Book Review

Why changing our diets won’t save the Earth

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Received wisdom says that to save the planet we have to change our eating habits. Elaine Graham-Leigh explains why the received wisdom isn’t just wrong, it blames working people for a crisis they didn’t cause.

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Diet of AusterityA DIET OF AUSTERITY
Class, food and climate change

By Elaine Graham-Leigh
Zero Books, 2015

reviewed by Martin Empson

Like the author of this interesting book on food and climate change I have been struck by the way that the question of diet, and in particular meat eating, has become central to debates on tackling climate change. In her introduction Elaine Graham-Leigh notes the many ways that advocates for non-meat diets are inserting this message into the climate movement. Slogans that argue that only vegetarian diets can save the planet, or that genuine environmentalists are vegan are common place. But the argument has also reached higher levels, with NGOs, governments and politicians frequently advocating this approach.

Graham-Leigh’s book is a challenge to this approach. She rightly argues that the danger is that it fails to address the real causes of climate change, will not actually have the desired effects and most importantly, it shifts the focus of blame for climate change onto predominately working class people.

Unusually for a book on the environment, class is a central part of Graham-Leigh’s book. She notes that “as with discussions of austerity, it seems that those who have the least are the ones who have the greatest responsibility to be restrained in consuming it”. Graham-Leigh illustrates this by quoting Jonathan Porritt in 2004, who argued that meat-eating was a “moral outrage and a threat to ourselves… and future generations” but that his real problem was with “cheap meat”. She argues that “the concentration here on price suggests that what is problematic here is not bourgeois meat consumption, but consumption by the poor, who would not be able to afford to do it if it were priced ‘properly’.”

This leads to an important insight by Graham-Leigh:

“What we are seeing here is the general panic about obesity becoming a vehicle for expressing ruling-class fears about the demands and appetites of the poor, fears which are particularly pointed at a time when working-class living standards are under attack.”

Much of the environmental movement sees consumption (of commodities, not just food) as the driving force of environmental destruction. Because of this focus, tackling climate change becomes a question of demanding that people purchase less, eat less, waste less. While there can seem to some logic to this, it misunderstands the nature of capitalism and how the system causes environmental damage.

At the heart of this book is an explanation of how capitalism’s need to accumulate for the sake of accumulation drives environmental destruction. Contrary to popular belief, and the hopes of those who advocate consumerism as a solution to environmental problems, production under this system is not driven by consumer demand, but by the desire to maximize profits. The book has some fine examples of how corporations have manufactured needs in order to sell new commodities. Notable among this is the example of the way that processed foods, frequently highlighted as particularly damaging to the environment and health, are preferred by capitalists because the processing itself adds layers of profits.

Thus Graham-Leigh shows how the “choices” people make about what food to buy and eat are not made in a vacuum, but are the result of the nature of the system and government policy. It is also the result of the food system itself, dominated by the interests of supermarkets, which causes enormous amounts of waste at all stages of the food system. Once again, rather than the problem being workers buying too much food and then throwing it away, it is a food system whose major components have a “business model [which] is based on procedures which entail wastage”.

The book is an important Marxist contribution to contemporary debates about food and climate change. If I have one criticism it is that Graham-Leigh deliberate ducks the question of the “future socialist society” in her final chapter. She argues that it is “counterproductive… to prescribe what a different society after capitalism might look like.” While we cannot “prescribe” it, we can at least argue on the basis of historical experience what some elements of that society might be, and how they can be part of an alternative to capitalism. Of particular importance in this regard is the idea of democratic planning, which I think holds the key to how future societies could deal with the question of feeding the world in a sustainable way. I think it’s a shame that Elaine Graham-Leigh didn’t explore this a little bit more, as it weakens what is an otherwise important book.

Martin Empson is the author of Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History. He wrote this review for his blog, Resolute Reader.


  • Your headline is misleading. I thought the article was going to be about regenerative farming. I thought someone had written a book saying regenerative farming would not fix climate change.

    That would be a surprise. Because many people if we change our diets by basing them on regenerative agricultural practices, it would go a long way toward fixing the climate crisis.

    However the book in question is about vegetarianism. That’s fine, but you should put a headline on it that reflects the topic of the book. The headline you used is so broad I assumed it included a completely different topic.


  • As a person clinging tenaciously to the slender remains of a moderately well-compensated “professional” career as I slide into a poorly funded “retirement,” I am especially sensitive to issues of this kind.

    It so happens that about a year ago, I was diagnosed as “pre-diabetic” (a diagnosis much in vogue in the US and less popular elsewhere). In order to remedy this condition, I undertook, among other things, to change my diet. I cut out breadstuffs and pasta almost entirely, but began eating more fish and chicken (was urged to shift to grass-fed beef, but couldn’t afford it), whey protein, fresh vegetables, and above all raw nuts and seeds. This increased my grocery bill by between twenty and thirty dollars a week, but, in combination with a more intensive program of exercise, caused my weight to fall by twenty pounds and my blood sugar to return to normal levels.

    I had been living on brown rice, beans, homemade whole wheat bread, vegetables, and a little chicken, which–surprisingly–were making me fat and relatively unhealthy (though not nearly as unhealthy as starvation or a pure starch and sugar diet would have done).

    I could not have done this on a poverty budget. What folly to treat this kind of issue as a purely individual moral test of some sort–exactly as our petty-bourgeois food oracles continually do, with their endless implicit ranking of their readers on the basis of what they can and cannot afford to consume. It’s exactly analogous to the abuse of older citizens who, not having asembled a “sound investment portfolio,” are supposed to have nobody but themselves to blame for the sin of being “risk-averse.”

    I must, however, register an exception to one possible interpretation of the author’s critique of supermarkets. Supermarkets, for all their systematic creation of waste, do represent a great advance over previous systems of food distribution. We can’t simply revert to the past without depriving working people of affordable and varied food supplies period. On this point–without, I am sure intending to do so–Mr. Empson sounds very much like those foodies who would have everybody shop exclusively at froufrou urban farmers’ markets, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s and not at the despicably unfashionable Safeway or Giant–places reserved for mere wage-workers.

    Following the recent bankruptcy of the American A&P supermarket chain, which may have presaged the decline of the supermarket system Mr. Empson so depreciates, I heard “libertarians” declare that if the poor still had a Walmart or two within thirty miles of where they lived, they would have all the food sources they deserved, being the improvident losers they are.

    When intentional, this kind of thing is food snobbery and self-righteous austerity-mongering at its most offensive. I can’t tell you how many yuppie parasites in the eternally upscaling urban neighborhood from which I will soon be ejected as a function of my falling income would read his words on this subject and cheer as lustily as their high, white voices would allow. I personally applaud the criticism of intrinsic wastefulness, but do not cheer on the abolition of the modern food distribution system as a whole any more than I advocate the end of industrial production in factories.

    Surely that system, like industrial production in general, represents an advance containing the germ of a better way if the underlying contradictions (including the rift with the environment) and the need for eternal “growth” can be resolved under socialism. We cannot and should not seek to revert to the Neolithic–and I hope I understand enough of this necessarily somewhat abstruse (though by no means offensively “theoretical”) prose to grasp that saying otherwise was never the real intention here.