A Big Think Interview With Raj Patel
Raj Patel has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. Writer, activist, and academic, he is currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Centre for African Studies, a researcher at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First.
Question: Where are you from?
Raj Patel: I was born in London, but I’m a mutt. My mother was born in Kenya, my father was born in Fiji, my ancestors are from India. And I grew up in London and spent, basically, most of my time in the basement of the convenience store that my parents ran. [
Question: What inspired your activism?
Raj Patel: Growing up in Britain, but as part of a south Asian family was big in ways that I didn’t expect. There was this transformative moment for me that I remember – I think I was about six years old. My parents had taken me and my brother to India so that we would ‘know what is it to be Indian,’ and we would learn some Guarati, which is the language my parent spoke at home. And we were at a stop light in Bombay, I think, and we were inside a taxi and it was raining. And all of a sudden, there was this knocking sound at the window, a sort of tap, tap, tap. And outside the window was a girl, I would imagine she was an adolescent, and in her hands was a tiny baby and the baby was crying and crying and crying. And there was screaming outside the car and she was tapping on the window asking for money. And soon there was screaming inside the car because I was howling. I wanted it to stop. I wanted my parents to give her some money. And then as we drove away from the lights, I kept on howling. And I wanted to know why that was? Why was she on the outside of the car and why were we on the inside? Why does she not have a home and we did? How come we could afford to fly to India and she was begging at a street light?
Now, that kind of experience – I’m not trying to make myself out as anyone special, everyone has that moment. One of the most – something you’re guaranteed to hear in any playground are howls of “that’s not fair.” We all have that. But for me, that moment never really left me. I still carry that little girl around with me.
And after that happened, I went back to Britain and I started renting out my toys to my friends and their parents would give them pocket money so that they could play with whatever toy it was that I had. And I would give that money to charity, to aid – the thing in the news then was the famine in Ethiopia, so we sent the money off to Ethiopia. And I found myself to be a sort of junior capitalist turned philanthropist. But there is only so much toy rental you can do before you realize actually, the problem is still there. And being exposed to the persistent problems in India, year after year, made me realize that short-term fixes like sending overseas aid, while tremendously important, are not sufficient, and you need to get to the deeper root causes of things.
I studied in Britain and in the United States and in South Africa both looking for those answers and also learning from people who purported in some cases and who actually did, in other cases, have answers to how to address the deeper root causes of poverty.
Question: What is a common misperception about hunger?
Raj Patel: One of the things that I learned from groups around the world, particularly looking at issues of hunger, is that the root cause of hunger isn’t that there is a shortage of food. There’s more than enough food on earth today to feed everyone 1 ½ times over. We’ve go plenty of food on this planet. But there reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food, but because of poverty. So, people are not sitting idly by waiting for food to fall into their laps. There is that kind of vision, particularly when we are thinking about how to change the world. Sometimes you’ll hear this line of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” All of us can kind of get behind that, and think, yeah that’s pretty cool. Yeah, teach a man fish feed him for a lifetime. But the trouble is, think about what sort of image that rests upon. It has at heart, the idea that you’ve given a man a fish – a couple of guys in the third world somewhere sitting next to a flowing river and their chomping down on their fish, and they’re enjoying their fish very much and they’ll look over into the river and they’ll say, “Well, what’s that? That looks like a fish. Well, how are we going to get it out? Oh, I have no idea. We’ll have to wait for the white man to come and give us another fish.” But it’s got this, I mean this tremendously disempowering. That’s a nuts vision of how things happen in developing countries. Actually in developing countries people have been fishing for a very, very long time.
What the aid complex and what modern development has done for developing countries is impose a vision of how fishing should happen. And that vision is very unsustainable and it comes from outside. It comes from Europe, it comes from North America. A vision that markets and free markets and modern capitalism is going to make life much, much better. And in the process, the ways that people have been fishing, the ways that the social organization has been managed, often very sustainably, is destroyed and swept away.
Now, one of the ways that people have been fighting back is through organizing and developing their own principles – their own ways of democratically organizing and sharing resources. And I was privileged enough to come across a number of farmers and farmers’ organizations, and landless peoples organizations that have been organizing around the principle of how to feed themselves. And the vision that they have is a vision called “food sovereignty.” Now food sovereignty is – the definition is very long and if you’re interested go to Wikipedia and check out food sovereignty, it’s a great definition. But in essence, the idea of food sovereignty is that people have the ability to be able to make their own decisions about food and agriculture policy.
Now that may not sound like terribly much. The rights to be able to make your own decisions about food policy sounds pretty vapid, it sound like it’s a right to have rights over your food system. It doesn’t seem to contain any policy. But in fact, it does. The full definition of food sovereignty demands that there are things like women’s rights being respected and agrarian reforms so that there’s fair and equal land distribution. But the actual deep idea in the idea of food sovereignty is that we need democracy in shaping our food system. We need a way of actually everyone getting around the table and having a conversation about food and agriculture and the way that people around the world get to eat and the people around the world get to develop and realize their full potential.
Now, that turns out to be pretty radical because, as I say, the history of food policy, the history of agricultural policy in poor countries has been one where people from the outside will come in, teach people how to fish, or teach people how to grow food, or essentially destroy the sustainable agriculture that exists in developing countries and replacing it with an agriculture that, at the moment, is looking increasingly unsustainable.
And so having food sovereignty, having a democratic conversation about food is actually pretty new. Most countries have never had a democratic conversation about food. We haven’t in the United States, but pretty much no country has had a democratic process where people decide, how are we going to make sure that everyone at a national level gets to eat, and that we distribute food fairly, and that we have sustainable agricultural practices so that our kids will inherit a planet and an agricultural system that sustains them as much as it sustains us.
Right now we’re on the brink of basically emptying the oceans. We’re heading towards climate change catastrophe fueled in no small part by unsustainable agriculture that will mean in a couple of generations time, there will be 9 billion people on earth and a great deal more hungry people than we have right now. Food sovereignty is a way of democratically getting us back on to a track of sustainability.
Question: What causes hunger today?
Raj Patel: So this goes back to the question of root causes. I’m very keen to, as I say, to learn about ways in which we can address the root causes of poverty. And when I was a graduate student, I was offered the opportunity to intern for and work for the World Bank. And I was given the opportunity to examine a range of classified World Bank documents to see how the World Bank was talking about poverty, about the ways that it was tackling the poor. And I thought, I’ll do that. Classified documents, insight into one of the world’s largest organizations designed to tackle poverty. I’ll do that.
Now it turns out that the examination of these documents wasn’t going to be a critical examination of these documents. Instead it turned out that those documents were used to create, basically, a sort of puff piece called “Voices of the Poor, Can Anyone Hear Us?” Now, it’s important to get a sense of what the World Bank does and how it operates. If you don’t know anything about the World Bank, I have a small contribution to the world of pedagogy and it relies on a metaphor that comes from the Terry Gilliam film, “Time Bandits.” Now, if you don’t know about “Time Bandits,” “Time Bandits” is a film about disgruntled former employees of God. Now the story is that God built the world in six days, so it was a rush job and God couldn’t do it by himself, he had help. But he treats his labor very badly, and so they run off with a map of the universe with its imperfections and they use the holes in the universe to rob people. So, in one scene, they rob Napoleon and they jump through a hole in time with all of Napoleon’s stuff and they end up in Sherwood Forest where they are met by Robin Hood, who is played by John Cleese as a sort of upper class twit. He’s wearing a sort of bright green hat and he calls himself “Hood.” And Hood’s very excited by all of Napoleon’s stuff and he says, “This is tremendous. Thank you very much indeed. The poor will love this. Have you met the poor? They’re charming people, of course they don’t have too pennies to rub together but that ‘s because they’re poor.” And there’s a scene where Napoleon’s stuff is given away to the poor. And Hood works the line and he’s gilded, and he says, “How long have you been poor? Jolly good. Congratulations. Here, rubies for you.” And right next to him is this big hulking bloke who takes whatever Hood has given and punches the poor person in the face.
So, that’s kind of how the World Bank works. It’s in the business of making these large loans, but it is also a bank so it takes those loans back. And the punch in the face comes from the policies that this organization imposes on developing countries. Policies that have, for example in agriculture, have led to decimation in agriculture in say, Africa. It’s not me making this assessment, in fact, the World Bank a couple of years admitted that its policies have been a disaster in Sub-Saharan Africa. I say all of this because there is this sort of need within the World Bank to have reassurance that what it’s doing is right. A moment of saying, “Well, some of our best friends are poor people, have you met the poor? We had lunch with them yesterday, they love us.” And that’s what I ended up doing. My job was to be part of a research team looking at these research reports on poverty. And the reports that we wrote – the voices of the poor “Can Anyone Hear Us?” was basically a long way for the World Bank to say, “Well have you me – we had lunch with the poor, they love us.” And in fact, at the end of this book was a long description about how the consultants drove up in their Jeep to the village and spontaneously the women bust out in song and they were singing, “Here are the World Bank. Here are the World Bank. They are here to develop us. We hope they won’t forget us.” And the last line of the book is, “Will we?”
And there’s this thing about the way the World Bank works. I mean it needs this kind of self-justification. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like the World Bank is filled with evil-doers. These sort of Blofeldian villains who are sitting in leathers chairs stroking cats thinking, “How are we going to fuck the third world today?” It’s not like that. It’s sort of very well meaning people, but their executing policies that are tremendously bad for developing countries. And the thing is that as a citizen of Britain and soon the United States, that means that this is being done in my name. The European Union and the United States are among the largest shareholders of the World Bank. And that means that I am politically responsible for that. I mean, the World Bank policies are meant to be the expression of the democratic will of the people of Britain and the United States and actually taking political responsibility for the damage that these organizations have caused when doing stuff in my name means that at some point you’ve got to get out there.
And so I’ve protested the actions of the World Bank in a number of places and I was lucky enough to be part of the World Trade Organization process, it’s an ideologically affiliated organization is the world Trade Organization. And the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, I was one of thousands of organizers on the streets then actually standing up against a certain vision of what these organizations were doing in our name. We were standing up against those organizations and those organizations were pushing a development line, a logic about how the third world should work on the third world in a tremendously undemocratic fashion.
And so, right now I think now is a good time to learn democracy on the streets. I mean, that may sound radical, but when Al Gore is saying that now is the time for direct action, and when every movement of social change in history has always been achieved, not through a ballot box, but through people putting their bodies on the line. I mean, I think in order for our democracy to survive and to flourish, taking action against the World Bank, but against institutions that operate in our name that are doing unjust things is the right thing for any citizen to do, and unfortunately I’ve been tear gassed a couple of times. Never arrested though; I’ve always managed to avoid that. And I’ve always, actually every time I’ve been tear gassed, I was assembling legally, it was the police that was responsible for getting out of control. But these have been experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily wish upon anyone, the tear gas part, but the demonstration part and the marching together part was amazing. And in fact, it was in Seattle in 1999 where I first came across the full spectrum of this organization called La Via Campesina, which is this international peasant movement of 150 million farmers, landless rural workers who have members in many countries including the United States and Canada, throughout Europe and of course Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And those moments of learning on the street are tremendous. They are a way of learning to be a citizen; learning to be a small democrat in a way that our schools and our educational system have really haven’t prepared us for. We’re not taught to be citizens. And I think that sometime protests can be a tremendous school for learning how to begin to take responsibility for ourselves.
Question: What does “The Value of Nothing” mean?
Raj Patel: I wrote the book, The Value of Nothing, because it’s very clear that markets have failed us. I mean the financial crisis is just one of a number of crises that we have gone through over the past few years. I mean, we had the food crisis, we had the oil crisis. And the bubbles in markets are obviously part of those markets, they’re endemic to the way markets function. And right now is a very good time for thinking about other ways in which we can value the world. What we don’t have is a real understanding about how to value the world other than through the markets, other than by sticking a price on something. But the sad thing, of course, is even though we do stick a price on something we have no idea what that price means. I mean, a Martian would find it very weird that one of the most popular game shows in the U.S. and around the world is The Price is Right, where people have to guess the price of something. And guess wildly up and down until they win the thing that they’ve approximated the price to. Prices are a mystery to us in general. But what’s more mysterious to us is other ways of valuing the world.
And so what I try to do in The Value of Nothing is try to explain firstly, why it is that we’ve been sucked into this way of thinking about prices. And then trying to figure out a way, or show the many ways that already exist that we can behave differently. One of the metaphors I use is this idea of Anton’s blindness. Anton’s blindness is a rare neurological condition that happens after a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. It’s a weird condition where you believe that you can see, where in fact you are blind. So, people who have Anton’s Blindness will protest that they can see stuff. Sometimes very strange stuff, odd people walking through, or a housing development outside their window that they could have sworn wasn’t there yesterday. But in fact, they’re cortically blind. And the way that you can diagnose this is when, for example, people with Anton’s Blindness run into stuff, because obviously they’re blind, and they’ll bump their toe on something, and then they will confabulate. They will make stuff up about how, oh, I just didn’t see that there, or someone rearranged the room when I wasn’t looking. And these confabulations, these ways of self-justifying, sometimes elaborate stories about why things people protest to see but in fact aren’t there, why reality and their vision of the world have clashed so horribly. They confabulations, these stories, are a way of diagnosing the disease.
Now, in many ways, the way that we’ve behaved around the financial crisis has been, oh god, well we should have seen that coming. What we’ll need now is just better regulation, we’ll pad things out and it’ll make the world a better place. Now obviously regulation is important, but we shouldn’t – I mean, we should use the opportunity right now to actually get slightly deeper into the problem of figuring out other senses. Figuring out other ways in which we can value the world other than through the faulty prism of markets. And luckily enough there are loads of ways in which we can value the world.
In fact, the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in part to Professor Elena Ostrom who is a Professor of Economics at Indiana University, who has for a very long time done some work on something called The Commons. Now, The Commons, I mean I have no idea what The Commons meant originally and I grew up in Britain where the House of Commons is basically a rowdy white man’s drinking club and although the boundaries of that have been pushed a bit, it’s still a drinking club. And when I first came to America and we were on holiday in New York, and my parents were told, oh, you must go to Woodbury Common. And we went to Woodbury Common which turns out to be this huge outlet mall in New Jersey. And I thought common was just American for shopping.
But it turns out that Commons is an ancient and venerable and also a currently existing way to not only delineate a set of resources, but also to share them sustainably and to maintain them. And commoning, which is this sort of process of managing these natural resources invariably in common within a community. That’s an amazing way of valuing the world that doesn’t revolve around markets and prices, but does revolve around political participation and engagement. That may sound horribly distant to what we have at the moment to the world we live in right now. But it doesn’t – what’s inspiring right now and what’s important to remember is that there are hundreds of examples, thousands of examples where commoning works today. And in the book I talk a lot about what those examples are and how we can learn from them.
Question: How did Oscar Wilde inspire the title of your book?
