Chewing the fat

How it is important to avoid fatuous pronouncements about obesity if one wants to have a sensible di

CAESAR: "Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was able to see the upside of obesity in a way that would be unimaginable for our contemporary politicians.

Current rhetoric about the weight of the nation has, indeed, tended towards the hyperbolic and apocalyptic.

There is much talk of an “obesity time bomb”, and of an “epidemic of obesity” that challenges both the longevity not to mention the public finances of the nation.

In stark contrast to Caesar’s sanguine feelings about expanding waistlines, last week saw perhaps the most delightfully absurd pronouncement on this epidemic of fatness when Health Minister Alan Johnson claimed that obesity was a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change”.

It is worth stopping for a second to appreciate the sheer silliness of Alan Johnson’s claim. It is certainly true that the spread of obesity may curtail the upwards progress of life expectancy in the developed world, and may diminish the quality of life of many of the world’s affluent citizens through contributing to life years spent coping with diabetes or coronary heart disease. But even this unhappy prospect pales into insignificance when compared with the dangers of climate change.

Flooding and extreme weather have the capacity to cause hundred of thousands of deaths throughout the world, whilst desertification and rising sea levels have the capacity to displace tens of millions of people from their homes, leading to war, famine and unpredictable political upheavals.

Obesity is a problem of the affluent, comfortable, and (overly) well-fed, whereas those who will bear the brunt of climate change are the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged.

If obesity is among the worst problems faced by a nation, then what this tells us is that this nation is actually doing rather well. Johnson’s remarks equate the lifestyle problems of the world’s wealthy with the real matters of imminent life and death that are faced by the world’s poor.

It does a disservice to the importance of action on climate change to bracket it alongside problems caused by eating too much and not getting enough exercise.

It is not so much that the government’s response to obesity is itself nonsensical, but that much of the way it is reported and communicated is hysterical or confused.

The report of Foresight, the government’s science think tank, on Tackling Obesities: Future Choices contains a good ideal of sober analysis about the social, environmental and physiological mechanisms that lead to obesity, together with different proposals for how the problem might be tackled.

But discussion of the causal processes that increase the likelihood of obesity seem always to be stuck in an overly simplistic dichotomy – either it’s a matter of individual choice, and hence nothing to do with government, or else it’s the inevitable consequence of modern life, and therefore something for which individuals are not responsible.

The Foresight report attempted to make a number of nuanced points, but the predictable reaction from the media was that this meant that obesity “is not the fault of individuals” or, as John Humphrys put it, somewhat mysteriously, on the Today programme, people are obese because “our biology is out of step with the abundance and convenience offered by the modern environment”. (As if we might have expected “our biology” to have kept up with the modern world, and are free of the responsibility to make better choices in any circumstance in which it has failed to do so!)

Reasonable debate about social problems related to problems of addiction and unwise choices seem stuck in a rather reductive ‘blame game’. But the plausible positions in this area are neither the unsophisticated determinist view that sees obesity as nothing at all to do with fault or choice, nor the avowedly tough-minded (but hopelessly simplistic) position that sees this as a realm of individual choice untouched by broader issues of social policy.

In fact, there is nothing inconsistent in thinking that certain problems can result from individual’s choices (whether those problems are obesity, addiction, alcohol abuse or whatever else) whilst at the same time allowing that certain sorts of environmental and social backgrounds make some choices easier than others.

The overly reductive question of that asks who is “at fault” or “to blame” for problems like these needs to be pulled apart. There are causal questions here that range over issues about social, environmental and psychological mechanisms.

There are also irreducibly normative questions about who should bear the costs of these problems, and what should be done by governments and by individuals to tackle them. Good answers here will be boringly complex (like the Foresight report itself). Easier answers tend to suggest lazy thinking, but easy answers make better headlines.

This is not to say that there is nothing with which one might quibble in the government’s Tackling Obesities report.

Firstly, there is the bizarre pluralisation: from ‘obesity’ to ‘obesities’: a piece of wilful jargon-making without justification.

Secondly, one needs to be very careful when reading research that makes claims such as “if current trends continue, most people in the UK will be obese by 2050”.

Social trends, like economic trends, are malleable, unpredictable and subject to reversal. For example, current trends in obesity are not themselves 45 years old, which might suggest the debatable wisdom of a projecting them 45 years into the future without severe caveats.

Conditional claims that turn around substantial hypotheticals such as this need to be read as what they are, not as confident scientific predictions for how things will certainly be. A bit of reticence in making some of these big claims could hopefully only add to the plausibility of the overall analysis.

There is one claim, though, that should be excluded from further debate without further delay, in part because it seems to be irredeemably subject to misinterpretation. Again and again we hear that the spread of obesity will lead to “children dying before their parents”.

This conjures up visions of a generation of obese children who will predecease their mother and fathers.

But what is actually meant is simply that, with the growth of obesity, life expectancy might drop in such a way that many people will die at a younger age than their parents did. Whilst this is still, of course, an unpleasant prospect, it isn’t quite the horrific vista of losing a generation to obesity.

If claims like this aren’t made carefully, they can sound shrill and alarmist – fine, perhaps, for grabbing headlines, but not so good for reasoned reflection on difficult matters of policy.

Alan Johnson’s remarks about obesity and climate change bring to mind an altogether more sensible pronouncement on fatness from George Bernard Shaw. As Shaw rightly pointed out, “no diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office.” Alan Johnson might give a bit more thought to his public utterances if he isn’t to end up unwittingly proving Shaw to be all too correct.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood