48: Poop, population, climate, taboo
Hello, I hope you’re doing well.
Welcome to Border Crossing issue #48. Thank you very much for being here and supporting my writing.
This time, I think about the taboo around over-population in the context of the climate crisis — and whether topics like that even matter now. It doesn’t get too heavy though, I promise.
Two quick slices of personal news. First, I’ve been awarded a DYCP grant by Arts Council England, to help develop long-form writing work. I devised a programme through to January 2022. No details yet but Border Crossing is a part of the plan and — as usual — you’ll be the first to hear any outcomes. If you’re a subscriber, you’ll get free copies of anything that emerges.
Secondly, this is still taking shape but for 20 days during Brighton Festival I’ll be hosting a daily radio chat show, Slack City Social, which will broadcast live from on-site at Brighton Spiegeltent. It’ll be on Slack City Radio from Mon 31st May, Mon-Fri at 6pm.
Madeline Drexler’s fascinating piece in The Atlantic explores how the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has done so well versus the coronavirus.
Two recent episodes of Jay Rayner’s Out To Lunch podcast are particularly good: with Stewart Lee and Rev Richard Coles. The links are to Apple podcasts.
Carl Anka’s interesting story on The Athletic about being a Muslim professional footballer during Ramadan.
I’m loving Atlas Obscura’s bitesized podcast episodes that tell lesser known stories from around the world, light and heavy. They’re like miniature top-line versions of shows like 99% Invisible. An excellent two-part episode about the ‘longest conveyer belt in the world’ (carrying mined phosphorus through a violent, chaotic disputed territory in Western Sahara) informed a chunk of today’s main piece.
Twenty-five truly mesmerising minutes of Nina Simone live in Antibes in 1969. YouTube clip shared online by Michael J Sheehy.
Typically brilliant in The Intercept, Naomi Klein paints a vivid picture of northern California’s combined climate and economic devastation.
South African potato consumption has doubled in ten years.
quite a few matters arising
In the last email, I muddled up Cape Horn and the Cape Of Good Hope. Many apologies.
I had an email from Boff Whalley, radical musician and playwright, Chumbawamba alumnus and founder of the exceptional Commoners Choir (check them out if you haven’t already, they’re a wonderful collective) who got in touch about the Border Crossing #46 piece ‘A Brief History of The Sound Of Your Room’. He makes a load of superb points, so with his permission here’s a chunk of it.
“One thing I've been thinking of obsessively for a few years is our retreat from physicality.
Being in a small room making a racket was always as much about humans sharing creative space as about the racket we made. Demonstrations and riots the same. We're hopefully now seeing a return to that physical gathering where people shout about the world instead of just clicking ‘live’ buttons.
I noticed that after the police bill was ‘put on hold’ last week, prominent Labour MPs were congratulating people for ‘keeping up the pressure on the government by writing to their MPs.’ No mention of the demonstrations and Sisters Uncut etc, the physical coming together of passion and ideas. That physicality scares those in power, it isn't easily controllable. The deaf woman in Brecht's ‘Mother Courage’ who climbs on the roof and bangs the drum to wake up the villagers. The women in Belfast who used to bang dustbin lids on the backstreets to say “the Brits are coming!”
How football grounds replaced the natural ebb and flow of crowd singing with recorded music to celebrate a goal. Controlling the culture.
Music's the same — I've enjoyed the boom in choirs simply because having 75 people in a room singing together is now a novel, unusual thing to do, where once it was how we experienced culture — church, football, workplaces, all masses of people coming together and sharing the sound and space of that gathering.
And yes, you're right, U2 etc invented themselves as a stadium band by making records that sounded like they were recorded in a stadium (long before they played in stadiums) and that offers us a glimpse/memory of that visceral thrill of being in a big crowd of jostling people.”
Thanks a million, Boff.
Nick Barnes also wrote a terrific text thread, responding to the Border Crossing piece on Sir John Franklin and the ‘north west passage’, making a good case that I’m underestimating prospects for modern sea trade in the melted Arctic.
