// archives

New Zealand

This tag is associated with 4 posts

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.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“What…problems”; and “As to…counts”)

Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking

20 October 2013

Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking

By Gwynne Dyer

Short term beats long term most of the time, even when people understand where their long-term self-interest really lies. Take, for example, that well-known pair, Russia and the Maldives.

Five years ago, it was hard to find senior people in the universities and scientific institutes in Moscow who were even willing to discuss climate change. But the great heat-wave of 2010, which killed one-third of the Russian grain crop, seems to have changed all that.

It was Russia that insisted on putting a reference to geo-engineering, the highly controversial array of last-ditch measures to combat global warming, into the last paragraph of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report. The Russians get it now. And yet….

On 18 September the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise stopped near the drilling platform Prirazlomnaya, the first rig to drill for oil off Russia’s Arctic coast, and launched four inflatable boats. Their aim was to hang a banner on the platform denouncing Russian plans to exploit the oil and gas reserves of the environmentally sensitive Arctic, especially since burning all that extra oil and gas will speed up the warming process.

There were no weapons aboard the ship, and Greenpeace’s protests are always non-violent. None of the protesters tried to climb up the legs of the platform or damage it in any way. But armed Russian security forces abseiled down from helicopters and took them all prisoner. The ship and all its crew were arrested and taken to the nearest Russian port, Murmansk.

A month later, all thirty crew members, volunteers who come from Britain, France, Canada, Russia, Brazil, New Zealand and eleven other countries, are still in prison. Half of them have already been charged with “piracy”.

It sounds ridiculous, but piracy carries a prison sentence of ten to fifteen years, and the Russian state is deadly serious. The crew have all been refused bail, and it will probably be months before they even stand trial. The Russian state has a long tradition of reacting badly when it is challenged, and the platform belongs to Gazprom, a state-owned firm, but even so this is an extreme over-reaction.

Besides, knowing how hard climate change will hit Russia, why did Moscow let Gazprom start drilling in the Arctic seabed at all? Because Russia’s relative prosperity in the past decade has depended heavily on exports of oil and gas. Because President Vladimir Putin’s rule depends on the continuation of that fragile prosperity. And because Russia’s onshore reserves of oil and gas are in decline.

Russian scientists are well aware that the frozen seabed of the Arctic Ocean is already thawing and releasing huge plumes of methane gas that will accelerate warming further. President Putin is concerned enough about climate change to spend serious diplomatic capital on getting geo-engineering into the IPCC report. But warming is a long-term (or at least a medium-term) problem, and his political survival is short-term.

Short-term comes first, so drill away, and if people protest against it, charge them with piracy. And if you think this is as stupid as politics can get, consider the Maldives.

The Maldives are several hundred tiny islands in the Indian Ocean where most of the land is only about a metre (three or four feet) above sea level. As the sea level rises, most of the country will simply disappear beneath the waves.

You would think that the prospect of national extinction in two generations would concentrate anybody’s mind, and in the Maldives it did – for a while. In 2008 the long-ruling dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ousted in the islands’ first free election by Mohamed Nasheed, a young politician who put great emphasis on fighting climate change.

Nasheed knew that his own country’s actions could have little direct effect on the outcome: China emits about 2,000 times as much carbon dioxide as the Maldives. But he also knew that the extreme vulnerability of the Maldives gives its decisions a high publicity value, so he pledged to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral country. He even held a cabinet meeting underwater, with all the ministers in scuba gear, to dramatise the country’s plight.

Then, early last year, Nasheed was overthrown in a coup by senior police officers closely linked to the old regime. International pressure forced fresh elections early last month and Nasheed came in well ahead of the other two candidates.

Various interventions by police and judges linked to the former dictator have complicated the issue, and the election will now be re-run early next month. Nasheed will doubtless recover the presidency in the end, but here’s the thing. In the whole election campaign, he didn’t mention climate change once. Neither did the other candidates.

This is a country full of people whose grandchildren are going to have to live somewhere else because the whole place is going underwater, and they STILL don’t want to hear about climate change. You can’t just blame the politicians for the neglect. It’s just too uncomfortable for people to stay focussed on the issue for long.

