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.