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The news that fat people could help save Earth by eating less generated big headlines yesterday. But many people question whether it's good science or bad manners to pin the planet's woes on the overweight.
The news was based on a report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which says:
"Because food production is a major contributor to global warming, a lean population, such as that seen in Vietnam, will consume almost 20 percent less food and produce fewer greenhouse gases than a population in which 40 percent of people are obese (close to that seen in the USA today). ... Transport-related emissions will also be lower because it takes less energy to transport slim people. The researchers estimate that a lean population of 1 billion people would emit 1.0 GT (1,000 million tons) less carbon dioxide equivalents per year compared with a fat one."
The researchers, Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts, note that obesity is on the rise all over the world. All medical experts agree this is a health problem. Obesity has been linked to everything from deadly diabetes to increased risk of cancer. Many analysts fear the U.S. healthcare system — already in bad shape — could crumble under the weight of what many doctors see as the obesity epidemic.
The scientists are not the first to point out that heavier people have a bigger carbon footprint. But in putting some numbers to it, they've pulled no punches.
"When it comes to food consumption, moving about in a heavy body is like driving around in a gas guzzler," Edwards and Roberts said in a statement. "The heavier our bodies become the harder and more unpleasant it is to move about in them and the more dependent we become on our cars. Staying slim is good for health and for the environment. We need to be doing a lot more to reverse the global trend towards fatness, and recognize it as a key factor in the battle to reduce emissions and slow climate change."
Lay on the guilt
There are questions to raise, however, about whether science goes too far in pushing for lifestyle and public policy changes. As John Tierney writes in his New York Times blog, "Do we really need to give fat people one more reason to feel guilty?"
How you answer that question probably depends on whether you see obesity as largely a lifestyle choice or as a correctable behavior problem — or some combination thereof. Is obesity just about indulgence and therefore akin to smoking, thus something that should be derided, discouraged, even taxed? Or is obesity a medical condition more like other diseases and thus one we need to solve with drugs and other compassionate interventions?
The answers depend at least in part on science that is incomplete right now. Some evidence has suggested that the propensity for immensity is at least partly inherited, and other studies have indicated that obesity might even be contagious.
So whatever, fat people should eat better and exercise more, right?
The science there is tricky, too. Certainly a good diet is important for everyone. But if someone has a genetic predisposition to obesity, they may not have the ability to change things much through diet alone. And a recent study called into question the whole notion that exercise can cure obesity. As good as working out is for you, diet seems to be the main factor in obesity, researchers at Loyola University Health System and other institutions found.
Buy two seats
Last week plus-size folks were told they'd have to pay for two seats on United Airlines, a tactic already employed by a handful of other airlines. Some slim people interviewed by the media saw this as just punishment for those who commit "seat infringement," while others see it as flat-out discrimination.
Certainly, a slimmer society would mean healthier people (reduced chance of deadly diabetes being among the most significant benefits) and yes, a lower carbon footprint. Slimming down is also said to improve your sex life.
The big question society now faces — one only breezed by in this week's flap — is whether obese people should be prodded into behavioral changes for the greater good, or if their condition should be viewed as a disability, as is the case in Canada (where that extra plane seat is, by law, free).
And before answering that question, it is worth asking this one: Should we also pressure behavioral changes among others who stamp the planet with their own carbon-footprint excesses, such as wine drinkers, people who don't recycle, spammers and even Googlers?
What do you think?
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Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.