Environmental factors have long had an impact on global migration flows as, historically, peo...
Environmental factors have long had an impact on global migration flows as, historically, peo...
Climate change policymakers need to be able to find information that matters quickly, so they...
Just a few days ago, we were driving down a road in eastern Uganda, windows tight shut against the clouds of dust and exhaust smoke thrown up by the lorry in front of us. I was a bit down. Everywhere one looked there were people, often poor people, scratching a living in battered villages and little farms, although the earth is very fertile. Above us loomed the magnificent structure of Mount Elgon, perhaps the largest single mountain in mass in Africa. People were so hungry for land that in places huge landslips could be seen, where farmers had cleared the land on slopes too steep for safe farming. Some of them had died in the landslips and even more made homeless.
Amazingly, the slopes and the great plain around Mount Elgon were heavily forested until very recently - the last 30 years. Trees were felled en masse, to provide land and firewood, almost all the cooking in Uganda being done with charcoal.
We were travelling in the company of Rogers Wasibi, the co-ordinator of an excellent re-forestation project being supported by the Size of Wales charity and also just recently the Welsh Government, which has set up a Wales for Africa department. This Million Trees Project comes under the umbrella of a local charity which excellently has the joint aims of reducing poverty and improving the local environment.
Rogers drew out for us the effect of the growing population around Mount Elgon. With a biro, he sketched on my file a square, representing a farm. “The average family in Uganda has six children, and the farm will be divided equally among the children. So the farm size is getting smaller and smaller.” He divided the farm into small plots. “We are getting to the position that many plots are so small that they can only sustain one family; they are not productive for anyone else.”
I mused to myself that the best work being done in Uganda by its myriad NGOs was not the admirable Busoga Trust, for whom we were working in its aims of bringing clean water to villages, nor the incipient Size of Herefordshire charity, which plans to protect rainforest, but by the Marie Stopes birth control teams, moving around in shiny Landcruisers.
Later that day, though, we cheered up. We visited a Women’s Bee-Keeping Development project, at Bumutanda. There experienced bee-keepers were teaching local women how to make hives - some could be made very cheaply by rolling up tree bark and straw-and how to harvest the honey, providing their families with an additional income.
We walked a short way to a small wood in which perhaps 100 hives had been set up as a training area. Rogers said that fortunately the river was nearby so if the bees attacked, we could run for the water. (African bees are notoriously fierce.)
Back in the office, we were given a pot of the honey: wonderfully strong-tasting. I told my own experience of bee-keeping, that the temperaments of bees corresponded to national stereo-types. When I got an Italian queen, the bees did little but laze in the sun drinking Campari sodas. A British queen produced bees which were short-tempered and apt to down tools at the least provocation. An Israeli queen had bees that worked as though there were on a kibbutz, not inner London. African bees, I was told, worked harder even than the Israelis.
My eye was caught by a placard on the wall. Headed A Vision Statement, it read: “To see members of the Bumutanda Women’s Group living in a beautiful countryside, all their children going to school, members eating meals twice a day and putting on good clothes.”
Well put, and movingly put, reminding that there are people here getting only one meal day. Uganda today has 38 million people; on its current growth rate, it will have 50 million in ten years. In 2024, will two meals a day be the standard - or will more be on one meal?
In London just before leaving for Uganda, I caught up with old mates. Now there are no friends like old friends, and seeing them again was heart-warming. But I was surprised by the sight of one of them. He had always been indifferent about his appearance, and indeed one of his finest virtues is his complete lack of interest in being trendily attired, in being well-connected, in going to the right clubs or in living in a fashionable part of the capital. His club has been the Leicester City supporters’ club and he has lived for years in an unremarkable outer suburb. He has just been a top-notch journalist and whenever a newspaper owner has moved him aside for a name-to-conjure-with, the quality of the paper has declined, almost immediately.
For many years, his dentistry was an exemplar of what Americans call “British Teeth” and one admired him for it. Imagine my shock on seeing him again to find that dentists had been to work in teams on his molars he now sported a shiny set of new uppers and lowers. For a moment, I thought was in the presence of Donny Osmond. If it has not been for his sex, I might have asked our host why Esther Rantzen had been invited.
