How a better diet could break our addiction to economic growth
Rice, beans, and greens hold the solution to our worse civilizational problems.
For every $100 we make in countries of the global north, about $10 have to go toward health care. That doesn’t include drugs (add another dollar or two for that). In the United States, that number is more like $17. And that share keeps on rising. Indeed, so-called “heath” spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) have gone up at least 50 percent in most OECD countries between 1980 and 2019, and the trend shows no sign of abating. In the United Kingdom and United States, health expenditures (not including drugs) represented respectively 10 and almost 17 percent of GDP in 2019, having doubled from the 1980s numbers. The burden of chronic disease fuels the need for ever greater spending, with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia on the rise.
In just a few more years, health spending will likely claim closer to $20 for every $100 we collectively earn. Meanwhile, it’s not like other costs are decreasing. Most notably, infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewage, dykes, transit…) is already crumbling in many urban environments after years of under-investment in maintenance, a concern that only grows more urgent as violent weather events casually destroy what humans painstakingly (if foolishly?) built. Modernizing our energy production and distribution systems toward greener and more reliable solutions is also urgent — and costly.
Improving infrastructure isn’t optional to keep a few billion humans living somewhat comfortably on this planet. Spending some money on education would be great, too.
But forget it: unless we take decisive action, chronic disease will keep on burning through a growing share of our hard-earned dollars.
Where do those dollars come from? They are generated not only by the back-breaking and often mind-numbing labor of humans, but also by the pillage of natural resources and incessant destruction of non-human animal habitat, leading to the sixth extinction. They are what we refer to when we talk about economic growth, measured as GDP: the humongous pile of stuff we make, sell, sometimes use, and always end up trashing.
The good news is that we absolutely can decrease the pressure from chronic disease on our global budget. The main lever for achieving such an impact would be the generalized adoption of a plant-centric diet. It’s effective to prevent and even reverse heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer-like dementias, to start, but also helps with skin conditions, many cancers, and arthritis — all expensive conditions to treat.
Think of all the money we wouldn’t have to spend on health care — and could spend on something else — if we just replaced most of our animal-sourced calories with whole grains, beans, and greens!
Isn’t it about time governments and institutions took a serious turn toward putting in place the necessary programs to steer our collective diet toward a way of eating that’s better for people and for the planet?