“A working ‘north-west passage’ will be a massive win for trade between East Asia and Europe, because the equator is so fucking far. Same reason flights to/from the US west coast fly over Greenland. The ‘Northern Sea Route’, over the top of Siberia, will be clearer sooner (both will be clear for several months each year by mid-century). The big shipping companies are using the NSR already with Russian nuclear powered ice-breakers to clear the way; in another decade they won’t need that support. I think the NWP will work for east Asia to/from the US east coast as well, despite the Panama Canal, again because the equator is so far. Not sure on that though.
Of course all of this is really bad news for one of the most delicate eco-systems on the planet, but that’s all fucked anyway due to warming.”
Good points Nick, thank you.
Even since I wrote that essay, there’s been new news of Franklin’s expedition: John Gregory’s body has finally been formally identified, using DNA research. Here’s the BBC item about that breakthrough.
Poop, population, climate, taboo
The most divisive topic in the ‘personal behaviour’ folder of the climate crisis is over-population. Today, it’s usually a right-wing talking point; with racist subtexts and a sense that it’s distracting from real issues. Arguments about population divert attention from our urgent shared need to consume less. More, they pull focus from the weight of responsibility for climate crisis that lies with the big global corporations, rather than individual lifestyle choices. Mentioning over-population can be seen as the worst kind of climate argument of all: pointing over there at other societies to demand they change. A typical early salvo in the discussion, Paul Ehlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb was vividly, unflinchingly, supremacist, with core arguments (focused on city growth in the developing world, in particular Indian cities) rendered basically worthless by a racist narrative and no effort to properly factor in comparative use of resources. Notwithstanding that a newborn child in the ‘global north’ (or ‘industrial west’ or ‘rich countries’ or whatever the current best phrasing is, more brutally a white child) will consume far greater resource through their life than a child in the developing world. If one walks down the road of discussing over-population at all — even from a progressive starting point — pushback can be immediate and strident.
You may have that kind of reaction, right now. I don't know. I guess, stop reading if you’re likely to be upset by topics around childbirth, though I promise I’m treading carefully and (kind of) trying to unpick something else altogether, rather than the topic itself.
Clearly, a great majority of us still see having and raising children as not only a basic human right but beyond that, a societal responsibility, even an act of generosity to the world. In so many communities, it remains a defining requisite to being regarded as a functioning adult, while not having kids after a certain age is viewed with suspicion, as a kind of selfishness or distancing from the norm. I hear versions of this personally, often, because I don't have children. People dive into the topic more than I’d ever expected, far more than I mention it. It’s a bit like vegetarianism: you know, we hear constant stories of annoying, preachy vegans, yet really it's the determined meat-eaters who’ll bring up that topic and want to discuss it, more than anyone from the oatmilk army.
If I learn that somebody I know is starting a family, I’d never dream of reacting in anything other than an enthusiastic way. It's sincere, too: I feel nothing but love, if someone I care about is up the duff, or has popped one out. I’m not a Bill Hicks-ian performative asshole (well, only occasionally). Yet, with surprising regularity, I’m faced with questions about not having done so (especially by choice), occasionally challenging, with disdain, or worse, a kind of gleeful performed pity, built upon quiet, dark presumptions about what is a major, semi-private life decision.
It’s not people’s fault though, right? It’s so deeply embedded. Humanity had tens of thousands of years, where that basic evolutionary urge to enlarge the group, to spread a population across the land, to increase numbers for protection and shared workload, was a profound necessity and a genetic imperative. During those long aeons, from plains-dwelling hunter-gathering and beyond, we started to build the basic systems that still define, shape, limit and influence our lives today. The hard power and soft power. Agriculture. Various civilisations’ complex class structures. The patriarchy. The great religions and their rulebooks and their rapacious recruitment. Empires rolling into empires. Violent colonisation and enslavement. The need to breed, to defend the ‘realm’ even as we’d just begun to comprehend what a ‘realm’ was. The slow invention of capitalism, toppling Earth into the Anthropocene. The rejigging of societal structures and movements to feed those dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. Again, the need to breed, to perpetuate a source of labour and provide an income, when we were no longer able to do so.
Life is so different today. Scarcity of humanity long gone, yet those moralities and presumptions, with tangled roots and shoots in all of us, still point in that ancient direction of procreation first.
I believe Planet Earth is over-populated by human beings.
