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Sugar, Consumer Culture and Sustainability

I am powerless over sugar. I crave sugar, but only when I don’t have it, or immediately after I have eaten it. I don’t crave sugar when I sleep, but I have a job and kids and have to stay awake for a large part of every day and it’s during that period of time that I am powerless over sugar. Candy, cakes, and cookies, particularly chocolate chip cookies are irresistible. My history with this substance goes way back to when I was a kid, I loved sugar and my mom supplied plenty of it in the form of cookies and cakes. When I had my first money I spent it on candy and comic books. My best friend and I, we must have been around 8 or 9, would walk to the local store and buy candy, we started to build a collection of candy, but it never lasted long because neither of us could resist eating it.

My candy consumption continued until my mid to late 20′s when I got involved with a spiritual group who insisted that all practitioners eat a healthy vegetarian diet. During that period I was sugar free, but when I left, and no longer had the commitment and support, eating sugar was one of the first things I went back to doing. Just writing that last line shocks me, a 20+ year sugar binge, wow.

Two things really bother me, make that three, OK four. Over the last 5 years I have lost 45 pounds by running and during the period when I got closest to my ideal weight being disciplined about my diet, but still eating sugar and dealing with it by increasing my weekly running mileage. I cut back my mileage and increased my sugar intake and have gained 25 pounds of that weight back over the period of one and a half years.

The second thing is that I wanted to start growing a significant portion of the food I consume this year and I haven’t done it. My plan was to change my diet and then grow what I was eating. Such a large portion of my calories are provided by sugar in one form or another that I don’t know what to grow and have felt unmotivated in learning how to grow food because I haven’t been able to change my diet. Learning to grow my own food is a gesture of personal responsibility that improves my personal sustainability, and in a small way the planets ability to sustain human life. I feel that changing this part of my life would have a big impact on everything I do. I bought the book “How to grow more vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine”, by John Jeavons, and am deeply impressed by what he is doing with grow biointensive agriculture, his focus on growing soil, and our looming soil shortage. I know how to eat a healthy vegetarian diet and am mostly a vegetarian anyway, but the sugar just wrecks my ability to be mindful and disciplined, it is pure impulse and consolation for me.

Thirdly, Just the other day I became aware of how much I dislike all the subtle hooks of living in the consumer and corporate worker pattern of life that I have come to identify with survival. Sugar as a staple in my diet is a down home expression of the be alienated from body and nature and go faster, consume more, work more, water slide of modern life. I am sick of just going along this water slide of a life pattern and want to get off, but I know it will be hard to do and that there is little in the broad culture to support living a different way. For me sugar is a linchpin for the corporate consumer culture’s hold on me, health insurance is another, but that is off topic. Number four is the addition of insult to injury. My sugar addiction supports a corporate approach to food that is alienating everyone from the Earth by abstracting us from the connection between soil, weather, food, and our personal survival. The food that comes out of the corporate food production and distribution system is a lot like sugar, fast, addictive, and destructive. The choices of what the agriculture business produces are all oriented toward which foods are easiest to grow and harvest from an industrial production perspective and the foods that produce the greatest profits. Addictive substances are great profit makers, as with smoking, and drinking, get them hooked early, make it work with the consumer culture, and you will have a profit stream feeding the corporate coffers forever. That I have allowed myself to be used in this way for so long is a very humbling realization. So this is my public confession. I have no power over sugar, it makes me feel gross, makes me fat, forces me to support an agricultural system I don’t want to support, gives my kids a crappy role model on many levels. My name is Bob, I am addicted to sugar, and my life has become unmanageable. But I am apparently not alone in my sugar addiction. According to an article in U.S. News and World Report

In 1967, Americans ate 114 pounds of sugar and sweeteners a year per capita, nearly all of it as either raw or refined sugar. In 2003, each person consumed about 142 pounds of sugar per year. …In 2003, Americans consumed, on average, a dismal 8.3 pounds of broccoli and just over 25 pounds of dark lettuces (the kinds that are really good for you).

If you calculated the negative economic externalities of sugar consumption and whatever subsidies the sugar industry has wormed out of congress over the years the I imagine the social cost of sugar addiction it would probably end up being similar to those of trans fats, tobacco, or alcohol. The bottom line is that companies don’t have to pay the true costs of their addictive products, but those who get hooked do pay. It is just another example of our free ride, false profit economy. So if you are unlucky enough to be a sugar addict like me, a true act of subverting the system would be to stop eating sugar and start eating something that is good for you. Even better start to experiment with growing some of your own food. Calling all addicts, stop supporting those who are exploiting you and do what you can to recover your natural health and equilibrium. In fact when any of us have the courage to follow this this simple principal, know yourself, take responsibility for yourself, and deprive your exploiters from the benefit of your support, we go a long way toward making our lives more manageable and our society a place where our health is valued over the aggrandizement of the beneficiaries of the corporate consumer culture.

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