Chris Otter explores the planetary significance of plaque and the Anthropocene
In 1978, the Scottish doctor Walter Yellowlees, an advocate of whole foods and healthy nutrition, stated:
I believe it to be true that in those countries which have achieved unparalleled advance in technological skill in medicine and in what is called standard of living we are witnessing the decay of man – the decay of his teeth, his arteries, his bowels and his joints on a colossal and unprecedented scale (cited in Steven, 1985, p. 143).
This linking of “progress” with bodily “decay” was hardly controversial. Five years earlier, the Irish surgeon Denis Burkitt, who spent many years working in Africa, argued that the western diet – rich in refined grains, sugar, and red meat – was generating an avalanche of appendicitis, diverticular disease, deep vein thrombosis, coronary heart disease, and obesity (1973, 274-275) – conditions practically non-existent in the non-western world.
A central feature of such conditions was the insidious accumulation of plaque – thickened, viscous matter accreting on the surface of teeth, the inner walls of arteries, and in the cerebral cortex. In 1935, George Thomson contended that “modern highly refined carbohydrate foods which need no chewing deny the surfaces of the teeth the friction so vitally necessary, thus allowing plaques to form in retention areas with resultant dental caries” (59). In 1913, Nikolai Anichkov fed rabbits high-cholesterol diets, demonstrating how arteries became lined with fatty plaque (Schwartz, 1990, 219). Such studies have been complemented by those showing that plaque, while not entirely absent among ancient populations, has become far more prevalent in modern bodies (Lieberman, 2013, 278-279). Meanwhile, plaques were being discovered in dementia patients’ brains: “histologically, miliary plaques are discrete structures of variable size in which a dark, circular homogeneous nucleus-like mass is centrally disposed” (“Miliary Plaques,” 1912, 1667). Plaque silently accumulates over decades, but its rapid rupturing can cause immediate crisis in the form of acute coronary events and strokes (Loftus, 2011, 43).
I want to suggest that we might plausibly view such developments as being of planetary significance. Over the past two decades, Earth system scientists have proposed numerous synchronous signatures in the earth that could serve as a definitive starting point for the Anthropocene: concrete, plastics, endocrine disruptors and inorganic ash spheres. Consensus has grown that the global signature of 239Pu deriving from thermonuclear weapons between 1952 and 1962 is the least ambiguous marker (Waters et al., 2016, aad2622-5).
It makes perfect sense for earth system sciences to locate and identify such earthly signatures: after all, this is how their discipline functions. However, the Anthropocene can be approached in other ways, using different epistemological or evidentiary frameworks: social or biological, for example (Toivanen et al., 2017, 187). We might pose the following question: what if we viewed bodily accumulations and strata of plaque as broader phenomena of earth system change? Plaque is not a geological signature, found in rocks, but a biological sign accreting in advanced industrial bodies. Plaque is not, like 239Pu or plastics, a completely new twentieth-century phenomenon. It is more like anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide or lead pollution: something appearing at low levels in ancient societies and exploding in incidence since the nineteenth century. We need not concern ourselves with critical thresholds or tipping points, but simply observe the historical significance of plaque’s becoming a significant somatic problem.
Sugar, like plastic and oil, is an Anthropocene substance. High sugar intake has been plausibly linked with the development of the amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease (Taylor et al, 2021). In Diabetes, Coronary Thrombosis, and the Saccharine Disease (1969), Thomas Cleave and G.D. Campbell floated the idea that dietary change catalyzed a single new condition, the “Saccharine disease” (v-vi). Meanwhile, similar arguments blaming red meat and cholesterol were being made by Ancel Keys and others. Whichever position one assumes, diet, plaque, economic development and the “decay” of the body are tightly interwoven. Such theses relied on the comparison of western with non-western diets, and particularly the diets of people undergoing the transition to the sugary western way of eating. Within western nations, such diseases were most marked in low-income and minority communities, where bodies were literally dumping grounds for cheap sugar and toxic waste.
Rather like greenhouse gases and plastics accumulating in the atmosphere and hydrosphere, plaques silently collect in teeth, arteries and brains. Moreover, the vast planetary systems feeding developed and developing nations enormous quantities of meat, wheat, and sugar are themselves inseparable from these large-scale earth system transformations. Of Rockström and Klum’s nine “planetary boundaries,” four have been exceeded. Two of these – extinction rates and biogeochemical flows – are directly linked to world food systems and are responsible for pushing the planet into the Anthropocene (65). Food systems contribute up to 29% of greenhouse-gas emissions (Swinburn et al., 2019, 801). Climate change and plaque diseases are two very different scalar signs of what our food systems are simultaneously doing to bodies and the earth. Plaque links the intimate experience of heart disease, tooth decay and dementia to planetary phenomena of deforestation, soil erosion, and global warming. Such multi-scalar approaches, which do not collapse the small into the large, are vital to any comprehension of the Anthropocene’s complexity and lived experience (Tsing 2012).
There is little doubt that bodily transition – also manifested in unprecedented average human height and weight – is the most palpable, visceral aspect of the remarkable planetary changes that have occurred since the nineteenth century. It links the very small – our teeth, hearts and brains – to the extremely large and ungraspable – climate change, deforestation, reduced biodiversity. The human body, like the atmosphere, has become an anthropogenic sink, a last staging post not only for industrial chemicals but also for the unassimilable waste from our historically-unusual diets.
About the author
Chris Otter is Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).
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