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Mainstream, VOL L, No 34, August 11, 2012

Fat and Cooked: Sustainability for You and the Planet

Friday 17 August 2012, by Devdatt P. Dubhashi



The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World by Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards; Zed Books, London and New York; 2010.

What does obesity have to do with climate change? Everything, according to Ian Roberts, Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. People are fatter and the planet is getting cooked—both because of the over-use of fossil fuels and a transportation system based on it.

Obesity is very much in the news today as a global pandemic, especially in Western countries. But it is usually treated as a personal issue of poor diets and McDonald burgers. Or we hear about the search for “obesity genes”. While this is certainly a factor, Roberts argues that first, it is not a problem of personal failings of fat people or their genetic defects. The population as a whole is getting fatter. Second, there is a much stronger correlation with decrea-sing physical activity. The body’s metabolism is a balance between energy input and energy output—if the input exceeds the output, the result is an accumulation of fat. Roberts shows that average per capita food energy intake in the UK fell by 20 per cent in the period 1960-1995 when the population was rapidly gaining weight. On the other hand, two major trends were highly correlated with weight gain— increasing car ownership and television viewing. Thus the most likely explanation for increasing population fatness, despite a decreasing average energy intake, was that energy output was falling much faster than energy intake. The increasing motorisation of transport means that we are all walking and cycling much less than before and this is the main driving factor in increasing population fatness, not poor personal dietary habits or genetic defects of some people as popular propaganda, the diet industry and Big Pharma would like us to believe.

Moreover, there is a vicious reinforcing cycle. The increasing motorisation of transport makes it increasingly unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists sharing the same roads. The only way for pedestrians and cyclists to escape disaster is to get out of the way or to get into a car themselves if they can afford it. This leads to increasing motorisation and increasing fatness. Increasing motorization is also cooking the planet. The transport sector contributes 13.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which 10 per cent are from road transport. In the US, which is the biggest emitter, it accounts for nearly 27 per cent of all emissions. Moreover it is one of the fastest growing sources: from 1987 to 2004 emissions from transport increased 46.5 per cent.

The food system too is now heavily dependent on fossil fuels. At the start of the chain is the Haber-Bosch process for producing ammonia on which the world is dependent for the 100 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser to feed one third of the global population. The highly energy intensive Haber-Bosch process consumes almost two per cent of the world’s energy supply. The resulting fourfold increase in food yields, together with faster logistics via motorised transportation means there is a glut of high energy food for the populace. Nothing illustrates the petro-nutritional complex more strikingly than the giant supermarkets which are today major players in the same of both fuel and food. British consumers spend on average 93 pence of each pound for food in supermarkets while in the fuel market, supermarkets have 41 per cent. “Nowadays humans and cars graze on the same pastures.” The petro-nutritional complex also has grave consequences on climate. The IPCC estimates that industrialised agriculture is responsible for 10-12 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Factoring in the effects of deforestation the effect is closer to 30 per cent.

HOW did we end up in this situation? In a chapter titled “Money”, Roberts gives the plain answer. He lists the top ten corporations in the Fortune 500 list: eight out of them are oil corporations or car companies. As he says, these corporations pack enormous economic and political clout. He also exposes the hypocrisy behind Western “aid” which prioritises the building of roads in Africa for cars rather than health-care or education. As he points out, the car market in the West is nearing saturation and so the urgency to open up markets in Africa and Asia, subsidised by state aid to build roads and other infrastructure.

Having analysed and located the problem, Roberts moves to an action plan for solutions in the second half of the book. First he discusses Contraction and Convergence, a global climate policy framework proposed to the UN in 1990 by the Global Commons Institute,1 Contraction refers to the future global total of greenhouse gas emissions from human sources being shrunk over time in a measured way to near zero-emissions within a specified time-frame. Convergence refers to the full international sharing of the emissions contraction-event, where reach country and each individual gets an ‘emissions-entitlement’ that results from them converging on the global per capita average of emissions arising under the contraction rate chosen (which declines over time). These entitlements can then be traded on the market. In considering this, Roberts shows an openness to explore all possible solutions including market-based ones, and argues that this scheme is actually favourable to poorer nations and individuals.

One of the consequences of the Contraction and Convergence Roberts is really keen about is the demotorisation of transport, especially within cities. Given the diagnosis of the first half of the book, this will solve at one stroke the two problems—obesity and climate change. Here we come to the solution that is really close to Roberts’ heart—city transport based on cycles! Roberts argues that cycling is one of the most energy efficient means of transport and at the same time it is extremely healthy. Many cities in Europe have already taken steps in this direction—Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen and even my own city of Gothenburg.2 However, Roberts would be horrified by the trend in the opposite direction in India, with Nanos poised to saturate the already collapsing roads.

There are two question marks however: are these market based mechanisms enough to move the city over to bikes or will it be necessary to make cars not only expensive but an utter pain in city centres with congestion taxes and parking fees? Also can a modern city go about solely on cycles or should there be a multi-modal system with public transport and cycles as in the pioneering Chinese bike sharing system in Hangzhou?3 This is a city of almost seven million with 2050 bike share stations, 50,000 bikes totally integrated in the public transit system resulting in an estimated 240,000 trips a day and plans for 175,000 bikes by 2020! It is numbers like this that are needed to make Roberts’ vision not an idle fantasy but a practical reality.

Roberts also advocates local action to reclaim our streets and homes by buying local produce and supporting local community activities—not only will this make people more healthy, reduce pollution and create safer neighbourhoods, it could also lead to a new cultural renaissance where people chat face to face rather than on Facebook.

The kind of action that Roberts proposes is often described as an “austerity” programme requiring major “sacrifices” from people, especially in the west. If perceived as such, it can naturally be expected to face resistance from the general populace. For Roberts however, his action plan is one that leads to greater freedom and happiness, not less. But this is on a scale very different from the one used by mainstream economists—the Happy Planet Index4 compiled by the New Economics Foundation,5 on which Cuba ranks 7th and the US 114th. It is based on a fundamental challenge to the present-day capitalist system. Thus, even though this is one of the wisest and most important books for everyone today—from ordinary citizens to local, regional, national and international policy-makers—there is a real danger that, in the words of the author: “Despite their simplicity and their scientific base, the arguments made in this book are unlikely to be given the air to breathe in our day-to-day political discourse.” It is of the utmost urgency that we make it possible for them to do so.


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