The moralistic, Malthusian war against fat people
Activists, professors, theologians – everyone is now promoting the depraved idea that human gluttony is plunging the planet into catastrophe.
Sometimes, I hear something on a news programme that catches me unaware and makes me think: ‘Surely this is an Ali G spoof?’
It is early Monday morning and a professor from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, holding forth on the danger that human beings’ weight gain presents to the survival of the planet. ‘Having a heavy body is like driving a Range Rover’, he argues, with passion and conviction. Before you can even catch your breath, he is warning of the catastrophic things that will occur when ‘we are all as fat’ as people in America. After lecturing listeners about the need to factor people’s ‘body mass’ into all debates about the environment, he pauses and then reminds us again that fatness is an ‘ecological not just a health concern’.
I look across the breakfast table, and my wife affirms my suspicion that this must indeed be an Ali G moment. But alas, a few minutes later, the twenty-first-century equivalent of a Trollope-like, worldly cleric, the weight-conscious priest Giles Fraser, is on the air to give his ‘thought for the day’. He, too, is morally weighed down by the problem of body mass. His little homily on sustainability is on-message in this Ali G world of ours. When I hear him say that ‘bigger is not always better’, it becomes clear why theology is in trouble. But when he finishes by saying ‘economic growth is like getting fat’, I slowly start to realise that this is more than just a bad joke…
There is something deeply troubling about having a professor, followed by a cleric, casually turning the size of the human body into a marker of moral evil. And they weren’t only talking about the weight of humanity in metaphorical terms. The professor and his London-based team have apparently quantified fatness around the globe. According to their calculations, the weight of the global human population stands at 287million tonnes. Of this mass of human fat, 15million tonnes of it is a result of people being overweight and 3.5 million tonnes is a consequence of full-on obesity. Apparently, American fatties bear greatest responsibility for weighing down the planet: the professor’s team says that although Americans only make up six per cent of the global population, they’re responsible for more than a third of the obesity.
This degraded depiction of human beings is really about morally indicting people for the original sins of eating and breeding. These days we are told that eating too much is as bad as having too many children. So the professor’s report on global gluttony claims that increasing levels of fatness around the world have the same impact on global resources as an extra billion people would. In other words, if people, especially American people, hung out at their local Weight Watchers a bit more, then the planet could be spared the misery and horrors that an extra billion people would bring it.
Sadly, it isn’t only small groups of scaremongers who have a tendency to present people’s eating and breeding habits as the cause of catastrophes to come. The current targeting of people’s allegedly immoral body mass coincides with the Rio+20 conference, the latest UN gathering to discuss sustainability, where the key argument doing the rounds is that human salvation will require a significant restraint of the breeding and consumption behaviour of human beings. This is a very fashionable prejudice these days. Indeed, on the eve of the Rio+20 conference, 105 science academies issued a statement warning that a failure to tackle population growth and overconsumption would have ‘potentially catastrophic implications for human wellbeing’.
‘Less body mass’ and ‘smaller human footprint’ – those are the mottos of today’s morally disoriented scaremongers, whose philosophical and theological outlook continually reduces human life to physical quantities of biological material and carbon footprints. Those who wish to make us feel guilty about our bodies should follow through the logic of their depraved misanthropy, and go whip themselves.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
The new paper about human body mass and environmental damage in BCM Public Health is certainly a novel attempt to bring together obesity and climate change in a scare-story double-whammy. But far from being a heavyweight study, it’s more of a back-of-a-burger-box calculation.
The logic of the report is this. First, fat people burn more calories than slim people. (Forget all that guff about ‘slow metabolisms’.) Second, those calories have to come from somewhere – in other words, we’ll need to grow more food. So, if everyone was as fat as Americans are, how many extra calories would we need to produce? ‘If all countries had the BMI distribution of the USA, the increase in human biomass of 58million tonnes would be equivalent in mass to an extra 935million people of average body mass and have energy requirements equivalent to that of 473million adults.’
In other words, if fat people really do use extra calories in real-world conditions as the authors assume and if everyone became as fat as Americans (which would only happen decades from now, if ever, as the by-product of a good thing – economic growth), and if we don’t become more efficient with how we use food (like reducing food waste), then the world would need to produce more food. How much? Well, in this worst-case scenario, 473million divided by seven billion people on the planet would suggest about seven per cent more food. Since many commentators believe we may need to double food output by 2050 in any event, the effect of obesity on the problem looks pretty irrelevant.