I don’t think it’s the most important challenge to focus on for fixing (or adapting to) climate catastrophe, in fact it may already have begun to correct itself. Nature is powerful and adept at such work. But it is a thing.
Two useful pieces of evidence are: our reliance on mined fertilisers — phosphorus — added to the agricultural food chain, alongside the (more obvious) rampant over-fishing of our oceans. Neither of these are being effectively addressed by mainstream climate activism.
The phosphorus mining industry is a smoking gun. Most of us are barely even aware it happens, or what it involves, or what it means. For almost all of human history, long into the agricultural era, beyond the birth of modern industry, Earth’s people could feed ourselves entirely on the crops we produced that were fertilised by poop. Animal poop and human poop. In some cases we’d collect and compost plant mulch. But mostly, tons of poop. We poured on the poop and that was good enough for the numbers we fed.
When I did an artist residency at the Workhouse in Southwell, I learnt that the gardens, which fed the inmates with surplus to sell, were fertilised by their own poop. Every so often, some unlucky inmates were assigned the task of carrying ‘night soil’ from the enormous pit beneath the loos to a huge compost heap in a far corner, where it would mulch for a couple of years, before being raked onto the crops. The 19th century workhouse system was a diabolical tool in controlling seasonal labour without properly supporting people. But they knew how to recycle: the water pump in the yard, where inmates got all they drank and washed with, drew up from big reservoir in the basement, where captured rainwater was all funnelled.
Anyway, it wasn’t until 150-odd years ago, something like the 1860s, when in the service of increasing yields and industrialising agriculture (within capitalism), we started to deliberately add phosphorus that we’d scraped out of the ground somewhere else, to sprinkle on the food chain.
Today, a blink of an eye later, the global human population cannot be sustained by the agriculture we have (industrialised, technologised and mono-cultural as it is) without the use of this mined fertiliser.
Worldwide, phosphorus mining is one of the most environmentally and socially lethal of all industrialised mining practices (against stiff competition!) It’s utterly gross, what’s happening unregulated in violently disputed territories, far from media headlines, in vicious war zones, in locations where corruption and violence — or simply the free market’s aggressive disinterest in climate issues — are most rife.
Even if we significantly reduced our consumption — in the global north at least — and became radically more efficient by reducing food wastage, even if we somehow achieved both, still, to bring down global food consumption to a point where it no longer required phosphorus mining, we'd need to flatten population and reduce it by a significant amount, likely more than 10%, perhaps as much as 15%. Note: I’m drawing conclusions from disparate bits of data that aren’t easy to visualise, nor make into a cohesive whole. But for what it’s worth, I’m guessing conservatively.
Next we glance across sheepishly to what we’ve done to fish numbers and biodiversity in the world’s oceans — and we ought to acknowledge the shocking extent to which mainstream environmental activism and Green politicking has steered clear of tackling that thorny catastrophe. From anti-plastic campaigns that bang on about drinking straws (0.007% of plastic in the sea) yet never, ever mention discarded fishing equipment (45%+ of plastic in the sea), to the ‘sustainable fishing’ and ‘dolphin friendly’ labels on our packets of posh tuna or salmon that turn out to be utterly meaningless, lubricated by industrial-scale bribery, akin to the arms trade, bolted onto a sea trade infrastructure that simply cannot effectively check what is caught in nets and thrown back dead into the sea.
Capitalism is unflinchingly averse to a population flatline. A roughly stable world population at a level that balanced with what the Earth can provide would obviously be ideal for climate and sociability, yet it would be an emergency disaster for our domineering trading powers. I think capitalism’s obsession with ‘growth’ as a fundamental required condition is so fully ingrained, its experts can hardly conceive of the immense benefits of a flattened out economic model, where change occurs through new ideas and imaginings and varietals, without an aggressive cult-like scaling up (usually of fewer, older ideas that swamp out the new ones).
