The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to achieve decent lives for all on a healthy planet. Many of their targets for 2030 are likely to be missed. Global population growth means overexploitation of natural resources, environmental destruction and unsustainable demand for land, food, water and energy. Growing numbers trap the poorest in poverty. To meet the SDGs, the international community must tackle population, ethically and effectively.
Sign the petition to UN Secretary General António Guterres
Dear Mr Guterres
We, the undersigned, call on you to recognise the urgency of achieving a sustainable human population if the world is to have a reasonable chance of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. Positive, empowering measures to allow and encourage people to choose smaller families must be at the heart of the UN's programme. Specifically, we call on you to:
1. Issue a statement expressing support for smaller families, and recognising the value of ending and reversing population growth.
2. Embed positive measures to address population in the implementation and work of existing UN frameworks and bodies, such as the SDGs, IPCC and Convention on Biodiversity.
3. Explore options for the development of an international multilateral framework to address population and demographic challenges, equitably, compassionately and effectively.
Thank you for your support.
Thank you for signing this petition. While there is much else we need to do to ensure a healthy future for our planet and ourselves, international agreement on the need for action to address population is urgent and essential.
Please help us to spread the word and build a powerful movement for change by sharing this petition with your friends.
We can only achieve the Sustainable Development Goals #SDGs if we have a sustainable human population. Join me in asking UN Secretary General @antonioguterres to promote #smallerfamilies:
In an unmissable talk, journalist Carole Cadwalladr digs into one of the most perplexing events in recent times: the UK's super-close 2016 vote to leave the European Union. Tracking the result to a barrage of misleading Facebook ads targeted at vulnerable Brexit swing voters -- and linking the same players and tactics to the 2016 US presidential election -- Cadwalladr calls out the "gods of Silicon Valley" for being on the wrong side of history and asks: Are free and fair elections a thing of the past?
Economic thinking governs much of our world. But the discipline’s teaching is stuck in the past. Centred around antiquated 19th-century models built on Newtonian physics, economics treats humans as atomic particles, rather than as social beings.
While academic research often manages to transcend this simplicity, undergraduate education does not – and the influence of these simplified ideas is carried by graduates as they go on to work in politics, media, business and the civil service.
Economists such as myself tend to speak in tightly coded jargon and mathematical models. We speak of “economic laws”, tacitly positioning these as analogous to the laws of physics. We wrap a thick layer of technical jargon around our study material and ban all moral or ethical discussions from the classroom. We attempt to take cover under the protective white lab coat of “real science”, a phenomenon described by Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek as scientism.
In short, economics has become a rather quaint and highly guarded discipline. We urgently need to update economics education to change this – because economics, as taught in universities, does not reflect or speak to many of the issues of the real world, be they political, environmental or social.
The political economy
Take the tricky entanglement between politics and economics, which economists tend to try to avoid. Such an attempt is futile. Sidelining politics, history and broader ideas while teaching economics, as most professors do, is like studying the “natural” flows of water in the Netherlands without taking into account that there are people living there who are steering it, building dikes, reclaiming land and channelling the water – and ignoring that they have been doing this for thousands of years already. You can’t study the system while ignoring the people who make it.
Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.
It is true that academic economists are aware of the shortcomings of their discipline. But unfortunately, this awareness of the complexity of the economic system does not necessarily extend to those who leave university after their degree. And this is what the vast majority of economics graduates do. These are the people who go on to work in big business, governments and central banks, who shape policy and create our “economic common sense”.
So what sort of ideas do these undergraduate economics students take out of university and into some of the most important careers in our societies?
Concerned student groups everywhere have started to systematically map this out. Student members of the University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Association wrote a book surveying 174 economics modules at seven leading UK universities. They found that fewer than 10% covered anything other than mainstream economics. In the Netherlands, students found that real-world problems, from climate change to inequality, were seriously treated in only 6% of all modules and that only 2% of methods courses were not focused on statistical work.
A series of subsequent curriculum review projects, including one covering 13 countries from Argentina to Israel, found similar conditions in economics programs everywhere.
Undergraduate economists all over the world learn theories from textbooks that have barely changed since the 1950s. Those theories are based on individual agents, competing in markets to maximise narrowly defined “economic utility” (for people) or profit (for firms). The principles are taught with the same certainty as Newtonian physics, and are as devoid of value judgements.
This is absurd. Clearly, there are values; mainstream economics values efficiency, markets and growth – and puts individuals over collectives. Yet undergraduates are not taught to recognise, let alone question, these values – and the consequences are serious.
The models taught in our education ignore inequality, while our societies are being torn apart by it. In our classes, relentless economic growth is an unquestioned dogma, yet this same economic growth is rapidly ripping apart the ecological foundations of our world. And while we all may individually donate to charities, separate our trash and feel guilty about flying too much, we are collectively handicapped in reforming the very system that drives these problems.
