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The Greatest Public Health Crisis of Our Time

It’s not obesity.

It’s not disordered eating, either.

It’s not cancer or diabetes or heart disease, important as those things are. It’s worse than that.

It’s worse than Zika or AIDS, polio or malaria.

It’s the worst health crisis humanity has ever faced. I’m not exaggerating.It’s climate change.

What’s brought on this dire tone to my blog? As you may know, I teach first-year college composition. Each section I teach has a “theme,” a general area of knowledge which we explore and build a conversation around so that my students are well-informed on an issue as they go to write their papers.

For my sections in the fall, I’ve decided to go with “Food, Energy, and Water” as a fairly broad theme. The composition program administrators are assembling an anthology of texts around this theme, but it’s not out yet, so I decided to do my own research and assemble my own body of texts for my students to read and use as a jumping off point for their research. As you might imagine, this research has me again and again encountering the issue of climate change.

It’s been a definite wake-up call. I do think about climate change, and I think of myself as relatively responsible about conserving energy, water, etc. Still, I feel like I seldom have in my head the scope of just how bad it could–and almost certainly will–be. This article from New York Magazine in particular has been a wake-up call in that it doesn’t mince words: we’re talking huge swaths of Earth becoming uninhabitably hot, 50% or greater decrease in the world’s production of food, hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution and wildfires, dramatic increases in war, mass extinction of species.

Especially frustrating considering that, even though we certainly need to continue to research alternatives to fossil fuels, so many of these technologies already exist and are available to start using right away.

I know, I know, I know. It’s not what this blog is about. It makes me question what this blog is about.

But it also reinforces the cruel irony of what this blog is fighting against.

The United States and its citizens put a huge amount of resources and rhetoric into fighting “the war on obesity.” Obesity is described as “the greatest health crisis” in the nation. And that’s just not true–there’s a ton of evidence that there’s little to no direct relationship between weight and overall health–but most Americans have never even heard that this evidence exists.

Billions of dollars are poured into the weight loss industry, and people will spend a ton of time, energy, and money to achieve even five pounds of weight loss.

What’s five or ten or twenty or even fifty pounds going to matter when in a hundred years, our grandchildren might not have reliable access to water, food, or clean air to breathe? Will live in a world wracked by wildfires, famines, and wars?I’ve even heard it suggested–and I think it may be partly true–that this nation treats fat as a sort of scapegoat for the guilt we can’t face about how much we consume.

I’m not talking about consuming food, but resources. Millions upon billions of little plastic containers. Huge houses we air condition and huge lawns we water. Great big SUVs we drive down great big asphalt highways to work every day. Clothing we toss in the landfill the minute something more fashionable comes down the runway.

What if the magazines on the check-out stand at the grocery store, rather than broadcasting ten ways to lose weight, advertised ways to reduce your carbon footprint or suggested which eco-friendly businesses to patronize?

What if rather than watching The Biggest Loser on TV, we watched The Biggest Polluter, where people or companies compete to cut their carbon emissions with encouragement from a coach?

What if Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign (which I actually don’t think was all bad, but still somewhat problematic) focused on encouraging kids to start their own gardens or to ride their bikes or walk to school?What if all the government funding that’s filtered out to “obesity prevention” instead went to building better public transportation and safe bike routes?Doesn’t the very first chapter of the Bible state that God created humans to look after and care for this good Earth? Some job we’ve done of it.

Instead, so many of us spend so much of our energy, our very life force, on the shame we feel about our own perfectly good bodies, hiding them with the fig leaves we call “dieting,” “clean eating,” “exercise,” and other bologna.

In a few generations, we’re going to regret it.

Linking up with Amanda to share these thoughts for Thinking Out Loud Thursday.

Do you find yourself spending more time worrying about food, exercise, and body than about the health of the planet? (I know I do.)

Any favorite publications, documentaries, etc. having to do with sustainability that you think might be of interest to my students? Let me know in the comments or email me at if you have suggestions!


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  1. Cora says:

    *snap snap snap*

    Excellently written and very well said, Joyce. I’ve actually never thought about this, in terms of the amount of time/money/attention we put into our body/food obsession vs into our environment. How… staggering. Holy man.

    I think “the biggest polluter” needs you be a thing. Brilliant.

    1. Joyce says:

      Alright. We’ll pitch it. 😉

  2. Alyssa says:

    omg yes yes yes. THANK YOU FOR THIS. Everyone needs to see this!!

    1. Joyce says:

      Thanks, Alyssa!

  3. Evangeline says:

    You said it so well. Also, I think when we shift focus toward climate change and protecting the planet, it changes the way we live and our relationship with the environment, and the result is a mostly happy unity and a healthier lifestyle. LOVE this, Joyce.

    1. Joyce says:

      Thanks, Vangie. I so agree. Becoming aware of how we affect the planet and how the planet affects us makes us so much healthier–physically, but also emotionally and mentally.

  4. Yes, I’m aware this is a big statement but dare I declare this my absolute favourite of your posts to date?! I’m so glad you decided to go for it despite the fact it might not be coherent with your general choice of topics. First and foremost, I think our blogs should reflect what’s going on in our lives, what’s on our minds. And a post of such major importance is worth straying from any usual topic.
    Anyway. Yes to everything you said. I’m not trying to pretend us Germans/Europeans were the most amazing here, either. It does make me sad to read about the huge cars, cheap gas prices, plastic bags for everything and else in the US, though. It’s hard to avoid plastic but I try to do my best there and use my bike or walk places rather than take the car whenever possible. Not enough but trying. That being said, yes, I’m still guilty of worrying about food/exercise/looks more than I should.
    By the way: I vote for you pitching “The Biggest Polluter” to a TV station. Brilliant!

    1. Joyce says:

      Daaaawwww I’m flattered, Miss Polkadot. I did feel like I was going a little bit out on a limb with this one, so I’m glad to hear your feedback that you appreciated it.
      I was so impressed when I was in Germany how conscientious people were about things like turning off the lights, keeping showers short, taking public transportation, etc. Those bike paths! So nice to be able to go almost anywhere on a bike (at least in the area I was in.)

  5. I think about this so much now as a parent. I wonder what the world will look like to them. I wonder what WE will have to offer the WORLD. Thank you for taking the time to write about it. The more we say, the better.

  6. Claire B. says:

    Yup. LOVE this. It’s pretty much the point of my blog, haha! I actually think that if we focus on keeping the planet healthy, our own physical and mental health will improve as a result. We’ll eat better, move more, and just BE happier from spending more time in touch with nature! Thank you so much for posting this–it’s easy to feel like I’m alone in caring about climate change sometimes. xx

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