Birth Control Can Save the World

The world population, by U.N. estimates, has just surpassed seven billion, and it's growing even faster than demographers' predictions. Nicholas Kristof has an insightful column (though I depart from him on one major point, as explained below) on what this means for humanity's future.

"Overpopulation" is a taboo word in some circles, not entirely without reason, but the simple truth is that an extremely large population makes every other problem worse. It accelerates the depletion of natural resources, the destruction and degradation of ecosystems, and the emission of greenhouse gases and other kinds of pollution. It makes societies less resilient, makes famine, crime and war more likely, forces people to move into increasingly marginal areas that leave them more vulnerable to natural disasters, and strengthens the voices crying that sustainability and conservation are unaffordable luxuries.

For basic Malthusian reasons, the human population can't continue to grow indefinitely at its current exponential rate. It has to level off eventually - or to put it another way, it will level off eventually. The only question is whether it will be a soft landing or a hard crash. Obviously, if we can bring it under control ourselves, it will be much better for us, and so it's a rational step to support efforts to make contraception available and educate people in its use, especially in the regions where population is growing the fastest.

This is hardly a radical view. Just a few decades ago, it was the American political consensus (one of my favorite facts from Michelle Goldberg's The Means of Reproduction is that George H.W. Bush, when he was in Congress, was nicknamed "Rubbers"). Unfortunately, many of the early population-control efforts were infected with racism, the idea being that non-white people needed to be kept from reproducing with or without their consent. This is obviously deplorable, but what's even more tragic and absurd is that, in retrospect, the heavy-handed nature of these programs was completely unnecessary. Given the opportunity, women themselves will choose to limit how many children they have, for perfectly understandable reasons: it reduces the risks of repeated pregnancy and allows them to invest more effort in raising each child.

And the same logic applies not just to individual women, but to an entire society. When they break out of poverty-induced cycles of subsistence, countries are free to turn their resources from crisis management to education, leading to the rise of a young, upwardly mobile working class. This is the so-called demographic dividend that's propelled many developing countries to prosperity.

When all the facts are considered, greater access to contraception - and greater female education and empowerment so that women can decide to use it - is a win-win. That's why, predictably, fundamentalists are against it. Naively, Kristof seems to think it's just abortion that religious groups are opposed to, which is why he's confused that Republicans are trying to gut family-planning programs that would actually reduce abortion (this is something I've pointed out before). In fact, many of them are opposed to contraception altogether. Whether it's "Quiverfull"-style Christianity, Roman Catholicism as taught by the bishops, some branches of Mormonism and Islam, or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, one of the most consistent themes of fundamentalist religion is to deny women agency and control of their own bodies and coerce them to have as many children as possible.

The believers who advocate this are steeped in the suicidal faith that miracles will save us as long as we follow God's decree by procreating with no thought for the consequences. In their minds, to plan for the future is a sin. Thankfully, most women already reject this insane view. They want to exercise control over their own biology, but they need the tools and the empowerment to follow through on that desire. Birth control can save the world - but only if we also help women break free of the voracious fundamentalism that would deny them the ability to use it.

Image: Margaret Sanger and supporters, via Wikimedia Commons

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
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Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Recent memories run in our brains like sped-up old movies.
  • In childhood, we capture images in our memory much more quickly.
  • The complexities of grownup neural pathways are no match for the direct routes of young brains.
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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by global warming, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.

The bodies that remain in view are often used as waypoints for the living. Some of them are well-known markers that have earned nicknames.

For instance, the image above is of "Green Boots," the unidentified corpse named for its neon footwear. Widely believed to be the body of Tsewang Paljor, the remains are well known as a guide point for passing mountaineers. Perhaps it is too well known, as the climber David Sharp died next to Green Boots while dozens of people walked past him- many presuming he was the famous corpse.

A large area below the summit has earned the discordant nickname "rainbow valley" for being filled with the bright and colorfully dressed corpses of maintainers who never made it back down. The sight of a frozen hand or foot sticking out of the snow is so common that Tshering Pandey Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association claimed: "most climbers are mentally prepared to come across such a sight."

Other bodies are famous for not having been found yet. Sandy Irvine, the partner of George Mallory, may have been one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest a full thirty years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it. Since they never made it back down, nobody knows just how close to the top they made it.

Mallory's frozen body was found by chance in the nineties without the Kodak cameras he brought up to record the climb with. It has been speculated that Irvine might have them and Kodak says they could still develop the film if the cameras turn up. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they died on the way back down from the summit, Mallory had his goggles off and a photo of his wife he said he'd put at the peak wasn't in his coat. If Irving is found with that camera, history books might need rewriting.

As Everest's glaciers melt its morbid history comes into clearer view. Will the melting cause old bodies to become new landmarks? Will Sandy Irvine be found? Only time will tell.

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