Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is Obesity Our Destiny?

Those of you who like two dimensional, four quadrant graphs (and I am one of those sad people) will enjoy a new British government report on the fat future that awaits more and more of us. The report - Tackling Obesities: Future Choices - is one of the best examples of social trends analysis and forecasting that I have come across in a long time.

In Section 6 of the report they look at a number of different scenarios (to 2050) for the future of obesity in the UK using the model illustrated in the chart (which I have copied from the report). As with all scenario generation, the critical issue is what dimensions you choose to work with in anticipating different future outcomes. The report explains the choice of dimensions thus:

The project scenarios are based on two critical uncertainties identified through analysis of the drivers for change: first, uncertainty associated with people’s values and behaviour – ranging from a more individualistic society to one where greater community responsibility is taken; and, second, uncertainty over what strategic approach should be taken to meet challenges – ranging from a nation that takes a long-term approach to prepare in advance and reduce anticipated risks to one that has a shorter-term approach that emphasises the ability to react to definite challenges and problems as they arise, focusing on managing the impact.
What is interesting is that the same dimensions effectively apply to all policy choices and related social scenarios (not just to a debate about policy on obesity). Furthermore, though in theory all scenarios are valued 'equally' in terms of likelihood, the choice of dimensions (and their alignment) points to a strong (though possibly sub-conscious) bias towards collective, state-driven intervention (the top right hand quadrant in the graph). In my experience of working with scenarios for businesses and government departments, usually the 'desirable future' is the one in the top right hand quadrant - psychologically we associate the direction of the future with a movement from the bottom left to the top right: hence the importance of how you align your two dimensions.

Of course, reducing a subject as complex as obesity to two dimensions (and just how complex is illustrated in Figure 8.1 on page 121 of the report) can be limiting. Moreover, setting out the argument so that the inevitable conclusion is that our political masters must 'do something' should make us even more cautious. This is true of Ireland as well as the UK. As Jennifer O'Connell has written in her excellent weekly column, personal responsibility is still the key determinant of any individual's weight - and unless you begin there and end there then you open the door to all sorts of draconian infringements of our freedom as citizens and consumers.

The point was put most eloquently by Chris Field, the Western Australian Ombudsman, in an insightful paper on why imperfect markets are generally better than imperfect government policies:

... liberty matters, because a life worth living is one that you are able to author yourself – brilliant decisions and costly mistakes, silly risks and unnecessary caution and everything in between. You grow and learn from the mistakes you make – and these mistakes can make subsequent decision-making all the stronger. Correcting mistakes before we make them is to change fundamentally the nature of autonomous living and remove from our lives one of the means that individuals, and for that matter, societies throughout history, have used to develop and improve. ...

Individual liberty, combined with freedom of markets, leads to the lowest prices, greatest choice and greatest quality of consumer goods and services. Moreover, our markets left to work, without unnecessary regulatory intervention, leads to the greatest productivity and prosperity for all consumers. To the extent to which we harbour some residual concern that some consumers are making mistaken decisions – mistakes that do not otherwise justify regulatory intervention into markets - we can remind ourselves, in the words of Professor Ross Parish: the better off we are, the more we can afford to make some mistaken buying decisions.

Obesity is a problem - but it is hardly up there with global warming and international terrorism. We need therefore to get the problem in perspective - and perhaps the most important one is that of the responsibility of each individual adult for his or her own choices and well being.

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