Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

The moralistic, Malthusian war against fat people
Activists, professors, theologians – everyone is now promoting the depraved idea that human gluttony is plunging the planet into catastrophe.

Sometimes, I hear something on a news programme that catches me unaware and makes me think: ‘Surely this is an Ali G spoof?’

It is early Monday morning and a professor from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, holding forth on the danger that human beings’ weight gain presents to the survival of the planet. ‘Having a heavy body is like driving a Range Rover’, he argues, with passion and conviction. Before you can even catch your breath, he is warning of the catastrophic things that will occur when ‘we are all as fat’ as people in America. After lecturing listeners about the need to factor people’s ‘body mass’ into all debates about the environment, he pauses and then reminds us again that fatness is an ‘ecological not just a health concern’.

I look across the breakfast table, and my wife affirms my suspicion that this must indeed be an Ali G moment. But alas, a few minutes later, the twenty-first-century equivalent of a Trollope-like, worldly cleric, the weight-conscious priest Giles Fraser, is on the air to give his ‘thought for the day’. He, too, is morally weighed down by the problem of body mass. His little homily on sustainability is on-message in this Ali G world of ours. When I hear him say that ‘bigger is not always better’, it becomes clear why theology is in trouble. But when he finishes by saying ‘economic growth is like getting fat’, I slowly start to realise that this is more than just a bad joke…

There is something deeply troubling about having a professor, followed by a cleric, casually turning the size of the human body into a marker of moral evil. And they weren’t only talking about the weight of humanity in metaphorical terms. The professor and his London-based team have apparently quantified fatness around the globe. According to their calculations, the weight of the global human population stands at 287million tonnes. Of this mass of human fat, 15million tonnes of it is a result of people being overweight and 3.5 million tonnes is a consequence of full-on obesity. Apparently, American fatties bear greatest responsibility for weighing down the planet: the professor’s team says that although Americans only make up six per cent of the global population, they’re responsible for more than a third of the obesity.

This degraded depiction of human beings is really about morally indicting people for the original sins of eating and breeding. These days we are told that eating too much is as bad as having too many children. So the professor’s report on global gluttony claims that increasing levels of fatness around the world have the same impact on global resources as an extra billion people would. In other words, if people, especially American people, hung out at their local Weight Watchers a bit more, then the planet could be spared the misery and horrors that an extra billion people would bring it.

Sadly, it isn’t only small groups of scaremongers who have a tendency to present people’s eating and breeding habits as the cause of catastrophes to come. The current targeting of people’s allegedly immoral body mass coincides with the Rio+20 conference, the latest UN gathering to discuss sustainability, where the key argument doing the rounds is that human salvation will require a significant restraint of the breeding and consumption behaviour of human beings. This is a very fashionable prejudice these days. Indeed, on the eve of the Rio+20 conference, 105 science academies issued a statement warning that a failure to tackle population growth and overconsumption would have ‘potentially catastrophic implications for human wellbeing’.

‘Less body mass’ and ‘smaller human footprint’ – those are the mottos of today’s morally disoriented scaremongers, whose philosophical and theological outlook continually reduces human life to physical quantities of biological material and carbon footprints. Those who wish to make us feel guilty about our bodies should follow through the logic of their depraved misanthropy, and go whip themselves.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

First published by spiked, 20 June 2012