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How the working class is blamed for the world’s ills: The final extract from Elaine Graham-Leigh's new book, A Diet of Austerity: Class Food and Climate Change

A Diet of Austerity

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

There is one statistic which for many people sums up everything that is wrong with the West and our food consumption: that across the world, a billion people are starving while another billion are overweight. As might be expected for such a clear and popular idea, the figures change slightly depending on the source: Raj Patel, for example, begins his popular Stuffed and Starved with ‘the hunger of the 800 million’ and ‘another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight’,13 while in some recent iterations, the numbers of the overconsumers have increased to two billion.14 Regardless of the precise scale, the idea of the billion versus the billion is so widely repeated that it appears an almost compulsory beginning for commentary on the problems of the modern food system.15

The striking juxtaposition contains a number of assumptions, which can be more or less clear but nevertheless are always there. The first key assumption is that food supplies, whether as a result of climate change and environmental degradation, or simply because the planet is finite, are sufficient but limited. There is enough for everyone but for everyone who overconsumes, someone else has to get by on less to make up for it. This was expressed clearly in 1999 by Thomas Princen in one of the earliest versions of the idea: ‘the overconsumption of the billion or so who consume far more than their basic needs and, it is reasonable to assume, contribute directly or indirectly to the underconsumption of the impoverished billion’.16

Princen was not necessarily only thinking about food here (this will be discussed further in the next chapter), but later iterations are clearly considering eating and drinking to the exclusion of other sorts of consumption. Patel’s reference to a billion people being overweight makes clear that the overconsumption under discussion is overconsumption of food. This is not a lone example. The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, for example, talked in their 2011 report on food security about overconsumption in general in their introductory remarks, but substantiated this on the following page with a table showing 0.9 billion undernourished people in the world and 1.5 billion people over the age of twenty who were overweight.17

The second assumption is that this is a matter of individual behaviour. In other words, if the developed world is overconsuming food, to the detriment of the developing world, this is caused by, and essentially the same as, individuals overconsuming. Thus, for example, a 2008 study on reducing fossil fuel inputs in food came to the decided – and according to EScience News ‘very astute’ – conclusion that the most important thing that individuals could do to help deal with problems of food and climate change would be to eat less.18 Since the article used the figure for the US food production per head (here 3,747 calories) as the amount of food consumed, this is perhaps not surprising, although it is worth noting that not all food produced is necessarily eaten.19 On one level this may seem obvious – no one, after all, is being force-fed – but in fact it goes to one of the core beliefs of neo-liberal economics: that the motor of everything in society is the choices made by consumers in the market. The problems of food production, and inequalities of food distribution, are caused ultimately by the purchasing decisions of individuals, and the companies involved would change their ways if those consumers demanded differently.

Since it is obvious that individual consumers do not have a completely free choice of what they spend their money on, uninfluenced by the persuasive efforts of the businesses hoping to receive their custom, this has become the theory of the obesegenic society. On one side, this is a recognition that there are factors other than greed behind individuals’ food choices. A 2013 version of the billion versus the billion, for example, contrasted ‘the thin and the fat’ as exemplified by a Pakistani peasant farmer and a Canadian university student who put on weight because of the limited options available to her in her college cafeteria.20

Other criticisms of Western eating practices highlight the efforts of food manufacturers and supermarkets to entice us into buying food we don’t ‘really need’,21 or simply blame the sheer avail- ability of food. For some, it is apparently ‘the availability of relatively inexpensive and highly palatable foods in almost unlimited abundance’ which leads ‘affected individuals [to] eat many times a day and consume large portions’.22 ‘Overconsumption of food’ apparently ‘is part and parcel of a society in which consumption and consuming is its raison d’être’.23

These insights do not, however, remove the responsibility from individuals for their food consumption. It is noticeable that the same writers who identify the efforts of the food industry to maximise sales as important are also those whose main conclusions are around ways to eat less, whether that is advice to switch to a daily shopping trip on foot with a rucksack24 or calls for a paradigm shift in our food preferences, ‘a form of personal perestroika’.25

The assumption that issues of food come down to individual food consumption choices remains paramount, and understanding the ways in which the system may encourage fatness only gives greater urgency to the message that individuals must make their own efforts to become thin. Indeed, the obesegenic environment itself has become for some another stick to beat fat people with, as shown particularly starkly in a well-known 2007 article called ‘Fat Bastards’, in which fat people became proxies for all aspects of Western overconsumption and appropriation of global resources: ‘living metaphors for the way the United States is viewed by much of the rest of the planet: a rapacious, gluttonous, insatiable nation of swine... wallowing in the mud of our laziness and indifference’.26

This leads neatly on to the third assumption underlying discussions of problems of the global food system: that if it comes down to an issue of individual food consumption, then we can tell who the guilty parties are, since they are the ones who are fat. The elision of the difference between identifying an obesegenic environment and blaming fat people, and only fat people, for the problems caused by the factors which create it is such an obvious one that it is often possible to wonder if in some arguments it isn’t subconscious. It does however make a significant difference. An argument which says that the production of large amounts of nutrient-poor, energy-dense food in the West is problematic for food consumption worldwide and for the climate (and has a tendency to make some individuals become fatter than they would otherwise be) is a world away from one which says that regardless of the interests vested in that pattern of food production and consumption, the responsibility lies only with those people who become fat because of it.


13. Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved. Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, (Portobello Books, London 2007), p.1.

14. See for example A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, Hungry for Change. Farmers, Food Justice and the Agrarian Question, 193 June 2007. A Diet of Austerity (Fernwood Publishing, Halifax and Winnipeg 2013), p.4.

15. See for example Colin Tudge, Feeding People is Easy, (Pari, Italy 2007), p.10; and Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change, Commission on Food Security and Climate Change (2011), p.3.

16. Thomas Princen, ‘Consumption and Environment: SomeConceptual Issues’, Ecological Economics 31 (1999), pp.347-63, p.348.

17. Achieving Food Security, p.4.

18. D Pimental et al., ‘Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System’, Human Ecology 36, no.4 (August 2008), pp.459-71, reviewed at www.esciencenews.com

19. The US average food availability per head is sometimes given as 3,774kcal, for example by Gideon Eshel and Pamela Martin (‘Diet, Energy and Global Warming’, Earth Interactions 10, (March 2006), pp.1-17, p.2), to which Pimental’s figure of 3,747kcal seems remarkably similar.

20. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, Hungry for Change, pp.4-26.

21. See for example Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards, The Energy Glut. Climate Change and the Politics of Fatness, (Zed Books, London and New York 2010), esp. pp.48-65.

22. C Bouchard and S N Blair, ‘Introductory comments for the consensus on physical activity and obesity’, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 31, 11, section 4, pp.98-501,p.499.

23. Tara Garnett, Cooking up a Storm. Food, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and our Changing Climate, (Food Climate Research Network, Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, 2008), p.111.

24. Roberts with Edwards, Energy Glut, pp.136-8.

25. Akram-Lodhi, Hungry for Change, p.167.

26. Jamie O’Neill, ‘Fat Bastards’, Sacramento News Review, 28th

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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