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Peak kid

October 21, 2015
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The world has reached peak child, according to the latest data United Nations Population Division. The number of children under 15 has levelled off at two billion and will remain there, perhaps falling by the end of the century. The global population is still growing—we added one billion people over the past 12 years—but at a slower pace. Current estimates predict a stable population of around 11 billion or less by 2100, perhaps followed by a decline.

Most growth is and will continue to be in Africa, with Nigeria overtaking the United States as the world’s third most populous country, home to 413 million people before mid-century. The United States is continuing to grow, however, even as it slips into fourth place. India will surpass China as soon as 2022, with China peaking at 1.4 billion by 2028. India will peak at 1.75 billion sometime after 2050. By the end of the century, the world’s population will be roughly: one billion in Europe, one billion in the Americas, four billion in Africa, five billion in Asia.

So what explains the continued rise in population even as the number of children stays the same? Read more…

Holiday fever

October 12, 2015
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If you went on vacation this year, you might well have concluded that the world is becoming a more crowded place. It is, especially where you went. Tourist hotspots are overflowing with visitors.

Yes, the global population is increasing, but global tourism is growing at four times the rate. There were more than a billion tourists in 2014—out of a global population of some seven billion people—and the first four months of this year alone saw a 4-percent rise on last year’s numbers. Half a billion international tourists were expected for the May-August period this year.

That’s a lot of people, mostly heading to a few attractions. Europe is the number one destination, with more than 500 million visiting at the beginning of the year, the most numerous among them now Chinese rather than American. The sheer numbers of people Read more…

Meet the Author

October 12, 2015
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I was interviewed about my book by the BBC’s Nick Higham last week – you can watch it here.

And there was an interview with me in The Pool, on BBC online, and in Wired.

I won the prize!

September 25, 2015
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ADVENTURES IN THE ANTHROPOCENE: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made has won the Royal Society Science Book of the year award!

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I was shocked and utterly delighted to have won, especially as I am the first woman to have done so in the prize’s 28-year history. It’s received some great media attention, and a lovely new review, so hopefully people will buy my book and learn more about the remarkable people I found living with dramatic change around the planet at this extraordinary time. I will try to post articles about the book and the prize here: today I was talking about it with Professor Brian Cox on the One Show on BBC 1 television, I  spoke to the BBC’s Jon Amos, and I was on the Guardian podcast:

It has been an often gruelling journey, lengthy research and writing project to get here, so I want to thank all the people who have supported the book and this blog over the past few years. You are much appreciated!

Guardian review

September 24, 2015
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Tim Radford has given my book, ADVENTURES IN THE ANTHROPOCENE, a really lovely review in The Guardian!

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And the winner of the Royal Society’s Science Book of the Year Prize is announced later today. You can read the first chapter of all the great shortlisted books here, including mine.

Blame the messenger

September 18, 2015
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“She said, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got …” As Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” came on in the bar, I joined in enthusiastically: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not!” My friend burst out laughing. “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not,” she corrected me.

My head spun. For the past 20 years, my understanding of this song had been wrong. I hadn’t even questioned it, simply assuming that my interpretation was correct. And now, learning the true lyrics, my perspective shifted and it all made more sense.

I thought of this incident when I read a headline describing the findings of a recent survey: “Antibiotic resistance widely misunderstood by the British public.” How could this be misunderstood, I wondered, when it’s such a simple concept?

Survey researchers found that most people, if they had heard of antibiotic resistance at all, thought that it was their body that became resistant to antibiotics, rather than the bacteria. One person interviewed during the research said: “The more you take, the more your body becomes resistant to it. They stop working.”

This was another “a-ha!” moment for me. After all, our bodies do build up tolerance to certain drugs, thereby lessening their effectiveness.

The simple misunderstanding helps explain why many people who are prescribed antibiotics often fail to complete the course, believing that lessening their exposure will help prevent their bodies from developing resistance. In fact, failure to complete a course of antibiotics is a major factor in the development of drug-resistant infections, as it exposes germs to enough of the drug to promote resistance, but not enough to kill them.

