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Counting Sperm

“I tried counting mine once, but I went blind with exhaustion,” tweeted one reader of the BBC website after it reported that sperm counts were down by half in the past 40 years all over the developed world. And it’s true: they are hard to count. The little buggers just won’t stay still.

The report, published by Human Reproduction Update on Tuesday, is the work of Israeli, American, Danish, Spanish and Brazilian researchers who reviewed almost 200 studies done in different places and times since 1973. It’s called “Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis”, and the authors are working very hard to get the world’s attention.

Dr. Hagai Levine, the lead researcher, told the BBC that if the trend continued humans would become extinct. “If we will not change the ways that we are living and the environment and the chemicals that we are exposed to, I am very worried about what will happen in the future,” he said. “Eventually we may have a problem with reproduction in general, and it may be the extinction of the human species.”

I think I’ve seen this movie a few times already. There was “Children of Men”, and then “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and I was even in a sperm-count movie myself thirty years ago. (It was a would-be comedy called “”The Last Straw”, but happily it isn’t available online.)

Among the many varieties of end-of-the-world stories we like to tell ourselves, the infertility apocalypse is the least violent, and therefore (in good hands) the most interesting in human terms. But the sperm crisis really isn’t here yet, or even looming on the horizon.

What the scientists did in the meta-regression analysis was very useful from a general public health point of view. There have been many estimates of what is happening to sperm counts, but they are conducted under different circumstances, usually with fairly small groups of people, and often in clinics that are treating couples with infertility problems.

This big review of the existing research did no new work, but it did extract rather more reliable data from the many studies that have been conducted by other groups, and there definitely is something going on. Compared to 1970s, sperm counts now in the predominantly white developed countries (North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) are between 50% and 60% down now.

It has been a fairly steady decline in those places, and and it is continuing in the present, but no such fall has been found in the sperm counts in South America, Africa and Asia. So maybe it’s just whites going extinct.

Probably not, though. Most people in South America are white, but there has been no fall in sperm counts there. And there’s no separate data in the survey about what’s happening in the heavily industrialised Asian consumer societies like Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, but one suspects that there have been declines in sperm counts there. It’s almost certainly an environmental, dietary or lifestyle effect, and therefore probably reversible.

As to which of these possible causes it might be, the jury is still out, but a 2012 study by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester concluded that smoking, drinking alcohol, recreational drug use and obesity had little or no effect on sperm counts. Other reports, however, have suggested that eating saturated fats, riding bicycles, watching too much television and wearing tight underpants do adversely effect sperm counts.

In any case, there’s no immediate cause for panic, because all of the studies showed that sperm counts, though lower than in the 1970s in some parts of the world, are not “sub-fertile” anywhere. They are still well within the normal range, just lower on average than they used to be. There’s no shortage of human beings at present, and there’s lots of time to sort this out.

It will almost certainly turn out, when more research has been done, that the main cause of reduced sperm counts is the presence of various man-made chemicals in the environment. Not just one or two chemicals, but more likely a cocktail of different ones that collectively impose a burden on the normal functioning of human metabolism.

We are breathing and ingesting a lot of toxins, and have been since shortly after the rise of civilisation (lead-lined water pipes, etc.). The sheer volume of visible pollutants (particulate matter, etc.) has probably peaked and begun to decline in the most developed countries, but the variety of new chemicals in the environment continues to rise. Further nasty surprises probably lie in wait for us.

Unfortunately, that’s the way human beings work: ignore the problem or put up with it until it becomes unbearable, and only then do something about it. It’s a strategy that has served us well enough in the past, but will do us increasing damage as the problems become more complex. It’s very unlikely, however, that falling sperm counts will be the one that finally gets us.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“What…problems”; and “As to…counts”)

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa

12 April 2017

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa
By Gwynne Dyer

“I’m just a politician,” said Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a BBC interview last week; “I’m no Mother Teresa.” Fair enough: she has a country to run, and an army to hold at bay. But she’s no Nelson Mandela either, and that has deeply disappointed some people (including fellow holders of the Nobel Peace Prize) who expected better of her.

The issue that most upsets them is her refusal to take a firm stand on the mistreatment of the Rohingya minority, Muslims of Bengali descent who live in Rakhine state in south-western Burma. Since an outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2013, the army has treated the Rohingyas with great brutality, and at least a hundred thousand have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh for safety.

The repression has been particularly bad in the past year, with many Rohingyas in the northern part of the state raped or murdered by the army, and foreign critics have begun to describe the events in Rakhine state as “ethnic cleansing”. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she said in the BBC interview, and a new wave of (foreign) outrage swept over her.

It is not too strong an expression at all. There is great prejudice among Burmese Buddhists against the country’s 4 percent Muslim minority, and especially against the Rohingyas. It is the one issue on which the majority of the population agrees with the generals, not with Aung San Suu Kyi – and she has no control over how the army behaves.

