Have you ever had a “Ratatouille” moment? Like in the animated movie where the food critic is instantaneously transported to a deeply cherished childhood memory when stimulated by an extraordinary event, in that case the first mouthful of a dish that invoked his mother’s ratatouille?
I have experienced it once in my life, and there are many similarities with the fictional food critic’s experience; I was in France when it occurred, it related to food, and I literally felt the rush back to my childhood as so wonderfully captured in the movie.
In my case I was sitting in a side street near to Place de la Comédie in Montpellier, where I was a research fellow in the laboratory of JR Bonami the PhD supervisor of Dr Shi Zhengli who is a lead scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and was responsible for identifying bats as the original host of the SARS virus and who discovered the coronavirus cause of COVID-19.
The waiter at the small, non-descript bistro had just placed a humble poulet frites (chicken and fried chips) in front of me and as I took my first mouthful I was instantly transported to my childhood and how roast chicken used to be. It was not to any one particular meal – it was a melange of meals lovingly prepared by my mother and grandmothers. As I quietly savoured the chicken I adored the pure taste and the paper thin crisp skin.
That was 20 years ago but the experience remains fresh in my mind. Over the years as I have prepared and consumed chicken I have remembered that moment in Montpellier, and have taken note of the thick skin and underlying fat, and of how immature the chickens have gotten as evidenced by the size of the bones. Watching my children try to each grip a side of the tiny wish bones is akin to two elephants competing to pick up a bar of soap.
Between 1957 and 2005 the growth rate of chickens raised commercially for meat increased by 400% through genetic, nutrition and husbandry advances. Concomitant with this massive increase in growth were marked side-effects including skeletal deformities, metabolic dysfunction and altered immune function. This progress is made stark by this comparative figure taken from that paper.
Undoubtedly there were other more subtle changes that have occurred progressively but were not detected by consumers, or if they were detected were not sufficient to cause the industry to rethink this progression.
This is not meant to be criticism of the poultry-raising industry as these advances have allowed chicken to remain an affordable and nutritious meal in developed countries. I am simply saying that these rapid changes in the industry have undoubtedly resulted in changes in the animal which will have resulted in changes in the experience of consuming the animal which we did not notice because it was an iterative process that occurred over many years.
That experience showed me just how much the experience of consuming a roast chicken had changed in my life time, and I had not even realised it until that precise moment in time.
My Italian language teacher and friend recounted a very similar experience recently. She is actually my neighbour in a very small village in Abruzzo, an area of Italy considered one of the most pristine in Europe with almost half its area set aside as national reserves and protected nature reserves. It is estimated that 75% of all extant European species occur naturally in the area including rare species such as the golden eagle, the Abruzzese chamois, the Appenine wolf and the Marsican brown bear.
Our friend relayed how in our small village of only 400 inhabitants they experienced their first true Spring since her childhood 30 some years ago. She said that the light has been wonderful and that nature seems to abound like she had not seen in years, with insects right through to birds much more plentiful. Unsurprisingly many in the village are putting this down to the measures taken in response to COVID-19 and especially the reduced pollution. These are people who truly identify with place as the village existed before the Romans and most do not know of a time when their ancestors came from another region.
I found these observations especially interesting because this is considered one of the more “untouched” environments in central Europe.
It was clear that our friend was extremely surprised by this and it appeared that what had been lost had not been quite so well understood with clarity. These observations have been reinforced the world over in a project where scientists and artists were able to take advantage of the low ambient noise in the human world to create the first global public sound map of the northern hemisphere spring morning chorus.
The unique events of this year have provided a moment of clarity on many fronts to people from all over the world, and many are expressing a desire to listen and observe their individual and our collective existence both at the physical and spiritual level.
In recent weeks I have come back to Earth somewhat driving my children to and from school. But this is essentially the only thing different to what we have been doing since our family went into lockdown in mid-March.
There is less traffic on the road from less non-school-related driving, although the 3pm drive is with considerable traffic. I have been marvelling at how relaxed I have been feeling while driving after driving only once or twice a week for the previous 2 months. Other drivers, too, seem much more relaxed. Admittedly, it’s early days, but I have not seen anybody driving erratically like the tradie who last year overtook me while continuously honking his horn, with a line of oncoming traffic, at 8.20 am in front of a school of 2,000 children. And I have noticed far fewer people on their devices while driving, though I expect that is only a matter of time.
