Demographics: The Future in Graphs!

About a week ago I came across this fascinating article on the Washington Post website which shows the United Nations’ predictions of how demographic changes shall develop in the future.  I’d best roughly explain a basic theory of demographics first – current models identify five stages in a country’s development:

  1. Before development there are high, fluctuating birth and death rates (influenced by factors like war, disease and famine) with the population remaining stable.
  2. Advanced to medical procedures, number of hospitals, more food, better diets, more access to vaccinations and many other factors cause a country to enter the second stage.  There are too many existing theories to discuss here as to why this happens – a liberalised economy, intellectual freedom and industrialisation being some of them – but this causes a distinct fall in the death rate.  Consequently, the population experiences a sudden, unprecedented rise (as Europe did in the 19th century, as much of the developing world is now).
  3. The birth rate falls about a generation later, perhaps due to a shift in culture (couples marrying later, there being less necessity to have lots of children) and a wider availability of family planning.  This causes the population growth to decrease, though it still occurs – this is where India is now, for instance.
  4. The birth and death rates largely level out, where few people die young, infant mortality is down and less babies are born.
  5. The country experiences an ageing population which causes an increase to the death rate and decrease to birth rate (older people tend to die more and have less children).
  6. Who knows?

Each of these stages have various implications for the countries experiencing them, as the article explains.  I find the graphs it includes to be incredible.  Never does a day pass without some article getting published about the West’s decline, the rise of China and Asia, etc.  This is true, to an extent – we are experiencing ageing populations which will decrease our economic output (though this is being counteracted to an extent by immigration), while the likes of China are continuing to shoot upwards and achieve their full potential.  But what we’re never told is that Asia’s rise on the world stage might be equally as temporary.  If the 18th, 19th centuries belonged to Europe, the 20th belonged to America and the 21st moving to Asia, could the 22nd century be the dawn of an African golden era?  None of us will be around to see it, of course, but it’s a fascinating theory.

What could the implications of these changes be?  Asian languages are expected to become ever more significant this century, but how would that be affected by the rise of Africa?  Many African countries still have English and French as their national languages; when Africa contains almost half the world’s population, will these languages see a resurgence?  Or by this point will Africa have cast off its colonial legacy and promote traditional languages around the world?  That would be rather nice.  And I enjoy very much this irony of colonialism: Europe colonised Africa to subjugate it and steal its resources, but we inadvertently introduced systems which promoted population growth and could result in Africa becoming a leader in world affairs.

One major flaw in my idea is that the size of population is not necessarily equal to power and influence, particularly if a country lacks the resources to support such a population.  But it certainly helps.  And regardless of economics, in this globalised, connected age, the size of a population really has an impact upon its status around the world.

To conclude, these graphs are terrifying.  Not because of what they tell us – there’s no reason to fear the growth of either Asia or Africa, or even the decline of our own Western countries – but because of what do not.  Right now we know nothing except that the world will change dramatically in the next 100 years.  There’s a strong argument for saying that major events in human history, including the world wars, the rise of democracy, most revolutions and our entire economic system, is a result of demographic changes in Europe and the Americas.  What sort of world will similarly dramatic changes in Asia and Africa usher in?  I haven’t even mentioned the obvious issue of producing food for all these people, nor the massive strain it will put upon water management and energy production.  The ‘Western model’ gives us a vague insight but, really, the future is impossible to predict.  That said, I’m sure excited to find out!

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Glass Rain

Portrayal of the exoplanet HD 189733b in Celestia.

For the first time ever, astronomers have managed to discern the colour of a planet outside of our solar system.  The exoplanet, HD 189733b,* is thought to be blue in colour.  They achieved this remarkable discovery by measuring light from the planet when exposed then measuring again when it slipped behind the star.  They noticed a substantial drop of wavelengths corresponding to the colour blue when this happened.  Unfortunately for the possibilities of finding life, this is unlikely to be water.  The planet is thought to be a gas giant which practically hugs its star, giving it a temperature of around 1,000C.  The blue colour probably comes from silicate precipitating in the atmosphere, which reflects light from the star.  That’s right – the planet contains glass rain.  Molten silicate rains horizontally in a sideways direction at around 7,000 km/h.  Just imagine the geographical processes of that planet!  The geology, the chemistry, the…

Every now and then a phrase or an idea leaps out from an astronomical discovery which excites the imagination; ‘glass rain’ is one of those.  I don’t suppose molten silicate is even a particularly unusual occurrence, but it does indicate just how vast and diverse the Universe must be.  This planet is only 63 light years away and scarcely observable as it is – what wonders could exist beyond our reach?  If scientists expand on this technology and method, the possibilities of future discoveries are breathtaking.  It’s moments like these I wish I had become an astrophysicist.

