Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Skinny on Sustainability

This blog was inspired--if I can use that word in this case--by an observation I made yesterday as I was driving to work: the first five people I saw in downtown Syracuse (walking, it has to be said) were obese. A coincidence, surely, although one that has greater odds of occurring now that obesity has become an epidemic in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 32 states have an obesity prevalence of more than 25% of the population. Obesity is defined by the CDC as a Body Mass Index of 30 or greater.

Obesity is a real and present health crisis. But is it, I wondered, a sustainability issue? Actually, the CDC seems to think so, judging by the introduction to its website section devoted to the issue: "American society has become 'obesogenic,' characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity. Policy and environmental change initiatives that make healthy choices in nutrition and physical activity available, affordable, and easy will likely prove most effective in combating obesity."

The key sustainability phrases of this statement in order:
  • Increased food intake—Eating too much is by no means the only cause of obesity, although the culture of super-sizing certainly contributes to the epidemic. Super-sizing meets sustainability head-on when it's not just food portions, but vehicles (SUVs), houses (McMansions), and other necessities that have grown out of proportion to our true needs. Behavior, policy, and culture must change if we are to "reduce" and well as "reuse and recycle."
  • Nonhealthful foods—"Food cues" are everywhere in our culture, and what's advertised is usually some delicious combination of sugar, fat, and salt. Processed food, in other words. The sustainable trends of localism and slow food directly confront the processed food industry, as does the re-emergence of vegetable gardening, or should I say "domestic terraforming!"
  • Physical inactivity—We drive too much, we are too sedentary at work, we live in neighborhoods without sidewalks or bike lanes: at the heart of smart growth and LEED-Neighborhood Development initiatives is the premise that a walkable/bikeable neighborhood is also a healthy neighborhood.
  • Policy and environmental change initiatives—The keys to wholesale sustainability, although the fate of one example policy initiative in New York State shows how difficult they can be to implement. Remember the Expanded Bottle Bill? This win (health)/win (litter)/win (money for state coffers) bill took seven years of acrimonious effort to implement—so good luck with the soda tax, Gov. Paterson!
—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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