Over recent years I have expressed increasing frustration at the erratic behaviour of drivers especially around schools, and I must say that most of the risky driving that I witnessed was by parents heading to or having just dropped off their children. People who not only should know better, but who have the most to gain by responsible driving practices around schools.
Admittedly, sometimes this frustration led me to take risks that I should not have, such as when impatient drivers flout road rules meaning that those following the rules would remain stuck in position if they did not counter their aggressive driving by edging out further or quicker to take a turn to cross a busy intersection.
I was not alone in remarking on the increasing speed with which life was being lived throughout the modern world. Often observers who made such observations drew causative links to increased conspicuous and often frivolous consumption, as I did. There was also a likely link to the long standing domestic migration from rural and regional areas to more urban areas and large cities as higher paid jobs attracted white collar workers which in turn necessitated increased infrastructure construction by blue collar workers and other lower skilled services. All of this added to the densification and population pressure in urban life.
Rural areas throughout the world have struggled with population declines, but European countries with strong family and cultural ties over thousands of years have been especially disrupted by this flow of people away from small villages. However, through the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a growing awareness that those strong family and community ties have been a significant advantage to those who live in small villages that are able to limit physical interactions from outside of the village. Moreover, modern communication technology combined with an acceleration in telecommuting for professional workers as a result of the pandemic opens up the opportunity to live remotely, and hints at the potential for a slowing, stabilisation or even a reversal in the trend of increased urbanisation in developed countries.
The point of this article is not to argue or infer that everything was better when I was child, and I do not suggest that anybody would want to take everything back to how things were 50 years ago.
But this moment in time presents humanity with a very significant opportunity to really examine what has occurred over recent decades, and decide what we want to continue to progress towards. In some areas we may want to curtail or redirect our progress, and in some areas we may want to provide additional resources to accelerate our progress.
For instance, I do not suggest that we might want to take our food production entirely back to how it functioned 50 years ago. However, the risks inherent with a highly centralised, mass distribution system for our food supply in many countries must be examined especially in the light of the strains that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on those supplies. Large food markets selling globally sourced products and large industrial meat processing plants have proven especially susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks amongst workers which threaten food supply. Moreover, centralisation of product from wide geographies for processing and/or wholesale, and then further dissemination, presents a potential risk for the emergence and spread of pathogens.
Already in this pandemic it is clear that globally food supply will be closely examined and modified to address the weaknesses unearthed.
The consumer may also decide that there is more to food miles than just minimising environmental impacts. These might include health and economic benefits from consuming less but higher quality meat produced more sustainably within the community that it is consumed.
Many who have been telecommuting for work may well begin to see a lot of health and social benefits to re-engaging more with their ancestral communities and thus move back to villages.
As I have explained in much of my writing, Elites fear “The Great Reset” because they have prospered from all of these trends that existed before COVID-19 struck, and they have positioned for that to continue. Even disruptions that were on the horizon have accelerated and caught them ill-prepared. The safest strategy for them to maintain their privileged position in society is to use their power to ensure that the ‘game of life’ is returned as quickly and as closely as possible to how it was before the pandemic.
Collectively, however, we have all had a glimpse of the potential for major changes to our lives. In some cases we have remembered what we have left behind without realising it, and in other cases we have learned the potential that innovation provides to change how we live our lives in the most fundamental of ways.
We have all lived stripped-down more simple lives, and many of us have enjoyed it. We have witnessed that the planet, and the animals and plants that we share it with, have enjoyed the space that the drop in human activity has provided, and many have observed the inherent beauty, for example the night sky that has not been witnessed so clearly for many years.
Not everything was better in the past, not by a long shot. But for all of the heartache that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, for all of the harsh impacts on humanity, we all owe it to the victims of the pandemic and to each other to take a long hard look at where things were heading before the pandemic and to be courageous enough to dream of how we want to emerge.
Regardless of whether we want certain trends reversed, redirected or accelerated, we will need to be prepared to ensure that we have our views heard and acted upon.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020