graphic from Fast Food Nation
 by Eric Schlosser
 (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
Book Review by Marc Bedner, editor of Common Sentience

The dangers of meat eating to human health and to the Earth have long been known. Yet the majority of people in the overdeveloped world continue to consume fast food burgers and chicken without a second thought. How have we arrived at this state?

The problem seems to be that few people give even a first thought to what they eat. In his new book, Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser traces the development of the fast food industry and its effects on everyday life.

The suburban automobile culture, which began in Southern California and came to envelop a large part of the United States, gave rise to, and developed along with, the fast food industry. As a case study of the expansion of the car culture and fast food culture, Schlosser focuses on the Rocky Mountain West. Long thought of as a place of wide open spaces, the Rocky Mountain West has become a prime example of suburban sprawl, among other reasons as it has become a destination for escapees from California suburbs. Suburban Colorado today, like the Reagan-era California suburbs from which many of its residents emigrated, fosters a contradictory mix of states rights and laissez-faire ideology in an economy based on subsidies from the Federal government. The lone cowboys, who were in any case largely a Hollywood myth portrayed by actors like Ronald Reagan, are nowhere to be seen.

As Schlosser points out: "The political philosophy that now prevails in so much of the West—with its demand for lower taxes, smaller government, an unbridled free market—stands in total contradiction to the region's true economic underpinnings. No other region of the United States has been so dependent on government subsidies for so long, from the nineteenth-century construction of its railroads to the twentieth-century financing of its military bases and dams."

Nor is it just right-wing ideology which has spread throughout the West. California-style suburban sprawl, with its identical strip malls, has dominated both the landscape and the economy. Schlosser describes the development as follows:

Despite all the talk in Colorado about aerospace, biotech, computer software, telecommunications, and other industries of the future, the largest private employer in the state today is the restaurant industry. In Colorado Springs, the restaurant industry has grown much faster than the population....

Fast food restaurants often serve as the shock troops of sprawl, landing early and pointing the way. Some chains prefer to play follow the leader: when a new McDonald's opens, other fast food restaurants soon open nearby on the assumption that it must be a good location.

Regardless of the billions spent on marketing and promotion, all the ads on radio and TV, all the efforts to create brand loyalty, the major chains must live with the unsettling fact that more than 70 percent of fast food visits are "impulsive." The decision to sop for fast food is made on the spur of the moment, without much thought. The vast majority of customers do not set out to eat at a Burger King, a Wendy's, or a McDonald's. Often they're not even planning to stop for food—until they see a sign, a familiar building, a set of golden arches. Fast food, like the tabloids at a supermarket checkout, is an impulse buy. In order to succeed, fast food restaurants must be seen.

The last point explains why vegetarianism has failed to catch on in modern society. People are not even making conscious decisions when to eat, let alone what to eat. The suburban automobile culture has come to determine an entire lifestyle.

The suburban car culture has by now expanded well beyond the western United States, characterizing almost the entire country. Once developed as a way for travelers to find familiar fare in unfamiliar places, the fast food industry has turned most of the country into a series of all too familiar, nearly identical places. The election of an administration dominated by the oil and gas industry is merely the latest sign of how the economy has developed.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to the USA. Just as they have become the shock troops for suburban sprawl in the United States, fast food restaurants are now establishing beachheads for the Americanization of the world economy. With the end of the Cold War, corporate globalization has become the latest theater of operations for America's war against world economies and world cultures.

But as corporate globalization threatens to engulf much of the world, it has engendered worldwide protest. Perhaps the famous individual corporate protestor is José Bové, a French sheep farmer known for his attack on McDonald's. Opposition to corporate globalization comes from a wide variety of sources. As Schlosser points out:

The overseas critics of fast food are far more diverse than America's old Soviet bloc adversaries. Farmers, leftists, anarchists, nationalists, environmentalists, consumer advocates, educators, health officials, labor unions, and defenders of animal rights have found common ground in a campaign against the perceived Americanization of the world.

New! coverFast Food Nation is now in paperback. Click here to order.

Click here to order Fast Food Nation in hardcover.

Read next book review, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy

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