THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
by Nancy Rechtman
Do you remember the book Alice In Wonderland? When Alice finds a bottle containing an unknown liquid, and drinks from it, she grows to gargantuan size. Then, she finds some tiny little cakes, and when she eats them, she shrinks. Something similar is going on in our culture. On the one hand, when we nibble at the little cakes, our electronic gizmos shrink to miniscule dimensions. Cell phones have gotten as small as thumbnails and trying to dial can give you finger spasms. Computers are also shrinking, becoming thinner and more svelte by the minute. Trying to type information into a PDA requires manual dexterity, a degree of contortionism and, often, extra-strength reading glasses. The most coveted TV sets are the most expensive, thinnest and flattest (kind of like supermodels). And, if you are looking to buy a camera, forget the image of the tourist with bulky photographic equipment dangling from his or her neck - the new cameras can comfortably slide into your pocket along with your cell phone, PDA and iPod.
While we nibble at the little cakes on the one hand, we take giant swigs of the unknown liquid on the other hand. The most obvious example of super-sizing is the fact that approximately 65% of U.S. adults are considered overweight or obese, and 30% of Americans are clinically obese, meaning they are at least 30 extra pounds over their healthy weight. One probable culprit is our current fad of portion distortion - having no idea how much food we are actually supposed to eat. We demand food that we can sink our teeth into. No sissy portions for us. We clamor for hamburgers the size of a small animal, with enough fat and cholesterol to precipitate a heart attack before we’re halfway done cramming it down our throats. In just the past few decades, what is considered to be a “normal” portion size has now become an appetizer for the main course to come. Did you know that giant chocolate bars are more than ten times larger than they were when chocolate bars were first introduced? Do we really need that much chocolate in one sitting? OK, maybe we do, but add it to the list of why our midsections are cascading over our belt buckles.
To accommodate our rapidly growing figures, automakers decreed that we needed primeval monster-size vehicles to transport ourselves to the mall, to the movies, to grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. So, instead of nice, normal cars which might get decent gas mileage, we ended up with hulking behemoths which tower over regular cars, requiring wider and longer parking spaces than regular cars, and devouring gas like a T-Rex gulping down a triceratops. While we have been repeatedly warned over the years that we are depleting the earth’s natural resources at an alarming rate, we are a society of conspicuous consumption, feeling that we are entitled to slash, burn, drill and buy until we tip over and have to unbuckle our belts like a gluttonous guest at a Thanksgiving feast. Those who have persistently warned us about the fact that we are living on borrowed time have been considered pesky party-poopers attempting to throw a bucket of ice water on our revelry.
The two recent, devastating hurricanes may have finally begun to jolt us out of our fantasy. First and foremost, the realization of the depth of poverty that has been largely unnoticed and unreported by the mainstream media suddenly blasted into the forefront of our collective consciousness. The tragedy that so many people on the Gulf Coast suffered is unimaginable to most of us, causing many of us to reach out and do what we could to help those who have suffered so much loss. Americans are a generous and giving people, who will go to great lengths to help others however we can in times of great need. That is one of our greatest strengths.
Even if we don’t live in the devastated zones, we have all been affected not only emotionally, but economically as well. It was startling to watch gas prices soar throughout the day that Katrina hit land, with the numbers at the pumps changing faster than contestants at a beauty pageant. And that was before the gas stations actually received any of the gas from the region hit by the hurricane - amazing how prescient these big oil companies are when it comes to rising prices, isn’t it? While the gas prices have now grudgingly come down slightly from their all-time highs, we are getting used to a new reality and it isn’t pretty. We are currently being warned that we may soon be paying between $4 and $5 per gallon and may have to “buckle our belts.” Really? How do we tighten our belts over our grossly protruding stomachs after the feast we’ve been enjoying for so long? How are we to continue sating the bellies of our massive 12-mile-per-gallon land beasts?
What we need to realize is we are not entitled to destroy the earth and deplete all of its resources as if the supply is unlimited. The average American consumes six times more energy than the world average. With less than 5% of the world population, America consumes more than one-quarter of the world’s energy. But things are about to change and it’s unfortunate that the warnings of those who saw this coming were completely overshadowed in the frenzy of entitlement and gluttony.
We have been brought up to believe that bigger is better, that America is a land of unbounded opportunity. The idea that opportunities for success are unlimited in our country is a worthy one and no one is suggesting that we take that away. But the growth must be thoughtful and responsible. Our free ride is over. We need to find a way of liberating ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil. Renewable fuel sources need to be anointed with sex appeal, something that the media can latch onto.
As winter approaches with the knowledge that the bills for gasoline and heating our homes are about to skyrocket, we might finally find the incentive to clamor for alternatives, for other options to the way of life we have been mired in for way too long. Like Alice, our heads are slamming into the ceiling and our arms are hanging out from the windows. We need to find the key to shrinking back to normal size before the ceiling and walls burst open around us.
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Copyright Nancy Machlis Rechtman, all rights reserved. Small excerpts of the column may be republished as long as appropriate credit is given. To request permission to publish larger portions or the entire column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.