Noble savages

Noble savages

I was born in south London, Croydon to be precise, and lived in the UK until I was 26 years old. Today I am an Australian citizen, and in a few months, I will have lived in Sydney for 26 years.  

A lot has happened since I left to seek fame and fortune in far-flung lands, or was it to escape from the religion of my upbringing. You will need to read Paul Sorol to find the answers to that intergenerational conundrum. 

I lament what has become of my homeland as I watch its descent into parody from afar, and I worry for the future of its people. 

The latest escapades in the Boris saga make my previous sarcasm over political buffoonery sound tame. He is a disgrace but not half as his sycophants. Failure to endorse a no-confidence vote in an incoherent, toerag who lies to everyone is extreme cowardice. The shame will eat their souls in the end.

It is hard to imagine anything worse than fooling people into Brexit and partying during a lockdown to break the law of the land you just imposed, but it is coming—a food crisis.

Briefly, the UK does not grow enough food to feed everyone. There is a roughly 50% shortfall. The arrogant assumption of the muppets is that food can be purchased and imported as needed. Wake up. In the coming food shortage, families get fed first, not foreigners in a country with the worst economic outlook in the OECD. Why do you think China is shoring up its supplies?

I highly recommend reading the excellent book Feeding Britain by Tim Lang for a thorough explanation of the dire situation the UK is in, together with a logical and achievable list of solutions. Boris and his cronies have no excuse. Wise advisors have already told them the extent of the problem and how to fix it.

Food security has become my “outfit of the day” as I gather together my career in ecology into some pre-mortem eulogy. 

In thinking about how much food is grown, what society does to share that production around (or not), and the precarious prospects for global supply chains, I imagined that our cultural maturity would hold us in good stead. Well-educated, intelligent, technologically gifted people in democratic societies would be able to anticipate the challenges and figure out solutions, even if it took a global crisis to trigger deployment.

Then I came across this quote from Canadian historian and author Ronald Wright

When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.”

Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004, pp 50-51)

I had no idea. 

My schoolboy knowledge of the Aztecs did not cover such sophistication. I was blinkered by education in a country famous for its colonialism. The truth of expansionism is brutal; just ask the Ukranians.

What shocked me the most was the gaping hole it shot in my assumption about mature, gifted people being able to solve problems. Tragically the Aztecs couldn’t deal with the disruption heralded by Hernando Cortez in 1519, even with their high civilisation.

Maybe our modern version of civilisation will not be enough either because there is no invisible guiding hand on the tiller.

But it is ok; a few dipshit politicians still have a job.


Check out sustainably FED for over 120 posts with comments and suggestions to get everyone through the food, ecology and diet challenge.


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Rapid change has happened before

Rapid change has happened before

Alloporus is always on about the happenings of WW2

The loss and the horror are a stain on history that is painful to recall but stare past the nightmares of the war and remarkable things happened during the years of conflict. Here are a few of them.

The US government increased spending by an order of magnitude between 1940 and 1945 and spent more money (in current dollar terms) between 1942 and 1945 than it had in the 152 years prior to 1941. 

The US was in the war for three years and during that time manufactured 87,000 naval vessels, including 27 aircraft carriers, 300,000 planes, 100,000 tanks and armoured cars and 44 billion rounds of ammunition. 

US soldiers on battle tanks. Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Whole towns and cities were turned into munitions factories all while many of the young men were serving in Europe and the Pacific. Women took on blue-collar jobs so there were workers to run the machines.

At the same time, the manufacture of cars was banned as was the construction of new homes. There was rationing of food, tyres and gasoline because it was considered fairer than taxing scarce goods. And to save fuel a national speed limit of 35mph was imposed.

Remember this is the US where libertarians rule and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was about to unleash the Second Red Scare, lasting from the late 1940s through the 1950s. McCarthyism was characterized by heightened political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals, and a campaign spreading fear of alleged communist and socialist influence on American institutions and of espionage by Soviet agents.