It’s an easy mistake to make, but like me, clinicians and other health professionals too long remained unaware of the misconception, with potentially deadly consequences. Antibiotic resistance is perhaps the biggest health threat we face in the developed world. Imagine tuberculosis and pneumonia once again spreading through our cities. Imagine dying of appendicitis or a simple scratch on the leg that leads to untreatable cellulitis.

People in rich countries already die of drug resistant infections, which they usually acquire in the hospital. It would be nothing short of catastrophic if the constantly evolving bacteria that regularly infect us became resistant to our precious small arsenal of antibiotics. A major factor in drug resistance is the irresponsible use of antibiotics in cattle, but incorrect and excessive use by humans is a likewise a large part of the problem.

If people don’t understand how they are part of the problem, they can’t become part of the solution. The survey researchers suggest doctors talk about “drug-resistant infections” or “antibiotic resistant germs,” rather than “antibiotic resistance.” The simple phrase could open a window of perception.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar.

The shot heard around the world

September 18, 2015
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The outrage that erupted this summer after a Minnesota dentist shot dead a lion in a Zimbabwe wildlife park shows how passionately people feel about the conservation of endangered species. Cecil the Lion briefly became more famous than Aslan, with his own Twitter hashtag and thousands of angry supporters on social media, some of whom even threatened violence against the dentist, forcing him to temporarily close his practice.

But why do we care? After all, as animal rights activists have pointed out, the average American eats about 30 land animals a year, most of which led far worse lives than Cecil before being slaughtered. Cows, pigs, and chickens are far from endangered species, however.

Lion populations have declined by half in the past 20 years. Although trophy hunting has contributed to this (scores of lions are killed this way every year in Zimbabwe alone), the main threats they face en route to extinction are other human impacts, such as habitat loss, conflict with farmers, and disease.

By contrast, the main threat that elephants face is hunting for their lucrative ivory tusks. Elephants are being poached at an alarming rate—more than 100,000 were killed between 2010 and 2012, and indeed, a family of five elephants was killed in the same park and in the same month as Cecil, although their deaths received little press coverage.

It’s clear that the rate at which we are exterminating species is unprecedented in human history and rare in the history of life on Earth. Scientists warn that we are heading for the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, whereby 75 percent of all current mammal species could be wiped out. Unlike the previous five, which were the result of natural events, such as a supervolcanic eruption, this will be the first mass extinction caused by a living species—us.

Does this matter? Well, we don’t exactly need lions or elephants. If they were to go extinct, it would have negligible impact on human lives. Much more worrying from a human survival perspective is, say, the decline in bee populations. If pollinators went extinct, our food supply would be catastrophically limited. Conservation projects for bees are therefore understandable.

But what’s the point of trying to save endangered species that are not useful to us and may even harm us, such as lions or polar bears? After all, doing so costs billions of dollars at a time when human beings around the world are suffering for want of financial aid.

The usual argument is that all animals provide humans with an ecosystem service. Animals and plants exist as part of a web of biological activity, which supports our lifestyles. So, for example, as top predators, lions keep in check animals further down the food chain. By removing lions, this chain is broken and, say, herbivore populations explode. The landscape would then change to reflect this, leading to perhaps more fires, or a raised incidence of lethal tick-borne diseases that spread to humans or cattle.

Ecosystems are vital for humans—they are what clean our air and water, provide our food, clothes, and medicines. And this conservation argument holds true for many species. In truth, however, conservation is important to us for an entirely different reason—a reason that better explains the passionate response to Cecil’s untimely end. Quite simply, we like certain species. Lions are beautiful, we don’t want them to go extinct in the wild, and we want the assurance that they will be protected from hunters in a wildlife park.

Irrational or not, most of us don’t want to see one shot for the purpose of decorating a dentist’s living room.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar.