Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Most of the people who will read this probably won’t know what the word lifesaver is referring to: this was the name given, probably in the thirties, to small round hard candies with a hole in the middle that came wrapped like coins. I don’t know whether they still exist, but if so, they would be a holdover from another era.
What brought them to mind was a 1930s short film starring the (equally long forgotten) Robert Benchley, called “A Night at the Movies”. At a time when movie-going was a relatively new part of urban life, it shows the various small mishaps a couple encounters when deciding to see a film. It’s not very funny, but there is one priceless gag: Benchley is unnerved by a child in the next seat who instead of watching the screen, stars uncompromisingly at him with hard round eyes. He’s so uncomfortable that he drags his wife to the second row way to the side, whence everything on the screen is hopelessly distorted. Finally, settling back philosophically, he pulls a packet of life savers from his pocket and pops one into his mouth. Watching him sit there contentedly sucking in the dark, I was struck by the realization of how far we’ve travelled since the thirties on the road to exaggerated consumption. Today, our hero would be holding a gigantic drink in one hand and a no less gigantic cup of popcorn in the other.
Was the progression inevitable? In France, movies had (and may still have) intermissions, during which time vendors go among the rows of seats selling candy and ice cream, still a relatively reasonable form of indulgence.
The question is not entirely moot, because, as Jared Diamond recently wrote, the developed world consumes 32 times more than the underdeveloped world, and even if the latter were only to catch up to the tune of 11 times its present consumption, the earth wouldn’t support it.
As those in the developed world who consume the most energy and resources per capita, Americans are the most urgently faced with the problem of what to do. The President of the Philadelphia Ethical society addressed just this question in the February newsletter, concluding that no possible action would be acceptable. I propose to debate him on this issue, starting with the suggestion that, broadly speaking, we return to life-savers. The latest issue of Harpers’ Magazine comes fortuitously to my rescue, with three book reviews that provide precious background to the issue of growth, as well as an invaluable start to thinking about how to survive without it. The title of the review is: “ Fear of Fallowing”, by Steven Stoll, and I highly recommend it.

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