The Overpopulation Myth

Nature & the Environment, Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Just because Thanos erased half of all life in order to bring balance to the universe it doesn’t mean that everyone who is concerned about overpopulation is also an eco-fascist beset on subjugation and murder. It is quite probable that they’re simply anxious about the climate and ecological breakdown and see overpopulation as a legitimate cause. We needn’t assume to know any more than that; whom they blame, if they blame anyone, and what solutions they endorse we cannot assume to know. Sure, there is a distinct risk that arguments about overpopulation and their purported solutions can, and have been, subverted by fascist reasoning. However, concerns about overpopulation are not intrinsically fascist. On the contrary, in many cases such concerns are typically apolitical, much like “iceberg ahead!” implies “politics aside, we need to avert disaster!”. Such proclamations deserve our attention.

After all, the Malthusian premise that exponential human population growth will one day inevitably exceed Earth’s finite stock of resources is a compelling one. Just watch a few episodes of David Attenborough’s Our Planet and one will discover that we are already “totally out of balance with nature”.

In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow.

Despite this present imbalance, however, there is an increasingly fashionable argument permeating amongst social thinkers contending that global society is maturing to a point where overpopulation needn’t be an issue of concern. Call this the Sub-Replacement Argument. This argument is made on the assumption that the ‘third-world’ societies predominantly responsible for global population growth, due to their (delayed) industrialisation and socio-economic development will soon have greater access to education and contraception (importantly, education and contraception are proven to be essential in reducing reproduction rates in developed countries). Couple this with current statistics showing that developed countries have a collective ‘sub-replacement fertility rate’ – meaning new generations are less populous than preceding generations – and there is a strong argument to suggest that: Once capitalism pulls Africa and Asia out of the third-world, they too will have sub-replacement fertility rates! Thus, their populations, just like those of the world’s better, more advanced nations, will begin to diminish and those cries of ‘global overpopulation!’ will all be in vain.

Nonetheless, this covertly neocolonial argument fails on two accounts. Firstly, the fact that now, during the human epoch – the Anthropocene – Earth is experiencing its 6th Great Extinction, at a rate 100 times faster than normal, we can be certain that the issue of overpopulation is already pressing. Even if the third-world does attain sub-replacement fertility rates in the not-too-distant future, it’s already too late; innumerable irreversible tragedies have already come to pass.

I implore you to rebel against yourself.

That being said, maybe what counts as ‘overpopulation’ differs depending upon what politico-economic system the term is applied. Indeed, one may argue that in the context of the currently prevailing system overpopulation is already underway because capitalism’s tautological requirement for growth guarantees exponential ecological degradation. This inevitable degradation inexorably leads to agricultural collapse and thus the Malthusian premise is a priori fulfilled. In accounting terms, we are already overpopulated; theoretically speaking, humans exceeded Earth’s finite stock of resources long ago, it’s just that the effects are yet to be properly experienced on a global scale.

Perhaps, therefore, in order to prevent that from happening, moreover to prevent it from getting worse, we should transform the system into one that doesn’t necessitate the decimation of ecosystems. It’s already blindingly obvious that this is what’s required in order to sufficiently mitigate the climate breakdown, so this makes sense, right?

YES! Yet, this is unfortunately where the Sub-Replacement Argument fails again. We cannot possibly assume that a post-capitalist world is necessarily capable of enabling third-world countries to meaningfully develop. It may be, but we cannot assume it will be. For it is quite possible that in such a world standards of living in third-world countries would stagnate, whilst standards of living would by necessity have to decrease in ‘developed’ countries. This could arguably lead to increasingly limited access to education and contraception worldwide. So, it is possible that even if we manage to overcome the climate breakdown, there could well be another existential crisis lurking in the shadows of the future: overpopulation.

This is the overpopulation myth, the myth that overpopulation isn’t a legitimate cause for concern, when of course it is. In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow. And we cannot be sure how overpopulation might feature if our dreams for systematic change become a reality.

So, we are left with two options. We can choose either certain death-by-capitalism, whereby the climate breakdown and overpopulation will kill us; or we can choose a transition out of capitalism into the ominous unknown, the shadows, wherein overpopulation might kill us. I know which I’d choose. My question is what one would you choose? In any case, I implore you to rebel against yourself.


A.C. Stark

First, Rebel Against Yourself.

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

In Owen Jones’ recent interview video with Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam criticises the political ‘left’ as having been perpetually dishonest about what economic action is required to mitigate the climate breakdown and what cultural changes this will necessitate. He contends that the ‘left’ have become so embroiled, so entrenched in the (conceptually politically right-wing) neoliberal ideal they are unable to conceive of human life “in anything other than cost-benefit, materialistic terms”. Their proposed resolutions have therefore assumed that market forces are enough to tackle climate change: business as usual WILL work, it just needs tweaking! They were wrong, whilst Roger is correct: The ‘left’ – the supposed political guardians of justice and equality – have fundamentally failed to realise that at the very heart of any suitable action to mitigating the climate breakdown requires a redefinition and restructuring of our society and economy. Just like all life on this planet, justice and equality depend upon this for their survival.

