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Are we too many?

August 26, 2015

A journalist called me the other day to ask if I would “speak about the unspeakable”: isn’t it true, she said, that if our human population weren’t so large, we wouldn’t have so many environmental problems?

More than seven billion people already inhabit the planet, and by 2050, there may be as many as 10 billion. It took us 50,000 years to reach the first billion, but barely more than a decade to add the most recent billion. The negative effects of so many people competing for Earth’s limited resources are everywhere to be seen.

So what do you propose, I teased, slaughtering half the world’s population? Of course not. She described a charity trying to create sustainable villages in Madagascar that is promoting family planning to reduce the villagers’ environmental footprint—shouldn’t that be practiced everywhere?

It already is. Population growth is slowing, with many countries now in negative growth. The rate peaked around 1968 (the year when Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was published, and since then has declined by about 50 percent. The average woman in a developing country (outside of China) now has three kids rather than six. Globally, that number stands at 2.36, roughly equal to the “replacement rate” (2.33), which, accounting for child and maternal deaths, is the number of children a woman needs to have, on average, to maintain the current population.

Some countries have actively promoted contraceptive use, later motherhood, and female education to reduce family size. China, the most populous nation, introduced a controversial one-child policy in 1978, which has prevented hundreds of millions of potential births. However, social engineering has turned out to be less effective than economic growth in reducing family size: over the same period, Taiwan, in moving from “developing” to “developed” status, has seen a slightly larger reduction in fertility than China.

As people get richer, better educated, and urban, and as resources such as family land become scarcer, women will continue to have fewer children. It may be that as fertility declines, the global population will fall. Such a shift is already happening in parts of the rich world, such as Japan. The social consequences of this are enormous. Wealthy societies will increasingly have to rely on immigration to support the generational population disparity.

Women still have large families in some places, and there, as elsewhere, they should have access to family planning as a fundamental human right. Smaller families may well bring environmental benefits, but promoting family planning programs on that basis alone makes me very uncomfortable.

Rather than focusing on population growth as the preeminent environmental problem, we need to accept our growing numbers and look to what we can acceptably change. And it’s no secret that it comes down to our use of resources. If product engineers were made to consider the 10-billion global population during the design phase, for example, they could create products that are more durable, longer-lasting, and more easily dismantled for efficient recycling of their materials. Energy could be generated from nonpolluting sources. Instead of wasting 40 percent of our food, as we do now, we could farm, store, transport, and eat it more efficiently.

Until the next population-decimating pandemic sweeps the globe, we need to make our large number part of the environmental solution rather than the problem.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar

Political Ecology

August 17, 2015

Of all the changes humans have made to the planet, nothing is so startlingly obvious as our transformation of the landscape. We have razed forest and savannah to create monoculture farmland, flattened mountains, greened deserts, and built cities atop swathes of marshland.

Scientists looking for landscape changes in the distant past, such as those wrought during ice ages, when large temperate areas were covered with glaciers, can probe the rocks for fossils or seek answers in the shape of a valley or cliff. Core samples drilled into ice or sedimentary layers might likewise reveal a warmer past, populated by long-extinct species.

Previously, changes like these have always resulted from uncontrollable natural events, such as an asteroid strike or the eruption of super volcanoes. But now humans are leaving equally profound marks on the world. Even in the geologically brief decades since the Industrial Revolution, and even since World War II, we have triggered transformations that will reveal themselves in chemical, physical, and biological signatures to geologists in the far future.

Human-made changes are exactly that—due to things like population size and cultural practices. But perhaps the most important factor of all is politics, which determines whether a society is at war or peace, rural or urban, agrarian or industrializing, concentrated or spread out, and so on. Political decisions leave their traces in the rocks just as surely as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Lake sediments in Romania, for example, reveal the intensive farming of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime, the Chernobyl accident in nearby Ukraine, and the agricultural changes of the early 1990s after Ceaușescu’s fall. And war continues to reshape our planet’s geological history, from the radioactive signature of atomic tests to craters left by explosives, as well as unexploded ordnance that will eventually fossilize within the rock strata.

