Your smartphone might be linked to crocodile attacks in Indonesia. Here’s how

What’s the connection between your smartphone and crocodile attacks? It’s quite straightforward.

Smartphones need tin, which is often mined illegally in Indonesia. When illegal tin mines are abandoned, they fill with water. Crocodiles enter from nearby waterways, looking for food, as fishing and other human pressures have made prey short. Croc attacks increase.

That’s the short version. Here’s the longer one.

After intense culling in Indonesia in the 20th century, saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are now returning to islands such as Bali and Java. Croc attacks have become a serious issue. Over 1,000 attacks have taken place in the ten years to 2023, leading to 486 deaths.

But these attacks aren’t distributed evenly. Croc hotspots include the Bangka-Belitung islands, off the southeastern coast of Sumatra. And these islands have a huge amount of tin.

Tin mining leaves behind craters, which fill with water.
Sony Herdiana/Shutterstock

The islands of tin

The Bangka-Belitung province consists of two large namesake islands, as well as hundreds of smaller islands. About 1.5 million people live here. Tin is the mainstay of the economy.

Tin is vital to smartphone production, as it is used to solder different components together. Indonesia is second only to China in tin production, producing roughly a third of the world supply. And within Indonesia, almost all the tin – 90% – comes from the Bangka-Belitung islands.

During the authoritarian Suharto government, tin mining here was controlled by the central government. After Indonesia democratised in 1998, the regional government of Bangka-Belitung gained control of tin. In 2001, the government allowed its citizens the right to mine tin. Illegal tin mines ballooned as a result, increasing four-fold in just three years after the laws passed.

Two decades later, illegal tin-mining has now destroyed much of the province’s biodiversity, particularly fish populations. It’s dangerous work for humans – around 150 miners die each year due to accidents, including crocodile attacks. Miners have also encroached into crocodile habitat such as mangroves.

Tin mining makes the landscape look like the moon. Native animals flee or die. Mud pollutes waterways. Fish numbers dwindle. And crocodiles get hungrier. They start looking for different prey. Dogs. Cows. Humans.

Desperate humans, desperate crocodiles

Illegal tin mining brings crocodiles closer to humans by creating new habitat, though of poor quality. After miners dig out the tin ore by hand, the craters left behind fill with water, creating pools known as “kulongs”.

These kulongs are often found close enough to waterways that fish and other prey animals can end up living in them after a flood. These mining pools go much further inland than natural waterways on the islands do, allowing salties to reach far further inland. Hungry crocodiles come for the fish, but might go after a dog or human.

The craters left by tin mining are visible from satellites. This image shows dozens of mining craters filled with water along a waterway in the Bangka Belitung islands.
Google Earth, CC BY

It’s not only mining – the felling of forests and planting of oil palms often comes with the creation of drainage canals. These canals make it easier for crocs to get close to areas where workers might be swimming or fishing.

All of this means the sharp increase in croc attacks was almost inevitable. Destroying habitat while mining in or near waterways means crocodiles found it easier and easier to be near humans.

Over the 10 years to 2023, almost 100 crocodile attacks were reported on these islands, and 41 people died. Of these attacks, almost a third (32%) were in current or former tin mines, and one sixth (16.5%) were mining at the time.

By contrast, over that same decade in Queensland, there were just five fatal attacks and 14 non-fatal.

As Langka Sani, the founder of local wildlife conservation group Alobi Foundation has said:

In the past, we might never hear of a crocodile attack in a year, whereas now in the last two weeks there have been dozens of reports of crocodile cases.

His organisation has taken in dozens of crocodiles attacked by people as reprisals for croc attacks. Some of these are being resettled.

Reducing croc attacks will mean ending illegal tin-mining. Is that possible? Yes, but it’s unlikely. The state-owned tin mining company, PT Timah, provides miners with safer working conditions. But they cannot compete with the extra income from illegal mining.

That means for the foreseeable future, the world’s demand for tin for smartphones will have a deadly cost.

Read more:
Saltwater crocodiles are slowly returning to Bali and Java. Can we learn to live alongside them? Läs mer…

Eat a rock a day, put glue on your pizza: how Google’s AI is losing touch with reality

Google has rolled out its latest experimental search feature on Chrome, Firefox and the Google app browser to hundreds of millions of users. “AI Overviews” saves you clicking on links by using generative AI — the same technology that powers rival product ChatGPT — to provide summaries of the search results. Ask “how to keep bananas fresh for longer” and it uses AI to generate a useful summary of tips such as storing them in a cool, dark place and away from other fruits like apples.

But ask it a left-field question and the results can be disastrous, or even dangerous. Google is currently scrambling to fix these problems one by one, but it is a PR disaster for the search giant and a challenging game of whack-a-mole.

Google’s AI Overviews may damage the tech giant’s reputation for providing reliable results.
Google / The Conversation

AI Overviews helpfully tells you that “Whack-A-Mole is a classic arcade game where players use a mallet to hit moles that pop up at random for points. The game was invented in Japan in 1975 by the amusement manufacturer TOGO and was originally called Mogura Taiji or Mogura Tataki.”

But AI Overviews also tells you that “astronauts have met cats on the moon, played with them, and provided care”. More worryingly, it also recommends “you should eat at least one small rock per day” as “rocks are a vital source of minerals and vitamins”, and suggests putting glue in pizza topping.

Why is this happening?

One fundamental problem is that generative AI tools don’t know what is true, just what is popular. For example, there aren’t a lot of articles on the web about eating rocks as it is so self-evidently a bad idea.

There is, however, a well-read satirical article from The Onion about eating rocks. And so Google’s AI based its summary on what was popular, not what was true.

Some AI Overview results appear to have mistaken jokes and parodies for factual information.
Google / The Conversation

Another problem is that generative AI tools don’t have our values. They’re trained on a large chunk of the web.

And while sophisticated techniques (that go by exotic names such as “reinforcement learning from human feedback” or RLHF) are used to eliminate the worst, it is unsurprising they reflect some of the biases, conspiracy theories and worse to be found on the web. Indeed, I am always amazed how polite and well-behaved AI chatbots are, given what they’re trained on.

Is this the future of search?

If this is really the future of search, then we’re in for a bumpy ride. Google is, of course, playing catch-up with OpenAI and Microsoft.

The financial incentives to lead the AI race are immense. Google is therefore being less prudent than in the past in pushing the technology out into users’ hands.

In 2023, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said:

We’ve been cautious. There are areas where we’ve chosen not to be the first to put a product out. We’ve set up good structures around responsible AI. You will continue to see us take our time.

That no longer appears to be so true, as Google responds to criticisms that it has become a large and lethargic competitor.

A risky move

It’s a risky strategy for Google. It risks losing the trust that the public has in Google being the place to find (correct) answers to questions.

But Google also risks undermining its own billion-dollar business model. If we no longer click on links, just read their summary, how does Google continue to make money?

The risks are not restricted to Google. I fear such use of AI might be harmful for society more broadly. Truth is already a somewhat contested and fungible idea. AI untruths are likely to make this worse.

