounces.
The current default container size for a soda is a 20-ounce bottle, more than triple the 6.5-ounce size that was once standard. And that’s tiny compared to McDonald’s 32-ounce serving, Burger King’s 42-ounce serving and the 54-ounce soda sold at Regal movie theaters.
But given the sizes now available, this would be quite a reduction. Regal’s giant size seems paradoxical to the capability of one’s bladder to hold out for a two-hour film.
Getting back to the issue of consumption, in general, Tom Princen, added a new term to the study of consumption, misconsumption. Princen, on the Faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, has also written about overconsumption, the condition when our collective level of consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to provide the inputs at a sustainable rate. The addictive nature of consumption today has created overconsumption in many categories. Fisheries are gone or disappearing; large areas of the globe are being deforested; fossil fuel reserves are being depleted; and so on. The impacts on sustainability are obvious. The tie to misconsumption is less direct. Princen writes:
The second [after overconsumption] interpretive layer within problematic consumption is misconsumption, which concerns individual behavior. The problem here is that the individual consumes in a way that undermines his or her own well-being even if there are no aggregate effects on the population or species. Put differently, the long-term effect of an individual’s consumption pattern is either suboptimal or a net loss to that individual. It may or may not, however, undermine collective survival. Such consumption can occur along several dimensions.
Physiologically, humans misconsume when they eat too much in a sitting or over a lifetime or when they become addicted to a drug… Psychologically, humans misconsume when, for example, they fall into the advertiser’s trap of “perpetual dissatisfaction.” … Economically, humans misconsume when they overwork-that is, engage in onerous work beyond what can be compensated with additional income. With more income and less time, they attempt to compensate by using the additional income, which is to say, by consuming… Ecologically, humans misconsume when an increment of increased resource use harms that resource or related resources and humans who depend on the resource.
Princen wonders when and if misconsumption becomes overconsumption and begins to threaten the Planet. Bloomberg believes that [mis]consumption (of giant sodas) is bad for one’s health. Both are strongly tied to sustainability-as-flourishing. The Planet needs to be in working order to establish the conditions by which flourishing can emerge, but individuals also must be healthy as well. Given the proven connection between obesity and poor health, the Mayor is acting out of a sustainability agenda, although I doubt if he sees it that way. Public health concerns fit into the domain of unsustainability, and this initiative is primarily aimed at reducing the impacts on bodily health. The Times article points to a connection between economic status (low) and consumption of giant drinks (high). If the Mayor is broadly concerned about the unsatisfactory condition of his constituency, he must also address this part of the causes of their plight.