After decades of house arrest and years of campaigning, “the lady” (as she is known in Burma) finally took power from the army last year. But the army-written constitution gives the solders complete control of all “security matters”, and indeed does not even permit her to be the president. (They wrote it specifically to ban Burmese citizens with foreign relatives, like her British-born sons, from becoming president.)

So the “state counsellor”, as she is officially known, is in power, but not very securely. The army could decide to take power back at any moment, alhough it would probably face massive popular resistance if it did. For that reason, she doesn’t go out of her way to pick fights with the generals.

Even when she was asked by the BBC whether the Burmese army’s actions in Rakhine were aggressive, she refused to agree. Instead she produced the kind of diversionary talk that the Sean Spicers of the world spout under pressure: “I think there’s a lot of hostility (in Rakhine). It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s people on different sides of a divide.”

No it’s not. It’s the army torturing and murdering Muslims almost at random in northern Rakhine in retaliation for a terrorist attack on police outposts that happened months ago, and that the victims had nothing to do with. Most of the local Buddhists support the attacks on Muslims, but it’s men in uniform who carry them out.

Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t order the soldiers to commit these crimes, and she can’t order them to stop. She can’t even publicly condemn them, because the army might turn against her – and because most Buddhists in Burma probably approve of the army’s actions too.

Burmese Buddhists are paranoid about the perils of a Muslim take-over. It’s ridiculous, given the tiny size of the Muslim minority, but there is real fear about what happened centuries ago to other once-Buddhist, now-Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. If Suu Kyi ignores that ugly fact, she risks handing the country back to the army.

Nelson Mandela had it easy by comparison. Like her, he gained his status as a secular saint by steadfastly demanding democracy through decades of imprisonment, but when he became South Africa’s first freely elected president in 1994 he really had the power. There was no fear that the apartheid regime might come back and evict him. He made wise decisions, gave up the presidency after one term, and died still a saint.

Aung San Suu Kyi has no such luck. She has, miraculously, persuaded a clique of greedy, autocratic, hyper-nationalist generals to surrender most of their political power voluntarily. But it was a deal in which she had to guarantee them freedom of action in their own domain, although she intends to re-write that constitution when she can.

In the meantime, she is undoubtedly doing what she can to limit the army’s cruelty in Rakhine state, but she is not going to throw away Burma’s first chance of a real democracy after almost sixty years of military rule by going public about it. It’s not sainthood, but it does qualify as wise political leadership.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“No…too”)

Universal Basic Income

In a referendum on Sunday, Swiss voters rejected a proposal for a guaranteed annual income for everybody by an overwhelming 78%-22% majority. But the idea was not crazy, and it is not going to go away.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is developing a pilot project for a universal basic income that will launch in January 2017. The Finnish government is designing a trial to see whether giving low-income people a guaranteed basic income destroys their motivation to do any work at all, as critics allege. The idea is not going away because most “real” jobs are on the way out.

The old argument in defence of technological change – that it creates more new jobs than it destroys – no longer holds water. In the 1980s, 8 percent of new jobs created in the developed economies were in entirely new occupations, from call-centres to computer programmers. In the 1990s, only 4.4% of the new jobs involved newly invented occupations. In the 2000s, only half a percent did.

So full-time jobs with benefits have declined – only one-quarter of working-age Americans now have one – and the so-called “gigging economy” has not filled the gap. You may be able to stay afloat financially by doing a variety of “gigs” – low-paid, short-term, often part-time jobs – but you will never make ends meet, let alone get a mortgage..

Industrial jobs were the first to be destroyed by automation, but it soon moved on to the less demanding clerical jobs as well. As somebody said: “Every ATM contains the ghosts of three bank tellers.” And now it’s moving on to the kinds of jobs that it once seemed impossible to automate. Driving, for example.

The driverless vehicles that are now to be found meticulously observing the speed limit (and causing angry traffic jams behind them) on the roads of various major cities will soon be out of the experimental stage. At that point, the jobs of many millions of truck-drivers, bus-drivers and van-drivers will be in jeopardy.

Another huge chunk of the economy will start shedding jobs rapidly as online health monitoring and diagnosis take over the routine work of non-specialised health professionals. A similar fate awaits most mid-level jobs in the financial services sector, the retail sector and “management” in general.

The standard political response to this trend is to try desperately to create other jobs, even if they are poorly paid, almost pointless jobs, in order to keep people “in work” and off welfare. Unemployment is sees as a failure by both the government and the victim.

Yet this “problem” is actually a success story. Why would you see an economy that delivers excellent goods and services without requiring people to devote half their waking hours to work as a problem? The real problem is figuring out how to distribute the benefits of automation when people’s work is no longer needed.

And so to this relatively new idea: universal basic income. The core principle is that everybody gets a guaranteed income that is enough to live on, whether they are poor or rich, employed or not. They can earn as much more as they want, if they can find the work, but their basic needs are covered.

