“Everything In Moderation in an Age of Consumption
What to do when Excess isn’t Enough”
When I looked, I was surprised to find the origin of this adage, “Everything in Moderation”, obscured and disputed. I’d assumed (1) that I’d be able to look it up. Somebody said it, and I’d find out whom and when, and go from there. Wrong. When I went one step further it appears there is agreement that Twain, in Tom Sawyer gave us, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” This is a higher form one might argue, but not the beginning of the chronicle. However, rather than delve deeper into the argument of the origin of this aphorism, I want to discuss where it stands contextually, now, in the domain that is our milieu.
To me the place to start is the personal context. Here, “Everything in Moderation, just sounds sensible. I mean whose Mom didn’t say, “Don’t gulp.” Surely, if one wants to use moisturizing skin lotion, one wants to apply a little bit every day, or every other day, not use half the bottle in one monthly lotion session/bath/orgy. But is it all so sensible ? Another obvious instance, if one wants to start stretching or weight lifting or running, the logical thing to do is not to go all out to the very utmost ligament ripping stretch on Day 1, or try to max out your military press during one’s first lifting session, or to run wind sprints, suicides or 10K on one’s first time out in ages. Moderation. Turns out not everybody starts out with moderate stretches, workouts or runs. Moderation ? Let alone, everything in moderation ? I attest that my body feels the logic of this premise. Not just because I’ve had a tipple or two, too many, once, nay, twice, and felt the effects of my lack of moderation. (There is nothing like dry heaving to make one believe in the virtues of moderation.) I want to believe in it. I want to believe globally it is an ethic that should ripple across our lives in everything from how one manages one’s intake of vitamins, supplements and pharmaceuticals to one’s SUV and one’s position on CAFE standards, to what one eats and what it eats.
However, though I wish to assert that there could be a powerful, rippling (2) effect of moderation as a standard to live by, I would argue now the converse is also true. There is a shimmering, illusory, mirage-like effect of overconsumption so that now we are living in a time where it is very difficult to judge moderation. (3) How can one judge how much is a moderate amount of anything in an era with omnipresent advertising that has transcended from radio ads to TV commercials to product placement in original content ? (4) transcended from roadside billboards to outfield wall signage to the facades of whole skyscrapers ? How can consumption be appropriately rated from moderate to excessive ? Examining the set of globally produced items suggested above, it is all but impossible to avoid ads for these three: vitamins, vehicles, and vittles, all examples of the everpresent phenomenon of advertising. The common assertion, the underlying assumption of all of ads is one needs the product. Something is for sale. How are we to choose if we are offered an endless, mind enveloping, array of subtle and not so subtle messages and signs, all of which are trying to communicate to us about what we need, and why we need them, their product, their offering ? How are we to choose ? Let alone to choose how much. So to return to the representative types suggested above one might say, well one’s car is just one’s car and yes, one thinks some about the gas mileage it gets and how much that costs one, and how to consolidate trips and carpooling, at least with the kids, and how much the car payment is, and yes one knows one sees lots of car commercials everywhere, and one might have seen the lit up side of building with the Ford logo at the Super Bowl or heard something about ad revenues were how they are now picking the next hot car for the newest Bond movies, but surely, one hopes this isn’t the case with one’s health (or one’s food.) Certainly, with something like that, the same rules (5) don’t apply.
