THE BLOG

The Empty Calories of Fossil Fuels

03/20/2015 04:42 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

In nutrition science, there's a famous paradox: in many parts of the world, especially the "advanced" nations, the poorest people are not starving. Instead they're too fat: poverty is correlated with obesity. In the U.S., for instance, one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year are obese, compared with one-quarter who earn at least $50,000, according to a project of the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Hungry people with limited income turn to the abundant, inexpensive calories in high-carbohydrate foods, and do so at the expense of their health and the health of their children. They are overweight and malnourished and unhealthy, but they're not hungry.

By choosing fossil fuels as our primary energy source, we are doing just the same thing: imperiling the health of the planet by turning to an abundant, cheap source of energy (calories, after all) and ignoring the serious effects. We may be shortening the life of Earth, but, hey, we're not starved for electricity or heat or transportation. In fact, it's so inexpensive that we gorge on it, over-heating or over-air-conditioning even unused indoor spaces, driving enormous vehicles, lighting every empty outdoor space. In our gluttony, we're stuffing the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and giving the planet obesity-related diabetes. Only, unlike the human disease of diabetes, the potential impact of climate change is not well understood or easily controlled.

Price is just one of the reasons low-income people eat such low-nutrition foods. Another major factor is access. According to the same report, "more than 29 million Americans lack access to healthy, affordable foods. They live in 'food deserts,' meaning they do not have a supermarket or supercenter within a mile of their home if they live in an urban area, or within 10 miles of their home if they live in a rural area. Families living in lower-income neighborhoods and in communities of color are particularly hard hit." The wrong kind of energy, whether it's ultra-processed food or highly refined petroleum, is served up at every corner or delivered right to your home. To opt for a healthier choice, you have to recognize the impact of you making a serious commitment.

It's astonishing that a considerable swath of society fiercely defends fossil fuels (they're abundant and cheap, so why consider anything else?) and disparages the signs of planetary diabetes. That fossil fuel businesses do so is no surprise--purveyors of 36-ounce sodas want to sell more soda, and let the buyer beware. But millions of people who pay careful attention to the health of their families, making sure that their children eat their vegetables and understand the importance of a balanced diet, seem to think it's okay to feed the planet nothing but junk food. Despite the consequences, it seems too expensive and too much trouble to prevent planetary obesity.

Abundant, cheap, unhealthy calories are bad for us all. We need to pay a little more and go the extra mile to feed the planet a better diet. And some exercise would not hurt, either.