Culture at the Crossroads
The Perfect Pill?
Imagine, for a moment, scientists inventing the Perfect Diet Pill that enabled people to maintain their weight while being able to eat anything, anytime. This pill allowed people to burn calories in their sleep so that never again would they have to give a thought to what they ate. How would this pill change the world?
1) Gluttony gone wild. The immediate effect would be to change the usual eating habits. Yogurt and granola for breakfast? Gimme a break! It's steak and eggs, baby! Pizza! Beer! Chocolate! Fried dough! Deep fried Mars Bars! Things With Butter! Thirty-two flavors of fat! Bring it on!
2) Changing market. Of course the effect of this immediate normalization of gluttony would be to increase demand for food, thereby raising all the prices. It would also change agriculture. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts production would plummet; demand for cows and cow products would skyrocket. Corn would probably thrive, because of the increased need for oil to deep fry everything. And with the higher demand for meat, the price would rise and thereby diminish access to meat among the poorer classes. Moreover, because meat production involves greater need for land than vegetable production, the cost of all foods would further rise, leading to increased hunger.
3) Changing social mores. The current assumptions around food (balanced meals three times a day) would eventually fall away. People would eat any time and all the time, at least in the short term before prices skyrocketed. Over time, food consumption would be another marker of wealth, such that the rich could eat pretty much anything at any time, while the poor would eat only a limited number of foods. The food-related industries would boom: restaurants, grocery stores, vending companies, and caterers would compete in a corporate market designed to elicit desires for the next competitive food item. Chefs would be rock stars. An expanded culture of consumption would grow out of the existing one. There would be extremes of gourmet and gourmand options: the former, designed for the discriminating eater who wished to taste the world's greatest foods in moderation; the latter, for those who just wanted to eat everything, all the time.
4) Changing behaviors. Health club memberships would decline, and many clubs would close for lack of interest. Couples might lose interest in scheduling meals together because they would be filled from the vast availability of food through the day. Tastes would change, such that traditional meals like those around holidays might lose their appeal over time. The pervasive attitude of consumption might bleed over into other areas of life: the desire for food to satisfy cravings would likely lead many people to choose friends in part based on whether or not they shared the same tastes. The spiritual practices of fasting at Lent or Ramadan would likely continue, but with the fewer participants being perceived as backward among their fellow citizens.
5) Social stratification. As a man-made technology, the pill would be available only to those who could afford it, meaning that the consumption patterns of the rich would outrun the consumption of the poor, especially since the increased prices of food would mean that only the rich could afford it anyway. The increased prices of food would mean that only the rich could indulge with perfect freedom. The poor would be surrounded by all of the same temptations but would not have access to good food, and they would get by on only whatever leftovers were available to them.
6) International policy. Rich countries' increased demands for exotic foods would lead to different policies of protecting agribusinesses and trade. The appetite for certain foods would drive the food market in way similar to our current appetite for oil.
7) Spirituality and Morality. The unabated demand for satisfaction of appetites would make people insufferable. People (at least of means) would become enslaved to their immediate desires to eat. The disciplined (the gourmets) would learn the virtues of moderation, following the logic of the ancient Epicureans. Many, though, would follow a downward spiral of desire and satisfaction and boredom, only to then search for another desire. These gourmands would orient much of their lives around their stomachs, always seeking ways to experience new desire and satisfaction.
When through technology human beings manipulate the patterns of desire, there are several obvious effects. The first is to change behavior. The second is to change economics and law. The third is to change people, at least those who can afford the technology. For all these reasons, the refusal to use the pill is to make the choice to master one's desire, rather than be mastered by it.
Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.