WALL-E or the Bread Line?

(If you haven’t already, you may want to read my Writing the Future post so you know what’s going on.)

What will Americans look like in 2032? It’s only twenty years away, so we won’t see any major evolutionary changes. However, basic economics as well as fashion have a big impact on how the basic human form presents at any given time. In this post, I’ll talk about economics.

Having become among the fattest populations in the world since 1960, the picture of Americans many of us have now is something along the lines of the passengers on the interstellar cruise ship in WALL-E: Botero-like pudges who can’t walk or do anything for themselves. But it wasn’t always like that. Look back to Dorothea Lange’s and Alfred Steiglitz’s photos of Great Depression America and you rarely see an overweight person who isn’t part of what we now call the 1%. Malnutrition was a much bigger problem then.

Our girth growth has happened in the past fifty years. This is most usually blamed on eating too much of the wrong foods, and not enough activity to burn it off. Since it’s unlikely we’ll all suddenly decide to eat like birds and train like athletes, it seems like we’re stuck with this state of affairs.

Unless something changes. Such as…

  • Food could become more expensive. Water shortages (with the attendant price increases), fuel and fertilizer price hikes, and crop losses due to persistent drought and invasive pests brought on by climate change will all have an effect on agriculture over the next twenty years. Increasing prosperity elsewhere will put upward pressure on food prices worldwide. While there’s only weak correlation between the percentage of income devoted to food and the level of obesity in a country (it’s apparently as much what you eat as how much you eat), it’s interesting to see that food took up more than four times as much of the average American income in 1930 than it does today.
  • We could become (involuntarily) more active. The rise of obesity in America coincides with the decline of mining, manufacturing and manual labor. Fewer people have to work hard physically all day, so a return to physical labor could burn off those excess calories. (Anecdotal evidence: how many fat mow-blow-and-go guys do you see in your neighborhood?) However, since manufacturing left the U.S. in favor of lower-cost labor markets (materials and equipment being largely the same price and transportation costs being higher overseas), the only way this would happen would be a collapse in U.S. labor costs.
  • Big Pharma’s continuing drive to address all the health woes of the well-off could lead to the development of a fat-be-gone pill that doesn’t have ugly side-effects. This would be the solution for the people who can afford name-brand pharms and aren’t going to go work in the fields – the professional classes and well-compensated knowledge workers.

How This Works in South

In my novel-in-progress South:

  • The general dismantlement of government regulation and spending has led to the elimination of wage supports – the minimum wage, labor unions, unemployment insurance, TANF, SNAP, and so on, essentially resetting the U.S. labor market to the 1920s.
  • In addition, the elimination of environmental, health and safety, labor, trade and fair-employment regulation has returned the industrial operating environment to turn-of-the-last-century laissez faire. In essence, the U.S. in 2032 has become the China of 2010 (or the U.S. of 1890).
  • At the same time, current go-to manufacturing destinations such as China, India and Vietnam have become middle-class nations and have developed the expectations that go with that.

As a result, manufacturing and low-skilled jobs have returned to the U.S., but with miserable pay and conditions (also like China). Wages in general have declined among the bottom 90% (a marked worsening of the stagnant wage trend we see today). The ten- or twelve-hour day and six-day workweek are now normal, a reversion to the U.S. labor conditions of the 1880s if not 1850s, or the widely-reported labor conditions in today’s China. The end of antitrust enforcement has also led to further consolidation in food production and retailing and the accompanying increases in prices. The percentage of income the average American pays for food has returned to the levels of the 1930s and 1940s.

So: most people aren’t overweight anymore. Malnutrition is a problem again (continuing a trend starting in the middle of last decade), especially among the elderly and children. Look at those photos of Great Depression America again; what you see there is more like what the normal people in South look like.

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