Finding the Sweet Spot between Climate Change, Human Health, and Economic Growth

Tim Arai
Fast food dominates at the food court at Newark International Airport in Newark, New Jersey. The authors argue that the main drivers behind both high obesity rates and excessive greenhouse gas emissions in the West are excessive economic growth and carbon-intensive lifestyles.

There are “sweet spots” in life where circumstances come together to create seemingly ideal points in time. Some of these are ephemeral: the sweet strike of a golf club on a ball, for example; or the endorphin rush of a long run or an intense romance. Others occur on a larger scale: the height of an empire, like the Romans, Mayans, or Mongols; the end of World War II; or at the extreme, James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia, in which the planet responds to forces of disequilibrium by trying to pull itself back to an ecological sweet spot.

Sweet spots are ethereal, with existential potential. They’re a time when things are just right; when all the ducks are in a row; when the stars are in alignment and the gods are smiling. But humans, perhaps understandably, tend to want to maximize these times, rather than content themselves with just optimizing them, which means that we often, like Cinderella, stay too long at the ball and overshoot the sweet spot.

In a recent book,1 we tried to show how economic growth in the developed world has reached, and possibly passed, a sweet spot, where the returns from further investment in the growth model have begun to decrease. In particular, we pointed out two main areas that illustrate such diminishing marginal rates of return on further investment in economic growth: (1) human health, as indicated by rising levels of obesity and related chronic disease; and (2) greenhouse gas emissions, which have increased beyond what can be safely sequestered to provide balance in the atmosphere, thus increasing the potential for climate disruption.

We discussed that, while body fat is perfectly healthy and essential to good health within certain limits, it becomes a risk factor, particularly for chronic disease, when it exceeds those limits (i.e., the sweet spot) for body fatness. This effect can be seen in the almost two-thirds of most industrialized populations that are now overweight or obese. Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, these are likely to remain in balance provided that “sinks” (soil, water, forests, etc.) sequester greenhouse gases at a rate at least equal to that at which they are produced by the “sources” (man-made emissions, cattle, industry, etc).

Taking the approach of health scientists in an attempt to find the “cause of the causes,” we showed that the main driver behind both obesity and excessive greenhouse gas emissions is unfettered economic growth, that is, beyond the point we propose as the sweet spot. Where the growth sweet spot ends, and diminishing returns begin, obviously depends on the outcome being measured. But we suggested that the late 1970s and early 1980s—a period that saw the beginnings of the worldwide obesity epidemic and significant deteriorations in environmental quality—could signal the point at which we began to overshoot the interlinked sweet spots of economic growth, health, and the environment.

Outlining Solutions: The Obvious

The question then becomes, what can be done? Is there a way of mitigating the effects of obesity, climate disruption, and malignant economic growth all at once? And if so, how can the solutions be managed to incur minimal disruption?

Ironically, a survey of any 100 climate or health scientists would probably yield 100 different answers to these questions. Yet a survey of classical economists would, more than likely, fail to see any problem in the first place. Fully enamored of the economic engine driving the growth train faster and faster toward an uncertain precipice, economists and their political courtiers (sometimes one and the same) have largely failed to hear the screams of the passengers in the carriages behind them.

Campaign Finance Reform

Looking for the cause of the cause, our highest priority for changing the situation described here is one not usually broached in economics: public funding of political elections.2 Lobbying by vested interests—whether the food industry, big oil, motor-vehicle manufacturers, or pharmaceutical or tobacco companies—has injected massive amounts of money into swaying the U.S. electoral process, causing what we see as the greatest impediment to democracy and environmental action. For example, food manufacturers have spent billions combating the regulation of junk food, making reform extremely difficult or at the very least delaying it by years or even decades.

Greg Drzazgowski/Solutions
A man holds an advertisement for Little Caesars pizza on a busy street corner in Little Rock, Arkansas. A tax on junk-food advertising could help reduce consumption (and lower obesity levels) and encourage a shift away from high-energy sources of food production.

In their recent book, The Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway methodically detail how a small number of ideologically driven physical scientists have subverted the political process over the last 60 years in relation to numerous health and environmental issues.3 What pressure there has been for electoral reform has generally been destined to fail in the face of extremely well-funded opposition.

The Real Costs of Externalities

Assessing the true cost of “negative externalities” is another, more widely acknowledged method that could help us regain the sweet spots in economic growth, health, and the environment. “Negative externality” is an economic term meaning the cost of a certain economic transaction to the commonweal, or to those who have not reaped the benefits of that particular transaction. Obesity is a negative externality of fatty-food production and sales. Environmental pollution is a negative externality of fossil fuel use in consumer-goods production.

Carbon trading, or a carbon tax in some form, has been proposed as a means of pricing environmental externalities. But those who stand to lose from any form of real pricing have obfuscated the discussion with arguments over which method is best, an issue that should surely be subservient to the need for some, indeed any, form of action. There is no excuse for the failure to price negative externalities, as this is essential to realistic economic analysis, even in the most conservative of economic models. Assigning true costs to negative externalities appears to be limited by the absence of our first suggested priority, that is, by the lack of public funding for elections.

Growth Is Not a Synonym for Progress

A third road to achieving balance is to decouple the concepts of growth and progress. We support the ideas proposed by Tim Jackson of the United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission in his groundbreaking book Prosperity without Growth.4 As he points out, growth represents a material advancement as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), or the total economic throughput of goods and services in a country in one year; whereas progress can be a general, nonmaterial advancement in well-being. There is a need for a more effective measure of progress than GDP, which currently leaves human and environmental well-being in its wake.

