The Making of the Obesity Epidemic: A Breakthrough Debate

Obesity today is described as an “epidemic,” one of the most significant health threats to Americans (especially the poor), and a rising global concern. In response, public health advocates have launched an all-out assault. They have made school lunches more nutritious, restricted access to junk food, campaigned against slickly marketed and unhealthy food, and boosted access to healthy options through farmer’s markets and grocery stores. 

Behind many of these efforts lies the idea that access to food is somehow to blame for obesity — namely, too much access to unhealthy foods and too little to healthy ones — and that the corporate agro-industrial complex is a major driving force behind this problem.

In “The Making of the Obesity Epidemic,” published in Breakthrough Journal No. 3, sociologist Helen Lee shows where this view came from, how the evidence for it is increasingly slim, and how a narrow focus on food availability has distracted our efforts from the kind of interventions that are far more important for public health.

“Turning the overweight into victims of Big Food or agricultural subsidies (rather than, say, unlucky genetics combined with the increasing availability of affordable and delicious snack food) made it much easier to mobilize political support for a big public health campaign,” wrote Daily Beast columnist Megan McArdle. “They may have won the battle, and lost the war.”

In a column discussing the essay in The Week, Marc Ambinder wrote: “Liberal activists should read it. It’s uncomfortable because it suggests that our beliefs do not comport with the science, and our preferred solutions are tied to a conception of the good life, rather than a realistic appraisal of how life is actually lived.” 

Today, Breakthrough Journal publishes two additional responses. 

In “Beyond Counting Calories,” Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, writes that Lee is correct to take on the food desert thesis, but says the flaws of the current debate go even deeper. “The prevailing discourse,” she writes, “has obscured other possible causes for obesity, from environmental toxins to chronic stress, and failed to address the broader influence of market capitalism, which has deeply shaped our neighborhoods, habits, and health.” 

In "Obesity Pragmatism," Julian Morris of Reason magazine laments the misguided efforts of government and health advocates. Instead of taxing junk food or mandating calorie counting, Morris argues, effective anti-obesity interventions will embrace the fact that eating habits are, “first and foremost, a matter of individual responsibility.”

The essay:

The Making of the Obesity Epidemic,” by Helen Lee


The Ecology of Obesity,” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

Beyond Counting Calories,” by Julie Guthman

Obesity Pragmatism,” by Julian Morris

How Public Health Experts Turned Corporations into Public Enemy #1,” by Megan McArdle

Getting Obesity Wrong,” by Marc Ambinder


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The Polarization Paradox: A Breakthrough Debate

It has become conventional wisdom that we live in a deeply polarized time, and conservatives deserve the bulk of the blame for a predicament that has replaced what genuine disagreement and compromise remained with dangerous political brinksmanship. The question for liberals is how to advance an agenda in a hyperpartisan political environment.

In their Breakthrough Journal essay, “The Polarization Paradox,” Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele argue that adopting the partisan tactics of the Right is a losing game for liberals. Polarization serves conservatives by ratcheting up gridlock, undermining support for government, and exacerbating apathy among groups that tend to favor Democrats. Liberals, they contend, should instead invest in a politics that will undermine partisanship.

Yet polarization – and the broader structure that drives it – appears unlikely to go away any time soon, and the Obama era has shown that Democrats simply lack the capacity to unilaterally change the game, writes Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Mark Schmitt in a new Breakthrough Journal debate. The partisan infrastructure progressives created has proven adept at countering the propaganda of the Right and articulating a much needed political vision, Schmitt argues, while efforts to reach out and forge compromise have achieved little. The task for liberals is to invest in a politics and infrastructure that advance their agenda even in the face of a structurally polarized system.

Read “The Polarization Paradox,” by Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele.

Read “Polarization Is Here to Stay,” by Mark Schmitt.

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Evolve: A Breakthrough Debate

Evolve - ape vs human hands.jpg

In "Evolve," Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued that only by embracing modernization and technological innovation can we overcome this century's formidable environmental problems. Humans have long been co-creators of their environment, and what we call "saving the Earth" will require creating and re-creating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it.

In a new Breakthrough Debate, two scholars lend criticism to this new "modernization theology."

The call to put "faith" in modernization is cause for concern, contends Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. "The troubling history of modernization gives us every reason to be deeply suspicious of anyone who suggests we should simply take it on faith," he writes.

In another response, Leslie Paul Thiele, professor of political science and director of sustainability studies at the University of Florida, argues against a "black and white" view of technology. "The issue is not about being for or against technology," he writes. "The question is this: do we invest in the education and empowerment of citizens such that they can wisely -- which is to say, selectively -- utilize technology in ways that help sustain both a high quality of life and a healthy environment?"

