The No Impact Man Health Care Plan

Did you know that energy conservation is the root cause of our obesity epidemic? We may be fossil-fuelish, and we're pretty careless with our kilowatts, too. But there's one unit of energy we're happy to hoard: the calorie. We routinely consume more calories than we need, but we're so fearful of physical exertion that we'll bend over backwards to avoid bending over backwards.

And so, without hardly lifting a finger, we've achieved an astonishing 37% percent rise in obesity between 1998 and 2006, according to a new report from the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention. As Thomas Frieden, the new head of the CDC, told ABC News on Monday:

"If you go with the flow in America, you will end up overweight or obese. This is not a result of a change in our genes. What has changed is our environment."

So, poor health has become the norm in our society, and millions of Americans are looking to President Obama and Congress for the solutions to our seemingly intractable health care problems.

But I'd like to propose a more obscure source of salvation: Colin Beavan, aka "No Impact Man."

You probably know him as "that guy who gave up toilet paper for a year," as the New York Times famously trumpeted. In fact, Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin, and their daughter Isabella gave up all the standard accoutrements of the American dream--electricity, driving, fast food, shopping--in order to answer the question, "Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much stuff?"

The media's always looking for the sensational angle, hence the New York Times' decision to brand Beavan's project as 'the Year Without Toilet Paper.' But, as Beavan asks:

"What if we called it 'the year I lost 20 pounds without ever going to the gym once? Or the year we didn't watch tv and we became much better parents as a result? Or the year we ate locally and seasonally and it ended up reversing my wife's pre-diabetic condition?"

With the No Impact Man movie and book coming out next month, Beavan's going to be mocked in some quarters for suggesting that our hyper-consumptive American dream's really more of a nightmare.

But as Frieden noted, our current health care crisis is the inevitable end result of a culture where unhealthy food and a sedentary life are the default. And for daring to frame the issue this way, Frieden's now being attacked by the health care industry for his "government-interventionist" approach to transforming our health care system, as Marion Nestle reports.

But he's not alone in saying that "it will take societal responsibility as much as - or more than - individual responsibility to deal with the problem."

Health economist Eric Finkelstein, from research institute RTI International, told Gwen Ifill on The Newshour last Monday that economics is the root cause of the obesity epidemic, because it's "easier and cheaper to engage in behaviors that promote obesity."

Finkelstein observed that the CDC has tried and failed for years to get individuals to make healthy choices. So they're trying a new tack, by lobbying for things like better food in schools, more parks, walkable communities, and so on:

Ifill: "How much of this is about public policy imperatives, and how much of this is about individual behavior? People know the right thing to do and just don't do it."

Finkelstein: "We've created an environment where it's extremely difficult for individuals to engage in behaviors that are associated with maintaining a healthy weight."

And while urbanites like Beavan have the option of getting around town on foot or bike, it's a sad fact that far too many communities are woefully inhospitable to such waist-trimming modes of transportation.

City dwellers also have greater access, oddly enough, to fresh-from-the-farm produce, because farmers' markets need densely populated neighborhoods in order to really thrive. Fast food joints, on the other hand, are ubiquitous. The question of personal responsibility becomes moot if your only choice is between a burger or pizza, as it is in far too many neighborhoods.

Yeah, sure, McDonalds has salads, but when you can buy four burgers for the price of one salad, what cash-strapped family's going to opt for the iceberg lettuce over the burger?

Skeptics and scorners may accuse Beavan of being a publicity-seeking opportunist. I did, once, before I had the chance to hear him speak and realized that I had totally misjudged him. He's just a regular guy who wants to make a living doing something he loves that just happens to benefit other people, too--in his case, raising awareness about how our choices affect our health and the planet's.

The point of Beavan's project is not to suggest that we should all live by candlelight and forage for edible weeds dressed in repurposed potato sacks (not that there's anything wrong with that.) His exercise in extreme voluntary simplicity is intended to inspire us. Will it encourage more Americans to curb their carbon footprint? Beavan is hopeful. As he says in the film, "The most radical political act there is, is to be an optimist."

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