The Limits to Girth: How our waistlines became a supersized model

Molly Conisbee

30 May 2012

In this essay Molly Conisbee explores the ideological assumptions of continual growth that drive so much of our political and economic policy, and argues that the obesity epidemic we have seen in recent years serves as a symptom of what is wrong with this system, and that we must change our economy as well as our farming if we are to build a healthier world.

Forty years ago, three scientists from MIT created a computer model (World3) to analyse global resource consumption and production. Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers began a conversation that has resonated in the following decades as environmental and economic problems continue to proliferate. Their analysis suggested that, unchecked, population growth and increased industrial output would place an intolerable burden on the planet’s resources, leading to a prolonged period of boom, followed by a sharp bust, leading to population and industrial decline.1 Regardless of this stark warning, we have continued to pursue a model of relentless expansion. The ideology of growth and personal accumulation has permeated every aspect of social, political and economic life. From banks to food production, from education to health provision, we have assumed that growth is, unquestioningly, ‘a good thing’. In the same period we have become increasingly aware of the strain that we are placing on our planet’s capacity to sustain us: climate change is having an increasing impact upon global weather patterns, the price of oil and commodities has risen inexorably, and biodiversity and habitat degradation has occurred across the planet. All these things have both physical and psychological effects, whose long term impacts are both predictable and unpredictable.

Perhaps the most obvious metaphor for the World3 computer model has been seen in the waistlines of the ‘developed’ world. Put simply: as we have consumed more we have become fatter. With this boom in the numbers of overweight and obese people we are surely facing a coming bust: the ticking timebomb of diet related ill-health. It’s striking that this increase in waistline has been asymmetric and inverse to income: generally speaking the wealthy have got healthier, while the poor have become heavier and sicker.

Economic growth

In Prosperity Without Growth Tim Jackson claims that we are not only ideologically committed to the concept of continual growth, but that the current structure of national and international economic system is predicated on growth to survive. This is not just the case for business. Public infrastructure and third sector/civic society activity are also currently imagined only through an expansionist lens:

The default assumption is that – financial crises aside – growth will continue indefinitely. Not just for the poorest countries, where a better quality of life is undeniably needed, but even for the richest nations where the cornucopia of material wealth adds little to happiness and is beginning to threaten the foundations of our wellbeing...The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters – as it did during the latter stages of 2008 – politicians panic. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes.2

Those who have argued against the growth model have too often been sidelined. As Jackson notes – “questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries”.3

Those familiar with the 1970s and 80s may remember the plethora of books, with titles like The End of Oil, The Coming Water Wars, Protect and Survive, or indeed The Limits to Growth. These painted a terrifying picture of a world on an inevitable trajectory towards conflict over access to the shrinking pool of available resources. Together with the apocalyptic narratives of nuclear devastation or eco collapse that permeated the popular cultural realm – Threads, Survivors, the TV serialisation of Day of the Triffids – there was a growing cultural sense that problems were becoming much more complicated, much more interrelated, and much more forbidding than had hitherto been imagined. A sense of confusion, even desperation, among the ‘thinking classes’ tended to generate a politics of cultural and psychological fragmentation, with single issue polemics to the fore, as in claims for the relevance of gender, race or sexual equality in a re-imagined social fabric. And for many, the collectivist ethos of these developments became submerged by the perceived need to look out for Number One. This then became the most ‘rational’ response to a sense of ongoing personal crisis: faced with frightening existential threats, grabbing what one could from the present became a way of staving off anxieties about the future and safeguarding the boundaries of the self. Even from a limited economic perspective, such a self-concept remains ideologically defamiliarized – as Tony Judt puts it:

Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.4

This retreat from formulating a coherent alternative model – that is, an environmentally sustainable economic and social system – was for many eco thinkers the great generational failure of those beneficiaries of the post-War boom. Judt interprets this as a failure of a progressive politics, which became unintentionally complicit with what it sought to critique – a kind of tolerated dissent. While there are limits to the ways we can predict fulfilment or disaster (human perfectibility remains elusive; apocalypse is never quite what we expect) there can be no doubt that scarcity of resources and the epidemic of weight gain are both accelerating problems as well as symbols of the fault lines of the status quo. Meanwhile we continue to believe that this tanker can be turned around on an increasingly rough sea, with a perfect storm on the horizon.