In a decade’s time, we may look back at 2024 as the golden age of the web, when most of it was quality human-generated content, before the bots took over and filled the web with synthetic and increasingly low-quality AI-generated content.

Has AI started breathing its own exhaust?

The second generation of large language models are likely and unintentionally being trained on some of the outputs of the first generation. And lots of AI startups are touting the benefits of training on synthetic, AI-generated data.

But training on the exhaust fumes of current AI models risks amplifying even small biases and errors. Just as breathing in exhaust fumes is bad for humans, it is bad for AI.

These concerns fit into a much bigger picture. Globally, more than US$400 million (A$600 million) is being invested in AI every day. And governments are only now just waking up to the idea we might need guardrails and regulation to ensure AI is used responsibly, given this torrent of investment.

Pharmaceutical companies aren’t allowed to release drugs that are harmful. Nor are car companies. But so far, tech companies have largely been allowed to do what they like. Läs mer…

Noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs and earmuffs – do they really help neurodivergent people?

Noise can make it hard to concentrate, especially for people who are extra sensitive to it.

Neurodivergent people (such as those who are autistic or have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – ADHD) can experience different sensory sensitivities. Their nervous system may process information differently when they are exposed to sensory experiences such as bright lights, loud noise, strong smells or busy environments.

Decreased sound tolerance is estimated to affect up to 70% of autistic people and is described in three ways: hyperacusis (perceiving everyday sounds as loud or painful), misophonia (an aversion to specific sounds) and phonophobia (fear of a specific sound). As a sensory feature of autism, decreased sound tolerance may have the largest overall impact on quality of life.

Many autistic or ADHD people describe how noise stops or limits their day-to-day activities such as attending classes, work meetings, socialising or even health care.

In the overall population, we know too much noise can lead to poorer physical and psychological health. Unwanted or unexpected noise can cause irritation, anxiety, anger and restlessness.

Noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs and earmuffs are often recommended or marketed to help manage noise sensitivities. But do they actually make a difference?

How they work

Different devices work in different ways. Most earplugs and earmuffs simply act as a barrier to block or muffle sound. Noise-cancelling headphones (and now some in-ear devices) can reduce unwanted sound by using active noise-control engineering.

Sound travels in waves into the eardrum, where it vibrates. Noise-cancelling headphones use tiny microphones to send another sound wave which is exactly the opposite of the incoming sound. The opposing forces reduce the vibration in the ear. This process is called phase cancellation.

There are a range of noise-cancelling devices available for use in different settings and situations from parenting and social gatherings, to sleep and deep focus, to school, concerts or festivals. They may be recommended by health professionals, often occupational therapists whose role it is to find ways people can participate in everyday activities. There is a small amount of evidence to support their use.

In one study, researchers interviewed 17 autistic adults about their public transport use. Most said they used coping strategies to avoid too much noise stimuli. They did this by listening to music or using noise-cancelling headphones. They felt this prevented sensory overload and stress. It followed an earlier pilot study of 16 school children, which found earmuffs and noise-cancelling headphones helped them in the classroom.

Their usefulness based on what others observe

Other research has explored people’s feelings about the usefulness of noise-cancelling headphones for autistic children and adults.

A 2019 study explored how autistic children and teens joined in everyday life at home and school when wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Parents and teachers said the kids were able to pay attention and focus, and had a better ability to stay calm when wearing them.

The autistic children in the study were also able to participate in loud activities at school without noise-related anxiety or stress. Some teachers were concerned that wearing headphones could be stigmatising for children and they may not be able to hear instructions.

Another study surveyed more than 250 speech pathologists, audiologists and teachers about the pros and cons of autistic children using noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs.

High rates of device use were reported and 40% of those surveyed thought the devices may allow for better participation in classroom lessons, social situations and recreational activities. They were uncertain about the benefits and potential downsides overall, including any reductions in the amount of speech heard and spoken. However, almost half of respondents believed headphone use would be more likely to increase listening skills and vocabulary diversity.

Noise-cancelling headphones were included as part of a sensory toolkit to support autistic children’s access to health care in a 2019 American study. Over 2,580 patient visits, more than 1,640 children aged 3 to 18 were flagged with sensory sensitivities and given a kit. Families universally reported improvements in their children’s care when the kits were used.

While research from the perspectives of parents, teachers and health professionals is useful, more research which centres the voices and perspectives of neurodivergent children and adults is required to really understand the effectiveness of these devices.

Some teachers worry students won’t hear instructions if they are wearing headphones.
Compare Fibre/Unsplash

4 features to consider

So, while acknowledging limited evidence and some potential downsides, noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs and earmuffs may be an accessible and relatively cheap option to reduce noise stimuli and stress.

In selecting between noise cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, people may need to think about:

the wearer’s ability to tolerate earplugs within the ear. If they are sensitive to touch, headphones or earmuffs may be easier to tolerate
the desired noise cancelling level. Different devices will provide different levels of noise reduction, so it’s important to consider whether the person will need to be able to hear speech (such as for school or work)
how they look. Earplugs may be more subtle and difficult to see as they are positioned mostly within the ear
storage when not in use. If headphones or earplugs are for use at school or in the workplace, they may be removed at different times during the day. A storage case can ensure they don’t get lost or damaged.

Finding useful devices to help neurodivergent people cope with sensory input and support access to the community is very important. More research is needed into the benefits of headphones, earplugs or earmuffs for wearers and to explore any potential risks.

In addition, more thought and consideration should be given to the universal design of buildings and public spaces in relation to sensory experiences. This can make everyday activities more inclusive for everyone. Läs mer…

We found over 300 million young people had experienced online sexual abuse and exploitation over the course of our meta-study

It takes a lot to shock Kelvin Lay. My friend and colleague was responsible for setting up Africa’s first dedicated child exploitation and human trafficking units, and for many years he was a senior investigating officer for the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre at the UK’s National Crime Agency, specialising in extra territorial prosecutions on child exploitation across the globe.

But what happened when he recently volunteered for a demonstration of cutting-edge identification software left him speechless. Within seconds of being fed with an image of how Lay looks today, the AI app sourced a dizzying array of online photos of him that he had never seen before – including in the background of someone else’s photographs from a British Lions rugby match in Auckland eight years earlier.

“It was mind-blowing,” Lay told me. “And then the demonstrator scrolled down to two more pictures, taken on two separate beaches – one in Turkey and another in Spain – probably harvested from social media. They were of another family but with me, my wife and two kids in the background. The kids would have been six or seven; they’re now 20 and 22.”

Investigator, Kelvin Lay, Director of Engagement and Risk.
University of Edinburgh

The AI in question was one of an arsenal of new tools deployed in Quito, Ecuador, in March when Lay worked with a ten-country taskforce to rapidly identify and locate perpetrators and victims of online child sexual exploitation and abuse – a hidden pandemic with over 300 million victims around the world every year.

That is where the work of the Childlight Global Child Safety Institute, based at the University of Edinburgh, comes in. Launched a little over a year ago in March 2023 with the financial support of the Human Dignity Foundation, Childlight’s vision is to use the illuminating power of data and insight to better understand the nature and extent of child sexual exploitation and abuse.