It can feel as though we need to go through our very own personal extinction in order to prevent a global one.

So, the political ‘left’ need to become Left again. For many of us, this has long been clear to see. Thankfully, it appears that they’re (just) starting to see the light. But we, and they, need to be clear about what the necessary changes in our society will require of us culturally and personally. Roger was unequivocal about this. It requires us to accept, moreover embrace, lower standards of living. For freeing ourselves from our capitalist indoctrination involves repudiating everything tied up in capitalism’s tautological relationship with growth. So we must retract from our supposed inter-generational contract with every consecutive generation to give them a better standard of living than the previous (I say ‘supposed’ because I’ve never seen nor signed this thing). It’s a faulty contract, the objectives of which cannot be sustained by virtue of its very design. We pursue its fulfilment in vain, and at what price? At best, the end of civil society, justice and equality; at worst, the end of human existence altogether.

Therefore, we need to redefine ourselves, every one of us; we need to change our expectations of what life entails. Reducing our standard of living involves changing a whole host of our own personal life-defining ideas. We need to be willing to fully extend the service life of everything we own, instead of repeatedly repurchasing unnecessary replacements. We need to re-skill ourselves so as not to be reliant on corporate manufacturers. We need to be canny, creative and imaginative. And we can be! We must reuse, recycle, repair and adapt our clothes again and again and again, until they are literally unusable as objects of clothing; and then up-cycle them into rags and quilts. We must re-green and re-wild our concreted areas, reconnect with the wilderness, walk upon, re-learn, appreciate and cultivate our privately owned microcosmic lands. We must localise ourselves (without vulgarising ourselves into xenophobes), so that we can walk, push or cycle ourselves to work, the grocer, to our friends and families. Concede that animal husbandry is one of the greatest causes of environmental degradation, and thus accept that meat ought to be reserved for special occasions, or better yet not be consumed at all. Accept that we needn’t pollute our drains with noxious chemicals when we wash ourselves and our possessions; realise that we needn’t shower every single day in order to be sanitary.

And this needn’t amount to austerity as we currently understand it – as a degrading, unrelenting existence at the margins of civilisation, wherein nothing possesses beauty or meaning. Kings and queens of empires old had austere lives compared to many of us. Ingenuity in practical utility can be appreciated in aesthetic terms. Yes, the story, the history and destiny, and the scars of our possessions can cause us to marvel over them, giving them aesthetic merit. Further still, in the process of changing ourselves, our conceptions of objective perfection will entirely evaporate, but the ‘civil’ part our civilisation will not. THAT is what we are doing this for. There is meaning in all this. So, don’t mistake reduced ‘living standards’ for reduced ‘quality of life.’ They are very different things. Happiness and contentment are in this imagined society, and can wholly be found in the process of transitioning to it.

I’ve said it before: the changes required will not be easy. We will all experience some strife in the process of challenging and changing ourselves. I’ve experienced it myself, and last week I met many people at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London that had, are or were beginning to experience their own internal mental rebellions: I am not you anymore, I am someone else; I wish there was another way but there isn’t, so leave me be! This internal, somewhat subconscious self-rejection is relentlessly tiring because redefining ourselves, re-finding ourselves is a tortuous task. There is no physicality to this kind of lost-ness; we are truly alone in an ethereally grievous mental-state. Those who’ve experienced it may now know very little about who they are, but they have realised that our self-image is inextricably bound up in our culture, and that culture has been hogtied by a now rotting politico-economic system. For us, denouncing this system is like pronouncing in the 19th century that “God is dead”. It can feel as though we are left in possession of nothing, yet still have everything to lose. It can feel as though we need to go through our very own personal extinction in order to prevent a global one.

Yet there is something that keeps us going. There is hope. There is solidarity and love. More importantly, there is a new social contract to draw up, and quickly. Its objectives may just about be attainable, if we really try; if we continue to rebel. This contract won’t catalyse injustice, inequality and global extinction. No, neither will this contract aspire to give our future generations a better standard of living. Instead, it will aspire to give them life. No luxuries. Just food to eat and air to breathe. In essence, that’s all Extinction Rebellion are asking for: that we allow our children to live.  

We rebel for life. Viva la Rebellion.

A.C. Stark

This article was recently posted on the Extinction Rebellion blog, XRblog.

