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Casting food choices as a major cause of climate change may provide another justification for cuts explains Elaine Graham-Leigh in this extract from A Diet of Austerity

A Diet of Austerity

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

In the first extract from 'Diet of Austerity', it was shown how food production and consumption had become a major mainstream explanation for climate change, shifting blame from the system in general to the consumption of individuals, particularly the poor.

It’s difficult to over-stress just how marked a shift, in such a short time, this is, elevating one area of modern production to centre-stage from its previous peripheral role. So minor was food’s contribution to climate change previously considered to be, compared to areas like power generation or transport, that comprehensive works like George Monbiot’s Heat (2006)6 or Jonathan Neale’s Stop Global Warming. Change the World (2008)7 scarcely accord it a mention. Even a work devoted to individual lifestyle changes, like Chris Goodall’s How to Live a Low-Carbon Life (2007), keeps the question of emissions reductions from dietary changes to sixteen pages, after the chapters on heating, lighting, household appliances, cars, public transport and aviation.8

In many ways, of course, the addition of food production to our understanding of climate change problems is both good and inevitable. As scientists gain more and more understanding of how the immensely complex climate mechanisms work, and how human activity is affecting them, what we have to do in mitigation and minimisation will change. Ultimately, however, climate change is a political problem as much as it is a scientific and technical one. The task is not simply to identify how we are damaging the climate, or to invent technical fixes for it, but to make structural changes which will enable us to implement specific solutions and construct a different relationship with the natural world. This is an intensely political challenge, and it means that new revelations, like that of the contribution of food to greenhouse gas emissions, are not simply objective, scientific facts but arguments with significance for the sort of solutions for climate change we call for and the sort of society we want to build.

In the first place, we have to be aware that food is a morally-loaded category in a way not shared by any other climate change villain. Considerations of the food system are replete with comments like this one from the Soil Association’s 2010 report on the food crisis: ‘Eating is a primal, physical act, but it is also a moral one. It reflects who we are – our character, our values and our ethics’.9 Aside from the climate implications, there is little morality associated with power use or even with car use: we don’t judge anyone’s worth according to how they heat their house, and do so according to their SUV ownership principally for climate change reasons. However, what we eat is associated with ideas about our value as people.

Eating healthily, however that is understood, is frequently presented as a moral good, as an example of virtuous, responsible behaviour. The concomitant is that eating unhealthily is perceived as a moral failure, along with obesity as visual evidence of this guilt. The understanding that different foods make a significant contribution to climate change fits into this already-established moral framework for eating, so that, as the BBC News website once had it, ‘Obese blamed for the world’s ills’.10

Proponents of dietary change as a response to climate change are clearly aware of this: in 2009, for example, Lord Stern predicted that meat-eating would become morally unacceptable because of its effect on the climate, in the same way that drink-driving was once regarded as a foible and has now become a crime.11

Concerns about obesity coupled with the moral loading of food choices mean that the role of government and other authorities in hectoring people about diet is well-established. Outside of climate concerns we do not expect to be lectured about our transport choices, but we are told what we should and shouldn’t eat on a daily basis.

One immediate effect of this is that a greater prominence of food in climate change campaigning casts individual lifestyle changes, as opposed to changes at the level of the system, as most important. So in the 2008 coverage of the food and climate change issue, it was clear that if food production was the problem, a dietary shift away from meat was the solution.

To a degree, it could be argued that this was a media creation. Media coverage will seize on the most populist angle, and it is not surprising that the press would think that the idea that people would be expected to change what they eat would sell more papers than a headline about reform of farming practices. But the concentration on dietary shifts did emanate from the original material, however much it was seized on in the media coverage. Indeed, in November 2008, Rajendra Pachauri teamed up with Paul McCartney to write to The Independent that becoming vegetarian would be ‘the single most effective act’ that anyone could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.12

The discovery of diet as a cause of climate change gives a fillip to the notion of sacrifice for the sake of the climate. It is probably fair to say that the notion that we will have to sacrifice our Western living standards to address climate change is a truism for much of the green movement, whether this is achieved through individuals choosing to change their lifestyles or through system change in which such sacrifices would be mandated.