Raj Patel: The title The Value of Nothing comes from an Oscar Wilde line which is, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
The opening line of the book, and in fact the title The Value of Nothing comes from an Oscar Wilde line, “People today know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Now, in the book I explain how we might value the world differently. But it’s not an accident that I use an Oscar Wilde line beyond the fact that he is very clever. Oscar Wilde was a Socialist. And in the early 20th Century, pretty much anyone who was anyone was Socialist. I mean, everyone from Albert Einstein to Helen Keller were Socialist. And I think it is important to remember that there have been political systems that have valued the world differently and have figured out ways to valuing the world differently that have been erased by the triumph of capitalism by the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, those political systems, although we hear very little about them are still alive and well, and people do have visions of sharing the wealth. Perhaps not along the lines of classical Soviet politics, and thank god they don’t have those kinds of lives. But there are alternatives that are around us that are sort of suppressed, that are hidden. And I have no doubt that when people read the book and find that actually I am not entirely critical of Karl Marx, they will all sort of froth at the mouth and brand me a communist. But like Oscar Wilde, like Albert Einstein, and like a bunch of people throughout history, I’m not a communist, I’m just open minded. And I think it is important to have a look at other ways of valuing the world, particularly when we are living as Lord Nicholas Sterns has said, right now in the greatest market failure in human history. The way that we failed to value the climate and the environment, it means that we are heading towards a catastrophe of immense proportions and we do need to figure out other ways of valuing the world and actually there are some pretty sensible alternatives around if people are ready to be open minded.
Question: How can society assign economic values don’t involve prices?
Raj Patel: I’m trying to think of what a good example is. What would it look like to have a world to where we value things where it wasn’t the market that was allocating resources according to supply and demand, but there were other forces at work? One example, and in fact an example that springing up all over the world now is something called “participatory budgeting.” And this happens at a municipal level. It was pioneered in Brazil where the Worker’s Party pushed it in and the division is that when a city is deciding how to spend it’s money, wouldn’t it be a good idea if the citizens of that city were part of that decision as opposed to faceless bureaucrats who are following some formula, or who are corrupt in some way making spending allocations according to whoever bribed them the most.
So, “participatory budgeting” is a very interesting way of assigning and allocating resources that have nothing to do with money. I mean, usually the ways that these budgeting decisions are taken are by the poorest people in the city who gets together in local assemblies and then those decisions are communicated up into city-wide assemblies. Now, if we were going to allocate resources purely according to the basis of the ability to pay, then the city’s poorest residents wouldn’t be able to afford those resources. But because those resources are controlled democratically, poor people can make decisions about well we want a school her, we want a hospital here, we want it sequenced in this order because this would be fairest and this will cover the most people, and people taking political responsibility for themselves and actually engaging in democracy – we can get a taste of what valuing looks like under that process by looking at things like participatory budgeting which we find not only in Brazil now, but actually in a number of places across the world.
And this is interesting because it gets us into a question about democracy. And about what democracy is. One of the things that I think is important for us to recognize is that pretty much none of us live in a democracy. We live in a kind of complain-ocracy where if we whine loudly enough, then the bastards who are in charge of us can be replaced by different bastards who are in hock to slightly different interests and will run the government in slightly different ways, but they’re essentially following the same kind of plan. But that’s not really what democracy is like. And if you go back to the original democracy, if you go back to Athens, classical Athens had, obviously let’s get out of the way the fact that, yes, there was slavery in Athens, and yes, women were excluded. Athenian democracy isn’t something one wants to replicate, but it is something to learn from it because Athenian democracy worked like this. There were no elections in Athenian democracy. Instead, 6,000 citizens were chosen at random at the beginning of every year to take charge of the city. And they would be split up into groups of 500, and those 500 courts of citizens would be the law for a whole year. And then at the end of the year, another 6,000 people would be chosen, again at random, and it was every citizen’s duty to take responsibility for themselves and for their fellow citizens. And people who didn’t want to do this were called “idiots.” I mean, one of the original ideas of Athenian democracy, or of democracy itself, is that it’s part of the obligation and the duty of every citizen, and the privilege of every citizen to be able to clean up after yourself. We all know about personal responsibility, or personal hygiene, and we’re encouraged to buy the right thing and shop in the right place and get around by the right kind of transportation, but as soon as we try to take political responsibility, people look at you like you’re slightly bonkers.