Here, capitalism achieves one of its neat tricks: it argues that economic growth is vital to improve ‘standards of living’ for a growing population; then demands the population keep growing, in order to feed the machines of productivity, to enable that continued economic growth. Blurring this vicious spiral exists in business, academia, the media, all our perceived norms, it’s embedded in language and action, to deny and deflect. About fifteen old white emperors see the benefit — and they can’t remotely spend it, however many times they take a private jet to Jeff Epstein’s island, or whoever has replaced him in that particular role. In the end, that system doesn’t see us as people at all, only producers. We can spot this slipping through in the tone of articles about current stuttering population growth, where anything but continued uptick of numbers is presented as a terrifying high-risk negative — a problem to be fixed — without clarifying that that is only the case because of the manufactured fake need for the transactional, commodified process. Here’s the BBC News website from this week on China’s population flattening (my highlight):
So: performed worry about looking after older people, because they’ve built a system where that task is a paid, transactional chunk of labour; where neither state nor community are welcome (nor funded) to look after older people outside the profit-hungry transaction. Two realities being forcibly kept apart, like boxers at a televised weigh-in: the economic reality of growth, versus the climate reality of a dying, finite world.
How does one continue to fight on the myriad of other climate crisis front-lines, while at the same time beginning to address the population taboo, without falling into dangerous privilege-born traps (such as imposing top-down behaviour demands upon others first) that can only backfire? We can’t lean into control. We can’t lessen the value of individual life. We start with ourselves and centre ideas upon freeing people from fear. So it’s obvious, really, the usual soft leftie stuff. Access to free, universal, reproductive healthcare and education. A fierce, concerted global assault on the ignorance pedalled by religious establishments and socially conservative power-bases. Effort to create more — and more varied — opportunities for young people; opportunities that do not presume, or worse rely on, the normalcy of rendering a cordial monogamous sexual partnership into something contractually permanent, in order to raise a family in the ‘approved’ context.
We remove the economic transactional nature of younger people’s value to older people. “But who is going to look after me when I’m frail?” should universally be a forgotten concern of the past. Everyone should know who will look after them: all of us. Because they are us. ‘Nationalisation of emotional labour’, perhaps.
My personal beef gets solved, no messing, by a healthy paradigm shift away from those icky cultural attitudes towards decisions around having kids, or not. Which become especially valuable if capitalism will continue to battle to persuade folks to pair for life and breed.
We can gently erase the notion that having children is somehow an innately positive, generous thing to do for the world, without pushing further towards perceiving it as a bad thing. This needn’t be a binary, it can be neutral. We can wish parents all our love and love the new people that our comrades bring into the world, without needing to owe parents gratitude for parenthood, in and of itself. What they’ve done is lovely — but it's for themselves, not the whole of us.
The world’s stash of phosphorus fertiliser I mentioned earlier is more than halfway used up. It peaked. I’ve seen serious estimates that give us 80 years at current acceleration rates of use, then we run out, with no obvious viable replacement once it’s gone. So what does that look like? It’s as much a horror film as the one where bees can no longer pollinate. If crop yields and fish stocks can’t cope, millions starve. Hunger is a bottom line: wars and mass migration like we’ve never seen. For over a century, every famine has been preventable, every famine had a human cause. Right now we’re causing one that we’ll be wholly unable to alleviate, when it shows up…
…at which point — as usual with climate — attempting to think about any one particular topic devolves into that grand list of utterly horrible things that will occur on Earth in the coming decades, because we didn’t get our shit together.
As Vonnegut said, so it goes.
Nature tries to fix itself. Male human fertility is juddering, a lot. Is it anti-human of me to think that’s okay? The privileged, supremacist, othering arguments around population are dated, not just because of more liberal, open societies but also because those same kinds of people will immediately swivel 180 to argue in the exact opposite direction, if they’re driven to it by the global bank balance that is scared of the end of growth.
I dunno. All over the world, people choose not to have kids. Not for political or ecological reasons, just because they’ve had a bit more access to different potential ways to shape their lives. Marriages take place later, or not at all. Small-c conservative cultures are weakened by people being able to see beyond them, just as nothing fights, say, homophobia, more than homophobes having sustained, direct, personal contact with queer people and realising they’re people. By osmosis we get less shitty. Being childless today — by choice — is far less of an unusual situation than it was fifty years ago. And the discussion doesn’t matter. And anyway, I’m thinking myself round in circles, so I can shut up about it now.
Hannah Peel — Fir Wave (My Own Pleasure, 2021)
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