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Column: Surviving in an age of abundance


Not long ago, I found myself at a strange and wondrous place: the All You Can Eat Buffet. There’s one in nearly every town in America; no doubt you’ve been inside. What the food may lack in quality, it makes up for in quantity. As soon as a tray is emptied, a new load of chicken-fried steak, wontons, or pancakes appears.

It’s like the children’s story Strega Nona, in which an unwise Italian villager named Big Anthony turns on a witch’s magic pasta pot only to find that he can’t turn it off. Soon the town is buried under a mound of spaghetti. When the witch returns, she stops the pot — and makes Big Anthony eat it all. Boy, is he sorry.

Illustration by Richard Mia

At the buffet I kept eating, too, until finally I felt some sympathy for Big Anthony. Yet the pots did have a certain magic; I wondered at the endlessness of the feast. It struck me that we live in an incredible time. As a species, we have been wildly successful, productive beyond our ancestors’ dreams. Generations of the past would have hardly believed the quantities available to us today: the mountains of food, the floods of goods, the torrents of information. 

In France in the 1700s, people ate an average of 1,600 calories per day; today, the average French diet comes in at around 3,000 calories per day. In 1970, Americans ate 2.3 pounds of food a day; today, we eat about 25 percent more than that.

But we humans didn’t achieve all this overnight. Much of this growth took place in the late 20th century, when the global costs of food and fuel plummeted compared with wages, writes food and agricultural policy expert Robert Paarlberg in his 2015 book, The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism. From 1961 to 2000, for instance, U.S. fruit production grew by 130 percent. (China’s, meanwhile, grew by 1,061 percent.) 

This apparently favorable circumstance has led to some problems. “Our species has not lost its ‘discipline’ over food consumption — because we never really had (or needed) that discipline,” writes Paarlberg. Our innate drive to consume enough food to survive has become a struggle to keep from eating too much.

That struggle isn’t limited to food. We are also buying more things, largely because there are more things to buy and we have more money to buy them with: Between 1870 and 2014, average incomes rose 17 times. (In contrast, from A.D. 1 to 1820, incomes merely doubled.) 

Our minds are also coping with a cognitive tsunami: In 2016, all the data on the internet amounted to 1 zettabyte, the equivalent of 152 million years of high-definition video. This year, that will have doubled. As Paarlberg noted about food, so it is with bytes: We humans are not well-equipped to deal with this volume of information. In an age without limits, we must figure out strategies to hold back the tide. 

We are trying to do that. Today we have the “slow food” movement, which attempts to make dinners more human and healthy by asking us take our time cooking and eating. We have fans of minimalism, which sees people paring down their possessions until their homes look like an Apple Store. We have apps that allow us to shut off the internet so we can give ourselves the space we need to digest the information we have consumed. And we have proponents of intermittent fasting, who abstain from eating one or two days a week as a way to cope with the obscene amounts of food available to modern humans. Interestingly, this approach also seems to offer a range of health benefits. 

“What we’re finding,” says Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, “is that when we switch to an intermittent fasting diet, the brain and body change in ways that improve their function and their resistance to stress. These cycles of challenge and recovery seem to optimize health.”

For hundreds of thousands of years, of course, fasting wasn’t something we chose to do. It was a reflection of life: random and unpredictable. That’s the environment we adapted to, and that’s the environment we still seem to need. Our bodies and minds were shaped by this ebb and flow. Only now there is no ebb, only flow.

The idea of simplifying one’s life is not new, but the current push for it carries a tinge of panic. And while most of us are not going to end up cramming into tiny homes, the idea behind them is worth considering. 

“Because food and fuel no longer ration themselves, unprecedented self-disciplines must now be constructed, at both the social and individual level,” Paarlberg writes.

Self-discipline is not always a popular idea, but it is an important one. And what people don’t realize is that often, it’s not about using the force of will to make the right decisions. It’s about creating situations in which the decision has already been made.

I think about this every day. It’s the reason I’ve never gotten a smartphone. It’s the reason I periodically shut down my social media accounts, and it’s the reason I spend part of each day with the internet blocked from my computer. 

I don’t dislike having so much information at my fingertips. And I like keeping up with what my friends are doing, thinking, and eating. If anything, I like it too much. Trying to take it all in leaves me feeling fragmented, disordered, and rudderless. I need a quiet space, and after a certain amount of solitude, I always feel I am better able to navigate my world.

As a parent of 10- and 12-year-old daughters, I have to think about these things for them as well. One popular approach among parents these days is to have their child sign a “contract” to get a phone. These often spell out rules and expectations: I will not take inappropriate photos. I will not bully. I will tell you if I am bullied. I will not use my phone at the table. I will not believe everything I read, hear, or see online. I will not give out my private information. I will be kind.

Such contracts read like wish lists for the kind of person parents hope their child will be — and for the kind of world they want their child to live in. But as I think about the world I want for my daughters, I find there’s something missing from those pledges — something that seems like the most important thing of all: I promise to keep a quiet space for myself. I promise to step away when the flow becomes too much. I promise to find some quiet hilltop in my life where I can go to think about who I am and who I want to be.

We have worked to banish hunger from our bodies and minds, only to find that we need some challenge, some scarcity, and some empty space to survive after all. Now that we’ve turned on all these magic pots, like Big Anthony, we’ve got to conjure a way to stop them.

• Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.