September 21, 2021   5 mins

The other day, I ate a fake burger. It looked, felt and tasted like a burger, even quite a good burger. If you had simply handed it to me and not said “this is a new high-tech vegan burger”, I might not have noticed.

It was a Beyond burger, made from plant proteins. Back in 2017, when I tried an Impossible burger in California, they still were rare. Now you can buy them at Burger King; McDonald’s is making its own called (inevitably) the McPlant. About $7 billion dollars’ worth of vegan meat was sold in 2020 – the large majority of it replacing the traditional meat burger.

Making fake burgers takes a fraction of the energy and land that making a beef burger does and fewer cows end up dead. But, and this is crucial, I still get to eat a burger.

There was an alternative way around this, of course. Instead of developing a low-impact way of fulfilling my desire for a burger, we could have encouraged me not to want burgers any more, or (more likely) to suppress it. We could have run advert campaigns fronted by earnest celebrities telling me that burgers are bad. We could even have simply banned burgers. And maybe it would have worked.

But then I wouldn’t have got to eat a burger, and I wanted a burger.

On the whole, I think fulfilling human desires is a good thing. Not always, but most of the time, giving people things they want makes them happier. So why not?

But not everyone thinks this is a good thing. There’s a name for it: “solutionism”, the “foolhardy belief that technology can sidestep thorny social and political problems”. People who worry about solutionism say that, instead of finding technological quick fixes for society’s ills, we ought to concentrate on the root causes: to change our social structures, to change our behaviour, to change policy.

I strongly disagree. We should do both.

In the UK after the war, suicide rates went up. By the mid-Sixties, according to the national registry, they reached something like 14 per 100,000 men per year, and about 10 per 100,000 women1. But by 1971, they had dropped significantly, to about 10 for men and seven for women. What happened? Did we make progress in solving society’s underlying problems and make Britain a more tolerable place to live?

Well, maybe. But a more proximate explanation is that in the mid-Sixties — for reasons unrelated to suicide — the British energy supply largely switched from coal gas to natural gas.

At the time, many suicides in the UK involved carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning: putting one’s head in the oven. That became impossible with natural gas, which is essentially free of carbon monoxide. In 1962/3, about 40% of suicides used CO poisoning; by 1970/71, fewer than 10% of them did. Suicides by other means went up, a bit, but nowhere near enough to compensate; total suicide rates went down by about a third. Making it harder to kill oneself stopped a lot of people from doing it; it turned out the impulse to end their life was transient.

Suicide is a problem with many underlying causes. But a simple technological fix — changing from coal gas to natural gas — reduced the problem significantly.

How about other social ills? How about obesity? Somewhere around a quarter of British adults are classed as obese. A subset of people, about 3% of the population, are “morbidly” obese — that is, a BMI over 40, equivalent to a six-foot-tall person weighing more than 20 stone. This has serious health implications, and many of them would like to lose weight, but can’t — their brain fights them, making them feel as though they are starving. Asking them to stop eating is not that different from asking them to stop breathing.

Last week, the neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet wrote a piece about a promising pharmaceutical treatment for obesity: that is, an actually effective weight-loss pill. I thought it was exciting, but several people responding to me thought it was “dystopian” or “depressing”: people should diet and exercise. We should change society and behaviour, not rely on pills.

But again: I think that’s just wrong. Changing society can be good! We should make cities more walkable; we should make food healthier and exercise easier, and doing so would probably reduce obesity and improve health. But for some people that won’t be enough, because not everyone has the same levels of food craving or impulse control. A pill that makes their job easier, that levels the playing field, would also be good.

There are many examples like this. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted and causes cervical cancer. You can either try to encourage abstinence and safe sex (difficult) or you can vaccinate children before they reach the age of sexual activity (easy). It reduces cervical cancer by more than 90%. And people still get to have sex!

Society is really hard to change. It is made up of millions of people with their own desires and incentives, and there is limited scope for altering it — you can reduce smoking by banning it in pubs, you can reduce drink-driving through education and enforcement (drink-driving deaths are about 15% of what they were in 1979), but you’re battling against what people want.

And people getting what they want is a good thing. You could almost argue that it is the only good thing: what is the point of life, if not being happy and making others happy? If people want to smoke, and if they could do so without harming their health, what’s the problem?

So technological fixes are helpful. For example, vaping represents a way of giving people what they want — the fun of a nicotine high — at a hugely reduced health cost.

The most obvious place where this is relevant is climate change. People want to fly, they want to drive, they want to heat their homes and use electricity. We could try to transform human desires, and make us not want those things, or we could try to make us deny our own wants. For some of us that will be successful and for others it will not.  But we could let everyone have the things they wanted, it would be better.

That’s why things like carbon capture are actually pretty exciting, things like the enormous fall in the cost of solar energy, or zero-emission aircraft. This means people getting to travel, getting to live in comfortable homes with light and heating, being able to eat food they like, with fewer negative costs.

I don’t like the tendency to compare movements, such as environmentalism, to religions — it’s too easy and is often misleading. But I do think that for some people, there’s a tendency to confuse motive and means: they think that because many of the things we want and enjoy have harmful side-effects, so the things we want and enjoy are bad in themselves. Like Puritans opposed to hunting not because the animals suffer but because the hunters enjoyed it, we think that because we sometimes need to suffer for noble purposes, that suffering itself is noble.

It’s not. We may have to change our behaviour — eat less, smoke and drink less, fly less — to gain some other good, such as improved health or reduced environmental impact. But that is an unfortunate by-product, not the point in itself. If technological fixes exist, we should use them.

Plant-based burgers are one thing; soon, hopefully, we will see real meat that’s been grown in a lab at an affordable price (although it’s always a bit further away than its proponents claim). People could order steaks or lamb chops that have never been attached to a sentient being, that don’t require acres of land or horrible cruelty. For some people this is a bleak dystopia. But for me it’s a utopian vision: people getting what they want, at a fraction of the environmental and moral cost. Let me have my damn burger.

  1. Note: this is probably an undercount. The ONS suicide data only goes back to 1981, but it starts at 19.5 per 100,000 men per year. The trend, though, is real.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.