Elite potato guards

December 13th, 2006

Persuading people to change their habits or attitudes is one of the hardest but most important things that any leaders can do. Advertisers clearly must be skilled at this or they wouldn’t exist, but usually their job is helped by the fact that people want the goods they’re selling them anyway, and often their role is merely to promote one brand over another. The media have a frightening degree of influence, but this is often used merely to sell more papers or airtime, and their standard strategy is commonly just to upgrade interest or concern about an issue to hysteria. It is the Government that is elected to lead, whose job it is to steer necessary changes in society, and it is they that seem to have the weakest grasp on how to change our hearts and minds.

200 years ago, at least a couple of people in power took a more imaginative approach…

Antoine-Augustine Parmentier 1737-1813The potato had been in Europe for a well over a hundred years, but in 1785 the French were still suspicious of the things. Potatoes were fine as hog feed but thought to cause Leprosy in humans. Antoine-Augustine Parmentier knew different as he had been imprisoned by the Prussians and forced to live on a spud-based diet whilst incarcerated. Now, you’d have thought that anyone who’s survived on a single vegetable of dubious repute when in jail would be heartily sick of the damn things, but Parmentier was a scientist, a pharmacist who was impressed by their nutritional value. When back in France, he extolled their virtues in scientific papers and embarked on a series of publicity stunts to promote them for the important purpose of reducing famine. One, in particular, was a stroke of pure genius.

Having persuaded Louis XVI of their virtues, the King gave Parmentier some otherwise unwanted land outside Paris in which to plant the things. The masterstroke was to station some of the king’s elite guards around the potato fields during the daytime but then also remove them each night. Sure enough, the locals were soon persuaded of the immense value of this new crop by the presence of the guards, and before long they were raiding the fields under cover of darkness with the subsequent result that these novel tubers became widely cultivated across France.

The ruse is pleasing because its purpose was benign and the reluctance of the populace to eating this now familiar tuber is comical. Louis and Parmentier showed an admirable astuteness in their knowledge of human behaviour that is rare in politicians today. What they realised is that merely decreeing that spuds are good would be of no use since they weren’t sufficiently trusted, and forcing people to grow them would just generate resentment. Was it deception? Well no one was explicitly misinformed; the fact that they jumped to certain conclusions was entirely their own doing. The raiders thought they were having one over on the powers that be, but they had been double-bluffed.

Current leaders, on the other hand, prefer a simplistic monocausal approach to influencing behaviour. At the extreme end of this manipulation is the act of banning things. Two simple examples: the outlawing of fox hunting (in the UK) and the banning of the full face veil in public places (proposed in the Netherlands). These acts seem to ignore the very contrariness in human nature that Parmentier and Louis made use of. The politicians appear unaware of what could be called Newton’s third law of politics: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The result of the fox hunting ban has been to revitalise a marginal and anachronistic group and to allow them to construct a narrative about urban oppression of country dwellers. The result of mere discussions about banning veils has been to help turn an obvious mark of male subjugation into an identity-affirming act of defiance.

Prior to being at the receiving end of concerted opposition, veil wearing and fox hunting were largely irrelevant fringe activities. They may have been symptoms of society’s troubled attitudes to women and to animals but they remained eccentric oddities to majority (European) society. If people are truly concerned about women or animals there are many other more important areas to tackle. Regarding women, domestic violence and equality of opportunity spring to mind, and regarding animals, horrendous farming practices and wholesale habitat destruction could be mentioned. Veil-wearing and hunting are both symbolic acts; their visibility as memes outshines any harm as practices. Memes and symbols are nourished by attention and positively thrive with opposition, as stubborn practitioners harden their attitudes in the face of the new threats. So the stronger the Government action the more counterproductive it becomes.

It’s all too easy to think of other political actions that have had the opposite effect to that desired. Some involve the military, others involve audits and targets. I do constantly despair of politicians’ lack of psychological insight, but I have to admit that I’m not at all sure how to improve things. In today’s all-pervasive media maelstrom, sneaky techniques such as used by the potato-heads above would soon be exposed, and we are simply not as naive, in fact we’re downright cynical these days. We’re always looking out for how to undermine control, which is usually a good thing in any case but does make any leader’s job similar to herding cats.

Shanghai waterfrontAs our energy and resource usage continues to grow around the World, and particularly quickly in Asia and the far East, we are running out of planet; there’s simply not enough for all to live as materially profligate a lifestyle as we do in the US and Europe. It is morally and politically unacceptable for the West to decree that no one else can aspire to its level of comfort so something has to give. The clever way is to follow Buckminster Fuller’s definition of progress and learn to do more with less, but when we’re not clever enough some are going to have to put up with doing less with less. Either way we’re going to have to accept significant changes to survive.

The irony of the potato story is that growing potatoes was actually in the interests of the farmers and there was an immediate win for them, yet some skilful mind manipulation was still needed to persuade them. How much harder will it be to convince people to accept short term hits to gain long term benefits? Read any online discussion of any environmental issue and you will see a wide range of opinions expressed. On climate change, for instance, some will say that the Earth isn’t warming, others that it is but this isn’t due to mankind, some will propose that the change is occurring but it’s a good thing (“more bikini-clad women” to quote one quip), a different bunch will agree disastrous change exists but argue there’s nothing we can do so we should live the high life while we can, and some meanies say that if people choose to overpopulate low lying or marginal lands its their fault if they suffer. Somewhere, lost in the discussion, might be someone like me fuming and calling for a few lifestyle changes to bring about greater energy efficiency. Gathering this bunch together in order for action of any sort to take place is going to require leadership. This may be from scientists, economists, celebrities, politicians, the media or from anyone else. What is certain is that merely analysing the problem and presenting solutions will not be enough. Someone, somewhere is going to need to employ a great and wondrous leap of the imagination to inspire, cajole, persuade or possibly even outwit people into accepting change.

Leave a comment