It is especially important to examine this criticism of American affluence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. An assumption underlying much of the discussion is that, at the very least, wealth did America no good in its battle with nature. An editorial in last weekend's UK Guardian caught the tone: 'America is the richest and most powerful country on Earth. But its citizens, begging for food, water and help, are suffering agonies more familiar from Sudan and Niger. The worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy.' The implication is that America's wealth is somehow pointless.
A column in the Washington Post went even further, by advocating what it described as a Confucian approach to the question. It argued that Americans 'blithely set sail on churning seas and fly into stormy skies. We build homes on unstable hillsides, and communities in woodlands ripe for fire. We rely on technology and the government's largess to protect us from our missteps, and usually, that is enough. But sometimes nature outwits the best human efforts to contain it. Last week's hurricane was a horrifying case in point. The resulting flooding offered brutal evidence that the efforts we have made over the years to contain nature - with channels and levees and other great feats of engineering - can contribute to greater catastrophes.' From this perspective, the pursuit of economic development is worse than useless: it may be well-intentioned but it only makes matters worse for humanity.
To understand how a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina can become an occasion for attacking American affluence, it is worth examining the fat metaphor in more detail. Take Super Size Me, the documentary in which Morgan Spurlock lives on nothing but McDonald's food for a month. Within the first minute the American flag is shown fluttering in the wind. The voiceover then says: 'Everything's bigger in America. We've got the biggest cars, the biggest houses, the biggest companies, the biggest food - and finally - the biggest people.'
Spurlock makes his assumptions even clearer in his follow-up book, Don't Eat This Book. The first chapter discusses how America has become 'the biggest consuming culture on the planet' (1). He talks of how 'the epidemic of overconsumption that's plaguing the nation begins with the things we put in our mouths' (2).
Other popular works on obesity make similar points. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, says at the start: 'This is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made. Fast food has proven to be a revolutionary force in American life; I am interested in it both as a commodity and as a metaphor.' (3) Just how the Big Mac or Chicken McNugget can embody values, let alone make the world, is not made clear. Schlosser frequently argues that such food has little nutritional value but he seems happy to endow it with incredible powers to influence society.
Greg Critser, a liberal and a Democrat, and author of Fat Land, talks about food consumption in almost religious terms. Like Schlosser and Spurlock he makes it clear that he is not talking about food alone. In chapter two of Fat Land he argues: 'Bigness: the concept seemed to fuel the marketing of just about everything, from cars (SUVs) to homes (mini-manses) to clothes (super-baggy) and then back again to food.' (4) In the same chapter he makes it clear that a key objection to McDonald's is that it campaigned to override 'cultural mores against gluttony' (5). Implicitly at least Critser is arguing that the Deadly Sin of gluttony should be somehow rehabilitated.