Tuesday 15 December 2009

Eating pork scratchings to save the planet

Even after the great medical advances of the twentieth century, human life still seems pathetically short – particularly when you get to my age. So speaking up for death is not an easy way to court popularity.

It helps that I have never much cared for people (and, yes, I do know that the feeling is mutual). Even so, the hardest question in my postbag this year came after a column in which I was wittering nostalgically about the world into which I was born, when the UK’s population was about 45 million. How exactly, enquired my correspondent, did I propose to select and despatch the 15 million or so who have joined us since 1954? I had no answer.

However, that would be a modest proposal compared with the aspirations of the Optimum Population Trust, the “green think tank” which calculates the sustainable population of the UK as between 17 and 27 million, depending on how successful we are in meeting our individual carbon reduction targets. While the sustainable population of the planet as a whole is estimated at 5.1 billion “assuming that one could live with the fact that around half the world's people were malnourished and about 800 million were hungry”; or, ideally, something less than half of that, compared with getting on for seven billion today.

If the Optimum Population Trust sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because it grabbed a few headlines in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit by asserting that contraception was a better investment than wind turbines, solar power or hybrid cars. Their solution is a scheme that allows individuals and organisations in rich countries to “offset their carbon footprint” (a flawed concept, if ever there was one) by funding family planning programmes in, you guessed it, the Third World. Even a notorious right-winger like the present writer thinks that sounds ever so slightly inequitable.

Population control presents other problems. If it works, it will take generations (or lack of them) to have an impact, whereas we are warned that the dangers of climate change are immediate. Furthermore, it almost certainly won’t work. The biggest experiment to date, China’s single child programme, has been running since 1979 and has apparently prevented over 300 million births; but the population of China has still grown, helped by a wide range of exemptions (no doubt including the commissars who dreamt up the policy in the first place).

I never particularly wanted children, and used to boast that not having a family was my greenest achievement. But now that I have one, I would not have missed it for the world. It is hard to see much of humanity being persuaded to forego reproduction, even by offers of shiny baubles or MP3 players.

Added to which, if the population ever did go into sharp decline, the economic and social consequences of imposing huge numbers of elderly dependents on a shrinking workforce might well make us feel that there was something to be said for Nature’s way with floods, famine and pestilence.

So, as a small step in the right direction, how about simply reversing the universal policy of encouraging everyone to cling onto life for as long as possible? I am not talking euthanasia here (though I predict that it will come to that, if current population and longevity trends continue). But maybe we could each do our bit by having that extra packet of pork scratchings, eating another slice of pie, downing a few more pints and perhaps cracking open a packet of fags to round off our meals. At least, that is what I intend to do.

And, if anyone asks what I think I am doing hanging around in the smoking shelter with telltale crumbs all down my pullover, I shall reply with a straight face “I’m saving the planet”.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.


Luigi said...

Absolutely brilliant. While sitting at my desk waiting for redundancy at the end of the week,I've been sniggering and trying to stifle my laughter all afternoon since I found your blogs. You could get a proper job on Fleet Street but that would involve working down south! I loved you speach for The Baby's christening! I'm amazed at some of the blogs available and the quality of the writng. I've just got into blogs but mine is from my car's point of view and not nearly as funny but he is a little right winged and Italian.

Keith Hann said...

Your very kind remarks are much appreciated - all the more so because comments are posted on this blog so rarely that I had begun to wonder whether it served any useful purpose. Well, apart from providing a readily searchable archive for my own reference, to prevent me from repeating myself more than I already do.

I worked in London for more than 25 years and would take a "proper job on Fleet Street" like a shot if only someone would offer me one. Having a child to support has tempered my views on the desirability of early retirement.

If you liked the christening speech on Bloke in the North you might try my wedding one (28 February 2009). That at least went down a storm; you could have heard a pin drop in the icy silence while I was delivering the christening one.

Since I do write speeches for other people in an attempt to make a living, I should perhaps conclude by saying that they are usually well received. At any rate, no-one has sent me a dry cleaning bill or demanded a refund of my fee. Yet.