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Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess Paperback – December 27, 2011
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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In a book full of startling facts, this might be the most startling: of the 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. annually, “something approaching half could be prevented . . . if people simply managed to lead healthier lives.” But this isn’t a book about living a healthier lifestyle. It’s an exploration of “the challenge of moderation in the face of freedom and affluence.” The weapons of mass consumption, Akst calls them, are everywhere. We eat too much food, spend too much money, have too much sex. It’s not that we lack willpower; rather, the temptations have vastly multiplied over the years. In the course of defining the reasons why self-control is becoming such a rare commodity, Akst examines our tendency to blame everything except ourselves, citing a woman he met who blamed excess weight on genetics, fast food, advertising, and high-fructose corn syrup—all while polishing off two plates of waffles and cream cheese. It is this kind of willful self-destruction, Akst concludes, that’s killing us in greater and greater numbers. A very thought-provoking and colorfully written book. --David Pitt --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"You wouldn't be able to stop yourself from reading this book! Daniel Akst is among the sharpest, most perceptive writers of his generation, and he is in fine form in We Have Met the Enemy."
-Gregg Easterbrook, author of Sonic Boom
"This book entertains even as it pokes at our most sensitive spots. Daniel Akst handles the touchiest heretical ideas with charm, humor and painless scholarship. With no ax to grind, no cause to serve but reason he opens up the foregone conclusions by which we live and leaves a reader with new and alternate views of ourselves and others. Like the finest essayists Akst makes the deepest ideas fascinating and fun to read."
-Nicholas von Hoffman
"The more a society progresses, the bigger a problem self-control turns out to be. If you wish to be ahead of the curve for understanding America's problems, Dan Akst's excellent and informative book is the place to start."
-Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, and co-creator of the blog The Marginal Revolution --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Reading Daniel Akst's recent book, with the telling subtitle, Self-Control in an Age of Excess, again and again I was nodding in agreement and laughing to myself "What fools we mortals be."
The real irony of our times is that the great legacy in acquiring liberty, freedom, and rights that so many generations fought and died to realize over the past 500 years now pose a seemingly intractable conundrum: are we unable to free ourselves from our losses of control?
Akst contrasts a generation ago when obesity was rare, while today two-thirds of American adults are overweight and nearly half of those qualifying as obese. Rather than control eating and exercising more, 2220,000 morbidly obese people get bariatric weight-loss surgeries each year. Of course, Akst wittily observes, "People have wrestled with their appetites since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden in a self-regulatory lapse of truly Biblical proportions."
Democratization of temptation has reached a veritable apotheosis in the United States. Until the recession, writes Akst, "life in this country had come to resemble a giant all-you-can-eat buffet, one that offers more calories, credit, sex, intoxicants, and just about anything else we can take to excess than at time in history."
We Have Met the Enemy provides an exceptionally good read on the "perils of prosperity." Akst deftly weaves together anecdotes (often irreverently) and facts from a range of fields, time periods, types of over-indulgences and addictions and means of improving self-mastery and steering ourselves towards what we really want for ourselves.
As a professional who promotes win-win solutions to mega-challenges confronting our era, i.e., destructive climate, extinction of ocean, freshwater and rainforest species, oil wars, mass poverty and malnutrition, I find myself reading more and more books on behavior, choice and decision-making by individuals. If it is so hard to self-control one's own behavior, how on earth can we expect humanity as a whole to agree to self-control?
Not surprisingly, Akst raises the difficulty with democracy in addressing pressing perils like controlling the burning of fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic consequences. It requires both the willingness of individuals to vote and elect officials who will take action, but the elected ones are subject themselves to the same temptations as the rest of us and the unique temptations of power (as the some 300 lobbyists per member of Congress demonstrate each election cycle).
Akst quotes the devastating diagnosis by the ever-observant French traveler around the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in Democracy in America:
"The difficulty experienced by democracy in conquering the passions and silencing the desires of the passing moment in the interest of the future can be observed in the United States in the most trivial of things. The people, surrounded by flatterers, find it difficult to master themselves. Every time they are asked to impose some privation or discomfort, even for an aim their reason approves, they almost always refuse at first to comply."
Akst gives some glimmers of hope in addressing our personal and social issues of control, which are well worth reading.
As the author explains, "Yet while temptations have multiplied like fast food outlets in suburbia, the superstructure of external restraint that once helped check our impulses has been weakened by loosening social constraints, the inexorable march of technology, and the same powerfully subversive force - capitalism - that has given us the wherewithal to indulge." Do not fear, the book is not a socialist shout-out - Akst is just providing accurate context: "That we have the chance to get ourselves into so much trouble - with food, drink, money, and one another - is actually a testament to human progress, for what we're talking about here is nothing less than the democratization of temptation."
And we are doing a poor job in controlling ourselves. We are smoking, eating, boozing, and screwing with wild abandon. These activities now account for "more than a million fatalities annually in this country, or close to half of all U.S. deaths." We have a few other problems like conspicuous consumption, living beyond means, all the while filling landfills with discarded crap. Akst's metaphor of a giant buffet stocked with calories, credit, sex, intoxicants is apt and so is our inability to diet and choose wisely.
Some may say that the one flaw in the book is that Akst fails to provide a prescription. He does call for help from family, friends, colleagues and community but admittedly the issues are extensive and so intertwined that any roadmap would come across as a flakey self-help book and this is not that type of book. Its strength is presenting a strong argument for change and putting the onus on each individual reader to be the change they wish to see in the world (to paraphrase Ghandi). The book resonates, provokes thought, and is a call for changes that would have far-reaching benefits for individuals and society as a whole.
Askt explains how traditional "social constraints" such as; Tradition, the Nuclear Family Unit, Religion, & Cultural Ideology have all eroded in the face of the pursuit of modern 21st century "Individual Freedom".
Askt ransacks history, literature, psychology, philosophy, economics & "Good old Fashioned Common-Sense" to shock, inform, empower & entertain people about "self-control" and the dangers of "lack of self control" in our lives.
Using "self-control" as a lens, "We Have Met The Enemy" draws a vivid picture of the many-sided problem of desire - and delivers a blueprint in which we can have the ability to; set aside "desire-impulses" when we choose to do so, and also steer ourselves & humanity shrewdly & safely to the cleansing shores of healthiness, prosperity & happiness.