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Ozempic is a climate story
If corporations' claims about weight loss impacting consumption are true, then weight loss is a degrowth story--and not just for waistlines.
I can’t stop thinking about the weight-loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy.
I’m not taking these drugs, but I’m definitely in the camp that believes that, given the co-morbidities of obesity in our society, we should probably be prescribing it to many, many, many, many people. I’m also in agreement with Scott Galloway that they are arguably the biggest business story in the world right now.
And further, they could end up being a huge climate story. Witness these twin reports:
United Airlines reported, because of the popularity of these drugs, that if everyone who flew lost 10 pounds, it could start saving as much as $80 million per year on jet fuel.
Both of these outcomes have potentially significant climate impacts.
In the case of Walmart, we know that food is among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The production, land, and water use of food account for 17 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year (out of a total of about 50 billion tons), and that doesn’t account for the shipping, packaging, and waste of food. People eating less, buying less food, throwing away less packaging, hopefully wasting less because they don’t have as much around the house—over time, that could add up to some extremely significant reductions in emissions.
When it comes to United Airlines, it’s even more straightforward. Less jet fuel = less pollution.
I bring this up partly because it shows how intertwined everything we do is with climate impact—if we lose weight, as a society, we emit less, but the reason is that so much of our climate impact comes down to consumption.
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There’s a term that comes up when you talk to enough climate activists, and that term is degrowth.
We cause so much damage to the environment, we wealthy, industrialized nations, not only because we burn fossil fuels to produce energy and use still more fossil fuels to produce plastic and synthetic fabrics and chemicals and other goods. It’s because we produce and consume so damn much of it all. We grow and grow and grow and eat and eat and eat and shop and shop and shop and drive and drive and drive and build bigger and bigger houses and make bigger and bigger cows and sheep and tomatoes and apples and SUVs.
As a result, there’s a school of thought that says that the only way for us to truly solve the climate crisis is not just for us to stop growing, but to actually shrink—our economy, our consumption, our output, everything.
The degrowth argument comes in various degrees of extremism, up to and including calls for deindustrialization, sometimes by violent means. It’s also fundamentally the opposite of how we actually measure success in a capitalist society—our measurement of gross domestic product, for example, is quite literally a growth calculation. All of our economic goals are basically pinned to growth, whether as investors or policymakers or CEOs or shareholders.
But if you’re a listener to Everybody in the Pool, you’ll know that every time I introduce you to a new solution, be it sustainable alternatives to the things you’re already buying or eating vegan, or reusable gift wrap, or hydrogen-powered airplanes, I always end with even simpler advice: less.
Less of everything you’re doing is good for the climate if you’re middle to upper-middle class in an industrialized country like the United States. But advising “less” hasn’t traditionally been a winning argument with consumers. That’s one of the reasons Bill Gates and others are so insistent that invention and innovation are the only way out of the climate crisis, because, as former President George Bush (senior) once put it, “the American lifestyle is non-negotiable.”
But … is it? Is it really non-negotiable to stop doing things that are bad for us and bad for the planet at the same time?
The need for Americans to take drugs to control their appetites and lose weight is a recognition that the American lifestyle is, in fact, killing us. It’s not a sacrifice to consume less, it’s an improvement. Eating less food, much like buying fewer, higher-quality clothes that look and fit far better than fast fashion, riding an electric bike in the sunshine, or eating a plant-based diet that makes you feel and look healthier and keeps your blood pressure and cholesterol under control—those are all choices that positively impact the climate, but they’re not sacrifices. They’re a rejection of the things that are, in fact, bad for us in all kinds of ways.
Now, you could liken Ozempic and Wegovy to carbon capture technology, or at least the way some critics view carbon capture technology. Simply put, in case you’re new to that debate, there are those who believe carbon capture and storage is a crutch to let fossil fuel extraction continue and yes, grow, without reducing overall emissions. Read more here.
Viewed through that lens, these drugs are a tech innovation that allows us to keep doing some version of what we’re doing—making and eating crap. After all, it’s the food system that’s broken. We produce far more ultra-processed, calorie-dense, and nutrient-light food than we need in this country, and as a result, food companies need to keep selling us food. Our portion sizes are gigantic, and the aisles of every grocery store are a smorgasbord of sugar and salt and soda. Industrial livestock production is a horror of antibiotics, chemicals, hormones, and monopolistic business practices that actually put small, regenerative, free-range, and more-humane livestock producers out of business.
I don’t know if people who are taking medication to lose weight will always consume fewer calories. I don’t know if what they do end up eating is healthier and less processed than what they were eating before. But if these medications are changing consumption patterns enough that Walmart and United and other massive corporations are incorporating it into their business planning, that’s a very big deal, and it tells me it could be more than just a crutch to keep making and eating crap.
In keeping with my theory that a drop becomes a flood, imagine all the other ways that a shrinking American population—by which I mean size, not number—might change their lifestyles.
They might buy more clothes to replace the old ones, but those clothes will be made of less fabric because they’ll be smaller. They might have more interest in smaller cars because they won’t feel uncomfortable in them or have reduced mobility and knee pain that can come with being severely or morbidly obese.
Medical waste is monstrous—imagine a society that has exponentially fewer hip and knee surgeries. Perhaps instead of watching television, a newly fit and active population goes outside more, consuming less electricity at home, and while they’re out there, they discover the despoiling of the natural world and vow to clean up plastic and pollution.
A population that consumes less food probably orders less online food delivery, which some scientists have identified as an obstacle to reaching 2030 sustainability goals.
Or, everyone taking these drugs could ricochet right back to the same level of eating they were doing before, making food companies happy and United Airlines sad. That could happen, too.
Either way, I bring this up to try to dispel false narratives, whether about the non-negotiability of the American lifestyle, the belief that nothing we do has any real impact or the argument that any decrease in consumption has to be a miserable sacrifice. And finally and especially, let’s dispel the belief that there’s some kind of perfect and pure way to get where we need to go
If a bunch of people take Ozempic or Wegovy to lose weight for vanity and create a halo effect of fewer carbon emissions, that still counts. If they take it to be healthier and live longer and avoid diabetes and heart disease and joint pain and long COVID and have a knock-on effect in the form of fewer carbon emissions, even better!
We’re in the climate economy now, and everything we do matters. In this case in particular, less really could be a whole lot more.
Note: As I write this, food giant Nestle reported earnings and investors asked whether the company is concerned about weight-loss drugs eating (ahem) into its food-sales profits. The company said, basically, “not yet,” but that it’s keeping an eye on things and even considering developing companion products specifically for people losing weight on these drugs (sounds like protein bars, basically).