Sunday, 30 October 2011

Seven Billion Baby

A few days ago, I found myself driving through the Duchy of Berg, on my way to a wedding in a neighbouring town. It was a beautiful late autumn morning; the sun, though growing inexorably weaker as the days become shorter, had gained enough strength to burn away the early morning fog and shone unobstructed from a bird-egg blue sky on the last glories of colour which the fading vitality of nature was able to provide. Red and green had largely disappeared – with the exception of the dark grey-green of the conifers and the brighter green of many of the fields – for the first autumn storms had already stripped many leaves from the trees and most of those remaining had very little chlorophyll left, so that the boughs and branches were already beginning to show signs of their winter starkness. November is just around the corner.

It was an idyllic scene, an overwhelmingly rural scene, rolling hills, fields and woodlands; one which could almost be pictured as Frodo’s Shire, if you just imagined the occasional house, power pylon and metalled road away. And then it struck me that the region I was travelling through was, in fact, part of the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area, the second largest polycentric urban area in Europe (after London), with over 12 million people and a population density of 1,422/ It is, in economic terms, the largest economic area of Germany, accounting for around 15% of national GDP, one in which one city boundary frequently borders on the next – and yet, it is a region which is still predominantly green.

Of course, Germany is one of the richest countries in the world; a developed land, moving in many areas into a new technological, almost post-industrial phase, which has had the time and the wealth to deal with many of the worst excesses of heavy industrialisation, providing the vast majority of its population with a standard of living which would be longed for by billions of people throughout the world.

A world which, if we are to believe the experts, will welcome its seven billionth citizen sometime this weekend. The baby may be born in the Rhine-Ruhr area, or in Tokyo, in Beverly Hills or London; following statistical probabilities, however, it is more likely to take its first breath in the slums of Cairo or Mexico City, in the Gaza enclave or one of the camps in Northern Kenya, where the refugees from the hunger and chaos in Somalia are gathered in teeming hundreds of thousands. Though it may live its life in prosperity and privilege, it is more likely to grow up in poverty and existential uncertainty. If it lives a long life, that child will see a new century, having lived through one in which, in all likelihood, the human family will have taken the decisions which will decide whether the future will be bleak and increasingly uncertain on an increasingly wrecked planet, dominated by violence, poverty, a desperate struggle for mere survival by the vast majority of people, and death; or one in which humanity has faced up to the challenges it has created for itself and developed solutions which guarantee a life in dignity and relative security for its members.

The Parable of the Yeast
As a young man in Ireland, I spent a couple of years with some friends making wine as a hobby. We would never have described ourselves as oenologists; our primary aim was to produce significant quantities of a pleasant, drinkable, alcoholic product at an affordable price. While we experimented (sometimes successfully J) with different local fruits, the easiest way was to work with grape juice and kits, which could be bought relatively cheaply.

Apart from grape juice and the correct ambient temperature, the most important ingredient was the yeast. Basically, a small amount of dried yeast is added to the raw must and, in around two weeks, it converts nearly all of the sugar present into alcohol and carbon dioxide – the process known as fermentation.

It’s well worth looking at this process a little more closely. If the conditions are right, that small amount of yeast feels itself in yeast heaven and commences to behave accordingly. It starts to eat sugar, pissing alcohol and farting carbon dioxide for all it’s worth to get rid of the waste products. It also begins to reproduce like hell, being fruitful and multiplying at an incredible rate, creating a lot more yeast, which also starts to eat sugar, piss alcohol and fart carbon dioxide. A side effect of this is the generation of a large amount of heat, something the wine-maker has to keep a close eye on; the yeast does like it warm, but not too warm, a potential problem with all the reproduction and metabolising which is going on.

Towards the end of the process, the conditions change. The sugar starts to grow scarce and the amount of alcohol now present is proving increasingly poisonous for the yeast. As resources diminish and toxicity increases the yeast starts to die off, first slowly, then with increasing rapidity, until, in the end, all the yeast has died and fallen to the bottom of the fermentation vessel as a sediment known as the lees and the wine is basically ready (though to make it drinkable a slower secondary process, known as malolactic fermentation in which bacteria convert malic to lactic acid, must still take place).

In times when I am feeling pessimistic and negative – many would say realistic – I wonder whether there is any real difference between humanity and yeast. Looking at the past couple of hundred years, in particular, this view could well be seen as justified. As a process it is nothing special in nature, it happens all the time; species finding an environment which particularly suits them, over-reproducing and exhausting that environment as a result before dying back in massive numbers to make way for others and allowing new processes to begin. And we too are a species of life, just as yeast – or lemmings. The problem is that our environment has become the entire planet and the exhaustion of resources and the changes we effect on that environment are likely to become so dramatic that, when the tilt-moment comes and the die-back begins, we will have left an incredible mess behind us. If that die-back is not accompanied by widespread nuclear war (still a distinct possibility, particularly in times of increasing chaos, uncertainty and desperate battles for survival), the planet, and life, will survive us, but recovery from us will take quite a while.

