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In this extract from her new book Elaine Graham-Leigh argues that food production and consumption is now a mainstream explanation for climate change - and part of shifting blame onto the poor

A Diet of Austerity

Elaine Graham-Leigh, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, (Zero, 2015) 250pp.

It is a familiar and depressing story: the poor blamed for poverty and more, for taking resources from everybody else.

When a £500-a-week benefit cap was introduced in April 2013 by Haringey Council in North London, one of the first local authorities in the UK to try it, ‘Susan’ and ‘Samantha’ decided to step forward and let the local benefit justice campaign highlight their cases. The details were shocking enough, showing the hardship people across the borough would be facing. For both, single mothers with a number of children, the effect of the cap was to leave them having to find money for their housing costs out of their already tight budgets.

As the benefit justice campaign explained to its supporters on its Facebook page, Susan, who has seven children, used to get £537 in benefits per week, plus £245 in housing benefit. The £500 cap took £282 away and left her with £245-worth of rent to find out of her £500 maximum benefits, and so £255 for everything else. That’s well below a minimum decent standard of living (the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that to get this, a single parent with three children would need £458 a week) and between eight people, works out at under £32 each for the week.

With facts like these, Susan and Samantha could have expected a sympathetic hearing from the campaign’s Facebook followers. Some did indeed agree that this was a disgraceful way for a rich country to treat its poorest citizens, but there were plenty of opposing views. ‘Does this woman with 4 kids and no income think that life is any different for those of us that fund her extravagant lifestyle choices?’ asked one commenter about Samantha.

'When there’s less money around we all have to make sacrifices. I do two jobs to keep my family afloat. I also have to pay towards the upkeep of her family. Sorry, but I want my family to come first. I work. Why did she have 4 kids when she has no income with which to support them? I am totally gobsmacked at her insistence that she must stay in one of the world’s most expensive cities at our expense, while we all have to make more and more sacrifices to fund her extravagances.'

The verdict on Susan, with her large family, was even worse (all spelling and ellipses in originals).

'If your on the dole and you cannot afford to have kids then u shouldnt be able to churn them out like no tomorrow.... Something needs to be done.... Up and down the country there are people churning them out just to get more money because they beleave the state owes them something, yet we see these people with drink, fags, tattoos etc etc.... Knock all that shite on the head for a start....
She should have kept her fucking legs together and got a job people like this make me sick.'

Unsurprisingly, both women were shocked by the vituperative response they received, and neither is now prepared to raise their heads above the parapet again. In part, of course, this story is simply illustrative of man’s web-based inhumanity to man, but it has also a wider significance as a demonstration of how far the idea of the deserving and the undeserving poor has got into people’s heads. It seems to be a common view that, as one of the Facebook commenters said:

'Those who maintain unhealthy lifestyle choices and do not seek to reign anything in, are the ones who do nothing to support the original arguement. Those who genuinely need the support, who have fallen on hard times, and are willing to contribute a bit of effort, without hesitation are the ones who deserve to be supported. The rest need to understand what ‘responsibility’ is!'

The ‘undeserving’ here are those who are perceived not to be willing to work, as Susan and Samantha were charged with being, but also those who have ‘unhealthy lifestyle choices’ through insufficient self-restraint; in other words, who eat and/or drink too much.

That benefit recipients are effectively being told to get off their fat behinds and work can seem so unremarkable that it’s easy to overlook its significance. There is a line from the crude abuse levelled at Susan and Samantha, through government austerity programmes, to a growing view of who is to blame for climate change and global hunger.

In the years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 ushered in the economic crisis, governments across the Western world have attempted to convince us that the problems have been caused by overspending, and that now we all have to sacrifice in order to get the economy back on track. Phrases like ‘tighten our belts’ and ‘balance the budget’ have been commonplace.

The idea is to make us equate the national budget with our personal finances, underlining the notion that the crisis of the system was the fault of individual consumers on a spending spree. This attempts to make the austerity agenda understandable: if ‘we’ have all overspent, it follows that ‘we’ have to cut back, whether that’s accepting job losses and pay freezes, sacrificing libraries or arts funding, or denying those on benefits luxuries like more bedrooms than the government thinks they need.

The hypocrisy of a government of multi-millionaires telling us that ‘we are all in this together’ is evident, but the argument was not developed solely to allow Tories to pose as men of the people. The idea that crises of the system are caused by the self-indulgence of individuals, and therefore can be solved by those individuals just changing their behaviour, has a long pedigree in green issues.

In this sense, those who attempt to blame economic crises on people who are perceived to have chosen to be a burden on the system are using a way of thinking which is already common in discussions about climate change. This is a view of climate change which sees it as arising primarily from individual behaviour; people ‘choosing’ high-emission lifestyles who therefore need to be cajoled out of them like people ‘choosing’ to have children while living on benefits.

The shelves of books advising people on how to reduce their personal carbon emissions might give the impression that this view of the causes of environmental destruction is hegemonic, but in fact its value has always been contested.

From a tactical perspective, an influential report, Weathercocks and Signposts, issued by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2008, argued that making small changes might not lead most people to go on to make more significant alterations to their lifestyles. For most, it suggested, the small changes might be all that they would do before they stopped, feeling that they had ‘done their bit’.1

Others have pointed out that while the ideology of capitalism maintains that the consumer is all-powerful, this is not necessarily true in practice: individuals have less power to change their own lifestyles, let alone the system in which they live, than these arguments would have it. With an interesting synchronicity, however, this view of ecological crisis as the product and responsibility of individual lifestyles was given new impetus just at the time that the economic system was lurching into crisis.

In September 2008, as Lehman Brothers were filing for bankruptcy, we learned that climate change was largely caused by that most individual of consumption choices: what we eat. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), argued in a lecture that livestock farming was such a problem for the climate that everyone should have one meat-free day a week, as a step towards cutting their meat consumption even further.2

These comments were essentially echoed by other authorities and were widely reported in the press, with headlines like ‘UN says eat less meat to curb global warming’,3 ‘Meat must be rationed to four portions a week’4 and ‘Government advisor: eat less meat to tackle climate change’.5

At the same time, the Food Climate Research Network issued what would prove to be a very influential report arguing that the food system in the UK was responsible for 19% of our greenhouse gas emissions. This was against the background of dramatic global food price rises, which led to demonstrations and riots in countries from El Salvador to Indonesia as people protested at the cost of staple goods soaring beyond their reach.

Undoubtedly, this contributed to a general sense of a food crisis; the idea that the world had arrived at the point where environ- mental depredation had finally meant that we lacked the ability to feed everyone.

The effect of this was to place the idea of food production as a significant problem, if not the most significant contribution to ecological crisis, firmly within the mainstream. It has not proved a flash in the pan; that food is a major climate change issue is now a given in much of the media.


1. Weathercocks and Signposts. The environmental movement at a crossroads, (World Wildlife Fund, April 2008).

2. www.ciwf.org.uk - Lecture calls for dietary change

3. The Observer, 7th September 2008

4. The Guardian, 30th September 2008

5. The Telegraph, 15th October 2008

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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