The Essay:
"Evolve," by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

The Responses:
"The Myth of Prometheus," by Leslie Paul Thiele.

"Oh Me of Little Faith," by Jon Christensen.

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Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs: A Breakthrough Debate

In January, the Breakthrough Institute published its report, "Planes, Trains, and Car Bombs," arguing that despite warnings from politicians and terrorism experts that terrorists will pursue "exotic weapons and targets," al Qaeda continues "to carry out the same sorts of attacks they executed in the decades before 9/11."

In the past decade, hirabis have not used biological or chemical weapons, nor have they targeted dams, our food supply, or the Internet. Instead, "al Qaeda directed, financed, or inspired attacks have targeted planes, trains, buses, government and symbolic buildings, and western hotels with bombs (and sometimes assault weapons)."

Now, in a Breakthrough debate, terrorism experts John Mueller, Brian Fishman, and Tom Parker weigh in over the assessment of the terrorist threat, the importance of language when discussing terrorism, and whether we're simply playing into terrorists' hands.

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Modernizing Conservatism: A Breakthrough Debate

Last fall, Reagan scholar Steve Hayward declared the conservative movement's starve-the-beast anti-tax strategy a failure. Not only has it failed as a policy, resulting in massive indebtedness and no constraint on the growth of the welfare state, it has failed politically. Soon, he warned, Republicans would be forced to choose between "cuts to popular entitlement programs, deep reductions in national defense spending, and tax increases... It is hard to see how this ends well for conservatives."

The essay served as an electroshock to the libertarian amygdala. While Hayward won plaudits from center-rightists like David Brooks and David Frum, as well as from conservative apostate Andrew Sullivan, Joe Bast of the libertarian Heartland Institute sent Breakthrough Journal a letter, which we publish online today, calling Hayward a "bonehead," and speculating that Hayward is either trying to preserve a dying Reagan coalition (between neocons and libertarians), or just looking for "something to talk about with liberals at cocktail receptions."

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Conservation in the Anthropocene: A Breakthrough Debate

In their Breakthrough Journal essay, "Conservation in the Anthropocene," Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Robert Lalasz showed that conservation is losing the war to protect nature despite winning the battle to create parks and game preserves. While the number of protected areas has risen, species in wild places have fallen. Conservationists must shed their 19th Century vision of pristine nature, the authors wrote, and seek a new vision, one of "a planet in which nature exists amidst a wide variety of modern, human landscapes."

In a new Breakthrough debate, a host of passionate 21st Century conservationists face off with the authors over the resilience of nature, corporate partners, and the state of conservation today.

The Essay:
"Conservation in the Anthropocene," by Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz, and Michelle Marvier.
Read a summary of the essay here.

UPDATE: The debate continues at the New York Times. John Lemons, an emeritus professor of biology and environmental sciences at the University of New England, has taken Kareiva to task at Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog.

Kareiva has replied here.

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Planet of No Return: A Breakthrough Debate

Has humanity crossed a so-called "planetary threshold"? Will the Earth soon be no longer capable of supporting humanity? Or do such limits even exist?

As a growing consensus among scientists has recognized the onset of the Anthropocene -- in which humans have become the dominant ecological force on the planet -- some have expressed concern that human civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. In his Breakthrough Journal essay "Planet of No Return," environmental scientist Erle Ellis argued that this view was at odds with science and human history -- it has been human limits, not natural ones, that have shaped human development.

Not everyone agrees. Now, in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today -- featuring responses from Bill McKibben, Nils Gilman, Robert Dello-Russo, Ronnie Hawkins, and Francisco Seijo, as well as a reply by Ellis -- the debate over what the Anthropocene means, and how we ought to respond in the coming decades, takes center stage.

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Against Cosmopolitanism: A Breakthrough Debate

When the eurozone was on the brink last fall, Michael Lind's summer Breakthrough Journal essay, "Against Cosmopolitanism," appeared prescient. What just a few years ago seemed to be the permanent alignment of interests between the radically different economies of Germany and Greece was replaced by an awareness of the currency union's fragility and contingency. Economic integration had outpaced political integration. The nation-state wasn't giving way to global governance. It was prevailing everywhere.

Not so fast, say Ulrich Beck, one of the world's most influential living sociologists and author of the landmark 1986 tome, Risk Society, and Nils Gilman of Monitor 360 and Michael Costigan of Global Business Network. Cosmopolitanism may not be up to snuff but the nation-state isn't doing so hot either, they argue in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today.

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