Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A chorus of approval for Helen's Hawk

It begins: “Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees…”
That land is the Breckland, that border region of Norfolk and Suffolk which isn’t quite like anywhere else. The very heart of East Anglia, and almost unknown to the rest of the world.
Except to Helen Macdonald, whose book “H is for Hawk” opens with that evocative description.
The book isn’t quite like any other, either.
For a start, it’s rather hard to categorise. It’s a personal memoir, of how Helen struggled to cope with the grief of her father’s death, and of how she managed the difficulties and joys of training a young goshawk. Intercut with that is the story of an earlier writer, TH White, whose 1951 book “The Goshawk” told of his own inept attempts at hawk-training. And it’s the story too of Helen’s own lifelong relationship with that book, from fascination to anger and back.
The advice to booksellers on the back cover is to place “H is for Hawk” on both the Biography and Nature-Writing shelves. It is much more personally revealing, and more painfully honest, than most works you’ll find in either section.
Its runaway success – bestseller status, a book of the month at Waterstones, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction – surprised its author as much as anyone.
Having read it in August, just after it first came out, I was a little surprised too at just how well it’s done since. Not because it doesn’t deserve every bit of acclaim – it does – but because, frankly, the glittering prizes so seldom go to the works that do deserve them.
I have no hesitation whatever in joining the Times Literary Supplement and a list of other publications and people who have named it as the book of 2014.
In doing so, I ought to declare a kind of interest. Helen Macdonald is an old friend, at least of the Facebook kind. We did meet once in person, though there’s no reason she should remember that. But my place in her friends list seems enough for me to feel a kind of reflected pride in her glory.
She has written a book that will become a classic. Now follow that, Helen.
And what am I looking forward to reading in 2015 – apart from the tempting stack of books Santa just left by my elbow?
Another friend of mine, journalist Jackie Copleton, has her first novel coming out in July. Titled “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding”, it’s set partly in the present and partly in pre-bomb Hiroshima and it sounds terrific.


Monty Python was great the first time round. Even the second. By the time half the people you knew were able to quote whole rambling sketches verbatim, however – and far too often did just that – the novelty value, and the humour, were wearing thin. That was some time in the 1970s.
So you had to nod in agreement when someone said in 2014: “Who wants to see that again, really? A bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money.”
So true. And who said it? One Mick Jagger, at 71 still the lead singer of a popular beat combo that spent much of the year playing sell-out concerts in stadiums around the world, a mere half century after they were acclaimed as “England’s Newest Hit-Makers”.
Sir Mick is no fool, so one must assume he spoke with that famous tongue planted firmly in cheek. A pot aware of his relationship with the kettle.
The same is presumably true of that other knight of the realm Elton John, 67, who described Jagger’s co-Rolling Stone Keith Richard as “a monkey with arthritis trying to go on stage and look young”.
Ooh, scratch yer eyes out, as the Pythons once sang.
There was no humour, malice or irony, however, in the finest, most uplifting quote of 2014.
The 85-year-old science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin gave a speech at the American National Book Awards ceremony last month that was a masterpiece of brevity, wisdom and clear thinking.
“Right now,” she said, “we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
Hear, hear. And not only writers, I might add.
She went on: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
If there was one thing said, in this depressing year, to lift the spirits and rekindle a little hope, that was it. Thank you, Ursula, for a thought worth cherishing.
I don’t expect 2015 to bring the fall of capitalism, or the ending of the terrifying power now wielded by multi-national corporations. But it will bring their end another year closer.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

May your god go with you. If you happen to have one

The music was divine, the children’s voices heavenly, the acoustics in the old church near perfect. The deep baritone in one of the front pews was pitched not to the treble of the choir but the lower notes of the accompanying organ.
For the first “Oh come let us adore him”, the baritone fell silent. At the second he joined in gently. At the third he came in on full boom, contributing his part to a joyous wall of sound that filled the church.
Never mind the Christian setting, the Christian message of the lyric, this was one atheist who was thoroughly enjoying the singalong. I know, because that man was me.
And I know I was not unwelcome in joining in, either. The vicar, bless him, made it quite plain in his delightfully ecumenical speech at the close of the school concert that all were welcome, of whatever religion or none.
He stressed, as he does every year, that tolerance, and caring for others, were the important features we should all share and encourage.
A message and an attitude which – of course – is not confined to the Church of England, but which nevertheless seems to sum up that church at its best.
An old favourite joke of mine came up again the other day. Maybe it isn’t really a joke at all. It’s more a statement of attitude, and one which at heart I share, true unbeliever though I am.
It goes like this: “I’m sick and tired of all these Christians who have forgotten the true meaning of Saturnalia.”
Celebrating the birth of a new year, a new season, at the very dead of winter, is a splendid tradition that goes back a lot further than the birth of Christ.
New religions have always thrived best when they have adopted, and subtly altered, the rites, rituals and holy places of the older religions they have displaced.
Christianity has always been masterful at this, which probably accounts for its very survival in early centuries, as well as its widespread success from medieval times on.
A tradition of drinking, carousing and eating well with gathered family and friends around the winter solstice was well established in Rome – and no doubt a great many other places – long before Christianity was around to lay claim to it.
We know from their often astonishingly precise alignments that stone-age monuments such as stone circles and burial chambers were built by people who placed great importance in the winter solstice.
Santa may have got his red coat from a Coca-Cola promotion (he used to be in green) and be more associated now with consumerism than with Christ. But if you’re looking for “true meaning”, his origins appear to lie in the High German, Old English or Anglo-Saxon god Woden. So perhaps we should celebrate him every Wednesday.
Isn’t there something decidedly pagan in the Yule log, the ceremonial tree and the wreath?
And, come to think of it, don’t some of those old carols we all enjoy singing so much have more than a touch of the older religion about them? The greenwood and the fertility rite. The Holly and the Ivy.
So yes, we can all enjoy the lovely church buildings, the lovely music, the singing and togetherness.
And yes, we can – and should – all remember those less blessed than ourselves, be it through famine, war, pestilence or poverty.
And, as the great Dave Allen used to say, may your god go with you. At this time as at all times. Whichever god that may be. If you happen to have one.
Happy Hanukkah.


