Europe in 2030: An Optimist Predicts

Tom Marcinko @ 22-07-2009

small worldSo you want an optmistic vision? How about a vision named after Voltaire’s absurdly optimistic hero?

Publishing “Candide’s Garden” in Spielgel Online, Wolfram Eilenberg, who teaches international studies at Indiana University, advances this bracing hypothesis:

Anyone who now wants to talk about the future of Europe must first grasp the fact that we are — at this moment — experiencing a European utopia that has been cultivated for millennia.

The dogma-free, democratic marketplace of ideas, for which Socrates gave his life in Athens, is today a communicative reality in which hundreds of millions of citizens are actively taking part.

Eilenberger, who it turns out is not Dr. Pangloss after all, warns of big changes ahead, but he believes the European Union is well-positioned to weather them. We are entering an age of instant information accompanied by a scarcity of fuel, food, and water.

Put simply, the world will become bigger again.

… Instead of a globalized world economy that crosses continental barriers with ease, we will see continental autarchic zones being formed that will be shaped by the military defense of the basic resources available in each zone. We will thus see the logic of imperial expansion replaced by an aspiration to autarchic inclusion (already the EU strategy). The internal market of each zone will reassume economic primacy. This process does not have to end in war. It could well take an ordered course and lead to a multipolar equilibrium, the stability of which — like that of the Cold War — is guaranteed by an awareness of what military options are not available.

OK, that is sounding a good deal less optimistic. “Does not have to end in war” could mean “may well end that way.” But Eilenberger believes the EU is well positioned to weather these changes:

In cultural terms, Europe is equipped with a plurality of languages that lends itself to innovation as well as a global lingua franca: English (though by 2030 Spanish will be the European Union’s second main language). It is not burdened by any politically effective fundamentalisms, and Europe’s communications and transportation infrastructure leads the world. The thesis of a relative optimum also holds in demographic terms.

As for the USA – well, it’s up to those of us who live there, and our willingness to adapt.

An entire way of life, including the country’s suburban landscapes, will have to be fundamentally restructured. Today it is estimated that this inevitable process of economic and infrastructural renewal — one that will certainly also present new opportunities — will take at least twenty years to complete and, as is already becoming evident, will follow the process of reorientation to internal markets characteristic of autarchic zones. Furthermore, the already irreversible linguistic and cultural Hispanicization of its southern regions means that the United States will face greater integration challenges than will Europe with its smaller Muslim minorities.

Put in more positive terms, the way the United States develops will depend crucially on its readiness to consciously Hispanicize itself and — together with Brazil — to see itself in the long term as the strongest link within a pan-American community.

Which underlines the need to improve our discourse. Europeans, you should hear what our Confederate Party says about you, not to mention about people who speak Spanish. (Oops, is calling Republicans mean names the best way to improve our discourse? Self-criticism to follow. Could just be the reaction of an American with Euro-envy.)

I have no idea whether Eilenberger is right, but it’s a well-thought-out, wide-screen argument that he lays out. We need more of that in science fiction, too.

[Image: JasonRogersFooDogGiraffeBee]


Big Food: What to do about hypereating

Tom Marcinko @ 21-05-2009

lolHere’s an optimistic vision of the future, from the last page of The End of Overeating by former US Food & Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler, MD (available here and elsewhere; reviewed here; author interview by Stephen Colbert here.)

A change in perspective cannot be imposed with mandates, but must evolve as a social consensus. The goal is not to vilify all food and those who serve it, but to change our thinking about big food, those huge portions of layered and loaded food with little nutritional value. We need to look differently at the people and the places that serve it. When their power to manipulate our behavior becomes fully transparent, cues will lose their capacity to entice. Instead of expecting food to be served at every social and business occasion, we’ll realize that many offers of food outside mealtimes do not serve anyone’s interest.

In the future, new social norms and values will emerge, and food choices, offered in smaller portion sizes, will seem ‘right’ to us. That will be what we come to expect, and that will be what we want.

So, yes, as research for my optimstic sf story, I broke down, bought, and read this book, which is short, readable, and provocative.

Kessler’s thesis is that since the 80s, millions of Americans have been on a binge of conditioned hypereating, brought about by a food industry that knows how to get people to keep chowing down even when they’ve eaten more than enough. They do it with marketing, focus grouping, advertising, and even such childishly simple methods as making food easier to chew and swallow.

Kessler cites enough neuroscience data from human and animal experiments to put together a working hypothesis of marketing-driven food addiction. Among other things, the industry excels at creating tastes, textures, situations, and associations that rewire the brain to want more and more of certain kinds of foods. For example,

…[A]n animal that eats a combination of sucrose, chocolate, and alcohol releases the greatest levels of dopamine [a brain chemical associated with “attentional bias.”].