The Greatest Gift that I Possess

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Everywhere I look I see countless miniature empires. This makes sense when one considers the many necrophilous sectarians ostensibly populating Britain, as their morals seem to be founded (if Brexit is anything to go by) in the delusional glory of this little island’s historically imperial sovereignty. Small-man syndrome is a natural phenomenon, even at the state level. However, worryingly, even members of today’s ‘hipster’, left-wing subculture – cultural decedents of a cleaner living, hitchhiking, happy-go-lucky, hippy era – revel in the excesses of their individual realms. Today everyone is an emperor. Myopic, capitalistic narcissism is pervasive. It’s killing humanism and the planet with it.

Taken from his recent book, Happy (his recent and a fascinating serious prose on welfare philosophy), Derren Brown hits the nail on the head, when he says, “‘Get what you want’ remains a mantra of modern living, as if we each had the birthright to accumulate whatever we think will make us happy.” We’re programmed to desire, indoctrinated even. Society is set up to consume. Without our desires being quenched by consumption, we’re destined to be miserable. This is the message we’re sold.

As a result, we’re constantly seeking to expand our empires in the pursuit of something more addictive, more socially corrosive than crystal meth. Purchasing is the tool by which we seek our little hits of serotonin and dopamine, each dose a sparrows-step toward securing a peculiarly phantom mental state: happiness. Obsessively, most of us seek it, but in vain. The era of achieving happiness collaterally is long over. Now, we seek it as an end in itself. More fool us.

We’re so addicted to these minute hits of gratification that we don’t let anything or anyone get in the way of our attaining them. This is not a clean drug, its cut with numerous toxins. It kills. Collateral damages, in the form of physical (1, 2), mental, environmental (1, 2, 3, 4) and cultural sickness (1, 3, 2), have been normalised. It’s an unfortunate necessity but a necessity all the same; a small price to pay for “happiness”. Crucially, we reject that our pursuit of happiness is damningly self-defeating (perhaps through fear of self-loathing). Moreover, those that indiscriminately pursue happiness are often considered virtuous. This is despite their holding a complete disregard for traditional virtues such as moderation, wisdom, morality, or empathy and a sense of community.

Regretfully, and rather non-virtuously, Conspicuous and invidious consumption (purchasing goods to flaunt economic power and incite envy), the bread and butter of capitalism, affect us greatly (the recent #OOTD appeal is a hideous example). Products are designed and marketed specifically to create and then cure anxietynot to promote happiness – which stimulates us to indulge in further self-destructive retail therapy. Possessions are seen and brandished as symbols of identity, wealth and “happiness”. This is no conspiracy theory; it is advertising theory (1, 2). It’s business. As a result, western society has entered a mental health crisis (1, 2) as its free markets mass produce depression and narcissism, as we are all miss-sold happiness.

Social media compounds the issue, providing “short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” (1, 2) which manipulate us into to further embellishing and flaunting our lively possessions – the flags of our empires – in the virtual world, as we unwittingly encourage one another to consume more still.

What is deeply disconcerting is that the means by which we might relearn the value of empathy, community and virtue, and consequently rediscover happiness as contentedness, is being dismantled. With central government stripping powers of discretionary spending from local councils and redirecting the cash to Whitehall, our communal infrastructure is rapidly disintegrating. With it go the remnants of a once humanistic, community-based Great British culture. Youth centres, libraries, care homes, parks and public gardens are being left to ruin, so that the state can financially compete on a global scale in order to recreate the illusion of a “Great British Empire”.

It’s difficult to decide which of Britain’s politico-economic ideologies are causing all this: sectarianism, capitalism or neo-liberalism? It could be any or all of them. However, all of them scream the same battle-cry, wealth and empire are all.


A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Happy; Out of the Wreckage; Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered;
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

The elephant in the room is trampling all over us. Yet we’re still living, thinking and talking as though it were not there.

Climate change is so inescapable, so entangled within the definition of our politico-economic system, that to explore it, to educate about it, is to create a wide-spread existential crisis wherein the persistence of the very thing by which millions of us in some way identify and define ourselves – our culture – is perceived as both necessary for very short-term pleasure but morally abominable for the sake of those millions who have, are or will suffer and die as a consequence of it.

As such, discussions surrounding the climate breakdown are not being appropriately entertained by those in power (nor the media). They know that such discussions, if made publicly, would expose our economic system for what it really is (i.e., the root cause of the climate issue), and would certainly cause public outcry – they know that very well. However, maintained as a mere side issue, the realities of climate change will unlikely be exposed and the necessary changes never made. Those in power will retain their grip.

In reality, however, they are not psychopaths. They are not intentionally drowning, burning and starving people (though that is what they/we are all doing). They’re simply petrified to face up to the moral imperative. They’re fully aware of their irrationalities; they can feel the increasing pull of their inner cognitive dissonances. But to talk about climate change would require them to iron out their irrationalities, bring their subconscious biases to the fore, force them to realise their complicity in Othering, which would ultimately oblige them to change who they are. Regrettably, to many, that notion is more terrifying than the seemingly distant idea that our culture, in keeping with its very definition, is currently committing mass genocide (1, 2, 3, 4).