Even in a society leery of socialism, the war produced an extraordinary collective effort in the US and an acceptance of government regulation. It was a similar story in the UK and even in the occupied countries, people resisted for the greater good.

If such collective will against the axis powers could bring such change and effort why not now when we need it again?

Here is what George Monbiot suggests 

Public hostility and indifference create a lack of political will.

Indeed, don’t look up.

I agree but would add another break on drastic responses — the ineptitude of our politicians.

Most of those in the big dog posts are there because they have a single skill, political surfing. They ride the political waves into positions of authority. Very few get there on intellectual merit, leadership skills or foresight.

It is not always their fault.

Our collective failure to recall history and use it to see the future means we have no sense of urgency. Indifference means we don’t ask for leaders with flair, vision or skills. We accept muppets

But the decisions needed now are as era-defining as those made by the US in the 1940s that won a war and set the country on a steeper industrial path.

We need that decisive force not just to deal with imperialist aggression but to feed everyone well.

More on the issues of global food, ecology and diet on sustainably FED


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Spending big in a crisis

Spending big in a crisis

Governments are schizophrenic. 

Casual observation over time suggests they are characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements. One minute they are persuading us of the necessity of fiscal frugality, that money doesn’t grow on trees, and a balanced budget is the desire of all sensible governments. 

The next minute they spend up big to bail out ailing economies that would fail without a subsidy borrowed against the future.

They have been having these ‘breakdowns in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion’ for quite a while.

Over two centuries ago, the Panic of 1792 was the first time the U.S. federal government intervened to prop up the markets. During that crisis, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton authorized purchases to prevent the collapse of the securities market.

The Great Depression between 1929 and 1941 began with the stock market crash of 1929 and included banking panics in 1930 and 1931, included a government program to buy and refinance defaulted mortgages that kept a million families in their homes.

The Savings & Loan crisis between 1986 and 1995, when nearly a third of the 3,234 savings and loan associations in the United States failed, cost the government $160 billion (in 1990 dollars) to clean up.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government authorized more than $2 trillion in assistance including direct cash payments to citizens in April and December 2020, and again in March 2021.

In between these moments of apparent madness, the modern neoliberal mantra is fiscal conservatism — small government, small spending, deregulation and an unencumbered faith that the market will save everyone.

What this history tells us is that what gets done in a crisis is very different to business-as-usual and could even be the exact opposite of it. Interventions that save people from tragedy are necessary and moral.

And for the most part, the madness works. Excessive bonuses to executives notwithstanding, bailouts do seem to save economies and reduce impacts on communities.  

At least for a time.


Environmental crisis

Most environmentalists will tell you that the environment is in trouble and has been ever since the industrial revolution changed the way humans interact with nature.

There are many posts over on sustainably FED and on Alloporus | Ideas for healthy thinking that point this out. Indeed some commentators have dedicated their careers to persuading us that the environment is in crisis.

So this question from one of those advocates, George Monbiot, is a conundrum.

Quote by George Monbiot asking why governments save banks and not the environment

Why do nations rescue banks and other financial institutions but not the planet?


Why not save the planet?

Well, perhaps the answer to the central question stems from the biblical notions of dominion. 

Why save something that humanity was designed to exploit?

Maybe it is because nature has been through troubles before and shown remarkable resilience. Over geological time climate changes, massive atmospheric disruption and even meteorite strikes have come and gone with nature none the worse. Admittedly she takes time to recover from shocks but is still remarkably resilient. 

It is worth remembering that there was more biological diversity on the planet a hundred years ago than at any other time in the history of life on earth—biodiversity is a consequence of time, disturbance and a replicator molecule.

No need to spend money on a rescue because nature will recover herself.

Perhaps it is ignorance of the crisis itself. People with spending power have no vision of the environmental crisis. They are, after all, more likely to be focused on the banks when they look up from their single bottom line. Plus nature is the perennial provider of goods and services that humans have a right and moral responsibility to exploit.

No vision of the problem so there is no problem.

It could be that money can’t buy nature’s happiness because no matter what is spent, nature would not notice. Why spend vast sums on the environment when she has no ability to respond to the spending. Anyway, there is nothing to see if the food keeps growing and the people keep spending.

