March 17, 2020 was a life-changing day for me. The pandemic was here. Sporting events cancelled. I voted in the state’s Presidential primary. I shopped at a local grocery store. I went home and severed most in-person social ties. I stopped volunteering at the food pantry and the local school. Call it sheltering in place or self-isolation. I started a daily journal of my life while continuing this weekly blog. The only person I spent any time with was my wife. We celebrated our 48th year of marriage during the year. Online orders brought food deliveries to our garage once a week. Prescription medications came to us by mail. Medical appointments lessened. I began to feel comfortable enough to zip in and out of the library to pick up books. I started to eat fries from the drive -thru at my favorite fast-food restaurants . My life after March 17 diverged from the days, months, and years before that day.
On Day 294 of my pandemic experience, January 4, 2021, I entered a telephone lottery to get a vaccine. On my 28th try, only eight minutes into my redial routine, I hit the jackpot—a recorded message. Later that afternoon I received a call from a real person. My wife and I scored an appointment for the following week for our first Moderna shot. National television shamed our county the previous week. It showed long lines of elderly hopefuls waiting in their lawn chairs overnight. The county streamlined logistics into an impressive vaccine operation for our shots. After some uncertainty, we received our second shot exactly 4 weeks later on Day 325. I now feel a sense of liberation.
I was fortunate to receive the vaccine early in the process. I hope that vaccinations proceed rapidly and are available to all who want them. The question many of are asking is “What can we expect from a post-pandemic world?” Predictions are difficult as there are so many uncertainties. It is easy to make predictions as anyone’s guess is as good as another. I read two books that helped me think through the future. Fareed Zakaria offers his perspective in Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. Margaret Heffernan describes her vision in Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future.
Today’s post is not related to processed or whole foods. It looks at the broader picture of our future. Later this month I will propose some potential scenarios on the future of processed foods. To this point I give the American response to the coronavirus and its aftermath a grade of C-minus. Will the new administration be able to improve on that grade? The pandemic has been devastating. Our challenge facing global climate change threatens to be greater. My current grade on that threat is an I for Incomplete. Have we learned anything from the experiences of last year to improve our chances?
I will view our future through six prisms as addressed in both Ten Lessons and Uncharted.
Science. My view of science varies from popular opinion but concurs with the views of both authors. Zakaria tells us that Americans view science “by its endpoints—a discovery, or a breakthrough, or an invention” and not by its processes. Science is “a method of inquiry” involving hypothesis testing of critical questions. It is messy and doesn’t give us “a single, definitive answer.” Heffernan suggests that the public “wish[es] to make scientific progress efficient,” but such attempts tend to make it less effective and useful. She also indicates that society seeks to avoid “uncertainty or unpredictability” but it is through confronting uncertainty we move through challenges to achieve solutions to complex problems.
Our desire for certainty was on display in the Super Bowl ads last month. Rocket Mortgage showed us that “pretty sure” was not nearly good enough. Another television ad lets us know that we “want it all.” We can have it all by merely changing our cellphone coverage. We have lived in a world of uncertainty during the pandemic. The likelihood of a certain future with no difficulties is a dream we cling to. Science is not a monolith. It helps us define and understand problems. It cuts through complexity. It provides promise while dashing false hopes. It debunks myths, some of which still persist despite the evidence.
Not all scientists agree on important points. Front-line physicians and epidemiologists don’t always agree. Endocrinologists and toxicologists are at odds with each other. Food scientists and nutritionists view dietary guidelines from different points of view. Science is better at developing and testing questions than producing answers. We need to use science wisely as a tool. It is not the solution. We can’t ignore science. Neither can we claim it as a trophy to be used as a blunt instrument to silence our critics. Technology is a product of science. We experience both positive and negative consequences depending on how technology is deployed and who deploys it.
Experts. The credibility of experts increases as they support what we already believe. If they disagree with our opinions, we tend to discount their message. One of the Ten Lessons urges us to “listen to the experts. But the experts also need to listen to the people.” The 1990s opened up avenues of communication unheard of before. The Internet promised to put information at our fingertips. It would protect us from misinformation delivered by vested interests. It has not turned out that way. Excess information penetrates our inboxes each day. We struggle to separate fact from fiction. If that is not difficult enough, most of what we learn from experts are educated conjectures. As new information emerges, these conjectures change. What seemed certain yesterday is uncertain today and may morph into irrelevance tomorrow. We crave a certainty that is not achievable.
Ideology colors what the experts say and how we react to their messages. We turn to models to screen out bias. Uncharted warns us that models are not as neutral as they seem. “Overwhelmed by uncertainty, we seek simplification and too quickly reach for binary perspectives, just at the moment when we need broader ones.” Social justice or law and order? Capitalism or socialism? Processed foods or whole foods? Binary propositions oversimplify the complex world we live in. Algorithms may work when data is sufficient and the models are transparent. But they eventually fail when the assumptions do not match reality. Rather than rely on models, Heffernan suggests that we build scenarios of the future. Careful consideration by a diverse group of interested parties leads to more realistic output. Such scenarios do not predict the future but provide a direction for meeting upcoming encounters with flexibility.