*And scientists wonder why exoplanets never enter the public imagination.

Gaia: Why Mars is Probably Dead

As a tangent to yesterday’s post (and also because discussing bleak prospects for Mars appears popular), there’s another point in James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth that seems relevant for today.  It’s just been announced that NASA will send another rover to Mars in 2020 to compliment the work of the current Curiosity rover in its search for life.  While Curiosity has been generally examining the environment with its hi-tech equipment to see if it could ever have been fit for life, this new rover would focus on studying the planet’s geology.

When writing the book, it was Lovelock’s view that the development of life on a planet inevitably acts to terraform that planet to make it even more fit to harbour life – such as how on Earth life has regulated our atmosphere in the last 3 billion years to keep the temperature constant, despite the fact it ought to be lowering.  If Mars has ever had life on it, then this life should have modified the planet to make it more habitable, thereby leading to more life.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mars should still be habitable now if it ever sustained life – some catastrophe could have destroyed the atmosphere, for example – but signs of former life ought to be more obvious.  Certainly, it would suggest with certainty that no life exists now.  In this theory I think it’s still possible that life never developed past basic bacteria before being wiped out, but the chances of such a short lifespan can be considered unlikely.  If this is true then our search for life on Mars is probably in vain.

That’s not to say I don’t think we should be sending rovers to Mars.  Quite the contrary!  There is still so much we can learn from our neighbours whilst developing our own technological capabilities.  I just don’t think we should be getting our hopes up for any big announcements.

Gaia: Shifting of Scientific Consensus

I’ve just finished reading the 1979 book Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth by James Lovelock.  It’s a good read and I’d highly recommend it, even if it may be a bit outdated.  In it, Lovelock sets out a summary of his ‘Gaia’ theory, a theory of the ‘Organic Earth’.  He visualises life across the planet as, although existing in an array of individual life forms, comprising something greater – a bit like how cells and bacteria in our bodies come together to comprise us.  His evidence and conjecture really are fascinating; he uses the improbable stability of the atmosphere as evidence, for instance, with there being an optimal level of oxygen to support life but not so much that there’s a danger of flammability.  This is an easier example to understand how Gaia works: if the oxygen level gets too high then forest fires would begin breaking out, adding carbon dioxide to the air and also limiting oxygen produced by plants.  If it gets too low in favour of carbon dioxide then plants will prosper, thereby creating an increase of oxygen into the air.  He also discusses the implications of human civilisation on Gaia.

I’m interested at the extent to which his ideas have entered the scientific mainstream opinion.  Lovelock clearly wrote Gaia knowing that parts of it would be perceived as a radical new idea, yet, much of it is familiar to things I recall learning at school.  I can’t name any specifics but the general concept of all life on Earth existing in a mutually-dependent relationship is one which seems obvious to me as a result of my education.  Has the consensus changed that much in just 30 years?  There are other things I noticed that have changed, such as successful steps taken to limit the emission of CFCs to save the ozone layer from depletion (a remarkable feat, in retrospect) which was only beginning when Lovelock wrote the book.  It’s now accepted that this action was well-judged and may have saved us from terrible consequences.

One thing which hasn’t changed is the debate over fossil fuels.  Lovelock seems to hold the position that they are not as great a problem as is often claimed (he even considers whether activities on land could ever truly threaten Gaia as long as the oceans are left intact; I disagree, though his example of the destruction Ice Ages cause is convincing).  He is outspoken in his opposition to renewable energy and even seems in favour of using fossil fuels which is, uh, a strange position for an ecologist to take.  To be fair, Lovelock aside, most scientists are in agreement that the use fossil fuels ought to be limited – it’s largely the public which still grasp on to outdated ideas.

