A study in the latest issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology by Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts plays out a grim scene: a world of overweight populations draining the earth’s resources and forcing up global temperatures. “We argue that increased population adiposity, because of its contribution to climate change from additional food and transport GHG emissions, should be recognized as an environmental problem.”

With much fanfare surrounding the publication, it’s best to go to the source. The full title of the piece is “Population adiposity and climate change.” Both authors are at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Comparisons were made between two hypothetical populations (both amounting to one billion), one normal, the other overweight.

The results certainly look stark for those with wide waistlines. “Compared with a normal distribution of BMI (Body Mass Index), a population with 40% obese requires 19% more food energy for its total energy expenditure. Greenhouse gas emissions from food production and car travel due to increases in adiposity in a population of 1 billion bare estimated between 0.4 Giga tones (GT) and 1.0 GT of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.”

More than 1 billion of the world’s population is said to be overweight, with some 300 million falling into the obese category. Reports of the study have failed to note that neither Edwards nor Roberts are hunting for the fattened calf by blaming people for their poor life choices. The very society itself, the scientists argue, functions on obese principles. The food available and the transport options, contribute to this.

The authors have various suggestions to make. Nothing, it would seem, is new about the promotion of transport policies which “promote walking and cycling”, though the authors reiterate the importance of that regime. Encouraging these would reduce the price of food by reducing demand for oil. A stabilised distribution of BMI would in itself reduce the global demand for food. There would be less car use, less need for biofuels, increased physical activity, a reduction of injury risks and air pollution.

In interviews, the authors have claimed that the business of obesity is about populations and societies, not individuals. Other scientists also argue that DNA considerations tyrannize or at the very least control willpower. The problem, it has been argued, lies in the womb. The focus on individual choices is, however, hard to ignore. Those who don’t adopt the right transport, let alone make the “appropriate” choice that might stabilize their BMI are bound to be hounded as the ice caps melt.

Fat people, it would seem, have become the sacrificial lambs for the eco-slaughter. Fry (or shed) their fat, and the problems will be solved. Those against this line ask what of other people who have high calorie intakes, such as soldiers and athletes? There is much to be said about the ravenous fanatic who burns fat as quickly as he consumes it. Others prefer some tolerant approach: the notion of diversity in weight regimes.

The war against the fat brigade has been ratcheted up recently. Certain airlines, notably United, now charge double for the weighty. Some calls have been made to extend it to public transport services. Extra freight and extra space in passengers have become a matter of business. The lynch mobs, chanting the cause against global warming or environmental responsibility, have found their valued targets.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey