Society & culture

Why we'll be eating less lettuce in the future

In the future everyone will wear white. Our houses and our cars will all be white too because white helps to cool the earth by reflecting the sun's rays back into space - the so-called Albedo factor. The earth has a natural albedo factor of around 30 per cent. In contrast, freshly fallen snow has an albedo factor of around 90 per cent. This is important because if we keep heating up the earth by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere we will have to start doing something - like wearing more white - to cool it down. The idea of 'albedo chic' is of course a joke invented by a science fiction writer called Gregory Benford but the problem is real enough with global temperatures forecast to increase by 1.5 to 2.0 degrees between now and 2036. One way of dealing with this predicament is the use of sustainable energy sources. This is the option favoured by the so-called 'Sandals' - broadly speaking the conventional green or back-to-nature lobby who believe in natural and low-tech solutions such as wind power. The second camp is the 'Nukes' who take a more radical view by proposing high-tech solutions such as nuclear power, carbon-scrubbed gas and sunlight reduction using perhaps a vast curtain or mirrors floating in space to deflect some of the sunlight away from the planet. Interestingly, Europe tends to favour the former and the US the latter, which could lead to some interesting policy conflicts in the future. Either way the public mood is changing and environmentalism is now a hot political and social trend in most regions. One relatively new idea is sequestration - the pumping of carbon dioxide back into the ground from whence it came (either as oil, gas or coal). Theoretically this is a totally safe practice, but realistically who really knows about the hundred-year consequences of such actions. Another innovative idea is to take the carbon dioxide out of the air, using filtering devices, before it can contribute to global warming. We could even see the development of man-made low-level thin film 'clouds' to reflect sunlight and cool the seas. And the reason that lettuce might be unfashionable in the future? Modern agriculture is wasteful because growing food to feed to animals to feed to humans uses up resources including energy to make everything from the feed to pharmaceuticals. Becoming vegetarian would reduce the global requirement for agricultural land by 50 per cent. However, eating lettuce does not help. Lettuce is inefficient (selfish) because it uses lots of water (and in many countries, heat) but the nutritional content is close to zero,
Ref: The Sunday Times (UK), 11 June 2006 '"Whiter than white?" The last refuge', B. Appleyard. (thanks Richard Pearey)
Search words: climate change, lettuce, carbon

Suspects not citizens

In the UK, if you are charged with a criminal offence, a sample of your DNA is taken and added to a national DNA database where it stays indefinitely - even if you are subsequently acquitted. So far the UK DNA database contains the profiles of 3,130,429 people, which is 5.23 per cent of the UK population. In contrast the US DNA database contains just 0.99 per cent of the US population, while most other databases across the world contain the names of fewer than 100,000 people. In theory DNA 'fingerprinting' a very good idea, not least because the technology now allows a sample to be created using just a singe cell (from an ear print on a window, for example). In the future police officers will probably carry handheld devices that can instantly upload DNA samples and test these samples against the database. The samples will also be used to create 3D photo-fits of suspects, giving police officers accurate information on likely height, hair colour, skin colour and perhaps even personality - all from a single cell. Privacy campaigners are obviously up in arms about this but realistically they don't have much of a chance, not least because nobody else seems to even be aware of, or care about, what's happening. This is a shame (nay a tragedy) because once a government starts to view all its citizens as suspects there will be subtle changes to how everything from policing to law-making operates. Also, imagine if the science behind DNA fingerprinting was ever proven to be flawed? Unlikely I know, but not totally impossible.
Ref: The Guardian (UK), 28 October 2006, 'Suspect nation', S. Jeffries.
Search words: DNA, crime, databases, privacy

