Society & culture

Anxiety pandemics

We’ve had Spanish flu (1918-19), Asian flu (1957) and Hong Kong flu (1968-69). Then we had SARS, bird flu and recently, swine flu. There is also seasonal flu, which appears every winter and kills about 250,000 people annually, although this is often forgotten. The idea, “community of anxiety”, was coined in 2004 by the writer, Ian McEwan, in Saturday, a novel about events surrounding the Iraq war. A similar idea is information pandemics. Both ideas describe the way fear and anxiety are spreading throughout the world, fuelled primarily by the interconnectivity of digital communications. It can start with a single email, spread to a blog and end up on Twitter. The result is global panic on an unseen scale and outbreaks are difficult to contain.

In early May, the World Health Organization talked about the need to stockpile food and water due to the swine flu outbreak and raised the threat level to five out of a possible six. Meanwhile, airports were installing thermal scanners and newspapers revelled in the story as it grew more scary and spectacular. The whole world seemed to be running for cover wearing a variety of (mostly useless) facemasks. Fear was spreading fast, fed with a mixture of confusion and impotence. The threat is real enough. The 1918 outbreak killed 20-50 million people in less than 18-months while the Black Death in the 14th century wiped out a third of the European population in just two years. Even the Asia and Hong Kong pandemics killed about 1-2 million people apiece. But we are confusing what’s possible with what’s probable. The reason is a collective feeling – a mood if you like - that something big and nasty is coming our way. This is partly because a string of events, from 9/11 and climate change to the economic collapse, have left us feeling unsure about what’s next. It is possible that a real pandemic will eventually emerge.

It will probably start in an overcrowded Asian city and travel economy class on a jet to the US and Europe. We may be able to contain it or we may not. The science surrounding such things is uncertain. Interestingly though, there appears to be a sense that we deserve things like this to happen to us. In some way, we are collectively guilty (because we borrowed too much money or damaged the planet with our selfish, materialist ways, perhaps) and we need to be punished. There is also a warped sense of curiosity at play. What would the world look like after a genuine pandemic? Would the death of 50 million people give everyone more food to eat? Another example of the fear factor was the jet that flew low over New York in early May. People automatically assumed another terrorist attack and panic whipped around Manhattan like wildfire. It turned out to be someone taking photographs but by then it was too late. And this, perhaps, is the point. Information now flows around the world too quickly and there is not enough time to properly react or to separate fact from opinion, anecdote from analysis, or sensation from science. There is too much information and much of it is unreliable.

Thanks to Web 2.0 the old hierarchy of knowledge, where source related to trustworthiness and reliability, has broken down. Furthermore, the people we used to trust (scientists, politicians, religious figures) are now widely distrusted so we ignore them. Swine flu is killing about 0.1% of those it infects; the mortality rate for the 1918-19 variety was 2.5-5.0%. So very few people have died so far. This could still change but I doubt it. Nevertheless, the sense of impending apocalypse remains.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 2-3 May 2009, ‘Fear fever’, J. Huxley.
See also The Fourth Horseman: A history of epidemics, plagues and other scourges by Andrew Nikiforuk,
Panicology by Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams and Risk: The science & politics of fear by Dan Gardner.
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Search words: Pandemics, epidemics, fear, anxiety, risk
Trend tags: Anxiety

The new frugality

Cheap is cool. So is tight fisted. Everyone knows that in a recession people tend to stop spending and start saving. Nevertheless, various UK commentators are predicting the return of austerity on a scale not seen since the end of WW2. A few stats support this: applications for allotment gardens (primarily to grow vegetables) have doubled since 2008 and vegetable seed sales are up. People are switching to no-frills supermarkets, such as Aldi and Lidl, and are trading down between price segments. The return to thrift can even be seen in sales of books with titles such as, Food for Free and The Penguin Handbook of Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps, becoming bestsellers on Amazon UK. But do these represent a broader long-term shift? The answer depends on how serious this recession is. If deep or long, it will herald a new way of living – up to a point. But if it is short, this frugality will be a fad I suspect. After all, the aspiration for these ideas is one thing; the reality is quite another. Nevertheless, I think a subtle change could be underway, especially in saving and looking after material possessions.

