Tag Archives: Risk Society

The Food Security & Safety Puzzle

One of the current era’s most pressing political, economic and public health issues is food security and safety. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness in Canada have brought this home in a powerful and highly resonant way, yet there is much more to the issue than the increased potential for infection and disease. Costs are also rising sharply and this is going to make the issue of food scarcity a matter of personal decision-making and public policy for the first time in decades.

The global integration of food markets has given us a world in which decisions about how we produce and consume food are creating new problems that threaten to spread in rhizomatic fashion, touching not only policies relating to food production, but also energy, urban planning, health care and the environment. LSE sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that we live now in the age of side-effects. Society is no longer defined as a closed and self-equilibriating system of linear processes that can be more or less controlled, predicted and rationalized (i.e., through science and statistical reasoning). For Beck, instrumental reason has been replaced by reflexivity as the motor of social change. It is not the crises or failures of the industrial period but the side effects of its success that now pose for us in the period of reflexive modernity different challenges and demand new ways of thinking.

The issue of food security and safety illustrate Beck’s argument about reflexivity and side-effects very well. As Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times this past weekend, a reform to our national food systems (he focuses on the U.S., but the lessons have wide application) is arguably the most important policy issue facing modern governments not just because of rising prices and concerns about scarcity, but because how we make and consume food has implications for nearly everything else we do. In other words, just as a rhizome works with horizontal and trans-species connections, food policy also extends evermore into new and varied directions. In a bygone era, Pollan argues, politicians resolved to find new ways of increasing production as a way of addressing concerns about access: implement policies that will encourage increased production in order to flood the market with more commodities that will tilt the ratio of supply and demand so that prices eventually drop. But if this strategy ‘worked’ in the past it’s because this was a time when energy was relatively cheap and we had a collective perception that the resources on which we depend for cheap energy were in abundance. It was also based on a linear model of cause and effect.

Those days are over.

We now face a global environmental crisis which demands new strategies and solutions because the decisions and actions we make about X have implications for the risks we will face about Y, Z, V, S and so on. The food system uses more fossil fuels than any other industry, save for the auto sector. And “the way we feed ourselves,” Pollan writes, “contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do.” As he argues, unless reforms are made to national food policies first, we won’t possibly make any headway toward resolving the global environmental crisis or the myriad public health problems that are associated with it, let alone the directly observable rise in the prices of yogurt, meat and vegetables we see every day.

Pollan’s article is published as a letter to the President Elect of the United States. He decries the lack of attention by senators McCain and Obama to food issues, although he cleverly links them to other policy areas where the presidential hopefuls have been making their case (i.e., healthcare, environment, etc.). Canadians are going to the polls today to elect a new federal government, but there is just as much concern here about the place of food issues on the political radar as Pollan suggests of the U.S. The only time food safety and security became an election issue was in relation to insensitive comments by the Conservative agriculture minister early in the campaign regarding the listeriosis outbreak. Regrettably, neither the opposition parties nor the media did much to connect the comments to policies relating to food production or safety in this country. Let’s hope that this changes (here and in the U.S.) once the electoral dust has settled.

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Filed under Food-borne illness, Politics

Disease Surveillance 2.0

In the first meeting of my grad seminar on communication and public health we discussed the contributions of some leading social theorists (Michel Foucault, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens), particularly their theories of governmentality (Foucault), risk (Beck, Giddens) and reflexivity (also Beck, Giddens).

A recent story in Wired magazine illustrates some of these ideas well. The piece offers an account of “threat detective” Mark Smolinski, director of the Predict and Prevent Initiative, a global health program at Google.org  (the tech giant’s philanthropic arm).

Here’s the YouTube video introducing the Initiative:

Several aspects of the article interest me, particularly how Smolinski visualizes the Google health initiative as a knowledge broker in the management of global health risks. These risks – from avian influenza to SARS, hantavirus, West Nile and other infectious diseases which are “just a plane ride away” – become perceptible to us as a result of what Giddens described as some of the consequences of modernity (see also Beck’s discussion of global risks society). But as Foucault suggests, they are also the site through which wider strategies and solutions can be generated for problematizing populations. Indeed, as Smolinski describes his job, he leverages the company’s “technology expertise to companies and nongovernmental organizations already at work in the developing world” through “merging disease research into a predictive science.” 

To make conceptual sense of these practices we would do well to revisit Michel Foucault’s The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century.  In this lecture, Foucault accounts for the emergence of a medical services market, the professionalization of medical practitioners, the development of benevolent associations and of learned societies concerned with the observation of social conditions, and innovation in medical techniques, among other things. While the state plays a variety of roles in relation to these developments, he argues, the myriad ways in which health and sickness become matters of problematization ‘beyond the state’ contribute to an awareness of them as elements of population: “the health of each as an urgent matter for all; the state of health of a population as a general objective”.

Central to the politics of health in this period is the emergence of concern for the well-being of the population as an essential objective of political power – this is a view of power that concerns itself not with the capacity to dominate and repress but to produce things, to manage conduct and new ways of thinking. This shift towards policing the social body that he argues was peculiar to the 18th century was related to the broader political and economic consequences of the industrial period’s demographic transition, in which an urgent need arose to rapidly integrate increasing numbers of people into the apparatus of production and to control them closely. It was these forces, Foucault argues, that made the notion of “population” appear not just as a theoretical concept, but “as an object of surveillance, of analysis, of intervention, of initiatives aimed at modification.” For Foucault, the rise of social medicine characteristic of the modern era could be extended to the rise of new modes of surveillance characteristic of late modernity and embodied by the observatory and epistemological power of Google.org.



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Filed under Everyday Life, Surveillance, Technology

Public Health Gets its Groove On

A story published in yesterday’s Washington Post reports that for the “global generation,” public health is a “hot field” of research. Although this demographic isn’t defined, let’s assume that it comprises primarily university and college-educated youth with a cosmopolitan sensibility. Echoing some of the conceptual underpinnings of Ulrich Beck’s second modernity thesis, the notion that the processes of modernization have generated unplanned side effects that present themselves as new problems in the forms of risks, the article claims that curiosity and awareness about public health dilemmas and problems is essential in the “flattened, crowded and worried world of the 21st century.” To paraphrase Giddens, risk and danger have become secularized as part of a world structured mainly by humanly created risks which can be assessed only in terms of generalisable knowledge about potential dangers (Consequences of Modernity, p.111).

The article notes that one of the major forces driving this new interest in public health is the way in which media and communication technologies “put students in touch with far-flung people and institutions,” thereby creating demand for knowledge that will enable them to navigate the global village with a greater sense of security and safety. Enter public health studies.

“Observers also credit a flowering of social consciousness in today’s students,” the article reports. “While the causes of their parents’ generation were fueled by protest and relied heavily on symbolic victories, the interest in public health reflects this generation’s more communitarian and practical outlook.”

The article tilts heavily toward an epidemiological approach to public health that relies on a rational self oriented toward stabilizing their identity in a culture of anxiety and risk, mentioning issues of communication and mass media only obliquely. It’s certainly a truism that “nearly all health stories in the news — from the possible hazards of bisphenol A in plastics and the theory that vaccines cause autism, to racial disparities in health care and missteps in the investigation of tainted peppers — are better understood with grounding in that discipline.” Public health advocates and practitioners would also be well served by acquiring a better understanding of communication practices and technologies and of understanding that they can be both produce and potentially alleviate anxiety — no doubt this would also  facilitate the development of more effectively articulated arguments for advancing public health objectives.

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Filed under Higher Education