MALTHUSIAN MATHEMATICS AND THE BIG MAC
Twenty years have passed since I first read Fast Food Nation and the questions it posed have lodged deep within my brain ever since. Schlosser’s book played a huge role in shaping our views of fast food but it relied heavily on shock value, largely at the scale of the machine needed to feed our addiction. And oh boy, it was powerful. I can still see the endless lines of cows waiting innocently for a bolt to the forehead.
350 million cows were slaughtered last year just so you could have a sneaky Big Mac
The numbers have escalated since the book was published, of course: an estimated 350 million cows were slaughtered last year, along with nearly 50 billion chickens, just so you could have a sneaky Big Mac (also available as the Chicken BigMac, £4.09 or £5.59 as part of a meal deal). You can check my stats here at the Kill Clock on this handy little website https://animalclock.org/uk/
Shocking though the scale of this industrial slaughter is, ultimately our outrage is directed at the numbers involved. No one really cares about any of the one million cows, or 150 million chickens that die each day for us. What really concerns us is the sheer volume of death required to satiate our endless appetites. But on the basis we do enjoy chicken and there are nearly seven billion of us in search of three meals a day, perhaps a better question would be how many chickens would be a reasonable number to slaughter?
It’s the ‘mass’ we hate in ‘mass produced’ and the mass, of course, is us.
Ok, so instead of adding to the coffers of the mighty Maccy D, you choose instead to have lunch at the trendy diner where each burger is lovingly hand made, grilled to your pernickety specs and served on breadboard. How many cattle died now? The answer, of course, is the same number, or most likely many more as the efficiencies of a McDonald’s would eclipse any independent producer of almost anything. Our unease for our collective consumption then, is triggered not by death itself, but by the numbers. It’s the ‘mass’ we hate in ‘mass produced’ and the mass, of course, is us. It’s Malthusian Mathematics: designed to make you feel guilty.
In the decade ahead, a brand’s biggest job will be to help us navigate around our own guilt.
Now, if I told you that the Louis Vuitton handbag you’re lusting after is actually churned out at a rate of 1500 per hour you might not think it so worthy of your adoration. The actual production figure, of course, is a more closely guarded secret than diamond production at DeBeers, but we do know they hold ritual burnings of their unsold bags to avoid discounting. (We really have got it in for the poor old cow.) How special is that leather clutch now, I ask?
Over the next decade, as our burden of consumerist guilt grows heavy and unwieldy, we can expect much more of this sleight of hand. Concealing the mass in mass production is the new Holy Grail. A brand’s biggest job will be to help us navigate around our own guilt in order to make us feel special.
So, when we hear that 385,000 babies are born each day we can unanimously agree it’s far, far too many. The very thought of 385k umbilical cords getting chopped so that 385k screaming mouths can be fed three times a day for eighty odd years is beyond repugnant. That’s 385k soon-to-be burger eating, fuel burning, handbag buying humans unleashed upon our fragile little planet…every…single…day. Something must be done!
Until, that is, it’s our child: our angelic, perfectly formed little bundle of love, full of promise, hope and happiness. The other 384,999 babies can drop dead as far as we’re concerned. Hypocrites, that’s what we are. The Louis Vuitton handbag has value because it’s sold as a rare and precious thing, even though it really isn’t. The glass case and burly security guard are simply theatre to reinforce that narrative. So it’s a safe bet that livestream video direct from the factory will not be coming to a store near you anytime soon. Funny that.
So no, we cannot feel the same about another person’s handbag, let alone their newborn baby, since ours is special. Knowledge of the genuine numbers interrupts the narrative, interferes with our delusion. Deluded, narcissistic hypocrites, that’s what we are.
On a different note, apparently there’s enough loose change tucked down the back of our British sofas to buy at least three bespoke Gulfstream jets. That’s £155 million going to waste when we could each have…err, a sixty millionth share of them. And that’s the point really: it may be true but ultimately it’s absolutely inconsequential.
The planet is over populated with OTHER people, not us.
Like Thomas Malthus himself, we believe the planet is over populated with OTHER people, not us. Did you know that if we all lived as densely as they do in Manhattan, the Earth’s entire population would fit comfortably within New Zealand? (Second thoughts, with their regulations at the moment that might not be such a great idea.) Anyway, the world appears over populated because we’re all huddled together in congested little pockets of it, complaining about not having enough space. We are funny.
Malthusian Mathematics is my way of explaining how numbers and quantities can be leveraged to nudge and control us, and we’ve certainly witnessed plenty of that recently (nuff said). Numbers themselves may be completely innocent but they are frequently weaponised to make us feel scared, insignificant and powerless. Whether it’s the billions of galaxies in the universe or the billions pissed away on a useless Test & Trace app, numbers are almost impossible to visualise. We tend the think of the difference between a million and a billion as just one little letter, so here’s an eye opener: If you got a job that paid you a dollar a second you’d have a million dollars within just two short weeks. But you’d have to work flat out for the next thirty two years to get to a billion. Remember that the next time you hear about government waste.
So if you’re currently feeling infinitesimally tiny and helpless in this endless, spiralling universe, dizzy at the thought of all those superfluous babies, chickens, cows and handbags we’re producing, just remember that only one hundred billion humans have ever lived. Ever.
Let’s face it, that makes you pretty damn special.
Thanks for reading. Now, please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily insights, retail rants and musings.