We were talking at breakfast the other day, as you do. (Well, maybe you don’t, but we do – it’s a crucial part of what makes us the close family we are.) And, as we do, we had the radio on in the background.
“That’s a good question,” said a voice over the airwaves in response to I know not what. Prompting our daughter, 15 and thoughtful, to ponder: “What IS a good question?”
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good question itself.
The answer depends, of course, on what you want to get out of it. Some questions just want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘tea’ or ‘coffee’ sort of answer. But in an interview – on the radio, say, or for a newspaper column – you want something that provokes a fuller response. Something, ideally, that makes the other person (and the listeners, or readers) think a bit.
A good question might be one the other person can’t answer – or doesn’t want to. In which case it might be more honest of them if they replied: “That’s a bad question.” Which, strangely, no one ever seems to do.
We’re about to enter a general election year, one in which the outcome is as hard to predict as I can ever remember. We are bound to be hearing a lot of interesting questions over the next four or five months. Can we expect to hear them answered straightforward, honestly – or at all?
Now that, I think you’ll agree, is a good question.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

What we could learn from Napoleon

History is written by the winners. It’s said so often that the idea has suffered the fate of all clichés, to go almost un-noticed. But it’s worth thinking about occasionally.
What would we have grown up to believe about Hitler if he’d won? Those of us, that is, who were here at all. Which I probably wouldn’t have been.
Going back further, what about Napoleon Bonaparte?
I’ve always thought of the little French emperor as a sort of prototype Hitler, with his charismatic leadership and militaristic desire to conquer all of Europe. His 1812 march on Moscow, so vividly captured by Tolstoy in his great novel War And Peace, has always seemed to pre-figure the Nazis’ doomed assault on Russia.
For more than 20 years, from 1793 until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Old Boney was Britain’s bogeyman. The national obsession, the national fear, were real and ever-present. The Martello towers, built to stave off a feared invasion that never came, still dot the East Anglian coast.
Our great national heroes, Nelson and Wellington, were heroes because they defeated Napoleon. London’s most famous square, the nearest thing we have to a national public space, is named for Nelson’s final, fatal triumph at Trafalgar. Two centuries on, Waterloo remains the great “close-run thing”, a battle to rank in our mythology alongside Hastings (but better, because “we” won).
I never really paused to question the image of Bonaparte as a Bad Thing, the awful fate “we” managed narrowly to avoid. Not until the other day, when I encountered a surprising alternative view.
Which goes like this.
Wherever he went, Napoleon swept away hereditary privilege, bringing land and new freedom to the common people. He brought freedom of – and, crucially and highly unusually, freedom from – religion. He emancipated the Jews from all kinds of traditional repression (a bit unlike Hitler there, then). He introduced new standard “metric” measures (the one legacy people tend to know about).
The Napoleonic Code is also at root why France and a few other countries – including Germany (post-Hitler) – have a better legal system than us.
We tend, with our “great Britain” complex, to assume we do everything better than other people. Except sport (at which we actually punch above our weight). In many things it’s true, or true-ish, though getting less so. It’s really not true of our legal system, which is still largely run by privileged people for the preservation of their privilege.
That’s not to say there aren’t many fine lawyers, genuinely committed to the cause of justice. Of course there are. But the system works against them, not for them.
Consider the archaic and arcane language legal documents are written in. It’s deliberately impossible for anyone but a trained lawyer to understand, which is why they can charge such high fees for writing and interpreting it.
A key point of Napoleon’s code was that documents should be written in easily understandable language. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?
The other big difference between French-style and English-style law is between “adversarial” and “inquisitorial” proceedings.
Here, and in other countries with a similar system, any case in court is a battle between two sides. One wins, one loses. Sometimes you get the right result. Other times it’s a question of who can afford the better lawyer, who does better at appealing to a jury, or just plain luck.
The European system, based on Napoleonic principles, is not about seeing who wins. It’s about finding the truth.
Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that. But the central principle is there – and, to a large degree, it works.
German courts have a roughly 90 per cent conviction rate. They also have far fewer miscarriages of justice than here. Fewer wrong ’uns getting away with it – and fewer innocent people banged up.
They don’t have so many of their population in prison, because they don’t have our constant clamour for longer and longer sentences. They consider the high chance of being caught and convicted a better deterrent than ever harsher punishment for those who are.
They also have better after-care, which means fewer repeat offenders. It’s both more civilised and more effective.
The “what if” approach to history is always tempting, and never remotely possible to be sure of. But maybe – just maybe – if the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar had gone the other way we’d have a fairer society now. Including a better, less expensive, system of law.
Perhaps we’d have Napoleon on our banknotes and all celebrate him as the great saviour of the country.
In the meantime, back in the real world, senior legal figures have begun to think the unthinkable. The Lord Chief Justice, Baron Thomas of Cwmgiedd, gave a lecture earlier this year called Reshaping Justice, suggesting we might scrap much of our current system and adopt a more European approach.
Why would a lord in a wig, gown and chain suggest such a thing? Because the current system is so inefficient, and so expensive, that government cuts threaten to break it completely. So something good might come out of those cuts after all.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Sentiment v humanity

At football grounds all over the country at the weekend, players lined up together for a joint team photo. Home players mingled with their visitors in a comradely fashion before they started pulling and kicking each other as usual.
A nice enough gesture in its way, a pleasing show of unity in the face of… Well, yes, in the face of what? Not – let’s be truly grateful for it – in the face of trench warfare. Which is what it was supposed to be in commemoration of.
Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War – one was killed in the Second – and I’m certainly not one to belittle or dishonour those who did. The situation they were placed in was in a very real sense the defining tragedy of the 20th century, and led, directly or indirectly, to most of the major horrors that unfolded upon the world thereafter.
The “Christmas truce” of 1914 and the famous football match that broke out between the trenches were poignant moments that remain rightly iconic.
But does a chummy huddle on a football field a century later really add anything worthwhile?
Or is it, like the kitsch display of porcelain poppies in the Tower of London moat, merely another instance of a shallow and disturbing social phenomenon?
The number of British families now forced to rely on food banks suggests that we have become a less caring society than we once were.
The callous tendency of government and media to characterise the poor as “scroungers” is another deeply unpleasant sign of it.
So is the common uncharitable attitude towards immigrants – including that alarmingly growing number of desperate people fleeing the horror of lands such as Syria.
Real compassion appears to have given way to false sentimentality.
It didn’t begin in 1997 with the outbreak of mass mawkishness that attended the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. But the habit of strewing tokens in “memory” of people the mourners never knew got a massive boost then and seems to have grown ceaselessly since –encouraged, perhaps, by the purveyors of cards and cut flowers.
The callousness towards the needy was made socially acceptable in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher began the war on the poor still being enthusiastically waged by her Tory successors today.
It’s high time the balance was swung away from sentiment and back towards real humanity.


You have to feel for Chuka Umunna. Four and a half years an MP and already he’s being talked up as the next leader of his party.
As if there wasn’t someone still in the job and hoping to become prime minister next May.
A polished performer – perhaps even just a little too polished – in TV debates, Umunna is in no danger of suffering the fate that befell a previous Labour hope, the late Robin Cook. The fate, that is, of just not being good-looking enough for the trivial beauty contest that modern politics has become.
(And if you think that’s harsh on Cook, it’s what he himself gave as the reason for not standing for the leadership – a tragedy for Labour, and arguably for Britain.)
Umunna was the subject of a recent glowing profile in the high-brow French paper Le Monde, which described him as Britain’s Barack Obama.
And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, he has now been touted for the leadership by the man Cook chose not to stand against. Tony Blair.
Which ought to be the death-knell for any decent Labour politician’s aspirations.


