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  • Published in Book Reviews

A Diet of Austerity argues that to fight climate change, we need system change, and the blame must not be shifted onto individuals, finds Orlando Hill

A diet of austerity

Elaine Graham-Leigh, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change (Zero Books 2015), 235pp.

If you’re fat; it’s your fault. It’s down to you, and the decisions you make, the lifestyle you choose. The only thing the government can do is nudge people in the right direction; inform them so that they can make the decisions that will lead them to healthier diets and exercise. The obesity crisis has been caused by the self-indulgence of individuals and ultimately can only be solved by individuals changing their behaviour. This seems to be common sense.

The same argument can be used in the discussion of climate change. Climate change is caused by our insistence on flying to sunny destinations for holidays and eating a typical Western diet high in fat, sugar and red meat. Even the debt crisis was caused by our individual choices. We have over spent; lived beyond our means and now we have to tighten our belts. Austerity policies are just necessary. We have to balance the books so that we can once again learn to live within our means.

Elaine Graham-Leigh, a member of Counterfire, disputes this narrative in her book A Diet of Austerity. Obesity, climate change and the debt crisis cannot be blamed on the choices made by the individual. The initial problem with this narrative is the idea that corporations simply respond to the demand of the consumer. Ultimately it is the consumers fault. As any sixth-former revising for her ‘A’ level exam can tell you ‘in a market economy consumers are sovereign’.

However, this myth peddled by what John Weeks describes as econfakers bears very little relation to reality. If it were, businesses would not pour millions into marketing their products. The shift to a western diet (heavily dependent on resources) in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s was driven by ‘both Western corporations wish to expand their markets and by Japanese reformers who associated Westernness with national pride and success’ (p.55). Even the high beef consumption in a typical US diet is not accidental, but represents a shift from pork to beef encouraged by beef producers and grain companies. Cattle feed is such a profitable destination for grain production that since the 1950s there has been a concerted effort to increase beef consumption. ‘Consumers may have felt that they were making a free choice to eat hamburgers, but there was in fact a concerted effort to encourage them to do so’ (p.56). Could the spread of fried-chicken shops in urban centres also have the same explanation? After all, poultry consumes a lot of grain.

Overconsumption is a class issue. It is the overconsumption of the working class that is the problem, according to our rulers. Whenever there is an article in the media about the ‘obesity crisis’ the same headless images of people wearing joggers are used. You hardly ever see a fat person in a suit on their way to work in the city. These headless people in joggers are usually walking down inner-city streets. In a capitalist economy workers are viewed simply as units of labour. They should be frugal, consume only what is necessary for the reproduction of their labour and even save up so that they can be responsible for their own wear and tear. It is their unattainable desire for ‘luxury’ goods that causes problems such as obesity and climate change. We live in a finite planet and not everyone can have the same consumption pattern as a Westerner, goes the mantra.

Although it might be true that we live on a finite planet with limited natural resources, how close we are to this limit is the question. According to the IMF, food demand is likely to outstrip supply by 2080, while other sources predict that there would be enough food supply even if the population were to double (p.130). The question is not whether there is enough resources for all the people on this planet to lead a healthy and prosperous life, but if there is enough for the capitalist system to carry on. The limit is not imposed by the physical aspect, but by the social and economic system adopted. This raises questions of land ownership, property rights and what is the main aim of food production in a capitalist system. Food production which used to be carried out by small, independent producers is now dominated by large-scale capitalist enterprises which rely heavily on the use of fertilisers, pesticides and mechanisation. ‘It is precisely these elements which would need to be reduced, if not eliminated, in the shift to a more sustainable agriculture’ (p.170). This would be difficult, if not impossible, to dismantle under capitalism.

The book discusses possible alternatives from Cuba and Venezuela to Amish farming methods and urban collectives in Ontario. This book is crucial reading for anyone who has an interest in climate change. The problem of climate change can only be resolved if capitalism is challenged. Anyone who is thinking that it is fine to support a conservative green candidate in London’s mayoral election must read this book. It is not simply by persuading people to change their diets or behaviour that we will save this planet.

Elaine Graham-Leigh will be speaking at the official launch of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change at Housemans bookshop (scroll down), free registration online here, on June 13th at 6:30pm.

Orlando Hill

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches GCSE and A level Economics and Business Studies. He is a member of the NUT, Counterfire and Stop the War.

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