Belief in “American exceptionalism”—that unique blend of ideals, ideas, and love of liberty made so powerful by great technical and economic accomplishments—is alive and well. Even former President Obama, the man known for his unemotional approach to governing and hence a reluctant endorser to begin with, has come around. Early in his presidency (in April 2009), he affirmed his belief by essentially denying it: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” By May of 2014, he had relented: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
But such proclamations mean nothing if they cannot stand up to the facts. And here, what really matters is not the size of a country’s gross domestic product or the number of warheads or patents it may possess, but the variables that truly capture its citizens’ physical and intellectual well-being. These variables are simply life, death, and knowledge.
Infant mortality is an excellent proxy for a wide range of conditions, including income, quality of housing, nutrition, education, and investment in healthcare. Very few babies die in those affluent countries where people live in good housing and where well-educated parents (themselves well nourished) feed their children properly and have access to medical care. So how does the United States rank among the world’s roughly 200 nations? The latest available comparison shows that with 6 of every 1,000 live-born babies dying in the first year of life, the US does not figure among the top 25 nations. Its infant mortality is far higher than in France (4), Germany (3), and Japan (2). And the US rate was 50 percent higher than in Greece (4), a country portrayed in the press as an utter basket case ever since the financial crisis.
Excusing that very poor rating by saying that the European countries have homogeneous populations does not work: modern France and Germany are full of recent immigrants (just spend some time in Marseille or Düsseldorf). What matters more is parental knowledge, good nutrition, the extent of economic inequality, and access to universal healthcare, the United States being (notoriously) the only modern affluent country without the latter. And looking at the journey’s end gives an almost identically poor result: recent US life expectancy (nearly 79 years for both sexes) does not even rank among the top two dozen countries worldwide, and is—again—behind Greece (about 81), as well as South Korea (nearly 83). Canadians live more than three years longer on average and Japanese (about 84) nearly six years longer as compared to their US counterparts. Educational achievements of US students (or a lack thereof) are scrutinized with every new edition of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The latest results (2018) for 15-year-olds show that, in math, the United States ranks just below Russia, Slovakia, and Spain, but far lower than Canada, Germany, and Japan. In science, US schoolchildren place just below the mean PISA score (497 versus 501); in reading, they are barely above it (498 versus 496)—and they are far behind all the populous, affluent Western nations. PISA, like any such study, has its weaknesses, but large differences in relative rankings are clear: there is not even a remote indication of any exceptional US educational achievements.
American readers might find these facts discomforting, but there is nothing arguable about them. In the United States, babies are more likely to die and high schoolers are less likely to learn than their counterparts in other affluent countries. Politicians may look far and wide for evidence of American exceptionalism, but they won’t find it in the numbers, where it matters.
Wind turbines are the most visible symbols of the quest for renewable electricity generation. And yet, although they exploit the wind, which is as free and as green as energy can be, the machines themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels. Large trucks bring steel and other raw materials to the site, earth-moving equipment beats a path to otherwise-inaccessible high ground, large cranes erect the structures—and all these machines burn diesel fuel. So do the freight trains and cargo ships that convey the materials needed for the production of cement, steel, and plastics. For a 5-megawatt turbine, the steel alone averages 150 tons for the reinforced concrete foundations, 250 tons for the rotor hubs and nacelles (which house the gearbox and generator), and 500 tons for the towers.
If wind-generated electricity were to supply 25 percent of global demand by 2030, then even with a high average capacity factor of 35 percent the aggregate installed wind power of about 2.5 terawatts would require roughly 450 million tons of steel. And that’s without counting the metal for towers, wires, and transformers for the new high-voltage transmission links that would be needed to connect it all to the grid. A lot of energy goes into making steel. Sintered or pelletized iron ore is smelted in blast furnaces, charged with coke made from coal, and receives infusions of powdered coal and natural gas. Pig iron (iron made in blast furnaces) is decarbonized in basic oxygen furnaces. Then steel goes through continuous casting processes (which turn molten steel directly into the rough shape of the final product). Steel used in turbine construction typically embodies about 35 gigajoules per ton. To make the steel required for wind turbines that might operate by 2030, you’d need fossil fuels equivalent to more than 600 million tons of coal. A 5-megawatt turbine has three roughly 60-meter-long airfoils, each weighing about 15 tons. They have light balsa or foam cores and outer laminations made mostly from glass-fiber-reinforced epoxy or polyester resins. The glass is made by melting silicon dioxide and other mineral oxides in furnaces fired by natural gas. The resins begin with ethylene derived from light hydrocarbons—most commonly the products of naphtha cracking, liquefied petroleum gas, or the ethane in natural gas.
