Food and Fuel Excess: The Dark Side of America’s Exceptionalism

By Robert Paarlberg

By a wide margin, the United States leads the rich countries of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) both in obesity and in per capita CO2 emissions. The reasons have been America’s distinct natural resource endowment, its singular political institutions, and also its unique political culture. Below, Robert Paarlberg demonstrates how America, unable to discipline its consumption of food and fuel through public policy, is now pivoting toward a posture of adaptation, trying to work around the health complications brought on by obesity, and to self-protect against more extreme weather events. This shift is important because it will worsen inequalities both within and beyond America’s shores.


When Europeans visit the United States‭, ‬the first thing they notice is the larger size of both the people and the automobiles‭. ‬The obesity rate in America is twice the European average and per capita CO2‭ ‬emissions are also twice Europe’s level‭. ‬Americans brag about their exceptionalism‭, ‬but this is nothing to be proud of‭.‬

Worse‭, ‬America’s dominant response to excess food and fuel consumption has become adaptation‭, ‬not mitigation‭. ‬America has so far failed to impose the strong policy measures needed to reduce fossil fuel consumption and is attempting instead to protect itself from weather‭ ‬extremes through costly infrastructure upgrades‭. ‬In response to the damaging health consequences of obesity‭, ‬America similarly fails to induce improved diet and exercise habits‭, ‬relying instead on greater medical assistance and physical accommodation to those who become obese‭. ‬

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Such adaptation efforts will fall short‭, ‬partly on equity grounds‭. ‬A self-protective response to more extreme weather will be affordable in the short run for the United States‭, ‬but atmospheric concentrations of CO2‭ ‬will increase at a more rapid pace if America pivots from mitigation to adaptation‭. ‬This means disruptive climate change will come sooner and hit harder‭, ‬imposing the steepest costs on poor tropical countries unable to self-protect‭. ‬Responding to obesity‭ ‬with medical treatments will also fail on equity grounds‭, ‬since the groups in America most prone to obesity‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬racial minorities‭ ‬and the poor‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬have never enjoyed adequate access to quality health care‭.‬

The Deep Foundations of Over-Consumption in America

Americans have more income than Europeans‭, ‬but that is not why they consume so much more food and fuel‭. ‬Per capita consumption of both food calories and fossil fuel actually tends to decline once income has passed a certain level‭. ‬CO2‭ ‬emissions decline on a per capita basis in the richest countries due to an increased outsourcing of industrial production to countries like China‭, ‬plus an affordability of modern energy-saving heating and transport systems‭. ‬Regarding obesity‭, ‬excess calorie consumption becomes an affordable option for nearly all citizens in today’s wealthy societies and it grows most rapidly among the poor‭, ‬not the well to do‭.‬

Responding to obesity with medical treatments will also fail on equity grounds, since the groups in America most prone to obesity – racial minorities and the poor – have never enjoyed adequate access to quality health care.

The fuel consumption gap between Europe and America is driven more by tax differences than by income differences‭. ‬According to the OECD‭, ‬combined federal and state tax rates on petroleum consumption in the United States‭, ‬in 2012‭, ‬were only one quarter the‭ ‬level in Poland‭, ‬one sixth the level in France‭, ‬and one seventh the level in Italy‭, ‬Norway and the Netherlands‭. ‬The resulting lower cost of energy in America has for many decades encouraged the growth of residential and transport systems that require more‭ ‬fuel‭. ‬Per capita household energy consumption in the United States is approximately 50%‭ ‬higher than in Europe overall‭, ‬in part because of much larger homes‭, ‬and annual miles of vehicle travel in America are 35%‭ ‬higher than in France and 44%‭ ‬higher than in‭ ‬Germany or the UK‭.‬


Material Endowments, Institutions, and Culture

America has much lower energy taxes than Europe in part because of its much larger resource endowment of fossil fuels‭, ‬resulting‭ ‬in much larger domestic oil‭, ‬gas‭, ‬and coal industries that have both the means and the motive to lobby for low taxes‭. ‬Proven oil and gas reserves in the United States are more than twice as great as in all of the EU countries combined and proven reserves‭ ‬of coal are more than three times as great‭. ‬In addition‭, ‬America’s distinct political institutions provide more veto points to the private fuel lobbyists who are seeking to avoid taxation‭. ‬In 1993‭, ‬the House of Representatives passed President Bill Clinton’s BTU tax‭, ‬and in 2009‭ ‬the House likewise passed a cap-and-trade act‭, ‬but on each occasion opponents were able to prevent the Senate from even taking a vote‭, ‬so both measures failed‭.‬

