Thursday, 24 July 2008

stopping people starving because of our greed

The world fuel and food crises are bad news, but they're not insoluble. Here's a bunch of ideas on how we might do it, and what you and I can do.

The experts think the following are likely to be among the solutions:

  1. Science and technology may find a way. Ideas include developing genetically modified or other higher yield crops, even growing "animal-free meat" from animal stem cells. Improved on-farm technology which optmises water application and improves other farming techniques may be possible.
  2. Practical help for poor farmers, to assist them purchase better fertilisers, build water storages and improve techniques would not cost a lot and could improve yields significantly.
  3. We should look carefully at funding for biofuels, and ensure that their growth is in addition to food production and not in place of it.
  4. Improve how the world trade and economic systems work, by breaking trade barriers and curbing speculative investments which create uncertainty.
  5. Increase food aid to poor countries, which can possibly come from excess food in some rich agricultural countries.
  6. Reduce the amount of meat eaten and fuel used.

But is there anything you and I can do now? Well, yes, there is:

  • We can eat less meat and conserve fuel by driving less, more carefully and in more efficient cars. There is, and will be, strong pressure from meat producers to increase the amount of meat we eat, but this should be resisted - we'll probably be healthier and others will be less hungry.
  • We can donate to overseas aid organisations like Compassion, Freedom from HungerGlobal Giving, OxfamProject Concern, TEAR, World Vision, or one of the many organisations on
  • Support Make Poverty History and Jubilee Debt Campaign, and FairTrade products which guarantee growers receive a fair wage for the products.
  • We can be willing to allow our material standard of living to drop a little to support these initiatives.
  • We can support, and lobby, our governments to work together worldwide to bring about the solutions.

Read more about worldwide solutions - LiveScienceUSNews, Wikipedia on "Food vs Fuel" and Time.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

the trend to the trivial

The theory (proposed by Maslow and believed by most psychologists) is that humans have a "hierarchy of needs". When we satisfy our basic material needs, we will then pursue "higher level" intellectual and spiritual ends.

But, says  clinical psychologist John Schumaker in a recent article, it doesn't appear to be working out that way in western society. Instead "Pulp culture is a feast of tinsel and veneer. Operating on the principle that triviality is more profitable than substance, and dedicating itself to unceasing material overkill, consumer culture has become a fine-tuned instrument for keeping people incomplete, shallow and dehumanised. ..... Today, the demand for triviality has never been higher and our tolerance for seriousness has never been lower."

He goes on to ask: "Can a highly trivialised culture, marooned between fact and fiction, dizzy with distraction and denial, elevate its values and priorities to respond effectively to the multiple planetary emergencies looming? Empty talk and token gestures aside, it doesn't appear to be happening."

He doesn't offer a lot of solutions or hope, but does suggest that the growing global problems may perhaps be our last and best chance to become more serious.

Many years ago, CS Lewis wrote: "If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages ourselves, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her/himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go; to stay here is death."

Saturday, 19 July 2008

people starve because of our greed

Photo: Morguefile

I don't really know any way to soften this. People are starving because of the greed of western countries. Consider these facts:

  • Over the last few decades, the developed world, through agencies like the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, loaned money to poorer countries for development, but with strict conditions. This "aid" tended to lead to farmers changing from subsistence crops to cash crops. It was said to more efficient, but some say it led to the farmers being dependent, and at the mercy of, big multinational corporations, and less protected by their Governments.
  • Sometimes the cash crops led to increased prosperity, but sometimes the vagaries of world markets led to profits being much less than envisaged. For instance, two decades ago, many farmers moved into high value coffee production only to see an oversupply and consequent drop in value.
  • Cash farming is based on the capitalist aim of maximising profit, so now that the world's supply of petrol is struggling to meet demand, production of biofuel is reducing the production of food. This is pushing up the price of food, sometimes beyond the ability of the poor to pay. 73 million people depend on food handouts from the UN to survive.
  • Ironically, capitalist farming and food distribution depend heavily on fuel for farm machinery and transport (cash farming tends to result in food being brought in from other areas). It has been estimated that it takes about 8 litres of petrol to produce a kilo of grain-fed meat - thus feeding a family of four in the US on meat requires about half the amount of petrol as that used by the family car.
  • Further, it takes a large amount of grain to produce a small amount of grain-fed meat (I have seen figures from 8 to 16 times). And it requires about 200 litres of water to produce a megajoule of most fruit and vegetables, but 2,500 litres of water to produce a megajoule of beef (CSIRO). Modern western meat production is highly inefficient at a time of impending food and water shortage.
  • A billion people in the world live in poverty while another billion are overweight. The richest 10% consume about 10 times the food that the poorest 10% consume. (SMH).
  • In summary, the western world's greed for petrol, rich foods and a high standard of living is not just an unfair distribution of wealth, but is a direct cause of food shortages and high food prices which leave poor people hungry.

