Thursday, May 18, 2017

Our most fearsome predator

This is prompted by a Population-Environment Research Network Cyberseminar, called “Culture, Beliefs and the Environment” (15 - 19 May 2017) and a background paper called "Without Consumer Culture, There is No Environmental Crisis by Prof Richard Wilk at the Department of Anthropology, Indiana University.

Prof Wilk’s paper says in part:

“About 20% of the human population is using more than 80% of the available resources, while producing a similar proportion of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. No matter what this charmed one fifth does to reduce its emissions, the problem is that the other 80% of the world wants to join their ranks.”

I basically agree, but would like to add that one major reason for the higher birth rates of most of the poor is due to the selfishness of the 20%, in not supporting more global fairness (when perhaps there was a chance for it to work in time) and in also supporting (at least implicitly) denial of limits to growth. These are topics I have written about for more than 25 years eg:

Butler C.D. (1994): Overpopulation, overconsumption and economics. The Lancet 343: 582-584.
Butler C.D. (1997): The consumption bomb. Medicine, Conflict and Survival 13: 209-218.
Butler C.D. (2004): Human carrying capacity and human health. Public Library of Science Medicine 1(3) e55: 192-194.
Butler C.D: (2016) Sounding the alarm: Health in the Anthropocene. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, 665; doi: 610.3390/ijerph13070665.

We are an animal species with technology but insufficient collective wisdom for our current time; an argument I heard Paul Ehrlich make in 1989 (eg Ornstein and Ehrlich: New World New Mind). I think consumerism, waste and the pursuit of status goods is hard wired, ubiquitous if the culture and local resources permit it (but of course can be dampened by necessity, eg in the Depression).

The little bits I skimmed of the posts I looked at seem to reflect a greater concern that civilisation is getting closer to the cliff, compared to PERN posts from years ago (though a minority of contributors to these discussions have always understood this).

Unfortunately, as we get closer to that cliff, we seem less collectively capable, as a species, of self-rescue; eg as shown by the reduction in funds for scientific research to support public goods, certainly in the US and Australia.

What will happen? The best I can foresee is a deepening fortress world, with less and less freedom. This is very different to the “Health for All” rhetoric that inspired me decades ago. Perhaps, after our collapse, a re-emergent human civilisation will do a better job than we are. I think it is plausible Indigenous Australians may have learned a lesson in collective ecological self-restraint, working out how to live within limits (but also at a cost to individual freedom, including small families in harsh environments). If so, they a group we are unlikely to learn from in time to rescue ourselves from the most fearsome predator on the planet: ourselves.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Biodiversity, politics and corruption in South East Asia: the invisible cage

In early 2016 I gave the keynote talk on human health and biodiversity at an ASEAN (Association of South East Asian States) conference on biodiversity, held in in Bangkok, Thailand. (My slides are here.) My strongest impression was of political oppression, lack of freedom, as obvious as smog which often permeates parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, due to the clearing and burning of forests, largely for palm oil. 

In my talk (shortened at the last minute to 20 minutes, even though I had been told for weeks I'd have 35 minutes or so) I raised several sensitive issues: corruption and palm oil plantations, useless, cruel and biodiversity-harming medicines, especially of body parts, and population pressure, development and biodiversity. (Human population pressure in Africa has recently been recognised as an important contributor to the survival of elephants, by Erik Solheim, director of the United Nations Environment Programme). 

A significant loss of species, not just charismatic megafauna such as rhinoceroses and bears "milked" for their bile, but lesser known creatures such as pangolins (scaly ant-eater) occurs because of unproven and implausible beliefs in the medicinal powers of their body parts (pangolin scales, rhino horns). Raising that issue may offend the Chinese (especially) .. but surely we should try.

A baby Sunda Pangolin
I suggested, as politely as I possibly could, that something like an anti-fur campaign could be tried to change the minds, to embarrass, the consumers of endangered species such as powdered rhinoceros horns. What is better for impotence? Chewing your nails (keratin) or swallowing rhinoceros horn powder (keratin)?

(Actually I lacked the courage to be quite so blunt).


These points were as successful as a lead balloon, and I only heard one other mention of corruption in the whole 3 day conference (also by a farang, i.e. not a local). My conclusion was that the hundreds of ASEAN attendees in a luxurious hotel owe their precarious and highly unusual (i.e. in the context of their ASEAN countries) middle-class status to conforming with spoken and unspoken rules, which form a highly effective speech-limiting device (and probably thought-limiting too). An invisible cage.

This feeling was heightened by my experience at a lavish dinner, where I sat with VIPs who seemed to have as much passion for biodiversity as Donald Trump. We were entertained by acrobatic representatives from different ASEAN nations, a colourful display completely dissociated from biodiversity.

Clearly, however, anyone with similar views to me, involved at that conference, but working in an ASEAN country (highlights: Thailand: military dictatorship, increasingly authoritarian; Burma: beset with civil war and government-endorsed ethnic cleansing; Cambodia: the most corrupt ASEAN nation; Indonesia: converting the native people and natural resources of West Papua to money and palm oil, not to mention Kalimantan, palm oil and the haze; Malaysia: a notoriously corrupt prime minister, also palm oil corruption, including allegations of quasi-slavery and human trafficking; Philippines: a president who openly supports killing without trial; Singapore: a well organised prosperous city state with little freedom and no wilderness); could not risk endorsing me, nor even speaking to me; and the ASEAN-born critics of these practices (who do exist, albeit in tiny numbers) probably couldn’t attend, due to its cost, perhaps blocked visas (I’m not sure of the visa rules within ASEAN), or perhaps as they are imprisoned, have been killed, or live in genuine and legitimate fear.

Given the invisible cage that operates even in supposed democracies the future does look bleak. Solutions do exist, but there is a very long way to go.


I think few people think politically in the way I do; the people in their "invisible cages" do not hate biodiversity, but are not fully conscious of what is going on. If the people at the top of these human pyramids genuinely wanted to protect biodiversity then the rank and file would probably, in general, act in ways that genuinely have that effect. But I think most people at the top see biodiversity as an abstract property which they can continue to degrade. They undoubtedly have access to their own green space.As a long as a few orangutan survive in zoos (or maybe Brunei) palmoil etc should be maximised. Maybe the officially sanctioned biodiversity movements have a tiny protective effect; I don't like to be so cynical .. but, then, think of West Papua; it is being continually transformed in the name of material consumption and political power for a few. The biodiversity of West Papua must be declining every day.

See also Romanelli et al. 2015. Climate change, biodiversity and human health. In: World Health Organization Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (eds.) Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity,: 222-237 (to which I also contributed).

See also Tibet, China, protest immolation and social medicine; and Tibetan protest self-immolation: ecology, health and politics