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Food + Cooking

10 Questions for Mark Stevenson

Published in Gourmet Live 01.04.12
The author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future tells Gourmet Live’s Megan O. Steintrager that tomorrow’s looking good—as long as we’re willing to sink our teeth into today’s problems

Who’s not a little weary of hearing grim predictions about the future? In search of a fresh perspective, we consulted Mark Stevenson, comedian, consultant, and author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” (in hardcover now and paperback next month). For the book—which has won praise from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired—Stevenson traveled the world talking to farmers, engineers, philosophers, inventors, scientists, and others, who, while not Pollyanna about the future, “see problems and go ‘ooh, goody—now I’ve got something to get my teeth into.’”

Gourmet Live: What made you decide to approach the future from an optimistic viewpoint?

Mark Stevenson: I didn’t. Originally the book was called A World Tour of the Future, but as I did my research, I came to realize that, rather than our future being terrible, it could be a renaissance. I’m not saying the future will be better, but I do believe we still have everything to play for—and everyone of good conscience should be in that game.

GL: Futurists often paint a dire picture when it comes to food, with famine and extinction of various species of plants and animals as two common themes. How would you address their concerns?

MS: With pragmatism. We have the technologies and the knowledge to solve all of our grand challenges right now. I went to the Australian outback to see cattle farms that were increasing their stocking levels, reducing their costs, increasing biodiversity, and pumping carbon from the atmosphere into the soil—all by changing the way the cattle moved between paddocks. Certainly we need to work more in tune with the land rather than trying to make up for our abuse of it with ever more chemical fixes. Also, we need to bear in mind that we haven’t had a shortage of food production; there are more than enough calories per person being made each year. Our crimes are ones of distribution and needless waste, but these can be addressed—that’s not me saying it’s easy.

Species extinction could be reversed, in some cases, if we can rescue—or re-create—the DNA using synthetic biology techniques, but much of what we have lost we have lost forever. The good news for biodiversity is that as human beings increasingly live in cities, natural ecosystems can recover. It’s a little-known fact that Europe is reforesting, for instance—a combination of afforestation policies and natural expansion of forests, mainly onto former agricultural land. That’s not to say we can stop worrying about our forests. We’re still deforesting if you take the world as a whole, but the rate is slowing and its reversal in some areas is encouraging.

GL: In the preface to your book, you have two quotes: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” from Carl Sagan, and “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet,” from William Gibson. How can these ideas be applied to what we eat and drink?

MS: Well, Carl Sagan could have been talking about a new restaurant or dish he hadn’t tried. More seriously, I interpret William Gibson’s point—in part—as saying that ways of thinking and technologies to solve many of our grand challenges already exist, but they take time to propagate. The Holistic Management method of farming I saw in Australia is an example, but that’s only gaining traction now after several decades of dealing with some resistance from the prevailing orthodoxy—a hazard for every idea. So, the solution to your problem might already be waiting for you, but you may need to let go of some old ways of thinking to embrace it. I certainly found a bunch of those solutions on my travels, but I had to let go of some personal biases I’d become comfortable with to appreciate them.

GL: Based on your research, what do you think an average day of eating will look like for Americans in 200 years?

MS: I don’t make predictions. They’d tell you far more about my prejudices than what will actually happen—and that’s the case with many so-called futurists. My work is about saying we have choices, we need to engage with those choices pragmatically, and in that way we’ll get more of the good and less of the bad. I’m not saying it’s all going to be good—I’ve read my history. America has more things to worry about than its future dinner plate. It may not exist in 200 years in its current form if it doesn’t sort out its fossil fuel addiction, Industrial Age education system, and dysfunctional politics—although that’s the same for a lot of countries!

GL: On your “optimist’s tour” of the world, what were your favorites among the foods you sampled?

MS: I spent some time in the Maldives, where the food was a lovely fusion of Asian influences. Also, Stuart Witt, the CEO and general manager of the Mojave Air and Spaceport, gave me a rather nice elk burger (he’s a keen hunter).

GL: Is there any culture or group whose members are currently eating in a futuristic or sustainable way?

MS: Yes. Nonhumans are generally quite good at it. We could learn a lot from them. Waste is an alien concept to most other animals.

GL: Have you modified your own eating habits since you began researching the book, perhaps to become “better, stronger, faster”? How would you describe your diet?

MS: My girlfriend is vegetarian, which means for most days of the week, I am, too—so I get my fair share of fresh fruit and vegetables. I did have my genome profiled, which suggested I had an above-average risk for a couple of cancers—both of which, there is evidence to suggest, might be made less probable by eating fish. As a result, I’ve suddenly discovered sushi.

GL: Conversely, what have you refused to change about your diet despite knowing that, as you say in the first chapter of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, you could live longer if you improved your diet and drank less?

MS: I still drink more than I should. The problem with alcohol is that it affects your rational faculties, so whilst beer three seems like a foolish idea as you drink beer one, beer two convinces you to ignore the warning, the tricksy blighter. I try to make up for it by working out regularly.

GL: What can DNA screening, as discussed in the book, tell people about how they can or should eat?

MS: Our health is an interplay of genetic and lifestyle factors. Depending on your genetic makeup, it may make sense to avoid or consume more of certain foods. We’re still at the beginning of our journey in understanding that interplay, and projects like the Personal Genome Project, which I visit in Chapter 2, will help us to understand this over the coming years. The good news is that at some point in the future, your doctor may be able to avoid giving you drugs and simply say, “I’ve looked at your genome, and this tells me it’s the bananas that are making you ill—give them a rest.”

GL: What are you most pessimistic about when it comes to the future? And what are you most optimistic about?

MS: I’m not an optimist or pessimist. I’m a “possibilist.” I’m saying we have choices, and there is plenty of good to be done if we make the right ones. Saying that is pretty controversial these days—which I think is a dangerous attitude. How can we make a better future if we’ve stopped imagining it’s possible?

The thing that depresses me the most is cynicism. If you’re cynical or have lost faith in our ability to make things better, then you are part of the problem. Cynicism is like smoking. It may look cool, but it’s really bad for you—and worse still, it’s really bad for everyone around you.

If you push me, I’d say the thing I’m most pessimistic about is that Andrew Lloyd Webber will probably write another musical, and the thing I’m most optimistic about is the ability of human beings to do the right thing. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be brilliant.