The two panics of our age seem to be climate change and obesity. Neither panic can, or should, be denied. But both have become classic moral panics. We let those with other agendas exploit these real issues to grind their other axes. They blame the people they don’t like anyway – big business, political opponents, farmers, foreigners, the feckless, etc. They seek grandiose political solutions (global treaties, 10 year plans, binding obligations). And pretty soon doing something about the big issues in the world becomes someone’s else responsibility. Issue-crats earn their livings in the ritualised process of NGO pressure and Government concession. Ocaissonally, their private debate breaks cover with attention grabbing propaganda (the West Wales Obesity Tsar announces that today’s patients are so fat, ambulance axles can no longer cope with them and they will have to be cared for on their own sofas, putting more financial strain on the NHS; people in West London see a Polar Bear floating down the Thames on a chunk of Arctic ice, etc). But what gets lost is the sense of our own personal responsibility. And more importantly, we ignore our own personal ability to just get on and do something phenonmenal to sort out the world. It lets us off one hook (changing our behaviour) and puts us on another (passive frustration that things are getting worse and no-one is sorting it out for us). I am a passionate environmentalist who despairs of the green movement and I am a zealot for social justice who despairs of the left. So what can we do?
Climate change and obesity are just symptoms of the the wrong sort of consumption. So, if we want to get on and have a personal impact, we just need to find the best ways to change our consumption. But we know that we’re bad at this. Our genes are perfectly programmed for 10,000 years ago. So when we see lots of food, we eat it and store it as fat for the lean times. But when times in the West are never lean, we keep storing the fat. When we invent lean times by dieting, then 97% of the time it fails. On climate change, all we hear is that we are bad and must give up the wonders of modern life, like frequent air travel. We (rightly) know that we shouldn’t have to give them up, so we don’t. So whilst the big issues are being debated somewhere else, in turgid conferences, we carry on consuming in the same ways. But we allow ourselves a mild dose of personal guilt. In both cases, we do know it’s our own consumption which is bad for the future. In one case, our indulgence now could leave areas of planet uninhabitable. A very bad public bad, but, truth be told, probably worst for other countries and future generations. It produces the same sort of weak guilt felt by a blaspheming agnostic. In the other case, its our own joints and vital organs which take the future strain of our over-eating. A bad private bad and an obvious one, every time we step on the scales or look in the mirror. So we feel bad about it, but only if we’re abnormally large. So long as we don’t get fatter at a quicker rate than everyone else we see, then we don’t worry about it. Meanwhile, many in the world don’t have our consumption dilemmas – only the impacts of our choices. A billion people in the world struggle to have enough to eat every week. And with cruel irony, the same people emit hardly any greenhouse gases, but will most likely suffer the worst impacts from the climate change they didn’t create. To top it all, they increasingly are losing their land and water, taken to create the food wanted by the rich.
At this time of making resolutions for the year to come, there will be far more personal commitments in the West to reduce the waistline than to protect the thermosphere. Or indeed to help feed those for whom obesity isn’t even an option. The first day back at work will look like any other first day back in January. Morning arrivals in Lycra making the office reception resemble the start line of a triathlon. A lunchtime of abstinence or eccentrically filled Tupperware. Early departures in the late afternoon to find a new work life balance. And then by February, the Lycra will be at the bottom of the drawer, sandwiches and crisps will adorn the desks and early evening offices will still be full of unbalanced individuals.
And what about the planet? Unfortunately, we have mostly failed to connect our private behaviour and our espoused hopes for a fairer and green planet. A quiet background noise about cutting carbon in the West assuages our guilt. Somewhere in the noise is the message that we have cut our carbon production. So we can feel good. But our consumption of carbon has increased sharply. We have simply outsourced industry to other countries. Countries fuelled by the dirtiest coal. So we cause more carbon burning than ever. Closing our own coal power stations makes us feel good. But the annual increase in Chinese coal burning is more than double the entire coal burnt in the UK. So we’ve exported the pollution and the jobs, but the planet is worse off, not better. Ignoring these uncomfortable truths, the green debate in the UK has been reduced to being for or against windmills. The green movement at its most asinine. It is quite literally a totemic debate. To erect expensive and ineffective symbols of our guilt, or to oppose them and be denounced as a self-indulgent flat-earther. In a typically British way, the totems are even being, expensively, hidden from sight by being built out at sea. The answer on energy clearly lies in technological innovation – we have to be able to come up with something better than windmills. In the meantime we can halve carbon production by switching from coal to gas whilst we invest in new renewable technologies. Dieter Helm’s book “The Carbon Crunch” is a great manifesto on energy for the concerned, but rational.
But what can we each do ourselves to make the world fairer and greener ? Lots of things, but here is one stone to kill 3 birds – obesity, climate change and world hunger. It’s the vegetarian diet. In November 2013 the Norwegian government announced a new climate change policy – a vegetarian diet for the military! The impact of livestock farming on climate change is beyond dispute. The UN says it creates one fifth of man made greenhouse gases. This equals all industry in the world and is bigger than all transportation added together. However, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, former World Bank experts, have recalculated the impact of livestock farming as half of all emissions. That’s twice the impact of all energy supply. With the UN predicting that livestock production will grow by 70 per cent by 2050, we are increasing our appetite for emissions at a frightening pace. Grassland is now used up so more forest will have to be cleared. But it’s not only the climate at risk. Water is often scarce and mostly used by agriculture. Meat uses 100 times more water in its production than grain. If you skipped 1kg of meat, you would save more water than if you gave up showering for a year! But how does this help the hungry in the world? Well, meat is very inefficient. It takes 6kg of plant protein fed to animals to produce 1kg of meat. The rich eat the meat and they use too much of the farmland to grow feed for the animals they want to eat. If the US stopped feeding its grain to animals it could feed not only itself with plant protein but 500m others too. And obesity? Studies show that vegetarians are much less likely to be obese, or suffer diabetes and coronary disease.
I am prompted to bang this drum as this year will be the 30th anniversary of my giving up meat. As an idealistic teenager, I gave up meat because it seemed like the best way to help the world feed itself – the inefficiency argument. In those days, obesity was not a hot topic and the only problem in the atmosphere was an ozone hole, to be fixed by switching to rollerball deodorants and new fridges. People have always assumed that my vegetarianism is about being kind to animals. But I am no more or less kind than the next person. To be honest, for long periods I have given no thought to the vegetarian agenda. I have just got on eating it. And I have never previously stood on a soapbox about it. But it feels like the time has come. And what better time than New Year resolutions? Most people’s dieting resolutions are not going to last. The waistline isn’t motivating enough. The 97% failure rate means that social pressure to lose weight is very weak. But combine your New Year’s diet resolution with saving the planet and curing world hunger, and it might just work. And if the Norwegian army doesn’t inspire you, remember that Robert Atkins, the founder of the Atkins Diet, died weighing 18 and a half stone (256 pounds) in a country with the highest greenhouse emissions! If we cut down on meat, we can all fly without the guilt … and those economy seats might just be a bit more comfortable as well.