Tuesday, October 6, 2009

100 doctors for the planet

Last month (in late 2009) I was named by the French Environmental Health Association, as part of their "100 doctors for the planet" series. I was nominated after my talk to a working group of the World Medical Association, considering the issue of climate change and health. This led to their Delhi declaration. I was interviewed about this by Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny.

Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : What do you think about Global Warming ?
Dr BUTLER : Global warming is not the emperor of global problems, but is certainly one of the princes. It combines with its brothers and sisters (eg weaponisation, human greed and our tolerance of poverty and inequality) to threaten the foundation of civilisation. There are many plausible pathways by which global warming is likely to contribute to collapse, such as regional food scarcity, famine and food riots and relentless sea level rise and massive population dislocation. Unless we are very lucky we will initiate feedbacks which worsen both greenhouse gas emissions (such as by warming the tundra) and governance (such as by bad short-term reactions to long-term problems). The interaction of these issues threatens to overwhelm us.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : In your everyday life, how do you act to help the planet ?
Dr BUTLER : I have spent much of my life as a physician trying to get doctors and the public to understand the peril we face, by writing, speaking and doing. In 1983 I was arrested in Australia’s largest environmental protest. In 1989 I stood for the Greens and co-founded BODHI, an NGO which raises funds to help ‘change agents’ in low-income countries improve health, education, rights and justice. I try to be a role model, including by cycling to work and buying electricity sourced from renewable energy. We chose not to have children. I try to minimise waste, especially of food and paper, and I eat mostly vegetarian food and fish. I try to buy ethically sourced products. I own 130 acres of forest which I have protected from clear-felling.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : As far as you are concerned, what are the more important risks of the climate change?
Dr BUTLER : I would stress that civilisation – especially its economic system – has not evolved necessarily mature progress indicators. In 1989 I heard Paul Ehrlich use the analogy of two men falling from a skyscraper, one of whom is an economist. The economist says ‘not to worry : demand will create a parachute’. Twenty years later some of us are desperately hoping for a parachute as we fall to Earth, but most of us don’t realise the danger we face. We are getting richer in income but impoverishing nature. We may realise our predicament so belatedly that desperate acts are required such as emergency geo-engineering. The ultimate risk is that climate change-exacerbated resource competition will drive regional or global nuclear conflict.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : At work what do you do to fight against climate changes ?
Dr BUTLER: I work at a university which is one of the ‘greenest’ in Australia. Despite the good work there is still unacceptable complacency. Our university could be a role model – peppered with cyclists on paths, photovoltaic cells, solar hot water heating and even solar-thermal generated electricity (we have a research project on this). We run awareness campaigns for double- sided printing, recycling and to turn out lights but have far too many carparks ; we don’t even source ‘green’ electricity. In my department, many cycle to work and most understand the ecological footprint concept. Some colleagues are declining conference invitations unless they can attend virtually. I am an agitator but it’s easy to alienate people by pushing too hard.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : Do you know your ecological footprint ?
Dr BUTLER : I know my international travel makes it very, very high. Increasingly I ask if conferences can arrange electronic attendance, but that choice is still rarely available. Earlier in my career if was difficult to decline invitations, but I am now increasingly selective. I try to find several reasons to travel anywhere by air. I almost always use public transport if available. Before I moved to Canberra I had solar hot water and a well-insulated house. I now live in an apartment, but am trying to persuade the body corporate to install photovoltaic cells – and also my university. I console myself by thinking that most of my work, for many years now, has focussed on trying to alert people to the dangers of overpopulation and over-consumption.
Thank you for answering this interview. We would let you know as soon as possible of its date of broadcasting.

A four degree world

In the last fortnight several things have occurred which are deeply troubling. The floods in southern Taiwan (Typhoon Morakut) have been followed by very heavy rain in the northern Philippines (and there is another storm there right now), and record flooding in Karnataka, India. These events are very likely to have adverse agricultural effects and hence harm nutrition and health. The number of hungry on the planet has passed a billion. Climate change is a likely cause. In the short run the Sumatran earthquake and the Samoan tsunami have distracted attention, but climate change has not gone away.