So what of the future?

The world's population growth is slowing, but so is the world's food production. The pressure on the world's food supply will not come so much from the increasing population, because the highest population growth is generally in the poorer, low consuming countries (SMH). Rather, the pressure will come from the western countries maintaining their high consumption lifestyles as resources get tighter, and from developing countries raising the standard of living and becoming as greedy as the west.

But there are things we can do. I'll look at them in another blog.

Friday, 18 July 2008

this made me laugh

This last week Sydney has been host to Catholic Youth Day. The Pope is in town and thousands of pilgrims have come from around the world to participate. The culmination will be a massive mass at Randwick Racecourse on Sunday, and many pilgrims plan to camp out over Saturday night to hold a vigil. But it is the middle of winter, and the nights are quite cold, and camping shops have reported pilgrims buying up camping gear for their sleepover.

And so the Sydney Morning Herald headline was (wait for it!):

'Tis the winter of their discount tent

Thursday, 17 July 2008

reason and belief (2) - unbelievers

We've looked at how believers balance faith and reason. Are unbelievers more logical?

You'd expect they would be, because modern unbelief is generally based on science and evidence, developed via peer-reviewed papers published in reputable scientific journals. But the rise of more militant atheism in recent years seems to have changed this a little. Here are a few examples .....

the jesus myth

Unbelievers have, of course, long disbelieved that Jesus was the Son of God as Christians claim, or that he performed miracles or was resurrected. But in recent years, theories that Jesus never even existed, long rejected by historians, have been revived by some atheists. Many ingenious arguments are used, but the proponents are generally not recognised historians and the arguments are generally not made in reputable peer-reviewed journals.

So it remains true, as far as I can ascertain, that almost all peer-reviewd historians reject the idea that the stories of Jesus are a myth (see are all the stories about jesus true?), although they disagree somewhat on exactly how much of what we know about him can be historically verified. But most modern atheists, so adamant that the best science should be followed, for example, in understanding evolution, ignore the best historical analysis available. (For a long and depressing example of this, see this discussion about the Roman historian Tacitus.) Some even argue that the whole academic history establishment has somehow been "influenced" by the church to come to erroneous conclusions.

the history of christendom

The history of Christendom is littered with both good and bad. The crusades and the inquisition, religious intolerance and witch hunts, fighting over the papacy and support for warfare and genocide have all blighted the history of the church. Alongside this have been the establishment of education and hospitals, caring for women and children in the days of the Roman empire and support for the establishment of modern science, the anti-slavery movement and social welfare.

Any balanced account of Christendom must include assessment of these contrary impacts on people, and compare these to the similar impacts of other belief systems. However modern atheism often takes a one-sided view, ignoring the judgment of the best historians on the extent of both the good and the bad, and seeking at every turn to present everything in the worst possible light. Hitler's terrible record is blamed on Christianity contrary to historians and despite Hitler's own statements to the contrary. The obvious evils of the Inquisition are exaggerated and over-stated compared to what historians have determined. Unhistorical claims are made about the alleged conflict between science and religion in the past. (For another long and depressing discussion where a militant atheist argues an anti-church line from ignorance, against another atheist who knows his history, see here.)

do miracles happen?

Believers make many claims that miracles have occurred, and non-believers claim none of them are true. No-one would defend all miracle claims, but some appear to be supported by plausible evidence (e.g. when a Catholic Church medical commission investigated a large number of cases of apparent miraculous cures at Lourdes, there was sufficient evidence in only 63 cases for the commission to claim the miracles were verified).

When discussing evidence, some atheists argue that miracles are scientifically impossible, and therefore don't require investigation, a somewhat circular argument. When I presented evidence for this apparent miracle on a forum not long ago, most of the responses from atheists proposed hypotheses clearly contradicted by the evidence. When I invited them to join me in investigating further, no-one was willing. Thus many non-believers base their response more on their pre-conceived view than on evidence - which is not very different to many believers, just opposite in their conclusion.


It would not be fair to suggest that all unbelievers think the same, any more than all believers do. There are many fair-minded non-believers who are willing to accept the evidence of history. But it seems that many of the "new atheists" are more dogmatic, somewhat in denial of their professed creed of evidence-based reason.

I would say, in my experience, that logic and illogic can be found on both sides of the belief fence, but that the illogic among non-believers seems to be increasing, and can be found in quite educated people, whereas among believers, there seems to be a trend in the other direction, among educated believers at least. But doubtless there are places where this assessment would be entirely wrong!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

reason and belief (1) - believers

The relationship between faith on the one hand, and science and reason on the other, is not always easy. Here I'll look at how believers deal with the issues; in part 2 I'll examine how unbelievers go.

