The "Voice of the People"

Dissecting online users’ reactions on an article by the Guardian, this essay examines a variety of written opinions on how to deal with climate change.

Image by Ryoji Iwata

Jasper Steggink is an anthropologist living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Currently working for Namasté Foundation.

This essay is featured in the Students of Cultural Anthropology Journal

2,500 words

Solutions on how to tackle climate change by the Guardian commentators

Dissecting online users’ reactions on an article by the Guardian, this essay examines a variety of written opinions on how to deal with climate change. The online article used for this is titled Huge reduction in meat-eating ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown, written by Damian Carrington (2018). Through the examination of the comments, this essay problematizes multiple possible solutions to problems caused by climate change and touches upon academic debates revolving these solutions.

The Internet is a peculiar place. You can share knowledge from all over the world, meet amazing people with a diversity of backgrounds, take all day to browse cat pictures and GIF recipes, or… have an overheated flame war with anonymous others.

Everybody is familiar with both the useful and useless side of the World Wide Web. Personally, I tend to kill most time browsing what for me feels useful, but which arguably is not. One thing in particular fuels my curiosity, my guilty pleasure regarding internet culture: the comment sections of online articles published by the Guardian (1). Lurking over those comments, I get the idea that I’m reading the “voice of the people” (2). Mostly because the site offers users to “vote” for the most insightful comment. Users that deem a written comment informative or agree with what it says, can “recommend” this comment. Comments with the most recommendations appear higher in the thread, thus the ones on top hold what seems to be the popular opinion. This works best with articles that spark massive debate.

Politically laden articles tend to be most commented on, mainly those with Brexit in the title, but also other large debates, like the Israel/Palestine conflict, or on how to battle climate change. The latter got my attention because the comment section seemed very contested and showed a variety of trajectories we, as mankind, can consider to prevent the annihilation of the human race. And since the Guardian receives over 50.000 comments per day (The Guardian 2016), the opinions on the matter tend to vary considerably.

Through a limited qualitative analysis (3) on the comments below one article by the Guardian, this essay portrays different written opinions on how to deal with climate change. The article used for this is titled Huge reduction in meat-eating ‘essential’ to avoid climate breakdown (4), written by Damian Carrington (2018). Through the examination of the comments, this essay problematizes multiple possible solutions to problems caused by climate change and, by doing so, touches upon academic debates revolving these intertwined solutions.

Population pressure

The article starts off strong. The first paragraph of the article summarizes; “Huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change, according to the most comprehensive analysis yet of the food system’s impact on the environment. In western countries, beef consumption needs to fall by 90% and be replaced by five times more beans and pulses”. The article addresses the predicted population growth and rise in global income, which demands a dietary change: “[f]eeding a world population of 10 billion is possible, but only if we change the way we eat and the way we produce food” (Carrington 2018). It was perhaps this last sentence that inspired user ianx to write his or her reaction, which resulted in becoming the most recommended comment:

ianx (5)
Why 10billion people? Once it’d reached that we’ll try to fit 15billion on the planet. Control the human population and the environment has a chance.

ianx’s statement speaks of fear of the “Malthusian collapse”: uncontrolled population growth that surpasses growth in the food supply, resulting in massive famine (Ebenstein 2010, 87; Malthus 1798, 61). It is noteworthy that the first reply on ianx‘s comment is a rather simple yet most important “How? (6)” This question is important because although population control can involve policies that improve citizens lives by providing them (better) ways to control their reproduction, more forceful programs, like the one-child policy of the Chinese government, quickly come to mind. This extreme example of population planning restricted families to have more than one child. Although the Chinese policy did reduce the fertility rate, it came with a price, for its inadvertent outcome was a worrisome distortion in the country’s sex ratio. According to Avraham Ebenstein, the unintended consequences of the one-child policy were that the policy created a sex ratio at birth reaching 118 boys born for every 100 girls in 2005 (Ebenstein 2010, 105). The lesson that policy makers in family planning can derive from this is that “encouraging or forcing people to change their fertility behavior without addressing their fundamental preferences may have unanticipated consequences” (Ebenstein 2010, 105), Failing to do so will effect succeeding generations, signifying the importance of the “How?”.

ianx’s statement speaks of fear of the “Malthusian collapse”: uncontrolled population growth that surpasses growth in the food supply, resulting in massive famine.


