The central argument of this book is that obesity and climate change, far from being separate ills afflicting twenty-first-century society, are twin facets of modern capitalism’s dysfunctional relationship with fossil fuels.
Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards, The Energy Glut: Climate Change and the Politics of Fatness (Zed Books 2010), 182pp.
Roberts and Edwards are not the first to consider this connection; from academic articles attempting to show that obese people cause climate change to the use of dieting language and imagery to promote low carbon activity, (see http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/01/13/guest-post-environmentalism-using-obesity-metaphors/ for a US example) obesity and climate change are more and more frequently seen as linked.
This is not to imply that The Energy Glut has nothing to add to previous work, and indeed this book is set apart from the rest by its concentration on the social consequences of motorisation. There are sections on the efforts of private companies to create and sustain private motoring as opposed to public transport, the horrific injuries inflicted by cars on pedestrians, and the way that car culture has managed to drive people off the streets. All these discussions are particularly strong, especially in their awareness of motorisation as a class issue. Poor children are after all many times more likely than children from more wealthy families to be killed on the roads, yet they are less likely to come from car-owning families themselves.
These are however short sections in a rather short book, and strong as they are, I couldn’t help reflecting on how much more they could have said. Roberts and Edwards are clear, for example, that motorisation is a result of corporate rather than of individual decisions, but this important point could have been considerably expanded. Some reflection on how the existence or not of public transport provision was shaped by car companies in the US, for example, would have added considerable punch to the argument. Suitably expanded, the sections here on the malign effects of car culture on society and the environment could have made an effective book in themselves. However, here the unexpanded version is combined with a rather less successful discussion on obesity. The issues of obesity and reliance on fossil fuels are united thematically as problems arising from energy overconsumption, but this is at the level of metaphor. Whether it is genuinely helpful to our understanding of both these issues to see them as intrinsically linked is rather more difficult, and ultimately Roberts and Edwards fail to convince.
This is partly an issue of length, as the sections on obesity suffer from the same unwillingness as in those on motorisation to develop the arguments in sufficient depth. Books on obesity have a tendency to present as fact issues which are actually matters of vehement debate, and the authors here too often seem to fall into this tendency for the sake of brevity. It may be simpler, but it is hardly authoritative, when citing the study that found that the lower your BMI (Body Mass Index) the higher your life expectancy, not to mention that there are a considerable number of contrary studies (and indeed some interpretations of the same study) which suggest that an ‘overweight’ BMI correlates with the longest life expectancy. This brevity is coupled with some unfortunate comments which, although relatively unimportant in themselves, further damage the book as a serious addition to obesity scholarship. On the availability of women’s clothing in large sizes, for example, the authors comment that ‘there is no shortage of ‘plus size’ clothing outlets. Making clothes for this group makes sound business sense. After all, the whole population is getting fatter. Sales can be expected to increase. Not so at the thin end’ (p.18). This is so much the opposite of my actual experience that on first reading I took it for satire. A modicum of research among larger women would surely have revealed that manufacturers are not currently battling for the fat pound, and that the availability of fashion in plus sizes, particularly offline, remains frustratingly limited.
In other ways, the thematic connection between oil and calorie consumption seems actively unhelpful to the understanding of both issues. Because both obesity and motorisation are here presented as problems of overconsumption, it is natural to connect them both with wealth. This works for transport - wealthy car owners destroying the lives of those who may be too poor to drive themselves - but the identification of obesity similarly with prosperity is more difficult. It might be a problem of the first rather than the third world, but in the developed world, obesity at a population level does seem to be correlated with poverty. For Roberts and Edwards, the people who drive and the people who are fat are the same people, but this assumption is not borne out by current research. The threatened pedestrians in poor areas in the West are more likely to be fat than the rich cruising them in their luxury cars. Presenting obesity as, like climate change, a matter purely of energy overconsumption here conceals the class issue and represents a serious missed opportunity.
A consideration of food and class would have set this book apart from much current writing on obesity. For the authors, however, their approach can be distinguished by their concentration on obesity as a social rather than as an individual problem. Diets don’t work, they comment, because they don’t address the food and transport environments which cause obesity in the first place. This approach would indeed have been a useful addition to the too-often moralistic discussions of obesity, but it is considerably undermined by the chapter on ‘Reclaim your home’ (pp.132-146), which lists a set of changes which individuals should make to their food behaviour in order to be as thin as possible. This include such innovative gems as ‘don’t keep high energy food in the house’ and ‘shop on foot’ to limit the amount of fattening food you can carry home. The logic of these suggestions is not always obvious: since with the ‘shop on foot’ regime, for example, the authors also say that shopping would become a daily activity, it doesn’t seem a very effective limit on the transportation of considerable amounts of crisps and chocolate. This is a minor criticism, but the chapter reveals more fundamental problems with the authors’ approach.
It isn’t clear how these basic measures would overcome the problem of diets not working, even with added exercise from reclaiming the streets (eat less and exercise more is hardly a revolutionary new proposition). They fail to overcome the well-attested physical factors which doom the vast majority of diets to failure, i.e. that the body concludes it is in a famine and hangs onto every calorie it can get, even if the dieter sticks to the diet, with the result that over time, any weight lost is regained. More seriously, these suggestions also singularly fail in the stated aim to understand obesity as a social rather than an individual problem. The only way in which the recommended actions could be construed as answering the problem of obesity and dieting as set up earlier in the book is if the authors assume that diets don’t work because dieters are unable to stick to them. Indeed, Roberts and Edwards follow up their pronouncement that diets don’t work with a description of the ‘seriously clever people out there whose job it is to sell us cars, petrol and food whether we want them or not, and they know more about how our brains work than we do’ (p.65). A list of strategies to avoid the siren voices of the marketers hardly amounts to an understanding of obesity as a social issue, and comes perilously close to concluding that diets don’t work because fat people are too stupid to stick to them.
This disinclination to follow through a systemic rather than an individualised analysis also appears in the much stronger transport sections of the book. Despite their clear stance that motorisation is not the result of individual lifestyle choices, Roberts and Edwards’ solutions here also veer towards the individual. They support the idea of carbon rationing, on the basis that having to pay for the carbon involved in driving would persuade people from their cars. This is a market-orientated idea, which ignores the fact that those who could afford to pay would be able to continue driving and continue to blight the areas they drive through. In addition this suggestion was rather more in favour among climate change campaigners before the collapse of Lehman Brothers provided a reminder that market infallibility is an ideology, not a fact. Crucially, it is based on the assumption that climate change is a result of individual lifestyle choices, and that the task is to find ways of motivating people to make suitable changes. This is of course to ignore the systemic roots of individual behaviour. Again, Roberts and Edwards begin with a promising framework for approaching motorisation and climate change, but their proposed solutions are stuck at the individual level.
Car culture clearly has many terrible effects, on the climate and for poor communities, and our lives would be better if we could reclaim our streets. Whether the girth of the people doing the reclaiming is as serious an issue is debatable, but if there is a case for a genuine link between obesity and climate change, Roberts and Edwards have failed to make it.
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 her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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