All This Progress Is Killing Us, Bite by Bite

Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution, Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)

March 14, 2004

Your great-great grandparents would find it hard to believe the Boeing 747, but perhaps they’d have a harder time believing last week’s news that obesity has become the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Too much food a menace instead of too little! A study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control ranked “poor diet and physical inactivity” as the cause of 400,000 United States deaths in 2000, trailing only fatalities from tobacco. Obesity, the C.D.C. said, now kills five times as many Americans as “microbial agents,” that is, infectious disease.

Moon landings might seem less shocking to your great-great grandparents than abundance of food causing five times as many deaths as germs; OutKast might seem less bizarre to them than the House passing legislation last week to exempt restaurants from being sued for serving portions that are too large.

Your recent ancestors would further be stunned by the notion of plump poverty. A century ago, the poor were as lean as fence posts; worry about where to get the next meal was a constant companion for millions. Today, America’s least well-off are so surrounded by double cheeseburgers, chicken buckets, extra-large pizzas and supersized fries that they are more likely to be overweight than the population as a whole.

But the expanding waistline is not only a problem of lower-income Americans who dine too often on fast food. Today, the typical American is overweight, according to the C.D.C., which estimates that 64 percent of American citizens are carrying too many pounds for their height. Obesity and sedentary living are rising so fast that their health consequences may soon supplant tobacco as the No. 1 preventable cause of death, the C.D.C. predicts. Rates of heart disease, stroke and many cancers are in decline, while life expectancy is increasing—but ever-rising readings on the bathroom scale may be canceling out what would otherwise be dramatic gains in public health.

O.K., it’s hard to be opposed to food. But the epidemic of obesity epitomizes the unsettled character of progress in affluent Western society. Our lives are characterized by too much of a good thing—too much to eat, to buy, to watch and to do, excess at every turn. Sometimes achievement itself engenders the excess: today’s agriculture creates so much food at such low cost that who can resist that extra helping?

Consider other examples in which society’s success seems to be backfiring on our health or well-being.


Higher productivity is essential to rising living standards and to the declining prices of goods and services. But higher productivity may lead to fewer jobs.

Early in the postwar era, analysts fretted that automation would take over manufacturing, throwing everyone out of work. That fear went unrealized for a generation, in part because robots and computers weren’t good at much. Today, near-automated manufacturing is becoming a reality. Newly built factories often require only a fraction of the work force of the plants they replace. Office technology, meanwhile, now allows a few to do what once required a whole hive of worker bees.

There may come a point when the gains from higher productivity pale before the job losses. But even if that point does not come, rapid technological change is instilling anxiety about future employment: anxiety that makes it hard to appreciate and enjoy what productivity creates.


Cars are much better than they were a few decades ago—more comfortable, powerful and reliable. They are equipped with safety features like air bags and stuffed with CD players, satellite radios and talking navigation gizmos. Adjusted for consumers’ rising buying power, the typical powerful new car costs less than one a generation ago.

But in part because cars are so desirable and affordable, roads are increasingly clogged with traffic. Today in the United States, there are 230 million cars and trucks in operation, and only 193 million licensed drivers — more vehicles than drivers! Studies by the Federal Highway Administration show that in the 30 largest cities, total time lost to traffic jams has almost quintupled since 1980.

Worse, prosperity has made possible the popularity of S.U.V.’s and the misnamed “light” pickup trucks, which now account for half of all new-car sales. Exempt from the fuel-economy standards that apply to regular cars, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks sustain American dependence on Persian Gulf oil. A new study in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty showed that the rise in S.U.V.’s and pickup trucks “leads to substantially more fatalities” on the road.

So just as longevity might be improving at a faster clip were it not for expanding waistlines, death rates in traffic accidents might show a more positive trend were it not for the S.U.V. explosion.

The proliferation of cars also encourages us to drive rather than walk. A century ago, the typical American walked three miles a day; now the average is less than a quarter mile a day. Some research suggests that the sedentary lifestyle, rather than weight itself, is the real threat; a chubby person who is physically active will be O.K. Studies also show that it is not necessary to do aerobics to get the benefits of exercise; a half-hour a day of brisk walking is sufficient. But more cars, driven more miles, mean less walking.


It’s not just in your mind: Researchers believe stress levels really are rising. People who are overweight or inactive experience more stress than others, and that now applies to the majority. Insufficient sleep increases stress, and Americans now sleep on average only seven hours a night, versus eight hours for our parents’ generation and 10 hours for our great-grandparents’.

Research by Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University in New York, suggests that modern stress, in addition to making life unpleasant, can impair immune function—again, canceling out health gains that might otherwise occur.

Prosperity brings many other mixed blessings. Living standards keep rising, but so does incidence of clinical depression. Cellphones are convenient, but make it impossible to escape from office calls. E-mail is cheap and fast, if you don’t mind deleting hundreds of spam messages. The Internet and cable television improve communication, but deluge us with the junkiest aspects of culture.

Americans live in ever-nicer, ever-larger houses, but new homes and the businesses that serve them have to go somewhere. Sprawl continues at a maddening pace, while once-rustic areas may now be gridlocked with S.U.V.’s and power boats.

Agricultural yields continue rising, yet that means fewer family farms are needed. Biotechnology may allow us to live longer, but may leave us dependent on costly synthetic drugs. There are many similar examples.

Increasingly, Western life is afflicted by the paradoxes of progress. Material circumstances keep improving, yet our quality of life may be no better as a result—especially in those cases, like food, where enough becomes too much.

“The maximum is not the optimum,” the ecologist Garrett Hardin, who died last year, liked to say. Americans are choosing the maximum, and it does not necessarily make us healthier or happier.