Thursday, May 31, 2012

Religion and babies: are believers to blame for overpopulation?

In the context of rising global population (see my more detailed comments here), what effect does religious affiliation have on fertility?

Hans Rosling is one of the key figures behind the fascinating work at GapMinder, which aims to bring global statistics to life for ordinary people. He is something of a regular at TED and his talks are always entertaining and interesting. I have posted a few before.

Warning: the method he uses is applicable only at the broadest (national) level and so flattens some interesting exceptions, but other more detailed studies do support his basic claim here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Three things I didn't know about India

India, as the world's second most populous nation (soon to overtake China), has challenges that match its scale. Amongst them are poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, severe water stress and widespread malnutrition. Yet for the last few decades India has been experiencing a huge economic boom, fairly consistently posting GDP growth rates amongst the highest in the world.

This much I already knew. But I recently came across this article, (H/T Colin) which looks at Indian nutrition and points out some rather surprising (at least to me) realities. Here were three things I didn't know:

  1. There are more malnourished children in India than in all of Africa.
  2. Indian nutrition figures have declined significantly since the 1970s, despite rapidly rising GDP.
  3. Urbanisation is often a very big step backwards nutritionally for the poorest, despite bringing (on average) a large rise in income, due city living having much higher costs.
The causes, consequences and possible responses to these challenges are complex and it is not my intention to address them just now. Yet reading this piece has reminded me once again why GDP is insufficient on its own as a measure of social health. It is possible for GDP and something as fundamental as nutrition to be heading in opposite directions, even over a country as large as India and over the space of four decades (ensuring this isn't a statistical blip based on small sample size).

So next time a politician tries to scare you or bribe you by referring to "the economy", remember the limitations of GDP.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

People and Planet: a new report and other stories

Royal Society report (Summary and recommendations) calls for both population stabilisation and big cuts in consumption to avoid "a downward spiral of economic and environmental ills". This is a significant contribution to the discussion of the relationship between population and consumption (which I discussed back here). I haven't had a chance to read the full report yet, but the conclusions seem to be broadly consistent with the points I made: that both population and consumption need to be addressed, but the latter can be addressed faster, further and with fewer ethical conundrums and so ought to be the primary immediate focus.

Guardian: IEA warns of 6ºC rise. It is hard to get a handle on just how catastrophic 6ºC would be. Let's just say that if we get to 6ºC, I don't think we'll be doing cost-benefit analyses anymore. David Roberts reflects on whether 6ºC is alarmist or realistic and points out that science alone can't tell us how bad climate change will be - because the most important unknown is just how we are all going to act and react over the next couple of decades. Those who think that 6ºC by 2100 is entirely unrealistic implicitly assume either (a) massive global co-ordinated action to mitigate through aggressive emissions reductions across the board or (b) global and long term economic collapse arriving sooner rather than later.

Mongabay: Organic agriculture has lower yields than industrial farming, according to a new study in Nature, especially for grains, though that is not the whole story, since there are various downstream costs of industrial agriculture that reduce yields elsewhere (and elsewhen).

ScienceDaily: Plastic in ocean underestimated by at least a factor of 2.5 due to the effects of wind pushing pollution beneath the surface, rendering measurements and calculations based on skimming the surface inaccurate.

SMH: India's border fence. Not with Pakistan or China, but the 4,000 km militarised fence on the border with Bangladesh, in the face of a rising tide of people fleeing, amongst other things, a rising tide. Though speaking of that rising tide...
H/T Donna.

ABC: Australasia at hottest for (at least) 1,000 years (also in the Guardian and the original study is here). This is a significant finding since most temperature reconstructions have focused on the northern hemisphere, where a greater number of proxy records mean more data is available.

Science: Some good news from Greenland. A review of ten years of satellite data appears to indicate that we are not on track for the "worst case" (i.e. 2 metre) sea level rise by 2100. Of course, "good" is relative; even a rise of a few feet will lead to massive headaches, but multi-metre rises probably mean infrastructure vulnerabilities worth trillions. Sea level rise is one of the most serious long term effects of climate change, though I suspect that over the next few decades it is not going to dominate in comparison with, for example, concerns over food security.

Grist: What would it look like for media to take climate seriously? A very interesting conversation between two journalists about media coverage of the climate threat.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Assorted opinions

The Conversation: Celebrating 150 years of captivity. I am increasingly uneasy about the ambiguities involved in most zoos. This piece articulates a number of them succinctly.

NY Mag: Sugar Daddies. Sugar Daddies are "private donors or their privately held companies writing checks totaling $1 million or more (sometimes much more) in this [US] election cycle." Some profiles on those spending most to influence the 2012 US presidential election.

Biologos: Thinking aloud together (part 2, part 3). Scot McKnight ponders how to get scientists and pastors talking about the implications of evolutionary biology and human origins.

Rachel Held Evans: 15 reasons I left church. Though many are quite US-centric, these are worth pondering. I'm sure I could add a few more.

Stephen King: Tax me, for F@%&’s Sake!. Multi-millionaire horror writer joins Warren Buffet and numerous other super-rich figures in calling for much higher taxes on themselves. King brings his own (very profitable but not always highbrow) blend of narrative shock and awe to the argument.

ABC: Why we hate Gillard so much. "[T]here are three pertinent distinctions between this government and the Howard Government: it is a Labor Government, it is a minority government, and the current prime minister is a woman."

Brad reflects on economies of deception - "When the pursuit of profit becomes a self-justifying end, truth becomes a readily dispensable commodity, because truth will not maximize profit" - and reviews the important book Merchants of Doubt.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Destroying the world's most successful killing machine

Humans killed by sharks annually: 5.

Sharks killed by humans annually: 100,000,000.

Source, based on this study and others (see comments for more).

This discrepancy points to a common feature of our predicament, the often vast gulf between our usual assumptions (sharks are a dangerous animal) and our rapidly changing situation (during my lifetime, literally billions of sharks have been killed and their populations have fallen off a cliff, declining by somewhere in the region of 90%). The fact that sharks are survivors from the Silurian period (making them roughly twice as old as the oldest dinosaurs! And there is some evidence that they may be even been around during the Ordovician) and yet our actions are having such drastic effects during the blink of a geological eye highlights just how powerful we (collectively) are. We have truly become a force of nature. I get the impression that few people have really grasped emotionally how shocking and radically novel this new situation is.

There seems to me to be a misunderstand claiming a particularly Christian character holding back such understanding, namely, the idea that it is somehow arrogant to think that puny little humans can have such large, planet-wide effects. Yet true humility is really an extension of the virtue of honesty. There is no virtue in pretending to be something other than we are. Romans 12.3 says "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought" but does not go on to say "but think of yourselves as lowly worms, capable of nothing and worth even less". Instead, the second half of the verse is "but rather think of yourself with sober judgment". Sober judgement is what is needed. We have all kinds of reasons to be humble - from dust we came and to dust we return - yet let us acknowledge that various historically novel quantitative developments over the last few decades have brought us into a qualitatively new relationship to the rest of the natural world. To do so is not arrogance, but sober judgement. And when we notice that this relationship is increasingly one of destruction, then the potential for arrogant boasting of our powers is quickly chastised.

The title of world champion apex predator, held for over 400 million years by sharks, is now ceded to homo sapiens sapiens, who will be doing well if we can make it through the next 400 years without being the cause of another mass extinction.

Shark Extinction The Shocking Truth
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