When I was a young boy, I didn’t eat very much & hardly ever played with the other kids. After that, I had 1 or 2 close friends in the building but they moved to the suburbs. We played in the neighborhood park or in the nearby playground. I always went to bed early and got up early to have breakfast with my Dad before work. Going to the movies was a real treat, as was visiting the local bakery. Occasionally, we would visit my grandmother in New Jersey and get spoilt rotten. Less frequently, we would stop on the freeway for junk-food. Otherwise, I ate at home with my family, rode my bike in the car park, played games indoors, read books in my room & watched some TV in the living room (especially on Saturday mornings). All in all, it was a very typical early-1960s childhood in inner-NYC.
In the summertime, my family would get out of the city for a couple of weeks to somewhere in the country – a cottage in upstate NY or a place by the beach in New England. Sometimes we would visit my uncle in Eastern Canada. My (other) grandmother would visit from Greece & my grandfather would visit from Uganda from time-to-time. I would hear stories of far-off countries from a family that had lived all over the world – the Middle East, Europe, South America, England & East Africa. I never imagined a world outside the North American eastern seaboard in any real sense. Then, when I was 6 years old, everything changed. My father (like his father before him) became a Corporate ex-pat and we moved to Europe – first to Switzerland, then Holland, then the UK and finally to Australia.
US ex-pats in Western Europe in the 60s & 70s did the nationalism thing better than anyone has done since the heyday of the British Empire. We went to American schools, circulated almost exclusively with people who spoke American English and tried to live a most American life. We played baseball, basketball and gridiron football in countries that played soccer, rugby (and latterly cricket). We bought American candy in specialty stores. Our fathers’ careers & families dictated most of our social circle. We traveled to the US & Canada and in Africa frequently to see my father’s relatives. We went to my mother’s family home in Greece only twice in all those years. It was all about being American.
Pax Americana is the product of the whole 20th Century. The movies, the car & oil companies & Coca-Cola started it after the First World War. TV, pop music and the widespread US military presence after WW II continued it. Then came the fashions, the junk-food chains & shopping malls. My own experience began in the late 60s in the PX of a Canadian Air Force base in Germany. Later on I used to eat at KFC & the first Hard Rock Cafe in London in 1971. I was at the opening of the first McDonald’s store in Australia in 1973. Then came the video games, microwave ovens and PCs. After that, it was the cell phones, the Internet & iPods. Five years ago, I saw a McDonald’s shop in the main street of Zermatt, Switzerland. Last year, I bought American-baked chocolate-chip cookies in the supermarket there. The food thing continues today. Last Thursday, Krispy Kreme opened their first donut store in a outer-suburban shopping mall in Melbourne (after being in Sydney for 3 years). It was mobbed by consumers, patrolled by the cops & a private security firm and extensively covered by the media. I was there, in the drive-thru queue for nearly 2 hours.
American business around the world is nothing new. My mother’s father worked for Ford in Egypt in the 30s, 40s & 50s. My father’s father worked for a Canadian mining company (Falconbridge) in South America & Africa in the late-40s, 50s, 60s & early 70s. My Dad worked for GM in Europe & Australia in the 60’s, 70s, 80s & early 90s. His brother worked for his father’s firm in Greenland, Chile & Noumea over the same time. In Australia I’ve worked for Mc Donnell-Douglas in the 80s, Philip Morris in the early 90s (with some time in Japan) and Microsoft in the late 90s & early 2000s. Many of these firms have Asia-Pacific regional HQs in Singapore or Hong Kong & European regional HQs (in the EU or Switzerland) in addition to US-based central head-offices. Some of the European & Asian firms have also adopted this model. Aside from these global corporations, only the Catholic Church has a more entrenched worldwide hierarchy.
As the Indians & Chinese take their place in this very American global culture, the opportunities and challenges will mount. 300 million middle-class equivalents in India & the same or more in China will eclipse the consumer buying power of North America, Europe & Australia combined within a generation. The shifts in demographics will be immense. If even a fraction of this trend extends to Latin America & Africa, the changes will be even more profound. The impacts on the planet – physical & otherwise – may be with us for a long time. Americans taught the world how to consume in ways that nobody else expected. The obesity epidemic (especially among children) is not only due to large-scale junk-food consumption. It is also the sedentary lifestyle patterns surrounding school & office work and cinema, TV, PC & video-game recreation. Put together in large doses – workaholism & over-eating – it could jeopardize the health gains of the last 100 years within a generation. In addition to cigarette & alcohol use & abuse, the new global citizens could end up worse off than their parents.
The global culture – with its extraordinarily American flavor – certainly impacted me this way. The skinny kid in NYC 40-odd years ago became a fat, nerdy, sedentary junk-food addict in primary school in Europe. A very English prep-school in Australia whipped me into shape in my teens. I was a full-on jock by college and very fit in my early 20s. After that, I went to work in an office; the additional disposable income was mostly spent on extravagant consumption. The health effects were obvious by the time I married in my mid-20s. After my honeymoon 20 years ago, I went on a concerted diet & exercise program which worked wonders, but only for a while. More consumption & another few crash-program fixes later I realized what the problem was. I had subscribed to the consumer-habits of the emerging global culture. With diabetes in my family and starting to show up in my bloodwork after 40, I made some radical decisions.
I stopped living in offices & restaurants all the time about 3 years ago. I exercise all the time & eat mostly when I’m hungry. I took most of the things in life that made me unhappy (like continual stress) out & put back many of the things that make my happy (like close personal relationships). I lost 30 kg in the first 2 years and put 5 kg back on in the last year as I relaxed some of the diet strictures. I still eat junk-food, but only sometimes. I still drink alcohol, but less & better. I still use a PC, but not for hours on end. I still drive a car, but I walk a whole lot more now. I still watch too much TV. I still think about food too much (as you can tell from this piece) but I’m working on that…
The grotesque imbalances in lifestyle – particularly those that workstyles have forced upon health & relationships – are spreading with the global culture. More than a billion people worldwide are literally sick & tired of it. The speed of these changes is accelerating too. The lawyers & accountants in the Corporations & Governments that preside over the process are aggressively pursuing the cost-benefits of globalization. Offshore-outsourcing is only the most visible of these changes. Immigration is another visible change. The invisible ingredient to the "productivity revolution" is not technology or offshoring. It is the increasing number of ordinary people around the world who just work more for the same or less money. Some of them work smarter & harder for marginally more money, but they still don’t have much life (or health) left. Almost all of these folks are chronically sleep-deprived. Many are ill – mentally or physically (and increasingly both). They may have more of what the world has to sell them but they have less of what counts – health, happiness & the pursuit of other important intangible things.