We have also had the Oxford conference on a 4 degree world (to which we contributed a paper about health).  The podcast there called "4°C of climate change: alarmist or realist?" is very good; the conclusion was that an 8 degree world is alarmist, but a 4 degree world is all too plausible. As one participant said: we see a 70 kg person climb into a 1,000 kg car to drive two miles in order to collect a newspaper - and then we want to fix the problem with geo-engineering! (The most plausible form of geo-engineering is to pump large quantities of sulphur into the atmosphere, which may harm the monsoon.)
On the positive side, this morning I participated electronically in an electronic conference held by PAHO (the Pan American Health Organisation) using elluminate software. It was great. In real time I could hear, see powerpoint slides, and send short messages and symbols (eg smile, applause) to other participants (10 English, 70 Spanish).

On the negative side, I just heard Ian MacFarlane, that gravelly voiced member of the Australian opposition, go on about the alleged harm to the Australian economy if we were to take tiny baby steps in reducing our use of fossil fuel. The short and narrow sightedness of so many people in this country (because let's face it, MacFarlane etc represent a great number of Australians) is shameful. The 4 degree conference warns of carbon dioxide levels of 700 ppm or more by 2100. With it will go crop failure, marked sea level rise and millions of environmental refugees. This is a terrifying future – and not far away.

One commentator at the 4°C conference, a journalist, warned that too much emphasis on catastrophe was paralyzing. But others pointed out that we can go too far in the other direction, and that just fuels complacency. A consensus seemed to emerge that scientists must try to convey the full picture, as far as possible.
I also spoke this morning on ABC overnight talk back radio http://www.abc.net.au/overnights/ for 30 minutes (60 channels throughout Australia) about population. Almost every caller thought we have a problem. One asked why population is scarcely mentioned in the context of climate change. I think he had a very good point – but while only a small fraction (maybe 20%) of the global population contribute substantially to climate change there are three reasons to be concerned about the fertility rate of the other 80%. First, rapid population growth in poor countries will make those countries more vulnerable to climate change. Second, in the long run, the climate contribution of several billion poor people is still significant – especially if they do start to want and to afford our kind of lifestyle. Finally, the acceleration of the demographic (fertility) transition in the South (low income countries) is a matter of justice and global human rights. See too our paper on this in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation (Climate change and family planning: least developed countries define the agenda).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Buddhism and science

About 15 months ago (at the United Nations Day of Vesak celebration in Hanoi, 2008) I was asked to be a science advisor to the International Association of Buddhist Universities. I have finally got around to posting something on their website http://www.iabu.org/content/introduction
Part of the reason I am happy to do this is because there seems such little understanding of science in the Buddhist world. I gave a talk in Bangkok on Buddhism and the environmental crisis in May 2009 and at the end I asked if anyone in the audience (about 60 people) had a science degree. Not a single person raised their hand.
This is an extract:
The best Buddhism (in my opinion) and the best science (in my view) have a lot in common. Both are concerned with understanding the nature of phenomena. Both are concerned with causes, and the causes of causes. Both can reach a profound level of understanding, and yet both also reach a point at which mystery is reached. Neither science nor Buddhism can explain everything; or perhaps Buddhism can but that understanding can never quite be put into words. Certainly with science there is a vast mystery remaining. Albert Einstein is supposed to have likened scientific knowledge to a grain of sand on a beach. What is unknown is the rest of the beach. Yet, he said, that one grain is very precious.
One thing I think science can learn from Buddhism is ethics .. I think the best science is ethical. I also think Buddhism can be a lot more ethical - but that is another story.
Just in case any of you don't think science is of any value to a good Buddhist, you might reflect that the fact that you can read this is because you have acquired secular knowledge. Or, put it this way. You have acquired knowledge, both secular and spiritual. The world needs both forms to thrive, and even if you may be a monk, some secular knowledge, including of science, can help you to be of more value. Now, if you perhaps think that being Buddhist and being of value are incompatible, then your understanding of Buddhism is different to mine. If, like me, you think Buddhism can help you practice metta, bodhicitta, or loving kindness, then you might reflect that science too - at its best - can also help this practice. After all, if you have ever had an antibiotic, or a vaccination, then you have benefited from ethical science.

I published a longer article, here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Beware of the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development

Sharon Beder's classic book "Global Spin" has many examples of how conservative forces distort public opinion, and also lists cases of misleadingly named lobby groups, which purport to protect the environment, but actually are fronts for ongoing environmental destruction, such as the "Wise Use Movement".