You see, it is not simply the case that people must accept climate change as a reality. We must also explore its causes and implications and talk about them and shout about them, and be outwardly furious with the forces that continue in trying to avert our eyes from them – even if this means that in so doing we ourselves suffer a little. For the sake of humanity, and for those you profess to love, be willing to challenge yourself. Be willing to talk about climate change. Further still, encourage it.

But the media is talking about climate change, is it not?  Yes, albeit sporadically and obtusely. The typical style of the ostensibly rare pieces of coverage concerning the relationship between climate change and, for example, Hurricane Irma or Harvey obstruct the wider conversation. That conversation would lead us to recognise that our deep-seated consumerism, our self-professed right to newer, better, more, is the cause of it all. (I suspect it’d also lead us to recognise that the depraved neo-liberal system in which we live is based on a theory of democratic “consent without consent”).

Many of the reports caveat that freak weather events are not caused by climate change (1, 2). This is extremely damaging for two reasons: Firstly, the inclusion of such caveats (regardless of whether such a report exaggerates that the increasing ferocity, frequency and consequent suffering to ‘natural disasters’ is directly linked to human-induced climate change) foolishly reassures already steadfast climate change sceptics. Secondly, and most importantly, this caveating deflects blame away from those who created the problem, i.e., us! – the post-industrial capitalist world. It serves to destroy our sense of agency, enabling us to reject responsibility. It solidifies climate change as a side issue, as something not deserving of inquiry or exposition, and ultimately promotes the damning political praxis of business as usual.

As long as the media persists in caveating, as long as we fail in holding those in power to account, and as long as we entertain the deluded idea that we and the culture by which we define ourselves is not the problem, the greater the catastrophes will become. It is our duty to start talking openly and candidly about the elephant in the room.


A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Introductory: 10 Billion;  2071: The World We’ll Leave Our Grandchildren
Advanced: Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations;  Fossil Capital

Populism: Activism’s Evil Twin

Politics & Public Debate

A word has been washing around in the media, spilling from the plump and pouted lips of politicians and journalists everywhere, with a meaning that is surreptitiously adapted at every convenient opportunity. It’s as though they’re all in on the act, utilising the word to make specious claims about things which in reality they have no factually-based ideas. The only certainty about this term is that it serves a receptacle function, enabling any debate within which it plays a significant role to be argued from divergent purposes, ever evading truth and certainty. Is it a Trojan Horse, a decoy, a false premise, or just utterly confused empty talk? What are people really talking about when they speak of ‘populism’? 

One answer is that populism denotes a society with a heightened degree of political engagement. In which case, the term ‘populism’ has recently been used as a veil to mask what is otherwise known as democracy, disguising it as an undesirable, even radical ideology deserving of great criticism. When sold under the guise of an “-ism”, the term becomes categorised alongside real ideologies, truly deserving of our concern (be it socialism, capitalism, fascism – now rebranded, the ‘alt-right’ – etcetera). And when the term is propagated by the media, given precedence in discourse above some truly heinous, yet increasingly popular alternative political and economic systems, more important issues relating to the corruptive intention of this term’s use become buried and forgotten under pages and pages of hypocrisy: Long live democracy, down with populism! This is the layman’s view, and has been interpreted by many as David Cameron’s view also.

Perhaps, however, populism isn’t about the political actions or championing of the common folk and their expressions against whichever branch of the politico-economic elite that they deem either (at best) detached from the needs of society or (at worst) entirely uncivilised. Maybe it has nothing to do with political empowerment or mobilisation whatsoever. Maybe it’s simply a descriptive term, used as shorthand to express a state of democracy, whereby the people take democratic action as a consequence of the system force-feeding them ‘untruths’ within a ‘post-factual’ era – still implying that it is the people and not the system that is untrustworthy, denigrating the value of democracy without appearing to do so. Indeed, a world in which the people’s opinions can do easily be called into question would be utterly enticing, would it not? Opportunities to defend the infallible necessity of radical paternalism would regularly present themselves, clearing the road to a seemingly democratic plutocracy! Bliss. Oh what a beautiful world… I kid, of course, but that’s how Donald Trump’s cabinet seem to be benefiting from populism (12).

But then, maybe it is not the political system that is populistic. Maybe it is the politicians themselves who are the populists – popularising themselves and their prejudices via vicious demagoguery and nationalistic fear mongering. If this is the case, then it appears as though populism isn’t being used as a veil but instead creates the veil through which the electorate are presented a skewed and biased version of democracy. (This leads one to consider whether contemporary populism is a symptom of neoliberalism – read here).