This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.

I am a professor of international child protection research and Childlight’s director of data, and for nearly 20 years I have been researching sexual abuse and child maltreatment, including with the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault and Unicef.

The fight to keep our young people safe and secure from harm has been hampered by a data disconnect – data differs in quality and consistency around the world, definitions differ and, frankly, transparency isn’t what it should be. Our aim is to work in partnership with many others to help join up the system, close the data gaps and shine a light on some of the world’s darkest crimes.

302 million victims in one year

Our new report, Into The Light, has produced the world’s first estimates of the scale of the problem in terms of victims and perpetrators.

Our estimates are based on a meta-analysis of 125 representative studies published between 2011 and 2023, and highlight that one in eight children – 302 million young people – have experienced online sexual abuse and exploitation in a one year period preceding the national surveys.

Additionally, we analysed tens of millions of reports to the five main global watchdog and policing organisations – the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P), the International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE), and Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation database (ICSE). This helped us better understand the nature of child sexual abuse images and videos online.

While huge data gaps mean this is only a starting point, and far from a definitive figure, the numbers we have uncovered are shocking.

We found that nearly 13% of the world’s children have been victims of non-consensual taking, sharing and exposure to sexual images and videos.

In addition, just over 12% of children globally are estimated to have been subject to online solicitation, such as unwanted sexual talk which can include non-consensual sexting, unwanted sexual questions and unwanted sexual act requests by adults or other youths.

Cases have soared since COVID changed the online habits of the world. For example, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported in 2023 that child sexual abuse material featuring primary school children aged seven to ten being coached to perform sexual acts online had risen by more than 1,000% since the UK went into lockdown.

The charity pointed out that during the pandemic, thousands of children became more reliant on the internet to learn, socialise, and play and that this was something which internet predators exploited to coerce more children into sexual activities – sometimes even including friends or siblings over webcams and smartphones.

There has also been a sharp rise in reports of “financial sextortion”, with children blackmailed over sexual imagery that abusers have tricked them into providing – often with tragic results, with a spate of suicides across the world.

This abuse can also utilise AI deepfake technology – notoriously used recently to generate false sexual images of the singer Taylor Swift.

Our estimates indicate that just over 3% of children globally experienced sexual extortion in the past year.

A child sexual exploitation pandemic

This child sexual exploitation and abuse pandemic affects pupils in every classroom, in every school, in every country, and it needs to be tackled urgently as a public health emergency. As with all pandemics, such as COVID and AIDS, the world must come together and provide an immediate and comprehensive public health response.

Our report also highlights a survey which examines a representative sample of 4,918 men aged over 18 living in Australia, the UK and the US. It has produced some startling findings. In terms of perpetrators:

One in nine men in the US (equating to almost 14 million men) admitted online sexual offending against children at some point in their lives – enough offenders to form a line stretching from California on the west coast to North Carolina in the east or to fill a Super Bowl stadium more than 200 times over.
The surveys found that 7% of men in the UK had admitted the same – equating to 1.8 million offenders, or enough to fill the O2 area 90 times over and by 7.5% of men in Australia (nearly 700,000).
Meanwhile, millions across all three countries said they would also seek to commit contact sexual offences against children if they knew no one would find out, a finding that should be considered in tandem with other research indicating that those who watch child sexual abuse material are at high risk of going on to contact or abuse a child physically.

The internet has enabled communities of sex offenders to easily and rapidly share child abuse and exploitation images on a staggering scale, and this in turn, increases demand for such content among new users and increases rates of abuse of children, shattering countless lives.

In fact, more than 36 million reports of online sexual images of children who fell victim to all forms form of sexual exploitation and abuse were filed in 2023 to watchdogs by companies such as X, Facebook, Instagram, Google, WhatsApp and members of the public. That equates to one report every single second.

Quito operation

Like everywhere in the world, Ecuador is in the grip of this modern, transnational problem: the rapid spread of child sexual exploitation and abuse online. It can see an abuser in, say, London, pay another abuser in somewhere like the Philippines to produce images of atrocities against a child that are in turn hosted by a data centre in the Netherlands and dispersed instantly across multiple other countries.

When Lay – who is also Childlight’s director of engagement and risk – was in Quito in 2024, martial law meant a large hotel normally busy with tourists flocking for the delights of the Galápagos Islands, was eerily quiet, save for a group of 40 law enforcement analysts, researchers and prosecutors who had more than 15,000 child sexual abuse images and videos to analyse.

The cache of files included material logged with authorities annually, content from seized devices, and from Interpol’s International Child Sexual Exploitation (ICSE) database database. The files were potentially linked to perpetrators in ten Latin American and Caribbean countries: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

The ‘digital guardians’ taskforce that Kelvin Lay was a member of in support of global efforts against child exploitation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Lay is third from the right (back row).
Edinburgh University

Child exploitation exists in every part of the world but, based on intelligence from multiple partners in the field, we estimate that a majority of Interpol member countries lack the training and resources to properly respond to evidence of child sexual abuse material shared with them by organisations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC is a body created by US Congress to log and process evidence of child sexual abuse material uploaded around the world and spotted, largely, by tech giants. However, we believe this lack of capacity means that millions of reports alerting law enforcement to abuse material are not even opened.

The Ecuador operation, in conjunction with the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC) and US Homeland Security, aimed to help change that by supporting authorities to develop further skills and confidence to identify and locate sex offenders and rescue child victims.

Central to the Quito operation was Interpol’s database database that contains around five million images and videos that specialised investigators from more than 68 countries use to share data and co-operate on cases.

Using image and video comparison software – essentially photo ID work that instantly recognises the digital fingerprint of images – investigators can quickly compare images they have uncovered with images contained in the database. The software can instantly make connections between victims, abusers and places. It also avoids duplication of effort and saves precious time by letting investigators know whether images have already been discovered or identified in another country. So far, it has helped identify more than 37,900 victims worldwide.

Lay has significant field experience using these resources to help Childlight turn data into action – recently providing technical advice to law enforcement in Kenya where successes included using data to arrest paedophile Thomas Scheller. In 2023, Scheller, 74, was given an 81-year jail sentence. The German national was found guilty by a Nairobi court of three counts of trafficking, indecent acts with minors and possession of child sexual abuse material.

The Quito nerve centre where the task force carried out its work.
Edinburgh University

But despite these data strides, there are concerns about the inability of law enforcement to keep pace with a problem too large for officers to arrest their way out of. It is one enabled by emerging technological advances, including AI-generated abuse images, which threaten to overwhelm authorities with their scale.

In Quito, over a warming rainy season meal of encocado de pescado, a tasty regional dish of fish in a coconut sauce served with white rice, Lay explained:

This certainly isn’t to single out Latin America but it’s become clear that there’s an imbalance in the way countries around the world deal with data. There are some that deal with pretty much every referral that comes in, and if it’s not dealt with and something happens, people can lose their jobs. On the opposite side of the coin, some countries are receiving thousands of email referrals a day that don’t even get opened.

Now, we are seeing evidence that advances in technology can also be utilised to fight online sexual predators. But the use of such technology raises ethical questions.

