Monday, December 29, 2014


There was an item recently about a "toilet day" in India. (1)  Most of the indian subcontinent we were told uses the great outdoors for toilet facilities.  The use of a flush toilet is not just uncommon, but rare.  Presumably in an effort to reduce contamination of the environment, the government had promoted a toilet day to encourage use of toilets and discourage continued direct use of the natural environment.

It seems to me that one of the ways we have distanced ourselves from the environment is the use of toilets.  There is no question that our voiding habits have changed substantially in the last few hundred years, to the point where we are blind to what happens.  We flush the toilet and immediately forget about our abluted wastes.  As long as the toilet works, we dont worry about it any longer.

It is also true that the cleanliness promoted through the use of toilets has contributed significantly to our health and consequent population growth.  Without clean toilet facilities, we would not have a clean and healthy societal environment.

At the same time there were two other news items that intrigued me.  The first was about the faeces of whales (2), and the second was about the rebirth of savannahs in desert regions of the world through large herding practices (3).

It turns out that the faeces of whales are vital to the healthy ecosystems of the antarctic, and presumably other parts of the world where whales are dominant.  Whales feed at depths where krill occur.  They surface not only to breathe, but also to defecate, a bodily function impossible at the pressures of the deep.  The faeces are not only fed on at the surface, enabling the growth of plancton, but descend gradually to the deep where they fertilize in turn, the growth of krill.  Without this cycling of nutrients, the ecology of the seas would be relatively infertile.

The role of deserts and of grasslands in the world's ecology is subject to some controversy.  A recent TED talk addressed this issue head on: deserts may be deserts only because of our extreme success is eradicating large herds of animals from the world.  When large herds roam over the land, they Are part of a cycle very similar to that of the whales.  They chew up the grass, and they disturb the soil.  They leave behind their waste and move on to other pasture.  Their faeces become the fertilizer that enables the growth of the rich grassland to which sometime later they will return, to feed again, and repeat the cycle.  Without the herds, the cycle does not happen, and the grassland becomes desert.

This has evidently happened to the grasslands of North America, where the loss of the vast herds of bison, has led to the dustbowls and desert conditions of the south west.  It has happened in Africa, and may explain large swathes of the Sahara, where there is certainly evidence of past vibrant civilisations.

Which leads me to wonder about the way in which we distribute our waste.  Are we doing our environment a favour by removing our faeces from local biological ecological recycling?  Should we not be composting and reusing our own waste? (4)  Rather than pumping it all across our cities in vast concrete corridors to be concentrated and dumped in very large volumes into our waterways?

John Crapper did us a favour with his invention.  But we have not done ourselves a favour with the use of sewage works.  We should reconsider how we dispose of our wastes.

1.  World toilet day, November 19th, is celebrated throughout the world, not just India.
2.  George Monbiot.
3.  Allan Savory.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Yanomamö

In a recent edition of the eSkeptic,, there is an extract from an interview with anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon.  Central to the reason for the interview is his disdain for those anthropologists who do not appear to follow the scientific method.  If skeptics believe in anything it is the scientific method as the means to discover and understand the world.  Chagnon has had a career exploring anthropology from a scientific point of view, perhaps as opposed to a cultural point of view.  He has encountered considerable resistance from other practitioners, though was recently rewarded with a membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Much of his field research has been done with the Yanomamö of Brazil and Venezuela, in theory at least, a group of humans who have not been subject to civilisation's influence, and may be the last of the "Noble Savages."

But Chagnon's findings disputed this, and hence the rejections he received from the establishment.  the Yanomamö were known to be a warring group of people.  The established thesis, was that they fought for resources.  Chagnon's discovery was that they warred over women.  The most successful men were those who had killed the most and in return had been able to father the most children with the most wives.

Not sure that this is a dramatic discovery: it sounds pure Darwinian to me.  Survival of the fittest is the survival to reproduce, and the fitter you are to survive, the more you are able to reproduce.  Resources are not the issue.  It is resources that enable you to access the most desirable women, and therefore you fight.

It seems to me that the same is true of our own civilised societies.  We no longer overtly kill to gain prestige and power, though we certainly reward those who kill on our behalf.  An individual who kills another is not regarded as a good member of society, nor those who contract for such killings.  It is a fine line between leading an army into war crimes, and leading an army into a great victory.

There are other ways of dealing with competitors, that effectively kill them, and remove them from the gene pool.  Office politics is all about gaining advantage in the fight for movement up the ladder.  Or its about limiting the advances that others may make.  Such machinations are every bit as effective in removing competitors from the race, as bumping them off.

Religious tolerance

It may be that my title is an oxymoron: it is difficult if not impossible for religions to show tolerance.

Fundamental to all the abrahamic religions is an intolerance of all who do not follow their specific creeds.  I can't quote the Sura, but the Koran includes specific injunctions in how to treat, that is kill, heretics, those who do not conform.  It is even harder on those who renounce their faith in Islam.  The Bible similarly includes extreme punishment for those outside the faith (Jeremiah...).  While this is technically included in the Old Testament, it is never the less very much part of the canon of the Christian church.

Central to all the major world faiths is intolerance of the infidel.  How then can we ever get out of the spiralling catastrophe we face?  There is no other way to see the wars of the Middle East but as a fight between religions.  Christian against moslem, moslem against jew.

Yet all these same religions claim to be compassionate and peaceful.  If this is truly to be the case, then they need to expunge from their texts references to barbaric behaviour towards their neighbours. It happened once before with the creation of the Apocrypha; more books need to be declared apocryphal.

They also need to find a way to bury the hatchet, to reach a consensus that continued killing of each other is no civilized way to behave.  The governments of the western world, the US in particular, claiming to be (Christian) god loving, need to show this in their approach to the islamic world.  The islamic world similarly needs to show compassion towards (not only its own people but also) the infidel western world.

Ecumenical efforts need to be promoted.  These need not only to involve Christian churches, the papacy and the anglican communions, but also the islamic faiths, both sunni and shia.

In fact, given the miserable presence of the churches in the public debate on our actions in Iraq and Syria, I call on all of them to create a coalition to call for a peaceful approach.  It appears to be well recognized that the Islamic State is neither islamic or a state.  Yet we are encouraging them by giving them this name.  And our religious leaders say not a public word, make no concerted public effort at denial of intolerance!