9 December 2012

There was a Jolly Miller Once - - - -

One of the pleasures of old age is the time one has to mull over things. Even if there is stupidity or concern in them, they often profit from a bit of mulling. So I hope the three I share today will be of interest, although the first stems from a deeply stupid situation and the second raises questions of profound and disturbing depth. I offer the third in the hope that it will seem cheerful enough to balance the other two.

A team were clearing fallen leaves from the pavements in Norwich’s Ipswich Road the other day by forking them into plastic bags and throwing the bags into the back of a lorry. When I asked whether the bags were biodegradable, they said it didn’t matter because it was all going to landfill, because of the danger to the team from syringe needles in the leaf litter.

Not only does it put a new complexion on the action of those who dispose of “sharps” on the pavement – that they are unwittingly causing the city council to design a major disruption of an important recycling process of nature’s materials that could otherwise provide abundant leaf mould for the city’s green spaces – but I walked on amazed that the city council cannot find a more harmonious way of dealing with this little problem.

From the ridiculous to the … disconcerting. A large study in France has confirmed that between 1989 and 2005 average sperm counts in men fell by a third. It is likely that the decline is continuing. This has been accompanied by a rise in testicular cancer and other male sexual disorders. The likely causes are a high-fat diet and environmental chemical exposures. The industrial chemicals used in making plastics, for instance, can mimic the female hormone oestrogen which counters male hormones necessary for healthy sperm.

As there are already too many of us for the world to cope with, I wonder whether this is another, but man-made, example of the sort of negative feed-back that we admire in so many of our natural processes. In the same way as our bodies are designed to switch off our appetite when we begin to have too much food, is nature beginning to do something to regulate our species’ overpopulation of the planet?  If so, what ought we to do about it – and about the specialists in human reproductive health who are working as hard as they can to find a way of combating this decrease in human sperm counts?

The food industry is working as hard as it can to invent for our obese population new more seductive foods to overcome the negative feedback in our digestive apparatus, the media continue to spew out more and more column centimetres on food and cooking it to help the industry, and the sugar beet lorries continue to trundle through our village to supply possibly the most insidious of all positive feedback drugs. Imagine what Mr. Cameron would say if we asked him to put a stop to any of those in order to allow our natural negative feedbacks on food to work as planned!

Of course more research needs to be done on the decline in sperm counts, before anyone begins to think of it as a way of regulating the population without coercion!  For one thing, we would need at the very least to be sure that the decline was across the board (if such a term may be used for such delicate creatures), and that the decline was indiscriminate. There’s already a worrying imbalance in the gender of children in some places, attributed by some to radiation. If the observed decline in sperm was more severe in, say X sperm, than in Y sperm, this would certainly adversely affect the gender balance.

Being my age, I’m occasionally nostalgic for the good old autumn smell of burning leaves, however green I think I am. Whimsically, I wonder whether the time may come when men are urged to lie back and … inhale the smell of plastics manufacture.

Lastly, a stream runs through our parish, dropping some 25 metres on its way towards the River Yare, but it fails to cope with the run-off of fresh water either from our built environment or the fields, so roads regularly flood as the drains have difficulty in dealing with the volumes of road-contaminated water. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get together with the landowners to dig a series of lakes along the stream by damming it in several carefully chosen places – largely manually instead of wasting time and energy jogging and going to the gym – and routing as much of the water as possible via ditches into the lakes before it reaches the roads?

Then the farmers and gardeners could benefit from the fresh water, and we could install water-driven electricity generators at the outfall from each lake, ie watermills, which would make each lake a millpond. How romantic it would be, yet how much better than nuclear or fracking as a source of electricity!

Not enough water to be worthwhile, you say?  How about a small wind pump downstream of each watermill to pump the water back up into the millpond? Not one of these monstrous wind turbines that generate such carefully orchestrated political opposition, but ones about the height of those that still linger about the Broads, where they used to do exactly the same thing – pump up water a couple of metres – so effectively for so long.

In effect, the mill ponds would be the “batteries” to store the energy for when the wind wasn’t blowing. If we were really keen to do our community thing about electricity, the number of generators-plus-wind-pumps in the parish would only be limited by the number the stream could fit in efficiently. I’m grateful to the artist Ben Quail who suggested this to me at the Norwich Green Party’s Christmas Fair.

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