In 2014‭, ‬President Obama went for an audacious new approach‭, ‬claiming that the Clean Air Act already gave his Environmental Protection Agency the authority to propose new rules limiting‭ ‬“carbon pollution”‭ ‬from power plants‭. ‬Under America’s decentralised federal system‭, ‬however‭, ‬Obama will now have to count on state-level cooperation to get the final rules written‭,‬‭ ‬and coal states‭ (‬some of which are already suing the EPA‭) ‬will be certain to stall‭, ‬hoping that the initiative will be weakened‭ ‬or undone by Obama’s successor‭, ‬or even struck down in the courts‭.‬

A distinct political culture in America also leads to low energy prices and excessive fossil fuel consumption‭. ‬In November 2011‭,‬‭ ‬a Pew Global Attitudes survey asked Americans and Europeans which was more important‭: ‬“freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference‭,‬”‭ ‬or‭ ‬“state guarantees that nobody is in need‭.‬”‭ ‬In America‭, ‬58%‭ ‬opted for freedom‭, ‬and only 35%‭ ‬opted for state guarantees‭. ‬In Britain‭, ‬the preference was almost exactly reversed‭, ‬with only 38%‭ ‬opting for freedom and 55%‭ ‬preferring state guarantees‭. ‬In Germany‭, ‬France and Spain 62%‭ ‬picked state guarantees over freedom‭.


Cheap Food

When it comes to food‭, ‬Americans consume more than Europeans not because their income is higher but once again because the cost‭ ‬is so much lower‭. ‬According to the OECD‭, ‬retail food prices are 30%‭ ‬higher in the EU overall than in America‭. ‬The reasons include higher farm commodity costs due to import restraints under the EU Common Agricultural Policy‭, ‬plus higher energy costs‭, ‬higher‭ ‬labour costs and‭, ‬once again‭, ‬higher taxes‭. ‬In Europe‭, ‬most countries apply a value added tax‭ (‬VAT‭) ‬to food‭, ‬while retail food‭ ‬sales in America remain largely untaxed‭. ‬Even foods of identical quality are significantly more expensive in Europe‭. ‬McDonald’s Big Mac hamburgers cost 16%‭ ‬more in the UK compared to the United States‭, ‬18%‭ ‬more in Germany and Italy‭, ‬36%‭ ‬more in France‭, ‬42%‭ ‬more in Sweden and 61%‭ ‬more in Denmark‭.‬

America’s unique political and legal institutions also help block the policy actions that might discourage excess food consumption‭. ‬Many‭ ‬wealthy countries restrict advertisements of soda or junk food to young children‭, ‬but in the United States these ads are classified as‭ ‬“commercial speech”‭, ‬so they are protected under the 1st Amendment‭. ‬The Obama Administration attempted in 2011‭ ‬to promulgate‭ ‬“voluntary”‭ ‬food ad guidelines‭, ‬but this was blocked when both the House and Senate insisted first on a review of the food-industry or marketing-related jobs that might be lost‭.‬

Other countries that have become worried about obesity‭, ‬such as Mexico‭, ‬are now moving toward steep taxes on caloric soda and junk food to reduce consumption‭, ‬but not the United States‭. ‬In 2009‭, ‬the idea of using a soda tax to help fund Obamacare was promoted by health advocates‭, ‬but it was never endorsed by the President and strongly opposed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress‭. ‬

After First Lady Michelle Obama made childhood obesity her signature issue‭, ‬Congress passed a 2010‭ ‬Healthy‭, ‬Hunger-Free Kids Act‭, ‬obliging school food-svervice operators‭, ‬beginning in 2012‭, ‬to serve meals that conformed to a stronger set of nutrition parameters‭. ‬Yet this law was immediately weakened to satisfy frozen pizza makers and potato farmers‭. ‬Then in 2014‭, ‬Congress held up a‭ ‬spending bill to reduce the requirements for whole grains and to postpone the rules to make school meals less salty‭. ‬Meanwhile‭,‬‭ ‬America’s‭ $‬80‭ ‬billion food stamp‭ (‬SNAP‭) ‬entitlement for the poor continues to fund purchases of soda and candy‭.‬

America’s high prevalence of obesity‭, ‬compared to that of Europe‭, ‬also reflects the nation’s distinctly multi-racial demographic mix‭. ‬In both Europe and America‭, ‬non-White individuals can experience a strong race prejudice that keeps many trapped in low-income‭, ‬poorly educated communities‭. ‬The impact is greater in America‭, ‬but only because there is a dramatically larger non-White population‭. ‬America’s 2010‭ ‬census revealed that individuals not classified as White had increased to constitute 36.6%‭ ‬of the total population‭; ‬in Europe‭, ‬the non-White population is still below 10%‭.‬

