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A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change Paperback – April 24, 2015

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About the Author

Elaine Graham-Leigh is a member of Counterfire and a former member of the steering committee of the Campaign against Climate Change. She has been speaking on climate change for more than a decade, at events ranging from small public meetings to national demonstrations. She has written widely on this and other political issues, particularly for, and has articles republished by New Internationalist and in the Handbook of the Climate Movement.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

A Diet of Austerity

Class, Food and Climate Change

By Elaine Graham-Leigh

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Elaine Graham-Leigh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-740-1


1. Working class blamed for world's ills,
2. How the problem with food changed,
3. Consumption, carrying capacity and class,
4. Malthus and the war on the fat and the poor,
5. Waste and the limits of capitalism,
6. Beyond capitalism, and how we might get there,


Working class blamed for world's ills

There is one statistic which for many people sums up everything that is wrong with the West and our food consumption: that across the world, a billion people are starving while another billion are overweight. As might be expected for such a clear and popular idea, the figures change slightly depending on the source: Raj Patel, for example, begins his popular Stuffed and Starved with 'the hunger of the 800 million' and 'another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight', while in some recent iterations, the numbers of the overconsumers have increased to two billion. Regardless of the precise scale, the idea of the billion versus the billion is so widely repeated that it appears an almost compulsory beginning for commentary on the problems of the modern food system.

The striking juxtaposition contains a number of assumptions, which can be more or less clear but nevertheless are always there. The first key assumption is that food supplies, whether as a result of climate change and environmental degradation, or simply because the planet is finite, are sufficient but limited. There is enough for everyone but for everyone who overconsumes, someone else has to get by on less to make up for it. This was expressed clearly in 1999 by Thomas Princen in one of the earliest versions of the idea: 'the overconsumption of the billion or so who consume far more than their basic needs and, it is reasonable to assume, contribute directly or indirectly to the underconsumption of the impoverished billion'. Princen was not necessarily only thinking about food here (this will be discussed further in the next chapter), but later iterations are clearly considering eating and drinking to the exclusion of other sorts of consumption. Patel's reference to a billion people being overweight makes clear that the overconsumption under discussion is overconsumption of food. This is not a lone example. The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, for example, talked in their 2011 report on food security about overconsumption in general in their introductory remarks, but substantiated this on the following page with a table showing 0.9 billion undernourished people in the world and 1.5 billion people over the age of twenty who were overweight.

The second assumption is that this is a matter of individual behaviour. In other words, if the developed world is overconsuming food, to the detriment of the developing world, this is caused by, and essentially the same as, individuals overconsuming. Thus, for example, a 2008 study on reducing fossil fuel inputs in food came to the decided – and according to EScience News 'very astute' – conclusion that the most important thing that individuals could do to help deal with problems of food and climate change would be to eat less. Since the article used the figure for the US food production per head (here 3,747 calories) as the amount of food consumed, this is perhaps not surprising, although it is worth noting that not all food produced is necessarily eaten. On one level this may seem obvious – no one, after all, is being force-fed – but in fact it goes to one of the core beliefs of neo-liberal economics: that the motor of everything in society is the choices made by consumers in the market. The problems of food production, and inequalities of food distribution, are caused ultimately by the purchasing decisions of individuals, and the companies involved would change their ways if those consumers demanded differently.

Since it is obvious that individual consumers do not have a completely free choice of what they spend their money on, uninfluenced by the persuasive efforts of the businesses hoping to receive their custom, this has become the theory of the obesegenic society. On one side, this is a recognition that there are factors other than greed behind individuals' food choices. A 2013 version of the billion versus the billion, for example, contrasted 'the thin and the fat' as exemplified by a Pakistani peasant farmer and a Canadian university student who put on weight because of the limited options available to her in her college cafeteria. Other criticisms of Western eating practices highlight the efforts of food manufacturers and supermarkets to entice us into buying food we don't 'really need', or simply blame the sheer availability of food. For some, it is apparently 'the availability of relatively inexpensive and highly palatable foods in almost unlimited abundance' which leads 'affected individuals [to] eat many times a day and consume large portions'. 'Overconsumption of food' apparently 'is part and parcel of a society in which consumption and consuming is its raison d'être'.

