Lee (Paul Ready) plays a torturer, shown here with favourite tool. Image: Channel 4.
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There are no clear answers in Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia

Channel 4’s Utopia is a complex and unpredictable thriller which refuses to give easy answers on the challenges of population growth.

Utopia is a Channel 4 conspiracy thriller with a complex and unpredictable storyline. The controversial show, which first aired in January 2013 and ends its second series this week, addresses Thomas Robert Malthus’s thesis that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, or put in plainer terms, that the population is accelerating too quickly for the earth to cope. It suggests what might happen if the population were to spiral out of control and an elite network set out to prevent Malthus’s prediction from becoming reality.

Utopia focuses on a group of people who know one another through an online forum. What unites them is a shared passion for a graphic novel known as “The Utopia Experiments”. Bejan, a contributor to the forum, claims to have acquired the novel’s undiscovered sequel: “Utopia Part Two”. Grant, an 11-year-old boy who also uses the forum, breaks into his house to steal it. As he does he witnesses Bejan’s murder. His killers demand to know the novel’s whereabouts. The members of the forum find themselves running from “The Network” – an unfathomably powerful organisation led by the infamous “Mr Rabbit”, an individual prepared to go to any lengths to secure the graphic novel, believed to contain the genetic code for “Janus”, a protein designed to sterilise “90-95 per cent” of the human race and create a utopian future world for those that remain.

Throughout the first two series, director Marc Mudden has worked hard at depicting “bad guys” who are nuanced and complex. Although they commit terrible acts, certain aspects of their philosophy appear frighteningly logical. The human race is dependent on oil, gas and coal. Reserves are limited. What will happen without an efficient alternative for energy? By putting a limit on the earth’s population, the Network are trying to “save the world”. In their attempts to stop them, the group who see themselves as the saviours of humanity are effectively destroying it.

Another distinctive aspect of the programme is its female roles, which are far more aggressive and domineering than the male. Mr Rabbit – who despite the masculine form of address is a woman (MI5 agent Milner, played by Geraldine James) – is the driving force behind the conspiracy, which kills “thousands” along the way. She exercises her superiority in the second series when she and her second-in-command, Leah, order Geoff, their puppet minister in the department of health, to announce “V-day”: a worldwide vaccination (sterilisation) programme. Despite Geoff refusing in episode two because it is “political suicide”, Leah simply tells him to “do as you’re told”. V-day is announced two episodes later.

Utopia throws up an interesting moral dilemma. While the Network commits many acts that would be considered evil, the end goal of their misdeeds is a morally comprehensible (and even, some might say, compassionate) one, ensuring that humans in the future will be able to live without “tearing each other to shreds” – to quote Mr Rabbit. Surely the principle of ensuring it never gets to the point where “there’s 10 billion living on a planet that can only support one”, is right? At the same time, most would see the sterilisation of masses of people are morally indefensible, regardless of the outcome. Utopia raises the stakes and immerses us in a world where choices must be made, here and now. The show urges us to look beyond good and bad, moral and immoral, to the difficulty of the question at hand.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.