The actual amounts did not get mentioned in the Swiss referendum, but the people who proposed it were thinking in terms of a monthly income of $2,500 for every adult, and an additional sum of $625 a month for every child. It would replace the usual humiliating jumble of welfare payments with a single fixed sum for everybody, so it has appeal for the right wing as well as the left.

In the Swiss model (and in many others) the cost of a universal basic income is about 50% higher than current expenditure on welfare payments, so taxes would be higher. But so would incomes, including those of high earners, since even they are getting the same flat annual payment of $30,000 per adult.

As for the inevitable rise of the “gigging economy”, that then becomes just the way people top up their incomes in order to afford luxuries. If there is work available, then people would still want to do it – but if there is not, they would still have decent lives.

About half the remaining traditional full-time jobs in advanced economies will be eliminated by automation in the next 10-20 years, so this is an idea whose time has come. Then why did the Swiss reject it by a 4-to-1 majority? Mainly because their deal with the European Union means that they have relatively open borders.

Luzi Stamm, a member of parliament for the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, liked the idea in principal but opposed it in practice: “Theoretically, if Switzerland were an island, the answer is yes,” he told the BBC. “But with open borders, it’s a total impossibility…If you offered every individual [living here] a Swiss amount of money, you would have billions of people who would try to move into Switzerland.”

Well, tens of millions anyway. But the solution to that is to control the borders, not to abandon the whole idea. And it will be back.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit 2, 7 and 8. (“The Dutch…out”; and “Another…victim”)

The Loss of Centrality

11 November 2012

The Loss of Centrality

By Gwynne Dyer

In this interval of blessed tranquillity between the titanic struggle to choose the next president of the “world’s greatest nation” (same guy as last time), and the world-shaking choice of the next leader of the “Middle Kingdom” (Xi Jinping, but it’s still officially secret for a few more days), a delicious moment of sheer silliness. The British Broadcasting Corporation has banned a science programme because it might trigger an interstellar invasion.

They would not normally ban a programme made by Brian Cox. He is a jewel in the BBC’s crown: a particle physicist with rock-star appeal – he played in two semi-professional bands, and in the right light he looks like a younger Steven Tyler – who can also communicate with ordinary human beings. They just forbade him to make the episode of “Stargazing Live” in which he planned to send a message to the aliens.

Cox wanted to point the Jodrell Bank radio telescope at a recently discovered planet circling another star, in the hope of making contact with an alien civilisation. The BBC executives refused to let him do it, on the grounds that since no one knew what might happen, it could be in breach of “health and safety” guidelines.

Cox, a serious scientist, knew exactly what would happen: nothing. Even if there are hostile aliens out there, space is so vast that light from the nearest star, traveling at 300,000 kilometres per second (186,000 miles/sec.), takes four years to reach us. He was just doing his bit in the centuries-long scientific campaign to convince people that they are not at the centre of everything.

The BBC “suits”, who do think that they are at the centre of everything, weren’t having any of that. If there are aliens out there, and they find out we are here, their first reaction will probably be to come here and eat our children. And then the BBC will get blamed for it. Sorry, Brian. Drop the radio telescope and step away from it slowly.

The suits richly deserve the derision that has come their way, but if there really is life elsewhere, and even perhaps intelligent life, then we aren’t at the centre of anything any more. We are, as Douglas Adams once put it in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.”

We used to believe that the whole universe literally revolved around us. Then came Copernicus. But we went on believing that we are very special. We look like other animals, but we are so special that we don’t cease to exist when we die. We give the universe meaning just by being alive

A bit at the time, however, science has been destroying all of our traditional ideas about our own centrality. And here comes another blow.

In a universe with trillions of stars, it was always less presumptuous to assume that we are not unique than to insist that we are. But just twenty years ago there was no evidence to show that other stars actually do have planets, let alone that some of those planets harbour life.

We now know of the existence of some 800 “exoplanets”, and the number is doubling every year or so. Most of these planets are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, not at all like Earth, simply because the giants are easier to detect. But what we have really been looking for is planets like our own. We KNOW that life thrives here.

The astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have now found such a planet. It is called HD 40307g, and it orbits a small orange-coloured sun 42 light-years from here. The planet is rocky, like Earth, and it orbits its star at a distance where the temperature allows water to exist as a liquid. It is certainly a candidate for life.

In the past decade we have learned that most stars have planets, and that they typically have lots of them. HD 40307 has six planets orbiting at different distances, at least one of which (HD40307g) is in the “Goldilocks” zone.

There are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and probably at least as many planets. If only one in a hundred of those planets harbours life, which is likely to be an underestimate, then there are two billion living planets. We are not unique and special. We are as common as dirt.

Douglas Adams also wrote: “If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” But we are gradually acquiring exactly that, and it doesn’t really hurt. It is possible to be aware of your own cosmic insignificance and still love your children. Even though they are without significance too.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“In a universe…life”; and “We also…zone”)