The kids are alright

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research says that a significant number of adults in the UK are afraid of teenagers and would not intervene if they witnessed a group of 14-year-old boys vandalising a bus shelter. Thirty-two per cent of Britons said they would refrain from getting involved because of fears for their safety. In contrast, 65 per cent of Germans, 52 per cent of Spaniards and 50 per cent of Italians say they would say something. Of course, this culture of fear is almost entirely the creation of the tabloid media, aided and abetted by politicians. The UK has one of the lowest child crime rates in Europe and crime statistics have remained remarkably static for a number of years. On the subject of youth also comes news of an anecdotal nature from Boris Johnson (Editor of the Spectator and Conservative MP for Henley). Mr Johnson was recently interviewing various members of Generation Y for a research job and was pleasantly surprised about how emotionally tranquil and literate all of the applicants were. Now admittedly anyone applying for a research job at the Spectator is likely to come from a reasonably privileged middle-class background, but nevertheless the total lack of anger is interesting. Twenty-five years ago there were two opposing worldviews (market capitalism versus state socialism) and this tended to reinforce class divisions and angst. Now this divide has more or less evaporated. Another significant shift over the past quarter century has been the number of women entering the workforce that has contributed to the general feminisation of society (witness, for instance the 50 per cent decline of male teachers in UK secondary schools between 1981 and 2001). Men now tend to be more emotionally aware and it is often women that can be pushy and ambitious. The other factor to take into account is the long economic boom and the abundance of jobs. This makes generation Y more relaxed. Indeed the only thing to get really angry about these days seems to be insensitive articles written by Generation X in the tabloid press.
Ref: The Week (UK), 28 October 2006, 'British teenagers: the culture of fear'; The Spectator (UK), 16 September 2006, 'Taking about their generation: Britain's golden youth', B. Johnson.
Search words: Gen Y, youth, teens, kids

Not tying the knot (American population trends)

It seems that people aren't getting married as much as they used to, or at least married couples aren't as omnipresent as they used to be. According to the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey, married couples now make up less than 50 per cent of all American households. This figure (49.7%) relates to 2005 and is a slight drop on the 52 per cent measured a few years earlier. The figure is significant because of the US's 111 million households, unmarried couples are now (just) in the majority which could have significant repercussions for government policy-making. The reasons for this shift include the fact that more people are getting divorced, more people are choosing to stay single and co-habiting couples are choosing not to tie the knot in legally-recognised ceremonies. The figures also highlight the number of same sex couples now in existence (2% of households in San Francisco and 1% in Manhattan, for instance). However, despite the decline of the traditional American household, it seems that the desire to be part of a couple is as strong as ever, according to some observers. Moreover, the figures highlight the trend for delaying marriage rather than signalling its total disappearance. Other trends include the fact that since real estate is now so expensive co-habiting has become a more economical and convenient option for many singles and this co-habiting is seen by many individuals as a test bed or test-drive for legal marriage.
Ref: New York Times (US), 15 October 2006, 'To be married means being outnumbered', S. Roberts.
Search words: singles

Home alone 2 (British population trends)

Figures recently released by the Office for National Statistics in the UK show that married women are now in a minority and England and Wales.In 2004 (the most recent survey period) there were 11,090,000 single, widowed or divorced women living in the UK compared to 10,892,000 married women (an increase of 1.5 million unmarrieds since 1996).One of the main reasons for this is because women are delaying marriage until their 30s and 40s. For example, in the early 1970s around 85 per cent of women were married by the time they were 30. Now the figure is less than 33 per cent. The other reasons include the fact that divorce has become easier and the fact that women are outliving their husbands. The emotional and financial consequences of this trend are significant and will certainly impact on future government policy. By 2038, for instance, the number of UK couples that live together but are not married is projected to rise from 2 million to 3.8 million, so the legal strength of relationships will become more fragile. This will almost certainly have a negative effect on children but there are likely to be less children in the future too. One of the main reasons for getting married in the past was to have lawful sex. More recently, a key reason was to have lawful children but the attractiveness of having children has started to wane because of cost. Women are now also more likely to walk away from marriage or co-habitation because they are now more financially secure - thanks to the relative equality of opportunity in work. Another consequence of this trend is that there will be less large divorce settlements in the future that are in favour of women.
Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 19 December 2006, 'Wives are outnumbered by single and divorced women for the first time', S. Womack.
Search words: population trends, demographics, singles, marriage

American social trends (Time spent with children)

A new book (Changing Rhythms of American Family Life by Professor John Robinson and Melissa Milkie) has found that parents are spending just as much time with their children as they did 40 years ago. This finding may come as something as a shock to observers that have been moaning about the decline of American 'family values', especially since single mothers are spending considerably more time teaching and playing with their children than they did in 1965. Given that 45 years ago 60 per cent of kids lived in households with an in-work father compared to just 30 per cent today, this is quite a revelation. The study, by sociologists at the University of Maryland, also finds that the number of hours spent by men doing household chores or helping to rear children has increased markedly over the same period. Reasons cited for these changes include the fact that families are now smaller and more well off, so more time and money can be invested in raising children. However, as other studies have shown, couples that decide to have children and continue to work long hours can lead to hyper-parenting and the quest for the 'perfect child' - which may have significant negative consequences for both children and parents.
Ref: New York Times (US), 17 October 2006, 'Married and single parents spending more time with children, study finds', R. Pear.
Search words: children, parents, time, families, family, speeding up, slowing down