The final fiber-reinforced composite embodies on the order of 170 gigajoules per ton. Therefore, to get 2.5 terawatts of installed wind power by 2030, we would need an aggregate rotor mass of about 23 million tons, incorporating the equivalent of about 90 million tons of crude oil. And when all is in place, the entire structure must be waterproofed with resins whose synthesis starts with ethylene. Yet another required oil product is lubricant, for the turbine gearboxes, which has to be changed periodically during the machine’s two-decade lifetime.
Undoubtedly, in less than a year a well-sited and well-built wind turbine will generate as much energy as it took to produce it. However, all of it will be in the form of intermittent electricity—while its production, installation, and maintenance remain critically dependent on specific fossil energies. Moreover, for most of these energies—coke for iron-ore smelting; coal and petroleum coke to fuel cement kilns; naphtha and natural gas as feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of plastics and the making of fiberglass; diesel fuel for ships, trucks, and construction machinery; lubricant for gearboxes—we have no non-fossil substitutes that would be readily available on the requisite large commercial scales. For a long time to come—until all energies used to produce wind turbines and photovoltaic cells come from renewable energy sources—modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels.
Modern Japan: rich on paper, but with cramped housing, long and crowded commutes, working hours stretching into the evenings, short holidays, still too many people smoking, and enormous pressure to conform in a traditionally hierarchical society. There is also the ever-present risk of major earthquakes and (in large parts of the country) volcanic eruptions, and the seasonal threat of massive typhoons and heat waves (not to mention living next to North Korea …). And yet, Japanese life expectancy at birth is higher than in any other nation. The latest numbers (females/males, for 2015–20, in years) are 87.5/81.3 for Japan, 86.1/80.6 for Spain, 85.4/79.4 for France, 82.9/ 79.4 for the UK, and 81.3/76.3 for the US. Even more remarkably, at age 80 a Japanese woman can now expect to live an additional 12 years, compared to 10 years in the US and 9.6 years in the UK.
Could unique genetics explain this? Most unlikely, as the islands had to be settled by migrants from the neighboring continent—and a recent study of fine-scale genetic structure and the evolution of the Japanese population confirms that the expected components of the ancestry profile come above all from the Korean and also from Han Chinese and Southeast Asian clusters. Maybe it is down to widespread and intense religious convictions—to mind over matter? But spirituality rather than religiosity might better describe the Japanese mindset, and there are no indications that such traditional beliefs are held more deeply there than in other populous nations with old cultural heritage.
Diet, then, should be the best explanation, but which part of it? Focusing on well-known national favorites is hardly helpful. Soy sauce (shōyu) is shared with a large part of continental Asia, from Myanmar to the Philippines, as is bean curd (tōfu) and, to a lesser extent, even nattō (another soybean-based, but fermented, foodstuff). Shades of color may differ, but Japanese green tea—ryokuchā or simply ochā, the less processed leaves of Camellia sinensis—came from China, which still produces and drinks most of it (although less in per capita terms). But food balance sheets (accounts of supply available at retail level and excluding food waste) show important differences in the macronutrient composition of the average Japanese, French, and American diets. Foods of animal origin supply 35 percent of all dietary energy in France and 27 percent in the US, but only 20 percent in Japan.
But this tilt toward a significantly more plant-based diet is less important than the share of food energy coming from fats (lipids, be they of plant or animal origin) and from sugar and other sweeteners. In both the US and France, dietary fat provides almost two times (1.8 to be exact) more food energy than in Japan, while Americans have at their daily disposal nearly 2.5 times more sugar and sweeteners (dominated in the US by high-fructose corn syrup) than the Japanese, with the multiple about 1.5 for France. Always keeping in mind that these are just broad statistical associations, not causal claims, we might conclude that through elimination of likely nutritional factors, we see lower fat and lower sugar intakes as possibly important co-determinants of longevity.
But these two relatively low intakes are a part of what I see as by far the most important explanatory factor, as Japan’s true exceptionalism: the country’s remarkably moderate average per capita food supply. While food balance sheets of virtually all affluent Western nations (be it the US or Spain, France or Germany) show a daily availability of 3,400–4,000 kilocalories per capita, the Japanese rate is now below 2,700 kilocalories, roughly 25 percent lower. Of course, actual average consumption cannot be at a 3,500-kilocalorie-per-day level (only hard-working, big-stature men might need that much), but even after an indefensibly high share of food waste, this high supply translates into excessive eating (and obesity).
In contrast, studies of actual food intakes show that the Japanese daily mean is now below 1,900 kilocalories, commensurate with age distribution and physical activity of the aging Japanese population. This means that perhaps the single most important explanation of Japan’s longevity primacy is quite simple: moderate overall food consumption, the habit expressed in just four kanji characters, 腹八分目 (hara hachi bun me, “belly eight parts [in ten] full”)—an ancient Confucian precept, and hence yet another import from China. But the Japanese, unlike the banqueting and food-wasting Chinese, actually do practice it.