In one sense, these two ideas – that populism describes a state of true democracy and that it is the leaders, the protagonists and not the people who are the populists – both hold true. Just as an activist movement can be described as democratic action, so too can a populist movement. Similarly, activist and populist movements and groups share the characteristic of being led by those who we might also refer to as activists or populists. This might suggest that activism and populism are one and the same; activists are populists and populists are activists.

However, what differentiates these two schools (as far as I see it), if they are truly differentiable at all, is that activism is led by the virtuous and populism is lead by the incongruous. What this means is that, quite unfortunately, well-intentioned, politically-engaged people, who might otherwise be seen as activists, unknowingly become populists when their chieftains decide to take the low road, promoting their positions through deceitful means, justifying them using pseudo-academic literature. (Which is suggested by the rhetoric and subsequent rise of history’s most prominent populist leaders as being so tightly associated with and attributed to post-fact politics. As two examples of this rising trend, Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. Hence, whilst Bernie Sanders may be described, perhaps even criticised as a champion of activism, Trump is populism’s equivalent, as was Hitler during his rise). In short, populism is activism’s evil twin.

So, whilst activism is the attempt by the people to perpetuate democracy through social empowerment, populism is the attempt to perpetuate politico-economic empowerment through pseudo-democracy. Populism is democracy gone wrong. And whether or not you find this conception compelling, one thing is for sure: ‘populism’ is rarely ever what is seems.

 

A.C. Stark

Look Zoos Talking

Nature & the Environment

Blackfish stirred up a storm. The documentary exposed Sea World for the mistreatment of its captive orcas, its inhumane and sometimes fatal capture, breeding and training methods, its coercive staffing procedures, and the comprehensive duplicity of its senior management and public relations teams. In August 2015, almost two years after its release, Sea World reported an 84% drop in second-quarter profits. It’s stock prices have dramatically fallen. And in March of this year, in a desperate attempt to claw back a little credibility, the park announced the end of its whale breeding program. Hurrah!

But wait… Is this really enough? After all, the orcas remain in captivity, enclosed within tanks so small they’d have to swim well over 3000 lengths to match the distances they’d usually travel on a single day in the oceans. Reverberating throughout the tanks, their vocalisations cause disorientation and consequent unnecessary stress. Originating from different social groups, occasionally from distinct subspecies, they can be hostile towards one another. And as inherently social creatures, those that are subsequently separated develop chronic, sometimes manic, depression (as opposed to the regular state of despondency they’d experience if successfully socialised). As a result of all of this and much more orcas tend to live considerably shorter lives in captivity, with an average life expectancy of around 13 years, as opposed to the normal 30 or 50 (dependent on sex). So, clearly, captivity is far from the best place for these creatures.

The same can be said of countless other animals held within zoological parks worldwide. I dare say most of them. (They frequently suffer from zoochosis, a psychological disorder with obsessive and repetitive behavioural symptoms such as pacing or rocking back and forth for up to hours at a time. We’ve all seen it). Yet if captivity is not appropriate for them, why do we persist in containing animals? Do zoos really have an honourable purpose?

Many people believe they do (1, 2). They argue that zoos intrigue and educate us and that they’re integral to conservation. Others contend that zoos are entirely immoral; that they’re nothing more than profit-seeking businesses. Having experienced Sea World’s spectacular facade first hand, as well as dozens of other zoos and animal parks worldwide, I sympathise more with the latter school of thought.

Undeniably, zoos are both inspirational and educational (though, the extent to which they are either is debatable). However, it’s difficult to see their importance to environmental conservation when the methods of conservation employed by even the world’s biggest and best zoos are so clearly inexpedient. Both collectively and individually zoos spend absurd amounts of money upgrading facilities. Money that could be better utilised towards protecting or enhancing the natural habitats and ecosystems from which their detainees were originally hijacked. For example, in March of 2007 London Zoo opened its state-of the-art gorilla enclosure, the Gorilla Kingdom, the construction of which cost somewhere in the region of £5.3M. Better yet, the Bronx Zoo recently spent over $43M on its Congo Gorilla Forest, an enclosure unprecedented in both scale and diversity (holding 400 animals from 55 different species). But this 6.5 acre glorified gorilla asylum still compares to no more than 0.026% of what its primary inhabitant’s, the western lowland gorillas, home territory can naturally span. In being concerned with zoology these organisations are without doubt completely aware of their inherent inadequacies; they’re fully aware that true conservation requires much more than they’re willing to offer.

As an organisation capable of offering far less but which gives so much more, consider Trees For Life in comparison. In 2008 the charity purchased the 10,000 acre Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston of the Scottish Highlands for a mere sum of £1.65M. They have since worked hard to reforest the area, planting 30,000 trees per year, enabling local ecosystems to flourish free from the constant and intrusive glare of bolshie spectators (they understand that to properly conserve the natural world is to preserve the world in which animals live naturally, free from the constant bombardment of human intrigue and activity). With the money used to finance Gorilla Kingdom, London Zoo could have purchased Dundreggan three times over. Equivalently, the Bronx Zoo could have purchased it almost 19 times over. Why then did they not invest in something more worth while, something more in line with the environmental conservation they’re supposedly so integral to? Simply put, inexpediency is good for business. Indeed, if zoo’s were sufficiently expedient, then they’d cease to remain profitable.

