Michael Prager: Lose weight, save the planet

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I am a champion dieter, not only in pounds lost (more than 500) but in years succeeding (more than 20). From a starting point like that, you could assume this essay is about dieting. But no.

This is about sustainability. At least partly; that’s because everything is.

In popular culture, sustainability is regarded as an environmental matter, but that sells it short by a long shot. Sustainability — quite literally, the ability to sustain — is of urgent import not only to the planet, but to every life on it. Placing this keystone where it belongs is the answer to all challenges great and small.

This is what a life of obesity, and escape from it, have taught me.

I was fat from childhood and obese by age 12. Even during the times I was maintaining a loss — I was put on my first diet at 10, I went to weight-loss summer camp three times in my early teens, I was a patient of Dr. Atkins at 16, I’ve lost more than 100 on three occasions — fatitude firmly controlled my outlook.

That may help explain why I always gained it back, with interest. It also explains how I could have lost more than 500 pounds without ever weighing 500 pounds — my top weight was “only” 365, recorded the day I entered eating-disorder rehab in 1991. Another reason I’d always gained it back is that I was trying to solve a problem that included obesity with policies that address only obesity, a.k.a. diets.

Rehab was a key stop on my road to sustainable weight loss, but it wasn’t the first. Led by colleagues, peers and professionals, I’d started trading isolation for community, availing myself of others’ experience and knowledge instead of insisting on figuring it all out alone, and being willing to keep trying strategies until I found those that helped me.

In the years that followed, I arrived at a stable weight and stayed there, more or less. But that was only part of the change. I rehabilitated a tattered reputation in one workplace, was hired into a higher-profile one and experienced romantic relationships that lasted more than a few dates. I got married at 46 and became a dad at 52. My life was becoming more sustainable.

In 2007, I accepted a buyout offer, leaving my profession of 30 years and giving away what had been, for many years, my only source of esteem. While we waited for our son to arrive via adoption, I gravitated toward freelance reporting on the sustainability movement, because I was concerned for the environment.

During this time, I become an acolyte of biomimicry, an eons-old approach that crystallized as a modern movement with Janine Benyus’s 1992 book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” Its essential idea is that instead of trying to overcome nature to get what we want, we should ask nature how it resolves problems we are encountering. Examples include helping swimmers go faster by mimicking shark skin on swimsuits, or applying the ventilation principle of termite mounds to make buildings that use less or no mechanical heating or cooling.

It is such an elegant idea: Nature has been sustaining life on earth for 3.8 billion years, while humans — a subset of nature — have been active for only 200,000 years. It requires outrageous hubris to maintain that a) we know more than nature, or b) what nature knows doesn’t apply to us.

I liked the idea so much that I wondered if it wasn’t being wasted by applying it only to design or building issues. Did nature offer models for individual behavior, so that each of us might know better how to sustain ourselves?

So I looked, and realized my transformation had been enabled by principles favored by nature. When, quite haltingly, I’d abandoned isolation for the community I’d found in therapy and support groups and in rehab, I’d been (unwittingly) mimicking the herding principle found in many species, in which the safest place is in the middle, surrounded by one’s fellows.

When I remained willing to try new strategies until I could find what worked for me, I was mimicking nature’s reliance on diversity — no solution fits all circumstances, so survival is based partly on continuing to explore until something sticks.

As I looked for further connections, I realized that my having confused green-building techniques as a virtually complete solution for environmental issues — which themselves are only a part of the sustainability universe — was akin to when I’d confused dieting as a complete solution for my obesity. In both cases, I’d identified strategies that would have to be part of a solution, but that couldn’t be solutions in themselves because they weren’t addressing root causes.

I was overweight because of how I ate, but the real question was what was behind my eating. Green-building techniques can mitigate climate change, but the real question is what is behind climate change. In both cases, the crises are the result of self-injurious practices and actions coupled with the delusion that those practices and actions won’t lead where they obviously will lead.

I knew that overeating would make me fatter, but like the smoker who never quits, I maintained the fiction that I wasn’t harming myself. Engaging in, or allowing, or buying the fruits of industrial agriculture, for example, is just as delusional: Monocultures, depleted topsoil, aquatic dead zones, prophylactic use of antibiotics, a reliance on petrochemicals and so many more ill effects are all explained away by the cavalier attitude that we are above nature.

To conquer my obesity, I had to stop thinking I knew better, to emphasize the ways that I fit into the larger world instead of denying that I did and to keep pursuing possibilities instead of insisting I had it all covered, especially in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary.

I am certain that such attitude changes are keys not only for obesity but also for any sort of healthy change, not only for individual challenges but also for challenges we face collectively. Partly this comes for the obvious circumstance that, as just one of 7 billion citizens of the planet, I’m not that special. But it is bolstered by the knowledge that they spring from nature itself, the supreme survivor extant.


Michael Prager is an author, journalist, and professional speaker who lives in Arlington, Mass. (michaelprager.com).

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