Beware of ‘Vatican condoms’ – and global warming

See also my 19 July 2007 post: Three Amigos: Funny Condoms on a serious mission

You never know where the next piece of helpful advice can come from.

Here at the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists, currently underway in Melbourne, we were told to be careful in using Vatican condoms: they have holes in them!

It’s a joke, of course, but the implications of increasing human numbers is no laughing matter. And neither is global warming and resulting climate change — one major topic of discussion at the conference.

Professor Roger V Short, FRS, from the University of Melbourne made a passionate plea for controlling our numbers: “We are the global warmers. And we hold the key to containing and reducing it.”

He was speaking at session on ‘Life and death in 2020: how will science respond?’

Human population has increased at an unprecedented rate. When he was born, the world had a total of 2 billion people, the elderly academic said. Now, the estimate is around 6.7 billion.

By 2050, according to the United Nations, it is set to reach 9 billion. And that with all efforts at family planning.

The United States and Australia are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Yet, Australia is the only developed country that is encouraging its people to increase the birthrate.

Are we out of our minds, Professor Short wondered.

The message was loud and clear: unless we seriously contain our numbers, we — and our planet — are doomed.

Prof Short recalled how he’d spent a inspiring week with Thailand’s Senator Michai Viravaidya – known as ‘Mr Condom’ in Thailand for his unashamed and long-standing promoting of condom use — to both reduce population growth and to contain the spread of HIV.

john-rennie2.jpg roger-v-short.jpg

Wide use of condoms, and globally adopting a one-child-per-family policy, can give us a chance to arrest run-away global warming, Prof Short suggested.

The world is urgently in need of many more Mr Condoms, it seems.

To illustrate his point, Prof Short took out a T-Shirt saying ‘Stop Global Warming: Use Condoms!‘ and presented it to John Rennie, editor of the Scientific American, who was chairing the session.

The good sport that Rennie was, he immediately donned it.

Read what Christine Scott said about HIV and South Africa during the same session

See also my 19 July 2007 post: Three Amigos: Funny Condoms on a serious mission

Banned in the USA, Al Jazeera now online at YouTube

“The world’s first English language news channel to have its headquarters in the Middle East; covering the world, bridging cultures and setting the news agenda.”

That’s the marketing line of Al Jazeera International (AJI), launched on 15 November 2006.

It’s been slowly building up an audience, which it now claims to be around 90 million households.

But not in the United States of America: it was shut out of most American homes because cable companies have refused to carry their signal.

Elsewhere, commerce – not politics – was at play: some cable operators and hotels, already locked into various deals with the established global news channels of BBC World and CNN International, weren’t easily carrying AJI either.

Undeterred, AJI started this week to post some of their content on YouTube.


Well, things are getting more interesting now!

When AJI started less than six months ago, I wrote an op ed published on Both Media Helping Media (UK) and (USA). I argued that to make a real difference, AJI needs to not only analyse and present the news differently, but also gather news more ethically in the developing countries of the global South.

BBC World and CNN International have an appalling track record of doing this. “They epitomise a disturbing belief in international news and current affairs journalism: the end justifies the means.”

I added: If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.”

I ended my essay: We will be watching. And not just what’s shown on AJI, but how those pictures get there.”>

Well, it’s now become easier to follow AJI. I still keep an open mind about their English channel, even if it shows every sign of aping the BBC and CNN. Already we need to look hard to find a real difference.

Let’s give them one year to prove if they mean what they say — or not.

Read my full essay on Media Helping Media, with some reader comments

Read the version that appeared on

50? In South African terms, you’re probably dead!

“How many of you are over 50?” asked Christina Scott, South African journalist and broadcaster.

Half a dozen hands went up.

“Come on, now – be honest,” Christina urged. One more hand joined.

“In South African terms, chances are that you’re already dead,” she declared.