I have comforted myself with the thought that there is little prospect of his new dentition being pampered. Before long, he will surely have lost a few of his front ones, giving him the aspect of Joe Jordan, the Scottish forward who terrified defences just by opening his mouth. When next my friend appears on Newsnight, I confidently expect Jeremy Paxman to retreat in alarm.
We were away in Africa for the worst of the floods but kept abreast of the news with no trouble. Wherever there was wi-fi, I was able to download the day’s Guardian on my Kindle.
The tales it told seemed very much how one had imagined the early effects of climate change to be:
People were harmed according to the vulnerability of where they lived, but nonetheless felt mystified and angry that flooding should have happened to them. One family, having chosen to live on the Somerset Levels, demanded that since the government had not protected their house from floods, it should buy their house from them. Expect much more of these confused rages in the future. Climate change will be indifferent to those it harms, rich, poor, urban and rural. Though the first assaults interestingly seemed to discriminate against Tory constituencies.
Politicians hurled blame around like muck-spreaders on full power - but managed to do almost nothing about the real causes - rising C02 levels.
The BBC disgraced itself again by allowing Nigel Lawson, former Tory chancellor and moneyman, to debate climate change with a scientist who actually knew what he talked about.
I would hope that rising acknowledgement about climate change will give a new lease of life to an idea that Ed Miliband embraced when he was in office as secretary of state for energy and climate change. This was the notion of every adult in the country having a personal carbon allowance. Every time we buy a tankful of petrol, or a train ticket, or pay a gas or electricity bill or buy a plane ticket, the carbon involved would be recorded against our allowance. For instance, in flying to Uganda, my wife and I caused to be emitted 5.893 tons of carbon dioxide. (OK, we offset it through the World Land Trust, but yes, that is not enough). Once a certain level of carbon is reached, the allowance card would kick in with extra charges. This would make frequent flyers pay a lot more and would put up the prices of air travel, make it even more worthwhile to insulate your house, ride a bike etc. Those who underused their allowance - principally the poor – would get a refund. Last time, Gordon Brown, patron saint of bankers, refused to implement the allowance. But surely its time is coming.
In these dark months, keeping the chickens safe from foxes is a worry though the danger is actually the greatest in early spring when the vixen has given birth. She goes on the prowl to search for food for the cubs. I have developed two forms of protection on our farm. The Japanese invention of the LED light is invaluable; foxes are very wary of lights at night, presumably thinking a human must be near. So an LED light, using very little battery power, is turned on in the chicken run as dusk falls.
For daytime, I resort to different protection. BBC Radio 4. Its programming of near non-stop talking is ideal for simulating the presence of man and woman in the hen-house; the foxes appear to buy it, believing that Jane Garvey or Winifred Robinson are whiling away spare hours by hanging loose in rural sheds in Herefordshire. Although the sounds amuse visitors to the yard, the foxes seem to keep clear. I have a league table of effective-deterrent Radio 4 presenters. I don’t doubt that John Humphrys, flayer of politicians and BBC Director-Generals, would head the list, except the Today programme finishes before I have let the hens out and turned the radio on.
The presenter of the early evening arts show, Mark Lawson, is a boon for the spring evenings; his curious adams-apple voice and ponderous attempts at humour appear to make fox turn tail and run for her life. It may be of course that the fox disapproves of Lawson’s art criticism: “He completely misunderstood Paul Klee’s middle period. I couldn’t bear to listen”.
The best deterrent of all I am sure would be a strong Ulster Prod accent, the kind they used for cutting sheet steel in the Belfast shipyards. I only wish that Ian Paisley, with his thunderous shouts of “ Never ! Never!” was available on a tape I could play on a permanent loop. I am sure there wouldn’t be a fox living in West Herefordshire.
In its Environment Secretary, this Government has a genuine, 100 percent copper-bottomed dunderhead. Owen Paterson is the man who launched the complete shambles of the badger culls, and then saying “the badgers moved the goalposts” to try to excuse himself from the disaster. Last September, he pronounced on climate change, saying it could have positive results by reducing winter deaths and extending crop growing seasons. Then came the appalling winter weather, which any farmer could tell him has seriously damaged farming for next year.
