Category Archives: Environment

The cult of fashion and the challenge of minimalism

As an environmentalist, I find minimalism a fascinating concept. I define minimalism as the lifelong journey to reduce your material possessions; to live with elegance — only with what you really need or what really gives you pleasure. Books like l’art de la Simplicité, Madame Chic and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying espouse some elements of minimalism as a path to happiness. Clutter creates stress, goes the theory. And who needs more of that in their life?

In this blogpost, I take clothing as an example. I find myself almost constantly looking for something to add to my wardrobe — the damn thing never seems to be complete. What are the barriers that keep me from completeness? I identify seven key ones below, each one harder to overcome than the previous. Together these challenges reinforce the strong cultural narratives we’ve built around consumption which make this prison hard to escape.

1. The unacceptability of wearing an items that looks old or worn out, and the unacceptability of wearing it twice

The fact is clothes get worn out over time, and especially in today’s world with washers and dryers and more frequent washing and drying, and given that fabric quality has even deteriorated in some shops in the quest for lower prices. The fact is that if a shirt has a small tear, it can be sealed with thread and its life can be extended. Instead, we choose to replace it, because we are judged badly by each other for wearing old or faded clothes. And because fast fashion has often made a new purchase less expensive than a repair.

Another problem is the endless quest for variety — on how we mustn’t be seen to wear the same thing too often. A positive change I have noticed is that some people are now bucking the trend. I smiled when I heard girlfriends at business school saying confidently that they wold wear the same dress to the next ball as they did to the last. And why not?

Alexandra Paul is an ex-Baywatch actress and a deep environmental thinker. In her blogpost on simple living, she recounts an incident of wearing the same dress again:

“About 10 years ago, I was at a premiere, going down the red carpet, and a TV reporter said to me, “I saw you in that outfit at an event last week, Alexandra”. My first instinct was to feel embarrassed, that I had been busted, but then I realized that was silly and I was kowtowing to odd societal rules that say you cannot wear the same thing too often or too close together, and I told him the truth, that I didn’t have very many dresses and that I thought I looked good in this dress. He didn’t know how to respond.”

Suggested Actions:

  • Wear it again, wear it proud
  • Don’t judge others for what they wear

2. The prison of fast-moving fashion

Fabrics and colors fall in and out of fashion making last season’s purchases irrelevant. This means if you wanted to stay current, you’d probably be shopping every month.

Suggested Action: Just ignore fashion magazines and do your thing

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

 

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

sneakersmodel.png
Apparently some types of sneakers can work with some types of dresses, but only if you look like a model already

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

4. The belief that looks can be compensated for by fashion

My view on this is that you can fool all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. The astute observer, your partner, anyone who lives with you, they all know what you look like. The right clothes and hairstyle can only disguise you so much.

Suggested Action: Accept yourself as you are. And then you’ll need less fancy stuff to hide it. The key is also to accept other people the way they are. When you don’t accept others, your perspective is that they don’t accept you. When you accept them, you realize it’s both possible and reasonable that they accept you.

5. The general obssession with looks

We search for art in people, sometimes forgetting that beauty can be found elsewhere too — in nature, in paintings, in sculptures, in structures. The beautiful face is every culture is the average of human features. We’ve glorified it so much forgetting that very few people will actually be this average.

Have you ever seen an airline ad where the air hostess has a bigger than average nose or smaller than average eyes?

The real beauty campaigns that are finally gaining some traction are still far behind in my opinion. Aerie real campaign pictures present attractive girls with a tiny bit of cellulite and they’re like “see, it’s ok”. The real challenge is to show someone ordinary on multiple dimensions. The real challenge is to sell women products that appeal to their competence, their skill, their willpower, rather than their desire to be beautiful.

realbeautycampaigns.png
Left: Aerie real’s campaign features women with small imperfections, but are these really that big a deviation from standard billboard images? Right: Singapore Airlines’ perfect flight attendant

I’m a big fan of writer Laurie Penny’s views on this real beauty stuff:

“Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.”

Suggested Action:

  • Be the change you want to see — catch yourself when you are judging someone based on their looks and correct it

6. Not realizing the true cost of things

A fundamental driver of over-consumption is simply that a lot of us can afford items at the price they are sold. The problem is the price at which they are sold is not their true cost.

We don’t realize that everything we consume has a cost for the planet. Products don’t drop from the sky. They are made from materials in the earth and a lot of waste is produced in the process. I think if most people knew the details of how denim is produced, they’d be appalled and ‘need’ fewer jeans.

chinalesothopollution
First photo: Xintang, a Chinese city that produces 1 in 3 of the world’s jeans: “Huge amounts of polluted water flow out untreated from the factory into the East River” – Chinanetdaily, 2013. Second and Third photos by Robin Hammon , http://www.robinhammond.co.uk, are of Lesotho. He says “At rubbish dumps in Maseru, children as young as 3 pick through waste products thrown away by the garment industry. They are often collecting offcuts from jeans to burn for cooking. The smoke from the smouldering waste reportedly causes respiratory illnesses and eyes to sting and weep”. 

Incidentally, Alexandra Paul’s documentary “The Cost of Cool” part 2 on YouTube is a good watch. She traces in a simple way how T-shirts are produced from cotton.

Suggested Action:

  • Get educated on how products are made and spread the education

7. The fact that our entire economic system is based on consumption

The deepest challenge is that, to some degree, we are all condemned to the anti-minimalist life because it’s hard to change a behavior when you are one piece of a giant system.

Our whole economy is built on excessive consumption. You open up the The Economist in these days of economic gloom and you see writers lamenting about manufacturing indices falling; about how governments need to give people tax cuts; about the tragedy of people not spending enough. People’s jobs and hence their ability to support their families depends on endless consumption. This is the greatest tragedy of all. From it stems the greatest unanswered question of all: Does it have to be this way? Is this how value is created in the world? Through endless production and consumption of material goods? Or can we shift more towards experiences and towards the shared economy perhaps, or something else we have yet to imagine? What could another economic system look like? Even more fundamentally, is the point of an economic system to produce ever-more stuff or ever-more happiness?

