Monthly Archives: October 2011

Halloween 2011: The Curse of Thomas Malthus!

Tonight, October 31, 2011, is Halloween, a night when children (of all ages it seems) dress up in scary costumes and go tricking people and/or collecting sweet treats. At least those celebrating this pagan holiday here in America (and other countries in the American cultural empire) do so. I watched my younger daughter’s first grade class participate in a costume parade this morning at her school: under the watchful eye of all their teachers and many a parent, in their school yard secure behind a high fence to keep the children safe in the downtown neighborhood which is scary year-round to people from more affluent parts of town. Tonight, I will walk with her in our own perhaps safer neighborhood, joining with neighbors’ kids in the fun annual ritual that started with celebrating the harvest and nature’s spirits, but is now mostly about making us buy cheap plastic crap and candy – to the tune of at least 7 billion dollars this year in the US, according to National Public Radio.

7 Billion dollars. That is quite a market for scares in this scarily declining American economy.

 

7 Billion is also a number that is scaring the pants off of many in my environmentalist fraternity this Halloween. Because today is the date that the UN has chosen (rather arbitrarily, of course, given that we add about 216,000 people every day, but appropriately for this scary day) to mark the official birth of the 7 Billionth human being alive on this planet!

Media_httpwwwunorgnew_nucbj

via un.org

Yes, we are 7 billion now. Doesn’t that give you the heebie-jeebies? Especially if you’ve been listening to Paul Ehrlich, that reliable environmental scaremonger who is again in the news, of course, as the expert who rang the 20th century’s loudest alarm bell about the human Population Bomb – and that was when we were a mere 3 billion or so!! We’ve managed to double, somehow, without experiencing complete collapse of civilization (arguably), but we continue to dance ever closer to the brink. Collapse is now imminent, says Ehrlich. Even Bill McKibben, more focused on climate change issues, worries about the population problem.

There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet, of course. Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk (and candy) that is actually rather expensive if we factor in the environmental costs of manufacturing (we don’t) and getting rid of after tonight (we don’t do that either). Yet, the signs may be more hopeful than in your nightmares painted by Ehrlich, our generation’s Malthus, who continues to focus on population per se as being the big problem, even while acknowledging the role of how much we consume. Other, more careful analyses of human demographics suggest, though, that our population growth is slowing down considerably, and we may not even hit the 10 billion mark projected by the UN. Rather than rehash the arguments on this otherwise busy day (even before take my child out trick-or-treating), I suggest you read this thought-provoking post about the demographic transition and what it means for us.

 

And while thinking about how many of us there are, how much we consume, and how our technology is also helping empower women to take control of reproduction and slow down our explosion, see also a wonderful talk by Hans Rosling, on the magic of washing machines.

 

A quick tangential true story: Sometime back in 1991-92, after I’d been in the US for my first year or two of graduate school, a good friend asked me a standard question that immigrants inevitably get asked at some point: what is the best thing about life in America, now that I had lived here for a while? My spontaneous answer: washing machines! Honest! No one had them in India until the late 1990s, and I was truly appreciative of the benefits of that technology. My friend (expecting perhaps something about freedom or the American dream) was nonplussed.

 

Little did I know that I was anticipating the genius of Rosling, in this lovely TED talk:

Finally, since it is Halloween and we are most haunted by the ghost of Thomas Malthus, allow me to recycle one of my musings on the topic, posted several years ago:

Malthus’ Ghost Haunted Old Delhi So…

old delhi 1960s raghu rai.jpg
(Photo of a street scene in Old Delhi taken by Raghu Rai sometime in the 1960s)

 

Four decades ago two young American men took a seminal trip (one walked, the other took a taxi) through the teeming bazaars of Old Delhi in India. The sensory overload of what was (and still is) a typical morning commute for a Delhiite awakened something profound in both young men, who went on to write about the experience famously in ways that resonate till this day.

 

Idealistic Youth #1:

“As we crawled through the city, we encountered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming… People, people, people.”

Idealistic Youth #2:

“Small animals were not the only beings in great abundance. So were people. Along one long sidewalk, I saw hundreds of wooden shelves about the size of a refrigerator lying on their sides. Each served as home for at least one person. Even less fortunate souls lay on the grass or in the brown dirt with a tattered blanket serving as their only shelter. Some had only rags to protect themselves from the elements. About a block from the YMCA, an old man grunted as he squatted and defecated in the gutter. A little further on, a bony couple engaged in mechanical sexual intercourse while two children sat beside them, taking little notice of their parents as they played in the dust. Millions in India live out their lives on the public streets awash in the dried mud. There they are born, and there they bathe, eat, sleep, excrete and copulate. As attested by the teeming population, the one thing they seem to do best is breed.”