Whoops! What’s horrifying is, if anything it’s worse. (6) Not only are the big pharmaceutical companies pouring literally billions into their advertising budgets, they are adjusting their Research and Development (R&D) budget allocations to match their sales. So when Viagra and Propecia are what Financial Accounting tells the boss is selling, the boss then tells the R&D boys to pump out more impotence and baldness drugs. These new products will, of course, need to be accompanied by new ads to tout their virtues, match them to our needs, the drugs availability helping shape social norms and inadequacies and through them, feeding back into more sales, more R&D allocation changes, back into more ads and back into more consumption. Bad news; this is far from the only malevolent loop in the vicious cycle. The pharmaceutical companies attempt to influence the doctors’ prescription decisions, wining and dining them with everything from catered lunches to weekend jaunts to the Caribbean, to scads of free product samples encouraging them to conspire in hawking their product. The sophisticated experts who one might wish to presume have more wisdom than thyne own self are quite literally being wooed in an effort to “inform” them, for which read: influence their opinion. This is not to argue that there are not many good doctors out there who have expert opinions and their patients’ bests interests at heart when they prescribe medication. It is, rather, to argue that the system is such that distinguishing who these people might be is very difficult, not just for the lay person patient, but even as one of the doctors who participate. How would a doctor evaluate, “Am I complicit or are each of these conferences truly important to my continuing professional education, even if they are held exclusively in warm weather places…and hey, every other job has its perks…” Meanwhile Johnny and Jane Average are sitting at home gazing at the boob tube developing perceived needs from watching mad commercials, (7) followed by visits to the doctor asking, “What about this drug for me ? I have this need.” For those of you Johns and Janes who say, we don’t watch the commercials, note the drug companies (8) are advertising everywhere along the way. Take the NASCAR track where a potential John & Jane might drag their ass on a weekend to watch him some bumpin’ and grindin’ of a sort they’ll never get do. How many times does Johnny watch the old Viagara car go round underneath him over the course of three hours ? [anywhere from 200 at Daytona to 500 at Bristol.] Advertising, while watching what is supposedly original content, a sporting event, outcome not predetermined. (9) Hey, and if he gets some Viagara, the thought is, at least there’s a certain kind of bumpin’ and grindin’ he and the missus can do later. The drug companies advertise to the potential patient, consumer, at the track, on the way to the track and again at home later on the sports news. These product hawkers also market directly to the specialist John and Jane might consult with about their health needs. Are there lines ? How blurred are things ? What is distortion and what it is information ? What is branding and what is subliminal omnipresence ? And meanwhile, how is one to choose how much of what we need.
Not just the setting and the scene, but the consumptive play’s presence everywhere, even the leads, the successes, offer another perfidious influence on our choices. Think of that Viagara stock car, (10) was it as much of an advertisement for that product or more Rafael Palmeiro himself, hawking it in the ads ? Here he was, pre-fall, a virile homerun god, a batsman extraordinaire admitting he needs, and/or uses supplementary product help for the personal wood. What verification!! How could Average John’s not need it, if Palmeiro needs it ?
Are athletes in the ads the limits of the imprimatur on our cultural domain ? Or is there an even deeper sanction being given these drugs and the ethic of over-consumption by the athletes who use them to supplement their on field performance ? Palmeiro, ironically can once again serve as an example, along with McGwire, Bill Romanowski, Todd Sauerbrun, the paradigmatic Barry Bonds and the fallen Ben Johnson. How much more convincing does Johnny the fan need, (and/or worse his son or daughter) than if they see the highly paid professional athlete does not just advertise the legal among these augmentation substances, but uses the less than legal to enhance their athletic accomplishments ? (11) As a society how can we deny the connection between a lack of moderation on the one hand and the results of fame and fiscal success on the other. (12) Please don’t think this is somehow a gender dominant problem, imitation of the excessive behavior of the celebrity, simply because my examples are male athletes. How far has this message and methodology traveled, this idea, that if it works for them, regardless of the side effects, the rewards out weigh them. How could the question be anything but, “Don’t I need it ?” Youth looks at where their immediate role models, and where one might want to be, and it is not surprising they would do almost anything to be the star. The popularity of diet drugs, the prevalence of anorexia and other eating disorders in far too many young women, and the notoriety and success of shows like “The Swan” are part and parcel of the same continuum. (13)
How is any consumer but especially, the young aficionado, the young potential customer, to have any sense of what to choose or how much of something might be too much ? At what point can they see that risks outweigh the rewards ? I fear that there are legions of young slim shadies around thinking that the lives led by Jose Canseco and Tony Mandarich were far more financially lucrative and garnered way more air time than that of their high school teacher, not just from their on the field endeavors, but also from their endorsements. How can a message of the virtues of moderation be communicated into this consumptive din ? How can we make it clear that Canseco, Mandarich and the like are lottery winners. Literally, statistically. They are not representative of the mass of our culture’s performance enhancing drug users. Most people who take legal and illegal performance enhancers and supplements don’t go on to become star athletes. Similarly, most people who take piano lessons don’t go on to become concert pianists. Supplements don’t change the equation that much. They don’t make the ordinary into supermen, the make the great into the extraordinary. So Bonds, Canseco, Palmerio, Ben Johnson, et. al. are (hopefully) not representative of the majority of professional athletes who made it on hard work and their natural gifts. But these forged heroes and their ilk, are certainly not representative of the majority of college athletic stars, let alone high school athletes, let alone high schoolers. In an overconsumptive society we must always combat the presumption that, “Everybody’s doing it.” How many steroids are bad for you ? How much human growth hormone ? What about amphetamines ? At what point does overconsumption become health harming ? Life shortening ? Fatal ?