Leaving the complexity of the practicalities around population planning aside, another remark can be made out of ianx’s comment. By linking the human population to the current state of the environment, the commentator lays bare a fundamental term when it comes to sustainability: the Anthropocene, made popular by Paul J. Crutzen (2002). The term holds the idea that humans have altered the global environment to such a degree that a new geological epoch is introduced to recognize this impact, supplementing the Holocene (2002, 23). This same observation can be seen in the comment of Mizakov, who not only adds weight to the problem, but also proposes a contested solution:

Mizakov (7)
30% of greenhouse gases come from farming to feed an ever growing number of humans….
How about we give free contraception to the third world instead of forcing westerners to make all the sacrifices…

The comment is contested for two reasons, firstly because it imposes the accountability on the “Third World”. The issue of accountability and responsibility is a much-debated subject within the discourse of the Anthropocene. One side of the debate sees problems caused by human activity as a global problem, implying that “we” are all equally responsible and thus should all participate in taking action, yet others argue against this logic, stating that there is inequality in global consumption patterns. The latter is illustrated by Vaclav Smil, in his book Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems (2008), in which he looks at annual energy consumption in gigajoule (GJ) per capita, calculated through measuring the total primary energy supply (TPES) of a country, divided by its population. Smil states that in 2003, the Canadian TPES averaged 450 GJ per capita, and 360 GJ per capita for the U.S. Comparing this to Western Europe (160 GJ), Brazil (50 GJ), India (15 GJ) and the poorest African countries (>1 GJ), made Smil conclude that “the difference in modern energy consumption between a subsistence pastoralist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than 1,000-fold” (Smil 2008, 258). Through this reasoning one could argue that since the “West” is the biggest contributor, it too should live up to its responsibilities. Thus, for Mizakov to reason that it shouldn’t be the “westerners to make all the sacrifices” seems like the world upside down.

Secondly, Mizakov talks of “we”, yet it remains unclear who Mizakov means with “we”. The commentator could mean “westerners”, as in, the inhabitants of the west, especially of western Europe or North America. If so, then who exactly? The western nation-states? The U.N.? Or western NGO’s? Or does the commentator addresses someone else entirely? Mizakov’s statement signifies a lack of a global agent that can create collective action. The danger is that if it does become a sole western project, environmental colonialism is prone to happen. Like Conrad P. Kottak notes as one of the contesting issues for “the new ecological anthropology” (1999), is that ethnoecological clashes can occur when environmentalists from northern nations “preach ecological morality to the rest of the world”. Kottak writes that “Brazilians complain that Northerners talk about global needs and saving the Amazon only after they destroyed their own forests for First World economic growth” (1999, 27). When people are asked to change the way they live, they usually resist. Ironically, the article indirectly asks citizens of western nations to change, which exemplifies the contesting arguments of the academic discourse and which might explain Mizakov’s finger-pointing.

Image by Ryoji Iwata

Technology, our savior

A more refreshing approach to solve the climate breakdown comes user Neutronstar2080, who points the finger to the “huge multinationals” and the capitalist society they benefit from. A fair point, taking into consideration that “100 [corporate and state producing entities] account for 71% of global industrial GHG emissions” (Griffin 2017, 8).

Neutronstar2080 (8)
I’m all up for this, less meat, less consumption, less fucking plastic, to me it’s a no brainer. But let’s face it, the reason we’re in this shit is capitalism and it’s need for constant growth. Huge multinationals with deep pockets, lobbyists bribing governments, corrupt governments who have zero interest in the environment and the well being of our fellow human only profit. I’m afraid to say our only hope is technology because you can forget it if you think we’re all going to pull together. It would need a disaster where literally billions died for us to sit up and say enough is enough and by then [there] maybe noone left.

As understood from the comment, Neutronstar2080 sees technology as the only way out of the “shit” created by capitalism. Although it is rather speculative to guess what Neutronstar2080 means with the word “shit”, let us presume the user means the Anthropocene.

