Food, oil, energy and excess: A review of The Energy Glut (Ian Roberts, 2010)

January 22nd, 2011 5:16 pm by Kelly Garbato

The Energy Glut by Ian Roberts (2010)

The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World by Ian Roberts with Phil Edwards (2010)


Note: I received a free copy of The Energy Glut through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

While researching the link between traffic-related injuries and fatalities, trends in car usage, and public health issues such as obesity, Ian Roberts – a public health professor in Britain and a former practicing physician – developed a simple yet radical premise: that the discovery and subsequent adoption of fossil fuels as a cheap source of energy can be directly implicated in the “obesity epidemic” as well as global climate change. Just as cheap oil powers our cars, so too does it make possible the abundance of energy-dense foods that feed human bodies. Designed for movement, these bodies grow increasingly sedentary in a “motorized” world, thus compounding the problem. The result? Congested roadways, air and water pollution, fewer green public spaces, reduced opportunities for movement, and overall poor public health.

Roberts adeptly demonstrates how seemingly disparate issues are connected, oftentimes exhibiting multiple points of intersection. Like threads in a tapestry, you cannot tug on one without disturbing the others. Likewise, in linking a supposedly personal failing – obesity – with larger societal trends, The Energy Glut reflects that good ol’ feminist adage of the ’60s, namely: the personal is political (and the political, personal). Consider, for example, the following observations made by Roberts:

Artificially cheap oil paves the way for the widespread availability and use of motor vehicles powered by fossil fuels:

  • The use of motor vehicles is positively correlated with BMI, at both the individual and societal levels – as car use increases, so too does BMI;
  • Likewise, modes of active transport – walking, cycling, taking the subway – are negatively correlated with BMI;
  • As the amount of kinetic energy (i.e., in the form of motor vehicles) on the roadways increases, so too does the danger to pedestrians, creating a tension between the two groups. Rather than risk injury or death, pedestrians are apt to abandon walking and cycling in whole or part.;
  • Public policies – such as those favoring motor vehicle over foot and cycle traffic – exacerbate the problem, such that “might makes right,” personally and politically;
  • Thus begins a “motorized arms race which drives the downward spiral of walking and cycling”: pedestrians take to cars in greater numbers, thus making the roads more dangerous for remaining pedestrians, and so on;
  • As people are driven indoors and into cars, streets and sidewalks become less hospitable, giving rise to violence and discouraging a sense of community;
  • The increased motorization of movement encourages suburban sprawl, which leads to longer commutes;
  • Larger people require larger vehicles, which consume more gas;
  • Larger vehicles generate more kinetic energy, thus making the roadways less safe for those driving smaller vehicles;
  • Consumers buy increasingly large vehicles because they’re safer for the occupants in the event of an accident;
  • The congestion of our roadways with more and larger vehicles slows down traffic, increasing the amount of time spent in cars and the amount of gas burned.

    Meanwhile, cheap oil also leads to a glut of energy-dense foods:

  • Discovered in the early 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process made it possible to increase food yields dramatically by turning hydrogen and nitrogen into an ammonia fertilizer; this reaction is energy-intensive and reliant upon fossil fuels, consuming 2% of the world’s energy supply;
  • Oil is also used to process, package, distribute, store, cook and dispose of food and food waste;
  • Due to overt and hidden subsidies, this food (like fuel) is artificially cheap;
  • As food prices fall, consumption rises;
  • Unhealthy, energy-dense, processed foods are cheaper than their healthier counterparts, such as fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • The increased consumption of fats and sugars, coupled with a decrease in movement, leads to weight gain, both individually and collectively (as evidenced by our increasing BMIs);
  • Whereas we used to forage for food, today we drive to the supermarket to buy it;
  • The use of a car vs. active transport means that we buy more food than we would otherwise;
  • This over-consumption leads to food waste – food is thrown out like garbage, making its way to landfills, where it will release methane;
  • Supermarkets are increasingly located in suburban areas, thus resulting in longer drives;
  • The decreased opportunities for movement, coupled with the prevalence of cheap, unhealthy foods – and the health problems associated with each – gives rise to entire industries which might not have otherwise existed. Money and time that could be more wisely spent are wasted on diet and exercise, and public health dollars are squandered on “curing” obesity-related diseases.

    Many of these points directly influence and are influenced by at least several others. For example, Roberts points out that the design of highways (speed, placement) – paid for with taxpayer dollars – funnels consumers past small, locally owned neighborhood business and to large chain megastores, thus further concentrating wealth in the hands of few. At the same time, highways encourage suburban sprawl, increase the amount of kinetic energy on the road, are necessarily inhospitable to pedestrians, and encourage driving over walking. Additionally, these chain stores (including convenience stores situated in gas stations!) primarily trade in unhealthy, energy-dense foods that only contribute to obesity – which they’re happy to sell you a pill or diet plan for, natch.

    In Roberts’s words, “[P]etroleum replaces food as the primary source of energy for human movement.” Fueling our cars as well as our bodies, our abuse of this cheap, finite energy source is responsible for climate change in myriad ways. Food, fuel, fatness, traffic fatalities: they’re all connected.