David Cameron himself has said that he is inclined to think climate change has contributed to our recent weather, but that’s the trouble with Cameron. He himself may be half-enlightened but he appoints knuckle-dragging cave-men to his Cabinet. He has Ian Duncan-Smith as his secretary for social services, a man widely believed not to understand many of the papers which pass in front of him. And he has a climate change sceptic as environment secretary.
All this might be simply subject for laughs in the pub, but both men do considerable damage. Ulsterman Paterson has cut the UK’s spending on preparing for climate change. Under his predecessor Caroline Spellman, spending on global warming adaptation had risen 20 per cent; but it has fallen 41 per cent since Paterson replaced her.
What’s really concerning is that the Conservative Party is increasingly one of climate change deniers, backing the three per cent of scientists who don’t think anything untoward is happening. It’s surely important to make this aspect of the Tories an issue for the General Election. I am already thinking up slogans “Vote Tory… and drown”, or in a twist to their 2010 slogan "Vote for climate Change".
One of the more unsettling sights of the past few weeks was that of Tony Blair at the funeral of Ariel Sharon. Lefties have already commented that this was one unindicted war criminal paying homage to another. Strictly speaking, though one of them was condemned by an official inquiry into his war action: Ariel Sharon. In 1983, the Kahan Commission, set up by Israeli Government found that Sharon as defence minister bore “personal responsibility” for the massacre by Lebanese militia of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The commission called on Sharon to resign and eventually he did. So far Tony Blair has escaped unscathed, though there are signs that the Chilcot inquiry may take a tougher line that the soft-soap inquiries before, such as the one headed by Lord Hutton.
For myself, I thought it very insensitive of Blair, as the quartet’s Middle East envoy, to attend this funeral wearing Israeli colours on his lapel and the yarmulke skull cap on his head. How was his presence right by the coffin and making a funeral address viewed by Arabs and Palestinians? One can guess with great accuracy.
So far, the greatest loss for Blair has been in reputation and public standing. It was diverting to read of the waiter in the East End restaurant trying to make a citizen’s arrest on Blair as he dined with friends and family. Does he get it yet - that many people are revolted by his action in going to war in Iraq and his refusal to apologise?
In nearby Hay on Wye a few years back, another attempt at a citizen’s arrest was made on an Iraq War player - the former US vice president under George W.Bush. George Monbiot, the admirable environmentalist and moralist, decided to conduct it. He thought it would be a good idea to put the tiny local police station in Hay in the picture. He walked in and spoke to the station’s sole policeman on duty: “Are you prepared to receive the ex-US Vice President?” The police man chewed his pencil a bit and replied: “I think this is a Brecon job.” (Brecon is the HQ of the local police.)
Buck passed like a Welsh three-quarter.
This blog, I would admit, has a fair amount of moralizing going on. It’s hard not to moralize when one lives in a world where trashing-the-planet is the order of the day and the trashers are running round denying that anything wrong is taking place.
But I’m sensitive to the moralizing charge, and all the more so for reading a passage in a novel called Augustus. The novel is written by John Williams, the writer who has suddenly become a talking point. His greatest work, Stoner, is the Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2013, and is second on their best-seller list, lagging only behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography. Stoner’s achievement is all the more remarkable for the fact that John Williams has been dead for 19 years.
After Stoner John Williams wrote Augustus, which concerns the life of Caesar Augustus, told through the form of letters and memoirs by its characters. In a letter from Gaius Cilnius Maecenas to the historian Livy, Williams has Maecenas write:
“And it seems to me that the moralist is the most contemptible and useless of creatures. He is useless in that he would rather expend his energies upon making judgements than upon acquiring knowledge, for the reason that judgement is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgements reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world. I implore you, do not become a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind.”
I count myself tasked to acquire more knowledge.
My moralizing tendency was set in full swing the other day by reading Henry Porter, the journalist who strives to protect our freedoms, in The Observer the other day, Porter was expostulating about the extraordinary impasse in which the official Inquiry into the Iraq War has found itself. Lord Chilcott and his fellows on the inquiry want to release to the public, when their report is finally published, the exchanges between President Bush and Tony Blair in the run up to the war.