Suggested Action: If you have a solution to this one, please let me know…Unresolved as this is, I still feel on balance we do more good than bad by consuming less than more.

So here we are: in the shackles of a society still obsessed with conspicuous consumption, wanting to break free but unable to because of a kind of tragedy of commons. It’s only good for me to stop buying shoes if we all decide that sneakers (any type) with a dress are fine. And I hope we will decide for ourselves and those around us that we need less than we initially think we need and we can shop less and spend our money better. Change starts with the individual. The herd only moves when the individual animals at the front start running. And so my run begins…

References

  1. Simple Living thoughts by Alexandra Paul

http://alexandrapaul.com/activism/simple-living/

2. Laurie Penny on beauty: I don’t want to be told I’m pretty as I am. I want to live in a world where that’s irrelevant

3. The denim capital of the world: so polluted you can’t give the houses away

https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6283-The-denim-capital-of-the-world-so-polluted-you-can-t-give-the-houses-away

4. The dark side of denim

http://www.robinhammond.co.uk/the-dark-side-of-denim/

Photos from: https://www.ae.com/featured-aeriereal/aerie/s-cat/6890055 andhttp://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/2013/06/07/becoming-a-singapore-airlines-girl-training/

 

Of Designer bags and respiratory illnesses: reflections on Beijing and the environmental movement

Earlier this January, I was in Beijing for a business school project for 10 days – a cultural immersion. On day 4 in Beijing, my lungs hurt. Being in Beijing on a bad day is like smoking a pack of cigarettes. This phenomenon is made worse by the fact that many people smoke cigarettes too (presumably because one pack of cigarettes is not enough). Our driver, for example, smoked in the car whilst he was waiting for us. I decided to wear my mask in the car too.

We continuously checked our apps for the air quality index and days where the air was ‘unhealthy’ were common.

Hello from the Summer Palace, Beijing
Hello from the Summer Palace, Beijing

I’ve done some work on air pollution before when I was working on the New Climate Economy project, on the report ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’ (newclimatecnoomy.report). In this blogpost, I tie back some findings from the report to some of the issues I experienced.


Let’s not be arrogant: air quality is a problem in many places

Although we bang on about Chinese air, let’s not be arrogant: a little known fact I came across whilst working at the New Climate Economy is that none of the world’s top 50 cities by population meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards. Check it out (click on it to make it bigger):

This data is from various environmental agencies in these countries, mostly from 2011. It was compiled for the NCE project specially.
This data is from various environmental agencies in these countries, mostly from 2011. It was especially compiled for the New Climate Economy project.

Note: There are many types of air pollution metrics, and indeed air pollution varies even within the same day due to wind etc. These figures should be taken illustratively more than worth arguing about to decimal points. What they do show is that a number of cities are worse than Beijing. For example, Delhi is worse than Beijing!! It just didn’t get much media attention until lately (see: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/17/india-launches-air-quality-index-to-warn-over-dangerous-pollution-events)

The false tradeoff and outdated worldviews

There is a prevailing view that there is some kind of trade-off, that you can either have growth or good air not both. The findings of the New Climate Economy project were resoundingly that this trade-off is often false. Here I look at what I believe are misconceptions.

1) Misconception: “It’s a conscious trade-off they made”

My response: Really? Imagine for sake of argument there was a trade-off. Do people prefer to have a Louis Vuitton bag on their arm via a $80K salary instead of a $60K salary, rather than clean air to breathe? You’d have to really love LV…Do people want their children, their elderly relatives, their loved ones suffering from the myriad of respiratory illnesses associated with such dangerous levels of air pollution for the sake of driving a new car on already clogged streets? I suspect this is a horrible situation people have fallen into rather than consciously chosen

2) Misconception: “If they did something about the air pollution, it would take a few points of GDP growth”

My response: Well, actually air pollution costs China. The World Bank estimated that environmental degradation costs up to 9% of GDP, through health damages, soil and water degradation. Other studies have put air pollution alone as costing around 4% of GDP. Treating people for lung cancer is not free, and sick days reduce productivity.

The GDP costs could be even higher. Here’s a weird economics thought I’m grappling with: there is a paradox in the way we measure output: that extra doctor’s appointments count as extra GDP… Is that right?!

Also, there is the fundamental question of is GDP the right thing to measure? Are we trying to maximise GDP or wellbeing and happiness? Air pollution significantly damages wellbeing and happiness. Some noteworthy findings reported in the Telegraph in a 2014 story:

a) China’s ‘airpocalypse’ kills 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese people prematurely each year.

b) Between 2002 and 2011 the incidence of lung cancer in Beijing near doubled.

c) Nationwide, deaths from lung cancer have risen 465 per cent in the last three decades.

I’d say that’s quite a heavy price to pay.

3) Misconception: “Wind and solar are just so pathetic and ineffective they could never provide all the energy needed”

My response: Let’s not think in a binary way about issues. Most sensible environmentalists are not proposing switching off coal over night. The concept of transition is well heard in the environmental field, too well heard perhaps. I believe transitions should not be drawn out and slow when they involve human health.

It’s 2015. Renewable technologies have experienced rapidly falling costs and have improved in terms of power generation capabilities. Financing mechanisms are being developed and the innovation continues. The renewables industry is dynamic. Yet very frustratingly, public and indeed even politician perceptions have not kept up. Renewables will not need the kind of Government financial support they’ve needed in the past forever. Yet they need different types of sensible Government and public support now to take them to the next level. With the right policies and institutions, they can thrive. Indeed, new wind and new solar are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

“Achieving Germany’s solar PV build-out today would cost a third of what Germany spent over the past decade – and potentially much less in a country with better solar resource.”

– ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’

Let’s look, for example, at wind turbines. Their power generation capability has gone up 100x since the 1980s:

Infographic from newclimateeconomy.report
Infographic from newclimateeconomy.report

It is not inconceivable that nearly 100% of energy could come from clean sources…if people stop holding us back with their blanket view that it’s just not possible because we haven’t done it up until now. If you don’t trust me, trust someone who has actually led the solar revolution in Germany (the largest solar power generator in the world): Herman Scheer. His thesis? 100% renewables is possible and we should not aim for any less. (His book lays out how: The Energy Imperative: 100% renewable now by Herman Scheer).