Contentious AI tool draws on 40 billion online images

The powerful, but contentious AI tool, that left Lay speechless was a case in point: one of multiple AI facial recognition tools that have come onto the market, and with multiple applications. The technology can help identify people using billions of images scraped from the internet, including social media.

AI facial recognition software like this has reportedly been used by Ukraine to debunk false social media posts, enhance safety at check points and identify Russian infiltrators, as well as dead soldiers. It was also reportedly used to help identify rioters who stormed the US capital in 2021.

The New York Times magazine reported on another remarkable case. In May 2019, an internet provider alerted authorities after a user received images depicting the sexual abuse of a young girl.

One grainy image held a vital clue: an adult face visible in the background that the facial recognition company was able to match to an image on an Instagram account featuring the same man, again in the background. This was in spite of the fact that the image of his face would have appeared about half the size of a human fingernail when viewing it. It helped investigators pinpoint his identity and the Las Vegas location where he was found to be creating the child sexual abuse material to sell on the dark web. That led to the rescue of a seven-year-old girl and to him being sentenced to 35 years in jail.

Meanwhile, for its part, the UK government recently argued that facial recognition software can allow police to “stay one step ahead of criminals” and make Britain’s streets safer. Although, at the moment, the use of such software is not allowed in the UK.

When Lay volunteered to allow his own features to be analysed, he was stunned that within seconds the app produced a wealth of images, including one that captured him in the background of a photo taken at the rugby match years before. Think about how investigators can equally match a distinctive tattoo or unusual wallpaper where abuse has occurred and the potential of this as a crime-fighting tool is easy to appreciate.

Of course, it is also easy to appreciate the concerns some people have on civil liberties grounds which have limited the use of such technology across Europe. In the wrong hands, what might such technology mean for a political dissident in hiding for instance? One Chinese facial recognition startup has come under scrutiny by the US government for its alleged role in the surveillance of the Uyghur minority group, for example.

Role of big tech

Similar points are sometimes made by big tech proponents of end-to-end encryption on popular apps: apps which are also used to share child abuse and exploitation files on an industrial scale – effectively turning the lights off on some of the world’s darkest crimes.

Why – ask the privacy purists – should anyone else have the right to know about their private content?

And so, it may seem to some that we have reached a Kafkaesque point where the right to privacy of abusers risks trumping the privacy and safety rights of the children they are abusing.

Clearly then, if encryption of popular file sharing apps is to be the norm, a balance must be struck that meets the desire for privacy for all users, with the proactive detection of child sexual abuse material online.

Meta has shown recently that there is potential for a compromise that could improve child safety, at least to some extent. Instagram, described by the NSPCC recently as the platform most used for grooming, has developed a new tool aimed at blocking the sending of sexual images to children – albeit, notably, authorities will not be alerted about those sending the material.

This would involve so-called client-side scanning which Meta believes undermines the chief privacy protecting feature of encryption – that only the sender and recipient know about the contents of messages. Meta has said it does report all apparent instances of child exploitation appearing on its site from anywhere in the world to NCMEC.

One compromise with the use of AI to detect offenders, suggests Lay, is a simple one: to ensure it can only be used under strict licence of child protection professionals with appropriate controls in place. It is not “a silver bullet”, he explained to me. AI-based ID will always need to be followed up by old fashioned police work but anything that can “achieve in 15 seconds what we used to spend hours and hours trying to get” is worthy of careful consideration, he believes.

The Ecuador operation, combining AI with traditional work, had an immediate impact in March. ICMEC reports that it led to a total of 115 victims (mainly girls and mostly aged six-12 and 13-15) and 37 offenders (mainly adult men) positively identified worldwide. Within three weeks, ICMEC said 18 international interventions had taken place, with 45 victims rescued and seven abusers arrested.

Infographic showing the results of 10-country task force investigation.
Edinburgh University

One way or another, a compromise needs to be struck to deal with this pandemic.

Child sexual abuse is a global public health crisis that is steadily worsening thanks to advancing technologies which enable instantaneous production and limitless distribution of child exploitation material, as well as unregulated access to children online.

These are the words of Tasmanian, Grace Tame: a remarkable survivor of childhood abuse and executive director of the Grace Tame Foundation which works to combat the sexual abuse of children.

“Like countless child sexual abuse victim-survivors, my life was completely upended by the lasting impacts of trauma, shame, public humiliation, ignorance and stigma. I moved overseas at 18 because I became a pariah in my hometown, didn’t pursue tertiary education as hoped, misused alcohol and drugs, self-harmed, and worked several minimum wage jobs”. Tame believes that “a centralised global research database is essential to safeguarding children”.

If the internet and technology brought us to where we are today, the AI used in Quito to save 45 children is a powerful demonstration of the power of technology for good. Moreover, the work of the ten-country taskforce is testament to the potential of global responses to a global problem on an internet that knows no national boundaries.

Greater collaboration, education, and in some cases regulation and legislation can all help, and they are needed without delay because, as Childlight’s mantra goes, children can’t wait.

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Riverdance at 30: how Riverdance shaped Irish dance, and reflected a multicultural Australia

Ireland won the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, but their victory was overshadowed by the seven-minute interval “filler” that received a standing ovation.

The combined talents of Jean Butler, Michael Flatley and their supporting cast showcased Irish dance in a new, exciting way in an item called Riverdance. And the world – including Australia – took notice.

Thirty years later, Riverdance still circles the globe, with several troupes touring in different locations. So, does Riverdance matter in Australia? Yes, I believe it does.

The Irish in Australia

Australia has had a significant Irish-heritage population since the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet.

Throughout the 19th century, signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” were common in job advertisements.

The 20th century saw some improvement, but comedians continued to promote the idea Irish people had low intelligence and were often drunk.

McFayden & Peake’s General Store flying the Irish flag in Naracoorte, South Australia, around 1869.
State Library of South Australia

Performing or watching Irish dance was a way of sticking together and celebrating Irishness. Records of Irish dance in Australia date back to the early 19th century, with the first mention of an Irish dancing teacher in Sydney in an Australian newspaper published in 1829.

The folk music revival of the 1960s and ‘70s, when Irish artists such as The Chieftains became globally popular, brought positive change to perceptions of Irish people both here and worldwide.

Irish dancers in the Sydney suburb of Blacktown in 1980.
Blacktown City Libraries, CC BY-NC-SA

Riverdance themes of migration and feelings of longing for the former homeland struck a chord with Australians who have Irish heritage, and there was a surge in popularity of Irish dance.

An evolving dance form

Riverdance showed “traditional” does not have to mean “frozen in the past”; traditional dance can be adapted for modern audiences.

Irish dance has always been a malleable art form. While there is evidence of it in the 17th century, most records date from the 19th century when it became competitive.

A video from 1929 shows dancers keeping their feet low and dancing within a small space.

By the 1980s, the style was more athletic, with the feet sometimes coming above knee level.

In 1994, Riverdance put a whole lot of new ideas into the seven-minute performance.

One important change was Flatley bursting onto the stage using his arms in a way never seen before in competition dancing. Until then, dancers kept straight arms by their sides. Suddenly, restraint was blown away.

