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Sweets from strangers

Chocolate, it turns out, is good for us, and buildings can be good for the planet. So said several speakers from Mars Confectionery Europe and the Foundation of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors at the British Association Festival of Science, held at Glasgow University this September. So they would say that wouldn’t they?  Geoscientist, November 2001

Strange things began happening at the BA once the men from Mars landed.  Five eminent scientific speakers, led by Dr Harold Schmitz of Mars Inc., sought to show how the biochemistry of chocolate bestows many health benefits upon its consumers. Coverage, predictably, was considerable.

Flavonoids are a diverse class of naturally occurring polyphenolic dietary antioxidants, correlated with a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Some may actually enhance cardiovascular health. There’s lots in chocolate. Fat is bad for your circulation, right? Not necessarily. Cocoa butter is atypical of saturated fats and does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Chocolate, being an especially rich source of polyphenols, is also good for you because polyphenols are antioxidant, the news release opined.

To ram their message literally as well as figuratively down our throats, the BA Press Centre (pictures) was liberally endowed with free samples of Bounty and M&Ms, all eagerly fallen upon by famished hacks all of whom had been up since sparrowfart and had had no time for lunch.

There was nothing underhanded about any of this; though the notion that chocolate is health-food – a sure fire winner with news editors, if not with science journalists – drew a sharp rebuke from the British Heart Foundation. Mars went out of its way to be associated with the story and the research it was based on. However, this level of vested interest (and the blatant use of "science news" as advertising) caused more than a few eyebrows to shoot skywards in the media centre on Monday 3rd. Somewhere on the BA Programme there was a session on public faith in science, called Trust me – I’m a scientist?. And MM (not M&M) began to think about the Wellcome Report into public attitudes towards science – of which more later.

A sense of déjà vu came over MM when he noticed subsequently that another talk at the festival was asking whether buildings were (or could be) "good for the planet". Mr Alan Gilham is Sustainability Adviser to the RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) Foundation and Director of Sustainability Works, which he describes as "a business dedicated to helping organizations derive benefit from the sustainability agenda". According to him, buildings are good for the planet "if they don’t interfere with its natural systems and energy flows, where if possible, they enhance the function of these systems".

The concept of "enhancing" natural processes (like coastal erosion, something humans are quite good at enhancing) was so geologically fascinating that MM was determined to get to the bottom of it. Gilham explored the performance of buildings against what he described as three "natural systems" Earth, Water and Air. (Fire was notably missing from this elemental list, though of course buildings burn rather well, given the appropriate encouragement.)

In nature, rock is broken down, dispersed, re-formed and re-constituted through a process of weathering and transport. "What impact do buildings have on this natural cycle of events, what role do buildings play in enhancing this natural system and how might they play a restorative or sustaining role?" asked Gilham’s media notice. Not so long ago a report suggested that humans are now responsible for moving more Earth materials per year than Nature, so perhaps we already have that one well enhanced.

Gilham went on: "What impact do buildings have on [hydrologic] systems, and how might they contribute to sustaining the quality and quantity of water?" Note the "e" word again. Of the air, he asked: "How do buildings impact on the circulation and availability of air and how do they influence the quality of air for all recipients?" At this point MM got up and opened a window.

Apart from the odd beaver dam, buildings are almost entirely a human thing. There was grandeur, however, in Gilham’s view of this activity. "Buildings perform many functions and relate to the physical, psychological, cultural and spiritual needs of their users" he said. "Therefore, to determine more accurately what ‘good-for-the-planet’ means, we should explore and define the role of buildings in relation to their role in human development."

Fair enough. Human cultural evolution converted human females from "her over there" to "her indoors" as the species moved from hunting and gathering and living up trees to trading futures, commodities and pork bellies, and living in loft-style apartments. However, our initial basic physical need for shelter has now become invested with "complex psychological and spiritual" overgrowths, said Gilham. Can’t argue with that - ask your local feng shui consultant.

Now MM was by this time (like many modern buildings) completely glazed over since none of it seemed to be leading (any time soon) to an answer to the burning question of how buildings were good for the planet. However MM - one on whom such things are rarely lost – suddenly noticed that the deathless p. was rapidly approaching the bottom of the page. Surely an answer was within sight.

"Defining ‘good-for-the-planet’ is about boundaries and expectations" Gilham concluded. "Do we expect buildings to be judged entirely on their impact on natural environmental systems alone or do we judge their performance on their value to human cultural evolution and satisfying human needs?" Here we had it.

Pause awhile at this point to reflect that Lancaster University once commissioned an (internal) environmental audit. This document seemed to conclude that the environment would be better served if the entire seat of learning were razed and put back to pasture. Lancaster University however still occupies its hilltop overlooking the M6. Evidently the employees of that institution had "boundaries and expectations" that precluded putting themselves out of a job for the sake of the planet.

The force of this argument seems to lead inexorably to the conclusion that if you care a lot about the planet and not a lot about anything else, buildings are bad. But if you care about earning a wage and not living in a tree, then buildings are still bad, but you can put up with it. When an equation comes out like this, the proposition is probably meaningless.

The BA is a huge festival and not everything in it can be rocket science – or, seemingly, any kind of science. But there will always be pressure to accept into the programme various pieces of advertising and platforming that may not even be thinly disguised. Nobody was deceived, nor was any attempt made to do so. Gilham and the nice men (and women) from Mars were all as honest as the day was long. That is not the point.

The point is to be found in the Wellcome Report (Geoscientist 11, 4, p8). This showed clearly that the public trusts scientists as long as they are perceived to be independent; the more independent, the more trusted - the more in hock to business or government, the less trusted. Now - in this context, will such feeble special pleading by interest groups and shameless platforming by industry help or hinder the public’s trust in scientists? Given its foremost place as a public showcase for science, should such activities have been given room at the British Association Annual Festival?

Answers on a placard, please, in Savile Row. Or, if you would like to see them published here, please email the site editor with your views


Science and the public: a review of science communication and public attitudes to science in Britain. A joint report by the Office of Science & Technology (OST) and the Wellcome Trust. ISBN 1 841290 25 4. Available free as PDF at or from the Marketing Dept., Wellcome Trust, 183 Euston Road LONDON NW1 2BE. Tel: 020 7611 8651, FAX 020 7611 8545, Email