Give the Fat Kid a Break

Gina Kolata in the New York Times today reports on new attempts to blame obesity for the problems of the world:

Last week the list of ills attributable to obesity grew: fat people cause global warming.

This latest contribution to the obesity debate comes in an article by Sheldon H. Jacobson of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and his doctoral student, Laura McLay. Their paper, published in the current issue of The Engineering Economist, calculates how much extra gasoline is used to transport Americans now that they have grown fatter. The answer, they said, is a billion gallons a year.

This sort of thing is why people in the natural sciences have a hard time taking academic economists seriously.

And if you'd like a side order of dopey policy suggestions to go with your silly cost estimates, the Times has you covered there, too:

The idea of using economic incentives to help people shed pounds comes up in the periodic calls for taxes on junk food. Martin B. Schmidt, an economist at the College of William and Mary, suggests a tax on food bought at drive-through windows. Describing his theory in a recent Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Dr. Schmidt said people would expend more calories if they had to get out of their cars to pick up their food.

"We tax cigarettes in part because of their health cost," he wrote. "Similarly, the individual's decision to lead a sedentary lifestyle will end up costing taxpayers."

I've been kind of busy lately, and haven't really been keeping up with the news, so I might've missed something. Did a bunch of magical alien space fairies sprinkle pixie dust over all the actual problems of the world, leaving this sort of crap as the most pressing concern that we have?

If nothing else, at least think about the Reefer Madness effect here. There are real health risks associated with obesity, but if people insist on putting forward these sorts of ludicrously exaggerated claims about the societal costs, it's just going to undermine the serious health messages. In just the same way that telling teenagers that their heads will explode if they smoke marijuana makes them less likely to believe you about the dangers of cocaine and methamphetamine, blaming obesity for our oil consumption is going to lead to fat people saying "Screw you," and ordering another cheeseburger. At the drive-through.

More like this

We have a lap dog. She is bred to be a companion to people and she excels at it. We were going to name her "EPA" after her function (lapdog), but chose a more human name instead. After all, she's a dog. Despite the fact that she doesn't get much exercise, she isn't fat. But obesity is a problem for…
Gas prices may be trending down, but they are still quite high. How can we save gas? One of my colleagues suggested we can save gas by getting rid of all drive throughs. This means it is my job to estimate how much could be saved. **Starting Assumptions (estimations)** How many drive-throughs…
We are fat. We are really, really fat. While some people are overweight/obese for very real medical conditions (thyroid issues, side-effects of medications, etc), the fact of the matter is, most of us just eat/drink too much crap and we live sedentary lifestyles. That doesnt mean that we actually…
There is an interesting discussion going on at the Becker-Posner blog about obesity abatement. Richard Posner talks about the NY ordinance requiring that calorie counts of food be prominently labeled fast food restaurants: The significance of the New York City ordinance lies in its requiring that…

"This sort of thing is why people in the natural sciences have a hard time taking academic economists seriously."

I'm in the natural sciences... and I don't see why this is silly. For that matter, if we ate less, we'd burn less fossil fuels shipping food cross-country. If we drank less soda, we'd spend less fuel processing aluminum cans.

A billion gallons of gasoline here and there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

Ummm ... I think the "figure" of a billion gallons a year makes more sense if you compare it to the figure of 140 billion gallons of gasoline which is actually used up over a year. So your savings from making everyone skinny would ammount to less than a percent, (assuming the "figure" quoted in Jacobson-McLay analysis is not an overstatement). Any one can tell you that meaningful statements can only be made when you compare like things, and not make up stuff like storing the energy of farts from all over the world over a year can power a Boeing 747 across the Suez Canal. Such analyses belong in kids' trivia books and Ripley's Believe it or not, lets not bring them into serious academic discussion.

By Anti-dlamming (not verified) on 29 Oct 2006 #permalink

On the average, one year of global wildfires emits at least as much CO2 as all the petroleum recovered worldwide in 2006 100% burned - 337 times. Them's gov't numbers, boy,

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/tuned.htm

If you wish to rake some muck, supply a correction factor for "EPA ESTIMATED" gasoline mileage vs. the real world. If the correction factor is larger than 0.8, you are also a liar.