Migration trends in cities

According to Richard Florida, the mass relocation and clustering of like -minded individuals is reshaping America's social and economic landscape. For example, roughly 50 per cent of the citizens of Washington DC and San Francisco have college degrees compared to 14 per cent in Detroit and 11 per cent in Cleveland - the disparity is caused by knowledge and creativity centres like Seattle, Manhattan and Silicon Valley sucking talented individuals out of other cities and suburban areas. Moreover, this mass migration of brainpower has the potential to be highly exclusionary. Bright ambitious individuals need to move to these areas to secure their maximum economic value and the tighter the geographic concentration, the more it attracts. This migration has significant implications for innovation policy because the close proximity of like-minded individuals tends to create a multiplier effect. In other words, these days what really drives economic value and productivity is not where most people live but where most bright people live. The problem, of course, is that high-earning individuals coming into an area tends to push up real estate prices which in turn pushes other individuals out. This reduces overall diversity and essential services start to suffer because people working in the 'service support' professions (teachers, nurses etc) cannot afford to live in these same areas.
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US), October 2006, 'Where the brains are', R. Florida.
Trend tags: urbanisation, migration

The next 50 years

To celebrate its 50th year of publication, New Scientist magazine recently asked 50 great minds to speculate about what would or could be discovered and invented over the next 50 years. The content of the 50th anniversary issue of the magazine is too rich to distil so I suggest you get hold of a copy if you are in the least bit interested in this area. However, I know most of the people reading this won't so here is just one snack-sized item. Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, says that we are only 12 years into the use of Internet search engines and that the technology of search is still in its infancy. In the future people will use digital intermediaries to find information and search will just be a routine part of everyday living rather than separate category or activity. For example, the interface with your digital intermediary could be through conversation (speech) and the intermediary will suggest alternatives and refinements. Although Norvig doesn't say it there is also the delicious prospect of communicating with automated-reasoning systems simply by thinking about it.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), issue 2578, 18 November 2005, 'Brilliant minds forecast the next 50 years'

Water, water everywhere (but less and less to drink)

In 2001 a number of agricultural research scientists were briefed to investigate future world food production. At the same time a group of UN scientists embarked on an assessment of the likely economic and social impacts of water shortages in developing nations, while a third group, representing major water, oil and chemical companies, looked at the influence of water scarcity on company and national economic performance. All three groups reported back a few months ago and all three reports paint a picture of future supply disruption and economic crises unless the way the world uses water changes dramatically. Demand for clean water is expected to increase by 100 per cent between now and about 2040, largely because of urbanisation and industrialisation. In other words, we are at the very edge of sustainability, even before the effects of climate change are factored in. However, the good news is that solutions are neither costly nor difficult. Growing drought-resistant varieties of crops and shifting consumer demand away from 'thirsty' foods, for instance, would save an enormous amount of water and would be a far better investment than expensive dams and pipe networks. Farming using irrigation, for example, uses over 60 per cent of all water taken from rivers and aquifers globally, and while the world grows twice as much food as it did a generation ago we use three times as much water to do it. To produce a single kilogram of rice, for instance, requires between 2,000 and 3,000 litres of water. A kilogram jar of instant coffee takes 20,00 litres, a litre of milk 4,000 litres, a single hamburger 11,000 litres and a cotton T-shirt 7,000 litres of water. Other low-tech solutions include the increased use of grey water recycling and desalination (21 plants are already proposed in California alone). So in the future expect to see ordinary people becoming involved in the 'ethics' of water. There will be new water taxes and consumer boycotts of companies that are profligate in their use of water or use cloud seeding unfairly. Finally it's worth mentioning that water is potentially China's Achilles heel. Four hundred out of China's six hundred biggest cities are already short of water and the country has well below-average water resources per capita, which could potentially put a spanner in the works of China's development model.
Ref: The Guardian Weekly (UK), 29 September 2006, 'Every last drop', J. Vidal.
Trend tags: resource scarcity, sustainability