    Much of the criticism I’ve seen of The Energy Glut involves “personal responsibility”: fatness isn’t an environmental condition or related to social issues, as Roberts claims, but rather the sole responsibility of the individual. But how else to explain the average increase in BMI – and the upward trend in BMI distribution – in industrialized nations? Have we morphed into a nation of gluttons lacking in self-control, or could there possibly be some shared societal factors at play? Given that the average BMI of a population tends to increase when car usage replaces the human body as the primary mode of transport, I think the latter likely.

    Additionally, “personal responsibility” is fine and good – assuming, of course, that all members of a society have equal, adequate opportunity to assert control over their environment. Sadly, this is far from the case. Take, for example, the United States. Due to a lack of grocery stores (and corresponding abundance of fast food joints), those living in low-income, urban areas do not have ready access to fresh, healthy foods. At school, the situation isn’t any better; public school kids are served the same unhealthy animal ag. food service slop as are are prison inmates. (Not that prison inmates should be served slop, either!) These families are also more likely to live in heavily congested, crime-riddled neighborhoods, which hardly make for safe areas of play and movement. At the same time, they cannot afford to purchase exercise equipment or gym memberships; nor can their neighborhoods and schools afford to construct and maintain playground equipment. All of this converges to create an environment in which the opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle is a luxury. Shaming people into changing factors beyond their control is not only futile – it’s just plain cruel.

    Such criticisms also ignore Roberts’s advice for solving these problems: three of the last five chapters feature steps that one can take at the individual level, such as walking and bicycling whenever possible; switching to a diet rich in fresh, plant-based foods; purchasing and consuming less; planting greenery in front of one’s home and streetside; engaging with one’s neighbors; and lobbying the local government for reduced speed limits. While he’s cognizant of the political and societal factors underlying obesity, Roberts also encourages individuals to take action at the micro level.

    Other, more radical solutions involve adopting the Contraction and Convergence proposal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions set forth by the Global Commons Institute in the early ’90s. C&C involves reducing overall global emissions in such a way that’s fair to developing nations. This plan would entail national carbon credits that could be bought and sold between carbon-frugal and carbon-wasteful countries, thus resulting in a transfer of wealth between rich and poor nations. In contrast to many “charitable aid” programs, developing nations could ideally use these resources to further their own national interests, rather than those of the aid-giving governments (and corporations).

    This is important, as Roberts includes developing countries such as China, India, Senegal and Nigeria in his analysis; for example, his look at proposed road infrastructure programs in African nations illustrates how such efforts are less about industrialized countries helping impoverished nations – and more about helping themselves to the natural resources of the oft-unfortunate “beneficiary” nations. At the same time, an increase in transnational trade threatens to trigger the same motorization of movement – and attendant problems – seen in the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century. An investment in bicycles, Roberts argues, would do more to help the average Tanzanian than a hundred miles of paved roadways. As with all of his premises, Roberts produces the research to back it up.

    Since I’m only marginally familiar with the intricacies of the fat acceptance movement, I’m afraid I can’t offer a very nuanced critique of Roberts’s infatuation with BMI as a measure of health. To his credit, he does stress that fatness and obesity is largely an environmental problem; you won’t find any fat shaming here. On the other hand, his “less is always best” argument strikes me as somewhat irresponsible, if not downright dangerous:

    Accumulating body fat is like accumulating debt. It is better to be $25 in debt than to be $30 in debt, but being only $20 in debt is better still. [Whereas debt = BMI. – Kelly]

    Yes, a lower BMI is better – until it isn’t. Just as one can be too fat, there is such a thing as too thin. See, e.g., the symptoms of anorexia; while Roberts is quick to point out that eating disorders are excepted from his analogy, some of the health problems associated with anorexia – amenorrhoea, heart failure, malnutrition – are also likely to be present in those with low or no body fat. And whereas one can actually be owed money, there is not such thing as negative body fat.

    From a vegan perspective, I am a bit disappointed that Roberts doesn’t so much as mention veganism (or even vegetarianism) in passing. While he does implicate animal agriculture in climate change (“meat is heat”) – and tie this highly energy-intensive form of farming to a variety of issues to both fuel and fatness – his strongest argument in favor of a plant-based diet is ‘eat more fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.’ On the flip side, the only direct example of speciesism is Roberts’s demand that we eat less meat so that those in developing nations can eat more. It’s a real WTF! moment, but unlike in eaarth or Diet for a Hot Planet (both of which I recently reviewed), it is – thankfully! – an anomaly.

    Overall, I found the book incredibly insightful, exciting and witty. (Seriously, I can’t wait for the weather to thaw, as I’ve made a commitment to get less “exercise” and more dog walking time in come spring!) A quick read, easily devoured in several hours, The Energy Glut will inspire you too look at familiar issues from a fresh, panoramic perspective. Time and again, Roberts picks up a seemingly-forgotten thread, tying it to a disparate, distant neighbor, weaving for the reader the story of our interconnected world.

    Five stars: though not without minor faults, The Energy Glut is a must-read.

    Updated to add: I also posted this review Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads; if you enjoyed it and are so inclined, please click on through and vote it as helpful, mkay?

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  • One Response to “Food, oil, energy and excess: A review of The Energy Glut (Ian Roberts, 2010)”

    1. fuck yeah reading!: 2011 books » V for Vegan: Says:

      […] Energy Glut: Climate Change and the Politics of Fatness, Ian Roberts (2010); reviewed here […]

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