Last week’s Autumn Statement from George Osborne bore all the expected hallmarks of a chancellor trying to curry favour with the electorate five months before a General Election. All the electorate, that is, apart from all those facing further swingeing cuts in public services and wondering where on earth those cuts can possibly be made.
Once all the fine calculations were concluded, though, it could be seen as more classic Tory policy. A campaign of further moves to redistribute money – out of the pockets of the poor and into the groaning bank accounts of the rich.
Does Osborne really believe this is the way to invigorate a struggling economy?
Former American president Bill Clinton understood the principles better. As he explained it, the way to get the economy moving is to put more money in the pockets of those who have little.
Give a fiver each to a million ordinary people and they’ll spend it, keeping the wheels turning.
Give a million each to five rich people and they’ll bank it, taking it out of the system.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Privacy - a privilege we have given away

You value your privacy, right? Of course you do. It’s a basic human right, isn’t it?
Well, no, not really. In fact, like carpets on the floor, indoor plumbing and private motor vehicles, it’s a privilege that has only in fairly recent times been extended beyond the rich. And even then – like all those things – not everywhere.
Put yourself a few generations back in your own family – say 150 years. Carpet? Probably not. Indoor loo? Likely not. Car? Definitely not. Privacy? Probably not much.
Not that the state would have been much interested in prying on you. Big business didn’t yet have the reach.
But the working class – which was most people – mostly lived in much more crowded conditions than we expect now. There’s not much privacy if you live six, or eight, or 12 to a room.
Or if you all have to share an outdoor netty with a dozen other families.
And what was true in Victorian England is still more or less true in various ways in many parts of the world.
So no, privacy isn’t a right. That sign saying “private”, whether it’s on a door, the gateway to a country estate, or a company portfolio, is a sign of privilege.
And unlike the companies and the estates, it’s a privilege most people seem strangely happy to give up.
You use Facebook? Google? Twitter? Snapchat? Satnav? You think CCTV in public places is a good thing? You’re happy to let the government award itself ever greater powers to listen to your conversations, read your emails, track your movements? You really have given up on privacy, haven’t you?
There’s an old idea, still used to justify police and government intrusion, that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.
That rather depends, though, on how much you trust the police, and the government. And the police and government we might have a little further down the line.
I wrote last week about the Internet of Things, and I promised to discuss here what happens when the data it depends on falls into the hands of hackers.
And that is a “when”, not an “if”. It’s inevitable.
Your PC is your window to the world – and it can be seen through both ways. And as I outlined last week, it’s only the beginning.
Last winter, cybercriminals broke into more than 100,000 internet-enabled appliances, such as fridges and heating systems, and sent out 750,000 spam e-mails to their users.
These days we have “intelligent” cars. But not that intelligent. Security researchers – “good guy” hackers, if you like – say they have built a device that can remotely control a car’s steering, brakes, acceleration, locks and lights. Let’s hope the good guys keep that to themselves.
In the recent words of one Ford executive, a car is now “a cognitive device”. If you drive a computer on wheels, you can expect someone to hack it.
And of course it doesn’t stop there. Between its various arms, the government now holds an awful lot of information about you, and has the capacity to hold a lot more. Which you may or may not be happy about.
So what if the government system itself is hacked? The authorities haven’t always shown themselves to be the brightest and safest keepers of digital data.
And there’s rather more than everyone’s personal privacy at stake.
In the words of Matthew Wald of the New York Times: “If an adversary lands a knockout blow to the energy grid it could black out vast areas of the continent for weeks, interrupt supplies of water, gasoline, diesel fuel and fresh food, shut down communications, and create disruptions of a scale that was only hinted at by Hurricane Sandy and the attacks of September 11.”
Eggs. Basket.


Do online petitions work? There is evidence that those run by big groups such as 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Sum Of Us may actually have some impact on politicians and other decision-makers.
So, as easy and trivial as it seems, I do occasionally put my name to campaigns I support – and I’ve just signed another one.
It calls for the East Coast main line to remain in public hands, not given away like the rest of the rail network to private business.
Never mind re-privatising the country’s best-run line, what we should be doing is putting the rails and the trains back under the same management. By bringing back British Rail.
And talking of keeping things public, a £2billion increase in the NHS budget sounds like a good thing. But it does rather depend on who the money ends up going to.
Back-door privatisation has already put £2.6bn of NHS money into profit-driven firms since April last year. Research by the NHS Support Federation suggests that figure could rise to £9.2bn.
Among those who could profit is the American company Lockheed Martin. The “defence” giant is said to be considering bidding for a £1bn contract to supply GP support.

Do we really want a maker and seller of warplanes to be running – and profiting from – our health service?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Who cashes in on Big Data?

