Now here’s a story to give you a warm glow, especially if you are a taxpayer in the European Union.

The European Union’s highest court officially reprimanded France on Thursday (9 June) for not doing enough to care for hamsters.

Ruling on a case brought by the European Commission three years ago, the  European Court of Justice determined that the French republic had shown a lack  of due care towards its dwindling population of the black-bellied rodents.

Wild European hamsters, which can live for four years and grow to more than  20 cm in length, are considered farmland pests, but are threatened with  extinction in their small habitat in Alsace, eastern France.

The court found France had allowed harmful crops and unchecked urbanisation  to destroy nearly 1,000 hamster burrows between 2001 and 2007.

“The court holds that the measures to protect the  European hamster in Alsace, implemented by France, were not adequate” to protect  the species, it said a statement,  adding that France needed to address the situation immediately.

Under the ruling, France must adjust its agriculture and urbanisation  practices or face daily fines from the European Union. As the European Court of  Justice is the EU’s highest court, France has no further right of appeal.

There are an estimated 800 wild European hamsters left in France, although  there are plentiful populations elsewhere on the continent.

Hamsters are protected under the EU Habitats Directive, which requires  countries to protect animal species “of Community interest,” including the  European hamster, the court recalled.

The mind boggles at the cost of this exercise, involving highly-paid Commission officials and armies of lawyers and officials.  No wonder that the European Union’s annual budget for administering its institutions, including the Commission and the European Court of Justice, is €8 billion (out of a total EU budget of about €140 billion) and rising.

I concede that there is some price that we should be willing to pay for biodiversity, and I acknowledge that the Commission has a mandate to take action against a Member State which has failed to comply with its obligations under European Union law.  But surely, when it comes to allocating resources to this role, there are greater priorities for the Commission than looking after a few hamsters?

Last April, the New Statesman published an article written by Sir David Attenborough called “This Heaving Planet”.  Much of it is worth quoting, so I take the liberty of doing so below.

My tuppence worth: what a handicap has been bequeathed to us population worriers and doomsayers by Malthus and his too-early warning of disaster.  As Attenborough says, Malthus was actually right in principle, but his timing was a bit out.  And we are continually derided by the Population Polyannas who point to Malthus’ “wrong” analysis.  Yes, Malthus may have “cried wolf”.  But people forget that, in the Aesop fable, the real wolf did eventually arrive.

Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded, there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion – over twice as many – every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools, roads and airfields. Where could that come from? A little might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had had to themselves – the natural world.

But the impact of these extra billions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically claimed. The spread of industrialisation has changed the chemical constituents of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. The earth is warming. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

There have been prophets who have warned us of this impending disaster. One of the first was Thomas Malthus. His surname – Malthus – leads some to suppose that he was some continental European philosopher, a German perhaps. But he was not. He was an Englishman, born in Guildford, Surrey, in the middle of the 18th century. His most important book, An ­Essay on the Principle of Population, was published in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed “misery and vice”. Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored – or, at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called Green Revolution (from the 1940s to the late 1970s), which greatly increased the amount of food that can be produced in any given area of arable land. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still cannot foresee. But such advances only delay things. The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.

Many people would like to deny that this is so. They would like to believe in that oxymoron “sustainable growth”. Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy’s environmental adviser 45 years ago, said something about this: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”

The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. One and a half million a week. A quarter of a million a day. Ten thousand an hour..…

… our poor battered planet – the increase of greenhouse gases and consequential global warming, the acidification of the oceans and the collapse of fish stocks, the loss of rainforest, the spread of deserts, the shortage of arable land, the increase in violent weather, the growth of mega-cities, famine, migration patterns. The list goes on and on. But they all share one underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, social as well as environmental, becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.

Well done to Richard Tol for putting the boot into celebrity economists.  His piece in the Irish Times (here) compared for various economists the ratio of the number of citations in the popular literature and the number of citations in scholarly literature – on the basis that, in Tol’s words, “media exposure should be commensurate with expertise – the mouth should not be larger than the brain”. 

The table which was carried in the newspaper does not seem to be available in the online version, but is available here.  Let me mention some of the results.

Hardly surprising that top of the heap is our hyperactive old friend (and Brian Lenihan’s) David McWilliams with a ratio of 27.0, although, to be fair, David has a second career as a popular author and one-man stage performer.  Dark and gloomy Constantin Gurdgiev  comes in at a hefty 6.65.  Down the other end of the table are Alan Ahearne (0.13), Richard Tol himself (0.04),Philip Lane (0.01) and Jim Markusen (0.00).

Celebrity economists are a group about which I have blogged previously

Whenever I hear somebody described as a “well-known economist”, I think of the expression “celebrity chef”. Usually the latter is somebody who is too busy being a celebrity to devote sufficient energy to getting the chef bit right. The drug of fame and the lure of publicity seem often to eat away at the proper exercise of the very craft in which they made their name.

Incidentally, Richard Tol, who works for the Irish Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) is, according to Wikipedia, among the US Senate Republican Party’s “list of scientists disputing man-made global warming claims”, which stated that Tol “dismissed the idea that mankind must act now to prevent catastrophic global warming”.  Village magazine did a hatchet job on him earlier this year.  Tol, however, characterises his position as simply arguing that the economic costs of climate policy should be kept in proportion to its benefits.