Christina was talking about stark realities of living and dying in today’s South Africa, which is one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

We were at a session on ‘Life and Death in 2020: How will science respond?’ during the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists, currently underway in Melbourne.

christina-scott.jpg Christina Scott - image courtesy IPS

Christina then asked how many in her audience were aged between 30 and 35. This time, four hands shot up.

“If you were in South Africa, you’re probably infected with HIV, and don’t know it yet — and go around giving it to others,” she told them.

After getting her audience shocked and hooked, Christina talked about how HIV is cutting across social hierarchies and colour barriers in her country.

Many intervention strategies to contain HIV have been based on the premise that when people know more, they are more likely to change risky behaviour. “We now see that greater wealth or higher levels of access to information alone do not change people’s behaviour. In fact, the middle classes lull themselves into thinking that HIV is a poor people’s disease, when it’s not,” she said.

In other words, it’s not a linear process and is much nuanced.

Christina was doubtful if Internet, PCs and online communications could make much headway in reaching out a majority of South Africans. It’s not just a lack of connectivity and computers, but a more basic absence of electricity in many areas.

To her, old fashioned radio was still the most cost-effective way to reach more people quickly.

One new ICT that has taken sub-Saharan African by storm is mobile phones. “They are everywhere, and people are using them for all sorts of things — including sexual transactions.”

She was cautiously optimistic about prospects for combating HIV. “AIDS is like a war: it’s very nasty, and causes a lot of damage. But as in war, it also spurs innovation and responses,” she said.

An AIDS vaccine is not the answer, as the virus keeps mutating and in any case distributing the vaccine to all those who need it will be a huge challenge.

Her personal wish: her daughter of 15 to get through college without contracting HIV.

Note: Christina works as Africa consultant for the Science and Development Network.

Science journalists and whales: much in common?

Science journalists have been called many names, some more memorable than others.

Speaking at the inauguration of the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists, Robyn Williams — the doyen of science broadcasting in Australia — suggested a new analogy: they are like whales in many ways.

To paraphrase his witty opening remarks, whales and science journalists have some things in common (my comments in brackets):

They both respond to lots of free drinks and eats.

In fact, they like to drink vast amounts (though not necessarily the same liquids!).

There is evidence to suggest they are both intelligent species.

They are both endangered too – there are some nasty people out to get them.

Both are free spirits – don’t like being trapped or hounded.

And they are known for occasional mass strandings – in the case of science journalists, it first happened in Tokyo (which choice whales might not approve!), followed by Budapest, Sao Paulo, Montreal and now – Melbourne.

These are the cities that have hosted World Conferences of Science Journalists, beginning in 1992.

It’s an event that happens approxiatemly every three years — or as soon as the next host can line up the massive logistics involved in receiving, feeding and keeping the several hundreds whales – sorry, science journalists – happy.

Robyn Williams, image courtesy ABC

Robyn is not just a very entertaining broadcaster, but has has written more than 10 books — one of them a novel, 2007: A True Story Waiting to Happen.

By coincidence, the story involves whales – one of his favourite species – and its action starts in April 2007!

Here’s the blurb promoting the book, first published in 2001:

It is the year 2007. The weather is now wreaking turmoil on the planet. Hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, fires, droughts and diseases are sweeping the world with increasing frequency and severity. The poor countries are worst hit, but even the rich ones are no longer immune from major disruption. Big business is worried.

In April 2007, the animals take matters into their own hands. An enormous pod of whales sinks a whale-killing submarine. Massive flocks of pelicans close airports around the world. Huge herds of cattle bring freeways everywhere to a halt, burying cars under mountains of steaming dung.

Desperate to find a solution to the global chaos, the President of the United States calls on the world’s top scientists to explain what it happening and how to stop it. One man, his daughter and her dog hold the key, but before things can get better, they have to get a great deal worse.

Hmmm. Robyn is known and admired for many talents, but perhaps the world hasn’t yet appreciated his powers of prescience.

Having blazed new trails in taking science to the public, Robyn now presents The Science Show on ABC radio.

Related links:

The Science Show story on whale DNA

Robyn Williams interview on ‘scientific whaling’