Tag 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.

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.

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.

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…


  1. Simple Living thoughts by Alexandra Paul


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


4. 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?


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.




World Bank

World Health Organization


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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


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.


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