But if our problems are as much psychological as material, how are we going to address the needed ‘revolution in the head’? If the panic narrative of resource depletion didn’t work, and the retreat from meaningful activism to the individuated politics of identity caused as many problems as it solved (for example in terms of social and environmental justice) where do we go from here? In what ways might we become personally responsible for our individual and collective futures where resource depletion and social health are concerned?

In this context, the recent media and political interest in neuroscience (a development from concerns about eugenics and the human genome for previous generations) posits a biologically determined theory about our current predicament. In its most digestible (and doubtless hugely oversimplified) form its narrative suggests that humanity is very bad at planning for its long-term future, and that this is hard-wired into our neurological make-up. Why not jam today instead of tomorrow (or indeed jam today and tomorrow)? In The Optimism Bias, Tali Sharot notes that:

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).5

Many aspects of human behaviour would seem to support this thesis. The current credit crisis has exposed many who failed to save for a rainy day, let alone a pension. Ill-health related to too much food, alcohol, smoking and other signs of ‘plenty’ appears to be on the rise. Like a collective exercise in hanging out the dirty laundry, the financial crisis not only shone light on the murky waters of deregulated banking, it also appeared to reveal millions of people addicted to cheap credit and consuming their way out of personal recession, in a way that the original Limits to Growth team could not have imagined. And this moves us to the problem of obesity, and its role as an important index of what’s gone wrong with the way we live our lives.

Supersized everything

The question that the original team of The Limits to Growth set out to answer was what would happen if both population and industry continued to grow rapidly? At what point would a ‘limit’ be reached? Unfortunately, there has never been much collective agreement on what those limits might be. The primary response of many politicians and economists to our current situation is that we require a return to the growth model to ‘recover’ from the current recession. At the same time, campaigners for limiting everything from population growth to use of resources are also driven by an ideological world view. The Limits project sought to apply scientific rigour and computer modelling to explore what the future might hold.

The World3 model they devised displayed a dramatic picture of boom and bust, the bust ‘part’ showing a sharp decline in industrial output, food production and population, often (erroneously interpreted) as being from the year 2000 onwards. This misinterpretation of the data created an academic and political storm at the time Limits was published, which according to Debora MacKenzie still resonates to this day:

...why look back at a model devised in the days when computers were bigger than your fridge but less powerful than your phone? Surely we now have far more advanced models? In fact, in many ways we have yet to improve on World3, the relatively simple model on which Limits was based.6

MacKenzie quotes contemporary researchers Yaneer Bar-Yam, of the Complex Systems Institute, and Robert Hoffman of WhatIf Technologies, who have argued that the storm of controversy which surrounded the original publication of Limits resulted in an academic nervousness about creating future-scoping models; a tension that is only recently being overcome as political focus once again shifts to the ‘perfect storm’ of population growth, resource depletion and recession. In addition there are some deeper, tangible limits which are now apparent that the original study did not even begin to address: those ‘peripheral’ signs of accumulation and expansion that demonstrate that all might not be right with the growth trajectory, and find their outlets in the second tier of political concern: public health, citizen engagement, debt, and our concern here – girth.

This is not to make an offensive analogy about expanding waistlines and out-of-control economics. People eat too much for a wide variety of reasons –psychological, emotional, ideological, and even genetic: there are credible arguments that we even have deep survivalist genes that keep us eating (because
in ancient times we didn’t know how long the times of plenty would last). But it is certainly true that we have significantly piled on the pounds in recent years. Social Trends 40, the 40th anniversary report published by the Office for National Statistics in 2010, has measured body mass index (BMI) figures from 1994 onwards. In that time alone the statistics for obesity have increased from just under 16% to nearly 25% today in the UK.7 Statistics for the USA are a little more detailed; an average of 47% of Americans were considered ‘overweight’ in the 1970s; that has now expanded to 66%.