Traditionally males wore kilts in competitions, which did little to attract boys to Irish dance either in Ireland or Australia. The Riverdance men wore black trousers. Irish dance was depicted as an activity in which men and boys can participate, excel at – and even look sexy while performing.

The women also wore new outfits. Instead of restrictive heavy competition costumes, Riverdance put women into short, body-hugging dresses.

The first full-length production of Riverdance was performed in Dublin in 1995, and first toured Australia in March 1997.

Most elements of Riverdance have remained constant since those first performances. But the cast has changed many times and is now truly international, including Morgan Bullock, the first African American cast member.

But while Riverdance is very similar to its first performances, the popularity of the production has led to changes in Irish dance.

Riverdance resulted in higher enrolments in Irish dance classes in both Ireland and Australia.

The larger numbers of competitors has driven many changes in the style of competition dancing because the more dancers there are, the more difficult it is to win. Competitors are increasingly introducing new elements – such as more complex steps and innovatively designed costumes (within prescribed competition guidelines) to attract the judges’ attention.

A multicultural artform

People of all ages and cultural backgrounds filled Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, last month when I attended a performance. Riverdance stills draws large audiences 30 years on, provides a rare opportunity for Australians to witness a culturally-specific dance on a concert stage.

Many immigrant communities in Australia have dance groups and generally, group members belong to that community. Until the mid-1990s, Irish dance behaved the same way; it remained within the Irish community.

Post-Riverdance, that cultural boundary fell away: anyone could learn Irish dance and excel at it.

At 30, Riverdance still demonstrates the spirit of multiculturalism: one of the many cultures in Australia’s population being publicly celebrated, with numerous Australian dancers having been in the cast over the years.

Riverdance matters in Australia because it weaves a thread into Irish-Australian history and attracts many people to the art of dance, as performers and audience members. While other dance works come and go on the world’s concert stages, Riverdance has been a constant presence for three decades.

It is still unmistakably Irish dance but is performed and witnessed by people from many backgrounds. A rare feat, indeed. Läs mer…

Curious Kids: why can some plastics be recycled but others can’t?

Why can some plastics be recycled but others can’t?

– Jessica, age ten, Sydney

Great question Jessica! We use lots of plastic in Australia and it’s frustrating to find out how little is recycled.

I work at a university with a team trying to find new ways for people to use less plastic, recycle more and not waste anything. So this is a question I think about a lot.

Basically, some plastics can be recycled because they are easy to melt down and make into other products. Others can’t be, or they contain extra ingredients that make them hard to recycle, such as dyes or chemicals that stop them catching fire.

But even if you could recycle the plastic, then you have a whole new problem: you have to find someone who will buy the recycled material to make new products.

Why is it so hard to recycle plastic? (BBC World Service)

There are many different types of plastic

Have you ever wondered why the plastic used to make soft drink bottles looks and feels so different to the plastic used for other types of containers – such as yoghurt tubs, lunch boxes or even plastic bags?

It turns out there’s more than one type of plastic. We classify plastic into seven main types. But there are many more when you consider all the mixtures and new or unusual varieties.

The raw material is almost always fossil fuels (oil or gas). Although these days, people can also make plastic from plants such as corn.

Either way, plastic is “synthetic”, which means it’s not natural. Long chains of molecules are stitched together to make “polymers” (from the Greek “poly”, meaning many, and “mer”, meaning parts). Different polymers make different types of plastic.

Some polymers are easier to recycle because they can be melted down and reshaped into new products. This includes number one on our list of seven main types: “polyethylene terephthalate”, found in soft drink bottles.

It also includes type number two, the “high-density polyethylene” in some milk bottles, and number five, “polypropylene”, which makes things like yoghurt containers.

Other plastics such as type number three, “polyvinyl chloride”, found in plumbing pipes, and number six, “polystyrene” such as Styrofoam, are much harder to recycle. That’s mainly because they tend to contain lots of extra ingredients, which makes melting and recycling difficult.

These extra ingredients can include dyes to make the plastic brightly coloured, or chemicals to stop the plastic catching fire. But these extra ingredients can make it harder for the plastic to be recycled.

Plastic recycling in Australia (War On Waste | ABC TV)

Did you know almost 300 billion plastic coffee cups have made their way to rubbish dumps around the world? These cups were not recycled, because they were made from a mixture of paper lined with plastic.

It’s hard to separate the plastic from the other materials. This makes it difficult to recycle them. But we can choose to use reusable or compostable coffee cups instead.

Plastic can also be too dirty to recycle. That’s why you should always rinse plastics before putting them in the recycling bin.

Here’s a little tip. Check the label on plastic bottles, containers and packaging for the symbol that looks like a triangle made of arrows, with a number in the middle. Read the table below to see what the numbers mean and whether it’s worth putting that plastic in your recycling bin or not.

Just because there’s a logo on it doesn’t mean it can be recycled. It depends on the recycling services that are available near where you live.

Look up your local council’s website to see what facilities they have for plastic recycling. If it’s not clear, you could ask your council to explain what they can and can’t recycle.

Will anyone use the recycled plastic and will they pay for it?

But if no one wants to use recycled plastic, then it’s hard to find someone willing to recycle it in the first place.

We need to make it easier for people to sell the plastic they have collected to someone who wants to buy it and turn it into something else.

To make this work, we need:

people to put used plastic in the recycling bin properly
someone willing to collect it
a business that can recycle that type of plastic, and
other businesses that will buy the recycled material.

In Australia, many people are willing to recycle their plastic and we have good recycling facilities, but there aren’t enough people willing to buy stuff made from all the recycled plastic.

One idea is for governments to make businesses and local councils buy products made from recycled plastic. Then people who make products from recycled plastic will be able to sell them.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to Läs mer…

Magic mushrooms may one day treat anorexia, but not just yet

Anorexia nervosa is a severe mental health disorder where people fear weight gain. Those with the disorder have distorted body image and hold rigid beliefs their body is too big. They typically manage this through restricted eating, leading to the serious medical consequences of malnutrition.

Anorexia has one of the highest death rates of any mental illness. Yet there are currently no effective drug treatments and the outcomes of psychotherapy (talk therapy) are poor. So we’re desperately in need of new and improved treatments.

Psilocybin, commonly known as magic mushrooms, is one such novel treatment. But while it shows early promise, you won’t see it used in clinical practice just yet – more research is needed to test if it’s safe and effective.

What does treatment involve?

The treatment involves the patient taking a dose of psilocybin in a safe environment, which is usually a specifically set up clinic. The patient undergoes preparation therapy before the dosing session and integration therapy after.

Psilocybin, extracted from mushrooms, is a psychedelic, which means it can produce altered thinking, sense of time and emotions, and can often result in hallucinations. It also has the potential to shift patients out of their rigid thinking patterns.

Psilocybin is not administered alone but instead with combined structured psychotherapy sessions to help the patient make sense of their experiences and the changes to their thinking. This is an important part of the treatment.

What does the research show?

Research has shown improved effects of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy after one or two dosing sessions, a couple of weeks apart. Most research to date has targeted depression.

