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

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

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)

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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.

    (More below the fold…)