Sunday, 20 April 2008

gross inequality

Lately our local council has been conducting "clean-ups"- special removal of household waste. And so piles of "waste" - furniture, electrical goods, some building materials, etc - appear fleetingly on footpaths outside homes awaiting pick up and disposal.

One interesting outcome is the number of people scavenging through these streetside piles of discarded items looking for items they can use - building materials, scrap metal, furniture and toys that can be repaired, etc.

It's encouraging that some of the "rubbish" is recycled and re-used, but it points up the fact that our affluent society discards what would be treasured in a poorer society. Somehow we have reached a stage where either:

  • we are so affluent we can afford to jettison products before their useful life ends because we want to upgrade to a more fashionable or better featured product, or
  • we buy poor quality products that need replacing too quickly.

It all leaves a sour taste. There is such inequality in the world that we get to spend money on less-than-necessary stuff that we'll junk all too soon, while elsewhere people starve or struggle.

Then comes news of another burden our western society is placing on poorer countries. I have read in the past how subsistence farmers can be trapped into converting to cash crops, and then fall victim to fluctuating prices, uncertain markets and rip-off practices, and end up worse off than before.

Now it is being reported that the increased interest in biofuels in rich western countries, to prop up our petrol habits, is resulting in some former food crops having greater value as fuels, thus raising the price of food. Experts are predicting that, while many farmers may benefit financially as a result, many of the world's poorest may find foods becoming priced beyond their means.

Our western society already has en environmental footprint many times what the world can bear. Here is another way we impose ourselves on the more powerless, by denying them a productive life to feed our insatiable lust for self comfort.

George W Bush once famously said that the "American way of life is not negotiable". But unless we create some miracles of energy, water and food production and usage, the only choices will be for all of us in the west to accept a lower material standard of living, or cause great hardship and suffering to those worse off than ourselves.

Not a nice message, but necessary to consider.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008


I read this in a book recently, based on a study of teenage prostitutes in San Francisco:

"When asked what they lacked at home that caused them to run away, the girls' answers came down almost universally to three words: 'Someone to listen'."

Sunday, 13 April 2008

who believes what, who doesn't give a zot?

Despite the efforts of some high profile atheists in the English speaking world, the majority of the world's 6 billion people (92% according to still believe in God, or at least follow a religion.

The best figures available (again from, supported by Religious and others) indicates that the beliefs with the largest number of adherents are 1. Christianity (2.1m), 2. Islam (1.2-1.5m) and 3. Hinduism (0.8-0.9m). Non religious tally about 0.8-1.1m, but half of these believe in God but don't follow a religion, and half are non-believers.

This much is fairly clear (although the exact estimates of numbers vary a little). But who is growing fastest? The best estimates seem to indicate that, of the major religions, Islam is growing faster than the world's population growth, Christianity is growing at close to the world growth rate, Hinduism is static and unbelief is slowly declining. Projecting forwards, it is estimated by some that Islam will pass Christianity as the worlds largest religion sometime in the 22nd century.

However a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, quoting historian Philip Jenkins, suggests these projections fail to account for one of the major factors in religious growth - population growth.

In his books The Next Christendom (2002) and The New Faces of Christianity (2006), Jenkins argues that population growth in the growing Christian parts of Africa, South America and Asia together with declining growth rates in many Muslim communities in the Middle East and in Europe, will change this picture.

Christians south of the equator find the agricultural, poor, sometimes oppressed and persecuted world of the Bible, with its un-modern emphasis on spirits and miracles, very familiar, and take to it more easily than sophisticated westerners often do.

Thus he concludes that the Christianity of the "south" will be remain more supernatural, traditional, yet socially radical, than the familiar Christianity of the west. And he suggests southern Christianity, already dominant numerically, will become more and more influential.

At the same time, he notes a dramatic fall in birth rates in some Islamic countries (e.g. from 6 to 2 births per woman in Iran between 1986 and 2000), and suggests this will reduce religious growth rates and lead to a modification of belief and attitudes.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

aiding and a-betting

Photo: Flickr

Some of Sydney's poorer families are spending huge proportions of their disposable income on gambling, a new report reveals.

In Fairfield in Sydney's southwest, the average annual household income in 2006 was $47,500. Of this, about $3,180 (6.7%) was considered to be "disposable" (i.e. available after necessities like food, rent, clothing, etc, were paid for). And of this, a huge 78% or $2,484 was spent on poker machines. I'm guessing some of the remaining was spent on other forms of gambling, such as lotteries, off-course horse race betting, etc.

Other suburbs had lower levels of gambling (30-50% of disposable incomes), though this may not indicate lower expenditure on pokies, but higher disposable incomes.

Almost a decade ago, annual expenditure on gambling was estimated at about $14bn, or $1000 per adult, and total stakes were about $100bn. Significant social problems, including compulsive and excessive gambling, depression and suicide, significant involvement of organised crime, and corruption of police and government, have been identified by Government inquiries.

So it is all big business. Little wonder that the two current operators of poker machines feel the heat when just one Australian state (Victoria) plans to open the market up to other companies and apply new forms of regulation to the gambling industry.

At present, all state, territory and the Commonwealth Governments are controlled by the Australian Labor Party, which supposedly represents the interests of "ordinary working families". Yet these same families are the hardest hit by the slow increase in gambling outlets, and the rich owners are the main beneficiaries. Governments gain enormous revenues from taxes on gambling.

I don't think many people seriously suggest restricting gambling opportunities to any great extent, but the whole thing still looks like it benefits the rich and the politicians more than the people. One can't help feeling there must be a better way to supply this service.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

the high cost of pleasure

A report just released shows that alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug use cost Australia $56bn in 2004/5, up more than 50% in 6 years. That's almost $3,000 for every Australian. Tobacco accounts for more than half of the costs.

The costs come from illness, premature deaths, lost productivity, crime and accidents.

Read the sorry story in the Sydney Morning Herald and

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

stonehenge secrets to be revealed?

Photo: Morguefile

Stonehenge has long fascinated people. Why was it built? How was it done?

Stonehenge was built in several stages. Before 3000 BCE, earthworks and timber posts were constructed. About 2500 BCE, the first stones (the smaller bluestones, weighing about 5 tons each) were transported 380 km from Wales, probably by sea, and erected. Over the next few centuries, the bluestones were re-arranged and the massive sarsen stones were transported from 20 km away and erected.

It is generally accepted that Stonehenge had an astronomical purpose and a religious or cultic purpose - with ancient societies so dependent on weather, the two purposes may well have merged. However recently, experts have proposed another purpose - as a centre of healing (the bluestone was believed to have healing properties).

And so the first archaeological dig within Stonehenge in 40 years is commencing, with a pit being excavated to try to find bluestone chips which it is believed may have once covered the whole site, and organic material under one of the bluestones to determine an accurate date for its erection.

You can read all about the excavation, and keep up with progress, on this BBC TV site, and read background information on this English Heritage site.