Not surprisingly, these foods have layers of sugar, salt, and fats — often in repeating geological layers. It’s akin to the tobacco industry’s striving to make cigarettes even more addictive. The food merchants seem to accomplish their goals more by trial and error than through pure research, but the result is plain for all to see: A serious obesity problem with, at the very least, a larger health care bill attached.

People need to take responsibility, and Kessler lays out some steps that will probably spawn a lot of self-help books (some of us can use the help). He simply asks that people watch how they feel when exposed to food or come-ons to the same, and alter their behavior accordingly. And maybe do what the French, he says, do, or at least used to do: Take your time at the table, and don’t eat between meals. Old-fashioned, and easier said than done.

He has policy suggestions, too. Some of them ought to be adopted for the sheer entertainment value of the outrage and resistance they’re likely to provoke.

  • Restaurants should list calorie counts, “by mandate, if they’re not willing to do so voluntarily.
  • Food package labels should contain percentages of added sugars, refined carbs, and fats.
  • Public education should focus a jaundiced eye on “big food.”
  • And my personal favorite: Marketing should be monitored and exposed.

Our greatest gift to future generations … would be to find a way to prevent the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle from ever taking hold.

There’s optimism for you. And there’s got to be some way to turn this into a story.

[I Can Haz Cheezburger?, due to sheer lack of willpower]


Did cooking make us evolve?

Tom Marcinko @ 19-05-2009

campfireBecause there’s still got to be an optimistic sf story in here somewhere:

Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangman theorizes that cooking with fire triggered hominids to evolve into humans. His experience in the wild led him to conclude that humans could never live on what chimpanzees eat. Cooking, he thinks, might account for the sharp rise in brain size, and the decrease in the size of teeth, that occurred about 1.6 million years ago in Homo erectus over its predecessor, homo habilis. It might explain our relatively small guts and weak jaws, not to mention certain preferences that seem innately human:

[O]ne of the fascinating things for me as I ventured into this was really learning about what hunters and gatherers eat—and it turns out that there are no records of people having a large amount of their food come from raw food. Everywhere, everyone expects a cooked meal every evening.

The problem is lack of evidence that people used fire that long ago. A lot of scientists believe cooking didn’t really start till only 500,000 years ago.

Lacking the proof for widespread fire use by H. erectus, Wrangham hopes that DNA data may one day help his cause. “It would be very interesting to compare the human and Homo erectus genetics data to see when certain characteristics arose, such as, When did humans evolve improved defenses against Maillard reaction products?” he says, referring to the chemical products of cooking certain foods that can lead to carcinogens.

Human origins have been in the news.  How and when we began is a source of wonder. Call me mammal-centric, but I found it impossible to look at the (eerily well-preserved) face of the newly unearthed lemur-like fossil without feeling a bit of kinship.

[Image: Campfire, P. Sto]


Cheese: Now with artistic expression

Tom Marcinko @ 20-04-2009

hello-kittyAs if to answer the call for more cheese-based sfnal items:

Cheese made with breast milk has been served at the launch of a new art exhibition in London.

The Alejandra Ortiz-Reynoso show is named after the woman who donated the main ingredient. Artist Raul Ortega Ayala wants to “explore our first encounter with food.” ABC News reports that the cheese was served on crackers, and that the milk was donated voluntarily.

Hello Kitty Cream Cheese Head by Slack-a-gogo.

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‘The media’s deliberate stupidity’

Tom Marcinko @ 13-03-2009

beePresident Obama’s budget includes a mere $1.7 million, or 0.00041 percent of spending, for honeybee research. Jamison Foser notes that some politicians find that outrageous or hilarious, but that the debate — if you can call it that — over budget earmarks misses an an important point as far as bees are concerned:

Honeybees are pretty important. See, humans need food. Without it, we die. And bees not only produce honey, they pollinate all kinds of crops — onions, cashews, celery, strawberries, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, apples … you get the picture. Honeybees play an important role in our food supply, and our economy. And honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years, for reasons that are not fully known.

It might be useful to know why. And, while admitting that earmarks might not be the best way to fund research, it might also be useful if politicians would stop criticizing things they don’t understand just because they sound funny. Volcano monitoring, planetarium projectors, fruit-fly research, and studies of the DNA of  threatened species called grizzly bears all come to mind.

But if polticians can’t be bothered to understand, and behave like short-sighted anti-space senators in early Arthur C. Clarke, is it too much to ask that our media could be bothered to investigate claims and counterclaims, instead of chortling like Beavis and Butthead?

[Bee picture by Robert Seber]


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