The other population crisis: livestock require 75% of farmland

I have in the past pointed to the projected growth of the global population – from seven billion to 11 billion by 2100 – as a major environmental problem. But a bigger population crisis, from the ecological point of view, concerns not humans but farm animals, whose numbers are growing twice as fast. Raising livestock requires a vast amount of resources, and 75% of the world’s farmland; a third of all cereal crops are used to feed them. Livestock farming creates 14% of all greenhouse emissions – more than cars, trains, planes and ships combined. And the “tide of slurry” they produce is overwhelming the world’s capacity to absorb it. Factory farms in the US generate 13 times more waste than the US human population.

The moral is clear: if we were to eat less meat and dairy, our environmental impact would be slashed overnight. George Monbiot writes, “But while plenty in the rich world are happy to discuss the dangers of brown people reproducing, the other population crisis scarcely crosses the threshold of perception.” (Based on an article by Monbiot in The Guardian)

Crook rescue

In a letter sent recently, Mrs. Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, withdrew several policy memos from the previous administration involving consumer protections for student loan borrowers. Student loan repayment is managed in part by for-profit loan servicers. In her letter, DeVos cited the need to limit the cost to taxpayers of loan servicing. The Obama-era guidance had instead emphasized protection for borrowers.

This may be good news for Navient, the largest student loan servicer. The Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently sued Navient, alleging that it “illegally cheated borrowers” out of their rights and their money — as much as $4 billion — through patterns of deception and misapplying payments.

Navient has denied wrongdoing, calling the suit “unsubstantiated, unjustified and politically driven.” So why do they think that could possibly be, and where did they get that idea? Why, from students who have been exploited, misled and cheated perhaps – or who just feel they have been cheated.

Navient, formerly called Sallie Mae, is the most complained about financial company in America, according the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In one year alone, reports issued about Navient rose a whopping 813% year over year, with complaints about misleading borrowers and bungling students’ payments, according to BuzzFeed.

Navient had more complaints than any other financial service including credit reporting companies — like Equifax, Experian, and Transunion — along with major banks like Capital One, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase. A student loan services might be expected to encourage students to learn, to teach them how to handle money, not scare them off higher ecucation. Navient oversees about $300 billion in student loans owed by 12 million borrowers. It seems that there are a lot of unhappy students out there, and De Vos wants to reduce their safeguards and protections even further, reducing lending costs and in reasing profit – from students! May heaven help us!

Student loans shouldn’t be operated for profit. Period. But there is always some well- heeled gent with good political connections who can profit from an idea in return for election donations. Sad.

Wild animals are dying off

Global wildlife populations are set to fall by more than two-thirds since 1970 by the end of the decade, warns the Living Planet report by WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The assessment of more than 14,000 populations of 3706 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles from around the world reveals a 58 per cent fall between 1970 and 2012 – with no sign that the average yearly 2 per cent drop in numbers will slow.

The figures have prompted experts to warn that nature is facing a global “mass extinction” for the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs. Species are being affected by unsustainable agriculture, fishing, mining and other human activities that threaten habitats, as well as climate change and pollution. “Human behaviour continues to drive the decline of wildlife populations globally, with particular impact on freshwater habitats,” said Ken Norris, director of science at ZSL. But he stressed that, so far, these are declines rather than extinctions. “This should be a wake-up call to marshal efforts to promote the recovery of these populations,” he said. (New Scientist)

We need these animal populations to recover for all sorts of reasons, food in the form of the fish in the sea being among the most important, along with bees. You might think of a score of others animals on which we humans rely, one way or another. Epicurus would have pointed out that we depend all of us upon one another, and our careless, uncaring and cruel treatment of the animal kingdom is not only amoral but self-defeating. But don’t expect most of the world leaders we have at the moment to care a tuppenny toss about anyone or anything except their bank accounts and fellow millionaires.

The hopeless American healthcare system

With development, health outcomes generally improve, but the U.S. is an anomaly. The U.S. and the U.K. are both high-income, highly developed countries. The U.K. spends less per person ($3,749) on health care than the U.S. ($9,237). Despite its high spending, the U.S. does not have the best health outcomes. Life expectancy, for example, is 79.1 years in the U.S. and 80.9 years in the U.K. And while the U.S. spends more on health care than any country in the world, it ranks 12th in life expectancy among the 12 wealthiest industrialized countries, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on health issues.(NPR website, April 21, 2017)

The British are constantly complaining about the National Health Service, and I have no doubt that, starved of funds and investment, it is creaking. Nonetheless, if you are really ill (not just waiting for a new hip) the NHS is brilliant and looks after you well. Americans po-poo it: socialised medicine they call it. But then the NHS runs on the smell of an oily rag in comparison to the American system, which sucks up about double the GNP compared with the British and other health systems. Why? Because at every turn someone has to make, not just an income, but a profit.

