IDS and the skivers from Mars

Why cutting money from benefits might not save anything in the long run.

It might not be a bad idea to send Iain Duncan Smith to Mars. We’d soon see what turns a striver into a skiver. Last month, scientists released the results of a study into what happens when people are kept indolent for more than a year. They sleep more, play more video games and lose all normal motivation. Being stripped of normal routines makes it hard to revert to being a striver. The study wasn’t intended to be a critique of social policy; it was about space exploration.

The pioneering Dutch organisation Mars One has more than 1,000 volunteers lined up to take its one-way trips to the Red Planet starting in 2023. Be careful what you wish for, though: if you commit to any of the missions, you will be cooped up with your fellow astronauts in tightly fitting accommodation for nearly 18 months. The study makes it clear that, unless you’re careful, some of you may lose your mind.

The Mars500 project, which took place just outside Moscow, replicated the conditions of a trip to Mars. A multinational mix of engineers, astronaut trainers and doctors spent 520 days in a mock-up of a spaceship composed of narrow tunnels and rooms. Cut off from the rest of the world, crew members were monitored by video cameras and activity monitors worn like wristwatches, enabling scientists to record their behaviour. The mock astronauts were given various things to do but it was what they didn’t do that was most telling.

They didn’t bother with physical activity in the way they might have done when going about their normal existence. As their lethargy grew, they largely avoided the better-lit parts of their accommodation. By the time the mission drew to a close, half of them were sleeping an hour more per night than at the start. For some, playing video games became a coping strategy to deal with the endless tedium.

Nasa and the European Space Agency will be using the data to inform future astronaut training but there is a lesson for lesser mortals, too. If you strip people of normal human purpose, even those who have had the drive to become doctors and engineers struggle to get it back.

In more mundane contexts, long-term poverty leads to some very dark situations. A study published just after Christmas reported on interviews with low-income urban women. They described themselves as living with high stress, long-term exposure to violence, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and intense isolation and loneliness. The researchers who carried out the study noted that no one knows how to get the women out of this place.

Such situations lead to increased health-care burdens, too. A study of 200 breast cancer survivors, also published in December, has shown that loneliness and social isolation lead to pain, depression, fatigue and illness. It’s not all in their heads: blood samples showed that the women’s ability to fight disease and deal with pain were altered. As the researchers put it, “Loneliness enhances [the] risk for immune dysregulation.”

The message is clear, whether the news comes from space agencies, social policy researchers or cancer survivors: if you cut people off from the norms of society, they will collapse in on themselves. Unless you’re superhuman, failing to find work for an extended period will end with you giving up on everything, including staying healthy. So, the money saved from benefit cuts may end up being spent on health-care interventions for the terminally disadvantaged – unless you send them with IDS on that one-way trip to Mars.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Mars: Iain Duncan Smith's new home? Photograph: NASA

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Boots sells lots of products used inappropriately – the morning after pill isn't one of them

The aisles are filled with items to “fix” women's bodies, but somehow preventing pregnancy is irresponsible.

As a teenager in the early Nineties, I had a favourite food: Boots Shapers Meal Replacement Chocolate Bars. There was a plain milk version, one with hazelnuts, plus one with muesli which somehow seemed healthier. I alternated which one I’d have, but I’d eat one every day. And that was all I’d eat.

Because the packet said “meal”, I told myself it was fine. Why bother drawing fine distinctions between the thing in itself and the thing in itself’s replacement? Boots sold other such dietary substitutes – Slimfast, Crunch ‘n’ Slim – but the chocolate bars were my go-to lunchtime option. I was severely underweight and didn’t menstruate until I was in my twenties, but hey, I was eating meals, wasn’t I? Or things that stood in for them. Same difference, right?

I don’t blame Boots the chemist for my anorexia. The diet foods and pills they sold – and continue to sell – were not, they would no doubt argue, aimed at women like me. Nonetheless, we bought them, just as we bought laxatives, high-fibre drinks, detox solutions, anti-cellulite gels, bathroom scales, razor blades, self-hatred measured by the Advantage Point. Boots don’t say – in public at least – that their most loyal customer is the fucked-up, self-harming woman. Still, I can’t help thinking that without her they’d be screwed.

Whenever I enter a branch of Boots (and I’m less inclined to than ever right now), I’m always struck by how many products there are for women, how few for men. One might justifiably assume that only women’s bodies are in need of starving, scrubbing, waxing, moisturising, masking with perfume, slathering in serum, primer, foundation, powder, the works. Men’s bodies are fine as they are, thank you. It’s the women who need fixing.

Or, as the company might argue, it’s simply that women are their main target market. It’s hardly their fault if women just so happen to be more insecure about their bodies than men. How can it be irresponsible to respond to that need, if it helps these women to feel good? How can it be wrong to tell a woman that a face cream – a fucking face cream – will roll back the years? It’s what she wants, isn’t it? 

Yes, some women will use products Boots sells irresponsibly and excessively, spending a fortune on self-abasement and false hope. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Boots isn’t your mother.

Unless, of course, it’s emergency contraception you’re after. If your desire is not for a wax to strip your pubic region bare, or for diet pills to give you diarrhoea while making you smaller, but for medication in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, well, that’s a different matter. Here, Boots have grave concerns that making such medication too cheap may be “incentivising inappropriate use”.

I am wondering in what instances it may be “inappropriate” to want to stop the implantation of an unwanted embryo in its tracks. I’ve wondered and wondered and wondered, but I can’t think of anything. I’ve used emergency contraception five times (twice from Boots, following the third degree from an embarrassed pharmacist for no reason whatsoever.) On no occasion have I particularly felt like it.

I don’t get high on nausea and heavy, gloopy periods. I took emergency contraception because in the context of my life, it was the responsible thing to do (by contrast, the most reckless thing I’ve ever done is have a third baby at age 40, even if it saved me £28.25 in Levonelle costs nine months earlier).

Clearly Boots don’t see things the way I do. There may be women who use Adios or Strippd inappropriately, but what’s the alternative to making these things easily available? More women getting fat, or fewer spending money on trying not to get fat, and such a thing would be untenable.

As for the alternative to accessing emergency contraception ... Well, it’s only a pregnancy. No big deal. And hey, did you know Boots even sell special toiletries for new mums, just so you can pamper yourself and the baby you didn’t want in the first place? See, they really care! (But don’t go thinking you can then use your Advantage Points to buy formula milk. Those tits were made for feeding – why not spend your points on a bust firming gel for afterwards?).

I get that Boots is interested in profit and I get that pretending to really, really care about the customer is just what you do when you’re in marketing. I also get that Boots isn't the only company which does this. They all do.

But making it harder for poorer women to access emergency contraception just so you won’t offend the customers who’ll judge them? Really, Boots? Isn’t that making this whole charade a little too obvious?

Commenting on what another woman does with her body should not be off-limits (if it was, no one would have ever identified and treated the eating disorder that was killing me.) Even so, it’s instructive to look at the things we see fit to comment on and those we don’t.

Want to inject your face with poison? Augment your breasts with silicone? Have your vagina remodelled to please your husband? Go ahead. Your body, your choice.

Want to control your reproductive life? Avoid the risks and permanent aftermath of childbirth? Prevent the need for an abortion down the line?

Well, that’s another matter. We’re just not sure we can trust you. Forget about those pills. Why not have some folic acid and stretch mark cream instead?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.