Religion is often seen as the enemy of science, with cases being quoted like Galileo's conclusions on astronomy being muzzled by the Catholic Church. But it also seems to be true that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim belief in a creator God and an orderly universe contributed greatly to the rise of the modern scientific method (see, for example, God's Philosophers and this discussion). Certainly it is true that, while scientific discoveries were made in many cultures, the scientific method flourished initially in Christian Europe, generally under Christian patronage.

evolutionary science

But Darwin changed all that, and Christians have historically questioned, and even opposed, the theory of evolution. The opposition has sometimes been illogical and nasty, at other times thoughtful and apparently reasonable - e.g. the more thoughtful side of Creationism, and the Intelligent Design movement. But it nevertheless seems to be based on wrong assumptions and poor science.

Much of the opposition to evolution comes from the view that if the Bible's book of Genesis is interpreted literally, it is hard to reconcile it with the findings of modern evolutionary science. But this view of Genesis is not certain. As early as the fourth century, St Augustine, recognised as one of the great thinkers in church history, warned against a literal interpretation of Genesis; CS Lewis, one of the most influential and respected Christians of the 20th century, and a very learned man on historical literature, also felt no problems in interpeting Genesis in a non-literal way.

Scientifically, it seems that the majority of Christian scientists working in related disciplines accept the broad truth of evolution - that the earth is old and that life developed from simple to complex - even if they may quibble over some details (e.g. the creation of life), and certainly believe it has been a process set up and overseen by God. For example, the majority of members of the American Scientific Affiliation (an organisation of Christian scientists) believe science points to an evolutionary process.

So it seems many Christians still see faith and science to be opposed, but there is a growing number who see faith and reason/science has being complementary to their belief. (For my conclusions, see evolution and design.)

global warming

There has been a strong scientific consensus on the reality of human-induced global warming for some time (see maybe, just maybe, we're starting to get this right and climate change continues to bite in australia). Nevertheless, many conservative people and business interests, especially in the USA, have argued the the evidence is still uncertain. Some undoubtedly fear a reduction in business profits, but for others, Christian suspicion of science, generated by evolution, seems to have spilled over into discussion of global warming.

Here it seems to be less a matter of faith vs science, and more a mistrust of science (this commentary from 2005 is typical), and a preference to believe respected Christian spokespeople, as this report shows. This indicates a poor view of science and reason by some Christians, although it seems that this unfortunate situation is changing.

reasons to believe

Some Christians mistrust human logic and believe "on faith", but most would argue there are good reasons to believe (see, for example, ibelieve). Certainly "proofs" of the existence of God, from science, human experience and history, have a long history and books about them remain popular (e.g. Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator and The Case for Christ). Whether one agrees with the case being made or not, the popularity of these and other books illustrates that reason, science and history remain important factors in the faith of many Christians.


Christians (and other theistic believers) have an ambivalent attitude to science and reason. Some are very critical, some are very committed to logic and evidence, and an increasing number seem to be seeing with one eye of reason and one eye of faith. If one believes that science and reason are good methods to arrive at truth (albeit not necessarily the only methods, or even the best methods in some cases), then believers still have some way to go, but appear to be moving in the "right" direction.

Next: unbelievers, reason and belief.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

climate change continues to bite in australia

The latest information continues to confirm the predictions of climate change models.

2005 was the hottest year on record across Australia, and the five year period 2003-2007 was also the hottest on record (Annual Australian Climate Statement 2007). The worst affected areas are in the southeast where both population and agriculture are greatest.

Graph by Aust Bureau of Meteorology

Much of eastern Australia remains in drought. Recent rainfalls have been slightly above average, but over the last 5 years rainfall has been low. But the biggest problem, as predicted by climate change models, is that the patterns of rain are changing.

  • Some relatively unpopulated parts of northwestern Australia are receiving above average rain.
  • However the southeast, including the Murray Darling River basin which produces 40% of Australia's agricultural production and 70% of its irrigated agriculture, has experienced its lowest rainfall on record overall (ABARE Outlook 2008).
  • Streamflows in the Murray Darling remain very low, with the current drought the worst on record. 2006 had the lowest inflows on record, and while 2007/08 was "only" the sixth lowest, June 2008 was the lowest monthly flow on record (ABC News, Adelaide Now, MDBC).
  • The river supplied the lowest volume of water ever to irrigated agriculture in the 2007/08 year (ABARE Outlook 2008).

It seems that climate change scepticism is increasing along with the temperatures, mostly based, as far as I can see, on isolated statistics, for example, that the hottest year on record was a decade ago in 1998, and it has been cooler since. The above facts seem to present difficulties to this scepticism, at least for us here in Australia. The worldwide data has been examined by Australia's premier scientific body, the CSIRO, which has concluded:

"1998 was the warmest year on record in the last 150 years. Although the eight years since then have not been warmer than 1998, they do include the globe’s second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh warmest years on record. The planet is not cooling."