In the US, the savings rate was close to zero in recent years, but is now close to 3%; it could hit 8% in a year or two. People are spending less, saving more and paying off debt. They are also buying less, buying better and maintaining what they have. This is not surprising. A decade of financial gain has been wiped out for many people and the era of easy money is over. Hence they are returning to traditional values and ways. But will it last? I suspect not. We may slightly change our attitudes and behaviours regardless of what happens next. For example, austerity turns the environmental argument into an economic one and this should stick. Some people might change permanently. But for the majority, I seriously believe greed is not dead. It’s just sleeping.

Ref: Newsweek (US) 26 January 2009, ‘Tight-fisted is back in style’, S. Theil.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Frugality, austerity, saving, spending, recession
Trend tags: enoughism, moreism


The flight from white 

The US is approaching what is undoubtedly a profound demographic shift. According to the US Census Bureau, whites currently make up 66% of the US population but will be in a minority by 2042. For young whites and the US workforce, the tipping point will come even sooner. This is significant because whiteness has been synonymous with American culture since its inception. Until the 1960s, the aspiration of many non-whites who moved to the US was to blend in with white American culture as soon as possible. These days, black American culture is in a sense what many young non-blacks aspire to nowadays. So the displacement of whiteness from American popular culture is creating a host of issues in the US. For example, what will the new American mainstream (the American normal) look like and what ideas or values will be pre-eminent once this tipping point is reached? Is the ultimate white aim white transcendence or assimilation? Will the white reaction to minority status be peaceful or violent?

Certainly, there is already an identity crisis plaguing Middle America. Some people, such as the Canadian-born, LA-based satirist, Christian Lander, say being born white, middle class and straight is “the worst thing in the world”. This sounds ridiculous but it’s partly true. Middle class whites are ironically suffering from an identity crisis. To be white now is seen by many as disadvantaged and marginalised. “Where is white culture?”, blue collar whites shout. The answer, it seems, is NASCAR, country music, folksy nostalgia and Sarah Palin - which may explain what these people are so concerned about. But America was built on diversity and the future colour of America is neither black nor white but grey or beige. Intermarriage between whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, will continue to create a fabulous mix. Moreover, racial stereotypes have always been useless.

What defines a skater or a musician is generally their skateboard or their music: colour has next to nothing to do with it. It is lifestyle, culture and interests that count, not ethnicity. Overall, this shift away from whiteness is a good thing. Ethnic diversity energises a culture and broadens a nation’s view of the world. The issue, I suspect, will be economic. Older whites will use their voting power to retain healthcare benefits while younger Asians and blacks will use their voting power to attract funds to education and housing.

Ref: The Atlantic (US) January/February 2009, ‘ The end of white America?’, H. Hsu.
See also the Australian (Aus) 16-17 August 2009, ‘US whites heading to minority status’, J. Bone. Source integrity: *****
Search words: Race, demographics, white, whiteness, culture
Trend tags: Migration, demographics

The future is grey

The cost of the current financial crisis to the UK economy may be high but is only 5% of the anticipated cost of the UK’s ageing citizenry. People aged 85+ are already the fastest growing segment of the UK population. The size of this group is expected to double within ten years, creating a black hole worth £6 billion in retirement and aged care funding. In short, the problem is that fewer people are dying and fewer babies are being born meaning that fewer people are entering the workforce to pay for the services an ageing population requires. Moreover, fewer births and smaller families reduce the people available to look after ageing parents so responsibility shifts further towards the state.