Frankly, naysayers, if you’re defending coal, you are saying “I don’t believe the human race is ingenious enough to be able to generate energy in any way except for the most primitive which is to burn stuff we dig out of the ground in a fire”.

4) Misconception: “Solar panels and wind turbines take so much energy to produce it’s just not worth it.”

My response: Let’s settle this once and for all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most respected authority on climate change matters. They cite studies that worked out the lifecycle emissions associated with different forms of electricity generation. Lifecycle emissions include the average emissions associated with manufacture, transportation etc. You’ll see why environmentalists like to talk about coal. It’s MUCH worse than any other form of energy. See below:

Source: IPCC
Source: IPCC

Air, water, soil: the little things in life?!

if only trees

Environmentalism needs a revolution that takes it from niche to mainstream. It’s everybody’s business. So if you are holding your designer bag, thinking ‘this is not my field or interest’, politely, many of us say ‘wakey wakey’ to  you. People are realizing this matters rapidly and educating themselves on environmental issues rapidly. I cannot be arrogant – I learn so much from people I talk to every day about the environment. Fundamentally, the air we breathe, the water we drink, how can this not be important?  Our air, our water, our soil, our planet feeds into everything else: the food we consume, health, economics, happiness, spiritualism, art, culture. The green movement is not just about green, it’s a movement for every colour. Its goal? A planet where humans and animals can be healthy, safe and happy enough to enjoy every colour.

Envrionmentalism being niche is one of the greatest tragedies of logic of our time. Whatever you're doing, it's a subset of the Earth. So if you care about what you're doing and you realize it's all connected, how can you not care about the Earth?
Environmentalism being niche is one of the greatest tragedies of our time, a sheer defiance of logic. Whatever you’re doing, it’s a subset of the Earth. So if you care about what you’re doing and you realize it’s all connected, how can you not care about the Earth?

Disclaimer

The views in this blogpost are mine. Though I leverage some of the exhibits I worked on at the New Climate Economy project, the views expressed in this post are not views of the Global Commission necessarily.

References

http://www.eldis.org/go/home&id=33800&type=Document#.VMVeYUfF9UM

Newclimateeconomy.report

World Bank

World Health Organization

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10555816/Chinas-airpocalypse-kills-350000-to-500000-each-year.html

The gradual destruction of the big blue 70%

Shimmering seas, I look out into the distance. I’m on holiday in the Dominican Republic with around 70 business school friends and their partners. This is where I decide I need to write about oceans.

Starting with a happy and personal pic first - this was in the Dominican Republic!
Waiting for the speed-boat to gear up in the Dominican Republic

This speed-boat (above) took us to a piscine in the middle of the ocean where we swam, and then to ‘Paradise island’ – a sandbar. We went snorkelling near the sandbar. This was my first time snorkelling. It was awe-inspiring. I kept thinking ‘Wow there’s a whole world under here.’ There was rich coral and fish of different shapes, sizes and colours, and the sound of my own breath. There were moments of panic when I’d forget to breathe through my mouth and think I couldn’t breathe. It made me value air. It made me realise how fish feel out of water.

~70% of the earth’s surface is water. Yet you might have heard scientists say ‘more is known about space than what lies in the depths of our own oceans’. On the whole, we’re land-obsessed, just because we live here. The oceans are neglected in our informationsphere, despite their importance and sacrosanctity. Life started in the oceans. Many deep-sea marine creatures today are very similar to what was around at the time of dinosaurs actually. One eye-feast example is the frilled shark.

Photo from the National Geographic. The Frilled shark - swims at depths of 1500m. National Geographic calls it a 'living fossil' because it looks similar to what creatures around the time of dinosaurs looked like. One was caught in Japan in shallower water once and taken to a marine park. It died a few days later. Beats me how humans are so naive as to think you can just take a creature that lives in immense depths and stuff it in a tank and it'll be ok.
Photo from the National Geographic. The Frilled shark – swims at depths of 1500m. National Geographic calls it a ‘living fossil’ because it looks similar to what creatures around the time of dinosaurs looked like. One was caught in Japan in shallower water once and taken to a marine park. It died a few days later. Beats me how humans are so naive as to think you can just take a creature that lives in immense depths and stuff it in a tank and it’ll be ok.

It’s easy to look into the vastness of nature and make the naïve assumption that we are so small in front of it therefore couldn’t possibly make a dent. But there’s SEVEN BILLION of us (and growing), consuming food, fuel, plastic. The effects our production and consumption decisions have had on the oceans are immense and undeniable.

Whilst working as a management consultant I did a six week project on oceans. This was the start perhaps of my journey into ‘hard-core’ environmentalism. I want to share with you several eye-opening insights about what plagues our oceans today.


 1. Oceans suffer from unbelievably poor global governance – there is no law covering two-thirds of oceans

Beyond 200 nautical miles off the coast of any land mass are the “high seas”.  These cover about two-thirds of the global ocean, amounting to 45% of the Earth’s surface. There is no law governing the high seas. This means any ship can dump any type and amount of waste there. Any ship can pass through waters emitting any type of signal.

Pretty much the only governance around oceans is The United Nations ‘Law of the Seas’ passed in 1982. In essence, the Law of the Seas states: “Each country governs fishing within its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends to a maximum of 200 nautical miles from shore.”  It has not been updated since 1982, despite the way we exploit oceans having changed significantly with modern technology e.g. newly started seabed mining.

Dark blue areas represent high seas - where there is no law. Fish, dump waste, mine, extract marine resources for pharma research here.
Dark blue areas represent high seas – where there is no law. Fish, dump waste, mine, extract marine resources for pharma research here to your heart’s content.

The Global Oceans Commission identifies the key gaps in ocean governance. You’ll be astounded these fairly basic points are not covered currently. Right now there is:

  • no formal recognition of the need to protect biodiversity on the high seas and no mechanism with a mandate to do so
  • no mandate for the establishment of high seas marine reserves
  • no place for emerging uses such as bio-prospecting
  • insufficient geographical coverage and lack of effective fisheries management
  • lack of regulation of ocean noise and its potential impacts on marine life
  • no conservation enforcement mechanism or competent enforcement body, and few or no sanctions against non-compliance.

