The Big Mac Effect

Carol Bly, that deep-thinking, acerbic Minnesota essayist, once wrote about “thinking things over at Christmas.” She was living then with her husband, the poet Robert Bly and their children, on the western Minnesota prairie. There’s something about facing wide stretches of snowy prairie to induce deep thoughts. I had no prairie and only minimal snow, this New Year’s Day, but I was facing Minnehaha Creek from inside the red cave of Mary’s living room.

“Why do you like Asia so much?” I asked this Mary. (I have so many Marys in my life, I’ve given them little mental badges: Mary the fiction-writer, Mary the house-boat owner, Mary the one-time dancer, Mary the religious leader, Mary with the Florida daughter, and so on). This was Mary the Japanese-gardener. Also Bali-lover and China-visitor.

She looked at me in surprise: “Why because I want to see how different people live. Isn’t that why you travel?” No, not really. I travel to experience over and over the scenes and languages I love: this means Italy, Mexico, France. And Hawaii because of the ocean and mountains.

Sitting across from me in Mary’s Chinese-red living room was an elegantly dressed couple, both sporting versions of black and white. They’d just seen a nature special on the melting of the polar ice cap and Greenland ice field. We agreed that because of this dangerous phenomenon, ocean levels worldwide will likely rise four feet within our lifetimes. It has been predicted by climate scientists, just as Americans are buying more SUV’s than ever, and global-warming-nay-sayers are having a field day within the Republican Party.

“It’s going to be very hard to wean Americans off their SUV’s,” said this elegant couple, shaking their heads.

“But think about it!” I countered. “Think how differently our parents and grandparents lived. When I was a kid, my parents had an icebox, only one car which my father drove to work, and neither washing machine nor dryer. Think how much less electricity and gas my family used! Couldn’t we dial back to an earlier era?”

They sadly denied this was possible, sending me away brooding about the Big Mac effect.
I’ve never eaten a Big Mac, but I sympathize with its appeal: we’ll give you DOUBLE the regular size for almost the same price. My mother, trying to counter this eye-stomach phenomenon, claimed that serving my father on smaller plates, making him think he was getting the same full, staggering amount, was a dandy way to make him lose weight without knowing it. It worked with my father, but in fly-over land, aka Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, bigger is almost always seen as better, and we take no substitutes.

At the heart of the American psyche, lives an ever-expanding frontier. We can wring every bit of fertility out of eastern woodlands chopped down to plant corn and cotton–two very leachy crops. But that’s ok, because we can pull up stakes and light out for the territories. Add to this, being protected from world politics by two enormous oceans. What happens in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Poles doesn’t really belong to us. We left all that muck behind when we established the “new Jerusalem” here in the New World. Add to this the astonishing size and fecundity of the land: forests about to float away on the wings of carrier pigeons, crops of prairie wheat so enormous as to beat any other yield in the world. Our pioneer ingenuity: We can do it, better and better or bigger and better.

Though global politics and competition put the lie to these notions again and again, still we feed on them. My husband and I are watching a Timberwolves basketball game, something he often does but I almost never. Yet, here we were, snuggling up on a cold winter’s night to watch men making astonishing leaps. It was fun, until the commercials when we were blasted with TRUCKS of all descriptions. TRUCKS that virtually hew down forests and drag them away. TRUCKS that you out there in basketball land, oughta own, you He-Men, you.

If it weren’t so dangerous (dare I say, stupid), I’d laugh. There ain’t a single hewer-down of forests that I know of within the Twin Cities, but sadly, there are more and more of these huge trucks parked on city streets and suburban lawns. It’s getting hard for me to peer around corners for the huge TRUCKS parked and obscuring my view. It’s the Big-Mac Effect, and if it don’t clog our arteries, it’ll put many millions of us around the planet under water. Just you wait and see!

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