No use throwing good money on something that can’t be fixed.

It could be that money could buy nature her happiness but she is a fickle thing and it is not clear what to spend the money on. In the financial crises the ailments were obvious and the salve equally so. Other than emission reduction that may or may not reverse climate changes, spending on the environment to save nature is a mystery with no obvious return on investment.

No point in spending on random actions.

Cognitive dissonance is a possibility. This intriguing explanation from psychology says that when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. Rather than accept an inconsistency we look for ways to resolve the conflict to reduce our emotional discomfort. The easy option, call it fake news and decide that the garden remains full of roses.

No environmental problem can exist if it makes me feel bad.

And finally, in this incomplete list, it could also be that the planet is not in need of rescue. Nature isn’t sentient and couldn’t care less what happens. The planet is a small blue ball in a vast universe that happens to have organic life that persists in spite of drastic perturbations. No matter what life does, the rock will continue to fly across space until the sun grows to consume it. Such an opinion is heresy but it does fit the evidence.

There is no Gaia to save.

So there we have it. A preliminary list of reasons why humans save banks and not the planet. No doubt I have missed many others and will be reminded of them in the comments.

We do know this… 

Whatever humans do over the next hundred years or so, 100,000 years from now the planet will still be here.

Humanity, however, is in deep shit.

Do we always have to pay the rent

Do we always have to pay the rent

When I was growing up through the 1970s the only financial advice that stuck with me was the rule of thirds on what to do with income. It was to allocate one third on rent, one third to spending for everyday living, and a third saved.

Oh, how naive; how quaint.

Today rents in England account for half of the tenants’ take-home pay if you are lucky enough to live outside London. In the big smoke expect the proportion to be 75%. 

The rent just ate the savings.

And for today’s younger renters there is no bailout from inheritance despite the apparent wealth of the baby boomers. The typical inheritance age in the UK is somewhere around 60, and the median amount handed down is about £11,000.

Not surprisingly the youth are not happy.

The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK, was brave enough to publish numbers that suggest 80% of youngsters blame capitalism for the housing crisis, 75% believe the climate emergency is “specifically a capitalist problem” and 72% back sweeping nationalisation. 

Worst statistic of all for a right-wing think tank—67% of youngsters want to live under a socialist economic system.

It’s a similar story in the US. 

A Harvard University study in 2016 found that more than 50% of young people reject capitalism, while a 2018 Gallup poll found that 45% of young Americans saw capitalism favourably, down from 68% in 2010.

So much for the libertarian land of opportunity. 

And so much for the trickle-down.

The numbers for youngsters do not add up anymore. 

At the end of 2021 in Sydney, the average house was selling for $1.36 million and units for $837,000 with a typical Sydney house about $340,000 more expensive than it was at the end of 2020. 

Take a deep breath for this statistic—the rise in value in a year matches the full cost of a house just 25 years ago.

Image modified from photo by Maximillian Conacher on Unsplash

Who can afford the mortgage?

Borrow the money to purchase one of these $1.3 million houses to avoid paying rent and you will need $65,000 on the minimum 5% deposit and expect to pay back the bank $4,500 a month for 30 years.

Total repayments of 1.62 million at $54,000 per year in after-tax dollars. 

The average salary of an Australian in 2021 was around A$99,600 per year with a wide range starting around A$33,000 and a median salary of A$72,000.

Assuming an approximate tax burden of 25%, a single person on $72,000 could pay the mortgage but would have zero dollars left for any of the other bills life throws their way.

Clearly, this is not sustainable.

Rather than do what most of us baby boomers would do and lament the loss of the picket fence and the Sundays spent painting it white, how about a reboot.

What if ownership was not the only route to the long-term security of house and home?

What if we invented new social norms that not only promoted rents but removed the landlord. Let’s take rent-seeking out of the equation and have society build the housing stock at cost, then rent that stock to individuals in the community at rates that reflect recovery of those costs and perhaps a modest return linked to the bank rate.

