Our Labrador is now three years old, nearer three and a half, in fact. We’ve had him since he was an eight-week old puppy. Pedigree Labradors are notorious for having dodgy knees, so we bought one whose ancestors had all passed the Kennel Club test for low risk for such a problem. So our dog has dodgy elbows instead, just to be different. At the age of seven months, he underwent surgery for elbow dysplasia and the vet bill was £4000. Fortunately, we had insurance, but the premiums were jacked up on renewal.
There was an element of controversy about his need for such invasive treatment at such a young age. My wife and I even debated whether his recommended treatment was motivated, at least in part, by profit for the vet. We trusted the integrity of the veterinary surgery, but some doubts lingered.
Taking Care of Me
Regular readers of my blog (are there any?) will have noticed a mention of my cancer diagnosis in an earlier post from August this year, A Slow Death. It’s not a subject I dwell upon, as most of my posts are about totally different matters. But things have moved on and I shall shortly be starting a further round of treatment known as a stem cell transplant. It has serious and unpleasant side-effects lasting several months. But it brings with it the expectation that my period of remission – and probable treatment-free life – will be extended by a useful amount. It is, however, somewhat risky: my consultant explained that, on average, 4 to 5% of patients die as a result of the treatment.
So I found myself on the horns of a dilemma: do I go ahead or not? I confess I dithered and changed my mind several times. I discussed the decision with my wife and I spoke to people who had been through the experience. Eventually, I decided to go ahead. For me, the deciding factor was this: that “small voice” inside my head said to myself (and I quote verbatim): “For fuck’s sake, this is the NHS! They wouldn’t offer it to me if they didn’t think it was in my best interests!” And so I said yes.
The contrast between our doubts about our dog’s surgery and my own treatment option could not be clearer. Unlike those poor people in the USA, there is no profit motive in the medical professionals advising me. I was given the facts, warts and all, and I was supported in coming to my own decision. It was then that I realised just how much comfort comes from the fact that we still have the NHS to look after us. Its values survive 70 years after its founding, even if the funding (under the Tories) is too low.
Taking Care of All of Us
The NHS is the biggest example of the collective ideals of human beings and, in the UK, its most popular. We must never stop reminding ourselves to take care of the NHS (through proper funding, sufficient trained staff and a taxation system that spreads the cost in a fair way). Then we can continue to be comforted by the thought that the NHS is there to take care of all of us, whatever our circumstances, when their help is needed.
With thanks also to the useful information supplied by the charity Myeloma UK.
This will be my last blog post of 2018. I hope to be posting again in the new year. Watch this space!
The title of this blog post has echoes of the names of the sort of firm of solicitors employed by the rich and greedy to frighten and bully those weaker than themselves. But I refer instead to our government’s economic strategy since 2010, with particular reference to austerity.
UN Rapporteur’s Report
Professor Philip Alston is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2014. He is a Professor at New York University School of Law with a doctorate from the University of California. He studied Law and Economics in his native Australia. Alston has worked in several roles for the UN since the 1980s. His current “job description” and background to his appointment can be found on the UN’s Human Rights website here.
Alston travelled for 12 days throughout the UK to gather information directly from a diverse group of people most affected by poverty in the UK and those working to support them. He is an experienced and acknowledged expert in his field and took time to listen to the people whom he met. His conclusions were that the government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity. “Poverty is a political choice,” he said.
Here’s just one extract from Alston’s statement: “The results [of the government’s austerity policy]? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”
Alston’s longer, fuller statement which also explains the methodology, can be found here. It’s worth a read!
Government in Denial
And yet the government has wasted no time criticising his report. Mini-May Amber Rudd, recently rehabilitated by May as the new Work and Pensions Secretary, said the report used language of an “extraordinary political nature”. May’s spokesman said: “We strongly disagree with the analysis [in the report].” Alston also specifically criticised the government’s flagship welfare reform programme, Universal Credit. In this, he was adding his voice to those of a wide range of critics working with people made destitute by the changes. UC has hit disabled people particularly hard.
