Is excess American body fat a potential energy resource? Plus: why is prostitution called the oldest profession?

February 24, 2012

Dear Cecil:

With the population of the United States growing ever more obese and oil becoming scarcer, I wonder if the government has started taking into account the energy its population is storing in body fat. Hypothetically, how much would this add to the nation's energy reserves?

Cecil replies:

John, you know I admire outside-the-box thinking, and this is about as out there as it gets. We’ll ignore the queasy question of how you’d go about mining this unexploited resource and instead focus on just how much there is. Answer: a lot.

According to a much-quoted 2009 press briefing from the Centers for Disease Control, American adults collectively are hauling around at least 4.6 billion extra pounds of fat. That’s the equivalent of four trillion BTUs of energy — an impressive number, but what does it mean in practical terms? The following may give a sense. The same amount of energy would be contained in:

  • 700,000 barrels of crude oil, or
  • 35 million gallons of gasoline, or
  • nearly 15 freight trains loaded with coal. (I’m telling you, my assistant Una went nuts with the spreadsheet on this.)

Still not grasping the magnitude of the thing? Let’s try this. If you could magically liposuction out all of that 4.6 billion pounds of extra fat, it would make a cube 150 feet on a side of quivering yellow … OK, not the best visual. But consider:

  • If Americans’ excess body fat could be converted into something suitable for the solid rocket boosters of the now-retired space shuttle, it could have powered all 135 launches, with enough left for a few more missions after that.
  • You could deep-fry more than 83 billion large orders of McDonald’s fries in it.
  • Alternatively, come Thanksgiving, you could deep-fry about 25 million turkeys simultaneously, and who wouldn’t love to do that?

However, let’s be realistic. Would excess U.S. body fat, if harvested in a caring and noninvasive manner from free-range livestock, add significantly to the nation’s energy reserves? It’s at this point that one national crisis collides with another: the answer, sadly, is no. Those four trillion BTUs would satisfy the country’s staggering energy appetite for just 53 minutes. Which I guess shows that while we love our French fries and whatnot, we love our SUVs a lot more.

Dear Cecil:

Why is prostitution called "the oldest profession"? Under both of the definitions of profession I know, there’s no chance prostitution could be the oldest, these being (1) "an occupation requiring extensive education in science or the liberal arts" and (2) "a way of making a living." Since I know of no university programs in Prostitution: Theory and Practice or Hustling 101, I’ve discounted the first definition. Under the second, prostitution is certainly a profession, but I can't see how it could be the oldest. I have always assumed the oldest way of making a living, older than H. sapiens itself, was hunting and gathering. Is humanity actually descended from a race of hookers, or is there a nonreligious definition of profession I’m missing?

Cecil replies:

Boris, relax. It’s a joke. One might have guessed this, but for the details I turned to Barry Popik, chairman of the Straight Dope philology department. He responded with a new post to his word-origins blog, at barrypopik.com. Based on this we construct the following account:

1. The originator of the notion of prostitution as the oldest profession was Rudyard Kipling. His 1888 short story “On the City Wall” begins: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. … In the West, people say rude things of Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved.” Lalun is, of course, a hooker.

2. Kipling, as is the wont of authors, wasn’t offering a learned insight into the labor markets of antiquity but rather making a quip.

3. It was, however, a quip with legs. Previously the oldest profession was generally considered to be farming. For example, Popik notes, in 1883 the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald proclaimed, “In fact agriculture is the first and best as well as the oldest profession.” This is defensibly true but hardly a remark to draw appreciative chuckles when told over cigars at the club.

Once Kipling had nominated prostitution for the honor, it immediately chased agriculture from the field and inspired numerous droll variations. For example, in 1922 theater critic Alexander Woollcott recounted a joke about an actor and a streetwalker with the punch line “The two oldest professions in the world — ruined by amateurs.” Ronald Reagan in more recent times declared politics to be the second oldest profession.

After the grins fade, Boris, you’re welcome to argue that really agriculture is the oldest profession. However, if you think facts are going to trump entertainment value — well, good luck with that.

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References

Finkelstein, Eric A. et al. “AnnualMedical Spending Attributable To Obesity: Payer- And Service-Specific Estimates” 2009 Project HOPE–The People-to-People Health Foundation, Inc.

Frieden, Thomas. Presented at Weight of the Nation Conference; July 27-29, 2009; Washington, D.C.  

McDonald's Nutrition Guide: http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/nutritionexchange/nutritionfacts.pdf

Popik, Barry "The Big Apple: Oldest Profession" December 19, 2011 http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/oldest_profession_prostitution/ Accessed December 22, 2011.

UEITP - European Association of Potato Processing Industry. Factors that affect fat uptake during French fries production. De Meulenaer, Bruno and Van Camp, John, Ghent University, Dept. Food Safety and Food Quality, Research group Food Chemistry and Human Nutrition.

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