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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Blade Runner's dystopian vision failed to account for our changing social habits. Where will we be 30 years from now?

Perhaps the more interesting change will not be whether we eliminate evil robots but whether we can also slay some of the causes of health problems by altering our habits  

A movie still from Blade Runner 2049 / Courtesy of Sony Pictures
A movie still from Blade Runner 2049 / Courtesy of Sony Pictures

About 18 months from now, in November 2019, murderous robots will be running amok on Earth. The robots, known as “replicants”, will be eliminated, thanks to the work of Harrison Ford, also known as a Blade Runner. Yes, I have been watching the classic 1982 sci-fi film directed by Ridley Scott, foretelling our dismal future – a world where the climate is terrible, humanoid robots must be assassinated and we move around in cars which can fly.

But 2019 is also a world, at least in the film, in which everyone still smokes cigarettes. For movie-makers as recently as 1982 in one of the iconic films of the 20th century, it was assumed that smart robots capable of emotions would have been invented but smoking in offices, business meetings and elsewhere would still be common.

Watching the earlier version of Blade Runner again – and given that the action supposedly takes place next year – I was struck by how we invent potential futures for mankind and yet often miss the biggest social changes in our own lives. Blade Runner 1982 does not foresee the existence of the internet by 2019, the decline of smoking or (since some of the scenes have a Chinese flavour) the wealth of many Chinese cities.

A new incarnation of Blade Runner was released last year. It is set in the middle of the 21st century and again focuses on evil robots in an Earth where mankind has destroyed the environment. But beyond the bad dreams of our dystopian future, the film made me wonder what in our daily lives that we now take for granted might change utterly in the next 30 years.

Perhaps eating meat will go out of fashion as decisively as smoking has done. I am a carnivore but in the developed world, meat-eating is already showing signs of decline. Vegan activists repeatedly tell us that herds of grazing cows contribute massively to carbon dioxide emissions and that farmed animals are treated in ways vegans consider cruel.

In some countries it has become fashionable to cut down eating red meat as a potential health hazard. In Germany, where meat-eating, especially of processed meat in sausages, has been a staple part of the diet for generations, surveys suggest a significant increase in vegetarianism and veganism.

A second possibility for profound change in our future worldwide might be less alcohol consumption. A friend involved with food and beverage companies told me recently that senior executives believe young people in developed countries are turning away from alcohol. Alcohol drinkers are part of an ageing and potentially declining market. Health reasons are again being cited, as is the fashion to drink non-alcoholic beverages.

It means some alcohol companies are now targeting their advertising at relatively untapped markets, including those in Africa. This is a modern echo of cigarette companies, who in the 1980s and 90s realised that their businesses were in terminal decline unless they marketed heavily in China, south Asia, Africa and Latin America.

One further possible social change which might sweep the world in the next 30 years will come as a shock to any of us who have a sweet tooth. Sugar could become the new tobacco. It’s already a top target for health activists trying to change eating patterns, cut obesity and prevent diabetes.

The possibility of sugar taxes is real. Obesity in the United States, Britain and many other countries is a public health disaster. In the UAE, the World Health Organisation says more than a third of children are obese. Britain has begun advertising that obesity is second only to smoking as a cause of cancer and responsible for 23,000 deaths a year.

Countries with advanced public health systems recognise that the rise in type-2 diabetes is connected to the increased consumption of sweets, biscuits, pastries and carbonated drinks. Manufacturers are already trying desperately to market “zero” sugar versions of their sweet drinks. “Reduced sugar” is a common food label now. “Sugar-free” might be the label of our futures, although artificial substitutes might also have potential health implications.

Changes in food habits are difficult to predict but recently my children were reading a book about Europe during the Second World War and they were astounded less by the idea of war – they are aware of the ongoing news from Syria – than the idea of rationing.

When I explained to them that in the war, sugar was heavily restricted and sweets were difficult to obtain, they took quite a bit of convincing, even though for most of human history, sweet things have been an expensive treat. Now they are cheap and taken for granted, just as smoking was once taken for granted in offices, hotels, cinemas, aeroplanes – and in Blade Runner.

No doubt in a few years time Hollywood directors will still be making futuristic films. But perhaps the more interesting change will not be whether we eliminate evil robots but whether we can also slay some of the causes of type-2 diabetes, cancer and other deadly ailments by altering our eating habits.

Gavin Esler is a television presenter, journalist and author