Can you guess who the famous authors of these passages are?

 

All right, let me give you just the names – and see if you can identify who wrote which passage above: Paul Ehrlich and David Duke.

 

Yes, that Ehrlich and, indeed, that Duke. Can you tell me, before clicking on the links, who wrote what above?

 

Surely the ghost of Thomas Malthus must’ve been actively patrolling those alleys of Old Delhi back in those days, seeking out idealistic young white tourist souls to pounce upon! And yet, how different the paths that ghost led them down…

 

All this, brought to my mind by this essay in Current Biology, commemorating and reflecting upon one of these men’s seminal book published 40 years ago.

 

—–

 

Happy Halloween!!

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Don’t let other people tell you that women can’t do science

http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/all/modules/swftools/shared/flash_media_player/player5x2.swf

October 21, 2011
| 1:56 | Public Domain

The Presidential Early Career Scientists and Engineer Honorees share their advice to young women interested in getting involved in Science, Engineering, Math or Technology. http://whitehouse.gov/cwg

Download mp4 (10.3MB)

Read the Transcript

 

Miss Representation: How do I raise strong, independent daughters when the media tells them they can’t be so?

Much as I might jokingly complain about being always outnumbered and always outgunned by women in my life (3:1 growing up; 3:1 now!), it is tough being a dad to young girls, and a professor/mentor to female undergraduate and graduate students. Not because I don’t know or understand women (can’t say I always do, but…), don’t know how to communicate with women (haven’t done too badly), or miss the company of macho male friends (I definitely don’t miss that). No, that’s not it. Rather, it is hard to tell them that they really, truly can grow up to be all they want to be, and that nothing should hold them back from chasing their dreams and fulfilling their rich potential. Hard to make them truly internalize that confidently. Because our global culture is so male dominated and has become so saturated with misogyny in virtually every medium of communication, that it is hard to keep those insidious images of women as sex objects from seeping into the subconscious of young girls figuring out their roles in life. The above documentary Miss Representation” is therefore something I welcome, and hope there are many more like it to even begin pushing against the tide.

It won’t be easy, though, given that even when women engage in the political process to try and change the system, and take to the street to protest, asshole members of my sorry sex can’t help but ogle/molest/objectify them! I’m not sure how to cure that side of the problem. It is a good start, though, to at least fight the misrepresentation of women in the media, and this documentary may help. Although, I have to wonder how effective it will be if it is airing only on Oprah’s network. We need this message hammered into our consciousness (and subconscious) on more mainstream networks watched by both men and women!

For now, tonight, it may be time for me switch on Oprah’s channel as I embrace the “honorary woman” status conferred on me by a friend years ago, in response to her then husband’s use of stronger epithets against me because I happened to like the movie “Antonia’s Line“. And he was/is a politically progressive dude (self described lefty radical too, in fact) who supports feminist causes in principle – just so long as you don’t flaunt them in his face by depicting strong independent women who don’t really need men to survive, thank you very much. As I said, its a tough uphill battle, but a necessary one to win for all our sakes.

Societal Germophobia: the trouble with a culture suffering from OCD

The following is a slightly expanded, and much more hyperlinked, version of an essay that was broadcast on the series The Moral Is, on Valley Public Radio, KVPR, Fresno, California, on September 18, 2011.  (Which, incidentally, happened to be just after the release of Contagion, the movie that has probably increased our fear of germs!)

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent TV ad hawks a new Kleenex product: single-use hand-towels to replace the obsolete, unhealthy cloth towels we’ve used forever in our bathrooms! Tag line: “Your hands are only as clean as the towel used to dry them.” These new “towels” are supposedly more hygienic because, you know, those old cloth ones become so chock full of germs!!

Of course, Kleenex is playing on our fears to create new profits. Just look at how many antibacterial products fill your supermarket shelves: soaps, wipes, sprays, hand sanitizers… Even Louis Pasteur, whose germ theory of disease helped save millions of lives, might be flabbergasted by how far the health-products industry has run with our fear of all those germs he unleashed!