2. Oceans are treated as the free garbage can

There are at least 5 great garbage patches in our oceans, covering a whopping near 40% of ocean surface. Rubbish collects where ocean currents sweep it together.

Here's a screenshot from the 5 gyres website, illustrating where rubbish collects.
Here’s a screenshot from the 5 gyres website, illustrating where rubbish collects. 5 gyres is a non-profit organization that conducts research and campaigns for reducing plastic pollution.

I’ve started thinking it’d be great if we can do a cruise for CEOs of the biggest companies to these giant marine garbage patches so they can understand first-hand what impact the current ways of doing business are having on our oceans. 

Firstly, the consequences for wildlife are tragic. One study found that nearly all Laysan albatross chicks – 97.5 percent – have plastic pieces in their stomachs; their parents feed them plastic particles mistaken for food

If you believe other species don’t really matter, you still can’t ignore this problem. It comes back to us. Plastic never biodegrades, but degenerates into small molecules. Plankton eat these molecules. Fish eat plankton. Big fish eat small fish. And then you eat sushi. The amount of mercury, plastic etc that you consume via seafood is astounding news to most people.

There's a reason pregnant women are advised to avoid sushi - high mercury levels
There’s a reason pregnant women are advised to avoid sushi – high mercury levels

3. Climate change is not just a land issue. It is one of the biggest problems for oceans – have you heard of Ocean acidification?

Oceans absorb 25-50% of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere (sources vary). Carbon dioxide dissolves in the water creating carbonic acid. This well-documented process is called ‘ocean acidification’ – see the schematic below.

Ocean acidification chemistry
Ocean acidification chemistry

The rising pH of oceans particularly affects coral reef and creatures with shells. Coral reef and shells are made predominantly of calcium carbonate. Ocean acidification reduces the amount of carbonate ions in the ocean for coral and shelled creatures to replace themselves and do repair work. If you look above at the schematic, you’ll notice that adding CO2 triggers a reaction whereby carbonate ions are converted into bicarbonate ions, which creatures and coral cannot use.

The long story short is that coral reefs around the world are degrading rapidly. We’ve lost 27% already (WWF: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts/). This is reef that took literally millions of years to form, it’s made of the fossilized remains of organisms. And we’re losing it in years now.

I saw a great ad by the Nature conservancy in TIME magazine lately:

Sorry guys couldn't find it online so the quality isn't great. But the message is bang on.
Sorry guys couldn’t find it online so the quality isn’t great. But the message is bang on: 51% of cancer-fighting drugs are derived from nature such as coral reefs.

4. Overfishing afflicts ~80% of fish species – global wild fish production has been declining every year since 2000

Wild catch (fish caught from oceans rather than farmed) volumes are declining year on year (FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010). The decline is due to overfishing. Overfishing is when you fish more fish than should be left in the system to replenish themselves via reproduction.

Tuna Graveyard
Tuna Graveyard – Frozen bluefin tuna at Tsukiji market

Bluefin tuna prices are crazy. In 2011, one bluefin tuna sold for an unprecedented $396,000. As a blogger in 2011 noted:

“In economic terms, perhaps it’s only right that it should cost $20 or $50 or $100 a mouthful to eat what might as well be flesh carved from the last of the unicorns after Noah’s ark has sailed away…. what a waste, I think now, to let this most magnificent of oceanic fish slip away for what amounts to a fancy night on the town.”

Also, certain countries can’t seem to leave even big fish which have slower replacement rates alone. Think about it next time you see shark fin soup. 

We joked around a lot about sharks when were were swimming in the Dominican Republic. But a world with no sharks is far scarier if you think about the big picture of ecosystems.
We joked around a lot about sharks when were were swimming in the Dominican Republic. But a world with no sharks is far scarier if you think about the big picture of ecosystems. Text on LHS: “Horrifying”, Text on right: “More horrifying”.

5. The marine food chain is hardly traceable – you might have very little idea what you’re eating

In 2013, the UK was enraged by the horse meat scandal – it turned out sausages and other meat products people were consuming were not actually the labelled beef or pork but horse. If you thought that was bad, if only you knew how reliable seafood labelling is….Oceana (a non-profit) DNA-tested 1215 fish samples from across the United States and found that a third of samples bought from 2010 to 2012  were mislabelled. In New York, 94% of samples labeled “tuna” were not tuna!! So do you really have any idea which mercury-laden, plastic-containing seafood you are consuming?

6. Ship and submarine navigation interrupts whale routes

I like to think that there are some parts of the earth that have been untouched by our presence. That there are patches of ocean – perhaps in the Pacific – that thing is massive – where fish and marine mammals are swimming around blissfully unaware that land exists, and that we exist. But a little research into shipping routes reveals that this patch could conceivably be non-existent.

Here’s a plot of shipping routes:

Yups, we pretty much go everywhere
Yups, we pretty much go everywhere

Whales and dolphins use sonar to navigate through the ocean. That means they emit high frequency sound waves which bounce of parts of the marine floor and allow them to form a vision of where they are and what their surroundings look like. They also use it to communicate with each other.

Now when a submarine or a ship emits sound waves into the ocean, they introduce confusing noise for whales and marine mammals. This can lead to ‘beachings’ – when whales end up navigating onto a beach. Beachings result in death – needless to say, these are huge animals, and if they end up on land, they can’t get back into water themselves, and over hours, their huge body weight collapses their heart. The water is key to sustaining their huge body weight.

7. Ballast water pollution introduces new species into different environments constantly

Ballast water is the water taken on board ships to help them balance. They then emit this water when they get to a port. This means species from one part of the ocean are transferred to other parts, with sometimes grave consequences for human health and ecosystems. See more: http://www.fao.org/fishery/topic/14776/en

8. Deep-sea mining is taking greed to new depths

Several companies have started mining for minerals in the ocean bed. Examples of the types of minerals mined this way: silver, gold, copper, manganese, zinc.

Destroying coral that took millions of years to form to mine minerals
Destroying coral that took millions of years to form to mine minerals

What can we do?

This warrants a separate long article itself. But there are some obvious things:

1. Don’t eat rare fish species

2. Cut back on seafood – for your health and for the world’s ecosystems

3. Reduce consumption and waste in your life – reuse and find pleasure in other activities besides for retail therapy

4. Care and talk about it – let environmental issues be a factor in who you vote for. And the more you talk, the more it pervades our society’s and our politician’s consciousness as an issue.

Feel inspired? Donate to the Ocean Conservancy here : http://www.oceanconservancy.org/healthy-ocean/


References

For amazing graphs of the world and marine impacts check out: National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis: https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/GlobalMarine/impacts

The Global Oceans Commission

The Ocean Conservancy

The economics of extinction, one tuna at a time:  http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2011/01/07/the-economics-of-extinction-one-tuna-at-a-time/

Where did life originate http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/origsoflife_03

5 gyres institute: http://5gyres.org/who_we_are/mission/

Coral facts: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_facts/

Horsemeat scandal: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25715666

Ocean chemistry: http://chemistrykb.blogspot.co.uk/

The relatively unknown megafauna tragedy and its relevance today

I used to always wonder as a child as well why there were no ‘impressive’ creatures in Europe and why most of the big animals were in Africa. The truth, that I only properly (re)discovered this summer, is that all sorts of magnificently large creatures termed ‘megafauna’ existed on all continents, including Europe. The straight-tusked elephant, for example, ranged across all of Eurasia from Spain to China. Now if you mention there were once elephants in Spain, some people would look at you as if you’re crazy.

It’s not that all creatures were found everywhere of course. There were many that were unique to continents, but certain continents had similar wildlife. For example, European wildlife used to be similar to North American wildlife (also dwindled in the present day) because 2 million to 10,000 years ago, sea levels were so low that animals could walk across from Europe to North America across the Bering Strait – the narrowest point of ocean between Russia and Alaska, about 80 km wide. And what was true was that each continent was rich with impressively large animals at one stage. This world today where British wildlife is mainly hedgehogs, wild rabbits, birds and deer – nothing that will blow your socks off (as much as we love them, let’s be honest) – is not a status quo we could have arrived at without human intervention. It’s also a regrettable status quo. We can only learn if we feel the loss of our mistakes before.

People think it was dinosaurs and then animals of today. No, sir. No, madam. There were many others. Let me take you on a brief safari via some drawings and computer graphics below of megafauna.

Welcome to the Pleistocene 

In the Pleistocene epoch, 10,000 years ago, there were giant sloths, mastodons (part of the elephant family but distinct from mammoths), cave lions (European cave lions were slightly bigger than lions today and American cave lions were much bigger), aurochs (large wild cattle, modern domestic cattle descended from it), giant polar bears, giant camels, giant armadillos etc. etc. etc! Perhaps the most famous that people do tend to know about are sabre tooth tigers.

Paraceratherium - from the rhinocerous family - regarded as the largest land mammal to roam the earth ever. Fossils found mainly in Southeastern Europe and Asia.
Paraceratherium – from the rhinocerous family – regarded as the largest land mammal to roam the earth ever . The largest individual known is estimated to be 4.8m just from foot to shoulder. Fossils found mainly in Southeastern Europe and Asia.
Giant Sloth - how cool would it be if these were still around
Giant Sloth, Megatherium, stood 6m tall. How cool would it be if these were still around! Megatheriums roamed in South America up to 10,000 years ago. Most scientists attribute their extinction to over-hunting by humans.
Woolly rhinocerous. Nowadays even the normal rhinocerous is struggling to survive
Woolly rhinocerous – was common in Europe and Northern Asia during the Pleistocene. Nowadays even it’s smaller cousin rhinocerous is struggling to survive because poachers think its acceptable to kill a huge animal for its horn, driven by consumer demand from Asian nutcases who think powdered horn has medicinal values. See
North American Megafauna. That at the front is our ancestor standing ready with a spear to ring down big creatures when they could survive on little ones. I'm not joking, Gibbons says hunting of big game even as their numbers were dwindling was an example of 'show off' behaviour.
North American Megafauna. That at the front is our ancestor standing ready with a spear to ring down big creatures when they could survive on little ones. I’m not joking, Gibbons says hunting of big game even as their numbers were dwindling was an example of ‘show off’ behaviour.
Megafauna in South America
Megafauna in South America

You can also watch the BBC documentary ‘Monsters we Met’ to see some really neat computer-aided recreations. I think the documentary should actually be called ‘Monsters they met’ since we’re the ones who killed these creatures so aggressively (see at 24 mins – an unsuspecting giant sloth has never seen humans before and is not scared because they’re so small and then gets speared to death).

So why did megafauna disappear?

In ‘The World without us’, Alan Weisman explains the work of Paul Martin, a prominent geoscientist whose work spanned many fields. Paul Martin is best known for his theory on the extinction of megafauna – essentially the ‘overkill’ hypothesis. Humans hunted megafauna at a rate that they weren’t able to reproduce and keep up. The only place megafauna has survived to some extent to the present day is in Africa where people traditionally have lived in harmony with nature. Megafauna in the ‘New World’ (basically not-Africa) were also easier hunting targets: indigenous species in the New World did not evolve in the presence of humans so had not developed the same natural wariness exhibited by similarly large species in the Old World (Africa).

Martin’s ‘overkill’ theory is not without its critiques of course. But it is a plausible data-grounded theory that absolutely deserves attention and is now gaining wider acceptance as more evidence surfaces. Many Clovis (an Ancient North American people – ancestors of today’s native americans) sites have been found where there are skeletons of mammoths with spear heads in them. Models developed after the theory have also found support for it. For example, Alroy (2001) independently ran simulations in a model and concluded that ‘homo sapiens growth rate and hunting ability almost always led to mass extinctions, with hunting ability being the most important of all parameters’. Big animals are particularly susceptible to extinction because gestation periods are longer and they require more resources to survive.