So the recent baring of Kim Kardashian’s bottom didn’t break the internet. But the fact that it was billed as a plausible attempt to do so was an extraordinary comment on the times we live in.
The obsessions with peepshow nudity, vacuous celebrities and the net brought together in a weird nexus.
The internet is now so all-pervasive that people of school or college age can barely conceive of a world without it. Yet it is only 16 years since I was in the team that delivered the Ipswich Star’s first website. And we were ahead of the trend, not behind it.
There was no sound, no video or moving graphics. We had to keep images small, just one per page, to avoid overstretching people’s patience while they downloaded. In this age of streaming movies and real-time high-definition news and sport, that seems like ancient history.
Developers of the early computers would have been amazed (maybe) at the computing capacity most of us now carry around in our pockets. Gadgets so cheap most schoolkids take them everywhere provide ready, rapid access to most of the world’s stored information – and we use them to share videos of cute kittens and photos of Kim K’s curvy bits.
“Wearable technology” puts its users in a world fore-imagined in the Terminator movies. Internet-gathered information superimposed on ones view of the real world around you.
A dream to some, this sounds to me like a nightmare. But then I was a late convert to the CD and the VHS video. Maybe I’ll come round to internet-enabled specs.
All this new capability is empowering, exciting and just a little scary all at the same time. And we’re still, in historical terms, only in the early days of the internet. Expect the changes ahead to be bigger and quicker than those already behind us.
Next up, what’s been dubbed “the Internet of Things”.
Already you can use your mobile phone to set your satellite TV box to record programmes. With the right kit you can get an app to operate your home central heating from anywhere in the world. It’s apparently possible to buy internet-connected washing-machines, fridges, slow-cookers and vacuum-cleaners, and light-bulbs that switch themselves on when you and your phone get near home.
All this is based on Big Data, and inevitably it means Big Bucks for some very Big Companies.
The boss of one of those companies, Cisco Systems, has calculated that “the Internet of Everything” will be worth £9trillion by 2022.
That’s about £1,275 per person on the planet. Or, to put it another way, about five times the total size of the UK economy. All heading for the coffers of a handful of mostly American firms. Cripes.
The writer and “social theorist” Jeremy Rifkin, getting all excited, reckons this amounts to a Third Industrial Revolution. He predicts that the inter-connectedness of people and machines will make everything so efficient it will reduce the cost of producing things to “near zero”, thereby overthrowing capitalism and making us all happy ever after. Calm down, Jeremy.
If manufacturing is so efficient it no longer needs to employ workers and all the money goes to the firm, who’s going to buy all the wonderful stuff produced?
And apart from creating all this lovely warm customer satisfaction, what is all this Big Data actually for?
Cisco Systems is working on a piece of kit called “the Connected Athlete” that “turns the athlete’s body into a distributed system of sensors and network intelligence. The athlete becomes more than just a competitor – he or she becomes a Wireless Body Area Network, or WBAN .”
Very clever, very futuristic. And worth a second thought.
Google, your phone provider – and potentially anyone they want to sell or give the information to, such as the government – already knows at any given moment where you are. Or, at least, where your phone is.
Hook up your body to the internet and anyone who wants to know – your employer, your insurer, your privatised health-care provider – can access your heart rate, your blood pressure, your breathing pattern.
Cars that record where you are, how fast you’re travelling and how many passengers you have are equipped already with the equivalent of an aircraft’s “black box”. How long before the police demand access to such information?
A public already inured to the prevalence of CCTV probably won’t object. Most don’t seem to mind living in the most intense surveillance state the world has ever seen.
Cases such as the phone-hacking scandal, paranoia about people taking photos of other people’s children (as if they didn’t show their own images constantly on Snapchat and Facebook anyway) and constant bleats by royals and other celebs would suggest we still believe in privacy. That it’s something we feel we have a right to, and don’t want “invaded”.
Too late, guys. Google, Facebook, MI5 and the CIA have already brought the Age of Privacy to an end. The Internet of Everything merely erects its tombstone.
  • Next: what happens when all this Big Data falls into the hands of hackers?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Is there such a thing as 'good' palm oil?

What connects orangutans, climate change and the tasty chocolate spread I sometimes have on my breakfast toast?
The answer to that, some readers are no doubt thinking, is obvious. And some are thinking, “not that again”. But bear with me, because this leads to more questions than answers, not always as predictable as you might imagine.
The straightforward answer to the first question is: palm oil.
At which some will nod knowingly. While others may be only dimly aware that palm oil is almost unavoidable by anyone who uses soap, washes their clothes, or eats anything they haven’t prepared themselves from basic ingredients.
A quick check of my cupboards reveals it in shampoo, shower gel, breakfast cereal, biscuits and oatcakes. And that’s in a household that has been trying for years to avoid the stuff.
From next year, it will have to be specifically named among the ingredients of any food that contains it. For now it may be hidden under the comforting term “vegetable oil”.
You may have it in margarine, cooking oil, almost anything baked or fried, chocolate, crisps, toothpaste, chewing-gum, shaving cream, even “healthy” fruit and nut snacks. Even, if you’ve fallen for that least green of all supposedly green ideas “bio-fuel”, in your petrol tank.
Grown all round the tropics, but especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil is now one of the world’s most widely traded commodities.
And for two very basic reasons – it’s cheap to grow, and it has a longer shelf-life than other edible oils or fats.
The medical research jury is still out on whether eating it is bad for you. Some studies have linked it with high cholesterol and heart disease.
What’s not in doubt is that it’s very bad indeed for the environment.
Which is where climate change and orangutans come in.
According to Greenpeace, palm oil is the largest driver of deforestation in Indonesia. Its growth is tied to some of the south-east Asia’s worst environmental crimes, and the threat is spreading in Africa and South America.
Rainforests are being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate for massive palm plantations. Impoverished workers, including children, are trapped in virtual slavery to cultivate the stuff.
Viewers of Bruce Parry’s excellent Tribe series will recall, too, the way indigenous people in Borneo are being driven off their land by forest clearances for the creation of palm oil plantations.
The tribal people – like the orangutans, rare tigers and other endangered species – are being driven towards extinction by the clearances.
Meanwhile the destruction of the forest pollutes the Earth’s atmosphere with gigatons of greenhouse gases.
At this point a weasel word creeps in. Sustainability.
You may see it used by the big oil-producers to justify the source of their product. But it’s a greenwash.
A palm farm may be sustainable now, in the sense that it can continue to produce. But if it has been created in a place that used to be virgin forest, the loss of habitat, diversity and carbon-absorption is permanent.
And, as the prevalence of palm oil in our homes testifies, we are all accomplices.
So what can we do?
You might expect Greenpeace, of all organisations, to recommend a zero-tolerance policy. But not so.
An article on the environmental campaign group’s website takes a surprising approach.
Forests specialist Dr Amy Moas says: “The answer is not to boycott a commodity that is crucial to Indonesia, and practically unavoidable in the products we consume.
“All consumer companies, traders and palm oil producers need to implement a No Deforestation policy to ensure that the palm oil in their supply chains is free from forest destruction, land conflict and human rights violations.”
She insists that “good palm oil exists”, grown responsibly on land that has not been hacked and burned out of the rainforest.
And that rather than trying to avoid palm oil entirely, we should be encouraging the good stuff. By, for example, eating Nutella.
Being 70 per cent sugar and oil, the hazelnut chocolate spread can hardly be classed as a health food. Still, I was delighted in France this summer to find Casino – a co-operative association of small shops, a bit like Spar here – marketing its own version. Not just palm-oil-free, but proclaiming the fact in large letters on its label.
Proof that French consumers are well ahead of us in making it an issue.
Which may help explain the decision of Ferrero, makers of Nutella, to announce their commitment to rainforest-friendly oil.
So, personal health concerns aside, can we go back to chocolatey breakfasts, then?
Well, maybe.
Some question the environmental credentials of any crop that’s predominantly grown where rainforest used to grow.
As one sceptic comments on the Greenpeace page: “The demand will be too high to rely on small organic palm-oil farms.” Which seems a fair point.
The same writer also says: “You can produce Nutella based on sunflower oil, but the profit would be less.
“I would rather encourage the companies to use other oils that don’t need to grow on rainforest grounds.”
It’s a tricky business, this attempt to be an ethical consumer. I know some people who think it’s a contradiction in terms anyway.
Pass the marmalade, please.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Cathedral to Mammon in a city of bling