One consequence is a lesson we’re learning the hard way: bacteria are not static entities easily wiped out by our clever antibiotics, but dynamic lifeforms able to evolve rapidly under new selection pressures. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics has even rendered our hospitals unsafe, filled with multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” (e.g., MRSA). We are down to a faltering last line of defense (a few ultra-potent drugs) which too shows signs of breach. Yet we continue dousing everything around us in antibiotics. Our obsession with hygiene also contributes to the rise in allergies because our bodies don’t get the chance to encounter and develop defenses against many antigens, and overreact even to harmless things!

Meanwhile, microbiologists, modern descendants of Pasteur, have discovered something that should give us further pause: our own bodies are literally teeming with bacteria!! Human bodies serve as habitat for colonies of hundreds of kinds of bacteria! We, each of us, carry more bacterial cells in/on our bodies than actual human cells! As Ed Yong put it on BBC radio this week, we should consider ourselves not human so much as “a universe of bacteria in a “human shaped sack””! Rugged individuals? Nah! We are in fact multitudes of species; our bodies, whole ecosystems of…  germs! 

But wait, don’t freak out!! 

Most of the bacteria in our bodies are actually beneficial to us, acting symbiotically to protect and nurture our tissues in ways we barely understand. You may already know that bacteria in our guts help process a variety of foods that our own enzymes cannot handle. Some break down cellulose so we get nourishment from plants, some manufacture essential vitamins and amino acids, while others remove toxins or ward off infections. Scientists have recently found bacteria in the human mouth that actually help strengthen enamel, not cause tooth decay! Yes! How long before we see a probiotic bacterial mouthwash on the market?

A new picture is emerging which suggests that some of our diseases may result from imbalances in our bacterial colonies. Our penchant for using powerful antibiotics is rather like using napalm to rid your garden of a few weeds! Doctors already recommend probiotic capsules and yogurts to be taken alongside antibiotics to help repopulate our digestive tracts with healthy bacteria. May we soon see more products that restore bacteria to other parts of our bodies and our habitats damaged by excessive cleaning? We are already seeing a boom in probiotics, raising fears that the pendulum, beginning to swing the other way, may be pushed too far in that other direction by the same market forces that bring us all those cleaning products.

Germophobia, excessive hand-washing – these are symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a psychiatric condition not easy to treat. How does one treat an entire society exhibiting symptoms of OCD? 

Pass me that new tissue would you, not the sterile one, but the one soaked in good bacteria?

References:

  1. Okada, H., Kuhn, C., Feillet, H., & Bach, J. (2010). The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update Clinical & Experimental Immunology, 160 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2010.04139.x
  2. Pflughoeft, K. J., & Versalovic, J. (2011). Human Microbiome in Health and Disease Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1146/annurev-pathol-011811-132421
  3. Xu, J. (2003). Inaugural Article: Honor thy symbionts Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (18), 10452-10459 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1734063100
  4. Crielaard, W., Zaura, E., Schuller, A., Huse, S., Montijn, R., & Keijser, B. (2011). Exploring the oral microbiota of children at various developmental stages of their dentition in the relation to their oral health BMC Medical Genomics, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1755-8794-4-22

 

How do we get our global economy off the endless “growth” express and on to a human-scale path of plenitude?

An image I found and shared on Facebook this week, featuring a quote from the Dalai Lama, seems to have hit a nerve among my circle of friends there:

294737_10150347822658950_682843949_8081248_1265257049_n
I’m not surprised, given the kinds of circles I hang out in, that this thought had such resonance. Most of us concerned about what we are doing to our environment and our own wellbeing and future appreciate and find much to ponder in that observation. Of course, it is nice of the Lama to share his profound insight from on high (so to speak) in his role as spiritual leader and a monk observing the rest of humanity with his cultivated sense of detachment. Would that the rest of us could also detach ourselves from the daily grind and engage in more meaningful quests for our lives. Most of us, of course, don’t really have that luxury—or have a terrible time finding a way towards that serenity. So we pause, briefly, at this poster, and share it among our friends (stepping lightly over the irony of doing so on these hyper-social online networks which may seem the very antithesis of what the Lama is talking about), file it away for contemplation, and hope we get the chance to do something about it in some small way in our own lives. And for that, we must be grateful to the Dalai Lama, for pulling us up short in our headlong rush of a life, even if for a brief moment of contemplation.