 

“The inverse relationship between body size and population size plays a powerful role in increasing the risk of extinction faced by larger animals” – Grayson

 

For a short but comprehensive discussion on theories of extinction, I point you to the paper: Examining the Extinction of the Pleistocene Megafauna by Robin Gibbons of Stanford University: http://web.stanford.edu/group/journal/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Gibbons_NatSci_2004.pdf  (just 4 pages long!). Gibbons essentially says that a combination of climate change and hunting likely caused the extinction of megafauna. Megafauna birth rates can be lowered significantly when climate changes and the timing of seasons changes too.

 

Why it this still incredibly relevant? 

Once again, climate change and hunting are prevalent and escalating. Poaching is not a ‘solved’ problem at all. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund says that ‘rhino poaching has increased dramatically in the last few years’, and ‘large quantities of African ivory, for example, are still finding their way to illegal markets in Africa and beyond. Elephants are also killed for their meat and hides’. Never underestimate the impact hunting can have. When Christopher Columbus set foot in America, there were 60 million bison. In 70 years, after killing for horns and sport, just 500 wild buffalo remained. 60 million to 500!!! (BBC Documentary). 

Moreover, there is the very powerful force of habitat destruction in play which is a bigger destructive force than hunting in some cases. If we keep taking all the land to build our cities, our highways, our fields, our farms, what land and resources are there left over for other large creatures?  Creatures that naturally migrate hundreds of miles now have small corridors to travel in and patches of land to graze on. And there are way too many patches of land where they face risks of being shot down to feed the demand for products bought by unethical and unaware consumers (I’m sorry, I really don’t care who I offend when I say it is not cool to buy ivory products or tiger products). The Pleistocene megafauna are gone because of our ancestors. The creatures today are going because of us.

In my next blogpost, I will look at what we can do individually and collectively to prevent more extinction tragedies.

The self-created shortage of nature

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of reading ‘The world without us’ by Alan Weisman. As the title says, Weisman looks at a world where humans have gone but plants and other animals have survived. This book is so good it makes me want to kill myself! (this is a dark joke, no need to report me to the Samaritans/start celebrating). I discuss a few themes it inspired me to think about.


Our impact: no less impact than a mega-volcano or major ice age The scale of impact we’ve had on the planet is immense. I realise that most people who do not read about environmental issues are not aware of this. When you walk by a huge lake, or look out into the expansive countryside, you think ‘The world is so big and I’m so small. Even if I throw this sweet wrapper, what difference does it make?’ (I never think like that, but I bet some people do). The answer is of course that we have a huge impact – gyres trap rubbish patches bigger than Texas in every ocean in the world. That would be a place to see expansive rubbish as far as the eye can see. I’m convinced plastic is a crime and happy that some Chinese cities are banning plastic bags altogether and hope others will follow – you have to take your own bag when you go shopping. That might be a small inconvenience, but given that plastics do not biodegrade in any sensible time frame (100, 000 years + for some plastics), we can surely do that much for our precious environment.
The Great Pacific Garbage patch
The Great Pacific Garbage patch
Here’s another obvious point for starters: the massive countryside is fields of wheat, barley, maize (corn) or some other foodcrops. That, of course, is human impact. The ironic thing is that people often talk about the countryside as if it’s an epitome of nature. Natural land is wild forest, not neat fields of monoculture. Agriculture has conquered the vast majority of land in the world: ~37% according to FAO in 2011: 25% is pastures and meadows, 12% is cultivated crops. Note how much more is pastures and meadows! And when you exclude deserts, ice, and inland water bodies, nearly 50% of land is used to grow food (FAO 2011).


Deprived of nature

What we don’t realise is that most of us have had such little contact with unadulterated nature that we don’t even know what it looks like. We live in a concrete world, or a world of manicured grass with those dumb signs ‘Do not walk on the grass’ or managed forests. When it comes to nature, we are deprived and starved. We want it so bad: we pay for zoos, for animal experiences like Seaworld and safaris; we watch documentaries; we go to natural history museums; we create places like Kew Gardens and the London wetlands centre. But these are poor and packaged substitutes for the real deal.

 Weisman describes the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. Trees grow to staggering heights, some rot on the forest floor. Vegetation is dense and disorderly, and the forest has European bison, which most of us have never seen (I’ve never seen one).
I compare these now to the forests in Scotland where I was this summer: trees are all of the same species in many patches and grow in neat rows, and you barely see any animals. Every so often,  “forest maintenance” is carried out in forests all over Europe (and the rest of the world I’m sure but Weisman focuses on Europe), often a euphemism for logging giant patches for timber. Of course, true nature doesn’t need managing or maintaining. It’s been around for millions of years before us.
 “Europeans have hardly any memory of forested wilderness” – Weisman
Number of times we have thought this is beautiful. It's fake, guys. When will we learn to demand real nature and accept her as the wild unstructured ways?
Number of times we have thought this is beautiful. It’s fake, guys. When will we learn to demand real nature and accept her as the wild unstructured ways?

Forest maintenance in action (Scotland)
“Forest maintenance” in action (Aberfoyle, Scotland)
                                                                     *****
When I observe how we deal with nature, I remember Joni Mitchell’s song lyrics: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone….They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.
Awareness is the first step to solving any problem. So that’s my goal in these blogposts. In my forthcoming blogpost, I look more at animals and human intervention in animal lives, and what is happening to animal numbers around the world. I will say, that I do firmly believe, that the root that needs to be addressed, when the world can stop being so scared of the truth, is human population growth, and then secondly human greed. More untempered forests, less golf courses please.

Vegetarianism – a critical moral choice and a new manifesto

One day in sunny August last year, I was getting a bus back from Toronto Zoo to Toronto downtown where I lived.  I’d had a beautiful time admiring different species in this huge zoo. Fitting then, that later that day I made a choice that supports the view that our planet is not just for humans, but for animals, for plants, for all living things.