But if we’re concerned about democracy then that’s exactly what democracy is about. Democracy is about taking personal responsibility for yourself in a political way. And Athenian democracy was all about that and I think that what we have at the moment was intended to deskill us. The education system we have, the mechanisms for political process and engagement that we have are intended really to turn us into drooling idiots when it comes to political responsibility. And I think that there are movements and organizations around the world that offer us a glimpse into what it would be like if we did take political responsibility for ourselves.
They’re not perfect and people make mistakes, but of course, that’s the point. What in many ways what we are fighting for is the right to make our own mistakes because at the moment we are suffering the consequences of other people’s mistakes. And democracy means getting the right to make your own and clean up after yourself and learn from it. Right now, we spend a lot of time cleaning up after a handful of politico-crats. And I think actually getting democracy involved and re-empowering ourselves to be able to make our own mistakes, and to learn from them.
Question: What ideas perpetuate hunger?
Raj Patel: It was very interesting at the end of 2008 to see Alan Greenspan looking, basically, looking pretty hung over, appearing in front of the House Oversight Committee where he was grilled about why the financial crisis was happening. And you can forgive him looking a little haggard because the party had lasted for several decades. The party of free markets uber ****. Free markets being able to be absolutely the best way of organizing the world. And what Alan Greenspan was forced to admit is, in his words, “I have found a flaw in the ideology that I thought was responsible for the functioning of the world.” And that’s a fairly profound admission from one of the pioneers of this kind of kooky free market libertarianism.
Alan Greenspan, of course, is famously a disciple of Ayn Rand and Rand’s ideas of free market libertarianism that entrepreneurs should lead the society after the dark ages and any kind of organizing was parasitic on society. Any kind of social justice organizing was destructive to society. Those kinds of ideas are ones that Alan Greenspan more or less faithfully embodied in his pushing of the free market. And at the end of 2008 it all came crashing down.
Now, one of the reasons that I wrote this book is firstly, to show how those ideas ascended and why they inevitably fell to pieces. But also, it’s a way of saying actually there was a few decades where the free market fundamentalists were able to take control of the economy and it’s going to be very hard to pry their hands off it, but there are ways of reclaiming our economy from these ideologues. And those ideas are to be found in everything from sort of “work our own cooperatives,” to banking and finance that performs a social function rather than a speculative function. There are loads of different ways in which we can get the economy back from the sort of corruptions of this zany free market idea that has never happened in practice and is seriously theoretically flawed. And again, in the book I talk about how, for example, even Adam Smith who is the poster child for free market ideas. Adam Smith never thought the free market was – an unfettered free market was a good idea. He saw a strong role for government. He saw a strong role for self-improvement, for education, for a certain kind of moral conscience that you will find no room for in the most extreme dogma of the free market libertarians.
And so it is important to remember that and important to actually plunder history for lessons that are well worth learning as we try to build a better economy. And right now is a good time to be learning those lessons and thinking about how we can restructure things because as we come out of the recession – although we are told that recovery is on it’s way, unemployment is still going to climb over the next couple of years. No one pretends that for the poorest Americans things are going to get better. But for the richest Americans things are starting to turn around, but for the poorest, things are going to get worse for a good two or three years, at best and I think now is a good time to be thinking about, actually if we’re not part of the plutocracy, what do we want? And what can we learn from the past to make sure these mistakes don’t happen again?
Question: Why are a billion people obese and a billion starving?
Raj Patel: My last book, Stuffed and Starved, got it’s title from this odd paradox where today, we live in a world where over a billion people are starving, or going hungry and are malnourished. They get fewer than – I’m going to have to start again.
