Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: "The Energy Glut"

I've been reading "The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World" by Ian Roberts, who is a public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  The book's unique contribution is to connect climate change/uneconomic growth and obesity issues, by seeing them as aspects of a single problem: the oversupply of cheap energy to systems that are not designed to assimilate it.

Roberts makes his argument with careful statistical support.  He explains how what is now perceived as an "obesity epidemic" is the result of a process of recentering and skewing the BMI (body mass index) distribution which has been going on for many decades.  The causes, he contends, should therefore be seen more as lifestyle changes beginning in the last century than as "personal choice" or "genetic" ones (though these of course account for much of the variability within the statistical distribution).

Among these lifestyle changes, Roberts fingers the automobile and the consequent reduction of personal mobility as the major culprit. I understood more clearly from this book how automobile transport does not just provide an alternative to other means of getting around - it actively crowds out and displaces these other healthier means, by making our streets into "rivers of kinetic energy" (Roberts' phrase) where the unprotected human body is not safe and the arms race for a protective cocoon leads to kids being driven to school in two-ton SUVs designed for a small military force. Immobile people get bigger, heavier, walking and cycling become more difficult, larger cars and more of them are used, and the feedback loop continues.

Roberts is insistent that the social and structural factors leading to these decisions should be understood as primary - he is not "blaming the victim" for their suffering.  He makes this argument passionately with regard to road "accidents", which he regards as no accidents at all but an an anticipated and statistically inevitable result of social decisions to permit high-energy transport machines in close proximity to homes and people.

The picture of  "rivers of energy" flowing through our society is a striking one though it occasionally leads Roberts into doubtful physical territory, as when he compares the amount of kinetic energy in a car in motion, a truck in motion, and a speeding bullet - not that the numbers are wrong (AFAIK) but the net amount of kinetic energy in an object in motion is not the only determinant of the damage it can do... what matters more is the amount of energy actually delivered in a collision, which does not depend only on the energy of the colliding object.

So what is the answer? Roberts sees a need for a wholesale move away from fossil fuel powered transport in favor of bicycles and other human powered ways of getting about.  This will lead many commentators - who regard the current, auto-based structure of society as unquestionable -  to describe the book as "unrealistic". But it isn't so obvious to me who is being unrealistic here.  Perhaps thinking that we will be able to keep our cars forever is the unrealistic expectation.

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