Some of the most fundamental changes to the global landscape—melting glaciers, disappearing rainforests, drying continents—are the result of political decisions made in democratic countries. If we want to address some of these problematic changes, politics would be a good place to start. President Obama’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost one-third of 2005 levels may help protect glaciers. But it will take more, much more, than just that. Brazil’s decision to water down its successful environmental law and Forest Code, for example, has led to a recent explosion in deforestation in the Amazon—and stands as an example of the work that remains to be done.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar.

Waste opportunity

August 10, 2015

One person’s trash is another’s treasure: sewage, waste piles, and landfills are set to be the unlikely focus of the next gold rush, but we should recognize their social value, too.

In many cases, higher concentrations of precious metals are found in garbage than in commercially mined rocks—and extracting these metals from the bin could prove easier and more profitable than mining, while also addressing our mountainous waste problem.

Gold and other valuable metals are used in a range of everyday items including shampoos, detergents, and clothing, and collect in sewage in sufficient quantities to become worth extracting. Removing metals from sewage carries that additional benefit of making it a more effective fertiliser.

Electronic waste, like cell phones and computers, is the most lucrative, offering a wealth of rare and precious metals. Wealthy countries currently ship much of it to poor ones that lack the resources, infrastructure, and legislation to deal with it safely. As a result, children and other vulnerable members of society use hazardous methods to extract metals, polluting the environment and endangering their health. Needless to say, this is not an efficient way to recycle. Yet, for many large communities in developing countries, these mountains of so-called “e-waste” are their livelihood—and, however imperfect, offer a means of recovering metals that have already been mined from what are often the most ecologically sensitive parts of the world.

As our demand for electronics grows, so too will the value of the increasingly scarce metals they require, as well as the attention paid re-using them.

Tempting as it might be to set up domestic waste-mining industries, we should instead consider investing in the job training and infrastructure needed for efficient metal recovery in the poor countries already doing it. This would benefit them in several ways: Much of the electronic “waste” that arrives in Africa and Asia is still useful—outdated or broken computers can be refurbished for use in schools, for example. And a new, properly regulated recycling industry can bring wealth and opportunity to some of the most deprived people and cities. This is especially important because the rest of the world is catching up with places like the United States and Europe in phone and computer ownership. Dealing appropriately with the resulting waste stream will be vital, and much easier, if the industry is already in place.

Ideally, among the first questions designers and manufacturers should address when creating a new product is how it will breakdown for easy recycling. Only then will we achieve efficient cycling of precious metals.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar. And I made a two-part series on the subject for BBC radio this year.


August 5, 2015

Thrilled to have been shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books for my book Adventures In The Anthropocene: A journey to the heart of the planet we made!



It’s a big prize that recognises science writing for a non-specialist, popular audience, and I’m in exalted company – the other five shortlisted authors are intimidatingly impressive.

I was asked where my book, with its eclectic subject matter, would fit on the shelves of a bookshop. It’s a science book – covering ecology, environment, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and so on. But it’s also a travel book, has sections on economics, sociology and more. Which makes it a bit complicated. To me, the greatest appeal of science is that it exists at the nexus of so many different subjects. Because I am compelled and driven by the human story – how we are effected by the world and how we affect it.

I’m interviewed about my book tomorrow on Inside Science on BBC Radio 4.

Power of one

July 22, 2015

Here’s an inspiring story: a Dutchman grows tired of walking past a polluted river on his way to work and decides to do something about it. Every day he fills a bagwith trash until the river is clean. He documents his progress on social media, and soon cleaning up playgrounds, streets, valleys, and forests, ultimately leading to a global campaign for local clean-ups.

Little by little, as these examples show, each of us can make a difference toward solving environmental problems, no matter how big. In individualistic age, that’s a reassuring message—affronts to our landscapes can be dealt with by a very few people. Surely then, extrapolating upward, might even more people solve even bigger problems: from dog poo and gutter trash, all the way to global warming and ocean acidification?

The problem is, this doesn’t tally with what we know about the most pressing environmental challenges. As a species, we are now responsible for planetary environmental change of the world’s oceans, atmosphere, and even life itself. Our awesome power over the globe can make the Dutchman cleaning his local riverbank seem pathetic in the face of the enormous problem of pollution affecting the world’s oceans. Fashionable as individualism is, in reality we’re in an age of a collective Humanity: our species is transforming the planet like never before, disempowering those of us who want to improve the global environment.