But inexpediency isn’t the only problem concerning our zoos’ conservation efforts. Some general practices also are greatly condemnible, on the grounds that they directly conflict with the very concept of environmental conservation and demote animal welfare. For example, in order to manage genetics, populations or sometimes simply in order to feed their more predatory species, zoos cull animals that aren’t useful to them. Undeniably this is a deplorable practice, contrary to conservation, which if justifiable at all is so only on shallow economic grounds (12, 3, 4). Consider also the practice of keeping elephants. It has been repeatedly reported that elephants in captivity live on average less than half as long as their wild counter parts. Still, the vast majority of commercial zoos worldwide retain elephants as a main feature. Why? Well, elephants draw a lot of attention from spectators, bringing more people in through the gates, increasing revenues. Further still, consider the after-hours adult only events hosted by many of our favourite national zoos – such as London Zoo’s late night parties, Bristol Zoo’s Sunset Specials or it’s Big Night Out, or Edinburgh Zoo’s Summer Nights – all of which encourage their guests to partake in hedonistic activities whilst the zoo’s inhabitants are obliged to endure a night shift haunted by jesting, inebriated merry men and their wandering bands of louts and ladettes. How’s that zoochosis now, lion?! This is yet another practice accepted solely on the basis that it gets more people in through the gates. So, undoubtedly, for many zoo’s profits are a key factor in determining their practices. Moreover, profits clearly take precedence over conservation, to a degree by which the pursuit of them is often detrimental to the conservation efforts they’re purportedly intended to fund. Worse even still, this capitalistic culture has cultivated a zoo industry which further blurs the already hazy lines between what is and is not deemed morally acceptable in zoological practice, according to the normative framework laid down by our Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

As businesses more than anything else, their agendas are fundamentally at odds with environmental conservation. The problems associated with Sea World are not unique. They’re  wide spread. They’re happening right under our noses, on our shores, committed by our zoos and adventure parks. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a place for zoos in the contemporary world, only that we need to drastically reevaluate the standards of practice by which they are run – something which hasn’t been done here in the UK for decades! (Some zoos are doing this off their own backs (1, 2) while some governments, such as Costa Rica’s, are closing zoos down altogether).

Ultimately, here in the UK, we’re deeply in need of a comprehensive review of our Standards of Practice. Furthermore, as individuals, we ought to consider whether our zoos are currently worthy of our attendance fees. I myself will boycott them all. And I implore you to do the same.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

 

In-Out, Shake it All About

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

History seems to have taught us nothing. Those who experienced the world wars have almost all departed us, and with them we’ve lost the memories of what a divided Europe looks like. We forget why the EU was established in the first place.

Originally formed to increase European cohesion through geopolitical and social inclusivity, the EU is now seen predominantly as a platform for economic gain. Reductions in the scale and regularity of conflicts between European states are seen as merely incidental. But in a world torn by scores of armed conflicts (1, 2,), by the effects of corrupt and mismanaged plutocracies (12, 3), with Russia roughhousing it’s neighbours, with the emergence of overpopulation and climate change, cohesion is crucial. It’s plain to see that if we are to stand even the slightest chance of surmounting these obstacles, we desperately need to enhance our unifications, not divide them.

As our biggest global challenge, the inevitable effects of climate change in a world of broad geopolitical division are huge. With increasingly sporadic and extreme weather events, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, the collapsing of ecosystems, consequently diminished crop yields and fish stocks, economic ruin, together with a plethora of other issues all causing the displacement of communities and wide-scope civil unrest, tackling climate change requires a great deal of collaboration. If our efforts are not collaborated, we risk intensifying these already inexorable natural disasters, not to mention humanitarian crises. Yet, heedlessly, the majority of discourse surrounding the in-out debate mentions almost nothing of the importance of the union the EU is supposed to embody. Instead, it obsessively procrastinates over conjectural economics.

But the truth is economics are nigh-on redundant in this debate. This obsession with financial gains is de facto a primary cause of the climatic mess we find ourselves in. For many this is a hard pill to swallow. It’s almost tautologous that capitalism produces climate change, which eventually comes with the added cost of complete economic collapse. This is just the paradox of capitalism: As an economic system which necessarily commodifies nature, capitalism relies on the destruction of nature for its own development. While innovation speeds up market efficiency, the speed of nature’s regeneration remains constant. Without curbing innovation, without slowing down market efficiency, our natural resources dwindle and the complex tapestry of our biosphere begins to rapidly unravel. In other words, “the Earth is f**ked unless somehow the market can be prevented from working so well.” So, clearly, focusing on the economic aspects of the in-out debate is not only imprudent but entirely absurd.