These criticisms are yet further examples of a government in denial. When someone criticises the effects of government policy, shooting the messenger is certainly not the right response. I agree fully with Alston’s comment that austerity was a political choice, for which former Chancellor George Osborne is principally to blame. This government, thanks to May’s mishandling of the negotiations, is totally bogged down in discussions with the EU and with bickering amongst themselves. Rising inequality and the resultant rise in poverty is just one result of a government wilfully blind to reality. And was the language extraordinarily political? Judge for yourself: the OHCHR press release is here.
Alston and Victims Hit Back
Clearly, those made poorer by government policy agree with Alston’s analysis. Of ministers, one said “They should get out of their cars. They are turning a blind eye. I was very happy with his report. He took the time to speak to everybody. He didn’t ask leading questions. He was fact-finding and the facts speak for themselves. If they are going to ignore the facts, I don’t see any way out of poverty and the food banks.” Another said “They are not in the real world. They are people who have no idea what is going on. Poverty is political. When you are suffering, you are going to get angry about it. What the UN envoy saw was anger. These people shield themselves from the anger and suffering.” And a third: “It’s a shame that Amber Rudd wants to deny our truth, although it is probably easier for her to dismiss the facts than to help fix them. The delusional approach she’s taking is absurd. I hope the government can now rectify and make a similar effort as Mr Alston to listen to how their policies are impacting on people.”
Philip Alston urged Rudd to instead act to make the welfare system “more humane” rather than dismiss the powerful language in his report. Alston told the Guardian: “I think that dismissing a report that is full of statistics and first-hand testimony on the grounds that the minister didn’t appreciate the tone of the report rather misses the point. I remain hopeful that Amber Rudd might actually take some of the steps needed to address the worst aspects of the existing approach.”
A succession of recent news items have got me thinking about what human beings are doing to our planet and the inadequacies and contradictions in our actual responses to this key strategic issue.
The first item was on climate change, the second on the extinction of species, the third on air pollution and the fourth, and most recent, was last week’s Budget news. And, of course, the elephant in the room, which sucks all capacity for good governance from everything else. I shall not state its name: you know already.
The main page of the official IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) organisation can be found here. It’s where you get the overall picture of the best information we have, direct from the scientists who study these issues professionally. More digestible summaries can be found from the Guardian and from CNN.
My crude summary is that we, human beings, have just 12 years to get our act together: to act decisively to reduce CO2 emissions. Our aim must be to limit global warming to 1.5° rather than the 2° in the Paris accord. It’s physically possible, but politically highly unlikely.
It’s now nearly 18 months since Donald Trump withdrew the USA from the Paris accord on climate change. Together with his promotion of dirty energy such as coal-fired electricity generation and the emasculation of the Environment Protection Agency, Trump’s policies are a major threat to the planet. The recent election of fascist President Bolsonaro in Brazil has given the world a man who threatens widespread destruction of the Amazon rain forest. This will have potentially horrific consequences both for CO2 emissions and for biodiversity, as I explain further below.
A new report by the World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet 2018, has prompted shocking headlines around the world that a 60% reduction in wildlife animal populations has occurred since 1970 – and all this has been caused by the collective actions of just one species: homo sapiens. Headlines such as this fall “threatens civilisation” do not appear to be exaggerating the threat to life on Earth. Never has there been such a dramatic decline over such a short period (Planet Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years and human beings for the last 200,000 years).
In many ways, this report is even more shocking than the IPCC one on climate change. At least the existence of climate change has been in the news for several decades and most of the governments of the world are signed up to doing something about it. Real changes in practice, e.g. green energy, are gaining momentum and clean energy prices are falling relative to fossil fuels. By contrast, the findings in the WWF have barely entered the public’s consciousness, let alone the development of policies by governments around the world to address this threat.