We know lots of youth are experimenting. New Jersey’s most recent study found over 6% of high school youth had taken or were using steroids. More interestingly for the direction we are driving herein was that use was more prevalent in suburban schools, where the money to purchase these illegal products, the money to have personal trainers, and to join health clubs, where these products could be purchased was more available. The resources necessary to consume encourage the consumption. (14) If you’ve got it, spend it. Macro-economically this broad based trend can be found in American’s declining personal savings rates, and massively increasing debt burdens. (15)
But the purpose of this diatribe is not simply to bemoan that Americans aren’t saving very much money or that too many kids are doing steroids, rather it is to show that these are but, two, not so isolated impacts, across the whole terrain of our society caused by our inability to judge and endorse moderation. Heart disease is epidemic, in large part because of consumptive, immoderate, eating choices. Obesity is part and parcel of the same problem. Some studies show that obesity is directly or indirectly responsible for up to 9% of the total health care costs in the United States. (16) Films like “Super Size Me” bludgeon us with the reality of our lack of moderation. Fads that are illusory improvements, but, in fact terrible for our bodies and our culture sweep over us in waves of excess, from Fen-Phen dieting, to baseball players munching pseudo-ephedrine tablets to improve reaction time. (17) Somewhere at the root of it all is a fundamental dissatisfaction with ourselves that cannot be satiated by external products, things we can consume. We must see and do, not be and devour.
But back to the question of where to draw the line. Who is to judge ? And how is one to judge moderation in this world, personally or globally ? How and/or can we resist advertising ? One can’t know for sure, for all outcomes, quite literally, there is always going to be research coming out on the impacts of all products, all things, on all individuals and our domains, large and small. (18) Globalism presages a world where it will not be possible to process the glut of information rushing at and over us, even good summarization becomes much more difficult. Something is lost in the act of summary. (19) Perhaps, it is not possible to argue for scale. If not all can be understood, all evaluated, perhaps things must be judged in relative terms. If so, does this re-point the cautious observer of the weathervane back in the direction of moderation ? If one cannot be sure, at least one can be moderate ? This might be the basis of an argument for not eating meats from animals injected with steroids or growth hormones. Even the food chain is global. One can’t know all of what one is ingesting environmentally, so in this situation, where one does know, one can avoid or only very moderately consume, what one suspects to be malevolent. (20)
But it is still quite difficult to personally set a standard for moderation. To take one supersocially present example, there are worries about excessive cell phone usage. (21) What is the long term health impact of holding this radio transmitter that is receiving signals up to the side of your head ? Both are electrical appliances, giving off and receiving signal. Who knows ? How would one ? Even if one had lots of statistical data available about the impacts of long term cell phone usage by a certain sample of people, how might one judge what is moderation for oneself ? This is especially pertinent in a world where the norm for (over)consumption, of cell phone usage went from: not at all, nobody had one, to not at all, except for emergency professionals who really need it, well, and landscape contractors and dispatchers who really need it too, to well, all business people who really need it, but certainly not everyone and everywhere, well, maybe homemakers with kids should have them too, after all, there are circumstances where they could really need it, and well, what about single mom’s, surely if married homemakers really need it, single mom’s will need it even more, and what about their kids, how will they be able to keep tabs on their kids without giving them phones ? What if they get lost or if Mom’s car breaks down or they just want to go play at Susie house ? And well, what about marrieds without kids, but with aging parents ? Surely, their parents are as valuable to them as somebody else’s children. What about plain old marrieds, without kids ? What if they just really need to get in touch with each other ? What about single, no kids, individuals with aging parents ? Or the un-married with no kids, no aging parents, but who work and have to drive there ? They could break down.