"I've been kind of busy lately, and haven't really been keeping up with the news, so I might've missed something. Did a bunch of magical alien space fairies sprinkle pixie dust over all the actual problems of the world, leaving this sort of crap as the most pressing concern that we have?"

That sir has to be the greatest quote, ever.
Cheers from the Magical Alien Space Fairy Association (MASFA)

Scooped!

I wasn't going to post something nearly so thoughtful, but I had a blog post brewing in my mind, in which I'd be bitching all about the whole obseity infatuation.

Maybe I'll still do it, but it will be much more childish, whining, and personal :)

...like storing the energy of farts from all over the world over a year can power a Boeing 747 across the Suez Canal.

Now that is an experiment that must be done! Science wants to know! We have to try!

(And I bet it wouldn't take all the farts of all the world over the year. Hell, sit me down with the right dinner and hang around with me for a week or two....)

-Rob

Here's a little something to add to your calculations:

for every pound of fat metabolized 2.9 pounds of carbon dioxide are generated. So if 150,000,000 Americans exercised off 20 pounds of fat 43.5 million tons of CO2 will be produced

which will, of course add to more global warming. This problem, of course will be averted if people will walk off those pounds of fat instead of driving.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 29 Oct 2006 #permalink

Quantitatively, the numbers seem about right, if you assume gasoline consumption responds linearly to small changes in gross weight of car+passenger, at fixed car engine technology.
I got the same number as anti-dlamming, a bit over 100 billion gallons gasoline consumption so claimed potential changes of less than 1% - hm, wonder if they factored in the weight of the extra groceries... ;-) - anyway, a gross weight change in cars of ~ 1% due to people being bigger seems probable.
Course the empty weight of the car itself being higher, driven in part by the people being bigger and wanting bigger cars, is a much larger effect, more like 10% change.

However, it seems like we're missing out on something obvious here: smoking dope causes weight gain! (the legendary "munchies")... I think the government could really get behind that sort of a social engineering attempt.

"This sort of thing is why people in the natural sciences have a hard time taking academic economists seriously."

These people are not in the econ department at Illinois. They are both in Engineering. So, you owe us economists an apology, and need to aim some introspection at the natural sciences.

These people are not in the econ department at Illinois. They are both in Engineering. So, you owe us economists an apology, and need to aim some introspection at the natural sciences.

Engineering isn't a natural science either, but I apologize for the unjustified insult to economists.

from http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/tuned.htm:

Posit burns average a paltry one gram of fuel/cm2, the weight of 1/5 teaspoon of a water or a dry unmown blade of grass. That is a gross underestimate (consider trees) and we will calculate its immodest implications.

Actually it's an overestimate, at least for trees:

By 1979, Sackett reported average fuel loads at 22 tons per acre (ranging from 8 to 48 tons per acre) for 62 Southwestern pine stands. Harrington (1982) verified the heavy fuel loading, finding an average of 34 tons per acre in southeastern Arizona. Formerly uncommon large, woody fuels averaged about 8 tons per acre.

-- http://forestfire.nau.edu/fuelloads.htm
22 tons per acre is only .54 grams per cm2. Forests don't burn completely. If they're talking about short tons instead of metric tons, it's even less.

Worldwide, "humans burn anywhere from 750,000 to 8.2 million km2 of forest and grassland around the world,"
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Um, notice the "humans" there. These aren't wildfires. But yes, fires both natural and manmade to contribute a significant proportion of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year.

The Earth's total petroleum consumption averaged 1.6 million bbl/d in 2006. We will allow carbon sumps like asphalt remaining after refining to appear as burned fuel. (42 gallons/bbl)(1.60·106 bbl/d)(365 days) is 24.5 billion gallons for the year 2006.
http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/steo/pub/contents.html

This is what http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/steo/pub/contents.html actually says:

Despite prevailing high prices, world petroleum consumption is projected to grow by 1.2 million bbl/d in 2006, and by 1.5 million bbl/d in 2007

grow by. Not is. The actual consumption is more like 80 million barrels per day. ( http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/oil.html ). Oh, and don't forget to add coal and natural gas on top of that.

Thanks for playing.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 30 Oct 2006 #permalink