Chris Snowdon on plans for plain packaging of food:
“We should not advertise, propagate or encourage the unnecessary ingestion of calories,” Schultz said at a press conference held on Monday to announce the winners of the 2017 Brain Prize. “There should be some way of regulating the desire to get more calories. We don’t need these calories.”
I wonder what the “Brain Prize” is? Perhaps the recipients are given a new brain? Or given their very first one? Professor Wolfram Schultz could do certainly do with a new one, by the sound of it.
How much energy do we need? According to one source, an average daily energy intake of 2,100 kcal (or 8,800 kJ) is about right. But this will be making many assumptions about the sort of life people lead. For example, assumptions about the temperature of the environment in which they live.
The core human body temperature is about 37°C, and is always maintained very near this value. If you live in a cold climate, your body will lose heat (calories) faster to the cold environment than it would in a hot climate, and you will need correspondingly more food to compensate – unless of course you wear more clothes to reduce the rate of heat loss. So just living in a cold climate will usually entail a higher food energy intake.
Equally, if you are regularly performing a great deal of physical work (calories, once again) – like digging ditches, or carrying stones – you will need a correspondingly greater food energy intake to compensate. And if you live on the top floor of a tower block, and must walk up many flights of stairs several times a day, you are going to have to do m.g.h (where m is your body mass plus all the clothes and bags you’re carrying, g is gravitational acceleration, and h is the height you have to climb) more work (calories) each time you climb the stairs than someone living on the ground floor, because you don’t win it all back each time you walk downstairs again. I used, when I was younger, to have to climb 64 steps from the front door to my top floor flat, so I know.
In fact, if you simply weigh more than most people do, you will be doing more work than them while simply walking around on flat ground. Because with every step that people take, they lift themselves slightly off the ground, and in lifting themselves they are doing the same m.g.h work they do climbing staircases or lifting stones, except that h is just an inch or so with each step.
So if you’re a fat man who lives on the top floor of a tower block on the top of a hill in some hilly city, you’ll be doing much more work than a thin man who lives in a ground floor flat at the bottom of a hill – particularly if your top floor apartment is also subjected to freezing high winds.
The amount of food energy that any one single person needs is never going to be exactly the same as another person’s, because everybody is slightly different from everybody else, and will necessarily inhabit a slightly different environment. And it’s not possible for Professor Wolfram Schultz, or any other professor in his university, to determine what those needs will be, or at what exact point extra calories become “unnecessary” – particularly when those extra “unnecessary” calories will be stored as handy body fat which can be mobilised in an emergency.
But, all that aside, even if it was possible for someone to know exactly what their daily food energy needs might be on any given day (for they will also vary from day to day), why should they put down their fork halfway through eating, say, a plateful of chocolate sponge pudding, and declare “That’s quite enough! With that last mouthful, I met my 8,427.237 kJ energy budget for the day, and have no need of a single spoonful more”? What’s wrong with having more than you need? Why shouldn’t you finish off the plate, and have an Irish coffee afterwards as well? Why should people only do things they need to do, and never do anything in the least bit unnecessary? Where does this moral imperative come from?
The same moral imperative is being employed to induce smokers to stop smoking, and drinkers to stop drinking. You don’t need cigarettes! You don’t need beer! And now we have a university professor who’s telling people they don’t need food, and it must be put in “plain packaging” to deter them from eating it. The same imperative can be used against anything. If you don’t need beer and cigarettes, you also don’t need music or books or TVs. And you don’t need cinemas or theatres or casinos. And you don’t need laughter or friendship or sex either. All you really need is a prison cell, and a diet of bread and water.
Such questions as these are entirely familiar to me. I was chewing them over 20 years ago in Idle Theory. I was thinking a lot about wants and needs back then. And in Idle Theory there was a sharp distinction between the two. What you needed was whatever served to maintain or increase idleness. What you wanted was whatever you might wish to do in your idle time – like sit in a pub drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. And I could well see that wants and needs were in profound senses contradictory. In meeting your needs, you stored up idle time for yourself. In indulging your wants, you spent that time – maybe even killed that time.
The moral imperative of consuming the exact amount of food that you need, and not a spoonful more, grows out of a circumstance where food is scarce, and those last few spoonfuls of chocolate sponge pudding could have meant the difference between life and death for a hungry child on the other side of the table. The moral imperative is of sharing out equally what is in short supply. But it ceases to be a moral imperative when food is abundant, and there are chocolate sponge puddings hanging from every tree, and the fat kid on the other side of the table has just eaten three of them.
The same is true of anything else. Water, for example. In some places – the middle of the Sahara desert – water is very scarce, and it is imperative to conserve it, and not waste it unnecessarily. But in other places, water is very abundant. In fact, too abundant:
Of all the countries in the continent of Europe, we must have the least need to conserve water. Our problem is that we have too much of the fucking stuff and have a major problem getting rid of it. Ask anyone in the Shannon Basin about a lack of water and you are likely to get shot.
Why should Grandad in Ireland “conserve” water, as if it was something as extremely scarce as in the middle of the Sahara desert, when gallons of it are raining down on him more or less every single day?
Or flat ground. In lots of places in the world, there’s lots and lots of flat ground. But other places are very mountainous, and if you don’t walk around very carefully you’re quite likely to fall off a cliff, and so it’s imperative to watch your step very carefully. But that doesn’t mean that someone walking around on a flat sandy beach must also watch their step equally carefully, because there are no cliffs to fall off. There might be other perils. But cliffs isn’t one of them.
I could go on. Anyway, I hope that Prof Schultz eventually wins one of those Brain Prizes. He could do with one. For it certainly looks like there’s a severe shortage of brains in Cambridge University.