Then the where, a whole different gradient for decision calculus. Well, ok, cell phones around enough that one can be on them in restaurants, but just not the fancy ones, and the car, the car was always cool, ‘cept now it has to be hands free. Now how often does one see or hear someone on a cell phone in movies. How aggravating is it ? Is it aggravating ? (22) Old people, too, their cars break down, just like anybody else’s and most of them aren’t changing a flat. Just because they were late adopters of the technology and don’t know how to use half the functions, they still gotta have their cell phones. And well, if you can use it in the car, and at most restaurants, and just about any coffee house, why shouldn’t you be allowed to use it on the train, in the street, and soon on a plane. (23) This isn’t about the din or is it ? (24) Or the dangers of multitasking in a fast moving public sphere while on the phone ?
Does anybody remember the signal, the radio transmitter being held up to our heads, that was no great problem, at presumed scale level one of cell phone use. There is no evidence this radio transmitter has unintended consequences. But has anybody studied it at this scale, with this much signal and this many signals and this many people, for this many years ? And even if they had, how is one to judge what is moderate cell phone use, personally ? Which people and what model did they use ? What were the other relevant environmental factors ? And how many minutes does that mean it is safe for me to be on the phone, daily ? monthly ? yearly ? in a lifetime ? And what’s the cost calculus on minutes and usage, financially, as in, how much is one paying for one’s phone, daily ? monthly ? yearly ? For socially, we know assuredly this question is asked far more often than, what is the health impact of my using this many minutes in a lifetime. What is the best deal, what is the most economical ? What is too much money or too much radio signal ? Once again in our cultural milieu the trumping of the Benjamin’s over all else as the measure, including moderation, is revealed. (25) Yet, via advertising we can make clear we know of money’s clout and can satirize ourselves, witness the Sprint-Nextel commercial featuring the all powerful executive in the humongous windowed office with minion close at hand discussing cell phone plans, “Just my little way of sticking it to the Man.” The minion, objects, “But, sir, you are the Man.” (26) At least if we can laugh at ourselves culturally, can mock our failings, and our priorities, we must be making some progress, right ? Yet it is still an ad trying to sell one something. I cannot judge the breadth of it all, but globally, I worry. While for individuals, personally, I am more hopeful. This is where this piece began, the personal context. Surely, everything in moderation is hard to judge, but at least there must be some practical jumping off points to start from.
The examples used to ask about our likelihood of being moderate in the personal rather than global context, were things like moisturizing lotion, stretching and running. Here one hopes moderate collides with and assumes the meaning of sensible. Trust one’s body and do right by it. With lotion, more or less follow the instructions on the container, but use the dryness or oiliness of one’s skin as a corrective guide. With stretching, if it hurts don’t do it. One should feel a gradual warming. One should have a moderate feeling of stretch, not a sharp, acute, painful feeling of stretch. With running, if one’s heart or lungs feel like they are going to explode, walk for a bit. Don’t stop. Don’t give up running forever. But take a slower, more moderate spell, before trying to run some more again, be it later that hour, later that day, or later that week. Trust one’s body. It is a sack of signal receptors and transmitters that create a feedback loop between cells, nerves, spine and brain.
If it is hard to be moderate personally, there are some interlinked virtues which make it easier. Consistency for one. It is far easier to be moderate if one is consistent. Regularly apply the lotion, stretch, run or weight lift and each session will be easier and easier on the sack o’ cells that is you. Only time compression, the overconsumption of time, by work and activities, makes it seem as though consistency is harder than extremes. It is in fact easier to exercise moderately three times a week, forty eight weeks a year, than it is to get straight off of the couch and run a six minute mile or bench press 225 lbs. thrice. The illusion of time compression and immoderation run together, if one can feel comfortable doing a little less, thereby implementing moderation in one’s choices, one will find one’s time is more open and available. Therefore one is less squeezed and less compressed, as dictated by one’s conscious choice to do less. Consistency allows one to err on the side of caution, because one knows one will do it again soon. This positive habit formation means one does not have to do one’s exercise or activity, each time, to an extreme. One will be right back at it again soon. (27)
Perhaps recalling Mark Twain, “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” it is for us to recognize with our human fallibilities, that is all one can do. One cannot preach perfection, only cognizance. Excess can be both painful and fun. To deny that fundamental fact is to lose the argument by failing to address the underlying reality. Excess may be dangerous, even deadly, even the first time. There are absolutely no guarantees. (28) However, by looking at the downsides or cons of immoderation, one can see through negation, what one does not want to do. Lack of moderation with booze is called problem drinking or alcoholism. (29) A lack of moderation with gambling or drugs is called an addiction. The very word addiction, placed in opposition to moderation, helps one see the evident virtues of moderation. If one is going to indulge in excess, do it rarely, thoughtfully and cautiously, not daily, haphazardly, and unconsciously. Exercise moderation daily and consciously in as wide a range of activities as you find possible. (30)
1. Make an Ass outta Me. Butt know that it must be a saying that has been with us for a while for me not to be able to firmly plant its roots with relative ease.