My first book was called Stuffed and Starved and the title comes from a strange paradox that we live in a world where today over a billion people are malnourished and going hungry and at the same time, more than a billion people are overweight. And what I tried to do in the book is explain how it is that not only these two things are possible simultaneously, but how they are outcomes of the same system.
So, for a start, let’s just understand the dynamic here, and actually you don’t have to go to Africa, one can imagine that the starving are in Africa and the obese are in America. I mean, to some extent that’s true. The United States is the most obese country on earth and only four out of 10 Americans have a normal body weight and the rest of us are a little portly. But the fact is, there is hunger in America as well. In 2008, 49 million Americans were food insecure. They didn’t know during the year where their next meal was coming from. So, it’s possible to have hunger and obesity in the same country at the same time and it’s possible to have hunger in the United States, even when there’s an abundance of food. It’s not like in 2008 the shelves were emptied in the United States, but what happened was the price of that food went up and the incomes of people went down and that’s why people go hungry in America. It’s not because of some malfusian shortage of food. It’s because of poverty.
Now, so the question that I ask is about, how do we get to the situation and also how do we get these outcomes of hunger and obesity? Well, the hunger is easy to explain. Hunger obtains when, as I say, people are too poor to be able to afford the food that is around them. And the majority of the hungriest people on the earth today live in rural areas. It’s a strange paradox. The people who are the hungriest on the earth tend to be the people involved in agriculture, particularly farm laborers, or farm workers. And what I try to show in the book is how the people who are growing the food are intimately connected to the people who consume the food through a kind of hourglass figure. So, if you can imagine the millions of farmers on earth who grow food for us that we eat. And the six, nearly seven billion of us who eat every day, but it’s an hourglass figure because there are millions of farmers, billions of us, but just a few corporations in the middle. It sort of comes in like this and then back out again. A few corporations controlling the majority of whatever corner of the food market you care to mention. I mean, the package tea business, one corporation, Unilever controls 96% of the world’s packaged tea. One corporation, 96% of the worlds market. But in every major market there’s a handful of corporations that basically run the show.
Now, those corporations have every incentive to pay the people who are growing the food as little as they possibly can and to sell the food in ways that guarantee them the maximum amount of profit. And that means selling food that is processed, that is high in the sort of things that make us buy more food, so high in salt and fat and sugar, the kinds of things that our bodies are hardwired to crave. And so you end up in a situation where the corporations pay the farm workers pitifully little and end up selling us food that is obesogenic that makes us fat, that makes us crave more of the food, that makes us eat in unhealthy ways. And you end up in a world where you have over a billion people who are overweight and, as I say, now over a billion people starving.
Again, the key factor here again, is poverty. Now, it used to be, if you were fat you were rich, and if you were stick thin, then you were poor. But these days, increasingly, particularly in rich countries, obesity and hunger are two sides of the same coin. Obesity and hunger are both symptoms, one more extreme than the other of an inability to control your diet. An inability to be able to muster enough resources to be able to eat healthily and sustainably and in a way that is good for your body. And again, in Stuffed and Starved I explain not only why that happened, but also what people are doing to fight that. And it turns out that there are ways in which we can eat sustainably. Ways that we can actually rebalance the food system and connect directly with the people who grow the food that cut out the bottleneck of the hourglass. But that involves some profound social change. And as it happens, The Value of Nothing is more of an in depth look of the kinds of social change that is going to be necessary, and the kinds of thinking that will get us out of the mess that we’re in right now.
A conversation with the British author and activist.
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In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.
But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?
In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?
Popularizing medical language
What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?
To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.
LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER
"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.
"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.
"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."
The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.
"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.
Too much reading causes... heat rashes?
But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.
Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."
In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.
"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."
Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."
Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.
"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."
Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?
People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.
JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW
There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.
For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.
"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.
"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."
In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.
"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.
"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."
Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.
"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.
"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."
This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.
"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.
The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'
"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."
So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?
"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.
Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.
"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.
But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."