As has been identified by several groups, we need to move urgently from measures of growth to measures of genuine human progress. Measures of sustainability and well-being that include not just monetary growth but subjective measures of happiness, environmental well-being, and health (a “triple bottom line”) have been well documented and are readily available.5 Only the political will is required to put them into practice (as Bhutan has done, for example, in using happiness as a key indicator). This will ultimately aid the inevitable shift toward a steady-state economy, which must be the long-term goal of any modern sustainable economic system. Any continued talk of “sustainable growth” should be seen for what it is—a total anachronism—and discarded from the economic lexicon. As pointed out by one commentator, growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer.6

Outlining Solutions: The Not So Obvious

In addition to these major but doable suggestions, we recommend some less obvious but practical approaches to recovering the sweet spot. What follows are three proposals that can be enacted at the government level and three at the individual level. Each would complement the more global suggestions listed above.

Personal Carbon Trading

In the first place, governments might institute a system of personal carbon trading, in which carbon units are allocated to individuals in return for reduced use of nonrenewable fuels or even foods requiring energy-intensive production. If these units are not used (i.e., by walking or cycling instead of driving), they can be redeemed for cash from a “carbon bank.” The idea here is to effect a change in attitudes away from conspicuous consumption and toward a more healthy and environmentally acceptable conspicuous nonconsumption.7 The potential dual outcome could be an improvement in human health (e.g., through a reduction in obesity) and potential mitigation of climate change.

In a government-funded trial of this system on an island in the South Pacific,8 we have already been attacked by a small but vocal group of climate change deniers, which suggests to us that the idea must have genuine merit.

Person-Powered Transport

A second government effort, one related to energy expenditure, should be to grant greater priority to non-fossil-fuel-based transport, particularly walking and cycling. Where the car is king, as it is in countries like the United States and Australia, there will be little incentive for people to use the person power that, throughout history, has been a means of keeping body fat within the sweet spot.

A cursory look at underdeveloped and developed countries (i.e., parts of Asia and parts of Europe) shows a progression from walking to bicycles to motorcycles to cars—and then back to motorcycles, to finally arrive at improved infrastructure for bicycles and walking. It’s a progression that is occurring with various levels of sophistication in developed countries and that needs to be facilitated by government supports, such as the development of protected cycleways and walkways and legislating greater right of way to person-powered transport.

Taxes on Junk Food Ads

Government’s third area of influence could be greater restrictions—or a tax—on junk-food advertising. This would not only reduce consumption and obesity levels but would encourage a shift away from high-energy sources of food production, and thus would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A 2002 study for the Victoria Government in Australia, coauthored by one of us (Swinburn), revealed that regulations to restrict junk-food television advertising aimed at children have the greatest potential of 13 interventions modeled for reducing childhood obesity.9 Such were the government’s sensitivities to industry pressures that the full report was never released, and further peer-reviewed publications showing that restrictions on junk-food advertising would actually save money as well as reduce obesity were delayed for several years before being released.10

The Low-Carbon Lifestyle

Hans Splinter
Tourists on a Yellow Bike Tour of Amsterdam in May 2009. Roughly half of all trips in Amsterdam are made by bicycle, making it one of the world’s top bicycling cities. Person-powered transport (like biking) limits greenhouse gas emissions and improves health.

At the individual level, there is no more comprehensive recommendation than to live a “low-carbon lifestyle.” This would have the dual effect of benefiting the individual (by reducing body fat) and the world (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions). Population limitation, of course, must enter into the equation, as reducing per capita emissions by 50 percent while increasing the population by 50 percent would result in no net effect. This should be obvious, although it is seldom acknowledged.

The Joy of Movement

Another recommendation for individuals is a psychological one: to think of movement as an opportunity instead of as an inconvenience. Leaving the car to walk or cycle, for example, using the stairs instead of escalators, using public transport instead of private vehicles—all would be part of a shift in a favorable personal and environmental direction. (Indeed, this is first on a list of four National Guidelines for Physical Activity in Australia.)11

Choosing a Plant-Based Diet

Our third suggestion for the individual is to choose plant-based meals for two or more days each week. This could help reduce the enormous impact of animal food production on the environment and human health. Currently “No Meat Mondays” are promoted in Belgium, where restaurants offer only vegetarian meals and the public is encouraged to avoid meat for at least one day of the week. While not a comprehensive solution, like all of the suggestions made here it could promote a shift to greater awareness about the link between health, the environment, and economic growth.

Final Thoughts

A final question concerns the appropriateness of the political-economic system in managing the three areas we have discussed here—health, the macroeconomy, and the environment. While capitalism seems to have won the day in the ideological argument, our as yet unpublished work since the publication of our book, Planet Obesity, suggests that the debate should now turn to the type of capitalism used in national governance.

What English psychologist Oliver James12 defines as “selfish capitalism,” that is, the individualistic, self-serving, driving form of capitalism characteristic of the United States, Australia, the modern United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand—which we have labeled “hard” capitalism—seems to result in higher levels of obesity, chronic disease, and environmental pollution than the less selfish, or softer forms. The latter is more common in countries like Sweden, Norway, Japan, Germany, and Denmark and is characterized by greater social support and less income disparity.13,14 We must turn the discussion from whether a macroeconomic system is either good or bad (i.e., communism/socialism vs. capitalism) to whether it is appropriate vs. less appropriate for our rapidly changing world.

While economic growth has been one of the biggest positive influences on human health and well-being since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there are indications that we have moved beyond the sweet spot for growth, especially in some Western countries. Addressing health and climate issues must take into account unfettered economic growth but also, possibly, the most appropriate system of governance for achieving well-being.