The noun want used to mean need. Want was life or death stuff, as in “the baby wants feeding.” Now, want has flipped 180 degrees to imply an arbitrary and even whimsical desire, unfettered by need, significance, or logic. At the same time, and perhaps even because our wanting has become so willful, human beings have grown insatiable. The more we get, it seems, the more we want, as though desire itself is the thing we cannot forgo. As though, even cocooned by layers of brimming superfluity, we must want or perish. Welcome to Blubberland.

Aerial photo of Universal Studios
Photo © Alex S. Maclean
Aerial photo of Universal Studios, with pedestrian walks and amusement rides, Orlando, Florida, 1999.

Blubber is unused energy, neither good nor bad in itself but aquiver with potential. Blubber is whale oil for the lamps on long winter nights. It is the egg’s white, the fruit’s flesh, the yeasty bounce of a baby’s thigh designed to sustain life through cold and famine. Blubber is anything spare or surplus. It’s a gazebo, or the aedicule or porch that adds to a building nothing but graciousness; the purposeless energy of birdsong that is neither mating call nor warning call but pure, simple pleasure; the spare time in the day, or in the tribal calendar, that makes space for creative play. Blubber, in this sense, is the crack where the light gets in.

An anatomy of blubber

Blubber is also the very opposite of that crack admitting light: It is the idealized fantasy life of the virtual-reality addict, home alone with a flickering screen in a darkened room. It is the six-car McMansion, uninhabitable without air-conditioning because gilt and marble sell better than eaves and insulation—but equipped nonetheless with a home theater, a swimming pool, and a bedroom suite for every child. It is the neurotic shopaholic dreaming of ever bigger and more perfect dwellings just to house all his stuff. It is the terrifying spread of such cravings from Beverly Hills, Sydney, and Johannesburg to the newly emblubbered bourgeoisie of Beijing and Mumbai.

Blubber is the world of vast, glittering malls and dreary look-at-me suburbs interspersed with limitless acreage of concrete, asphalt, and billboards that we train ourselves not to see. It is terrified women with silicone breasts and plastic relationships locked into the fearful luxury of gated communities, dead-hearted towns replete with their burger joints. It is the hubris of the presumed universal (but me-based) right-to-happiness. All this, less a state of body than of mind, is Blubberland.

What’s the crucial difference between good blubber and bad blubber? In part, it’s a question of degree. As with sunshine or chocolate, so with surfeit. Some is good, but too much superfluous superfluity is, well, too much.

Humanism or hubris

Too much converts blubber’s protective layer into an embalming shroud. But it’s also a question of attitude, found in the differences between hope and expectation or a blessing and a right. This shift, which you might see as the triumph of either humanism or hubris, has the surprising effect of blinding us to our own core construct— significance.

So where once a desperately needed harvest or successful hunt was imbued, by its very rarity, with deepest significance (not to mention a certain thankful humility), our habituation to excess robs us of the very sense of meaning that we so urgently crave. Blubber-rich but meaning-poor, we are increasingly incapable of using our blubber to create a better world, increasingly bent on using it to dig our own graves.