Before we set off last week for a few days in Barcelona, my friend’s young son had a simple request. “Can you get me Messi’s autograph?” he asked.
Simple to ask, not so simple to fulfil.
The world’s finest footballer doesn’t tend to mix with the tourists in the Rambla.
Except in the sense that his name and number appear on the shirt-backs of countless hordes, both of the sightseeing visitors and the home fans.
Small boys, fat middle-aged blokes, teenage twin Japanese girls - they all bear the name of Lionel Messi on their purple-and-blue striped tops. Which must make it a very strange experience for the man himself if indeed he ever does take a stroll through the city centre.
He’s there, too, on a myriad posters on street corners and in the Metro advertising the next home game at the Nou Camp. In English.
Presumably the mighty Barca feel no need to advertise their fixtures to their own fans, but are happy to boost their coffers with a bit of tourist cash.
Football is a religion in Spain - and nowhere more so than in Barcelona, where the Nou Camp is its grandiose temple.
But there’s another, bigger, religion. A worldwide worship. The prevailing ritual and belief system of the 21st century. The driving force and obsession, it seems, of nearly every society on the planet.
I refer, of course, to the worship of Mammon.
It’s related, inevitably, to football. Money now talks a lot louder than trophies and medals.
But then the religion of Mammon gets into practically everything these says. Such as, for instance... religion.
As we exited the Sagrada Familia Metro station right outside the world-famous cathedral of that name (otherwise known as the “Gaudi cathedral”, after its architect), I marvelled at the length of the coralled queue. Waiting, not to get in - they’d have to queue again for that - but to buy tickets for later admission. And if you want to go up one of the towers, that’ll be a case of buy now, come back tomorrow.
Simple entrance to the still-unfinished cathedral will set you back about £15 each. Add another fiver for the tower. Or potentially rather more – up to about £25 total – if you get suckered into one of the “deals” or “offers” from various websites. We managed to pay online at the official price before we’d reached the front of the ticket-office queue.
As we edged forward beneath Gaudi’s statue-encrusted, dripping-stone facade, I experienced a deep fellow-feeling with Christ.
Not, it may be said, for anything like the first time. And not because I espouse Christianity, or any other religious faith.
I’ve always thought the real Jesus - so far as we can be sure there ever was such a person, or exactly what he stood for - has been badly served by Christianity.
In all the stories, the one where his humanity comes through most clearly is when he overturns the money-changers’ tables.
As told in John 2, after throwing the tradesmen out of the temple, he tells them: "Take these things hence! Make not My Father’s house a house of merchandise!”
What he would make of the Sagrada Familia, or the City of London - or pretty much any city in the world today - is an interesting question.
But let’s be fair here. Once we got inside the cathedral - more than 24 hours after paying for the privilege - I found it a revelation.
I’d been here before, 12 years ago, when my experience of the interior was severely limited by scaffolding, men in hard hats, and tarpaulins blocking almost everything from view. It left me totally unprepared for the glorious space now revealed, the other-worldly elegance of the slender pillars and the roof they support, and the light thrown by the loveliest of modern stained glass in the windows.
Even the queue protocols make sense when you see them as a way of ensuring the cathedral never gets too crowded to appreciate.
The way the architecture combines engineering with artistic invention is uplifting, but not exactly a religious experience. Certainly not for me - not for the hundreds to be seen (like me) at any given moment wielding cameras left and right - and not really, I suspect, for people a lot more religious than I am.
If there’s a touch of bling about it, that’s hardly out of keeping with what the Catholic Church has always been.
And in Barcelona right now it doesn’t have quite that old nasty taste of extravagance amidst poverty.
From its shiny shopfronts to its clean, efficient transport system the city hardly seems mired in the financial despair we hear Spain as a whole is suffering.
Which leads to an uncomfortable thought about Catalonia’s eager desire for independence, as expressed in Sunday’s “unofficial” referendum.

That this might be a case not of an oppressed minority seeking its freedom, but of a rich region wishing to leave its poor neighbours by the wayside. Which is very bling, if not very Christian.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A classical column to rest your laurels on

One of my favourite Star Trek adventures is a Next Generation episode from 1991.
In it, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is stranded on a strange planet with the captain of an alien ship.
Normally, in the Star Trek universe, the most unfamiliar humanoids can communicate perfectly well. Their universal translator seamlessly renders all speech into late 20th-century American English. Very handy.
In this episode, though, Picard and Captain Dathon find they can't understand each other at all.
Frustrating. And puzzling, because they are using a lot of the same words but still can't make sense of what's being said.
A bit like watching a rap video, or being stuck on a bus with a load of Cockneys.
It all starts becoming clearer when Picard realises that the Tamarians speak entirely in metaphors.
Which is not, in fact, all that different from the way we speak. And most people, most of the time, don't even seem to realise they are doing it.
World your oyster (or your lobster)? OK, that may be a red herring... but they're all metaphors. In the case of the herring, a particularly charming one from the old sport of hound-trailing. Yes, really.
The language of sportspeople and commentators is especially rich in the unconscious use of metaphor. Often delightfully mixed.
“They've laid out their stall and parked the bus and we've got to run the channels and feed our man in the hole to try and open them up.”
Total gibberish. Unless you're a football devotee, in which case you understand perfectly what was just said.
Of course, you might think the attacking side would do better to get early ball to their wide men, expose their flanks and get in behind them – but you can still follow the argument. Even if you are tutting at my outdated use of “man in the hole” as if I didn't know that this season he's become a No.10, even if he's actually got a number five, 11 or 37 on his back. And may be the apex of a diamond.
With me so far? OK, how about this?
“Credit Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett for getting to Romo with an array of blitzes. The five sacks are the most allowed by the Cowboys since 2012. Four of those five came via inside linebackers and safeties, evidence of a great game called by Haslett.”
No, me neither. It's so opaque I'm not even sure how many metaphors there are there, let alone what they're supposed to mean. Captain Picard would have no trouble with it, though, I'm sure.
The sport, being described is, of course, the one known metaphorically as “gridiron”. Or, in American parlance, “football” - a rather weak metaphor used to describe a game in which an object only vaguely resembling a ball is passed not from foot to foot but from hand to hand.
Which, quite obviously, is just not cricket. Neither metaphorically nor literally.
Cricket, as everyone from the former British Empire – and no one else – fully understands, is a game in which if you have a short square leg you'll need extra cover, while if blessed with a long fine leg...
But I'm not here to make sense (as if anyone could) of the ins and outs of cricket. What I was setting out to do before I got waylaid by sports talk was to draw your attention to another joyous example of metaphor-mangling.
I'm not even sure who it was on the radio the other day. She was probably a politician – some junior minister perhaps – but I was totally distracted from what she was trying to say by the way she chose to say it.
“We're doing well,” she said. “But this isn't something we can rest our laurels on.”
You what?
It's a bit like the “fine toothcomb” people are forever employing to try to find things. Sometimes it's just a plain toothcomb. Ever seen one of those? What's it look like, and what's it for?
Well, actually, there is such a thing. It's a vaguely comb-shaped tooth in the mouth of a lemur or a tree-shrew – but I don't think anyone (except lemurs and tree-shrews) ever uses one to look for anything. Though you might, metaphorically or otherwise, use a fine-toothed comb.
Then there's the increasingly common assertion that “the proof is in the pudding”. What's that supposed to mean?
But back to those laurels. I assume you would never rest yours on anything. Though you might just rest on your laurels – once you've been awarded them in the form of a wreath or coronet to mark your victory in some sporting or political contest. Or to celebrate being awarded a Nobel Prize.
Personally, I'm not sure laurels are very comfortable to rest on anyway. I shan't rest on mine. I'll be back next week, probably turning again to more serious matters.
But the proof (i.e. the test) of that pudding will be in the eating.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Watermelon Greens like me give right-wingers an excuse not to admit terrifying truths

