Can we talk about intractable social problems for a second? I mean those really complex, sticky, multi-faceted, turbulent, wicked problems that have don’t have solutions so much as they have a general haze of caveats. Perhaps they have obvious, surface level solutions. But buried underneath that thin promise of simplicity is a labyrinth of asterisks.
Here are two of those problems: climate change and the obesity epidemic. Two problems with seemingly simple answers. For one, lower our greenhouse gas emissions; the other, lower our calorie intake. But, clearly, the answers to these pressing issues are far more complex than a four or five-word summation. Each problem careens this way and that; smashing up against issues of class, equality, cultural identity, individual liberty, race, social norms, history, and justice.
In actuality, these seemingly disparate issues have threads that extend into each other. They share a great deal of similarity to the point that they feed off of each other. Each issue impressing new dimensions on to the other. But where they share problematic elements, perhaps they also share parts of each other’s solutions.
For instance, climate change may raise the risk of obesity, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. With a changing climate comes shifts our rainfall patterns, more extreme temperature swings, less stable seasonality, and nutrient loss for many of our crops. The effect of this is that prices for food commodities will rise. In areas already facing a lack of access to low-cost, high quality foods, the increased economic pressure is predicted to further drive consumption patterns closely linked with obesity. Namely, consuming calorically high, nutritionally poor, highly processed foods at comparatively cheap prices.
The connection also goes the other way. Directly, heavier humans require more fuel to transport and place more strain on energy-hogging climate control systems. Roundabout-ly, these people also require more caloric energy to support the additional tissue they carry. Especially in the western world, the systems from which that extra food is drawn are often not constructed with the climate crisis in mind. Meat rich diets heavy in processed foods, typically from global supply chains requiring vast amounts of fuel for transportation, have become the norm.
But as much as these problems are self-reinforcing, their solutions may also be intertwined. There is a saying in fitness communities: “No one loses one hundred pounds. They lose one pound a hundred times.” That is to say, the problem is never solved in large chunks. It’s awareness and consistently sticking to a plan of reduction that makes the change over time.
This little by little approach is how we will solve both of these problems. Certain actions may accomplish more in an absolute sense than others, but each action has its own part to play; whether that’s joining the fight for institutional change or addressing our own actions. Every megawatt-hour of clean energy that we install. Every plastic bottle of soda we avoid consuming. Every mile we bike instead of driving. These all, with awareness and consistency, can help tip the scale for both problems. So to speak.
And much to the surprise of many people, there are hopeful signs of improvement for both the obesity and climate crises. While emissions might be on the rise again, there were signs that, over the past few years, both the rate of carbon emissions and obese individuals in the US had leveled off.
I cannot understate the importance of highlighting these successes, even if they are just dim reflections of our ultimate goals. By focusing only on a problem’s difficulty, people begin to internalize that there is no feasible solution. A sort of exasperated apathy sets in; we become overwhelmed with the problem’s immense scope to the point that we just accept change as impossible. We stop talking about solutions and, ultimately, the problem becomes taboo to discuss at all.
By discussing our progress toward the ultimate goal, we can fight that apathy. Just as people are encouraged to see a few pounds come off the scale, they are equally encouraged to hear that we actually managed (if only for a time) to pause our growth in carbon emissions.
I’ve had conversations with people who never heard there was some good news in the fight against either the climate crisis or the obesity epidemic. But when they do, their eyes jump to life with the possibilities of a world less one critical problem. One by one, each person who is encouraged and spurred to further action is one less person lost to apathy.
Our big, thorny problems rarely stand alone. Both our fight against a changing climate and the obesity epidemic are interwoven in ways that we may not see at first. But these interconnections mean that they share solutions. When we succeed in obtaining those solutions, we have to celebrate them and let each other know the steps we took. We can fight against apathy, encourage people to action, and, ultimately, break through to a better society.
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