Consequences? Higher taxation I’m afraid, unless increased immigration or smart technology can sort out the shortfall. Japan is already suffering from 30 years of declining birthrates and Japan’s attitude towards immigration isn’t helping either. China isn’t immune. One result of China’s one child policy is that the nation is now in a race to get rich and develop economically before its citizens get too old to work. Even Korea, with six workers per retiree, is ageing rapidly and is set to be one of the greyest nations on earth by 2050. So what’s next? Expect employment law to change. Retirement will become a rather fuzzy concept and people will stay in the workforce longer to pay the cost of living longer. There will also be a rapid increase in public debt, which raises taxes for almost everyone.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 2 April 2009, ‘The red ink of a greyer future’, C. Cook and S. Briscoe.
Weekly Telegraph (UK) 17-23 December 2008 ‘Over-85s are fastest growing age group’,
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Ageing, demographics
Trend tags: Ageing

Migrants and the recession 

Around 200 million people (3% of the world’s population) live in a country other than the one in which they were born. In the Philippines, for instance, 8 million people live overseas and their remittances back home provide about 10% of domestic GDP. But the global economic recession means many of these individuals are losing their jobs or forced to move back home. For example, a US study of Mexican emigration into the US claims that emigration has declined by 42% since November 2008. Other studies appear to show that migration is slowing down globally. This is problematic on two levels. First, if emigrants move home they can take jobs away from local people because they often have higher skill levels. But if they stay abroad and take lower paying jobs that nobody else wants, they will become resentful. Hopefully the global economy will revitalise soon and it will be business as usual. If not, expect nationalism (including regional nationalism), xenophobia, and racism, to increase across the board.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 17 January 2009, ‘The people crunch’, anon.
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Search words: Migration, nationalism, racism
Trend tags: Migration


Will the recession re-shape America? 

Writing in The Atlantic, Richard Florida says the global financial crisis will permanently and profoundly alter the American landscape. His argument is logical enough. The Great Depression more or less created suburbia, with its aftermath creating freeways, mass consumption and even malls. Hence, the current recession (he doesn’t use the word depression) will “accelerate the rise and fall of specific places within the US” and possibly displace New York as a global financial centre. On that last point he is sceptical. New York has already been displaced slightly by London as financial centre as power moves eastwards, but neither New York or London have much to worry about. Middle Eastern and Asian financial centres may have the money but they don’t yet have the people. Smart people have flocked to places like New York because there are other people like themselves already there and because they are interesting places to live. Hence a network effects takes hold and everything is under one roof so to speak. These places are also open to global talent, which cannot be said for places like Tokyo.

He is also right that increasing foreign competition (largely from Asia) and “the relentless replacement of people with machines” is unlikely to stop. Hence many factory towns and small cities are destined for doom and destruction in the decades ahead, but intangible services and the creative sector will grow and these both tend to cluster in global cities. I disagree with Florida in that that the current economic crisis isn’t another Great Depression; it’s just a recession and we will recover from it.We have simply forgotten what a recession looks like, that’s all. Unless the crisis is decade deep, I suspect we will simply go back to our habitual behaviour; over-consuming, over-borrowing and saving almost nothing will resume more rapidly than people think. Moreover, Florida links mass-consumption and consumerism too closely with suburbanisation. I think there is a link but affluent young urban professionals have materialist desires too. He is right that there is a general shift away from manufacturing in the US and fledgling industries tend to locate in certain urban areas where there is a wide diversity of talent.

Ref: The Atlantic (US), March 2009, ‘How the crash will reshape America’, R. Florida.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: suburban, urban, materialism, consumption, depression, recession, locations
Trend tags: -

Implications of demographic change 

Most societies are ageing rapidly and simultaneously facing a dramatic decline in the number of births. What are some of the main implications of this demographic change? Japan is ageing so quickly that it is investing in robotics, especially for childcare and aged care. Another spin-off from ageing is biotechnology; in short, a race is on to find inexpensive solutions to many chronic diseases. Globally the biotech industry is blossoming and is now worth around US$50 billion. Although this is small compared to traditional pharmaceuticals, R&D dollars are diverting to biotech. In Australia, for instance, 70% of the AUS$10 billion spent on healthcare goes on chronic illness; the remaining 30% is spent on acute care. Not so long ago these figures were the other way around. In Australia, around 25% of the population will be aged 65+ in 2044 and this means investment in retirement villages, aged care facilities and remote monitoring technologies. Interestingly, the church is often a major provider of aged care facilities so religion may be an unforeseen beneficiary of the ageing trend.

