I’ve never been what you would call a hippie. In my late teens and early twenties I had shoulder-length hair – and a beard. Flower Power was at its height when I was about 18 or 19 years old. But the whole hippie lifestyle thing? Not really: my day to day life was fairly conventional: university then work, regular job and all that.
Barefoot in the Past
I can’t remember exactly when, but there were a couple of weeks in my late teens or early twenties when I took to going around with bare feet. Somehow I had this romantic notion that closer contact between the soles of my feet and – whatever I was walking on – would somehow connect me better with nature, or whatever. In practice, a good part of the time I was walking on hard, paved surfaces. Of itself, that was not a problem, nor particularly enjoyable! But the problem with pavements are the little bits of debris which find their way there: stones, bits of gravel and, worse still if not paying attention, broken glass or other sharp objects.
No serious injury occurred in these two weeks, but the odd pebble or stone was, frankly, painful. Cool grass was lovely and everyone has experienced the feeling of bare feet on a sandy beach. Painful in a hot climate, sensual at cooler temperatures!
So, did I really feel more in commune with nature? At the time, not really. I soon went back to wearing socks and shoes. More practical, less risk of injury.
Fast forward to last year. One of the side-effects of my medical treatment was a loss of feeling (touch and temperature) in my feet. About a year ago, this effect reached a peak. Those who have experienced peripheral neuropathy often describe it as like walking around with a pair of sponges strapped to the bottom of the feet. Not unpleasant – just a bit weird! And it really screws up your balance! At worst, I was staggering a bit like a drunk person. Like riding a bicycle, the faster I walked, the steadier was my gait.
Many people experience pain as well as a strange, fizzy “hot and cold at the same time” tingling sensation. The tingling was strangely pleasant, the pain not. Fortunately, I was prescribed a drug which took away the pain completely, leaving me with a pair of feet that didn’t quite feel that they belonged to me.
Over the past year, the numbness has mostly subsided and the feeling has returned, especially to the soles of my feet. But a strange thing has happened: the newly re-grown sense of touch is somehow enhanced, as if my brain hasn’t got used to the novelty of feeling again. So now, when my feet are bare, I seem to feel every little bit of the pile in a carpet. It’s as if the nerve cells that give us a sense of touch are trying to make up for the lost time. And, I have to say, it’s really rather pleasant.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that treatment with strong drugs with side-effects is something to be welcomed. But life does have its compensations. For example, experiencing the sight of a beautiful sunset (thank you Harlech in June!), a stunningly beautiful beach (Iona in September) or many others of nature’s bounties, the memories from my youth of cool grass on bare feet come to mind.
And all the madness and discord in the world about which, sadly, too many of these posts concentrate on, drift far, far away.
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.
Why would any sane person want a trade deal with Donald Trump’s USA?
Everyone seems to have heard about US chlorinated chicken. Basically, it’s OK in the States for chickens to spend their whole lives covered in their own and other chickens’ shit. After slaughter, they’re given a quick wash down in chlorinated water and put out for sale to the public. Food poisoning is three to five times higher in the USA than in Europe. That’s almost certainly an underestimate, given that, with no NHS equivalent, 20 million Americans have no health insurance cover. So incidents of food poisoning are almost certainly under-reported in the USA – by the poorest people. And the reason for the high levels of US food poisoning? Washing in chlorinated water doesn’t kill all the bugs.
EU food standards, which Theresa May and Michael Gove have stated they’ll keep, require chickens to live their lives in a clean, healthy – and shit-free – environment. US chicken, anyone?
Pig Farms and the Environment
Let’s turn from chicken to pork. Pig farms in the USA are an environmental disaster. Here’s an (admittedly disputed) Wikipedia account. On long walks with our dog, we’ve seen some pretty disgustingly smelly, industrial-scale pig farms in this country. They were certainly not the romanticised picture of little piggies running free you see in children’s books. We need fewer, not more, of such monstrosities.
Despite the controversy, there seems little doubt about the effect on water quality through contamination of the water table. These effects cover an enormous area around the offending farms. US pork farm practices here? No thanks.
Beef Growth Agents
The most worrying of all is not chickens, or pork. It’s beef. Do you want to live in a world before antibiotics? A world of incurable superbugs? Just welcome American beef and you’ll get it before long. Scaremongering? I don’t think so.
An American report (publication date unclear: probably less than 5 years old) entitled The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals Threatens Public Healthspells it out. A deeply troubling statistic in the report states that 80% of antibiotics sold in the USA is used in meat and poultry production, mostly beef I understand. And it’s just used as a growth enhancer. In other words, to improve the farmers’ profits. US food standards say this is all just fine: nasty government mustn’t interfere in businesses’ interests.
I read somewhere that scientists had analysed faecal traces in US ground beef, i.e. what the Americans call the minced beef used in burgers. They could identify faeces from over 3000 different cows. This is as a result of the industrial scale of US beef production. This US Consumer Reports report gives an idea of the problem. I feel rather queasy about that level of mixing. We generally shop at our local butcher on a farm where all meat is traceable to individual animals. It just feels safer that way – and yes, we can afford to pay a bit more.
But the antibiotics issue is the real show-stopper.
Both May and Gove, as I said earlier, have said they will stick to EU food standards. Although whether anything the duplicitous Gove says can be trusted is a moot point. But it should be blisteringly obvious that it’s either EU or USA standards. The two approaches are fundamentally incompatible.
Trump Always “Wins”
Trump, with his “America First” policy, is temperamentally hard-wired to be on the winning side every time. He doesn’t do “losers” and holds all those he sees as such in contempt. There is zero chance that Little Britain could “negotiate” a trade deal with the USA which is fair to both sides. And we all know who would lose.
Shit on Your Plate
Leavers wanted to “take back control”. Well, they’d better have plenty of toilet rolls handy. Just in case.
And surviving a simple, routine operation just might get a whole lot more (C) Difficile, as the French might say.
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.