In America’s much larger minority communities‭, ‬health outcomes have always been unsatisfactory across the board and today’s higher obesity rate among these Americans is just one part of that larger pattern‭. ‬For White Americans over the age of 18‭, ‬the‭ ‬obesity rate is currently 26.2%‭, ‬but for Hispanic/Latinos it is 31.8%‭ ‬and for African Americans it is 39.1%‭. ‬If America’s non-White populations were excluded from the calculation‭, ‬the national rate of obesity would fall to roughly the same level seen in Great Britain‭, ‬New Zealand‭, ‬or Australia‭.‬


A Pivot Toward Adaptation

America’s fundamental problems with excess food and fuel consumption are for the above reasons unlikely to be corrected‭. ‬In a tacit acceptance of this reality‭, ‬the nation has already begun to supplement its faltering efforts at mitigation with stronger moves toward adaptation‭. ‬

In the area of climate change‭, ‬adaptation options are distinctly more attractive for the United States than for most other countries‭. ‬North America has only half as many exposed individuals in low-elevation coastal zones‭ (‬LECZ‭) ‬as Europe‭, ‬and Europe in turn has only one tenth as many as in Asia‭. ‬Yale economist William Nordhaus has calculated that if global warming continues with a‭ ‬temperature increase of 2.5‭ ‬º‬C by 2070‭, ‬roughly 90%of the American economy will remain only‭ ‬“lightly or negligibly impacted‭.‬”‭ ‬The most heavily impacted sectors‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬farming‭, ‬forestry and fishing‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬make up just 1.2%‭ ‬of the American economy‭.‬

Self-protection for America is likely to resemble what we saw after super-storm Sandy in 2012‭, ‬when Congress promptly appropriated‭ $‬50‭ ‬billion in supplemental funding to rebuild the Jersey Shore‭, ‬with upgrades for increased climate resilience‭. ‬Members of Congress have long survived in office by bringing federal money‭ (‬called‭ ‬“pork”‭) ‬back to the district through defense contracts‭, ‬bridge and highway projects‭, ‬VA hospitals‭, ‬farm subsidies‭, ‬sewage treatment plants‭, ‬Small Business Administration loans‭, ‬or FEMA outlays‭. ‬Climate resilience outlays can help keep the pork barrel full‭. ‬

But if the United States‭, ‬the second largest greenhouse gas emitter after China‭, ‬fails to deliver on mitigation and pivots toward adaptation‭, ‬the inclination of other countries to make a mitigation sacrifice will understandably decline‭. ‬Atmospheric CO2‭ ‬concentrations will then increase more rapidly‭, ‬hastening the day when even the United States will not be able to self-protect‭,‬‭ ‬for example in the event of ice sheet loss and a major sea level rise‭.‬

In the case of obesity as well‭, ‬America is likely to pivot toward adaptation options‭, ‬such as medical treatments or physical accommodations‭. ‬Relying on treatment rather than prevention is‭, ‬after all‭, ‬the distinctly American approach to providing healthcare‭ (‬and one reason per capita healthcare costs are two and a half times more than the OECD average‭). ‬By some calculations‭, ‬70%‭ ‬of‭ ‬the illnesses currently being treated in the United States could have been prevented‭. ‬Under-investing in prevention also leaves‭ ‬America with inferior health outcomes‭. ‬Out of 17‭ ‬wealthy countries‭, ‬the United States ranks last for life expectancy at birth for men and next to last for women‭. ‬

The adaptation response for obesity will also fail a domestic equity test‭. ‬The groups in America most likely to become obese‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬racial minorities‭, ‬single-parent households and those with only a high-school education or less‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬are also those with the least access to quality medical care‭, ‬and therefore least able to adapt to the condition‭. ‬Obesity in America is twice as high among children whose parents lack a high-school degree‭. ‬Adaptation and treatment options may work well enough for upper-income and college-educated Americans‭, ‬who have ready access to medical services and more often get the social reinforcement needed to avoid becoming obese in the first place‭. ‬For Americans with less education and fewer resources‭, ‬personal responsibility without stronger public policy action will remain inadequate‭.‬

When it comes to food and fuel excess‭, ‬then‭, ‬American exceptionalism has a dark side‭. ‬The nation’s over-consumption comes from America’s distinct geology‭, ‬demography‭, ‬institutions‭, ‬and culture‭. ‬The leopard’s spots will be hard to change‭. ‬It is a discouraging story‭, ‬but reformers calling for change need to know what they are up against‭.‬

Feature Image: Photograph by Stepfan Georgi/

About the Author

Robert Paarlberg ‬is the B‭. ‬F‭. ‬Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard‭ ‬Kennedy School‭. ‬He has been a consultant to the International Food Policy Research Institute‭, ‬USAID‭, ‬and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation‭. ‬A more complete treatment of America’s food and fuel excess can be found in his new book from Oxford University Press‭, The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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