The concept of different foods as sinful pleasures is so ingrained into our thinking about food in general that the conclusion that we will all have to sacrifice our current diets seems to have been an easy one to reach. It’s notable that in much of the discussion of food and its impact on the climate, what is characterised as a typical Western diet (high in fat and sugar, lots of junk food, lots of red meat) is viewed as both uniquely bad for the climate and uniquely desirable. There is an underlying assumption that everyone in the world would eat this way if they were able to; but such is its power to damage the climate that actually, no one should.

This matters because the notion of sacrifice goes to the heart of the matter. There is a long-standing tradition, going back to the post-Second World War period, of identifying Western overconsumption as a serious problem for the world, even before the reality of climate change was understood. The idea of sacrifice in climate change is often seen in terms of luxury consumption driven by advertising – yes, we don’t want to immiserate people, but we all buy high-end electrical goods that we don’t really need, right? However, an analysis of how food works within the overconsumption discussion reveals that it has a distinct effect on the class identification of those who are deemed to be overconsuming.

Another extremely important development in campaigning on climate change has been the emergence of the idea of climate justice. The idea that Westerners have to sacrifice to stop climate change is often seen as part of this justice agenda, on the grounds that we are taking more than our fair share of the world’s resources and leaving the poorest people in the world to deal with the consequences of our consumption. There is a lot in this argument, and I would not for one moment wish to minimise the sincere commitment of people in the green movement to justice and fairness. However, the question of who sacrifices and what they have to sacrifice is a key one.

David Cameron’s ‘we’re all in this together’ hides an austerity agenda deliberately focused on attacking the poorest and most vulnerable in order to protect the wealth of the richest. In the same way, the notion that everyone in the rich West is guilty of overconsumption and can comfortably sacrifice conceals enormous differences between those promulgating the argument and those who are being expected to change. The necessity of tackling climate change can be used to justify attacks on ordinary people, if it’s their consumption which is defined as problematic. Climate justice and sacrifice, as revealed by the food issue, may not be compatible.

At a time when working people are under attack from the government’s austerity agenda, the danger is real that casting food choices as a major cause of climate change provides another layer of justification for cuts. The focus on food as an issue for climate change must be seen in the context of longstanding arguments about the malign effects of overconsumption, both on the planet and on individuals, which have themselves become increasingly focused on edible as opposed to luxury consumption. This has the effect of shifting the identification of the overconsumers from the rich to the working class, since obesity is overwhelmingly identified as a problem of the poorest people in the West. We are back, it seems, with Malthus’ idea that the problems of the world are caused by the appetites of the poor.

Part of the Malthusian view of the world is the fear that we are at the limit of the planet’s carrying capacity: that whether because of greed inherent in human nature or simply because of numbers, there are now too many people for us all to be fed. On the contrary, I argue that it is capitalism, not the human population, which is straining the natural limits of production.

The situation with capitalist production tells us very little about what production under a different system might look like, but we can be confident that without the wastefulness and inequality which are part of capitalism’s makeup, our ability to feed the world’s population decently and fairly would be greatly increased. It is not particularly helpful, however, to opine about how much better off we would be in a non-capitalist system without some suggestion about how we might get there. I conclude therefore with some consideration of the environmental movement and how people who care about climate change and justice can best fight back against the system we face.


8. Chris Goodall, How to Live a Low-Carbon Life. The Individual’s Guide to Stopping Climate Change, (Earthscan, London- Sterling VA 2007), pp.230-46.

9. Pat Thomas, Stuffed. Positive Action to Prevent a Global Food Crisis, (Soil Association 2010), p.143.

10. news.bbc.co.uk, 16th May 2008.

11. guardian.co.uk

12. ‘Turn veggie to save planet, says Sir Paul’, The Independent, 29th November 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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