You know, the sort of thing a sovereign wealth fund could handle.

Just thinking.

Elections are no longer a contest of ideas

Elections are no longer a contest of ideas

Over on Medium, Alloporus posted on political naivety, asking the simple question: What is politics all about?

In the midst of berating myself for such simplicity, I came across Guardian journalist Peter Lewis more eloquently saying the same thing—our politics sucks.

Politics is no longer a contest of ideas that are formalised as policies but a free for all devoid of content with the weapons in the contest drawn from the marketing arsenal.

We have an election looming in Australia. The incumbent prime minister is supposedly a ninja at marketing. He certainly comes out with crass one-liners. Only they say more about his attitude to leadership than the outcome he wants.

“This is coal, don’t be scared”, “I don’t hold a hose, mate” and “It’s not a race” are marvellous phrases to capture the crises of climate, fire and flood.

What a legacy. 

Imagine being remembered for gaffs that scream to the world how out of touch you were at crisis time, despite sitting in the chair reserved for leading the nation. More worrying than not reading the room is disrespecting the chair, the failure to take responsibility for leading and the prime objective of keeping people safe. 

Now we are told that people don’t believe politicians so all the gaffs are just the noise of the media cycle and are ignored. And perhaps we don’t. 

But these are challenging times that will worsen before we figure out how to make things better—the climate is the least of our problems; when the food prices start to spike and there are shortages on the shelves—we need more. 

Heaven help us if the war in Ukraine escalates.

It is time to get that contest of ideas back.

I don’t want tragic events politicised, I want to see the ideas on energy, food security, defence, and all the usual suspects of jobs, education and health.

I want the politicians to bring substance, not lumps of coal and Hawaiian shirts.

I am naive, after all.


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The agreement to cooperate

The agreement to cooperate

Suppose I cut down a tree. 

I am keen to get the benefit from the wood at my feet. The tree trunk is enormous, raw, and not in any shape to be used. It needs to sit and dry out. Then I can fashion it into beams to repair the roof of my rondavel.

But the tree is far from my house. I cannot watch over it until it is dry. I have hunting and gathering to do, and maize beer to drink by the fire.

So I leave the tree where it fell.

My neighbour also needs to repair his roof. He could steal my tree trunk while I am not looking, but he doesn’t because we agree with what tradition tells us.

A tree felled belongs to he who felled it. 

Everyone in the tribe knows the rule and agrees to abide by it. Break this agreement and there are consequences from the chief and his many wives.

Society is built on this type of contract.

Called the social contract in moral and political philosophy during the Age of Enlightenment — an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled or between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each — it originated to give legitimacy to the authority of the state (tradition and the chief) over the individual (me and my stone axe). 

Through the social contract, individuals surrender some of their freedoms and submit to collective authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights and maintenance of the social order.

It is easy to forget how critical the social contract is to our well-being and the opportunity for personal success in modern times. 

Personal and societal safety, efficient education, security of business contracts including the exchange of time for money, ownership of goods and legal entities, access to health care and expertise, all happen through the contract. Everything that makes modern societies wealthy and safe comes from our collective agreement to follow the rules.

That is not to say that everyone is always happy. 

There is a constant tension in the social contract as it ducks and weaves its way alongside the development of societies. 

A critical source of tension is the actual or perceived fairness in the rights and duties, especially in the difference between how they are defined and how they play out in the real world.

For example, the government decides, on advice from health professionals, that the best way to manage a pandemic from an infectious airborne virus is to tell people to stay at home. House arrest for the masses. I am no longer at liberty to go and find another tree to cut down even though I have a permit from the Agriculture department to cut one.

No problem. It is in the interest of public health, which is a crucial benefit of the social contract. 

The pandemic, fake news, authoritarian regimes, and even social media put tremendous strain on the contract even as neoliberalism persuades people to expect less from governing authorities in exchange for greater civil liberties, including individual, political and economic freedom.

The contradiction is enough to do your head in.