You know that irritating feeling you get when the brilliant, witty you kicks in – just a few moments too late.
You’ve just left the party, or the meeting, or the pub when you suddenly think of the thing you should have said. The snappy one-liner, the perfect put-down, the elegant solution to the problem no one could solve.
For some reason, rather like déjà vu, that feeling has a name in French – esprit de l’escalier – but not in English. “Spirit of the staircase” doesn’t quite work, though you can probably see where that’s coming from.
As a journalist, you might be driving away after the interview when you think of the one key question you didn’t ask. Or you think of the perfect headline just after the press has started rolling.
The feeling is especially common – and especially frustrating – after arguments. But the Australian comedian Tim Minchin has a theory about that. He thinks it’s a good thing.
“A lot of the time your instinct is right,” he says. By which he means the “instinct” not to blurt out what’s really on your mind.
He explains: “It’s usually better not to confront because most people are unable to change their minds. And if there’s any possibility of anyone changing their mind about anything, direct aggressive confrontation is not going to change it.”
Sadly, I think he’s right. And it’s not only aggressive confrontation that misses the mark, either. Few minds are really open to reasoned argument.
People who read this column probably like it if they generally agree with the way I see things, and don’t like it if they don’t. And either way they probably get to the end still believing what they believed before they started.
Which is rather depressing for someone like me – or Tim Minchin – who has a clear world view that they strongly believe in.
I think Minchin’s brilliant. But that’s partly because I tend to agree with him on things like rational thinking, science, tolerance (he’s in favour), religion, quackery and racism (he isn’).
I wonder whether people who don’t share his targets – or who are his targets – find him as clever, or as funny, as I do. Probably not.
Which leads me to the problem with the Green Party, whose outlook Minchin and I broadly share.
The party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, says she is happy to be seen as “a watermelon” – green on the outside, red in the middle. I’m probably the other way round, red on the surface but green all the way through (I’m not sure what fruit that could be).
The trouble is – and it’s a huge trouble, not just in Britain but almost worldwide – that the green movement has tended to become associated with leftist politics.
Which enables those on the right to pretend it’s a political issue, a matter of attitude or opinion.
To pretend that climate change is just a point of view, not what it really is, a scientifically tested and proven fact.
Of course, scientists change their minds. What is condemned in politicians – stupidly – is essential to science. If it wasn’t, we’d all still believe the sun was a god that went round the world making rivers flow and crops grow and occasionally coming down to get people pregnant or turn them into salt.
Science is about investigating things, sharing ideas, testing hypotheses, and by these means gradually getting closer to the truth.
And the more scientists put each others’ ideas about climate change to the test, the more scary – not the less – it all becomes.
A new book, Don’t Even Think About It, by George Marshall, makes this alarmingly plain.
Marshall writes: “Scientists, who are extremely wary of exaggerating, keep using the same word: catastrophe.”
He predicts a rise of four degrees in global temperature, possibly within the next 60 years. Which might not sound much, but it’s double the estimate of a few years ago.
And, as climate scientist John Schellnhuber puts it: “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.”
As Marshall’s title suggests, the details are too scary to think about. Which, as he also argues, is precisely why people choose not to believe it.
In an ideal world, preserving life on the planet (including, but not exclusively, human life) would be everyone’s priority. Not just the priority of those who also believe in social justice.
But this is not an ideal world.
If it was, the rich wouldn’t go on getting richer while persuading nearly everyone else that this is inevitable and right.
And big corporations (rich people) wouldn’t go on raping the planet while persuading themselves that the catastrophe they are causing won’t come down on their heads and their children’s heads as well as everyone else’s.


A poll last week from Ipsos MORI made very interesting reading. It seems 56 per cent of us support Britain staying in the European Union, against 39pc who want out.
This is the highest level of support for EU membership for 23 years.
And, with a narrow majority even of Conservative supporters in favour of remaining in Europe, it sends a clear message to David Cameron.
Stop worrying about UKIP. And stop pandering to their xenophobic desires.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Threaten the West with a killer disease and the dollar signs light up

Dallas, Texas and Freetown, Sierra Leone - one of these places is more than half as far away again as the other. You could be forgiven for not knowing which is which.
So, just to be clear: London to Dallas - 4,750 miles; London to Freetown - 3,064 miles.
That, of course, is just actual distance on the globe. The cultural distance is a different thing altogether.
It must be. Why else would one man's death in Texas fascinate the British media as much as thousands of deaths from the same cause in West Africa? Maybe more.
It brings to mind Joe Stalin's cynical statement that "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic".
I would not wish in any way to disparage our own Will Pooley, the Suffolk nurse who survived Ebola thanks to London hospital care and the experimental drug ZMapp.
Having caught the virus while working as a volunteer among African victims, he is now preparing to return. He is a far braver and better man than I am. A genuine hero in a world where that word is much too freely used.
But he would be the first to acknowledge, I am sure, the disparity between the treatment of Western and African victims of Ebola.
There was never any question, while the scarce ZMapp supplies lasted, which group they would be used to benefit.
And there's an awkward truth attached to the very scarcity and experimental status of that lifesaving drug.
The first identified Ebola outbreak in humans was in 1976. That's 38 years in which drug companies could have been working to find a cure or preventive measures.
Now, belatedly, they are doing so.
GlaxoSmithKline says it is "fast-tracking" trials on a possible vaccine. The firm warns the vaccine won't be ready until the middle of next year at the earliest. Let's hope it is right when it says the current outbreak of Ebola will be over by then.
But why has it taken so long for the matter suddenly to become so urgent?
Because until now it only seemed to affect Africa. But that doesn’t mean it’s down to racism.
The real reason is economics. Money. As with most things that are fundamentally wrong in this value-inverted world.
There's no profit in expensive research aimed only at saving the lives of poor Africans who can pay little.
Threaten the wealthy West with a killer epidemic and the dollar signs suddenly light up.
It's sick, but it's so.
:: There’s a clear connection here to the cringe-inducing revelation last week of words spoken behind closed doors at the recent Conservative Party conference.
Lord David Freud should have known that in this age of mobile phones that film and record every darned thing, nothing is reliably private any more. But in this instance, we can be glad that privacy’s no longer what it was. Glad to watch a creepy-crawly squirm.
Freud’s the multi-millionaire welfare minister who said some disabled people “aren’t worth” the minimum wage and should be employed at £2 an hour.
A Freudian slip is an error of speech that inadvertently reveals a person’s true thoughts.
This one was a classic. It revealed not just Freud’s own twisted views, but the whole essence of being a Tory.
The belief that some people (them) are worth more than others (the rest of us).
I can’t feeling Freud’s great-grandfather Sigmund – the father of psychology, after whom the famous “slip” was named – would be thoroughly ashamed of him. I’d like to think so, anyway.