The Cabinet Secretary is not permitting their release on the grounds that it would prejudice the future free exchange of messages between world leaders. But who is the Cabinet Secretary now? Why, it is Sir Jeremy Heywood, former principle Private Secretary to Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq War.
There could hardly be a more cut-and-dried example of a conflict of interest. The exchanges might indict not only Sir Jeremy’s boss but even conceivably Sir Jeremy himself, remembering that the Iraq war may have been an illegal action.
Picking up Maecenas’s exortation to acquire knowledge, I have looked a little into Sir Jeremy’s past. One quickly finds that Sir Jeremy ceased to be Blair’s right hand man just as the war started; “He left the civil service in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry” says his Wikipedia entry “where it emerged that Heywood claimed to have never minuted the meetings in the Prime Ministerial offices about Dr David Kelly, a job he was acquired to do.”
So here we have the Cabinet Secretary with a track record of intermittent record-keeping refusing to release official records to the inquiry into the greatest British political controversy of this century on the grounds that such a release would inhibit future proper record-keeping.
It’s a nonsense as well as a constitutional outrage. The point about inhibiting future exchanges is a fair one; leaders will find an unrecordable way of communicating if they feel that what they say might one day find their way into the common prints. Yet the Iraq War has so poisoned modern British politics, so eroded public trust in our political leaders, that publication is the only way forward. Lord David Owen’s suggestion that the power over this matter must be taken away from the compromised Sir Jeremy to someone else, perhaps the Lord Chancellor, is surely right.
I was interested to discover What Sir Jeremy Did Next. Well, when he left Whitehall, he became managing director of Morgan Stanley’s UK Investment Banking Division. There he became involved in the Southern Cross scandal that almost saw 30,000 elderly people being made homeless, when Morgan Stanley advised on the flotation of the care homes provider, although Sir J did not directly work on the deal.
Fascinating how Morgan Stanley has become a kind of care home for ex-No Ten staff. Where Tony Blair himself left office, he joined… Morgan Stanley. When his personal secretary at No 10, Jonathan Powell, left his job, he joined…Morgan Stanley.
I am almost tempted to apply to join the Civil Service, even at this late stage. I might end up with a wonderfully paid job at Morgan Stanley. And to those who ask what on earth this stuff about Sir Jeremy has to do with resilience, my reply is simple: Cohesive, resilient societies require governance which is above any suspicion.
Observations on modern consumerism:
1. Seen in The Observer magazine: A woman thrills about her new kitchen and its marble work surfaces. To be sure of getting the right marble, she flew all the way to Verona to choose it.
2. Heard on Radio 4: a doctor relates how young girls are increasingly applying to the NHS for labia-plasty, as they are ashamed about the appearance of their labia. The doctor says she has young girls weeping in her surgery when they are told it’s not on. Not because the surgery is not available or not on the NHS, but because they are too young for such surgery.
Concerned that Maecenas may be watching, I refrain from comment.
Of course, the names of the godparents to Prince George are a hoot: Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton; Emelia Jardine-Paterson, Earl Grosvenor, William Van Cutsem. They were too much for Jo Brand on Have I Got News for You. She made a witty crack that got Royalists tetchy (“William van cuts’em, then Harry van snorts ’em.”) On the one hand, what would you expect with the upper froth? Darrens and Kevins? (Though “Earl” Grosvenor sounds a bit transatlantic-common. As in “Homer” Simpson.)
But then I reflected that this toff crowd were also a reflection of how Britain’s elite have retained their grip on our society. In the sixties, there was an intoxicating belief that at last there signs that Britain was going to become a more egalitarian society. The nurseries of the elite, the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, would be reformed, the public schools by removing their perks, and Oxbridge by a banning of their historic links with public schools, or even, as the educationist Tyrell Burgess advocated, by transforming them into post-graduate colleges only. Etonians and Old Harrovians would find themselves at Sussex or Simon de Montfort. In these and other ways (taxation of land, reducing the importance of the City in the economy, an end to the peerage, restrictions on the Royals and so forth) a more equal British society would emerge, in which the bed in which the baby is born would matter less.
The upper classes, I rather thought, would also wither under the sheer scorn of humour. Think of the Pythons sketch of Upper Class Twit of The Year, in which Nigels and Algernons and Julians fell over fences, hawing and halloo-ing.