Hope for change
There is hope for change, however. In the UK, a number of economics programmes are gradually becoming more pluralist in terms of theory and methods in response to the movement. Goldsmiths College in London, for instance, has renewed its PPE programme to include the same, and add other disciplines. And the Schumacher College in Devon now offers an Economics for Transition MSc which explicitly ties together economic and ecological systems. Meanwhile, an international accreditation system for pluralist Masters programmes is being set up.
But we need renewal on a much broader front: a new approach to economics education, one which does not hide behind the self-imposed limits of 19th century physics-style modelling, but instead considers the societal role of economists seriously. We need an economics which focuses on the entire economic system and which acknowledges all relevant sources of knowledge, rather than apprehensively clinging to statistical data. And one which addresses the issues that are most pressing for society, not those that comfortably fit within its mainstream method.
Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait for the present generation of economists to retire before this can happen. By that time, it might be too late.
Joris Tieleman is a co-founder of Rethinking Economics in the Netherlands. He does part-time work for Our New Economy, a charity dedicated to a fairer, more sustainable economic system. This project has received a €5.000 Grant for Small Groups from the ISRF.
Black holes are long-time superstars of science fiction. But their Hollywood fame is a little strange given that no-one has ever actually seen one – at least, until now. If you needed to see to believe, then thank the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which has just produced the first ever direct image of a black hole. This amazing feat required global collaboration to turn the Earth into one giant telescope and image an object thousands of trillions of kilometres away.
As stunning and ground-breaking as it is, the EHT project is not just about taking on a challenge. It’s an unprecedented test of whether Einstein’s ideas about the very nature of space and time hold up in extreme circumstances, and looks closer than ever before at the role of black holes in the universe.
To cut a long story short: Einstein was right.
Capturing the uncapturable
A black hole is a region of space whose mass is so large and dense that not even light can escape its gravitational attraction. Against the black backdrop of the inky beyond, capturing one is a near impossible task. But thanks to Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking work, we know that the colossal masses are not just black abysses. Not only are they able to emit huge jets of plasma, but their immense gravity pulls in streams of matter into its core.
When matter approaches a black hole’s event horizon – the point at which not even light can escape – it forms an orbiting disk. Matter in this disk will convert some of its energy to friction as it rubs against other particles of matter. This warms up the disk, just as we warm our hands on a cold day by rubbing them together. The closer the matter, the greater the friction. Matter closer to the event horizon glows brilliantly bright with the heat of hundreds of Suns. It is this light that the EHT detected, along with the “silhouette” of the black hole.
Producing the image and analysing such data is an amazingly hard task. As an astronomer who studies black holes in far away galaxies, I cannot usually even image a single star in those galaxies clearly, let alone see the black hole at their centres.
The EHT team decided to target two of the closest supermassive black holes to us – both in the large elliptical shaped galaxy, M87, and in Sagittarius A*, at the centre of our Milky Way.
To give a sense of how hard this task is, while the Milky Way’s black hole has a mass of 4.1 million Suns and a diameter of 60 million kilometres, it is 250,614,750,218,665,392 kilometres away from Earth – thats the equivalent of travelling from London to New York 45 trillion times. As noted by the EHT team, it is like being in New York and trying to count the dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles, or imaging an orange on the moon.
To photograph something so impossibly far away, the team needed a telescope as big as the Earth itself. In the absence of such a gargantuan machine, the EHT team connected together telescopes from around the planet, and combined their data. To capture an accurate image at such a distance, the telescopes needed to be stable, and their readings completely synchronised.
To accomplish this challenging feat, the team used atomic clocks so accurate that they lose just one second per hundred million years. The 5,000 terabytes of data collected was so large that it had to be stored on hundreds of hard drives and physically delivered to a supercomputer, which corrected the time differences in the data and produced the image above.
General Relativity vindicated
With a sense of excitement, I watched the live stream showing the image of the black hole from the centre of M87 for the first time.
The most important initial take-home is that Einstein was right. Again. His general theory of relativity has passed two serious tests from the universe’s most extreme conditions in the last few years. Here, Einstein’s theory predicted the observations from M87 with unerring accuracy, and is seemingly the correct description of the nature of space, time, and gravity.
The measurements of the speeds of matter around the centre of the black hole are consistent with being near the speed of light. From the image, the EHT scientists determined that the M87 black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun and 40 billion km across – that’s larger than Neptune’s 200-year orbit of the sun.
The Milky Way’s black hole was too challenging to image accurately this time round due to rapid variability in light output. Hopefully, more telescopes will be added to the EHT’s array soon, to get ever clearer images of these fascinating objects. I have no doubt that in the near future we will be able to gaze upon the dark heart of our very own galaxy.
This piece has been updated to include a picture of Katie Bouman, the computer scientist who developed the algorithm that made the black hole photo possible.