And by the way, opinion polls reveal that a majority of Russians approve of the piracy charges laid against the Greenpeace crew.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Russian…short-term”; and “Nasheed…plight”)


Destroying Pitcairn

27 November 2003

Destroying Pitcairn

By Gwynne Dyer

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” as some US officer allegedly said during the Vietnam War. British justice is now about to do the same thing to the Pitcairn Islanders.

In an attempt to avert that outcome, defence lawyer Paul Dacre recently told the ‘Pitcairn Island Supreme Court’, sitting in Wellington, New Zealand, that it had no jurisdiction over the 47 people who live on the world’s most remote inhabited island. They were, he claimed, effectively a sovereign community, because the mutineers of HMS Bounty who settled the South Pacific island in 1790 had severed their ties to Britain when they burned the ship and hid themselves on Pitcairn to escape the wrath of the British navy.

Dacre wrapped it up in legal language — “The Pitcairn community remains a self-governing community, a community which can exercise its own sovereignty over itself and…has a set of rules and regulations which cover the situation which allegedly occurred on the island” — but his plea is a desperation measure that is bound to fail, since Britain has actually governed the island for many generations. However, the situation’ is truly desperate: about half the adult men of this ‘sovereign community’ face trial before the court next year on charges of rape, indecent assault and gross indecency going back over decades.

The investigation was triggered in 1999 by a 15-year-old girl who claimed to have been raped by a visiting New Zealander. A British policewoman, Constable Gail Cox of the Kent Police, was sent to the tiny, inbred island (there are only four family names) to investigate, and gradually other girls came forward with accounts of sexual mistreatment as well. The investigation broadened, and eventually detectives spoke to every woman who had lived on Pitcairn in the past twenty years, travelling to New Zealand, Australia and Britain. Then they brought charges against thirteen men, about half of the adult male Pitcairn Islanders in the world.

The seven men who currently live and work in New Zealand have already been charged; the six who are at home will soon be extradited and brought to New Zealand. The island’s women have petitioned against the men being removed from Pitcairn for trial, since without them there won’t be enough able-bodied men to get the long-boats that are the only link with passing cruise-ships down the slipways into the sea and back up again. (There is no airstrip and no harbour.) If the men facing trial are all jailed, it will end the Pitcairn community’s 200-year history.

With few men to do the heavy work of cutting wood, harvesting sugar-cane, and fishing for shark at home, and little money being sent back from those working in New Zealand, the island would probably have to be abandoned. On the other hand, the alleged crimes are very serious, in one case involving the abuse of a three-year-old girl, and at least some of the charges against some of the men are probably valid. Nobody would quibble if the British authorities acted this way against a gang of sexually abusive men operating in south London, but is it really the appropriate response for a tiny and unique community in the South Pacific?

To understand all is not to forgive all, but a bit of understanding rarely hurts. This is a community descended from the original nine mutineers who set Captain Bligh and the loyal members of HMS Bounty’s crew adrift in a lifeboat, tricked or forced a dozen Tahitian women into accompanying them to Pitcairn, and then killed each other in fights over which man would get which woman. (Within three years, only four mutineers were still alive.) In 1887 the entire community was converted by an American missionary to Seventh Day Adventism, since when alcohol, dancing, and even public displays of affection have been illegal on the island. And within this tiny, joyless community, the average person’s potential mates can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Dea Birkett, a British journalist who is one of the few outsiders to have spent a significant amount of time on the island, has observed that “if the average male Pitcairner slept with every female of his generation, his choice of partners would maybe reach five before he died. It’s like being trapped on the upstairs of a London bus for your whole life, and being forced to marry and have children only with one of the other passengers.”

Birkett, who preemptively confesses to having had a disastrous affair with a married man during her stay on the island, believes that the sheer isolation of this community explains a lot: “Starved of real choices, Pitcairners develop relationships considered unacceptable elsewhere. Sisters share a husband. Teenage girls have affairs with older men. Women have children by more than one partner, often starting as young as 15. But faced with such limited choices ourselves, would we act so very differently?”