Yet there is one aspect which makes us different from the yeast and the lemmings; we have the capacity to think, to plan, to imagine and envision the possible future and voluntarily tailor our actions in order to choose the direction in which that future will grow and thus influence its concrete reality. Up to around a hundred years ago, it can be argued, there were few enough of us, and the earth was big and bountiful enough, for such considerations to be unnecessary. That is no longer the case. We are becoming increasingly aware of our global interconnectedness in all sorts of ways – also of the consequences of our unthinking consumption of everything the planet has to offer and of our crazy merciless competition for increasingly scarce resources. Many major changes have already taken place and, just like the yeast, our “metabolising,” reproduction and ever-increasing production of carbon dioxide as a waste product is already showing signs of raising the temperature in our planetary fermentation vat to a level which is becoming uncomfortable for us. We have not yet learned to piss alcohol, but the other waste products we produce are quite poisonous and damaging enough.

The (symbolic) birth of Seven Billion Baby can perhaps be an event which helps us focus on what is at stake – the future of that child and his or her siblings; the future of all our children and grandchildren. It can be that beautiful world of the Duchy of Berg I drove through a few mornings ago, but it can also be the world of the Somali refugee camps in Kenya – or worse. But a world in which both can coexist and in which, above all, the residents of Berg can go about their lives largely unconcerned and untouched by the fates of those in the camps will not be able to continue to exist for much longer, for the strains and pressures we are creating planet-wide on all sorts of levels will become increasingly difficult to ignore. If we do not start to act much more decisively than we have done up to now, I very much fear that that tilt-point will come and the die-back will begin. And that is something which will profit none of us (except, perhaps, some fraction of that one percent who have so much power and money that they can barricade themselves away in enclaves to carry on some kind of sterile continued existence).

The signs are increasing that time is running out for us – that it is coming up to a minute before twelve. What gives me some hope is our capability, despite everything, for creativity, imagination and empathy. And our ingenuity and energy when it comes around to getting things done at the last minute.

Happy birthday, Seven Billion Baby. I wish you lots of luck – you’re going to need it. But maybe you’ll have it too; after all, seven is supposed to be a lucky number!

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. This is a very cleverly written essay about a subject so important hardly anyone talks about it at all. The main thing I understand about curbing the birthrate would be a major undertaking to elevate the autonomy of women to make life changing decisions for themselves. Nearly half of pregnancies are unintended by the women who experience them, and most of these only spur continued population growth. We also need a fast transformation of energy, water, and materials consumption through conservation, efficiency, and green technology.

    Considering the current chaotic environment both political and economic it seems unlikely any sensible consensus is going to be reached before the worst inevitably happens. It may be true that putting a stop to environmental damage just isn't in the human skill set. Like you, I hope I'm wrong.

  2. The flip side of the coin is the medical advances that are increasing longevity. Once we arrive on this planet, we don't want to leave, to die, to make room for those who are waiting in the wings to be born. Our global society as it functions today was not ready to welcome the 7th billion baby. Fear of death leads the wealthier nations to expend enormous resources on the last stages of life. Over- population is a two edged sword that cuts both ways - pitting the elderly against the unborn. And if the years of a man's life grow to 14 score, what then? I don't know wherein lies the answers but the questions are growing and growing and growing. I thought your analogy was right on. Do you think greed has become the yeast of life?

  3. Susan and Maureen - you both make very good points. Medical advances have given women control over their fertility for the first time in history (a 20th Century Revolution, the full consequences of which still have to play out) and increased longevity.

    All the indicators show that as societies increase in wealth - distributed at least far enough to allow all its members some sort of secured living standard (as in developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere) - and in basic education levels, their rate of population growth falls (e.g. Europe, Japan). I believe that our planet is capable of sustaining the present population levels (and even some billion more) in dignity and without completely wrecking our environment. But we need to adopt new attitudes, ways of thinking, ways of doing things. The unfettered free-market capitalist growth model is becoming a highway to hell.

  4. My own metaphor has long been the in vitro bacteria colony that dies in its own generated toxins long before its substrate runs out. though medical advances increase population at the moment, there is evidence that where people get used to their children living into adulthood, they stop having so many.
    The real problem is that we haven't addressed how to get much of the third world into safe living conditions in which they would control childbirth. My sense of the last 30 years is that capitalism has reverted (big time) to financierism to support a one percent. I think we know what to do but are scared of forming the authority to do it because of the dreadful history of authority.


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