Another idea I found fascinating was Lovelock’s speculation on the ‘purpose’ of humanity for Gaia.  Unlike evolution within a species, changes to Gaia don’t seem to necessarily require being advantageous to it so it’s possible that humanity could simply be an ‘accident’, but it’s interesting to speculate nonetheless.  He wondered whether an intelligent species (intelligence defined as having the ability to store information collectively and add to it throughout successive generations) might act as a kind of guardian of Gaia.  He pointed to a hypothetical asteroid collision with Earth, which in normal circumstances would be a catastrophe for life on Earth.  Humanity’s presence, however, through our development of technology might actually be able to stop this threat to Gaia.  It’s certainly a challenge to the accepted view that humans are nothing more than a cancer to the planet – though Lovelock does warn of the dangers human overpopulation might have for Gaia.

Despite being out of date in places and even despite disagreeing with bits of it, Gaia is still a book well worth reading.  You’ll need a basic understanding of chemistry and biology to understand everything but it is generally written in a readable and often quite poetic style.

To The North!

Through a glacial, U-shaped valley (probably).

Today I traveled to the northernmost part of the UK: the island of Unst at the top of the Shetland Isles.  Despite having lived in Shetland my whole life I don’t recall ever visiting Unst, though apparently I had been before when I was really young.  Getting to Unst is a bit of a stretch; tens of miles of road over the most beautiful, desolate scenery you can find and then two surprisingly comfortable ferries.  It’s a journey which proudly displays the variety of Shetland’s topography and human habitation.  We traveled through hills long ago ravaged by glaciers and watched as pollutant horrors burned on the horizon at the Sullom Voe oil terminal.  Many times, particularly through the island of Yell, it appeared that human civilisation had been left behind completely, so sparse is the landscape.

The Arctic beckons in the north.

Our first stop was the most northern beach in the UK, Skaw Beach.  After passing one of those boat-roof huts tourists seem to rave about, we explored the beach.  The river’s neat path carved into the sand impressed a respect for natural processes – aided by the fact I’m currently reading about Lovelock’s Gaia theory.  Our planet is amazing.  Next was a lovely building which used to have a purpose for the former RAF base, where I drank coffee and ate chocolate cake.

While I’m raving about geography, the geology of Unst is incredible.  I’m not greatly informed about it but I know the island is comprised predominantly of two different kinds of rock.  It shows.  Half of the island is like most of Shetland; moorland of grass or heather, with the occasional rocky outcrop of glacial till.  The other half, however, was a geographical delight.  It was as if the sky had opened up and let loose a barrage of rocks.  Presumably this rock is weaker and was therefore further pulverised by glaciers in the last Ice Age than the other side of the island, though that’s just me guessing.

I’m surfing wrong, aren’t I?

Another fascinating stop was the Muness Castle.  While not as famous nor as large as Scalloway Castle, it had its own charm.  It is very hard to visualise an open, drafty upper floor as once having been the base of powerful comfort.  How soon things decay.  Will our own structures, so seemingly stable today, collapse within another 500 years?

When you live somewhere, you forget how beautiful it really is.  I’m eager to leave Shetland to move on to new things but I am glad to have been brought up in such a great place.

Also, this has to be the best bus-shelter in the country:

Vegetarianism, Veganism and Snobbery

Precisely 7 months and 9 days ago – on the same day I started this blog, in fact – I made the decision to stop eating meat.  I’ve already discussed this on here before and won’t bore you with the details again but there is one thing I’ve discovered that’s worth mentioning: the strange snobbery which seems to exist between vegans and vegetarians – and also, to an extent, between vegetarians and meat-eaters.

