Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate
Kew Gardens is one of my favourite places. Let’s celebrate the re-opening, after five years’ refurbishment, of the glory that is the Temperate House. I can’t wait to see it! Surely this is something we in Britain call all agree about.
Sorry, but I didn’t start it…
Rough minds do shake the snarling moods of May And common sense hath all too short a date
Stagecoach bus services are an overpriced, despicable pile of crap.
Oxford to Cambridge
Our local bus services were withdrawn years ago and we are dependent on the “express” between Oxford and Cambridge (90 miles in 3hrs 45mins – average speed 24 mph) to get us from our village into the nearest town, a distance of 8 miles. In theory, it’s a good service – nominally every 30 minutes; in practice, it’s extremely unreliable. That’s not Stagecoach’s fault: there are just too many pinch points on the route. The buses don’t stand a snowball in hell’s chance sticking to the timetable. The drivers do their best.
The buses, about 5 years old, have leather seats, air conditioning and free wifi. But they keep breaking down – see below. So we often get ancient buses or a town double-decker replacing the advertised bus. Not so luxurious!
Can’t Take the Heat
On 19th April, the freak 29° day, I had a hospital appointment and arranged to get the local bus into town to meet my wife, a distance of about half a mile. The service is timetabled for every 15 minutes. We waited 50 mins and were “rescued” by another local bus route from a nearby village. One of the regular users said they were operating the route that day with only one bus. It turns out that many, if not most, of the buses had broken down in the heat and they were driving buses from Eastbourne (140 miles away) for replacements. Not exactly professional.
Rip Off and Contempt
Yesterday, my wife got my car serviced and needed to buy a return ticket from town and back: cost £8.65 return: she’s too young to get a free bus pass! (I never travel at a time I have to pay!) I was shocked at the expense. By contrast, I paid £8.50 return this morning to travel 20 miles to the next big town and back by train (travel time 18 mins out, 13 mins back). My bus home was waiting to go at the advertised time at the bus station. But, after getting everyone on board, they said it wasn’t working and, after a 10-15 minute delay, we were all decanted onto a local bus replacement. Regular passengers said it had happened 2 or 3 times in the past week. I really am shocked that Stagecoach charges two and a half times per mile as our overpriced railways for a vastly inferior service.
The poor service and grotesquely high fares show an utter contempt for Stagecoach’s Passengers (mostly old gits like me with free passes). [Note the P word, not the C word.] Bus privatisation outside London (where it is highly regulated by the Mayor’s Office) is an utter disaster, as I now know from personal experience.
Stop Breaking Down
By chance and coincidence, I have had inside information from 3 current and one former bus driver over the past couple of years. The basic problem is that Stagecoach skimps on routine, preventative maintenance. (The former employee said he left because Stagecoach, as an employer, was “crap”.) And yet I generally find the drivers friendly and they do a thankless job, so don’t blame them! Brian Souter, CEO of Stagecoach is a very rich man. Instead of paying himself (and the Scottish National Party) so much money, he should spare a few quid keeping his buses properly maintained! Someone needs to teach him the meaning of public service – or simply renationalise the buses as well as the railways.
In 2000, I had a holiday visiting British friends then living in Colorado, USA. Whilst there, I hired a car and took myself off for a few days exploring the National Parks in Utah. Distances were long and driving alone gave me time for reflection. (In those pre-USB port days, the only radio options in that part of rural USA were country and western or Christian stations. So no radio, then.) I began to realise that I was spending quite a lot of my time driving with a slight sense of unease. It wasn’t just the unfamiliar car. Nor was it just driving on the opposite side of the road. Then it occurred to me. I seemed to be spending more time than normal driving without a clear view of the road ahead.
On reflection, it seems only natural that one feels more comfortable driving when there’s a clear, unimpeded view ahead. This will be either when there is no vehicle in front of you or, if there is, there is still a clear view through the rear window and the windscreen to afford an almost full view of the road ahead. This is the case for most of the time when I’m driving in the UK. What was different here was that I was in an average-sized family car, much like I’d be driving at home. But what was different was that, most of the time, the vehicle in front was bigger – taller – than mine and I couldn’t see through the tailgate.
So, I concluded, the folks here drive around in much larger lumps of metal on wheels than we do back home. Even my friends, who, in all other respects, were reasonably liberal and considerate people, had one of these great gas-guzzling beasts for day-to-day driving, for no apparently good reason. The physical laws of the universe require that moving such vehicles around consumes more fuel. It seems all part of the Great American Myth of the open western frontier and limitless resources.
A Friends of the Earth study from 2009 showed that the average American consumes twice as much of the Earth’s resources as the average European. That’s also nine times as much as the average African. There’s simply not enough Earth to go round if everyone on the planet adopted a European lifestyle, let alone an American one.
A Very Brief History
Oil was discovered in the USA in the 1850s and by the First World War the US was extracting two-thirds of the world’s crude oil supply. It’s now the third largest producer of crude in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Russia. The USA was self-sufficient in oil up to the 1950s and has been a net importer since. Imports currently account for about one quarter of consumption: a rapid fall after peaking at over half of consumption in 2005. If only Americans had consumed at the same rate as Europeans over the years, they would have remained self-sufficient.
There’s a direct link between this need for imported oil and international Islamic terrorism. A potted history follows.
Abd-al-Wahab proposed an extremist “back to basics” form of Islam in the late 18th century. A tribal leader Muhammed ibn Saud made a pact with al-Wahab: they would together bring the peninsula Arabs back to the “true” religion. The House of Saud remained just one of many Arab tribes until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. Britain’s and France’s “divide and rule” policies of the 1920s brought British recognition of the Saudi King’s right to rule the whole of what is now Saudi Arabia. British and US rivalry over oil discoveries in the region led to US recognition of the Saudi regime in 1933, 6 years after the UK. Oil was discovered there in 1938.