The WWF report concentrates on mammals: just one part of the diversity of life on Earth, animals and plants. A reduction of biodiversity threatens us humans and our lifestyles in a variety of ways. Biodiversity is important. I think we all probably learnt at school something about the food chains. Interfere with these and sooner or later you get a major catastrophe. A good example is the huge drop in bee populations in the UK in recent decades. The importance of bees in pollination and the harm from their decline is quite easy to imagine.
The other big area of importance for biodiversity is for the pharmaceutical industry. Many of the advances in drugs, for example, come from chemicals found in plants or animals, often in biodiverse parts of the world, such as the Amazon basin. Once a species is lost, so is the opportunity for finding new drugs from that species. We seem to be walking blindfold into a future dystopia where our indifference to the extinction of species harms our fight against disease. Nature, through mutation, e.g. of the cold or flu virus, will continue to present new challenges. And yet, we are indifferent to losing the very tools to fight these changes.
A recent shocking report from the World Health Organisation reported that 90% of the world’s children are breathing toxic air. More than 40 UK towns and cities have air pollution levels above WHO limits. Back in May, the UK was referred to the European Court of Justice, after the UK government lost several cases in the UK courts. The referral relates to NO2 pollution levels, caused, in the main, by traffic. The UK government has fought a succession of rear-guard legal cases rather than tackle the problem seriously.
Perhaps the most egregious example of why the Tories can’t be trusted on air pollution was perpetrated by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. His successor Sadiq Khan exposed the scandal in 2016. Johnson had “buried” a report showing that 83% of schools breaching EU air quality limits in London were in deprived areas of the city.
But the most polluted cities in the world are found in India, with Delhi at the top of the list. Agra was also in the top five. Having ridden as a passenger in a “tuk-tuk” (open-air 3-wheeled “taxi”) whilst on holiday in India, I can still recall the acrid taste in the back of my throat at the end of the ride. China also is slated as having poor air quality, although the Chinese government seems more active in taking remedial action, e.g. replacing coal-fired power stations with cleaner ones. The International Energy Agency ranks the top 5 polluting countries as China, USA, India, Russia and Japan.
The WHO calculated that air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths per year. The equivalent figure for the UK is 40,000 premature deaths, 10,000 of them in London. And still the UK government drags its feet. It seems that human beings, UK included, can’t be trusted to protect the planet at sustainable levels.
And so we might have expected to see some announcements related to saving our planet in last week’s budget. And yes, I think there is one.
The trouble is that it heads us in the opposite direction. Chancellor Phillip Hammond announced a freeze in fuel duty for the ninth consecutive year. He had little choice as his boss Theresa May had made the announcement a month earlier at the Tory party conference. Compared to a policy of raising the duty each year in line with inflation, it now costs the Treasury £9 billion a year to maintain the freeze and £46 billion cumulatively since the freeze began. Tory MP Robert Halfon said it was “great news for motorists”. Don’t any of his constituents actually breathe? The policy makes the most polluting form of travel per mile (car driving) relatively cheaper each year whilst rail fares rise faster than inflation.
So, apart from the fuel duty freeze, there was nothing relating to environmental issues in this year’s damp squib of a budget. Other Tory policies also make things worse for the planet.
As the party of light-touch regulation, the Tories ensure that the UK has some of the worst housing in Europe when it comes to poor insulation and heat losses. Hostility on onshore wind turbines by this government panders to nimbyism, despite general public support for onshore wind turbines as a green energy source. Fiddling the rules in favour of shale gas fracking encourages more fossil fuel-produced energy, even in the teeth of local opposition. A truly green government policy would simply be to insist that the shale gas stays underground where it is now.
Above all, this government does not have the capacity to tackle these and other compelling priorities because all its energies are spent on its infighting over that pointless act of self-harm. You know, the one that begins with a B and ends in t…
Future generations may look aghast at our indifference towards these planet-threatening trends. And, for the UK’s contribution to the impending catastrophe, the Tories, when in power, will be mostly to blame.