Vanilla

▪️ Vanilla ▪️ Doomsday beckons ▪️ Polarised ▪️ Drug limits

Who doesn’t like vanilla, especially children?  But I bet that, if one were to ask a dozen people what its story is, only a couple might tell you.  Yet, vanilla is a multi-billion dollar industry.  Its pod features prominently in a global spice trade that has redrawn boundaries and shifted economies all over the world.  In these few words I have alluded to history, geography, economics, and food.  But the story also includes science and a young boy.

Vanilla originated in Mexico and Central America, but the orchid   ̶   the odd-shaped fruits of which contain the vanilla essence – was then transported to Mexico, where the Totonac people first noticed the scent.  The Aztecs then demanded the pods as a tribute after they overcame the Totonac civilisation and used the essence to flavour their favourite drink, coxoati.  Later, it was the turn of the Spaniards under Hernán Cortés to fall in love with the essence and transport the pod across the Atlantic to Europe.  From then on, there was no stopping the essence from ruling the world.  This is the history and geography bit of the story. 

But even that is not the whole story.  Any monopoly will be attacked by others envious of its riches.  So it happened that many other European colonial powers wanted to cash in.  The problem was that global production was concentrated on a strip of coastal land in the Americas.  The British, the French, the Dutch, and even the Spaniards themselves, tried to plant it elsewhere but unsuccessfully.  This is the trade and power-politics bit of the story.

It took a 12-year-old enslaved boy called Edmond Albuis to unwittingly destroy the monopoly and make vanilla a world-wide spice.  Edmond had discovered that the orchid had both male and female parts, divided by a membrane to prevent self-pollination.  The boy peeled the lip of the orchid with his finger, lifted the membrane with a stick and pressed the female and male parts together.  His master obviously appropriated the discovery and became rich.  Edmond did not share in the bonanza and died destitute.  This is the science and human greed bit of the story.

I assure you, there is more.  But anybody who is interested in this fantastic story should read about it in National Geographic, Bon Appetit, or other easily-found sources.  

What concerns me more, however, is an entirely different point.  This story contains at least six elements which enrich human knowledge.  It is captivating even for grown-ups, let alone children.  I bet that, if the story of vanilla were taught in a creative way, not only would children be entertained rather than be bored, but they would learn science, food, geography, trade, history, power-politics, human greed, income inequality, and societal trends.  At the end of it, they would have knowledge not a collection of facts.

Yet, our educational system is so archaic that the curriculum would insist that children should be taught entirely useless things parrot-like, which they will forget after a few days.  By the way, those useless bits of information would be taught in silos, thus perpetuating a culture which concentrates on the trees without seeing the wood. 

And that is why I keep insisting that the bureaucrats and policy-makers in the Education Ministry are dinosaurs.  I am not going to participate in the public discussion about the National Education Strategy 2024-2040 but, if someone wants to send this as a submission about what a good educational system should be like, they are welcome.  I forego my intellectual rights.

Doomsday beckons

Recently, there was a bit of news which didn’t make the headlines.  It concerned the fact that the Doomsday Clock remains at 90 seconds to midnight.  This, despite the fact that we have unprecedented natural disasters caused by climate change, potential existential threats posed by AI, a huge conflict in Gaza and mayhem in other areas of the Middle East, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Houthi rebel attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, the NATO exercises which are enraging Russia, Kim Jong Un’s ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines, and now Vice-President Josep Borrell’s call for a European nuclear deterrent.

There was an element of welcome news in the fact that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which sets the time each year didn’t change the setting from 2023.  So we are still 90 seconds away from annihilation.  But anybody in his right frame of mind would acknowledge that 90 seconds to midnight is a highly unstable setting.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the Bulletin, reminded the Press that the clock had been set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947.  Since then, it has been moved 25 times   ̶̶   always entirely downwards   ̶   signifying humanity’s metaphorical closeness to global catastrophe. 

Critics of the Doomsday Clock argue that the setting is based on subjective judgments, not on any quantitative or transparent methodology.  But is there any transparency about Jong Un’s intentions or Putin’s strategy? Unquestionably, the risks to humanity are high precisely because they are nebulous, complex, and overwhelming.

90 seconds to midnight conveys the sense of urgency in dealing with the threats we face.

Polarised  

If you want to read a book that is well-matched to the moment, it is Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized.  Klein’s book explains how different groups of Americans see politics through much different lenses, triggering various psychological mechanisms that allow committed partisans to rationalise almost anything their party does.

Klein is an astute reader of political science and social psychology.  In this new work, he looks at the psychological underpinnings of polarisation and then uses them to find out how today’s media landscape and political institutions generate feedback loops that amplify it.  In this view, polarisation is self-reinforcing.