Fresh vs. ultra-processed food–a binary choice
As part of strategic planning for our college I participated in scenario-building exercises. We broke into separate groups to address each critical issue facing the college. A diverse team from within the college developed three scenarios for a specific issue. At the end of the process each team presented these scenarios to the administration. Many of these scenarios were visionary and anticipated future difficulties we would face as a college. Unfortunately, the administration chose the scenario that most approximated the status quo for most issues. The visionary proposals to lead us forward remained on the cutting-room floor. The participants listened to the administration, but the administration did not always listen to the participants.
Government lacks the flexibility needed to tackle existential issues facing us today. Zakaria notes that FDA’s “cumbersome rules and bureaucratic checks have good intentions behind them.” Such agencies may not be able to keep up with tomorrow’s challenges. Before solving one problem others crop up to challenge their expertise. We expect these agencies to make quick judgments on our pet issues. Then we condemn them when quick decisions lead to problems. We want a vaccine or drug now unless it turns out later to be a safety problem. Our current President, like his predecessor seeks to solve this problem through Executive Orders. Such pronouncements find their ways around legislative and regulatory inaction. Implementation of these orders still rests with executive agencies subject to Congressional oversight and court rulings.
How, then, can we hope to keep up with a changing world? Heffernan suggests that all organizations, public and private, must assess “where we have been, where we are today, and where we wish to be tomorrow.” They can count on “neither inevitability nor guarantees” to guide them. Any institution needs planning and preparation to place itself on the past to future continuum. Then it needs to anticipate potential external events that call for decisive responses. Government deliberation is no match for the nimbleness of private enterprise. Can public/private cooperation move us forward without fraud and collusion?
Markets will continue to dominate post-pandemic life for good or ill. Both authors are capitalists. They see industry as a major player in facing tomorrow’s problems. It is doubtful that socialism will prevail over capitalism in America any time soon. Ten Lessons lauds capital markets for producing “growth and innovation” Such markets are also responsible, however, for “an impoverished public sector, rising inequality” and other ills associated with capitalism. Is there any way that we can diminish the negative while enhancing the positive? How will government agencies be able to keep up with the flexibility of commercial enterprise? Government will need to be less bureaucratic, less certain, and less consistent.
Uncharted distinguishes between complicated and complex issues. “Complicated environments are linear, follow rules, and are predictable; like an assembly line, they can be planned, managed, repeated, and controlled.” Complex problems are “nonlinear and fluid, where very small effects may produce disproportionate impacts.” Complex issues require complex solutions. Failure is likely without careful preparation and a willingness to make changes on the run. The current pandemic is not only complicated, it is complex. Likewise, the obesity epidemic is complex. Variations of the same solutions over the past 45 years have made it worse not better. Neither public nor private sectors have produced much progress on slimming down Americans. Can joint partnerships be more successful?
Inequality between the richest and poorest amongst us is increasing. Efforts to bring us closer together have been ineffective. This trend goes beyond individuals to companies and nations according to Zakaria. “The retreat to safety and security will manifest itself in corporate life where the big will get bigger.” When the pandemic is over, how many smaller companies will survive? How many big companies will remain? Will these giant corporations dominate specific sectors? Or will they become behemoths like Amazon and Walmart?
And how will problems be solved by the dominant players? Will they feel secure in their bigness and be slow to change? Or will they build on the past, carefully mapping out the future? Heffernan suggests that “[c]aught between uncertainty and ambiguity, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining that the only way to solve hard problems is to start with a clean slate.” This statement hit close to home. I once worked on a team with a colleague who urged us to start with a blank sheet of paper every time we hit an impasse. After pulling out that blank sheet one time too many, I blew up! To move forward we must face our past and view our future in realistic terms. Starting over with an idealized conception will not work either. In another setting members of two lab groups met. Each one of us diagrammed a laboratory procedure and then shared our drawings. It turned out that my plan was the only one that didn’t have contingency plan for something going wrong. I obviously had been away from benchwork too long!
Self-interest or cooperation represent the stark choice we face as we emerge from the pandemic. Ten Lessons urges that we choose “global cooperation and action” over “nationalism and self-interest.” Which direction will society choose? Or is Zakaria’s vision just another binary choice? Can we move beyond either this or that? Uncharted challenges us to use our “[i]magination, creativity, compassion, generosity, variety, meaning, faith, and courage” as we face the future. Expect a bumpier road ahead full of unpredictability and uncertainty. We should prepare to move ahead with both confidence and humility.
Bottom line. What can we expect in a post-pandemic world? Ten Lessons and Uncharted provide us with two visions. Zakaria paints a picture of changes we can expect. Heffernan provides us with tools we have available to us to meet these and unexpected changes. The two books view the future through six prisms. Science is not the answer. But it is the process by which we can unveil critical questions that can provide answers. Experts can provide guidance but only if the public is part of the process. Government must become more flexible even when chances of failure increase. It must set policy and point the way forward. Markets under proper regulation will provide the means to achieve solutions for us all. Inequality looms when the proper balance between policy and commerce is not achieved. The stark choice facing us is self-interest or cooperation or none of the above. We will need flexibility and creativity to face an uncertain, unpredictable future.
Liberation. Life is picking up as I emerge from self-isolation. I started to mentor a young man through the confirmation process at our church. I returned to the food pantry yesterday, 351 days since my last time there. I still wear my mask everywhere I go, and I continue social distancing. I seek normalcy in my life and am not certain of what my future will look like. Welcome to a brave new world.
Next week: Scenario #1 The New Food Movement triumphs