Society is so much more complex than it was in the days of the stone axe. But the importance of the social contract grows with it. 

Only to protect the benefits, we have to be vigilant. The rulers cannot ignore the rules any more than we can and must not act unilaterally and claim the authority of the state to justify their self-interest.


Still upset about media drivel, claims from fake news, and the deceit that passes for public debate these days? Check out sustainability FED for objective ideas on how to feed everyone well.


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Who are the ignoble larrikins?

Who are the ignoble larrikins?

Say what you think and mean what you say.

Not a bad adage at all. People will like you for your honesty and integrity, two of the most important human attributes.

Indeed without these two, we would be far less successful as a species for we would not have commerce, collaboration or cooperation. Nor would we have science, technology and engineering for these are professions built on self-policing rules that fail without honesty.

Australians have a reputation for saying what they think — they are keen on the first part of the adage. 

Many are larrikins too, with a healthy disregard for convention. It is ok to play golf in thongs or even bare feet.

And after living in Australia for 25 years, I have to say that Australians mean what they say for the most part. Although sometimes I am not sure they think before spouting forth, another expression of larrikinism.

Author Lech Blaine suggests that conservative politicians in Australia have commandeered this straight-shooting on the fringes into a blue-collar revolution for their political ends. 

Quote from Lech Blaine on fabricated larrikins

Stupid white men wearing white shirts pretending to be working class is an odd image. 

These well-educated and affluent individuals would never dream of playing golf in thongs. They only pretend to be among the masses, especially the working-class battlers, because this is where elections are won. 

In one of the most complex voting systems in the world with two-foot ballot papers and weirdness with preferences, Liberal governments win enough seats not by playing to their rusted-on base of conservative support but by pretending to represent the undecided in a handful of seats at each election. And these swing voters are not in the cities; they are in the suburbs and the rural areas.

Now the shirt-wearing men not only have to pretend to wear overalls but drive a tractor too. 

The men courting the battlers never shoot straight. They are the ignoble larrikins. They prefer to be on holiday in Hawaii than in front of the wildfire and anonymously report the thong wearer to the golf club chairman.

They lie and cheat and pork-barrel their way into the top political jobs.

And we let them.

As the French Ambassador to Australia said, “What you say in confidence … will eventually be used and weaponised against you one day.”

Shame on us.


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An experience most painful

An experience most painful

Sir Winston Churchill was a man of his time. 

He was a British statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, a Sandhurst-educated soldier, a Nobel Prize-winning writer and historian, a prolific painter, and one of the longest-serving politicians in British history.

Remembered as the leader the British people needed to repel the spread of nazi fascism, he was at the same time a social reformer, an economic liberal and an imperialist. 

Such a combination may seem odd today but understandable given the late Victorian and Edwardian eras that he grew up in.

Churchill was a canny politician, being an MP for over 60 years, and he knew a thing or two about people and words. 

Here is one quote from his 1948 book The Gathering Storm, the first of his twelve-volume memoir on the Second World War

Most painful.

This is a man convinced that rearmament was essential because the war was inevitable. The House was still hoping for peace because another war so soon after the horrors of WW1 was unthinkable.

How many truth-tellers have the experience most painful?

We can count on many frontline staff and public health experts, from epidemiologists to hospital administrators, feeling that pain right now.

The environmentalists have been suffering for decades.

Now the young are feeling the pain too. Truth-telling over climate and the environment has fallen on their bold shoulders.

Reading Churchill is sobering. Knowing that the House has always been hard of hearing may make it easier to take modern ostrich behaviour from our leaders. Leaders rarely heed warnings.

Although Sir Winston felt despair, he led with irrepressible fortitude through the darkest time in British history, forcing people to listen.

It is time to channel that tenacity again.


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The problem with the mean

The problem with the mean

Here is an outlier for you.

Jeff Bezos 

When it comes to income, Mr Bezos has few peers. Only a handful of individuals earn more in a second than most regular folks do in a month.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who conduct regular and rigorous surveys, Australians average weekly ordinary time earnings for full-time adults (seasonally adjusted) was $1,737 for May 2021 across a workforce of 13 million people.