Well of course, we know what happened. The elite never slackened their grip, the radicals were outwitted. When Richard Crossman as education minister in a Labour Government wanted to take the first steps in reforming the public schools, he was outflanked by the senior civil servant in his department, who scuppered the legislation. It turned out this uncivil servant was a governor of Westminster school. Comprehensive schools were hobbled by rear-guard actions by grammar schools so they never got a comprehensive intake, and by rabid campaigns by the finest press in the west. Oxbridge colleges defended every privilege, putting up a smokescreen of fair access. Then came Thatcher, the privatisation of public assets, and the financialisation of the economy, carried on by the direful duo, Blair-and-Brown. We were very naïve.
For anyone who held high hopes for progressive change, as David Starkey has commented, the outturn of the last 50 years has been regressive and depressing. Today, we have a Britain where there’s rapidly growing inequality, the super-rich pigging it Richard Branson’s tax-status as a resident of his Caribbean island (“because of my health”) is an example, much of his wealth coming from Virgin Rail’s ransacking of the public purse. Meanwhile the less well-off are living on minimum wages, zero-hour contracts and turning to food banks.
Supremely emblematic of Britain we have now is a tower block of private flats being built at the Elephant and Castle in London. The developer Land Lease Ltd bought the site from Southwark Council but argued successfully against having to include any affordable flats. The reason? If it did so, it would have to build also a separate entrance and lifts for the plebeian tenants, as it was inconceivable that private tenants would want to have a flat, or travel in a lift, where they might be forced to rub shoulders with the common people. Well, they can niff a bit, the poor.
It is a very unequal, very divided and consequently a very unresilient Britain we have today.
Recent headline in The Guardian: `I am good at absorbing others’ pain’, says former PM Blair. Serious typos, surley.
The grip of free market economics has much to answer for in the outcome of a highly unegalitarian Britain. So it was cheering to read that economics undergraduates at Manchester University have formed the Post-Crash Economics Society, which they hope will be replicated in other universities. The students criticise university courses for doing little to explain why economists failed to warn of the impending crash and for doing too much just training students for the City. Next month, they will publish a manifesto proposing sweeping reforms to Manchester University’s economics curriculum. The Guardian reports that a growing number of top economists, such as Ha-Joon Chang, who teaches at Cambridge, are backing the students.
Well, about bloody time. The way economists have refused to confront the lessons of the crash has been startling. It was good to see The Observer devote its main leader to the issue, attacking particular our growth model for the last 30 years – shareholder value – with everything else (employee rights, those of savers and consumers) left to the winds of the market.
Free beer to the Man U students, please.
A perception from America’s greatest contemporary novelist: “I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions.” Marilynne Robinson in her essay Freedom of Thought.
In Herefordshire, we have just had one of the wettest of Octobers. At Garnon’s Estate across the river, the rain gauge measured over ten inches for the month. Nationally, this October was the wettest this century and the ninth wettest in the last 100 years.
So I was startled to hear the affable Monty Don on Gardeners’ World the other day, speaking from his Herefordshire garden not far away from us, that this was a pretty average autumn, not particularly wet or dry. This pronouncement confirmed for my suspicion that television presenters, even of gardening programmes, don’t get out much. I suspect they do short stints for the cameras, supervise the staff clipping the box hedges or tuning the Ferraris, and get back indoors to watch boxed sets of Homeland or Breaking Bad.
Systems seem to run at the very edge of failure much of the time. The combination of high workload, limited resources, pressure for additional features and capability, and inherent software, hardware, and network fragility is a noxious kettle of stuff always about to boil over in the form of outages, degraded response, or functional breakdowns. For insiders the surprising thing about our systems is not that they fail so often but that they fail so rarely!
This good performance in the face of adverse conditions is called resilience. An important conclusion from resilience studies is that it depends critically on human operators and their ability to anticipate and monitor the system, react to threats, and sacrifice some goals to protect others. This talk will introduce resilience and a model of system dynamics useful in analyzing failed and successful event management and offer an explanation for why our systems run at the edge of failure.
Watch Richard's presentation here: