Serving up a super-sized coincidence

Elaine Helm

Nothing says Earth Day like a giant pair of golden arches.

That’s clearly not the theory behind the flashy 24,000-square-foot fast food joint that opened Friday in downtown Chicago. But with the holiday following just one week after, the coincidence is striking.

McDonald’s built the new store to replace its flagship restaurant, known as the “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s” due to its retro decor. What was wrong with the old building? Nothing.

McDonald’s, founded in nearby Des Plaines, just wanted to generate some publicity for its 50th anniversary celebration.

So the company tore down the classy, historic Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s to make way for a super-sized, glass and steel version with greater capacity for the legions of tourists expected to visit each year.

It’s all in the name of progress and profit. The new building, open 24 hours a day, seats as many as 300 customers and features the fast food behemoth’s first ever two-lane drive-through. (Evanston would never stand for such a monstrosity within its borders.)

Nevermind the arguments raised in the hit documentary “Supersize Me” and the best-selling book “Fast Food Nation” about health concerns for generations of Americans raised on fast food. Chicago’s new McDonald’s symbolizes the waste and excess we have grown accustomed to and even celebrated in the United States.

If everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average American, we would need 5.3 Earth-like planets to support us all, according to That oft-cited but still startling fact gains more resonance than ever with the 35th annual observation of Earth Day on Friday.

One week after celebrating the opening of the new ode to Ray Kroc’s hamburger haven, political leaders and school teachers throughout the Chicago area probably will celebrate Earth Day by espousing the idea that we all should waste less and recycle more.

The two occasions, though close in time, couldn’t be further apart in principle.

Recommendations by environmental organizations for a sustainable future include: eat less meat (there go the burgers), drive a fuel-efficient vehicle (at least it will take up less space at the drive-through) and avoid purchasing disposable items with lots of packaging (try juggling an Extra Value meal without wrappers, bags or a plastic straw).

I’m not planning to give up meat anytime soon. Still, some of the recommendations aren’t too far-fetched.

Sure, they require adjustments and maybe even slight inconveniences for the sake of some fuzzy idea of an environment in peril. But it’s time to think beyond our immediate surroundings and realize that our actions here in suburban Chicago impact people all over the world.

We cannot continue to glorify things like a huge McDonald’s restaurant and claim to care about a global community-at-large. Change must start somewhere.

Elaine Helm is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]