A National Sex Holiday (and Other Campaigns for Procreation)

In Singapore, National Night is a night for baby-making. What happens when governments sponsor procreation?

In 2012, National Night was launched in Singapore, on the eve of the nation’s independence day. While the name sounds benign, the impetus is anything but: This evening was dedicated to baby-making. Concocted by the Perfetti Van Melle, the makers of Mentos — seriously — the initiative even came with a soundtrack: a ridiculous English-language hip-hop song featuring lyrics like:


Man: You see this August 9th; it’s time to do our civic duty, and I’m not talking about speeches, fireworks, or parades.

Woman: But I like those things.

Man: I’m talking about the stuff after that stuff. I’m talking about making a baby, baby.

Leaving aside the misogynistic tone of the song (submissive woman, dominant male), this sort of propaganda is popping up in a number of countries. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently reported, a Danish travel agency recently kicked off a similar campaign. Turns out that Danes have 46 percent more sex while on vacation; 10 percent of all Danish children are conceived while on holiday. The government would like to take advantage of that.

Selling sex is nothing new. Selling sex specifically for the purpose of procreation is also not new — religions have depended on such pro-tribal techniques for millennia. The catchphrase, "Do It For Denmark," is more revealing: The Danish government is concerned about population rates, which, like many other countries around the world, are dropping.

According to Zakaria, the average woman needs to birth 2.1 babies to maintain the current population of a developed nation. At the moment, every single European nation is below that level. That means by 2050, Greece will be down 10.9 percent, Germany 14.7 percent, Portugal a whopping 18.6 percent.

Japan is in even more dire shape. Thirty-five years from now the nation’s population is expected to be reduced by one-fifth. Factor in senior citizens requiring more federal assistance and health care with a lightened work force and the future is not rosy. That is one reason the Japanese government is funding matchmaking events.

Yet the ways these countries are going about inspiring procreation are odd. In Russia, for example, citizens in one region are being incentivized to "Bear a Patriot" with free refrigerators and cars. The South Korean government is directly asking religious institutions to lower the costs of weddings. In 2012, a single wedding cost $200,000, nearly four times the national pay average.

As Zakaria points out, such blatant measures are not inspiring hordes of young citizens to get it on. France’s birthrate has held steady, which many attribute to programs like state-paid nannies, extended leaves of absence from work, and free preschool. Japan, to its credit, is also offering better benefits for mothers.

While the birth rate in the US reached a record low in 2013, our nation is poised to grow by 27 percent by 2050. Ironically, this is mostly due to our immigration policies, one of the most heated topics in current GOP politics. While government officials and presidential hopefuls are saying "leave," the best thing for our workforce and economic growth is for immigrants to stay: they tend to have more children than native-born citizens, a major factor in our expected growth.

Still, contradictory messaging from political and religious establishments makes procreation confusing. The church is first to invoke the sanctity of marriage and sacredness of childbirth, which is why groups like Mormons and Evangelical Protestants birth the most children: They see it as a duty to their god. While Evangelicals are the winners when it comes to conversions, America has slowly been transforming into a more secular nation, which statistically means less children.

While the debate hinges on whether or not immigration takes away jobs from American-born citizens, the bigger picture shows that we will be reliant on a birthing boom in the decades to come. From a cultural perspective, this is more relevant than who is getting those jobs. Problem is, America is a nation born and raised on individualism, something foreign in countries like Japan. Point being, in America you can’t take away women’s health care access and severely restrict immigration and expect the population to increase.

Which leads to the biggest of these big pictures: climate change. We already inhabit an overpopulated planet. Instead of addressing environmental concerns, nations like Russia, Denmark, and Japan are dreaming up ways of raising their own population (tribal) while ignoring the continued footprint 10-plus billion people will leave behind (global).

Few people are going to be inspired to "bear a patriot." The religion angle has proven more successful, although that too has a narrow focus. This whole story is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s recent visit to the Arctic: His selfie videos showing the effects of climate change in real time while his administration just allowed offshore drilling is a contradiction he has yet to seriously address. The reality is the environment doesn't really care about the economic needs of the working class, or those who pay the working class.

Nations are going to have to learn to provide more with less: This is not a tribal argument, but an environmental and economic reality. Truth is, many of us in developed nations are going to have to live with less. It’s a difficult reality to face in a culture insistent that more is always the way forward, but then again capitalism and its theory of constant growth is just that: a theory. And like many theories, it exists only until it can exist no more.

Image: Sam Yeh / Getty

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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