Now there is a entire journal which appears to be acting in a similar way - called the "Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development" .

You might think, with a name like that, that this open-access (thus well-funded), peer reviewed journal would work in the interests of sustainable development. But after reading most of the articles in the current issue, I think exactly the reverse is true. The current issue focuses on the population debate. It has an article by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, which warns of the peril which civilisation faces. I was a reviewer of this paper, and I am in broad agreement with it. (See: The Return of the Population Bomb for a shorter version, including the brilliant proposal for a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior to globally examine and publicly discuss the failures of cultural evolution to direct society towards sustainability - something not in their longer article.

However every other article in the current issue of this journal is much more dismissive of any Limit to Growth. It is true that there is good scholarship in some of the articles. But there is also much bias - particularly revealed by what is not mentioned. For example, the paper on the global food prospect has no discussion of climate change or surface level ozone - two enormous risks to food security especially in the tropics and polluted parts of China and India. Nor does it hint at the worsening current food crisis - the number of people with protein and energy undernutrition is now thought to have passed a billion.

The essay is far too optimistic.

Who is funding this journal? The answer is that it is a co-production of International Policy Network and the University of Buckingham

This university offers 3 year degrees in 2 years, which always makes me suspicious. There is no free lunch. The International Policy Network is supportive of free markets, including presumably, the market forces which have allowed Goldman Sachs to make US$1.58 million in profit per hour, despite the spreading gloom of unemployment in the US and elsewhere.

In fact, an essay by Matt Taibbi published two days ago in Rolling Stone brilliantly describes Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

The financial resources available to those who oppose sustainability, and who deny limits to growth are vast. Profits from destroying nature and enslaving people can be used to pay for lobbyists in order to manipulate the law and the application of the law (eg by threatening libel) in order to keep doing the same, that is to keep taking money from the poor and from the future. A tiny amount of this money can easily find its way to support journals such as the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, thus also providing academic evidence to support more of the same.

In short, my suspicion is that this journal is deeply subversive, but in the wrong (unsustainable) direction. I haven't read the two earlier issues of this journal, but advise caution. On the positive side, though, this journal does include at least one paper which recommends we take great care of the Earth, including by slowing the rate of human population increase.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Global Health: challenges and solutions

Problems .. food, pollution, climate change and conflict .. excessive numbers of humans on the planet, inequality, indifference and fraudulent banksters. The list is long..

National Geographic June 2009 has an excellent feature on the global food crisis. This mentions CAFOs in China, by the way, plus the eminent demographer Professor Tim Dyson, warning the the spectre of Malthus has not vanished. Adolescents in Pakistan are being reported as being used as suicide bombers to perform payback murders in feuds [I heard this on the BBC .. I hope this is exagerated - while I can't find that link, there is abundant evidence of the exploitation of children for such barbaric purposes, not only in Pakistan but also by the Tamils in Sri Lanka], while more certainly, child soldiers are common instruments of war, waged by adults in several parts of Africa, including Somalia. Problems are multiplying.


What about solutions? I suggest we start by tithing 10% of our effort and - if we can afford it - 10% of our wealth to these issues. The election of Obama is very encouraging, but the infestation of the media and web by climate change deniers is deeply disturbing. More on that later, in another post. Though, for a taste, see Michael Ashley's brilliant review of Ian Plimer's book "Heaven and Earth".

Meantime, please support groups that try to look at deep causes of our interlinked global crises. If you live in a high income country (the North) - see PS - unless in parts of Scandinavia or the Netherlands [countries that already exceed the target], ask your government to give 0.7% of its revenue to foreign aid, as they long ago pledged .. and not "phantom" aid as Action Aid calls it. This target has been challenged - but while I haven't read more than the abstract it is clear that high income countries can be more generous .. that is, if they want low income countries to catch up, which of course they don't..

And, please, be sensitive to the beliefs of others. Look for what you have in common with others. When I was a medical student at a Christian Mission Hospital in Nigeria, in 1985, a practice had just been ended, by which patients (even if not Christian) had to say a Christian prayer before undergoing surgery. I'm glad that practice stopped. Yet I don't think this means every cultural practice followed by others should be uncritically accepted. If it were we'd have to acknowledge the right for some societies to practice female genital mutilation, or to keep slaves, or to have housemaids with no names and no rights. Or even to practice waterboarding in Guantánamo.