I’m perfectly happy as a vegetarian.  To my parents’ relief I have no plans to become a vegan, largely because I know I’d struggle with the diet but also because I don’t see an ethical need to do so (though I am becoming increasingly concerned with dodgy elements of the dairy industry).  My general rule is that I avoid if possible all products which require animals to be slaughtered to eat – so I avoid leather and marshmallows but don’t mind eggs and milk.  I therefore find it quite bizarre that some vegans would criticise me for this decision.  I’ve never encountered it personally, but even the most limited foray into the vegetarian society shows this to be the case.  Just read any comments on the various vegetarian groups which exist on Facebook or elsewhere and you’ll find such condescension and negativity between vegans and vegetarians.  Vegans accuse vegetarians of taking ‘the easy option’ and only making a superficial effort whereas vegetarians accuse vegans of being excessive and impractical.

What irks me about this is that we all have the same aims: we all believe that a limited consumption of meat is better for society from both a moral and environmental point of view.  Sure, vegans would extend this definition to all animal products but essentially we’re on the same side.  This in-fighting presents such an unwelcoming and intimidating message to outsiders who may be considering becoming a vegetarian and therefore does nothing for the cause.  It’s like certain elements are trying to achieve this Stalinist purity of the vegetarian/vegan ideology, opposing all other versions even if they’re similar in most respects.  It’s senseless.

Another interesting thing I’ve experienced is that people tend to mention meat a lot when I’m around – often in a joky fashion like, “look at this yummy murder!”.  This is probably largely because I have an irritating habit of being rather frank about my beliefs so people might get the impression that I judge them for being different (which I definitely don’t!  I was eating meat myself only just over 200 days ago so I can hardly pass judgement).  It’s harmless but does raises interesting questions about potential snobbery between meat-eaters and vegetarians.  It’s all too easy for vegetarians to look at meat-eaters as immoral, selfish collaborators with an evil industry, while meat-eaters may look as vegetarians as wishy-washy tree-huggers (not a description I’d disagree with but, you know, it’s not very constructive!).  Whether or not an individual eats meat should be seen as a private lifestyle choice.  We can promote our own ideas through visibility and reasoned argument but, ultimately, nobody should feel compelled to make one particular choice.  Snobbery from any direction – vegan, vegetarian or other – should be opposed.

Good News From the States

I’m very pleased with recent political news I’ve been hearing from the USA (that’s not a sentence I get to write every day!).  There have been two major stories which have left a positive impact:

  1. President Obama reveals plan for action on climate change.
    As anyone following American politics will know, the importance of this announcement cannot be understated.  Climate change is an incredibly contentious issue in the USA, with something like a third or more of Americans denying it is an issue or sometimes that it’s even occurring.  The issue was scarcely mentioned during the 2012 presidential election.  Even if you do deny the human influence upon the climate, it just makes sense to gear an economy in preparation for the point of ‘peak fossil fuels’, where the amount of oil, coal and gas extracted will no longer be enough to meet demand.  That the world one day needs to develop a post-carbon economy is undeniable; the earlier we plan this, the better.
    Obama’s plans are admittedly basic, pledging to cut emissions by only 4% of what they they were in 1990 – five times less than the EU is planning – but the fact this process has begun at all is incredible.  Apparently this reduction would be relative to 33% of the UK’s emissions. It’s a start.  I just hope the Republican-dominated Congress won’t give him too much grief over it.  Despite his dubious record on many issues from drones to state surveillance, Obama is proving himself to be a progressive in many ways – being the first sitting President to endorse the right to same-sex marriage, for instance.  Which brings me to…
  2. Supreme Court Gives Positive Ruling for Same-Sex Marriage
    The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples should receive the same legal rights as any other married couple.  This has invalidated a section of the ridiculous ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ which denied gay married couples the same benefits to tax, healthcare and retirement, among others.  The Supreme Court also ruled that the decision to remove a ban on gay marriage in California cannot be challenged.  This is positive news not only for gay couples but for the nation as a whole.  I’d like to think the country is that bit more tolerant now.

Two bits of great news.  Please don’t let it stop here!  Next I would like to see the nationwide abolition of the death penalty (though it’s gradually creeping in state by state anyway), the closure of Quantanamo Bay and a complete reform of the political system to make it more representative and less of a corporatocracy.  Well… I can dream, can’t I?  An end to slavery would have seemed ridiculous 200 years ago, civil rights laughable 100 years ago and same-sex marriage a joke just 20 years ago.  Anything is possible.