David Smerdon | April 06, 2012 20:23

Small feet and less meat

As many of you know, I’ve been channeling my inner hippy for the last twelve months, with remarkable success.  Of course, that depends on your definition of success; an aversion to shaving, repetitive lounge music and ownership of a solitary pair of shoes are hardly new attributes that will endear myself to everyone.  But this bohemian transition has largely been driven by something of a little more substance: a fervent passion for tackling climate change.

I don’t really know from where this zeal sprouted; I’ve never been particularly environmentally minded, to be honest, and my main love in the academic sphere has of course been behavioural economics.  But I became so convinced that climate change is the single most dangerous modern challenge facing humanity that I up-and-left Australia for Amsterdam to put my studies (and, I hope, my career) to use in the great greenie fight.

So far, unfortunately, it’s a fight mankind is definitely losing.  Behavioural economics hasn’t come far enough to pave the way for applying effective policies to tackle the problem and global politics on climate change mitigation is a joke (and not a particularly funny one).  The situation is becoming so dire that the conversation has seriously moved towards some outrageous geoengineering solutions, ranging from placing mirrors in the sky to pumping artificial filters into the atmosphere to scattering iron in the oceans.  It sounds a bit like trying to season a soup with a random sample of household cleaning products to me, but desperate times, as they say, call for desperate mirrors.  Or something like that.

Enter the latest bright idea: Human Engineering.

Yep, you heard right.  Three distinguished academics from Oxford and New York University have come up with a completely bizarre but compellingly intriguing idea.  Seeing as climate change is anthropogenic (fancy scientist speak for “Man-made”), why not strike at the root of the problem, and just change humans?

The main argument is that one of the biggest ways we’ve altered the global ecosystem is through our insatiable desire to eat meat – and lots of it.  The authors cite facts to support that over 51% of greenhouse emissions come from livestock production; I find this hard to believe, but if the figure is even a third of this figure, it’s food for thought (ha!).  In any case, I know it’s now widely known that most of our climate worries would be over if the whole world went vegetarian, but this is one behavioural trait that’s incredibly difficult to influence.

(I should mention that our meat-fetish is largely centred in rich first-world countries: the average American or Australian eats  over 120 kilos of meat a year, compared to around 15 kilos in Africa and 3(!) kilos in India.  China’s risen to around 50 kilos in the last couple of years, but they’re still a far cry from us carnivorous fatties.)

I don’t want to sound like I’m casting judgement on meat-eaters.  Despite being borderline manic about climate change, living with two vegetarians and having recently dated one, I’ve made no such sacrifices myself (and in fact I’m writing this after just enjoying a delicious chicken curry.  Can you spell “hypocrite”?).  Just like giving up smoking, it’s incredibly difficult it is for humans to alter their taste behaviour – which makes the authors’ suggestions all the more relevant.

So, how do you engineer people to stop eating meat?  There are a bunch of ideas put forward by the authors, my favourite being something of a “meat-patch” you stick on your arm that makes you mildly intolerant to meat (and, presumably, reduces your cravings for it).  Unlikely to take off, but a neat concept, and it’s at least a little saner than the idea of poisoning our meat so that we vomit after eating it.  Really, guys?  Who would buy it?

What would Lisa do?

The other human engineering suggestion in the paper is even more controversial:  If humans are leaving too big a carbon footprint…why not just shrink their feet?

Yep.  Shrinking humans.

The concept may sound ridiculous, but it’s surprisingly defensible (at least a little).  Again back to the livestock argument, smaller humans eat less, use up less petrol in car trips, and use less resources (such as clothing).  It seems to somehow retard human evolution, but perhaps we’ve evolved to the point where being physically bigger is no longer really an edge.  We live in the age of the geeks, after all.  (Despite this, I don’t suggest telling the next big gym-junkie you encounter how evoluntionary superior us chess players are.)

Check out how small those carbon footprints are

One way the authors suggest for achieving this is through preimplantation genetic diagnosis, whereby parents can choose smaller children before birth; another is through post-birth hormonal treatment.  Think parents won’t go for it?  Never fear; the authors suggest governments offer incentives to encourage voluntary participation in genetic programs to reduce the height and weight of our offsprings, in one of the most unusual baby-bonus schemes I’ve heard.

I… Well.  I don’t even want to begin pointing holes in the economic analysys, because the authors mean well, and I think their main point, that we need to start looking at drastic solutions to an increasingly critical global problem, is entirely valid.

However, I think probably the way to go is to keep investigating more subtle approaches to persuading people to change their behaviour.  I’ve got my own novel idea.  If human engineering really is the best we’ve got, perhaps, instead of genetic modification, we should instead alter evolution by changing perceptions of beauty and thus encouraging men to find short vegetarians attractive. Hey, as opposed to sacrificing chicken curries, at least in this regard I can claim to lead by example.

I wonder if they’ll publish me?

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David Smerdon's picture
Author: David Smerdon

David Smerdon is a chess grandmaster from Brisbane, Australia. David attended Anglican Church Grammar School and Melbourne University. To qualify for the title of Grandmaster, a player must achieve three Grandmaster norm performances, and a FIDE Elo rating over 2500. Late in 2007, Smerdon achieved his third and final Grandmaster norm. In the July 2009 FIDE rating list his rating passed 2500, so he qualified for the title of Grandmaster. He is the fourth Australian to become a Grandmaster, after Ian Rogers, Darryl Johansen and Zhao Zong-Yuan. In 2009, Smerdon won the Queenstown Chess Classic tournament.

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Comments

Christopher Holroyd's picture

Even simpler would be to dissuade through incentives the birth of more than 1 child per family.

Fisher's picture

Word!
But it's not that difficult to became vegetarian. It just takes some weeks to not miss meat any more.

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