Psilocybin has been found to increase cognitive flexibility – our ability to adjust our thinking patterns according to changing environments or demands. This is one of the ways researchers believe psilocybin might improve symptoms for conditions such as depression and alcohol use disorder, which are marked by rigid thinking styles.

People with anorexia similarly struggle with rigid thinking patterns. So researchers and clinicians have recently turned their attention to anorexia.

In 2023, a small pilot study of ten women with anorexia was published in the journal Nature Medicine. It showed psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy (with 25mg of psilocybin) was safe and acceptable. There were no significant side effects and participants reported having valuable experiences.

Although the trial was not a formal efficacy trial, 40% of the patients did have significant drops in their eating disorder behaviour.

However, the trial only had one dosing session and no long-term follow up, so further research is needed.

Researchers are still working out dosages and frequency.

A recent animal study using rats examined whether rigid thinking could be improved in rats when given psilocybin. After the psilocybin, rats gained weight and had more flexible thinking (using a reversal learning task).

These positive changes were related to the serotonin neurotransmitter system, which regulates mood, behaviour and satiety (feeling full).

Brain imaging studies in humans show serotonin disturbances in people with anorexia. Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is showing promise at modifying the serotonin disturbances and cognitive inflexibility that have been shown to be problematic in anorexia.

Research with animals can provide unique insights into the brain which can sometimes not be investigated in living humans. But animal models can never truly mimic human behaviour and the complex nature of chronic mental health conditions.

What’s next for research?

Further clinical trials in humans are very much needed – and are underway from a research team at the University of Sydney and ours at Swinburne.

Our trial will involve an initial 5mg dose followed by two subsequent doses of 25mg, several weeks apart. An initial low dose aims to help participants prepare for what is likely to be a new and somewhat unpredictable experience.

Our trial will examine the usefulness of providing psychotherapy that directly addresses body image disturbance. We are also investigating if including a family member or close friend in the treatment increases support for their loved one.

We’re investigating whether including a family member or close friend in treatment could help.

Data from other mental health conditions has suggested that not everyone sees benefits, with some people having bad trips and a deterioration in their mental health. So this treatment won’t be for everyone. It’s important to work out who is most likely to respond and under what conditions.

New trials and those underway will be critical in understanding whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is a safe and effective treatment for anorexia, and the optimal conditions to improve the patient’s response. But we are some way off from seeing this treatment in the clinic. One of the big issues being the cost of this intervention and how this will be funded. Läs mer…

NZ is changing faster than the census can keep up – the 4 big trends to watch

The first data from the 2023 census will be released on May 29 – and not before time. We will see how successful – or not – the census exercise was in achieving participation and coverage.

It’s no secret past censuses have faced real challenges. We would not want to see a repeat of the poor return rate and low Māori participation that affected the previous census in 2018.

Stats NZ has said this latest five-yearly census has counted 99% of the population. But this figure is a combination of those who filled out the census forms (about 4.5 million) and others counted from existing government data (about half a million).

We can also cast forward by looking at the 12 months since the 2023 census was taken. In the year to March 2024, the key indicators are that the New Zealand population has changed significantly from where we were in March 2023.

Fertility continues to decline

In March 2023, the total fertility rate (births per woman) was 1.65 – well below the rate required for population replacement. In March 2024, the rate had dropped again to 1.52, a not inconsiderable decline in a single year.

Some forecasts had assumed New Zealand might stabilise at around the 1.6 rate. But the latest data show a steady downward trend. Internationally, and in New Zealand, the higher educational credentials of Millennial and Gen Z women, combined with their participation in the paid workforce, are driving this trend.

Additionally, the economic pressures facing those generations are having an effect. When it comes to decisions about having children, the cost of living, especially housing, and the increasing need for two incomes, are now much greater considerations.

When we reach a fertility rate of 1.3, as seems inevitable, New Zealand will join the ranks of the “lowest low-fertility” countries.

Aside from the actual fertility rate, there is also an absolute decline in births. In March 2024, there were 56,277 live births in New Zealand, compared with 58,707 a year earlier (2,430 fewer births).

That is why the Ministry of Education is forecasting 30,000 fewer children in the education system by 2032.

New Zealand is now hovering around 56,000 births within a population of 5.3 million. Fifty years ago, in 1974, there were 59,334 births when the population was three million.

Outward bound: 78,200 New Zealand citizens migrated to another country in the past year.
Getty Images

More arriving and many more leaving

The number of immigrant arrivals peaked in December 2023 at 244,763, a net gain of 134,445. Both figures significantly exceed the annual average from 2002 to 2019 of 119,000 arrivals and 27,500 net migration gain.

As of March 2024, arrival numbers have dropped back to 239,000, with a net migration gain of 111,100. Both numbers are still very high, but it suggests the coming year will see a further decline.

Still, New Zealand’s population grew last year by 2.8%, with net migration gain accounting for the bulk of it (2.4%). This is a very high annual growth rate compared to most OECD countries.

But the other side of the story is the surge in New Zealanders leaving. In the 12 months to March 2024, 78,200 New Zealand citizens migrated to another country, leaving a net loss of 52,500.

As Stats NZ notes with a degree of understatement, this exceeds the previous record of 72,400 departures and net loss of 44,400 citizens in the year to February 2012.

It is not unusual to see a net departure of New Zealand citizens. There was an average annual net migration loss of 26,800 from 2002 to 2013, when numbers were at the previous high. But the causes of the latest outflow deserve further analysis.

Māori near the million mark

Stats NZ confirmed the Māori ethnic population (those who self-identify as Māori) reached 904,100 in December 2023. The annual population increase for Māori was 1.5%. If this trajectory continues, Māori will number one million sometime in the early 2030s.

Māori fertility differs significantly to that of Pākehā. Māori have a much lower median age overall, Māori women have children at a younger age, with more children per mother born on average.

Stats NZ anticipates that by 2043, 21% of all New Zealanders will identify as Māori, up from 17% at the moment. For children, however, 33% will identify as Māori.

The so-called “kohanga reo generations” will be more immersed in tikanga and te reo, with major implications for New Zealand society and the political landscape.

It is estimated 33% of New Zealand children will identify as Māori by 2043.
Getty Images

Asian communities are growing and changing

The high levels of inward immigration will add to those identifying as one of the many Asian communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. (And we really do need to find another way of referring to these communities other than with the catch-all “Asian”).

Pre-COVID, the largest number of arrivals came from China. In the past two years, India has become the largest source country, followed by the Philippines and then China. To March 2024, there were 49,800 arrivals from India compared to 26,800 from China.

These immigration trends mean the next two decades (to 2043) will see the number of New Zealanders who identify with one of the Asian communities grow to 24% of the total population (25% for children).

For the moment, three-quarters of Asian community members are immigrants (born in another country), and quite a lot is known about them from past research. But it will be interesting to see how those born and educated in New Zealand forge their path, and what they will contribute.