What would happen to the average weekly income of Australians if Mr Bezos went down under and we added his weekly ‘wage’ to the calculation of the mean?

The average weekly wage would grow by $116 or roughly 7%

A hundred bucks a week more from one outlier.

There is no rational reason for an individual to have such obscene wealth, and we might get sidetracked by the savage inequality. Still, the example shows what happens to averages when there are outliers.

They get distorted.

Add Mr Bezos to the Australian workforce, and average income goes up materially even though workers would not see a cent of it.

Suppose Mr Musk and Mr Gates also came down under.

The average weekly wage goes up by over 15%, thanks to three outliers in 13 million. 

Try it this way

Suppose we select 100 males at random from a population of college students and measure their height. In that case, we could assume that the average represented reasonably well the height of a typical male in college.

But suppose this was a college with a strong basketball program, and the sample included three of the tallest members of the team. We have outliers again.

The challenge is to know when an outlier is possible — there is a basketball program — and so is part of the population that will now be, on average, taller as a result and when an outlier is improbable. Unlikely outliers add skew to the data and whilst still statistically sound, can make for shaky conclusions. 

The statistical rationale is that very few variables in real life are distributed normally. They are skewed, typically by a few large outliers, so that the mean is larger than the modal (most common) value and the median value (the middle value in a sequence of numbers).

Medians and modes present one of the solutions to the problem. The average is only one measure of central tendency; the middle of the distribution. It is helpful to use the others, especially the median (the midpoint of a frequency distribution of observed values or quantities, such that there is an equal probability of falling above or below it) or the mode (the most frequent value in a frequency distribution).

There is a simpler solution

Statisticians, politicians, and the media are fond of describing the average with a mean. They use them all the time to convey information.

The mean is where you add up all the values and then divide by the number of values.

But be careful. There are outliers everywhere, and they tend to make means larger.

The simple solution is to know about outliers and be cautious of means, primarily when the reporter benefits from it being large.


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Advice from a celibate priest

Advice from a celibate priest

Life is a contradiction. 

How is it even possible that organic life can defy all the laws of entropy and exist for more than five minutes? More than that, organisms last long enough to complete their life’s mission — almost all of them procreate.

More making is the purpose, and so all organisms make more. 

Microbes, to mice and men, getting ready and achieving reproduction in its myriad forms is what happens every minute of every day. All the actions of sentient beings are geared to more making.

This imperative is fundamental to our understanding of how evolution works. Replication with a bit of error and selection for the helpful errors is how life persists and generates diversity. The driver is reproduction.

Humans are not immune. We have powerful reproductive urges that manifest as an often overpowering sense of family, helicopter parenting, and more websites with sexual content than any other category. 

History tells us that brothels and breweries are the first essential services in any new town.

Anyone with the self-discipline and conviction to resist the innate urge to reproduce has a powerful tool over others. No wonder the church has used clerical celibacy. The church sees devotion by a man who chooses not to have sex “a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.

Service to others but not to their pets.

Here is what Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi had to say about Pope Francis telling everyone that choosing to have pets instead of kids is “selfish”… 

Ah yes, choosing not to bring a child into an overpopulated world that is careening towards climate catastrophe is the height of selfishness! I know the pope lives in a palace and probably isn’t too familiar with the current costs of childcare but he might want to look into just how expensive having a kid is these days.

Arwa Mahawi

The Pope might be celibate but his parishioners must prioritise kids over their fur babies. They must follow the primary biological directive to reproduce.

There are dozens of posts to write on this deep and meaningful hypocrisy, but the obvious one is this…

Humanity can only survive the next 100 years if we repress our reproductive urges by choice or design because the planet is finite. It cannot sustain post-industrial revolution rates of human population growth and resource demand for another century. 

There has to be a demographic transition and a shift to sustainable resource use or else we fall from our perceived pinnacle and struggle to persist.

No matter how important kids are to a celibate white man, fewer children are necessary, and if that means fur babies, so be it. 


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