A bigger question, though, is how do we—those uf us not able to immediately extricate ourselves from the larger economy which pushes us into the endless pursuit of ever elusive wealth—begin to challenge and change the system? The dominant economic paradigm of our time is completely wedded to this pursuit of wealth, for individuals, corporations, and entire nations chasing endless growth. Even people who talk about sustainability within this paradigm talk about “sustainable growth“, an oxymoronic concept if there ever was one, given the natural resource constraints on this only planet we inhabit. More radical environmentalists and leftists have a deeper critique (e.g., read John Bellamy Foster’s “The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth“) of the growth economy paradigm—but reading them often leads to more despair at the scale of the revolution we seemingly need to overthrow that paradigm.
The growth paradigm so dominates our entire public discourse that even moderately centre-leaning right-wing capitalists like Obama get labelled as communists who want to socialize everything! How then can we push the system onto a completely different path, one that may actually be sustainable in a truer sense of the word?
The burgeoning movement to Occupy Wall Street seems to have lit a spark across the US, creating opportunities to challenge at least parts of the capitalist finance-driven system. Breaking through the media narrative about how we must only “grow” our way out of the current economic crises, is an accomplishment worthy of note. The real challenge for this excitingly amorphous movement though is to present not only a coherent set of demands but actually offer alternative models (e.g. at steadystate.org) for recovering the economy, alternatives which can redress the vast social inequities of the present as well as begin healing our ecosystems. We also need models that don’t call for radical / violent overthrow of the system with alternatives that are also imposed from the top-down (putting environmentalists and ecological economists in charge, for example)—but offer instead more distributed, diverse, grassroots alternatives that have a better chance of sustaining us in the long haul; models that build upon stuff many of us are already doing in our daily lives to break free of the dominant growth paradigm and take control of our lives in more meaningful ways.

One such alternative is seen in this video from the Center for a New American Dream, visualizing economist Juliet Schor’s alternative model of a Plenitude Economy:

What I particularly like about this vision is that it draws its strengths from stuff we ordinary people are already doing in the US (and elsewhere) to find our own ways out of the ravages of the collapsed economy during this current great depression. Unlike the last great depression of the 1930s in the US, this time around we don’t have the political leadership or will to create and offer solutions from above, unfortunately. That does not mean, however, that people are simply standing still in despair (although there is plenty of that to go around), waiting for handouts from the government or from charities. We are, in small ways, taking charge of some of the means of production (urban farming and homesteading being great examples) and creating/reviving alternative means of sharing what we produce, away from the globalized economic mainstream. These smaller scale actions offer a good antidote against despair at the ever increasingly gloomy global picture. This is how we can really start rebuilding our world, one garden, one rooftop, one school, one swap-meet, one community at a time, each with its own local adaptation to find its own unique solution. Who needs a world revolution from above when we can have a multitude of these smaller revolutions growing from below?

Life on this planet has always thrived on diversity and local adaptation; it is time for us environmentalists to also truly embrace that truth, and participate in these many movements within our own neighborhoods, even as we seek to change the overarching paradigm globally. As that seemingly forgotten early prophet of ecological economics, E. F. Schumacher, observed a few decades ago: Small is Beautiful, after all! It is useful to remember that.

As a friend remarked upon reading the Dalai Lama’s words: not all of us sacrifice our health in order to make money; some of us do so in pursuit of environmental and human justice, to help create a better world. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to sacrifice our health for that either: instead, let us find the time and space to sink our hands into the soil, get dirt under our fingernails as we grow our own food and create habitats for other species amid our urban sprawl; to chat with our neighbors as we exchange vegetables from each other’s yards or balcony container gardens; to rebuild the social fabric that we worry is fraying under globalization; and take that time to also breathe in the air and simply enjoy living in the present.

I’m sure the Dalai Lama would approve of that (even if we choose to talk about it online)!

How do we get our global economy off the endless “growth” express and on to a human-scale path of plenitude?