Ideas about capitalism as the cause of the Anthropocene, and with technology as the “only hope”, is contested. One scholar that problematizes this line of thinking is anthropologist and professor of Human Ecology Alf Hornborg, who understands not human life but specifically modern technology as critically influencing the evolution of money, capitalism, the Industrial Revolution and, as a result, the Anthropocene (2015, 62). Hornborg argues that “our biological capacity for abstract representation (as in language and other semiotic systems) is prerequisite to the very idea of money, and [money] was in turn prerequisite to the Industrial Revolution that inaugurated the Anthropocene. [I]t is precisely through this chain of events that studies of natural and human history, while each reserving its specific arsenal of concepts and methods, can be integrated. Modern technology is the pivot of both, because it implicates both biophysical and socio-cultural dimensions of our increasingly globalised history” (2015, 62). Because of the importance of technology, and to critique post-Cartesian dualism in social science, he proposes to rename the current epoch the Technocene (2015, 62).

Hornborg address technology neither as threat nor solution for the problems that come with living in the Technocene, but rather as a cause. Therefore, if technology caused the current predicament, it almost feels paradoxical to think it will also “save” us from it. That being said, I wouldn’t dare to say that technology (with all the vagueness surrounding the term) can’t help humanity to overcome the problems linked to either the Anthropocene or the Technocene, simply because I’m no futurologist or prophet.

A mere 2% of the U.K. population considers themselves to be vegetarian.

Conscious consumers

All of the highlighted commentators above have put the solution to the problems caused by climate change outside their own range of responsibilities. According to the mentioned users, the problems are caused by either too many people (ianx), overpopulation in the “Third World” (Mizakov), or capitalism, lack of corporate responsibility and a corrupt government (Neutronstar2080). But what about individual responsibility? Why not take matters in one’s own hands? According to LondonRoots, this is what needs to be done, and probably is done by the user itself, judging from the comment:

LondonRoots (9)
Here come the incredulous meat eaters…

LondonRoots doesn’t make many friends with this open attack on non-vegetarians. Logically, perhaps, since according to a four year study done by Public Health England, a mere 2% of the U.K. population considers themselves to be vegetarian (Beverley et al. 2014, 57). And, if what’s written in the article is correct, if a reduction of 90% in meat-eating is needed to avoid a climate crisis, practically all current meat eaters have to reconsider their diet, and have to be willing to lower the amount of meat they consume. Perhaps this social change needs to be initiated politically, perhaps through social movements, ideally through both.

There are numerous movements and initiatives that are striving to achieve social change. Examples are the Ecological footprint, which accounts “the proportion of land and water needed to support someone’s overall consumption levels and reabsorb the associated waste” (MySTOA 2013), the Food miles, which assesses the distance that food travelled to reach the consumer (Engelhaupt 2008, 3482), and the Food Emissions, measuring the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production (Popp, Lotze-Campen, and Bodirsky 2010; CGIAR:CCAFS, n.d.). A fundamental idea behind these initiatives is that through the strength of an informed decision, the consumer has the agency to change the structure he or she is living in. Making those who don’t believe their behavior has an effect on the world “incredulous”, as written by LondonRoots. Yet, even those who are trying to be “conscious consumers” might have problems deciding which initiative should function as a guideline for their consumption, for some of them are deemed contested. While many people tend to think that “buying local”, consuming that which has the lowest food miles, is most ecologically sustainable, global climate and energy lead scientist Christopher L. Weber and civil and environmental engineer H. Scott Matthews beg to differ. According to them, the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by specific foods have a greater negative impact than the average food miles. A change in diet is thus crucial. “Shifting less than one day per week’s [sic] worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food” (2008, 3508). Perhaps “buying local” is a way to legitimize the consumption of GHG heavy foods, making LondonRoots’s comment sound a bit more like a teasing wakeup call than a direct insult.

Image by Ryoji Iwata


By dissecting popular comments in reaction to an article by the Guardian, I have tried to playfully problematize the issues around preventing a future climate crisis. By the incorporation of the commentators I aimed not only to touch upon the contesting debates revolving around this topic, but also to bridge the gap between the “voice of the people” and the academic world. Not to create a hierarchy in validity, but to show that contestation is present in both. To show a parallel between debates on open message boards and that within academic discourse.

From examining both the online arguments as well as the academic discourse on the subject of climate change, one can conclude that many of the posed problems and proposed solutions intertwine. Considering the scope of the problem, every solution has consequences that will impact the livelihoods of large numbers of people, and not one solution further problemizes the issue. This intertwined nature of the debates is something I have tried to underline on a more meta-level within the essay.

Lastly, I have also shown the variety of responsibility claims, ranging from westerners, people in the “Third World” and capitalists onto individuals. Yet, when addressing these actors, questions regarding power and interest arise. Who is to blame for the situation humanity has found itself in? Which groups of people will suffer the most from negative effects caused by climate change? And do they have the means to make a change? Will climate change effect only those who are marginalized and economically poor? Or is Dipesh Chakrabarty right when he writes that there will neither be lifeboats for the rich and privileged (2009, 221), making us all equally vulnerable. Either way, referring to the source of the Guardian article, we can make an effort by committing ourselves to eating less meat. Climate change is proven to be a valid threat and the meat industry plays a big part in this, making BeyondnessOfThings’s observation spot on, when the user writes:

BeyondnessOfThings (10)
The steaks are high…

  1. Website:
  2. Disclaimer: I take into consideration that seeing a comment section as “the voice of the people” is inherently flawed. Because the commentators are anonymous, there is no data to prove any parallel between commentator and the general opinion of nation-state citizens. I do not claim to have quantitative facts on opinions regarding climate change.
  3. Due to the large amount of comments (2.339 at the time of writing), only the most recommended are highlighted in this essay. These comments are chosen because they are the most recommended (with the exception for Mizakov’s comment, highlighted later in the essay, which is solely chosen for its relevance) and both reflect themes revolving academic debates, as well as show the contested nature of these debates.
  4. Article can be found here: to-avoid-climate-breakdown
  5. With 330 recommendations ianx’s comment was the most recommended comment at the time of writing (oktober 2018).
  6. Comment made by user personsunknown.
  7. With 79 recommendations Mizakovs comment is not one of the most recommended comments (but 12th most recommended instead), but highlighted because of its added value to debates around the issue of responsibility, and the Anthropocene.
  8. Neutronstar2080’s comment is the second most recommended comment (289 recommendations).
  9. LondonRoots’s comment is the fourth most recommended (235 recommendations).
  10. The humorous side of a serious debate. BeyondnessOfThings’s comment is third most recommended (248 recommendations).

Beverley, B., A. Lennox, A. Prentice, C. Bates, P. Page, S. Nicholson, and G. Swan. 2014. “National Diet and Nutrition Survey Results from Years 1 , 2 , 3 and 4 (Combined) of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009-2011/2012).” London Crown Copyright4: 1–158.

Carrington, Damian. 2018. “Huge Reduction in Meat-Eating ‘Essential’ to Avoid Climate Breakdown.” The Guardian.

CGIAR:CCAFS. n.d. “Food Emissions.” CGIAR:CCAFS.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry35 (4): 197–222.

Crutzen, Paul J. 2002. “Geology of Mankind.” Nature415 (6867): 23.

Ebenstein, Avraham. 2010. “The ‘Missing Girls’ of China and the Unintended Consequences of the One Child Policy.” Journal of Human Resources45 (1): 87–115.

Engelhaupt, Erika. 2008. “Do Food Miles Matter?” Environmental Science and Technology42 (10): 3482.

Griffin, Paul. 2017. “The Carbon Majors Database CDP: Carbon Majors Report 2017.” CDP.

Hornborg, Alf. 2015. “The Political Ecology of the Technocene.” In The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, 57–69. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kottak, Conrad P. 1999. “The New Ecological Anthropology.” American Anthropologist101 (1): 23–35.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J. Johnson.

MySTOA. 2013. “Food Eco-Footprint.” YouTube.

Popp, Alexander, Hermann Lotze-Campen, and Benjamin Bodirsky. 2010. “Food Consumption, Diet Shifts and Associated Non-CO2greenhouse Gases from Agricultural Production.” Global Environmental Change20 (3). Elsevier Ltd: 451–62.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008.Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

The Guardian. 2016. “How Can We Improve the Guardian Comments? Share Your Views.” The Guardian.

Weber, Christopher L., and H. Scott Matthews. 2008. “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States.” Environmental Science & Technology42 (10): 3508–13.

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Special thanks to Martijn, Teun en Jesse