But there has been an asymmetrical expansion across class boundaries: while we may all have grown, girth is now largely a symbol of poverty. In an inverse to the economics of GD P and more general consumption, expanding girth, in Europe and the US at least, has tended to impact to a greater degree on deprived communities. In societies where there is enough to eat, there has been an increasing turn to eating the wrong sort of things, especially among the less well-off; a strong emphasis on promoting fast food; and less food cooked from scratch, in the home.

Writer and campaigner Michael Pollan has explored the impact of the modern, processed diet on health in his exploration of the modern food industry. Noting the political connection between the post-War growth of the corn and sugar industries, and their consequent influence over government, and therefore food policy, he makes explicit the links between the growing public health issue of girth and growth-as-usual economics. Once you incentivise an industry to expand, and create the mechanisms of power to ensure it does so, a market must be created for the surplus that is produced: While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.8 Fast food seems cheap, and filling, and it is explicitly linked to the overall decline in incomes that have faced many through its accessibility and affordability.

According to the sociologist Richard Sennett the inverse relationship between income and waistlines is a direct consequence of an increase in inequality when in the United States “the wealth share of the middle quintile has increased 18% in real dollars over the last fifty years while the wealth share of the top 5% has increased by 293%”.9

Limits to girth

Our ‘limits to girth’ are cause of great concern to public health experts. It is epidemiologically undisputed that being overweight, and eating too much of the wrong sorts of food, is impacting not just on longevity, but also on behaviour, and on life chances more generally. Writing in The Observer in March 2012, cardiologist Aseem Malhotra argued that we are sitting on a public health time bomb, with an out-of-control food industry incapable of reigning in its own limits because “allowing food corporations to self-regulate has not only been ineffective, in some cases it has been dangerous”. Even if governments have not been directly complicit in this (although some, such as Pollan, argue otherwise), their position of free-market inaction is itself an expression of political (non)intervention: it is striking that in instances where direct policy change has been made, such as tackling high-fat diets in Finland, or the UK’s smoking ban, there has been a powerful, positive effect on public health outcomes.

Girth is costing us; the NH S already estimates spending 6bn a year on dietrelated health problems, estimated to increase to £50bn by 2050, at the point when 60% of men and 50% of women are predicted to be obese, if current trends continue. But it is not just the financial and health expense that should concern us here. As with the researchers of Limits to Growth forty years ago, Debora MacKenzie observes that the most important message is ‘the longer we ignore the problems caused by growth, the harder they are to overcome.’ As anyone who has tried to lose weight can confirm, this is certainly the case with our bodies. Personally and collectively, the problem of girth needs to be tackled as part of the bigger picture: not just for reasons of social justice when we are ideologically force fed, but in the name of a planet that is rapidly running out of resources to feed us ‘well’, which for some in the ‘developing’ world still means not being fed adequately at all. If we are to build a world that is no longer based on continuous expansion of both our economies and our bodies, we need to recognise not just our physical limits but the limits of our underlying ideological assumptions as well.

Molly Conisbee is the Soil Association’s director of External Relations

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

End notes

1 See Meadows, D., Meadows, D., and Randers, J. The Limits to Growth, (A report to the Club of rome, New York: Universe Books, 1972)
2 Jackson, T: prosperity without Growth, (London: Earthscan, 2009), p.14
3 Jackson, T: Op cit, p.14
4 Judt, T: Ill Fares the Land, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010
5 Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias, The Guardian, 1 January 2012
6 Debora MacKenzie, Doomsday Book, New Scientist, 17 January 2012
7 Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 40
8 Pollan, M: The Omnivores Dilemma, London: Bloomsbury, 2007
9 Sennett, R: Together p.133


Mother Earth journal cover