An image I found and shared on Facebook this week, featuring a quote from the Dalai Lama, seems to have hit a nerve among my circle of friends there:
294737_10150347822658950_682843949_8081248_1265257049_n
I’m not surprised, given the kinds of circles I hang out in, that this thought had such resonance. Most of us concerned about what we are doing to our environment and our own wellbeing and future appreciate and find much to ponder in that observation. Of course, it is nice of the Lama to share his profound insight from on high (so to speak) in his role as spiritual leader and a monk observing the rest of humanity with his cultivated sense of detachment. Would that the rest of us could also detach ourselves from the daily grind and engage in more meaningful quests for our lives. Most of us, of course, don’t really have that luxury—or have a terrible time finding a way towards that serenity. So we pause, briefly, at this poster, and share it among our friends (stepping lightly over the irony of doing so on these hyper-social online networks which may seem the very antithesis of what the Lama is talking about), file it away for contemplation, and hope we get the chance to do something about it in some small way in our own lives. And for that, we must be grateful to the Dalai Lama, for pulling us up short in our headlong rush of a life, even if for a brief moment of contemplation.
A bigger question, though, is how do we—those of us not able to immediately extricate ourselves from the larger economy which pushes us into the endless pursuit of ever elusive wealth—begin to challenge and change the system? The dominant economic paradigm of our time is completely wedded to this pursuit of wealth, for individuals, corporations, and entire nations chasing endless growth. Even people who talk about sustainability within this paradigm talk about “sustainable growth“, an oxymoronic concept if there ever was one, given the natural resource constraints on this only planet we inhabit. More radical environmentalists and leftists have a deeper critique (e.g., read John Bellamy Foster’s “The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth“) of the growth economy paradigm—but reading them often leads to more despair at the scale of the revolution we seemingly need to overthrow that paradigm.
The growth paradigm so dominates our entire public discourse that even moderately centre-leaning right-wing capitalists like Obama get labelled as communists who want to socialize everything! How then can we push the system onto a completely different path, one that may actually be sustainable in a truer sense of the word?
The burgeoning movement to Occupy Wall Street seems to have lit a spark across the US, creating opportunities to challenge at least parts of the capitalist finance-driven system. Breaking through the media narrative about how we must only “grow” our way out of the current economic crises, is an accomplishment worthy of note. The real challenge for this excitingly amorphous movement though is to present not only a coherent set of demands but actually offer alternative models (e.g. at steadystate.org) for recovering the economy, alternatives which can redress the vast social inequities of the present as well as begin healing our ecosystems. We also need models that don’t call for radical / violent overthrow of the system with alternatives that are also imposed from the top-down (putting environmentalists and ecological economists in charge, for example)—but offer instead more distributed, diverse, grassroots alternatives that have a better chance of sustaining us in the long haul; models that build upon stuff many of us are already doing in our daily lives to break free of the dominant growth paradigm and take control of our lives in more meaningful ways. 
One such alternative is seen in this video from the Center for a New American Dream, visualizing economist Juliet Schor’s alternative model of a Plenitude Economy:

What I particularly like about this vision is that it draws its strengths from stuff we ordinary people are already doing in the US (and elsewhere) to find our own ways out of the ravages of the collapsed economy during this current great depression. Unlike the last great depression of the 1930s in the US, this time around we don’t have the political leadership or will to create and offer solutions from above, unfortunately. That does not mean, however, that people are simply standing still in despair (although there is plenty of that to go around), waiting for handouts from the government or from charities. We are, in small ways, taking charge of some of the means of production (urban farming and homesteading being great examples) and creating/reviving alternative means of sharing what we produce, away from the globalized economic mainstream. These smaller scale actions offer a good antidote against despair at the ever increasingly gloomy global picture. This is how we can really start rebuilding our world, one garden, one rooftop, one school, one swap-meet, one community at a time, each with its own local adaptation to find its own unique solution. Who needs a world revolution from above when we can have a multitude of these smaller revolutions growing from below?

Life on this planet has always thrived on diversity and local adaptation; it is time for us environmentalists to also truly embrace that truth, and participate in these many movements within our own neighborhoods, even as we seek to change the overarching paradigm globally. As that seemingly forgotten early prophet of ecological economics, E. F. Schumacher, observed a few decades ago: Small is Beautiful, after all! It is useful to remember that.

As a friend remarked upon reading the Dalai Lama’s words: not all of us sacrifice our health in order to make money; some of us do so in pursuit of environmental and human justice, to help create a better world. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to sacrifice our health for that either: instead, let us find the time and space to sink our hands into the soil, get dirt under our fingernails as we grow our own food and create habitats for other species amid our urban sprawl; to chat with our neighbors as we exchange vegetables from each other’s yards or balcony container gardens; to rebuild the social fabric that we worry is fraying under globalization; and take that time to also breathe in the air and simply enjoy living in the present.

I’m sure the Dalai Lama would approve of that (even if we choose to talk about it online)!

Baba Brinkman’s “DNA”: a nice twist on what we all share… and on rap music videos!