While the naming and defining of universal rights is tricky, to say there are no such rights is clearly worse.

If any of you have an academic bent, please visit the Faculty of 1000 Medicine [global health] to see some interesting academic perspectives on global health (disclosure: I am one of the faculty members - but this position is voluntary; I get no royalties!)

bye for now,


PS I will try to post a link re the North and South shortly - Butler CD. The North and South. In: Hedblad A, editor. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan Reference; 2007. p. 542-4.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The political economy of intensive farming

Probably everyone reading this in 2009 will have heard of swine (H1N1) flu. If you read this in (say) 2011 you may or may not know (or remember) what swine flu means. However, in 2011 and probably in 2021, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) will continue to exist.

However the bland-sounding acronym CAFO may vanish well before 2021; in fact it may disappear very soon after it becomes a household name linked with widespread understanding of what it actually is ("manure lagoon" being one of the CAFO keywords in the academic paper: Gilchrist et al. The potential role of CAFOs in infectious disease epidemics and antibiotic resistance. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2006;115:313–6.)

There are already CAFO precursors which are now rarely heard, such as "landless farm". "Factory farming" remains in the vernacular, but not in the scientific literature. That term (factory farming) probably never did appear there - too "emotional". There are precedents for shifting language in many other fields, such as the use of “friendly fire” as a euphemism, a disguise, for the accidental killing of one’s own troops. When and if “friendly fire” acquires emotional resonance (ie when people react with appropriate shock) it will be replaced, by another term with less political risk. Many such examples are given by Egan and Glover in their 2002 book Collateral Language: A User's Guide to America's New War.

I'd like to write an academic article about the political economy of CAFOs and health, but that will take time (months at least, and that's if I can get these ideas past the reviewers). So forgive me by allowing me to present my key arguments as points. Each point could be elaborated and better referenced; however you don't have time to read it and I don't have time to write it. (But fragments of what follows will appear elsewhere.)

1. CAFOs are cruel and unethical, as are lots of things, such as the current crowding and abuse of Tamils in camps in Sri Lanka. The world is full of cruelty, double standards and lousy ethics.

2. A small amount of animal products, including of meat, is desirable for health for most people. CAFOs are the cheapest way to produce these on the scale needed to provide adequate [though, likely, far from optimal] nutrition for the 6.8 billion people currently alive. This almost certainly means that some form of CAFOs will remain in existence, if not essential, for decades at least.

3. CAFOs have numerous uncosted downsides, apart from their cruelty - most notably to the ecology and climate. However CAFOs are not the root cause of that .. a more fundamental problem is the number of people alive at the moment. (And, as Henning Steinfeld, the lead author of Livestock's Long Shadow told a questioner, at a meeting at which we both spoke in March 2009 in Aarhus, Denmark, organic or more humane forms of farming, if on a scale sufficient to feed us all, is unlikely to more environmentally friendly .. in fact it would probably be worse .. instead we need to reduce our total animal produce consumption, and to do that humanely and without harming health, we need to reduce our human population, and to do that humanely we need to do many things, and wait at least 60 years .. or make fantastic technological and ethical progress, and we are a long way from that at present.

4. In addition to these ecological costs, CAFOs are a significant risk to public health, as incubators not only of more virulent forms of influenza, but also of lesser known viral diseases including Nipah virus and Ebola Reston, both of which are spread from bats, themselves increasingly stressed by pressure from human populations growing in number, power, and expectations.

5. The corporations (and their allies, the public relations industry) who control and profit from these CAFOs do not want their industries linked with any large-scale threat to public health.

6. Disease surveillance is a well understood method to detect and reduce the burden of infectious diseases. However, like many public goods for health such systems depend on a high and sustained level of enthusiasm, expertise and financial resources. In low and middle income countries the development and maintenance of good surveillance systems is especially problematic. They also depend on transparency.

7. Issues of political economy (i.e. the way powerful interests, be they corporations, wealthy foundations, or the governments of nations with nuclear weapons) have a disproportionate influence on the agenda, including of public thought and talk. They also reduce transparency, not only with regard to CAFO related disease surveillance, but even the name of the current outbreak of swine (actually, plausibly, "swine-avian-human" influenza) which has now been re-labelled H1N1 influenza, including by the World Health Organisation.

8. These "political economy" factors provide the most plausible underlying cause for the lack of attention and amplification of the first report of the outbreak of an unusually severe epidemic of pneumonia in a poor area of Mexico near to a pig CAFO. That influenza can infect pigs has been known since 1930, and there has been gathering scientific awareness of the plausibility of a swine-avian-human flu outbreak, accelerated if not “incubated” by CAFOs. Yet this body of knowledge and concern has not yet translated into sufficient awareness or action.

9. The precautionary culling of large numbers of animals in CAFOs in order to protect public health is unpleasant but at times probably justifiable, given our present knowledge. However, such measures can also be applied in an overly zealous way, such as the impending slaughter of the entire Egyptian pig population, in response to the H1N1 outbreak, and probably too the prophylactic slaughter of pigs in the Philippines, after the outbreak of Ebola Reston, a disease with, to date, no significant human morbidity, let alone mortality.

10. A recent lead article on swine flu in the New England Journal of Medicine, with almost 20 co-authors and 10 pages in length, as far as I can see, entirely ignores these issues of political economy. This is unsurprising .. the suppression of discussion of political economy penetrates far into the scientific literature. Perhaps a topic to return to!

Finally, please note that I agree pork is safe to eat. I don't think it is safe to farm in CAFOs... but having CAFOs is a price we have to pay for the time being. Science, together with advocates for greater animal welfare, can make CAFOs safer, more humane, and over time, can make them rarer. There are already, in some countries especially, more humane alternatives to CAFOs, such as wider harvesting of "feral" animals for human food in Australia. If we eat meat we have to kill animals, but we can devise and incorporate more humane ways to do this. Also, of course, many other conditions, such as diarrhoea and childhood pneumonia, are far greater public health issues than swine flu. But if I wrote about them you would not have read this!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Anthropocene and the noösphere

Hello, day one. So many questions, so little time. First things:


Apologies that I won't be able to spend too much time nurturing/tending/gardening these musings - i.e. responding to you, the community. Though, time and energy permitting, I would like to.

The thing is, I muse so much anyway, that I might as well post some of them here, rather than just losing so many in throw-away emails or burying them in threads that don't go very far.

Ivan has convinced me to do this, after nagging for some months (he thinks I qualify as sufficiently opinionated and discursive - qualities that often work against me, so I'm encouraged they might be of value here). Let's see if I can post things of interest to you.

My most recent consuming interest has been influenza and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) - ie factory farms. But I have a long and strong interest in Global Change - eg the "great acceleration" of the Anthropocene as Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill call it. I have been writing and speaking, academically, on such topics for close to 20 years now - with a degree of activism too (which goes back longer than 20 years, eg I was arrested at the Franklin Dam demonstration in Tasmania, Australia, in 1983.)

I think of the "great acceleration" as like being the eye of a needle, a tunnel, a channel humanity is entering into, beyond which lies either clear water or chaos. It is a fascinating, challenging, and potentially catastrophic passage. I feel a duty of care to warn about that, and to do what I can to make sure humanity does emerge from it in a better position. I know that probably sounds conceited but I am a doctor (I was a family practitioner for about a decade), so I'm used to being a bit prescriptive. I was also corresponding lead author for the chapter on human well-being in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

That was a four year exercise involving about 90 futurists. Of those 90 I was probably the least optimistic, at least officially. But that experience also helps qualify me to sound this warning. How many of you have heard of Cassandra? Spot quiz - was Cassandra right or wrong?

I have to go now. Please come back .. maybe in few days or weeks I'll have posted something else. Meantime, if you are interested in these topics (and I'm just scratching the surface above) try visiting the website of the NGO of which I am co-founder or try searching for my name - Colin Butler - on google. Lots come up. There is a lot of writing on the BODHI website, eg in "Medical Director's desk", also in "hot topics". (Including various journal papers of mine, such as an essay about the Millennium Assessment process, published in the journal EcoHealth, in 2005 - called "Peering into the Fog".)

Finally, this is my first ever attempt at a blog. I assume people can post responses, but I'm not really sure. If you can, and if you do, please remember the second point I made at the start: I won't be able to respond very often, perhaps at all. I don't mean to be rude.

Best wishes


PS the noösphere? - .. you are already part of it. Hope to come back to that in future posts.