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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

addressing obesity « Previous | |Next »
May 5, 2006

Tony McMichael, director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, at the Australian National University has an interesting op.ed. on obesity in todays Sydney Morning Herald. It is one of the better articles on obesity in the corporate media.


McMichael states what we know: the proportion of overweight and obese people in Australia has doubled in the past quarter of a century, and now includes more than half of all adults; the proportion among schoolchildren, about a quarter, has risen even faster. He then argues that 'this trend, evident in populations around the world, signifies that something fundamental is changing in how we live. Our daily energy balance is out of kilter.'

He notes that much of the public discussion mostly focuses on strategies to intervene, correct and counsel at the personal level, either in terms of "fatness genes" or personal behaviour, and then critiicizes this approach.

The "fatness gene" approach he says:

might explain why some people become obese. Such reports reinforce the idea that solutions lie with correcting or compensating for individual biological abnormalities. In like vein, many view the basic problem as one of aberrant individual behaviour. The Health Minister, Tony Abbott, argues that preventing weight gain is essentially a matter for personal and family discipline, and not a matter for governmental policy.

The flaw with the personal approach - both biology and behaviour--- is that this individual-focused thinking misses the point, which is the population perspective.

McMichael argues that though genes and behaviours are very relevant, in relation to the rise of obesity their main importance is at the population level, not at the individual level:

If we cannot understand that the problem has a systemic source that arises from recent radical changes in our way of living, in human ecology, then society is unlikely to find effective solutions.Our way of living is no longer attuned to our basic biology....Inadvertently, then, we have created an evolutionary nirvana in which, at last, abundant (and energy-dense) food is within easy reach and its purchase or acquisition requires little exertion.

Being overweight is one of the several main new penalties of modern urban ecology. As McMichael argues that as, such an environment is a man-made cultural artefact, creating an environment far removed from the conditions that shaped our biology and psyche, so it is not surprising that there are some health penalties.

He locates this in the public narrative of governing the health penalties of urban-industrial life (the airborne and waterborne infections, including tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria, cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases) which have largely been controlled, via the joint processes of public-health intervention and social modernisation:

Two of the greatest health endangering consequences of the late-industrial urban environment are, first, overweight as a manifestation of this radical shift in human ecology and, second, the increasingly huge contribution of the world's cities to greenhouse gas emissions with all that they portend, via climate change, for future risks to safety, health and survival.

McMichael rightly argues that solving such problems requires well-informed, imaginative population-level strategies. That is not nanny statism; it is enabling statism:---enlightened, government-supported, collective action.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:00 PM | | Comments (0)