We don’t have to answer that question, but right now an entire community is being judged by a court that is bound by law to assume that the rules which apply in London apply equally in Pitcairn Island. Sexual abuse is always a grave matter, but this is not a situation that calls for blind punishment. Nobody wins if the community is destroyed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“The investigation…world”; and “With few…Pacific”)


Solomonic Decisions

28 July 2003

Solomonic Decisions

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Thursday an Australian-led peacekeeping force began landing in the Solomon Islands, to the almost universal relief of the 450,000 people who live in the small island state. Civil war broke out between rival ethnic groups on the main island, Guadalcanal, in 1998, and rebels from the neighbouring island of Malaita staged a coup in 2000. The intervention makes every kind of good sense — and yet there is something peculiar about it.

Violence and insecurity have become chronic in the Solomons, raising fears among the neighbours that it was becoming a classic ‘failed state’. “You are looking at cabinet not being able to meet,” said Foreign Minister Laurie Chan. “We have to go to different locations for it. You are looking at militants shooting at the prime minister’s house.” The region’s response has been sensible, if a bit belated.

Australia reversed its long-standing policy of non-intervention in the troubled Melanesian states that ring it to the north and east and took the lead in organising a peace-keeping force. Smaller regional states — New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Tonga — contributed troops as well, though three-quarters of the 2,225-strong force is Australian. The mandate is solid: the Solomons government has officially asked for help and passed a law permitting the peacekeepers to use reasonable force to disarm the militias and restore order.

So why, you wonder, did Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer feel compelled to issue a chest-pounding statement that “Sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is,” as though Australia were doing this without the Solomons consent. Then you realise that he is actually proclaiming a doctrine of limited sovereignty for the smaller and weaker states of the region. And although this is a classic United Nations-style peacekeeping operation, the UN is not involved — because Australia does not want it involved.

Australia under Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative government has joined the small club of English-speaking industrial countries that have granted themselves the right to act unilaterally, allegedly in the best interests of all. Unlike Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, who clings to the fantasy that this policy is compatible with a multilateral global order — and quite unlike Canada and New Zealand, which refused to join the club at all — Howard has signed up for the full neo-conservative project that captured the Bush administration in Washington after 9/11. That most certainly includes sidelining the United Nations.

Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer made a point of bypassing the United Nations in his key speech on the Solomons on 26 June, criticising the UN and the principle of multilateralism in general as “a synonym for an ineffective and unfocussed policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.” What was needed instead, he said, was more “coalitions of the willing” to tackle specific security threats outside the UN framework, like the one that took Saddam Hussein down earlier this year.

The United States, Britain and Australia together accounted for over 98 percent of the so-called coalition’s combat troops in the invasion of Iraq. If you can trust those three governments to know best and always act responsibly, this kind of international vigilantism may be an efficient way of getting the work done, though there is always the risk that they will get the facts wrong. (Weapons of mass destruction, anybody?) But what if one day some other country decided to take the law into its own hands?

John Howard’s New Zealand counterpart, Prime Minister Helen Clark, had a few words to say about this in May, as she tried to counter domestic criticism and US pressure to fall in line with American policy as Australia has done. “It would be very easy for a country like New Zealand to make excuses and think of justifications for what its friends were doing, but we would have to be mindful that we were creating precedents for others also to exit from multilateral decision-making.”

Clark’s point was that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if the US and its friends can launch ‘preventive’ wars whenever they believe there is a potential threat, then so can Russia or India or Pakistan or Japan or — very much to the point — China. “This is the century which is going to see China emerge as the largest economy, and usually with economic power comes military clout. In the world we are constructing, we want to know (that the multilateral UN system) will work whoever is the biggest and the most powerful….Who wants to go back to the law of the jungle?”

There can be severe penalties in today’s world for small countries that speak out of turn, so New Zealand has to be careful. It has contributed troops to the Solomons peace-keeping force, but continues to resist US pressure to send troops to occupied Iraq. So do most other countries. The unilateralist approach to the world has most of the firepower behind it at the moment, but it is far from certain that it will end by destroying multilateralism. We are not back to the law of the jungle yet.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The United States…hands”)