It’s debatable how much influence leaders’ TV debates have on election outcomes. But it is at least plausible that the 2010 series helped give us the government we now have.
Many people judged Nick Clegg the winner of that contest. Lo and behold, when the poll dust settled, Clegg was deputy PM and his party in power – at least a share of it – for the first time.
If democracy is to work at all, it needs an informed electorate –  properly and fairly informed.
Now we hear Nigel Farage has been invited by the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 to take part in a  debate before next year’s General Election.
UKIP has one MP. As does the Green Party.
Support for UKIP has surged. So has support for the Greens, who have been consistently out-polling the LibDems. And that without the tidal wave of publicity UKIP has revelled in.
If we’d seen and heard as much about the Green revolution as we have about the anti-Euro brigade, Natalie Bennett’s face might be as familiar as Farage’s.
Should UKIP, and not the Greens, appear in pre-election debate, the TV companies will be making themselves complicit in whatever an improperly informed electorate subsequently elects.
It would be a national scandal. A perversion of democracy that could affect the make-up of the next government.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Don't make a scapegoat of China

Reaction to my column last week suggests I'm not the only person to consider human beings a blight upon the world.
"Sad but true" was a common response to my suggestion that "the disease is us".
But there were a couple of dissenting voices.
One reader thought my piece was "unbalanced" because I made no mention of China.
I'd have thought the phrase "we as a species" was fairly all-inclusive, but never mind. Let's consider China for a moment now.
There are a lot of Chinese people - officially 19 per cent of the world's population, not the "one third" you sometimes hear quoted. Enough anyway to contribute their fair share to the world's problems.
Unlike the Americans - and to a lesser but still considerable extent us in Europe - who contribute far more than their share in the form of squandered natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
A list of the world’s biggest CO2-emitting countries shows the USA second, behind Australia, in per-capita emissions. China is 11th on that list, just behind the UK, with less than half the US figure per person.
China's astounding economic growth has produced a burgeoning middle class keen to emulate Western living standards. For most, there is still a long way to go.
We hear a lot about the polluting smoke from their coal-fired power-stations. Rather less about the fact that China leads the world in the use and development of renewable energy - wind, solar and water.
Less happily, it also leads the world in the killing of wild animals for their supposed medical benefits.
The Chinese are, perhaps understandably, resistant to being told what to do by the West.
When it comes to their dangerous fictions about tiger bone, rhinoceros horn, black bear bile and the rest, this is a massive shame. Potentially catastrophic for those threatened species.
The other dissenter was my most regular and constructive critic, my brother Clive.
He took issue with my casual statement of what wiped out the dinosaurs.
He pointed out, rightly: "We don't actually know that it was a meteor strike that did for the dinosaurs. It's a front-running theory, but there's no certainty about it.
"For all we know it could have been a super-clever dinosaur rather like us.”
Now that’s a thought. We’ve found no evidence of ancient cleverness, but that may not mean much.
As Clive says: "Even though there are an awful lot of us, we've not been around very long. In 65 million years' time there might be very few traces of us left.
“Likewise those super-clever dinosaurs might have left no traces that we've found yet, or managed to interpret."
I can just see the headline that will greet the discovery of those traces if they're ever found. Tyrannosaurus Rex the world…
This thought may, perhaps, seem a little flippant for a story of such gravity. But, hey, I’m a journalist.


The Labour leader was much derided.
Mocked for being “too intellectual”, out of touch with the ordinary people he hoped to represent.
His lack of “charisma” – that undefinable quality deemed essential to political success – was almost legendary.
Does all this sound familiar?
Yet Clement Attlee not only went on to win a landslide election victory – he became the hugely respected prime minister of by far the best government this country has ever had.
How we could do with his like again.
It’s about time Labour supporters particularly laid off Miliband.
And for Ed himself to stand up a bit more forcibly for his principles.


Is Ebola to become – as was predicted 20 years ago – the Black Death of our times?
You might think we’ve become medically too sophisticated for a third of the world’s human population to be wiped out by a virus – as it was by bubonic plague in 1346-53.
But then again globalised air travel might almost have been designed to facilitate the spread of pandemic disease.
A ghastly thought – as is the rise and rise of the so-called Islamic State. Which, by normal definitions, is neither truly Islamic nor truly a state.
It’s hard to see how bombing by national air forces is morally superior to bombing by other methods.
Or how killing innocent people by drone attacks is better than doing so by more medieval technologies.
Each would seem inevitably to encourage the other. It’s a grimly familiar vicious circle.
Put war in Syria and Iraq together with Ebola, add the international flow of refugees, and you have the makings of a classic Frederick Forsyth plot.
A “perfect storm” to threaten, if not the world, then the world as we know it. Implausible perhaps, but not impossible.
The 1914-18 war, after all, was a major factor in the spread of the so-called Spanish Flu, which killed more than the Great War itself.
International news, as this column remarked recently, is seldom cheery. But it’s not always quite this grim.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The disease is us