Political elites divide over a question, and then citizens, picking up on those divisions, follow the natural grooves of human psychology by dividing themselves into increasingly antagonistic groups. The emerging divisions, in turn, heighten politicians’ incentives to accentuate their divisions

Sounds familiar?  Undeniably, it reflects what is happening in most parts of the world, not least in Malta.  Division is the order of the day.  Dialogue and consensus are dirty words   ̶    only the mentally-incompetent would indulge in them.  Both politicians and party followers on the political divide split across religious, geographic, cultural, educational, and psychological lines. The mega-identities stretch across many aspects of our society and are constantly being reinforced.

Of course, polarisation is not caused by psychology alone, but forms from the interplay of political psychology and political context.  Klein argues that contemporary polarisation is particularly pernicious because various social identities have become aligned with partisan groupings.

Who are the people who are so polarised and how deeply does that polarisation divide them?  The explosion of media options means that only those who are deeply engaged politically participate in the ongoing partisan battles. This may therefore explain why an increasing number of young people, not being politically engaged, say they will not vote in another election.  According to the latest survey by Malta Today, they are 50 percent of those aged 16-35.

In the meantime, there is considerable evidence that voters aren’t sharply polarised on many issues. For instance, on the hot issue of immigration, 48.4 percent of Maltese either strongly disagree or disagree that immigrants contribute to the country, while only 16.4 percent agree or strongly agree, the rest being neutral.  On another sensitive issue   ̶   fighting corruption   ̶   88 percent agree or strongly agree that it is important.   These results are taken from research conducted by Dr Andrew Azzopardi and others for a report titled General Opinion Survey of the Maltese Population.

Voter polarisation definitely isn’t the main reason for political gridlock.  It is politicians who create it, based on a skewed image of public opinion formed, in part, on what kinds of citizens they interface with or track through the social media.  It is in politicians’ power to exit the gridlock but the incentives they have are not sufficiently strong.

Drug limits

A White Paper proposing various reforms in the illicit drugs law has sparked a huge controversy in civil society.  Concerns have been raised that the reforms might increase the permissible quantity of drugs for personal use. Unavoidably, key political figures weighed in, though some stakeholders have contended that the higher limits apply only to the decision whether cases should be referred to the criminal courts or not.

The proposed increases would see the upper limit for cannabis increased from 300g to 500g, the limit for ecstasy increased from 300 to 500 tablets, and the limits for heroin and cocaine increased from 100g to 200g.

The Government contends that the proposed changes aim to enhance support for individuals with genuine dependency issues, fostering pathways to rehabilitation.  In this context, the law would require clear evidence of an individual’s drug problem as a prerequisite for considering whether his actions were intended for his personal needs or with trafficking in kind.

It is surprising that, in the ensuing controversy, nobody mentioned the case of Daniel Holmes, the Welshman who served a 10-year prison sentence for trafficking cannabis, after he was charged together with friend Barry Lee, with possessing five mature cannabis plants and 28 seedlings.  At the time, there was a huge outcry that the sentence was outrageous.

It is not easy to find the right balance in such cases. This explains why Aġenzija Sedqa, while agreeing with higher limits, has said the proposed ones are too high.  It said its motivation was a balance between judicial flexibility in genuine cases and a robust approach to those attempting to manipulate the system.

In such controversies, the truth always suffers.  It is simply not true that the law would lead to a free-for-all.  The reforms primarily impact guidelines for drug-related court decisions, including the establishment of drug courts and treatment of individuals caught with drugs. While the reform does not address personal use, it alters the criteria for deciding whether an individual caught trafficking should face criminal charges or be directed towards rehabilitation.

Courts will retain the authority to sentence the accused as traffickers if their actions suggest a central role in the crime. However, magistrates may opt for drug courts if addiction or peripheral involvement is evident, directing individuals towards rehabilitation rather than traditional criminal proceedings.

A well-thought-out response came from The Chamber of Advocates.  Apparently, it does not agree with the claim that the proposed increase in the quantity of substances is a blanket one.  The amendment to the law regards solely the Attorney General’s discretion guidelines, while the provision as to what amounts of drugs will determine who is referred to the Criminal Court remains the same, says the Chamber.  It also agrees with the proposed increase because “it is not only just and will not affect the charges that may be brought against any accused, but also because it will help to reduce proceedings before the Criminal Court.”

The Chamber said that the concept of a life sentence penalty for those convicted of drug trafficking charges should be removed from law and called on the two big political parties to agree to remove the penalty.   It described it as draconian and said it didn’t exist in any democratic country.

The Chamber said it agreed with a number of proposals but had concerns about a few of them.  For example, it agrees with giving anybody accused of offenses related to trafficking in illicit substances the right to be tried without a jury, as well as with classifying illicit substances into two different categories in recognition of the fact that not all of them are of the same nature.

Regarding the proposed amount of drugs for a person to qualify to go before the Rehabilitation Board, the Chamber believes that this should be a benchmark and not fixed, in order to avoid injustices against victims due to the rigidity of the proposed number.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks there will be less hot air and more deep thought, particularly in Parliament.

Main photo: Olga Yastremska/Alamy

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