2. With ripple I want to make clear that the pebble in the pond analogy works on both levels and that through the personal the transition is made to the global. So moderation should ripple through the pond that is our own life, applying in many contexts and arenas. (Everything in moderation ? Selected examples will dot this essay, but I welcome the broadest possible discussion of how to apply moderation as an ethic in our own lives.) This application of moderation to wide array of lifestyle choices and behaviors in individuals lives should precipitate a virtuous circle of moderation, where each person’s moderate choices make it easier for the next person to be moderate, mitigating fears and false competition.
3. Personally or globally.
4. Those of us who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s can clearly remember an era when product placement was considered improper, if not unethical. So that, if somebody on your favorite sitcom, wanted to drink a beer, we all looked at a can that said “Beer” on the side, not Heineken. I also saw fascinating article on current efforts to market to college spring breakers, taking product placement to the hotels and literally encouraging the kids to steal the towels and such. “Companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever and Paramount Pictures have stamped ads on hotel room staples from pillow cases and shower curtains to room card keys and door knob signs…’You want to come up with content cool enough that they will want to steal it.’ says William Gelner, group creative director at Axe ad agency BBH.” story by Laura Petrecca in the USA Today, 3/20/06, sec. B, p.3.
5. For “same rules,” read: “the status quo’s flawed superstructures,”
6. I’m not even going to get in to the perverse incentives for overproduction and overconsumption in farm subsidies.
7. Presuming they’re not watching on cable DVR or mad channel surfers.
8. The drug companies are just one example. Advertising by all companies in almost all industries is everywhere. The drug companies are not necessarily more guilty, I am singling them out here to make the point that advertising influences our collective decision making process on many levels, not just for beer and the dish detergent, but for much more fundamental choices, like health. Did he just say there were more important choices, than beer ? Nah, he couldn’t have, not AjM, I’d never believe it…
9. For NASCAR, well mostly, not pre-determined.
10. Those of you who had no idea Mark Martin once drove a #6 Viagara stock car will have their answer to this question immediately.
11. Steroids, Human Growth Hormone, Blood Doping, Amphetamines. Heck, they even had United States fighter pilots getting hyped up pre-combat on various amphetamines. Fortunately, that too appears to be undergoing a rethink, since AmericaN planes accidentally bombed some poor Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.
12. Pam Anderson’s breast implants might be perceived in the same manner.
13. This is not to deny nor to minimize the steroid problems of young female athletes or the eating disorders and body image problems of young males.
14. Nationwide, an estimated 325,000 teenage boys and 175,000 teenage girls are using steroids, according to a recent study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
15. “The personal savings rate used to be 10 percent of disposable income from 1974 to 1984, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It fell to 4.8 percent by 1994, and was negative for all of 2005. As of January, the personal savings rate was minus 0.7 percent.”-ABC News from
www.abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=1688390 “Make no mistake: The statistics are ugly. As a nation, our borrowing is growing as fast as our wealth; we are loading up our kids with college debt; and we are continuing our spendthrift ways into retirement.”- Jonathan Clements, in The Wall Street Journal see www.clarioncontentblogspot.com for the link.
16. Esquire 04/06, pg. 108
17. Is there a connection to lemur like buying of tech stocks and other (avoidable? Housing?) bubbles? Moderation or the lack thereof and a connection to get rich quick thinking…I need a game theorist to tell me exactly where pyramid schemes fit in here.