The census tends to briefly focus attention on New Zealand’s changing population. But we need to spend more time putting the pieces together to understand how much the country is really changing. That includes looking at the trends between censuses – a lot can happen in five years, after all. Läs mer…

No mullets, no mohawks, no ‘awkwardly contrasting colours’: what are school policies on hair and why do they matter so much?

A Queensland dad recently took his four-year-old son out of the Gold Coast’s A.B. Paterson College because the school had ordered the boy to cut his long hair.

“Like other private schools, we have a uniform policy,” school principal Joanne Sheehy said. “Ours is intended to encourage all our students to be well-presented, respectful and unified.”

The story is a familiar one. Disputes over school uniform policies are repeatedly making the media. Frequently, these disputes concern hair.

This includes students being barred from class photos for “unnaturally” coloured hair or a teacher cutting a student’s long hair. Students have also been disciplined for wearing cultural hairstyles such as braids, or turning up to school with styles such as mullets.

These stories are all part of a larger phenomenon I have examined in my new research: school policies on hair often enforce an idea of “good taste” that favour certain norms around gender, class and race.

My research

My research examines the hair polices of 50 senior high schools in Queensland (for students in Years 11 and 12).

It looked at what the policies are and how they are justified by schools.

This sample included government and independent schools. The independent or private schools were divided into Catholic and Protestant schools.

The schools came from a wide variety of locations, regions and socioeconomic contexts.

My findings

Hair policies are often a subset of a broader uniform policy that can cover makeup, jewellery, shoes, clothing and appearances in public areas.

Most schools had general justifications for their overall uniform policies, rather than specific discussion of their hair component.

These general justifications were around occupational health and safety, sun safety, school culture, school image, equality among students (through a uniform appearance) and legislative compliance or community endorsement (such as approval from their P&C association)

For example, one private Protestant school said:

[the school] recognises that during teenage years individuality is often desired and expressed through clothing choice. However, the uniform is a vital representation of the school and its ethos, value base and placement as a private school.

Where schools did talk specifically about hair, they emphasised “standards” and school image and tone.

As one government school said:

Undertaking a conservative hairstyle will ensure compliance with the high standards of dress and appearance in place at [this school] and thereby help to maintain a positive tone in the school community and ensure that our primary focus will be centred on learning.

The regulations for hair itself typically focused on acceptable length, colour and styling.

Mullets are celebrated in national competitions. But they are also banned by some schools.
Darren Pateman/AAP

‘Appropriate’ lengths

There were regulations around hair being too long and too short, and about it being “appropriate” for male and female genders.

Of the government schools, 15 required long hair to be restrained and one required hair to be no shorter than a number two cut. Few sought to justify this regulation, although six schools did reference health and safety (for example, keeping long hair back during “practical” subjects or as a general safety measure). None explicitly connected this regulation to gender.

By contrast, private schools were heavily gendered. A total of 25 private schools (13 Catholic and 12 Protestant schools) required long hair to be restrained. Fourteen of these schools only applied this regulation to female students.

Thirteen schools (five Catholic and eight Protestant), required male students’ hair to be cut short. Appropriate length was often defined in exacting detail, specifying where hair may reach in relation to the student’s earlobes and eyebrows, the shortest blade permitted to cut hair, and whether tucking hair behind the ears was permissible. More lenient schools simply required hair to be clear of the collar.

If the requirement for female students to restrain long hair is cross-referenced with the requirement for male students to have short hair, there were 17 private schools that explicitly linked hair length with gender.

Some schools have different requirements for hair length, depending on gender.
Jonathan Cooper/Unsplash, CC BY

‘Natural’ colours

Schools were particularly concerned with keeping hair colour natural. Sixteen government schools banned “unnatural” hair colours, of which three additionally banned naturally coloured dye and two only permitted naturally coloured dye that “aligned” with the student’s hair.

As one government school said:

The hair styles not permitted include, but not limited to […] unnatural hair colours or awkwardly contrasting colours.

Of the 29 private schools that regulated hair, all banned “unnatural” hair colours, of which four additionally banned naturally coloured dye and four only permitted naturally coloured dye that “aligned” with the student’s hair.

As one Protestant school said:

Students are not permitted to dye, bleach or colour their hair to create stark contrasts, a colour or multiple colours away from their natural hair colour. All treatments must be subtle, aligned with the student’s natural hair colour and have the effect of being barely noticeable.

In “being barely noticeable”, a student can appear as part of a cohesive whole, united school community – a key value across the three school affiliations.

‘Conservative’ styles

Schools were also concerned to make sure hair was styled in certain ways. It was common to see a stipulation for students to either wear a “conservative” hairstyle or avoid an “extreme” one.

Government schools also listed a total of 24 unacceptable styles, Catholic schools provided 27 banned styles and Protestant schools listed 30. The table below details the most frequently banned styles, with regulations on length and colour for comparison.

My research found a noticeable difference between regulations on length and colour versus those on style. Across the three types of schools, 45 schools restrict hair colour, representing 90% of the sample. Similarly, 40 schools, or 80% of the sample, ban unrestrained long hair.

Yet the most frequently banned style, a rat’s tail, was only banned by 14 schools or 28% of the sample. The next most common – undercut and mohawk – were only banned by 13 and 12 schools, respectively. Mullets were specifically banned by nine schools.

So while there is a general consensus on inappropriate colour and length, there is only minimal consensus on what exact styles are “wrong” for school.

What do these rules really mean?

These policies are presented as objective “rules” and yet hair styles are imbued with social and cultural meanings. Dreadlocks or braids are common ways to wear hair in African cultures, for example.

The sociocultural connotations are further complicated by who has that haircut. For example, an undercut on a male student may be seen as trendy, on a female student it could be interpreted as a signifier of queer identity.

Then there’s the mullet. While it may be celebrated in national competitions and even seen as fashionable again, it can also signify bogan culture which many schools seem to find undesirable. Elite private schools, in particular, have repeatedly made headlines for banning the style.

Few of the commonly banned styles are easy to alter around school hours – a student cannot dye, remove dreadlocks, or grow out their hair each morning. So through these policies, the school also controls the students’ hair outside of school hours and in doing so, their gender, sexual, political or cultural identity.

In 2022, two Victorian students with African heritage were barred from attending their private school for not tying up their braided hair, even though they said it was painful to do so.
Gabriel Frank/Pexels, CC BY

What should schools do instead

Recent Australian research has called for school policies to be flexible when it comes to gender and culture so all students feel like they belong.

When schools are reinforcing inflexible ideas about gender, sexuality, culture, race and class they are not including all students. Schools should review their hair policies to:

remove gendered restrictions
remove culturally exclusionary regulations
question what norms are being privileged and
limit their impact on student’s bodily autonomy outside of school hours.

While schools maintain they want to project a certain standard we have to ask what that standard is and why it is projected as an ideal for our communities. Läs mer…

‘Everybody has not won’: trickle-down economics was an idiotic idea. How do we fix the inequality it causes?

In his 2024 State of the Union address, US president Joe Biden announced his plans for a bold set of tax reforms. Tax on corporations would go up. Deductions for high-income earners would come down. Tax breaks on corporate jets would take a hit. Low-income taxpayers would benefit, as would middle-income house buyers.

