Linking road safety, growing waistlines and melting ice caps

by Martin Thomas   November 1, 2011  


I’ve been feeling guilty about something for over a year now and I figured it was high time I did something about it.

When I was writing news stories for I spoke to Doctor Ian Roberts, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine about an article on the subject of road safety – this one in fact

It was a stimulating and useful conversation – for me anyway – during which Dr Roberts mentioned a book he’d written about obesity in western society and the political and economic links that existed between that, climate change and road safety.

I expressed an interest in reading and reviewing the book, called The Energy Glut, and within a few days I had a review copy sent to me by the publisher’s PR firm.

I read the book with interest, agreed with most of it, then placed it carefully on a shelf, where it has stayed, causing the occasional spike of guilt, ever since.

Well no one likes to live with guilt so now – finally – I’ve resolved to write that review. It’s not as though the obesity epidemic and the issues of climate change and road safety have gone away in the mean time…

Dr Roberts’ thesis is pretty straightforward: as a species we’re increasingly dependent on the motorcar and we’re subjected to a relentless barrage of sophisticated marketing from the food industry to buy cheap, energy-dense food that we don’t really need but that we’re pre-disposed to eat anyway once we've bought it. As a result, people are getting fatter and climate change is getting worse – and both problems are growing quickly. To solve them, all we need to do is resist massive vested political and economic interests, shop, cook and eat sensibly, reclaim our streets and get on our bikes.

I doubt there will be many people on this forum who would disagree with much of that. What makes The Energy Glut so interesting is the way Roberts joins up the dots between these themes, together with the sheer weight of detail – statistical and anecdotal – that supports this central argument. Roberts has a wealth of personal experience to draw on as a paediatrician working in intensive care and a long-time student of the links between energy use, sustainability and health. He also benefits from the expertise of his co-author, Phil Edwards, who is a senior lecturer in statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The other thing Roberts does admirably is to resist obvious conclusions. So his explanation for the long-term fall in child fatalities on the roads of Britain and America, for example, has less to do with improvements in safety than with the fact that frightened parents have forbidden their kids to leave their homes because of the dangers presented by all that deadly traffic roaring up and down the street outside. He also refuses to lay the blame for western obesity at the door of the individual, preferring to describe it as an environmental problem caused by what he rather grandly calls the petro-nutritional complex.

These are big issues and solving them won’t be easy – particularly when you consider the enormous power of the commercial and political interests in the game. According to the book, in 2008 eight of the top ten Fortune 500 firms were oil companies or car makers (and one of the other two is Walmart, the supermarket behemoth) so there’s a great deal of economic and political muscle intent on maintaining the status quo.

But while we’re scratching our heads about the big stuff, there are small things we can all do, says Roberts. Things like riding bikes instead of driving, lowering speed limits, reclaiming our streets from the motorcar, and changing our shopping and eating habits so we only buy what we need, eat (slowly) when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full.

The bicycle’s role in this transformation is central. Cycling isn’t just fun and good for you, says Roberts, it could play an essential role in our global salvation – tackling obesity, reducing our dependence on oil and thus saving us and our planet.

These are hardly revolutionary solutions, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. This is an elegantly written and solidly backed-up argument about the inescapable wisdom of controlling our personal and societal excesses.

I suppose my only real problem is that the people likely to read this book will already agree with it. Somehow Roberts’ case must be made loudly and widely to create a groundswell strong enough to effect some truly fundamental changes in the world.

But at least someone's shouting about it. And, while I wouldn’t dream of claiming that finally getting round to writing this review will move the cause forward very far, at least I can now rest easy that I’m no longer actively preventing the argument reaching a wider audience.

7 user comments

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May have to 'treat' myself to that book. Keep reading and hearing about people struggling with increased food and petrol costs. But in my experience many people drive too fast and are overweight! Combine this to research that suggests one third of the food we buy is wasted for various reasons and I would agree that our energy crisis is too much energy. I too work for the NHS and witness poverty and ignorance in action as well as have to listen to b******t spoken by people who have just had a road 'accident' if only I could say what I realy think instead of nodding sympatheticly....

posted by SideBurn [913 posts]
2nd November 2011 - 9:45

1 Like

Is this really a new analysis?
Read Ivan Illich "Energy and Equity" 1974 (or thereabouts)

posted by robike [24 posts]
4th November 2011 - 19:11


There may well be nothing fundamentally new in Energy Glut - I'm no expert - but I've not seen anyone else link the themes the way Prof Roberts does. A (very) quick scan of Energy & Equality ( suggests there's no mention of diet or the food industry, which makes it a different proposition altogether if you ask me. I might have missed it, because I only scanned E&E (it's a bit dense...)

Martin Thomas's picture

posted by Martin Thomas [624 posts]
4th November 2011 - 20:06


This guy thought cycling was really good:
perhaps it's too direct an example

posted by robike [24 posts]
7th November 2011 - 20:15


He was a regular on here actually - probably still is. One of those amazing stories about the redemptive powers of cycling. I don't think Gary's story is too direct at all - quite extreme, perhaps, but all the better for that.

Martin Thomas's picture

posted by Martin Thomas [624 posts]
8th November 2011 - 11:33


I just finished reading it...

It joins all of the dots up in a very common sense way, I am not sure of the utopian conclusion, but the history, journey and destination all seam spot on to me!

All we need now is for the world to realise that there is more to life than money!

john.berry's picture

posted by john.berry [22 posts]
10th November 2011 - 14:49


john.berry wrote:
I just finished reading it...

It joins all of the dots up in a very common sense way, I am not sure of the utopian conclusion, but the history, journey and destination all seam spot on to me!

All we need now is for the world to realise that there is more to life than money!

I'd second those comments.

I have just read a copy from the local library. Clear and well written, I'd have thought it would be difficult to argue against the case he makes. The big stumbling block will be the vested interests which have put us in the place we are now.

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [2419 posts]
11th December 2011 - 14:38