So what else benefits from an ageing citizenry? Travel is one industry, especially cultural tours or walking tours. Conversely, declining fertility rates should result in increased migration into countries that are short of workers and this, in turn, will create a massive market for recruitment, visa, education, ethnic media and religious services. For example, from 2011 onwards, more individuals will retire from the workforce in Australia than enter it and this will change economics and politics. Migrants tend to spend heavily once they arrive which opens up opportunities in everything from home furnishings to food. Given that most migrants will settle in urban areas, pressure on land will continue and we may see the development of inner-city farming. Around the world, and particularly in Asia, countries are running out of agricultural space so this will create a rural land boom with countries attempting to own land in other countries to feed populations back home. However, a negative spin-off from all this could be resource protectionism and rising anger towards foreigners who people believe have ‘stolen’ jobs. Interestingly, online recruitment companies are well placed to take advantage of almost all these trends, as they combine job-hunting for migrants, part-time work for retirees, education, training, and general migration services.

Ref: BRW (Aus) 19-25 March 2009, ‘Gen’s Next tonic’, (various).
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Search words: Demographics, ageing, fertility, migration, agriculture
Trend tags: Ageing

Neurotic social hyperesthesia 

Have you noticed a new prudery emerging in recent years? If not prudery, then timidity, inhibition or neurotic social hyperesthesia. The point is that an outbreak of fear has made people seem incapable of dealing with anything that appears direct, contentious or confronting. This faux sensitivity can be seen everywhere, from news reports that refuse to show dead bodies to people avoiding any mention of bodily functions. A recent example was a wildlife documentary that apologised to viewers in advance for showing images of animals eating other animals. In short, we have developed a fear of the explicit. This is linked to political correctness and moralistic ideology, but the implications are scary. After all, what is so wrong with showing people life as it is lived and lost? Moreover, if we sanitise images of car crashes or bloody wars, surely we are more likely to drive like maniacs or indulge in ill-conceived wars?

Why were the images of Saddam Hussein’s execution banned from TV and newspapers? I’m not suggesting that these images should appear on the six-o-clock news but this is part of history. Actions have consequences. Anyway, we can see these images elsewhere. The censors may prevent us from seeing them on TV but they cannot stop us from taking such images - or looking at them - on mobile phones. Worse, we seem to justify doing all this for the sake of our children. But surely if we create a cotton wool world for our kids, they will be less prepared for the real world when they eventually enter it?

Ref: Australian Literary Review (Aus) February 2009, ‘The crime of the curious citizen’, F. Moorhouse, Source integrity: ****
Search words: timidity, fear, prudery, media, children
Trend tags: Reality

Another African epidemic 

It was not widely reported outside Africa but, not so long ago, a school in Tanzania suffered from an epidemic of mass hysteria. Twenty students lost control of their bodies and then lost consciousness. According to one local observer, the occurrence is “very common here”. Similar events have occurred in Mexico and Malaysia. Historically, epidemics of hysteria had their roots in epidemics of fear and anxiety. Examples include a ‘dancing plague’ in Europe in 1374 and again in 1518. Severe psychological strain causes emotional distress that eventually manifests itself as people shouting, screaming and dancing (yes, dancing) in apparent pain. Women seem to be especially susceptible. It is fascinating that such episodes appear to be contagious. Are we due for an outbreak in the US or Europe soon? I’d predict yes.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) ‘Falling down’ 18 September 2008. J. Waller.
Also: A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 by John Waller, Icon Books.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: epidemics, mass panic, hysteria. Crowds.
Trend tags: Anxiety