One solution is to focus on grander, more muscly ‘individuals’ by targeting the biggest corporations, cities, or nation states, whose actions can make a bigger difference. We already do this through environmental laws and regulations, by public shaming of certain practices and other market forces. It’s a slow and often intractable process with relatively few inspirational examples, even if the potential is great.

In the meantime, it’s encouraging to realize that we can make important changes locally—and our local environments matter. Improvements to individual environments can improve regional ones. By cleaning up local riverfronts one by one, we can clean the entire river. Even if that doesn’t clean the oceans, we’ll feel better for doing it and seeing it.

Extinction by unnatural selection

July 22, 2015

As Earth experiences the sixth mass extinction of life in its 4.6-billion-year history, evidence is mounting that one species is to blame: ours.

We have hunted to near or total obliteration many of the biggest, most charismatic animals, such as tigers and rhinos, as well as the once populous and mundane, from carrier pigeons to clams. Others are struggling in the face of our air, water and soil pollution, and our greenhouse gas emissions, which are changing the climate and acidifying the oceans. Changes in the land due to deforestation and the expansion of agriculture, the growth of infrastructure, the damming and diversion of rivers—all have taken their toll. We are transporting species around the planet, introducing predators and competition to endemic habitats, spreading pests and diseases, and shaking up trophic hierarchies. We have created genetically altered species, through breeding and other methods, to live in the places where their wild cousins once roamed.

In short, the brief time since humans evolved has been marked by the destruction and displacement of vast swaths of the natural world. In recent decades, our impact has increased to such an extent that humans now decide whether something lives or dies, goes extinct or proliferates. The current extinction rate is now as much as 1,000-times the natural one.

With this new power comes responsibility. We must make choices about what from the wild world we save, because it has become impossible to protect every species from untimely extinction. We can choose to save a portion of rainforest or a type of bee or shark. Or we can allow them to go extinct in favor of saving something else. How we make these decisions will set our relationship with the natural world for decades to come.

So what should win in the lottery of life: cute and cuddly; exotic and unusual; useful to humanity; useful to their ecosystem? People around the globe are grappling with the dilemma in different ways. The Edge of Existence program, for example, favors saving those that are evolutionarily one-of-a-kind species, whereas the general public prefers to save cute animals.

For many life forms, time is running out. We need, as a global community of humans, to make conscious decisions about what we want to save—and then set about doing it.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar.

Driven to distraction

July 6, 2015

Thanks for taking the time to read this article I’ve written. Hold on, you are actually reading it, aren’t you? I hope you’re giving it your full attention and not also doing something else—listening to the radio, chatting on the phone, or (shudder) sitting on the toilet.

It’s difficult to focus on just one thing now that we are surrounded by devices clamoring for our attention. How many times has your phone pinged with a new message or email since you’ve read these few sentences? How many times have you thought about checking Facebook or Twitter, or playing Candy Crush? The days of lying languidly on a chaise longue with a dull book, desperately seeking distraction in the manner of a Jane Austen heroine, are far behind us. Research shows we are finding it harder and harder to concentrate, and that makes us less happy.

In 2004, American desk workers were monitored to see how much time they spent looking at one screen before they flicked up another one. They averaged about three minutes. In 2012, the same experiment found they managed about one minute, 15 seconds; by 2014, it was just 59.5 seconds. These are adult professionals being paid to work, not unruly children forced to sit and learn spellings. It’s a wonder anything gets achieved in a world with YouTube. (Did that prompt you to check out a video on YouTube?)

There are various innovations aimed at getting us to concentrate better. When I was writing my book, I used a program that blacked out my screen apart from the page I was working on, making my computer more like a typewriter than box of entertainment. There’s a range of apps, including SelfControl and Concentrate, that limit your access to the Internet, email, or certain enticing websites for set amounts of time. Others, such as Time Out, give you regular break treats.

Another company has compiled music streams designed to promote concentration. They avoid lyrics and even instruments that resemble a human voice that can distract. It even has a channel meant for people with ADHD.

If you are prone to distraction, as I am, then maybe it’s better to use those times not for checking your social networks but to wallow in a daydream. There’s evidence to show that daydreaming—or “mind-wandering”—enhances creative work, but more than that, it’s just plain relaxing.

Okay, you can check your Facebook now.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar


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