At its best American healthcare is excellent, but with one proviso – you have to be well-off or work for a generous company. Even so, this must be the only country where the patient has to spend hours on the phone trying to get insurance companies to do their job. Case in point : I have waited for weeks now to get pre-authorisation for a dental procedure. Wait, wait wait. I said to the person on the other end of the phone:”As it happens, I am not at death’s door, but nonetheless, here I am spending ages trying to satisfy your requirements as to the necessity and nature of the procedure. Were I on my deathbed how could I do this? The patient shouldn’t have to be constantly on the phone to find out what further information the insurance company needs”. The truth behind all this is that the insurance company doesn’t want to fork out and hopes you give up.

A fine mess the country has got itself into; and I haven’t even started on Obamacare and its successor, or the dire healthcare given to the poor and returning sick soldiers, or those with medical pre-conditions who are sick, and get dumped by insurance companies. Meanwhile, the Republicans cannot agree amonst themselves, but are quite likely to make matters worse. Unless you are rich.

Trigger warnings

If you go to the website of London’s Royal Court Theatre, you’ll find a paragraph headed “Trigger Warnings”, advising that some plays contain material “that can be particularly distressing for some individuals”. If you’re an author who thinks your new book may cause offence, you can get a “sensitivity reader” to vet it. We now spend a lot of time agonising over people’s feelings. Hardly a day goes by without someone trying to ban something: students at a US university have banned the “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from giving a talk, fearing he’d create an “unsafe space” for people on campus. Such moves, however well-intentioned, are based on the flawed assumption that people are so fragile they must be shielded from things that may upset them. Wrong. As the eminent psychiatrist Sir Simon Wessely discovered after the 7/7 London bombings, the counselling given to the survivors actually made many feel worse. “People are tougher than we think,” and it is by facing up to our fears that we overcome them. Instead of searching out sources of offence, we must trust in people’s adaptability and resilience. (David Aaronovitch, The Times)

It would be nice if the world were rational, placid, kind and considerate, all things valued by Epicurus. But it isn’t and won’t ever be, because there are many bullies, greedy manipulators and people ruthlessly trying to get ahead. They have always existed and always will. Epicurus advised us to avoid them and to concentrate on friends and activities we enjoy, the purpose being to have a pleasant and as joy-filled life as possible. Trigger warnings are patronising and unnnecessary. If you go to a play that is disturbing and the language too vulgar for you, walk out. If you are confronted by disagreeable people, simply walk away. At some point you have to grow up. The world is what it is. You can exert influence in the right direction, but you cannot cure all ills.

An Epicurean’s response to death

This is a short piece I wrote in response to a close friend of mine, who was experiencing severe thanatophobia (fear of death.) I think it is consistent with the Epicurean view on death, but let me now if there’s anything wrong with it. I’ll be continuing my Modern Philosophy series next week, and look out for any additional posts on the upcoming General Election in the UK. 

The solution to the fear of death is the belief that mortality is good: that an immortal life would be pointless due to the absence of a teleology, or something to work towards by a set time. Conversely, mortality is what gives the world purpose: it’s what drives both human progress and biological evolution, it’s what defines us as a species. In other words, if we didn’t die, we wouldn’t be human.

Death is what makes life life; without it, life would not be life, but merely a continuation of existence in perpetuity. This is because an immortal life would have no raison d’etre, as there would be no definitive point in which you could have said you have accomplished your life’s goals. In a finite life, you can only set out a limited number of things you desire to achieve. Once you have achieved them, you could say your life has fulfilled its purpose. An immortal life has no such luxury. You would have an infinite number of goals, as you would have an infinite amount of time in which to achieve them. Thus, you would be shackled to the obligations of existence, with no possibility of release.