Most controversially, Biden called for a “billionaire tax”. He planned to raise US$500 billion over ten years by imposing a minimum 25% tax on Americans whose wealth exceeded $100 million. “No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a teacher, a sanitation worker, a nurse,” he declared.

Biden’s proposal was a reversal of Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in 2017. The act involved significant reductions in tax rates on corporate profits, investment earnings and high personal incomes. Trump described the plan as “the rocket fuel our economy needs to soar higher than ever before”.

As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West – Guido Alfani (Princeton University Press); Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth – Ingrid Robeyns (Allen Lane)

The polarisation of tax policy between Trump and Biden can be traced back at least 40 years. In the 1980s, the world’s economies were shaken up by the idea that if big corporations and wealthy individuals were taxed less and freed from the encumbrance of government regulations, they would grow the economy and people of all socioeconomic groups would be better off financially.

It was dubbed “trickle-down economics”. The story was that through a natural process, some of the wealth created by and for those at the top would trickle down through the rest of the economy, so everyone would benefit from liberating the economic might of the wealthy.

Of course, everybody has not won. Since the advent of the global neoliberal experiment in the 1980s, the world has become increasingly divided into rich and poor. Economic inequality has soared to new heights.

Things have got so bad globally that the World Bank declared 2023 “the year of inequality”. The losses people have suffered as a result of COVID-19, climate change, political conflict and inflation have fuelled the fire of raging inequality. Political populism around the world fans that flame.

Since 2017’s tax act, the collective wealth of American billionaires grew by a staggering $2.2 trillion. If reelected into the US presidency, Trump promises to do it again next year. He has committed to slashing billionaire tax rates even further.

Since Donald Trump signed his tax act into law in 2017, the wealth of America’s billionaires has increased by US$2.2 trillion.
Andrew Harnik/AAP

While the US is an extreme example, it reflects the dominant trend in fiscal policy across the liberal-democratic world. Among the G20 countries, the highest tax rates have fallen by around a third over the past 40 years. Meanwhile, the share of national income sequestered by the wealthiest 1% has grown by 45%.

The systemic changes made to global economies since the heyday of trickle-down economics have created a world increasingly ruled by billionaires. These billionaires like to take credit for their wealth as “self-made men” (most of them are male). It is not so. Macho hubris aside, today’s billionaires are a consequence of devastating errors in government policy that were made decades ago and are still being prosecuted today.

Fortunately, an increasing number of people are speaking out against inequality and its overwhelming destructiveness. They are also proposing bold policy measures that can address it.

Two of these people are Guido Alfani, author of As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West, and Ingrid Robeyns, author of Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth. Their books are very different, but complementary. They help to understand the problem of inequality that billionaires so conspicuously represent, and how the problem might be remedied in the name of justice and shared prosperity.

Gods among men

Alfani takes on the ambitious project of writing a history of the rich in the West from the Middle Ages to the present day. In doing so, he looks for the commonalities the economic elites shared during this time, as well as the social disquiet their existence provoked.

Alfani’s writing shows the detail and meticulousness one would expect from a historian. He painstakingly presents facts and arguments, setting out who the rich are, how they have attained wealth, and how society has regarded them through the ages.

The title of Alfani’s book is especially telling. He takes the phrase “gods among men” from 14th-century French philosopher Nicole Oresme. Oresme was particularly scathing of the rich, arguing that they should be expelled from democratically governed cities because their wealth enabled them to mobilise levels of power not available to other citizens. Indeed, they had so much power they could behave with the sovereign might of a god, unbeholden to earthy laws.

Wealth, Orseme recognised, is not just about economic inequality but also about political inequality.

The threat of extreme wealth to the political promise of democracy runs like a red thread through Alfani’s book. He demonstrates that, despite their power, rich people have been treated historically with suspicion and even disdain: considered dubious for their lack of a valuable social role or political contribution.

The wealthy generally lack understanding or sympathy for the struggles of the less fortunate, choosing instead to moralise their wealth through the pretence to good deeds or merit. As a result, Alfani concludes that wealthy people hold a fragile social position, always running the risk that the majority will turn against them.

In his book’s final pages, Alfani sums up how expecting benevolence from the rich is not a solution to political and economic inequality. The answer lies in taxation. Political representatives of democratic society must be put in charge of deploying excess resources for the common good. If not, the ultra-wealthy will act “as gods among men, wrecking democratic institutions”.

Are there no limits?

While the two authors do not reference each other, in many ways, Robeyns picks up where Alfani leaves off. The “limitarianism” she proposes is a political system that sets strict limits on how wealthy any individual can be.

Robeyns opens her book by asking, “can a person be too rich?” With this question, she delves into the ethics of excessive wealth, arguing it should not exist because it legitimatises extreme inequality. Limits should be set such that wealth is capped at a socially agreed amount.

Robeyns clearly states that her idea of limitarianism is not a specific proposal for public policy, but rather a “regulative ideal” that can inform policy direction. The idea is that the wealth held by any individual should be limited by democratic society through government regulation. It is a simple idea, as Robeyns makes clear, yet one that is not easy.

She proposes three types of action that can be taken to pursue her limitarian idea.

First, societies should ensure all citizens have decent living standards and genuine equality of opportunity through education, child care and anti-poverty strategies.

Second, taxation and benefits should be organised so everyone can live a dignified life and excessive economic inequality is prevented.

Third, societies need to adopt a “limitarian ethos”, so that social values adapt to recognise the value of the social and economic justice that is violated by the existence of extreme wealth.

Robeyns’ broad achievement is to stimulate a discussion about the need to take concrete action against the threat of inequality without limits. Importantly, she is not suggesting societies should aim to eliminate economic inequality altogether. To do so would remove the financial incentives that lead people to work hard, take on responsible jobs, and lead innovation.

The question is about how much inequality is desirable. Wherever one might stand on this matter, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the current state of the world is well beyond that limit.

Time for change

Taken together, Alfani and Robeyns yield two critical conclusions.

The first is that the extreme inequality represented by the ultra-wealthy is a significant social problem, and it is getting worse. The pivotal historical point at which this turn for the worse happened was the advent of globalised neoliberalism some 40 years ago.

Inequality has since become so ingrained in the contemporary world as “normal” that, for some, it is thought of as a natural outcome of a meritocratic system. For others, inequality is a sad reality that cannot be changed, no matter how unjust and undesirable.

Fortunately, reading Alfani and Robeyns together yields a second conclusion. Their work resists both neoliberal triumphalism and cynicism. Inequality, they show, is a social and historical phenomenon, therefore it is not immutable.

Change towards greater justice may be difficult, but there is no reason to believe it is impossible. We know now definitively that the idea of a trickle-down economy is as idiotic an idea as it seems on face value. That people ever accepted it is reason for embarrassment. That some people are still backing it is insulting to all.

Forty years of the neoliberal experiment have created a world of vast and increasing inequality rationalised by the false promises of a global free market. But this can change, and it should change. Most importantly, as these two books attest, there is a growing will to change and to create fairer societies, where the material benefits of the world’s wealth do not accrue to an extreme minority. Läs mer…