We have become used to the idea of spending limits for election candidates.  I have yet to see a serious suggestion that there should be a limit imposed on the number and size of posters that candidates erect for every election.

Consider these facts:

  • to a large extent candidates only erect posters to counteract the fact that their opponents are doing so, and failure to “front up” with thousands of posters might be seen as evidence of a lacklustre campaign; just as we had a nuclear disarmament treaty, we now need a postering decommissioning regulation
  • election posters are almost invariably uninformative as to policy, consisting only of a carefully taken (and touched up) photo of the candidate, and an exhortation to Vote No.1 for Joe Schmoe (the suggestion that a party’s second candidate should also be supported can sometimes be found, but in the smallest print size that decency allows)
  • posters are damaging to the environment, whether in their manufacture, their printing, their propensity to cause litter, or their subsequent disposal
  • erecting posters is a time-consuming and energy-intensive procedure
  • posters, as erected in Ireland, are a danger to life and limb; this is because they often cause obstruction of pathways and the covering up of, or the distraction from, road signs for motorists
  • many jurisdictions do not allow uncontrolled postering, and some go as far (in local elections at least) as to insist that all candidates limit themselves to a poster or statement which are collectively erected at one central position in the electoral area

Why not impose a limit of (say) 500 square metres of poster area per candidate in a general election?  He/she could choose whether to go for lots of small posters, or fewer but larger ones.  I suspect everybody would be relieved at such a regulation, which would allow the focus to be on more productive aspects of campaigning.

One: the current population of Ethiopia is 85 million.  In 1985, when we all gave so generously to Band Aid and Live Aid to help deal with widespread famine, the population was about 40 million.   By the year 2050, according to Population Reference Bureau estimates,  Ethiopia’s population will increase to about 169 million people.  Some 14 million Ethiopians already have difficulty finding enough to eat, including, according to UNICEF, 62,000 children under the age of five.

Two: the population of Pakistan is currently estimated at 185 million.  At current fertility rates, and all else being equal (admittedly that’s quite a big qualifier, as recent flood deaths show), it will rise to 460 million by 2050 (source: UN demographic projection).

As far as quality of life on earth is concerned, we are watching a slow-motion car crash.  And fundamentalists from the political left and the political right, and from most religions, are blocking any sensible discussion of the problem.

This is a monstrous Tragedy of the Commons, which will have a profound effect on the lives of our children.

My hopes were cruelly raised yesterday by the headline on the main Irish Times editorial (“Our crowded planet”).  Aha, I thought, Madam is going to speak out about the awful impact which population growth is having on the environment and on quality of life and on prospects for peace and stability, and call for concerted action to deal with this impending self-inflicted tragedy.

So I read on, noting the extensive references to new and worrying projections from the Population Reference Bureau, and waiting for the call to arms (metaphorically, of course) which would surely bring the editorial to a conclusion with a flourish.  But no, the whole editorial consisted of a bland regurgitation of population-related facts from the PRB  and elsewhere, with some mention of what the implications of unchecked population growth are for age demographics in the developed world.  You will look in vain for any trace of what is the actual opinion of the editor (or editorial staff) of the Irish Times.

In fact, now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time this newspaper published an editorial which expressed a view that was even mildly controversial.  It’s all motherhood and apple pie, as the saying goes. This is in contrast to leading newspapers in say the United Kingdom, whose editors do appear to have real and interesting views on important matters, and are not afraid to publish them.

Maybe my expectations are too high.  Maybe our Newspaper of Record has decided it doesn’t need to have any editorial opinions any more, preferring to play it safe by letting its hired-gun columnists express definitive views on matters of importance. Or maybe it has gone the way of almost all our politicians, who are afraid of offending any potential voter and so express no real opinions on any difficult subject (or maybe they are such gombeens that they actually hold no such opinions?).

Yes, the Irish Times does give space to writers who take all sorts of positions on controversial topics – see for example this article on the population issue – but I don’t think this is adequate.  Readers are entitled to expect that the editor of the Newspaper of Record will present a real opinion in her editorial column on matters of great importance such as world overpopulation (just as the Financial Times did in this editorial last September).

So, madam, please start to earn your (over) generous salary, which is paid for by us readers, and give us some editorials of substance.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(William Butler Yeats )

A foreign visitor remarked to me recently that he had never seen so many weeds, particularly dandelions, growing on the side of our roads and on central margins .  He wondered if the local government workers employed to spray weedkiller were on strike.

I suggested two possible reasons: the laughably-named “work to rule” by public servants protesting at pay cuts; or that local authorities had run out of money to pay for the weeds to be controlled properly.

Either way, it’s indicative of our slide into quasi-third-world status.  Surely the detrimental effect on local communities and on tourism suggests that not spraying is a false economy? 

Strange that it took an outsider to point out the obvious to me; I suppose I had gradually become so used to the unkempt appearance of our public roads that I had ceased to notice how bad they were.  But now I see the blasted weeds everywhere.  And In them I see an unsightly metaphor for the dereliction that has befallen our economy.