by Paulina Essunger
Scott W. Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, wants Americans to take responsibility for being “the fattest people in the world.”
Seems like a good idea: personal responsibility and accountability are important.
And Atlas is right about a lot of things: “the burden of obesity on the US health care system is at crisis levels (and it’s only expected to increase in coming decades); there is no silver bullet to solve [the obesity problem]; government policy can play a crucial role.”
Atlas points out:
Obesity, one of the most serious public health problems in America, has yet to be honestly discussed.
But in order to have that honest discussion about the obesity crisis, we’re going to have to stop ignoring the heavy animal in the middle of the room: the crisis in American walking.
It seems odd for someone who takes responsibility so seriously to say that increasing rates of obesity are “primarily due to overeating and insufficient exercise” without acknowledging a major factor leading to insufficient exercise: the changes in our transportation infrastructure that deprive us of opportunities for active transportation. Yet Atlas’ commentary ignores the elephant in the room.
We know that the less we use active transportation, the more obese we are. And we know that the more we use active transportation, the less obese we are.
However, factors that are outside the direct control of most individuals have dramatically changed how active we are in our daily lives, have led to the death of walking as a transportation option.
Back in 1951, Ray Bradbury had a foreboding of a society in which being a pedestrian would seem criminal. Compared to other wealthy nations, with obesity figures much lower than ours, we’re well on our way to making walking seem like a dangerous, radical-fringe idea.
Atlas says: “the most effective message government and society can send is to hold individuals accountable for their decisions.” He means hold individuals accountable for their—our—decisions about what they—we—eat and how active we are. But in the context of working to reverse obesity trends and their immense human and monetary costs, here’s another top level decision we are accountable for: our decision whether to let our elected officials—government—know that we are holding them accountable for their decisions.
Yes, let’s have an honest discussion about being the “fattest people in the world.” Every day, “decision makers” make transportation infrastructure and planning decisions that favor cars over people, decisions that make walking and biking—walking or biking to real public transit options, to work, to school, to the store—come to seem more and more…radical. It is indeed time we took responsibility for these and for the full range of consequences they entail. Let’s take some personal responsibility and make sure we as a society make the decisions that instead favor people over cars, favor transportation infrastructure built around the human scale.
Paulina Essunger is a science editor/writer who specializes in climate change. This piece was originally published at 350.org Vermont and was reprinted with permission.