I met a lady on the bus who was a member of the Toronto vegetarian society. She said a line about meat that still resonates with me today:

“No matter how much you dress it up, put nice sauces on it, it’s basically the rotting flesh of another creature”

I have been a pescetarian for nine or so months now. Despite the fish intake, I remain a staunch supporter of vegetarianism and have even more respect for vegans, and my goal in this article is to outline a new manifesto for vegetarianism which is based on the following pillars:

1-     Vegetarianism is a logical moral choice and it is a morally superior position to being non-vegetarian. The debate should not be framed predominantly as a matter of taste, preference or opinion. There are facts, and the facts show one side is better. Period.

2-     Because for some people it is an impossible goal (perhaps myself included?), we need to stop seeing vegetarianism as a binary choice. Even cutting back meat consumption significantly helps the world and your health, and cutting back different types of meat consumption helps e.g. not eating red meat goes a long way towards our environment and your health.

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1)   Vegetarianism is a morally superior position to being non-vegetarian

A) So do we have the right to make the choices for those who have no voice or intellect?

 Another experience I had in Toronto was once when I was on my way to get a vegetarian take-away, I walked past two people, one dressed as a cow and one as a butcher and the cow had blood on it and a sign around her neck saying ‘Meat is murder’. They would have walked past many people that day and the sad thing is that people would have been entertained and thought of these people as ‘hippies’ and carried on without any significant thought. Her sign, as extreme as it may sound, is actually the truth in my eyes. The Oxford dictionary, however, chooses to use your definition:  murder is “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another”. The crucial differences? That killing an animal is not unlawful. Mainly because they did not have a say in making the law, because they cannot represent themselves for a lack of human-like intelligence. Laws are a bullshit moral reason to do or not do anything. As humanity, we’ve lived through laws where women could not vote, coloured people could not be served in the same place as white people and where in many countries, it’s still illegal to be homosexual. These things have been and will be fixing themselves over time because members of these groups have a voice and human intellect. Animals, I worry about. Because only we can save them.

Image
This would not be acceptable. Yet packaging the dead body parts of the voice-less and intellect-less in a systematic way with total disregard for how they are raised is. Because we are desensitized to it from a young age.

B) The cruelty of modern meat methods

 The way creatures are raised and killed these days is horrific. You will see this if you do some basic research as I have done. Animals are bred to grow unnaturally fast, and fed what they’d never eat naturally and kept in crowded conditions – makes for a short and miserable visit to Earth.

‘Compassion in World Farming’ did an investigation into poultry farming called ‘Live fast die young’. Hens usually have a life of several years. The ones used for meat farmed industrially are bred to grow to unnatural sizes in a matter of several weeks after which they are slaughtered.  Please check it out for yourselves, the factory scenes are worth watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpbtBgLfl90. At 4.03 is a great visual where they compare the growth rate of a normal chick to that of a meat chick. If you’re in a hurry watch 4.03 until end of the video.

Most cattle are corn-fed even though evolutionarily they are meant to be eating grass. Seventy-five years ago, it took a cow 4 or 5 years to reach a weight of 1,200 pounds. Today, cattle can be slaughtered at just 14-16 months of age, thanks to massive amounts of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics, and growth hormones (John Robbins, The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World).

You can also see the crowded conditions animals are raised in in this video sent to me by a friend: http://www.minds.com/blog/view/201538/quite-possibly-the-most-eye-opening-six-minutes-ever-on-film

C) The huge cost meat (esp. red meat) puts on the environment

Here let me start with an unedited excerpt from a report from Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 report ‘Livestock’s long shadow’:

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity”

About 30% of the surface of our planet is dedicated to livestock pastures. And this has come at the cost of rich forest which would have been absorbing the carbon dioxide our other activities put out into the air. In this same report, the FAO states that 70% of land that used to be forest in the Amazon is occupied by pasture, and a good proportion of the remainder is occupied by crops grown to feed the grazers! Instead, we could be growing crops to feed ourselves directly. So that’s one major efficiency loss already.

Now let’s compare the efficiency of different meats: how much feed does it take to generate 1kg of meat from various sources? See the chart below which I made from data from mainstream Canada.  Red meat is an incredibly inefficient way of getting nutrition.

Image

The carbon footprint associated with diet types shows what a difference you can make just by diet! Just study this graph, it’s rich with insight. FYI ‘t CO2e/person’ means Tonnes of Carbon dioxide equivalents per person – a unit of volume of Greenhouse gas emissions.

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A ‘Carbon dioxide equivalent’ is a unit that measures carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxides but in a way that normalizes their impact on global warming (e.g. methane is a much more potent gas than CO2, around 25 times as potent, so every tonne of methane is equivalent to 25 tonnes of CO2).

 Notice eating chicken instead of beef cuts your food-print roughly by a quarter.

My opponents

The smugness of staunch non-vegetarians and their humorous approach in trivialising the issue drives me crazy. Yes, you eat a lot of meat and it’s your choice. But at least be educated enough to recognize the inferiority of your choice. It’s actually like being proud of smoking when little children are around or being proud of littering. It’s a fundamentally bad thing and a WEAKNESS in your character that you are more addicted to the taste of a food-type than you care about the world or ethics or even your own long-term health in the case of extreme red-meat eaters.

I have a dream too – for a world in which vegetarianism is not a minority position and a point of difference when in restaurants with the awkward ‘she’s vegetarian’ whispers but the norm. Why is doing the responsible thing not the norm right now??

2. Vegetarianism should not be thought of as a binary choice, everyone can make a difference

 We’re obsessed with binary choices in life. But binary choices are tough and restrictive and stop many people who do believe in the right thing from supporting it. They’re actually detrimental in many cases to the choices that the do-gooders want to encourage. Here are the dimensions of choice that all matter:

i)  Volume of meat consumed

If you buy one packet of sausages a week and if you buy one packet of sausages a month or a quarter makes a difference in how much demand is being registered in that cash register and being passed down the supply chain and how much land is deforested and how many animals are bred for slaughter.

I greatly encourage non-vegetarians to just cut back meat consumption. Next time you’re in a restaurant, order the vegetarian option. I have colleagues who order vegetarian whenever possible, even though they are not vegetarian. I respect them enormously for it.