It’s no exaggeration to say that there are no advantages to immortality. None. You would live forever, but so what. As any economist will tell you, the less of something there is, the more its value. An immortal life would be worthless. Everyday would not be a day to be cherished or enjoyed, nor a unique opportunity to do something valuable. It would merely be a continuation of the existing state of affairs ad infinitum.

But even if I’m wrong, and immortality is something to be desired, the fear of death is still irrational. It prevents you from enjoying your life. It fills you with anxiety. It causes you to hypothesise untenable propositions about the possibility of an afterlife. In turn, this is often used to exploit people, to enslave them in this life in exchange for emancipation in the next. The fear of death becomes a means in which the powerful control the lives of those too miserable in their predicament to refrain from considering the promise of a better life, however farfetched it may be.  

As the late Christopher Hitchens said, ‘there is nothing more, but I want nothing more.’ Immortality is not an ideal, but a dystopian notion; a distraction used to wreck havoc in the lives of the poorest and the most vulnerable. In contrast, death is not to be feared, but to be welcomed. It is the most effective way of driving us to make the most of our lives, and the only way of relieving us from the burdens of existence.


“Conventional measures of potential, such as IQ tests, turn out to be rather impotent unless yoked to deeper aspects of character: the willingness to work through difficulties, and not be threatened by the failures that are an inevitable aspect of life.

“The problem is that we live in an X Factor culture world that is all about instant success and gratification. If kids think success happens effortlessly, why would they bother to persevere when they hit challenges and difficulties?”

People who haven’t developed the traits required for dealing with setbacks are often flustered by ambiguity and challenge. Well-adjusted young people do not ignore failuures, or give up when faced by them, but learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again. Mistakes are learning opportunities, build resilience and self-understanding. Karl Popper is quoted as saying, “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it”. (Mathew Said in The Guardian Weekly (edited))

Grit is the word I would use. It is a rare person who gets through life without a setback, mistake or crisis. One has to take it as calmly as possible, determine not to let it happen again, put it behind you and set out to do better next time. It’s a frame of mind.

“Now people will hate you again”.

Julian Barnes, in an article on 20 April 2017 asks what vision Brexiteers have for the future of Britain. “It seems”, he writes, “a mixture of Merrie England, Toytown and Singapore. Outward-looking in the sense of “open for business”, which tends to to mean “up for sale’; inward looking in other senses. Morally depleted by cutting ourselves off from Europe and sheltering beneath Trump’s fragrant armpit. What might we end up as? Perhaps a kind of Bigger Belgium, with quasi-American values and torn into separate nations again. Do we seriously think that those who voted for Brexit are going to be better off under this state-shrinking government? (I can’t recall the phrase ‘Poorer but Happier’ being used) That the NHS will be properly funded? That the increasing numbers on zero-hours contracts will not be exploited further? That the old winners will be the new, even bigger winners? Do we seriously believe that Mrs May, when she wins her election, will construct a ‘country that works for everyone’?”

“The Australian, Simon Leys, wrote about Australia: ‘Culture is born out of exchanges and thrives on differences. In this sense ‘national culture’ is a self-contradiction, and multiculturalism a pleonasm*. The death of culture lies in self-centredness and isolation”. The first concern should not be to create an Australian culture but a cultured Australia’.”

Julian Barnes continues by saying what I also half-feel in my conflicted heart. I love the country of my birth and owe it a huge debt. At the same time the aggressiveness and arrogance of the Brexiteers, who claim fallaciously that ‘The People have Spoken’ cannot help making one half hope that Europe will make the UK pay up all it owes, and keep it waiting for a deal; that Trump will ignore the Brits or make a humiliating offer; that those who wanted the departure of the East Europeans will find that it is now they who have to dig the potatoes and care for the old and dying; that the same people will find that they are worse off financially not better off at all; that the EU handouts will not be replaced by the British government; and that the safeguards and human rights brought them by the EU are dismantled and they are exploited with year-only contracts as never before; and that, as in America, the whole, but secret, idea was to enhance and fortify the power of the rich and the corporations.

But I also hope (against hope) that Britain will come out of the EU without too much collateral damage and that Epicurean moderation will win the day. If the above horrors occur they will affect my sons, my grandchildren and our friends. A mix of right-wing buffoons in charge and the Daily Mail braying in the background is not a good start, and many are convinced that foreigners will hate the Brits again. Let us pray not.

* Pleonasm: The use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning. The problem is very common in a country where people are paid by the number of words, not the depth of thought.