On the rare occasion when economics is not at the forefront of the debate, patriotic calls for sovereignty tend take the spot light. Similarly, this argument can be severely damaging to the war on climate change. After all, it consists in the very antithesis of unification. But the flaws in this argument run a little deeper.

Putting aside the many psychosocial aspects of patriotism (how and why it develops etc.) – many of which I respect and find fascinating – as a phenomenon, I find it deeply disturbing. Just thinking about patriotism one can sense it has something strangely sinister about it. It’s designed to promote a sense of national individualism, a sense of national pride. A sense of self-worth. The perverse and competitive sense that we are better, superior, more valuable. In this way patriotism is comparable to ordinary pride; it’s one of arrogance’s inconspicuous siblings.

“[E]ach person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”C.S. Lewis

So these calls for sovereignty aren’t just damaging because they reject the value of geopolitical unification. They’re damaging because they foster a culture of narcissistic individualism. And this is so clearly undesirable, because any system of people joined by common aims is automatically disadvantaged by it. The soldier that puts his pride before the ambitions of his army tends to die and/or frustrate his army’s efforts. The footballer that puts his pride before the ambitions of his team gets dropped to the bench and/or sold. Only once they becomes a little more modest and trust in the abilities of their colleagues do their partners better utilise them and discover their full potential. After all, there is no in ‘team’ (or ‘army’ for that matter).

In short, the value of unification is much greater than economics and sovereignty. Unification breaks barriers. It re-enforces bonds. Union will help us navigate the minefield of issues facing the world today. Most importantly, it’ll allow us to hone our efforts in the fight against climate change. Let’s learn from history. Instead of building walls, let’s knock them down

We are all Stronger In.

A.C. Stark

 

You’re an Activist, Big Wow

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

At the dawn of the new year the British media decided that the SoCalGas leak in Aliso Canyon LA qualified as big enough news to permit a moderate level of broadcasting. The stories that followed focused almost solely on the evacuation of thousands of local residents who suffered from nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds and various other ailments, due to high levels of air-bound pollutants. Unquestionably, this widespread degradation of well-being was alone worthy of headline news. Yet, nearly all of the reports were overly anthropocentric and failed to paint a full picture of the disaster.

In response, alongside a multitude of others fully aware of the media’s inability (or sheer reluctance) to properly inform, I wrote to the BBC and engaged with social media to educate people on the wider scope of problems related to the leak, concerning global warming.

(To note some key points, the leak officially lasted 110 days – though probably began well before it was reported  spewing up to 1,300 metric tonnes of methane into the atmosphere per day. In total, upwards of 96,000 metric tonnes are predicted to have been emitted between October 23rd and February 11th. Is that a lot? Most definitely. Whilst methane escapes the atmosphere faster than CO2, the damage it causes to the climate in the meantime is, for it’s first two decades at least, 84 times more calamitous. Comparatively speaking, the amount of methane released equates to roughly 8,000,000 metric tonnes of CO2, or the burning of 900,000,000 gallons of gasoline).

Subsequently the BBC expanded their story, stating that activists held the leak to be comparable, in terms of environmental damage, to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  

At the time I took this rather personally. I felt slightly disenchanted. It wasn’t the lack of calculated journalism that peeved me the most. Instead, I found myself somewhat insulted by this notion of activism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. Was I an activist?

Having mulled over it for some considerable time here’s what I have come to believe: Activism is heavily weighted down with negative connotations. It has an image problem. When imagining the stereotypical activist one pictures an eccentric, badly-dressed hippy-like character with contentious and overbearing social qualities. A vegan, clad in hand-me-downs. A militant idealist. An inconvenience on daily living. Big wow. Tell me something I don’t know.

But, and maybe only subconsciously, most people don’t want to be affiliated with that image. Affiliations with activists or persons with alternative ideals tend to impede upon our aspirations. That’s because the truths that they reveal can be extremely threatening and touch the core of how we understand and navigate the world. Moreover, affiliations can mould the way in which the world understands us. You see, opportunities are gained as a consequence of the impressions we inspire. Creating good impressions generates opportunities. The converse diminishes them. 

So, ultimately, I was insulted because of an unnecessary fear. I was subconsciously afraid of affiliation. That fear caused me to hold an unconscious bias. A prejudice, I believe, no sufficiently moral person ought to have.