After WWII, increasing Western dependence on Saudi oil led to governments overlooking the abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia. (Saudi is ranked equal bottom with 6 other countries in a list of 205 countries published by Freedom House. The comparison measures political rights and civil liberties.) This was of no great international importance until the 1973 oil crisis which led to a five-fold increase in the price of a barrel of crude oil. Saudi Arabia started to accumulate a financial “war chest” of petrodollars. Part of this pile of cash was then spent on spreading their warped form of Islam by funding madrasas and other means of radicalising Muslims throughout the world. For 30 years, the west continued to turn a blind eye to this international indoctrination: we needed their oil.
And then along came 9/11, all but two of the perpetrators being Saudi nationals. Still not much happened to the west’s attitude to the Saudis – at least in public. The various groups have now morphed and re-morphed into ever more extreme versions of their predecessors and funders: Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh (Islamic State). In its most mutant form, Daesh is even now biting the hand that (historically) fed it and the Saudis must be privately wondering what monster they have unleashed. (My earlier post Fairy Tales of Syria give a fuller account of all this).
And so, joining the links in the chain, US energy profligacy leads to terrorism (with a little help from the Saudis on the way).
Climate Change, Too
What’s worse is that part of the linking mechanism is a fossil fuel: oil. Along with coal and natural gas, the developed western countries have been burning the stuff on a significant scale for about 200 years. Climate scientists now reckon that, cumulatively, we’ve burnt almost the maximum amount we can without catastrophic rises in global temperatures. I could stretch the “links in the chain” argument here to blame James Watt and his boiling kettle for global warming. Although this does seem to me to push the argument rather too far: the science did not exist in Watt’s time to know the climate effects of greenhouse gases.
This may seem a strange thing for an atheist like me to say, but there does seem to be something of the divine retribution in the devastating wildfires raging across northern Alberta. The fires are close to the area of extraction of fuel from tar sands – probably the most damagingly insane energy activity right now in relation to its effect on the global climate. The extraction process is grossly polluting to air and water supplies and the only sane policy is to leave the stuff in the ground. If not divine retribution, there are echoes of the Gaia principle, popular in the 1970s. Mother Earth fights back to save herself.
Look At the Road Ahead
All of which brings me back to my starting point. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But if, at any stage in the sorry tale which got us to this point – with its dual threats of terrorism and climate change – we had considered the consequences of our actions (or inactions) we may have given ourselves a less bumpy ride on the road ahead.
It should be obvious by now that free markets are not the solution to every problem. Sadly, too many people in power still haven’t learnt this simple truth. Here are two examples, one recent, one ongoing.
Schools Need Planning
About two years ago, the Chief Executive of a Local Education Authority was expressing the frustrations of her job. The essential problem was that she was responsible in law to ensure that sufficient places were available for all children who needed them in her area, but did not have the powers to bring this about. This ludicrous state of affairs first came about in 2010 when Michael Gove became Education Secretary. Gove’s ideological obsession for free schools (inspired by a Swedish example already disowned in Sweden) had removed the power for local government to create or expand their own schools. The famous “free market” would somehow step in and do the job. It didn’t: free schools were built, at great expense, in the wrong places.
Hardly anyone agrees with govenment policy. Unions and professional associations are opposed. The Local Government Association is against forced academisation. In mid April, Conservative MPs in the Commons opposed the policy too. A week earlier, councils warned that there will be a shortage of school places, with 40% of councils affected. Local authorities are not allowed to open new schools. The so-called “free market”, of free schools and academy chains, is somehow supposed to fill the gap. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen. The proportion of parents getting their first choice school for their children is falling. Markets are no substitute for local knowledge and planning. The problems were largely avoidable, but for dogma and ideology.
Carbon Credits Don’t Work
School places are a problem for this country and the problem is contained. A much more serious, longer-term and globally important issue is that of man-made global warming. The evidence for this was first flagged up by scientists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first serious international conference on climate change was held in Toronto in 1988. 1992 saw the first UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, by then, the ideology of free market fundamentalism had really begun to take hold of the thinking of governments throughout the world.
If we had still being operating the kind of interventionist policies which were mainstream throughout the western world until the late 1970s, things may well have turned out differently. The 1960s and 1970s saw a series of strong government interventions in many countries. DDT was banned, various Clear Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, along with legislation protecting wildlife on land and in the oceans. Regulate, control and ban: these were the weapons governments were willing and able to use.
By the time a consensus on climate change had emerged, government attitudes had changed. Markets were the solution; governments must not interfere or enact “anti-business” policies. Instead of direct intervention, free market thinking created the concept of carbon caps, credits and emissions trading. This was a ridiculously roundabout way to achieve the intended aims of reducing carbon emissions. Variations in global economic growth added wild fluctuations to the price of carbon credits. The scope for fraudulent use of credits and of corruption quickly turned into reality.
Once again, the barrier to clearly thought-through policy development resulting from free market dogma prevented the implementation of effective solutions to an increasingly urgent problem: man-made global warming. Only this time, the problem is not confined to one small country. It affects everyone on the planet.
Markets Aren’t the Answer, Stupid
Markets are fine in their place. Choosing which can of baked beans to buy, for example. There are no significant externalities which escape the market mechanism. Such as the quality of education for a generation of schoolchildren. Or the future of life on earth. It’s high time governments woke up to this stark but simple fact.