The purpose of my argument 1 is to make the point that vegetarianism is a morally superior position. As I said, I eat fish. I can’t even attain the morally superior position so I’m very much in the same boat as most people, but I try more than not to order the vegetarian option.

ii) Type of meat

Organic, free-range, red or white meat matters. Red meat is worse than white meat for the environment and for your health. Free-range chickens are allowed to roam freely and have somewhat of a normal life before being killed. Moreover, you can download apps for your phone that tell you which species of fish are rare and to avoid, and which are still in reasonable quantity in the world. We need to all make informed choices.

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Vegetarianism is good for YOU

Unfortunately no pitch to the world without a ‘what’s in it for you’ section is as effective as one with one. I know people who’ve visited slaughter-houses and have continued eating meat afterwards. Beats me, but we all have different levels and types of empathy.

But there are lots of things in it for you. According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), vegetarians are at lower risk for developing:

  • Heart disease
  • Colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

The link with bowel cancer is something that’s known but not quantified exactly. According to UK dietary surveys, four in 10 men and one in 10 women eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day. The NHS recommends not consuming more than the average of 70g a day for no good reason other than that’s the average right now. Hopefully better research will follow.

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Let’s shift the debate from one where vegetarianism is entirely a personal choice, with few moral connotations, to one where vegetarianism is the recognized best path. We can’t all meet that path fully, but we all support (rather than mock!) those who do and do the best we can ourselves. This is not a ‘Your favourite colour is green, mine is red’ issue. This is a BIG DEAL.

The big taboo – Population and population growth

Look at the news today and it’s like the ‘Day after tomorrow’ has arrived. Resource scarcity and degradation is here and now. So many solutions float around – none, by the way, properly implemented by our political-cycle motivated ‘leaders’. I want to focus your attention on one solution that I believe is neglected and taboo but the most powerful one…

There is one neat equation I came across through my trawls through a climate change textbook recently:

COemissions = population x income/head x watts/income x emissions/watt

Everything we talk about is generally focused on emissions/watt – using renewable energy such as wind, solar, biogas. The easiest and most powerful part of the equation to go after is population. Now, people who are riling with ‘she said what?’, I do NOT mean kill people. No! I mean stop incentivising having lots of children and instead incentivise having one or two. Incentivise. That is different from forced abortion and legal limits. I’m not saying let’s go the way of China and have a forced one-child policy. But I do firmly believe we need to reward people who do the responsible and sensible thing for the environment and act less selfishly by having fewer children.

It’s a common unanalysed belief that having children is a selfless endeavour. People who believe this should revisit their knowledge from basic biology: all species reproduce. Remember MRS GREN or whatever you called it (7 characteristics of living things: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, REPRODUCTION, Excretion and Nutrition). We are hard-wired to reproduce. Our offspring are an extension of ourselves, the closest thing possible without cloning. You are also hard-wired to love and care for them. You are NOT being selfless by having lots of children. You are propagating your own genes, you are actually being SELFISH. So first step in accepting my proposed solution is de-glorifying childbirth as this wonderful holy selfless act. If you love children so much and truly believe you are selfless then why not adopt a few of the millions of orphans in dire need of a loving home? Why not give one of them shelter alongside your one or two biological children?

Nor do we live in a planet that is short of people by any means. There are around 7 billion people in the world right now and projected to be 9 billion by 2050. The strain this puts on our planet’s resources is unbelievable – see ‘Harvesting the biosphere’ by Vaclav Smil. It leads to deforestation; more mining; more plastic production; more landfill; more toxic waste, greater carbon emissions. The knock-on effects of those are well-known: you get more climate change, more tropical disease, more drought, more crop failure, more frequent and more intense storms. In England alone, we produce 177 million tonnes of waste every year. It’s all got to go somewhere. In India, you see plastic lying on the sides of the roads in millions of tiny unintentional landfill sites. In developed countries, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it disappears, and per capita we produce a lot more than any developing country, so there’s still fair argument to be made about developed nations keeping the right incentives in place for population.

Human overpopulation also leads to less room and resources for all the other species on this planet. I’ve had a ‘who owns the planet’ debate a lot with friends and it seems there are two types of views in the world: 1- the planet is for humans 2- the planet is for all species. I’m in category no.2 and most of my western friends are in category no.1. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing? Hinduism is a pluralistic religion with many animal Gods and I think this has influenced Indian beliefs. In India, we tend to believe that this planet belongs to everyone including those without a voice and without human intellect. In other cultures the prevailing thinking is along the lines of ‘might is right’ and humans have might. I’m going to have the guts and say category no.1ers you need to evolve your thinking and expand your bounds of empathy to other species.

So the choice is ours: we keep growing like mad, creating artificial islands in the sea to house ourselves, keep building upwards, packing each floor with humans, spend time commuting in traffic jams, Governments constantly worrying about high unemployment rates and how do we create enough jobs, happily accepting people in (now predominantly) developing nations having 10 children even though they can barely sustain themselves, keep dumping rubbish until the Great Pacific garbage patch spans the whole friggin’ ocean

OR

We make population control a priority. We choose a world with fewer people who can enjoy more abundance each. When we give out food-aid to poor people, we also educate them on family planning and give them free protection and stop being scared to EMPHASISE IT. We reward those who stopped at two with tax breaks, and penalise those who carry on. The choice is still the family’s but at least now we’re aligning their incentives with the greater good. We choose a world where everyone has a chance to be happy and prosperous because there is enough for everyone.

My concrete policy recommendations are for developed nations to make getting population growth to conservative levels a key priority that influences design and structure of foreign aid packages, and for developing nations to put this on their policy agenda in big letters and roll it into education and healthcare policies.

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And if you still don’t believe population is a big challenge for us, please go to India and please try walking on a road in Old Delhi and tell me you had a pleasant time as you walk through hoards of people, poverty-stricken, desperate for a dime, wishing they could pursue their dreams in a world of ever-scarcer resources.  And I haven’t even touched on spiritual aspects yet: how special do you feel when there are 7 billion of us? 

Barely room to walk. Sea of heads. Heads full of dreams. Most dreams won't come true.
Old Delhi: Barely room to walk. Sea of heads. Heads full of dreams. Most dreams won’t come true. Photo by Andrew Harris