These insights do not, however, remove the responsibility from individuals for their food consumption. It is noticeable that the same writers who identify the efforts of the food industry to maximise sales as important are also those whose main conclusions are around ways to eat less, whether that is advice to switch to a daily shopping trip on foot with a rucksack or calls for a paradigm shift in our food preferences, 'a form of personal perestroika'. The assumption that issues of food come down to individual food consumption choices remains paramount, and understanding the ways in which the system may encourage fatness only gives greater urgency to the message that individuals must make their own efforts to become thin. Indeed, the obesegenic environment itself has become for some another stick to beat fat people with, as shown particularly starkly in a well-known 2007 article called 'Fat Bastards', in which fat people became proxies for all aspects of Western overconsumption and appropriation of global resources: 'living metaphors for the way the United States is viewed by much of the rest of the planet: a rapacious, gluttonous, insatiable nation of swine ... wallowing in the mud of our laziness and indifference'.

This leads neatly on to the third assumption underlying discussions of problems of the global food system: that if it comes down to an issue of individual food consumption, then we can tell who the guilty parties are, since they are the ones who are fat. The elision of the difference between identifying an obesegenic environment and blaming fat people, and only fat people, for the problems caused by the factors which create it is such an obvious one that it is often possible to wonder if in some arguments it isn't subconscious. It does however make a significant difference. An argument which says that the production of large amounts of nutrient-poor, energy-dense food in the West is problematic for food consumption worldwide and for the climate (and has a tendency to make some individuals become fatter than they would otherwise be) is a world away from one which says that regardless of the interests vested in that pattern of food production and consumption, the responsibility lies only with those people who become fat because of it.

'Obese blamed for the world's ills'

That fat people are taking more than their share of scarce resources, to the detriment of everyone else, is a familiar idea. We are, after all, routinely told that obesity in the UK is costing the NHS billions of pounds a year and threatens to bankrupt it, in the same way that the NHS is portrayed as under attack from other undesirable, undeserving groups, like foreign tourists or immigrants from Romania. For anyone whom others identify as fat, the assumption that fat people are a dead weight dragging down the rest of the population is depressingly, constantly evident. Different theories about why people are fat come and go, but the base assumptions – that the aim should be for everyone to be normatively slender, that to be fat is the worst thing in the world, and that if you are so reprehensible as to allow yourself to be fat, you have nothing to contribute – remain the same.

Charlotte Cooper has been a fat-acceptance activist for 25 years and has seen waves of attention to obesity ebb and flow. Obesity, she points out, always makes a good story for journalists to pursue because it allows their readers to feel safely sanctimonious. It sells papers and lets the journalists get paid. Behind the media attention, there are whole industries devoted to weight loss and an academic discipline where fat people are discussed largely in their absence. The idea that fat people could be a social group with interesting things to say about their own experience would be, to most, bizarre. The 'headless fatty' style of image for articles on obesity may have developed as a way of using fat people's pictures without making them easily identifiable, but for Charlotte it's a visual demonstration of how despite all the hysteria about their existence, fat people themselves are silenced.

Talking over coffee in her East London flat, the transformational, enriching, life-affirming possibilities of fat-acceptance activism seem very real, but so also is the ever-present stigmatisation of fat people. We keep coming back to how, in the climate created by the obesity epidemic panic, even people who would consider themselves progressive are happy to share Facebook images which juxtapose fat, black, young children eating McDonald's against starving African children, or send fat-acceptance bloggers infographics suggesting that fat people on treadmills could be used to generate renewable energy. Charlotte's seen too many images like these 'circulated by people who are right on'. She tells me how she's recently written to The Guardian to remonstrate about their repeated use of one particularly egregious 'headless fatty' picture. As soon as she starts to describe it I realise I've seen it too: a fat young woman, pushing a pram, walking away, 'Golddigger' emblazoned on her sweatpant-covered behind. 'The scare embodied in that image', Charlotte says, 'just blows my mind', and she's right. When we look at that picture, we aren't supposed simply to see a person of larger than average size. We're supposed to see not just a fat woman, but a working-class woman, a single mother, a benefits scrounger, a drain on the welfare state, a destroyer of the planet. A picture can indeed say a thousand words.

What The Guardian's image makes clear is the extent to which obesity, supposedly a product of the obesegenic environment to which our very wealth makes us vulnerable, is in fact correlated with lower social class. Fat, it seems, is a very proletarian thing to be. For Charlotte, this identification of fat with the working class was a reality from an early age. Her mother, a nurse, saw Charlotte as the fat one in the family, in need of monitoring and dieting, and her determination to control her daughter's weight came as much from class as from medical concerns. As a working-class family attempting to rise into the middle class, 'it was exposing to them to have a child who was fat'. Charlotte discovered punk and feminism when she was a young teenager (it was helpful that the bookshops where she did most of her reading shelved the feminist books next to the books she was consulting to satisfy her adolescent curiosity about sex), and realised that there was a queer scene she could be part of and that being 'normal' wasn't the be all and end all, but the memory of the stigma is clear.

