Here we were worrying that our dependence on oil and the spewing of industrial waste and the unending overpopulation of our land were the things that were going to ruin our planet. But it turns out what we really should be worried about, according to some new research, is fat people. Wait, huh? Yes, that's right, America. Our expanding waistlines could conceivably overwhelm our poor planet (which, come to think of it, also has a pretty big waistline) sometime in the near future. Isn't that just swell news? Now when you go to eat your lunch, in addition to constantly questioning your food choices because of what some nutritionist said this morning on the Today Show, you can also feel super guilty about destroying the earth. And in case you thought you were exempt because you're not obese, think again. We're all part of the problem.
So how did science come to this upsetting conclusion? Well, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine calculated the weight of the world's entire population, which it turns out is some 316 million tons. (That is so much flesh and blood that it's nearly impossible to even fathom it.) Of that total weight, they then estimated that 17 million tons of it is a result of people being "overweight," and an additional 3.9 million tons is due to obesity. If you're wondering what constitutes a normal weight, they calculated the "average global body weight" at 137 pounds, using BMI data and height distributions from the World Health Organization.
Naturally, North America had the highest average weight—a sturdy 178 pounds. While only six percent of the population lives here, we're responsible for a whopping 34 percent of the world's obesity. On the other hand, in Asia they average a slight 127 pounds. They make up 61 percent of the global population, but they only have 13 percent of the world's obesity. So why do our respective shares of obesity matter? Professor Ian Roberts, one of the paper's co-authors, explains:
When people think about environmental sustainability, they immediately focus on population. Actually, when it comes down to it — it's not how many mouths there are to feed, it's how much flesh there is on the planet.
It's sort of creepy to think of the planet as giant, collected mass of flesh, but he does have a bit of a point. The more you weigh, the more calories you need to move around and the more resources you use up in general. So, in that respect, the fatter you are, the more you tax the planet. But thankfully this is not some holier-than-thou call for all the American pigs to start hit the Slim Fast shakes ASAP. You see, this isn't caused just by those with medically-diagnosable obesity, according to Roberts,
One of the problems with definitions of obesity is that it fosters a 'them and us' ideal. Actually, we're all getting fatter.
Hmm, that wasn't the feel-good answer you were hoping for, was it? Well, now that we're all to blame, perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that it's not entirely America's problem. Other places on the top 10 list of heavy countries include Kuwait, Croatia, Qatar, and Egypt. What do they all have in common with the U.S.? They drive a lot. Roberts says, "One of the most important determinants of average body mass index is motor vehicle gas consumption per capita." Astute observers might also realize that cars bear a fair amount of blame for bringing ruin to the planet, what with their constant appetite for gas, etc. Perhaps we can find some kind of combined solution this problem of sedentary lifestyles and gas consumption? I mean besides bicycles, which do have their limits if, for instance, your office is far afield from your house. Anyway, according to Roberts, we can't keep doing what we're doing and expect it to turn out well:
If every country in the world had the same level of fatness that we see in the USA, in weight terms that would be like an extra billion people of world average body mass.
My Lord. That is a lot of people. So, is there anything to stop America from gobbling up the planet like it was on the McDonald's Dollar menu? Well, if you look at the opposite end of the spectrum, the "skinniest" countries in the world are places like North Korea, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All places not exactly known for their high quality of life. So must countries plunge themselves into extreme poverty to get skinny? No, thank goodness. Roberts directs our attention to Japan:
The Japanese example is quite strong. Average BMI (Body Mass Index) in USA in 2005 was 28.7. In Japan, it was 22. You can be lean without being really poor, and Japan seems to have pulled that off.
Some nations have all the luck. But that doesn't really give us a comprehensive solution. That's because really there is no easy answer, and the point of this research isn't to offer a solution but more to alert us to the fact that it's a problem in the first place. Says Roberts,
We often point the finger at poor women in Africa having too many babies. But we've also got to think of this fatness thing; it's part of the same issue of exceeding our planetary limits.
Putting aside the fact that I don't think I've ever heard anyone blame poor women in Africa for singlehandedly overpopulating the Earth—the Duggars, sure, but not the women of Africa—"this fatness thing" is certainly something to think about. And, if you've read any news articles in the past ten years, then you are aware that we are DEFINITELY thinking about it. In fact, we hardly think about anything else. But this is a new and different angle with which to guilt people and wring our hands.
Though there is a constructive way to take this criticism—if "you're all fat" is even a criticism. Rather than run around calling anyone who weighs more than the average 137 pounds a fat planet-destroyer, we could come up with ways to make ourselves tread a little more lightly. Instead of focusing on countrywide weight loss goals (ugh, just imagine how awful would that project would be), we could work on inventing ways to transport our larger bodies that are less environmentally taxing and on methods of feeding ourselves that are not only healthier but also have a smaller impact on the planet. Or we could all just move to Japan.
Global weight gain more damaging than rising numbers [BBC]
Weight of the World: Humanity's Fatness an Environmental Problem? [LiveScience]