E M Forster’s “The Machine Stops” was published for the first time in 1909.
It is a short satire about a monstrous system where the mental and physical requirements of the population are serviced by a single vast machine. Individuals remain isolated within their underground cells and human contact is discouraged. “To such a state of affairs it is convenient to give the name progress. No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence… progress had come to mean progress of the machine”.
Some might argue that Forster’s view of the future was frighteningly accurate and in many ways already upon us. For me, the most disturbing aspect is how easily the protagonists of the story lower their expectations. As the controlling machine spins out of control, the artificial fruit goes mouldy, the bath water begins to stink and the air turns stale, “there was not one who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished.”
At first, people complain bitterly, but criticism of the machine is deemed ‘unmechanical’ and is met by a simple re-statement of the objectives of its original designers. Affirmations are given that all is in fact perfectly well, with promises of future improvements, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The elaborate operation of denial, delay and confusion by the Central Committee succeeds in wearing people down and, as time goes by, they become so used to the deterioration in their environment and quality of life, they resent “the defects no longer” and things go from bad to worse unchallenged.
What has the above got to do with nutrition and health? Forster’s story seems to be implying that overdependence on a system that worships comfort and convenience above all else inevitably leads to disaster. Procreation of the weak was encouraged – it was in the interest of the machine to progress eternally without interference from those still able to challenge its motives, and any “who promised undue strength were destroyed.”
A century on, this story still shocks because worrying parallels exist. Our own living conditions are worsening in the face of increasingly complex bureaucratic hierarchies and aging systems. Then, there is the deliberate replacement of experts on parliamentary committees by party loyalists so that “harmonising” legislation can be enforced, such as the fluoridation of our water supplies or the ban on many vitamins and minerals. Critical individuals risk being labelled “seriously disturbed”, and scientists who speak out against the side-effects of certain drugs, vaccines or genetic modification lose their jobs.
Barnardo’s hardhitting ad on child poverty seems at odds with recent statements by politicians describing the UK as the fourth largest economy in the world. Why, then, are child poverty rates currently the worst in Europe with nearly 20% of young people living in families below the official poverty line?
As we thread our way past the homeless in the street, carefully avoiding litter from fast-food joints, it becomes ever harder to believe the spin merchants, perfectly described in Forster’s story as those who “gilded each new decay with splendour”.
© 2011 Martina Watts MSc Nut Med, First Published Brighton Argus November 2003