This is not only a UK experience, nor even one restricted to the English-speaking world. Nicole grew up and still lives in Recife, in Pernambuco in north-eastern Brazil. It's a poorer part of the country, far removed from famous cities of the south-east like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, but it is still part of the renowned, body-conscious Brazilian culture, in which women, especially young women, have a responsibility to be slim and sexy and generally to imitate 'The Girl from Ipanema' as far as possible. Nicole says:

I have been fat since I can possibly remember. Tales of me being a huge baby and a great eater have been part of family folklore. I have a picture of myself as a baby, sitting on top of a table, surrounded by food and eating a whole leg of a turkey while being watched over by the whole family, all smiling and laughing at that funny baby ... compared to my little sister (who had always been considered a picky eater), I was a blessing, I ate whatever I was offered.

What was an attractive trait in a baby was less attractive however in a growing girl, and by the time she was thirteen, Nicole was left in no doubt that it was her responsibility to get and remain thin so that she would be desirable to men. In Brazil, it is assumed that fat women in particular are undeserving of male attention, so they are seen as lonely, but also as lazy: 'fat people are to blame for not having enough will power and strength to keep themselves in shape'.

Nicole's family, while not wealthy, are middle-class, so in her childhood having enough money to eat was not the issue it is for many Brazilians. It is noteworthy however that the criticisms of laziness and irresponsibility levelled at working-class people are also again made of people who are perceived to be fat. In Brazil, indeed, obesity levels have recently been blamed explicitly on the poor, as some have suggested that President Lula's 2003 Zero Hunger initiative, which gave poor families the equivalent of just under £15 a month to buy food, may have created a worse public health problem than malnutrition, as the recipients have spent it on cheap, fattening foods rather than on vegetables. The fecklessness of this obesity-causing behaviour is clearly supposed to be apparent. The connection between obesity and the class of those who are obese is not spelled out, but it is there. As with discussions of austerity, it seems that those who have the least are the ones who have the greatest responsibility to be restrained in consuming it.

Obesity and class

There are indications from studies in both the UK and the US that on a population level, obesity may be correlated with poverty. This is not anything so crude as 'all poor people are fat', or even 'all fat people are poor', but when looking at whole districts, areas with higher levels of poverty are more likely than wealthier areas to have higher numbers of fat people. A study by the London Health Observatory of children at ages five and eleven found, for example, that the prevalence of 'children at risk from obesity' was higher the more deprived the area from which the children came. The study did not specify how the risk of children developing obesity was assessed, but the indication of a connection between poverty and obesity found in this study has been repeated by others. The Foresight report, for example, found that 10% more working-class men were obese than upper-class men, while the difference for women was 15%. It is also significant that one of the towns recently designated as the US's fattest – Huntingdon, West Virginia – is also notable for its unemployment and poverty. Situated in Appalachia, the area whose poverty motivated Galbraith to write The Affluent Society, it also tops the poll for various other indicators of poverty. More than half of Huntingdon's elderly population, for example, have also lost all of their teeth.

The correlation indicated by these studies between class and obesity may not be generally accepted within obesity science, and this is not necessarily a mainstream view. However, what is important for an understanding of the role of food and obesity within the overconsumption and climate change arguments is not only the as yet fairly limited studies suggesting an actual link between obesity and poverty, but also the much more widespread assumption that obesity is identified with the working class.

As discussed, the contemporary Western media is obsessed with obesity, and the numbers of illustrations of obesity are so vast that it is only possible to assess a snapshot. However, the images used to illustrate news stories about obesity are likely to play a significant role in general ideas in society about who the obese are and from what class they are likely to come. In consequence, a review of even a limited proportion of these images is worthwhile in assessing the messages which are being sent by common visual representations of obesity. I reviewed the top 150 obesity-related news stories illustrated with images of people on the BBC News website on one day. For the purposes of the study, I excluded news stories which either did not have illustrations or used inanimate images, usually of plates of 'fattening' food, although the latter could clearly tell their own stories about the class presentation of obesity.

(Continues...)Excerpted from A Diet of Austerity by Elaine Graham-Leigh. Copyright © 2014 Elaine Graham-Leigh. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Zero Books (April 24, 2015)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 250 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1782797408
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1782797401
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 10.4 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.55 x 0.61 x 8.55 inches
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Elaine Graham-Leigh is a political campaigner, with a particular interest in climate change and a medieval historian who also writes science fiction. She is a member of Counterfire and has written widely for on a range of political issues. Her website is

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