Wednesday 18 February 2009

Are we full yet?

The Earth has a lot of problems: pollution, an impending energy crisis (what will you do when the oil runs dry?), climate change, the spiralling cost and impact of food production, increasing pressure on finite water resources, deforestation (we're destroying the planet's lungs)... I could go on and on. And sure, there are lots of things we can do to try to make things better - we can re-use and recycle more, turn off appliances, not leave the tap running, switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs, make smarter choices when it comes to vehicles and transportation, make ethical purchases and investments, think more about what we eat and drink, compost things, make a conscious decision not to get caught in the vicious circle of consumerism for the sake of consumerism... god, I could go on and on about this too. I won't though, because I don't want to bore you, or come over all preachy. Besides, if you're reading this then maybe I'm preaching to the converted on a lot of this stuff already. I hope so.

Instead, I want to talk about the environmental taboo that is population size. It seems to me that there will soon be just too many people in the world to be sustainable. Think about it: there is only so much land that is viable for crop production; there's only so much of that that can be offset to allow for livestock farming; there are only so many edible fish in the sea; and, crucially, there is a finite water supply within what is effectively a closed system. Given all that, logic dictates that there must come a point where the resources that we have available to us on Earth are just not sufficient any more to support the size of the population that we will soon have, given the current rate of population growth.

The more you think about it, the more obvious this becomes. You could even argue it is the single biggest factor in pretty much all of the problems our planet faces, especially if you look at it in the simplest of economic models - if things carry on as they are, pretty soon our demand for anything will outstrip our supply of everything...

Worried yet...?

Of course, this remains the great taboo subject of environmentalism. It really is the elephant in the room, the subject no-one wants to be seen to talk about because to suggest population size is a problem gives rise to a knee-jerk reaction: you can't morally coerce or force people to have fewer children. Before I get bombarded with outraged emails, I agree with this entirely - I would not in any way support any initiative or constraint that sought to enforce population controls. Having children should be a matter of choice - always has been, always should be. But what I would advocate is that people think more about how many children they want. Whilst I don't have stats on how many unplanned children there are in the world, I would also advocate that people are more diligent and conscientious with their birth control. And of course I unreservedly support the idea that birth control methods and education are more freely available in the developing world.

I guess what I support most of all is that this issue is discussed, given open debate. Just because it's contentious doesn't mean it shouldn't be thought about. Think about it this way - if you're throwing a party, how many guests can you cater for with what you have in your cupboards, fridge and freezer? 10? 20? 30? Okay, so if you didn't have enough food and drink, you could nip out to the shop and buy some more... but what if every shop was closed? Even the 24-hour garage down the road... Could you still have your party? And if all your guests stayed over, how would you feed them breakfast in the morning? I know this seems like a fatuous and simplistic example, but I hope it gets the message across. The Earth has a finite supply of everything, just like your cupboards, fridge and freezer. It's not a bottomless pit. And many would argue we're fast approaching the point where all the shops are closed and we can't invite any more guests. Perhaps the party's over.

There are undoubtedly lots of reasons for the sharp incline in population growth. Better and more widely available healthcare means that people live longer and infant mortality rates drop, for a start. For the record, I don't dispute that these are good things - of course they are, that goes without saying. Similarly, a better diet and a healthier lifestyle mean that parents can be "productive" for much longer than might have been the case, say, a century ago. Again, let me be clear that I agree that this is a good thing - as I said before, I believe having children, when and how many, to be about choice, and so of course I support having more choice. But globally our birth rate is as high or even higher than in those darker days when people didn't live so long, when infant mortality was higher, and so on. And that's the trouble, I guess - our global birth rate belongs to a different era, and a growing number of people are starting to ask the question "does something has to give?"

Links: Optimum Population Trust | Global Population Speak Out | Is it selfish to have more than two children?

Friday 13 February 2009

I'm not too proud

I'm not too proud to admit my mistakes. Way back in March 2005 I described commercial incinerators as "ecological catastrophes" but you know what? I think I was wrong. In fact, in now seems that they could be viable alternatives to landfill and generate clean, cheap power to boot, as described properly in this BBC article. I mean, really - if it's good enough for eco-conscious Denmark, it really ought to be good enough for us, right? As is often the case, too much nimby-ism seems to be the problem...

Friday 6 February 2009

Make tea, not war

Now I love beer - it's hard to top a good pint of real ale, something like Blackfriar's Yarmouth Bitter. And these days, because I'm getting all old and sophisticated, I have developed a reasonably acute taste for a decent wine too, be it red, white or (on a hot summer's evening) even rosé.

But above and beyond these wonderous beverages, there is one that I could not do without. And it doesn't even contain alcohol! Yes, I conform to the English stereotype in that I love a good cup of tea. Last night, my enjoyment of some Hobnobs was magnified immeasurably by having a proper cup of tea to dunk them in. And this morning, as I stumbled, heavy-legged and with black-ringed eyes, from my insomniac bed, it was a nice cuppa that picked me up and got me going. Before you start thinking I'm a caffeine junkie, rather than a tea fiend, hold your horses there - I drink decaff... so it really is the tea that does it for me.

A couple of websites to recommend to you then: the Tea Appreciation Society and a Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down. I've pinched a slogan from the former for the title of this post, and the latter has a "biscuit of the week" section, in long-overdue recognition of the brilliance of the tea/biscuit combo. If all that isn't enough for you, you can even check out the UK Tea Council (yes, there really is such a thing) at the pithiest of all tea-related website addresses, Like the site says, it's the home of tea.

Right, it's nearly eleven o'clock, so I'm off to get a cuppa. Go on, put the kettle on - after all, you know the old saying: a journey of a thousand miles begins with... a cup of tea?

Tuesday 3 February 2009

"What do you think you are, for Christ's sake, crazy or something?"

I watched One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest yesterday, for the first time in a long time. You know what? I had forgotten just how good a film it is. Having seen Changeling at the cinema recently, I was interested to watch other portrayals of mental healthcare in cinema. I know that Ken Kesey's book was written in the mid-Sixties, and that treatment had visibly moved on from that seen in the 1930s of Changeling... but it hadn't moved on much. And the fact that R.P. McMurphy, who is arguably only in the asylum as a way of dodging the hard-time of prison, can end up lobotomised... really not moved on that much at all.

The other interesting theme to emerge from the movie is the question of defining madness - who's sane and who isn't? The BBC's Horizon programme did an interesting broadcast on this recently, in which several mental health service users (as they are euphemistically called these days) and an equal number of "normal" people were sequestered together under the watching eyes of a panel of supposed experts. These experts, including clinical psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, had the devil's own job working out who was who. Apart from the obvious - the guy with OCD got really uncomfortable when faced with the task of mucking out a cowshed - it really was tough to tell. Interesting, yes? As Randall says in Cuckoo's Nest, "You're no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets, and that's it!"

Interesting footnotes: Cuckoo's Nest was the first film for nearly 40 years to win all the big five Oscars (best film, director, actor, actress, screenplay), a feat that wasn't repeated until 1991 with Silence of the Lambs. And it was on continuous general release in Swedish cinemas for twelve years from 1975-1987 - some kind of record, surely?