There may appear to be a simple cure for this unwanted affiliation: Stop campaigning. Stop promoting ideals. Or, in my case, stop attempting to inform people on the full extent of damages caused by the SoCalGas leak and other such issues. Ultimately, stop being an activist. But no one should ever let their fear of unwanted affiliation negate their moral beliefs. For that’s all activism is. In its purest form, activism just is acting to promote a world consistent with ones moral beliefs. So if you fail to champion your morals through fear of being affiliated with those associated with a stereotype which conflicts with your ulterior desires, whom at the same time share your moral beliefs, you are a hypocrite unto yourself. You favour your ulterior desires over your morals. Your life is, by your own account of right and wrong, immoral.

Hence, we ought not to avoid activism simply because of the stereotypes it carries. Activism comes in many forms. It’s performed by all types of people. The stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. We ought to make activism what we want it to be. Give it the image we want it to have. Dare to challenge the stereotype. And don’t let unwanted affiliations deter us from promoting what’s right.

Am I an activist? I suppose I am. But shame on those who aren’t.

A.C. Stark

 

 

There’s Something Funky About Mr Cheese: Education and Minimalistic Living

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

It’s been reported recently that a great portion of UK graduates find themselves in non-graduate roles. The numbers vary depending upon where they’re sourced (1, 2), but the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) find this to be the case for 59% of graduates. On top of that, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) reports that while graduate employment is increasing, graduate salaries are decreasing. Our once financially accessible, comprehensive education system has caused an imbalance. We are now inundated with ‘over-qualified’ and ‘underpaid’ workers. This is apparently a bad thing, and undoubtedly provides the government with ammunition as they continue to make higher-education less financially feasible.

“The assumption that we will transition to a more productive, higher value, higher skilled economy just by increasing the conveyor belt of graduates is proven to be flawed. Simply increasing the qualification level of individuals going into a job does not typically result in the skill required to do the job being enhanced – in many cases that skills premium, if it exists at all, is simply wasted.”      Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD.

However, we ought to ensure that education and qualification are not conflated, nor used in politico-economic equivocations. They are very much separate things, valuable in their own distinct ways. Indeed, whilst someone may well be overqualified, no one can ever be overeducated. Such a thing just doesn’t exist. The idea that education is only valuable insofar as it provides us with routes to prosperity is flawed (such sentiments perfectly encapsulate the nature by which our democracy is cannibalised by our economic culture). Education has many more advantages other than simply enhancing one’s qualifications. It provides the ability to navigate complex moral scenarios. It enables informed democratic participation. It facilitates compassion and understanding. Education provides the tools with which we can properly avoid or manage conflict. Qualifications provide little value in comparison.

So, whether they realise it or not, Mr Cheese, the BIS and the political arguments their reports endorse, all of them are firing blanks. The key to this professed problem is not to discourage education, nor to make it less accessible. Rather, it is to encourage a culture that embraces education as it is, valuable in and of itself. A culture which, as a benefit of being educated, is versatile, inclusive, resourceful and sustainable. Hence why I do not believe that a country containing a considerable number ‘over-qualified’ graduates is a bad thing. The same goes for working a job that is well within the limits of one’s capabilities. You can have a PhD and be shopkeeper, a dustbin-man, a cleaner. That’s fine. Your qualification might have gone to waist but your education certainly has not.

In fact, given the tremendous contributions extravagant lifestyles pay towards the destruction of our biosphere, living a little more minimalistically is nothing short of applaudable. It ought to be encouraged even. When the common conception of a good job is one that pays well, something has gone awry. Higher earners, with their gas-guzzling cars and imported goods, their hasty purchasing and disposal of needless novelty products, their Christmases, Valentines Days, Easters, Halloweens, not to mention several dozen somewhat insignificant celebrations dotted in-between, their urgent desire to buy bigger, better, more – the higher earners definitely contribute more to global warming. Far from speculation, this is simply the truth of the matterSomewhere in the region of 26% of all the UK’s emissions are created by domestic and international transport, imports and exports. The more you consume, the greater your involvement in that statistic. The typical Brit will emit as much CO2 in one day as a Kenyan will in a year. The average American emits 2000 times more than someone living in Chad. Such statistics seem a little extreme, but they definitely highlight the point. Aren’t their any limits to the excessive compulsions of those who have a little doe? The culture we’ve been raised in demands us to consume. It says, earn more, buy more, eat more – repeat, and sells it all under a light of good intention, but tells us little of the wider ruinous effects it has on the natural world, the poor and underprivileged, indigenous communities, and future generations. Minimalism, or at least living a little less extravagantly, given our currently fragile position, is now a moral requirement.

This is why the statistics surrounding graduate employment are to some extent encouraging. How can we expect anything less if this is what is morally required of us? By embracing minimalism and realising the true value of education as something entirely distinct from any qualification it may or may not underpin, the concept of over-qualification becomes entirely redundant. So too does the notion that a broadly accessible, comprehensive education system can produce anything other than desirable effects on the whole.

As soon as I read these reports I could smell that there was something a little funky with Mr Cheese and his gang. Their equivocations failed to go undetected.

A.C. Stark