It wasn't the biggest news story of the week. Not in column inches or headline-size.
It probably got less space in some papers than the latest “wardrobe malfunction” suffered by some female “celebrity” or other. If, indeed, those papers mentioned it at all.
But all that shows is what a twisted sense of news values we have.
Not just “we” as a society of news-consumers, but “we” as a species.
And it's not only our news values that are twisted, either.
Sometimes I think the world is suffering from a pandemic. A ghastly, deadly disease from which there is no escape and little hope of recovery.
It's spreading uncontrolled across the entire globe. Leaving death and destruction everywhere it goes – and everywhere it doesn't go (which is precious few places).
That disease is us.
And so far there is no cure. Though some people are working on one.
Nuclear Armageddon, anyone? It may have slipped down the list of public fears since the early 1960s, but the danger is no less real now.
That’s not the holocaust I’m really talking about, though.
This one isn’t a scary possibility, it’s an on-going fact.
A tale every wildlife documentary you’ve ever seen has hinted at but never told so definitively before.
So what was that story?
In one paper that did carry it – about four short paragraphs, down-page, near the back – it bore the headline: “Half world's animals lost”.
Yes, you read that right. Half of all the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the world.
Actually slightly more than half – 52 per cent – that's how much the global population of all those creatures fell by in 40 years, from 1970 to 2010.
A lot more – a horrifying 72pc – of freshwater creatures were lost, raising the spectre of entirely lifeless rivers within our lifetimes.
By the end of which elephants, sea turtles, polar bears, tigers and many other species may be extinct.
And the reason for this appalling, almost unimaginable, situation?
Over-fishing by humans. Hunting by humans. Climate change, caused by humans.
Most devastating of all, habitat loss – caused by humans.
As Professor Ken Norris, director of science at London Zoo, put it: “This damage is not inevitable, but a consequence of the way we choose to live.”
It’s partly that we’ve spread and increased our own numbers too effectively. That there are simply too many human beings competing for the space and resources other creatures need too.
But it’s more our rapacious habit of destroying everything in our path in the pursuit of our own temporary convenience or personal gain.
The worldwide mania for “growth”.
By which we mean mere economic growth at the cost of things that actually grow.
Rainforests destroyed to put more steak on our plates than is good for us.
Or for palm-oil to wash our hair in and thicken our gravy.
Or for bio-fuels that we pretend to believe are less damaging for the planet than burning oil.
Sea-beds denuded to satisfy our taste for scallops.
Depressingly – but unsurprisingly – the WWF’s Living Planet Report found that the loss of wildlife was worst in poor countries.
Not that the poor treat wild things worse, but that those in richer states export their excesses.
Corporations based in the US, Europe and here commit atrocious acts in lands that lack the economic clout to stop them.
Exploiting the forests, the minerals, the wild things just as they exploit the people.
Away from the eyes of those who buy their products or vote for the politicians their “donations” support.
As Professor Norris said: “The scale of biodiversity loss and damage to the very ecosystems that are essential to our existence is alarming.
“We need to explain to the public that what they do is directly behind the trends we are seeing.
“There is an enormous disconnect between going to the supermarket and putting fuel in your car and the global statistics we’re talking about here.”
Indeed there is. Whether a conscience-salving change in our shopping habits will be enough to avoid global catastrophe is another matter.
The phrase “too little too late” springs grimly to mind.
David Nussbaum of the WWF is looking on the bright side, though – publicly, at least.
He said: “The scale of destruction highlighted in this report should be a wake-up call to us all.
“Next year, when countries of the world come together to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, presents us with a unique opportunity to reverse the trends.
“We all – politicians, businesses and people – have a responsibility to act to ensure a healthy future for both people and nature.”
He’s right, of course. But don’t hold your breath waiting for those businesses and politicians to start doing the right thing.
If they do, they’ll be going against the grain of countless generations.
I read somewhere a little while ago that the Earth is currently experiencing its sixth “major extinction episode”.
The last one was the massive meteor strike 65 million years ago that did for the dinosaurs.
A disaster on an almost unimaginable scale. One that changed the course of life on earth by wiping out most of it.
The present catastrophe is us. And the scale and pace of change isn't that different.

Friday, 3 October 2014

America and its British poodle leap to do the wrong thing. Again

It was, perhaps, one of those “they would say that, wouldn’t they” moments. There have been a lot of those on both sides. Or perhaps one should say on all sides.
According to the Syrian terror group Jabhat al-Nusra, Western air-strikes against IS in Iraq are “a war against Islam”.
They are not that.
As a few people have pointed out lately, IS no more represents Islam than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity.
But it is a little difficult to say precisely who the combined forces of the USA, Britain and the rest of the 40-nation coalition are waging war against.
So let me try. Or, rather, let me hand over for a moment to the blogger Richard Alan Jones. His enlightening words have been pirated all over the place, but let’s give him due credit here:
“Some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting our other enemies, who we don’t want to lose, but we don’t our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.
“If the people we want to defeat are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less.”
So that’s all clear, then. No risk of mission creep or things going wrong there. Much.
With every major party in Westminster and Washington baying for blood, and a large majority of the public apparently backing bombing raids, the calm voice of reason is not much heard.
But it's there if you listen, and not always in the obvious places.
Cameron is the new Blair. And as with Blair, there is some dissent on his own benches.
South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon was one of six Tories who voted against military action last week.
“Is suspect this is what IS wants us to do,” he said. “They want it to look like a battle against wicked imperialists from the West.”
Quite. The beheadings of innocent westerners have achieved exactly what they were intended for. The bombing now begun is giving IS its best possible recruitment campaign.
You can't bomb people into changing their minds. Unless it's to make them hate you more.
Prime ministers and presidents always talk at such times as if going to war abroad somehow made us safer at home. It should be obvious to anyone that the opposite is true.
As an al-Nusra spokesman so clearly put it: “These states have committed a horrible act that is going to put them on the list of jihadist targets throughout the world.”
That's us he's talking about.
David Davis, a former Shadow Home Secretary, made another good point in last Friday's debate. A point with the potential to come back and chill us all later.
“The moral case is clear,” he said, “the practical case is not.
“What do we do when we stop bombing?”
What indeed.
It was Major General Tim Cross, the most senior British officer involved in trying to rebuild Iraq after our last interference there, who pointed out: “We the West won't solve this problem.”
And added: “The answer is isn't purely military, or even primarily military.”
But when did politicians – or the public who vote them in and out of power – ever pay much attention to experts?
In the face of such horrors as those posed by ISIS, it's natural that people, or governments, want to do something.
But at such times America and its British poodle have a truly horrifying record of doing the wrong thing.
I fear we're at it again.


It seems hard to believe that a dog, with its ultra-sensitive nose, could fail to notice a palpitating frog when it's within paw's reach. And the transfixed frog certainly seemed to have noticed Cooper.
But let me start at the beginning.
I was mowing the lawn. I'm not an obsessive lawn-keeper and the grass was rather long.
Long enough for me to have to stop occasionally to clear the blades. Long enough to conceal quite a large frog.
When I first spotted it, I thought I'd killed it.
It was lying very flat with its unfeasibly yellow underbelly turned up to the sky. And very still, as if a little squashed.
But frogs are very good at playing dead.
I hadn't quite finished the mowing when I saw this one raise a tentative hind leg and wave it around slightly.
After a little while of this it flipped. One moment it was belly up, the next it was prostrate. Prone, you might say, to hop off. Which in due course it did.
Just a little way. Just until it spotted Cooper, lying right in its path.
At which point it froze again. While Cooper, my labrador-collie cross, utterly ignored it.
And there they remained. The frog stayed rigid even when Cooper decided to have a nice roll in the new-mown grass right next to it.

It was still there when I sat down to write this – though the dog dutifully followed me indoors. It's gone now.