Toxic environment

Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe today on willpower and obsesity:
The only good news is that we are beginning to shift from describing obesity as a moral failing to describing it as a public health epidemic. We are beginning to shift at least some attention from self-control to environment-out-of-control.

This change is partly due to the collective, um, weight of scientific studies. Yale's Kelly Brownell, who coined the phrase ''toxic environment,'' sums them up this way: ''When the environment changes, weight changes.'' When, for example, immigrants from thinner countries come to America they gain weight while their cousins back home stay lean. When you give moviegoers a big box of popcorn instead of a small one, they eat about 50 percent more.
You know, there was a time where this would put me in a tizzy. Power-of-the-individual, personal responsibility, etc. But it's hard to disagree with the data. And most people have to pick their battles -- grappling with your schedule, your responsibilities at home and on the job, your friends and family -- your guard is down from those battles and the marketers and media slip in, giving you bigger portions and strange notions and before you know it you're eating and drinking substances the human body was never meant to ingest.

It keeps coming back to the ideas in the Tipping Point by Gladwell. One experiment -- theology students were assigned to give sermons on the good samartian across the seminary campus. Some were told they're already 15 minutes late. Others are told they've got time to spare. Each student encountered a sick homeless person on the way to the sermon. Those who were late never stopped to help; those who had time, did. The actual character of the "samaritans" was irrelevant, schedule was everything.

Maybe I'm reading too much into one experiment -- there were others I can't recall -- but the point is, even the noblest of the noble, on their way to lecture about charity, can still forget their better natures.

I guess that's why we celebrate virtue and character when we hear it. But I'm still not good at noticing the absence of virtue -- it's rarely the jarring clang of "evil," but the quiet hum of acquiescence. To a toxic environment. God this got melodramatic.