Graph by CSIRO.

But in the end, we should base our conclusions on the full worldwide data set and the best expert opinion, which is summed up in the climate models and their predictions. I outlined this evidence in maybe, just maybe, we're starting to get this right.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

evidence against jesus, or for him?

Evidence that Jesus did, or did not, exist, is hot news and much debated. (See a summary of the views of scholars at are the stories about jesus true?.) Now a new discovery, or at least recognition of the possible importance of an old discovery, has opened up debate again.

A metre high stone tablet with ink writing (not engraving) was found near the Dead Sea a decade ago, but was only examined by scholars a few years ago. It has been dated to the century before Jesus. Critical portions of the text are now indecipherable, or at least problematic, but scholars and others are beginning to draw conclusions anyway.

The section that is exciting some sceptical scholars has been interpreted to say: "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.", with a reference in the next line to a "a prince of princes". The argument is that this is a reference to a Messiah who rises from the dead, with the follow-up claim that the early Christians stole their central story.

The response from other scholars has been to be more cautious (for example). The text isn't as clear as has been claimed (you can see a translation of the text at reply #3 here), and the tablet can be used to support the truth of the Jesus story as well as to dispute it. Here are three ways of looking at it:

  1. As noted above, the sceptics argue that the stories of Jesus rising from the dead are myths, taken from a similar source as the story of the tablet.
  2. Alternatively, scholars have long argued that much of Jesus' teachings and actions, which may seem original to us, were actually based on current Jewish culture and understanding, but modified or presented in new ways. This find would then simply confirm that the resurrection of a murdered Messiah was not foreign to Jewish thought.
  3. One could perhaps argue that this was a genuine prophecy, though I doubt any scholar would support that idea!

The slightly disturbing thing is that in the end, everyone will pretty much feel confirmed in their previously held views. There is such an enormous gap between those who believe Jesus never existed and those who believe in him that evidence cannot close the gap. In the middle, as I mentioned in my previous post the more sober scholars believe Jesus existed, but cannot demonstrate that all the stories are true. That remains a matter of faith - or of disbelief. 

Monday, 7 July 2008

perfumes, organic chemicals and other nasties

When they decided to replace the carpet in our office a few years ago, we had no idea how much of an effect it would have. I am not normally affected by chemicals, but the solvents in the adhesives (I think) gave me headaches and a heavy head for days, and stank to high heaven for weeks and weeks. One of my colleagues was pregnant, and we all wondered what the chemicals might be doing to the baby, but he was OK.

We who live in so-called advanced western societies seem to be increasingly affected by chemicals - not just the well known asthma or allergies to pollens, but all sorts of odd and debilitating sensitivities to chemicals like volatile organic compounds, solvents, adhesives, petrol, perfumes and deodorisers, and food additives. Some say as many as 15% of the population have adverse health impacts from these chemicals.

Those affected can have their lives seriously curtailed, and sometimes made a real misery. Here are some effects I have observed in others:

  • re-carpeting an office (not the one mentioned above) left a worker so sensitised that several years later they were still unable to visit that office for very long;
  • application of a sealant to a concrete driveway left a neighbour with a bedroom window close to the drive unable to sleep in the bedroom for four months;
  • chemicals used in modern car interiors make it impossible for some people to travel in them without being adversely affected;
  • use of chemical air fresheners in motels and hotels make them hazardous for some visitors;
  • some washing powders and fabric softeners are perfumed, causing significant irritation and inability to sleep, for some;
  • perfumes and after-shaves can cause some people to react, and have to move out of the room.

Medical science so far understands little about these sensitivities, and "cures" are a long way off. Those of us who are not affected need to become more aware of these problems and more sensitive to the distress of others. And it is easy to help:

  • Do you really have to wear after-shave and perfume? Could you at least wear less, and choose a less perfumed brand?
  • It is easy to find "green" and non-allergenic washing powders.
  • If smokers don't smoke in confined spaces such as motel rooms, managers have less need to use chemical air fresheners.
  • It would be wonderful if the manufacturing and building industries could develop and use less intrusive and unhealthy solvents, adhesives and chemicals generally.

Read more about Fragrances and Chemical Sensitivities, Allergies to Perfumes (people's stories) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Anyone have their own story to tell?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

San Antonio river walk

Rivers in urban areas take a hammering - they are straightened and concreted, trees are removed from their banks, pollutants from roads muddy their waters. It is very hard to retain a natural environment.

But urban rivers can at least be treated as assets for the benefit of residents and visitors. I doubt many cities have done this as well as San Antonio in Texas.

Descend a few steps from the searing heat of the streets and you enter a magical world of water, trees, and cool pathways. Cafes and bars line the banks, tourist barges glide along the water and under bridges, pathways and steps beckon you on.