18. Not to mention the exceptions to the rule and studies biases. It should be noted too, that one hopes we continue to live in free societies that continue to produce copious amount of less than totally biased research.
19. Especially as the function of summarizing is increasingly assumed by technology.
20. In the interest of full disclosure, I definitely eat meat, not all of it steroid and/or hormone free.
21. Cell phones (like the pharmaceutical companies) are just one example, picked because they are ubiquitous and the pace of their transformation from nowhere to everywhere was so rapid, like cars and so many other technologies before them. Cars now seen over a longer time frame are an instructive example because their widespread use happened so quickly scaled in a geological chronology. Cars became widespread long before emissions were fully understood. Cars had a global ecological impact long before comprehensive studies on such impacts could be completed. (One of cars side effects now is surprisingly likely to be the way in which cars impact is most relevant to our grandchildren.) The same might or might not hold true for nuclear power, cell phones or half a hundred other things, including food and drugs. “Tort law doesn’t seem to me to be a big help to ya, if what ya ate, or what ya took, already done killed you.” This is not to argue we should give up our cars or lawsuits, rather that we should approach their use with moderation.
22. It seems to me there is a link between overconsumption and civility or I should say, incivility, lack of politeness, decency and standards. All the way to and through things like cheating and grade inflation.
23. The plane as a quiet sphere is still theoretically up for debate and you can hope it is not soon to be taken over by the personal cell phone, though you can ride planes that are already equipped with seat back phones.
24. Prolonged exposure to loud noise leads to increased heart attack and stroke risk according to Dr. Mehmet Oz in 03/06 Esquire pg. 100.
25. The benefits of such studies, while theoretically possible are down the road. This does not mean they should not be undertaken. Studies and all knowledge in the public domain should come with
a grain of salt, take the studies of cigarette smoking as one guide. Or the many things we have heard one study pronounce good for you one year, only to have another study warn of the dangers of the same thing X quantity of time later. Recall, too, that studies are expensive and Money trumps. Look at the deleterious effects of negative studies on an industry from smoking studies on tobacco to Atkins opinions on carbs, it is at least questionable who is incentivized to do what if any studies. Always look for bias.
26. The commercial is on-line at http://ad-rag.com/commercials.php
27. This is NOT to argue that one should never go all out, or that one shouldn’t, as much as possible, ALWAYS do one’s best. This is not the same. Doing one’s best is an obligation that is not undermined by a moderate mindset. To try to do one’s best without hubris, is one guidepost.
28. Inherent circularity of this statement, “There are no guarantees, including this one.” A point addressed in Gödel, Escher, Bach by D. Hofstadter, among others, perfect illustrates why one should arc, augur, bend one’s behavior toward moderation as often as possible, but also why one should not flog one’s self for failure to achieve perfection.
29. How many drinks a day does it take to make you an alcoholic ? It is different for each and every body. In theory, only the individual in question can tell you for sure. But trust your instincts. If it is your body, it should be pretty darn close to self evident. For stretching, you only have to slow down and listen to hear your body more clearly. Alcoholics often have very strong self awareness and they know how many drinks at any given moment makes them an alcoholic, even if that number is as low as…one more drink at any point during the rest of their life.
30. It is important to evaluate the ideal of everything in moderation with a minimum of blame assessment. The dominant paradigm is consumption and in fact, overconsumption, look at America’s bulging landfills, for one more example. One can encourage people to resist the dominant paradigm and support morally, emotionally and financially those who do, but one has a limited amount of room to critique the mass who follow the existing paradigm. These are the rules of the game as they were taught. They are only trying to do the best by what they know, they cannot know what they do not know. So to spread the message without arrogance is the mission, without a claim to coming from a place of superior knowledge, but rather coming from alternative knowledge. To recognize that there are many other individuals and organizations fighting similar and parallel struggles, from slow food movements to simplicity advocates, from Yoga to the Falun Gong, is to be heartened and heightened. The overturning of the paradigm will rock existing structures. A simple, moderate first step might be recognizing the 100 meter dash, the timed mile run and the long jump are not records that will continue to be endlessly lowered. But that is for another article.