Apathy: The Power of Doing Nothing

“We have to do something” is a go-to phrase that movie characters seem to exclaim whenever a crisis arises, and it has shown up everywhere from Office Space to The Hobbit.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously stated that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis preserve their neutrality” (Dante).  The idea behind these is that we should all do our best to combat evil, since if no one tries to stop the forces of evil and solve the problems in the world, the problems will continue to grow.

However, apathy, the practice of neither caring nor doing anything, can greatly improve the lives of people who practice it, and a greater appreciation for apathy would have a positive impact on our society.  Modern-day people have been conditioned with the “we have to do something” mentality, but in many cases this mentality has had great negative impacts on the world.  Of course, apathy needs to be practiced in moderation, since sometimes you really do need to do something, but there are many situations in which people should not try to fix problems.  The reasons for this can range from incompetency (the inability to solve the problem) to the problem not actually existing.  The production and consumption of food is one of many areas in which the two sides of this issue can be seen.

Michael Pollan, a journalist, author, and professor at UC Berkeley, wrote about the needlessly complex thought and effort that has gone into food in his 2008 book In Defense of Food.  Pollan describes the rise of what he calls nutritionism, which is the mindset in which food is viewed as a collection of nutrients rather than as a whole.  This may sound strange—after all, a steak is a steak, right?—but in truth is something that is incredibly visible in Western culture.  For example, look at this package of Oreos:


The packaging for these Oreos advertises that each pack has 100 calories, 2 grams of fats, and no cholesterol or trans fats.  Given these facts, these Oreos might even seem healthy.  However, obviously, these are Oreos we’re talking about—without these numbers, no one in their right mind would think that they were healthy.  According to Pollan, this is a major problem with nutritionism: thanks to modern science, almost any food can be made to seem healthy, since scientists can prove that the food either has an important nutrient or show that it lacks something negative (Pollan), like how those Oreos have neither cholesterol nor trans fats.  Because of this, caring about nutrition leads people to actually eat less healthy food, and the culture of nutritionism has led to companies producing less healthy food (Pollan).  Therefore, caring about nutrition and putting in effort to eat more nutritious food has resulted in the opposite of the goal to become the case, and being apathetic towards nutrition actually results in health benefits.

The importance of apathy towards food does not end at a personal level.  The United States government has tried to get Americans to eat healthier diets, but according to Pollan, it has actually done the opposite.  For example, the government responded to the “lipid hypothesis,” the theory that fat consumption leads to higher risks of heart disease, by recommending people to eat more low-fat food (Pollan).  Although this seems like a good idea—after all, eating low-fat foods means eating less fat and therefore lowering the chances of heart disease—it actually ended up raising total caloric intake in the average American diet, since the recommendation was for people to eat more low-fat food, rather than recommending for people to eat less fat (Pollan).  The reason the government was unable to recommend people to eat less fat is also due to financial backing from the meat industry, especially beef (Pollan).  On top of this, the lipid hypothesis has actually been disproven in the past few years (Pollan).

The government tried to reduce the incidences of heart disease by trying to lower the amount of fat that Americans consumed, but ended up failing to lower fat consumption, and even if they had succeeded at lowering fat consumption the goal of lowering heart disease would not have been achieved.  The key word here is “try.”  By trying to change the way things were, the government actually had a negative impact on society (because they caused Americans to eat more food).  If the government had remained apathetic, and allowed Americans to figure out their own diets rather than giving them recommendations, things would have stayed the same, with Americans eating higher amounts of fatty foods, but fewer calories.  Since the lipid hypothesis was disproven, but it has been proven that higher-calorie diets lead to obesity, it’s safe to say that things would have turned out better if the government had remained apathetic with regards to the diets of Americans.

As I said before, apathy is not a one-size-fits-all mentality.  On the subject of food, there are problems that people are trying to solve regarding modern food culture other than nutrition.  One of these is animal cruelty, and the ethics of factory farming.  In his book Eating Animals, novelist Jonathon Saffron Foer investigated the factory farming industry.  Factory farming is the practice of using modern technology and techniques to produce livestock.  These practices include the use of hormones, antibiotics, and high-density farming to increase meat output.  The most powerful opponent to the factory farming industry is PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which has had significant effects on the factory farming industry, such as limiting the number of chickens that can be kept per cage (Foer).  PETA has done this through a range of controversial tactics ranging from protests to handing buckets of fake blood and bones to children outside of KFC (Foer).  Although these tactics have caused PETA to gain a very negative reputation among the American public, they have been successful in achieving many goals and limiting many problems in the factory farming industry, as well as other areas of animal cruelty (Foer).  This is an example of when apathy might not be the best option: if PETA did not intervene in factory farming, it is likely that there would be less strict regulations regarding factory farming.  The “we have to do something” mentality has its applications, but not everyone is able to make progress like PETA has.  Breaking free of this mentality and using logic rather than instinct will be key in solving the world’s problems, rather than creating even more problems.



Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

Horton, Scott. “Dante.” Harpers Magazine. Harpers Magazine, 17 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 June 2014.

“Nabisco Oreo Crisps 100 Calorie Pack.” Zanda. Zanda, n.d. Web. 12 June 2014.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

“Understanding Apathetic Atheists.” Atheist Revolution. Atheist Revolution, 21 June 2010. Web. 12 June 2014.


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