Sunday Times

WTF is going on?

A pertinent question considerin­g the world we’re living in


It’s crunch time for Western Man. I don’t say this lightly, or with reference to the fact that this particular breed of human is now considered terminally uncool after a sustained run-in with the dual forces of “woke” and “me too”. I’m referring to the very real fact that Western Man is shooting blanks. His reproducti­ve army has laid down its arms, vacated the building, and withdrawn from the field of fire. Like the US, his soldiers have left Afghanista­n.

The sperm count of Western Man is on a steady decline. At a rate of 1.4% per year since 1973. The go-slow is real. The most recent study published in the Human Reproducti­on Update journal, in 2017, drew on 185 studies and the outcome was disappoint­ing to say the least. It concluded that by 2011 the Western male was producing 59% fewer players for the Ateam than he was fielding on average in 1973. Basically, Western Man’s granddad was twice as fertile. And this was the prognosis 10 years ago. So you can just extrapolat­e. But perhaps you shouldn’t.

Dr Shanna Swann has been studying this phenomenon for over 20 years and has just published a grim account of recent developmen­ts in this underperfo­rming sector, Countdown — How Our Modern World is Altering Male and Female Reproducti­ve Developmen­t, Threatenin­g Sperm Counts and Imperillin­g the Future of the Human Race. The future isn’t pretty. No, this isn’t some great feat of retributiv­e justice on the fallible kings of the universe, but rather a sad side-effect of modern life.

She blames a lot of it on exposure to “endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in everything from plastics to flame retardants, electronic­s, food packaging, pesticides and personal care products and cosmetics”. Free-floating plastics are everywhere and they’re taking their toll on little swimmers. Worldwide, fertility has dropped by 50% in the past 50 years.

Covid didn’t help either — it seems people just didn’t want to get down during the pandemic and the birth rate in the US is down 4% year on year. It transpires it’s not just Western Man whose patrimony is being decimated by the free-floating plastic in everything: all men are taking a hit to their testostero­ne — and sperm is universall­y calling it quits and committing suicide, quite literally. (Though they haven’t studied the men in Asia, South America and Africa in quite the same way over the same period to be able to confirm the problem in the same way. The bias is strong with science, too.)

Apparently these phthalates (used to make plastics durable) are having a negative impact on the natural world, with genital abnormalit­ies and distinctly smaller penises manifestin­g in alligators, panthers and minks. Fish, birds, frogs and snapping turtles are developing both male and female gonads.

Margaret Atwood probably met up with this research when she came up with the plot lines of The Handmaid’s Tale, where infertilit­y on a global scale leads to terrible sartorial choices (I mean what are those bonnets all about?) and really weird sex. Consider yourselves warned.

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