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Wednesday 26th November 2014
Don't even think about it...
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

One of the features of a consumer society is to invent wants we didn’t know we had and turn them into needs we feel we must have. I came across this in a new unexpected form the other day when taking one of our ancient collie dogs to the vets.  

Ben had developed a swelling on his upper jaw.  We dropped him into our vets, not a million miles from the Welsh Borders, for advice. The vet took a quick look at the animal and said “This might be a tumour.”  We replied to the effect that in that case, he’d need to be put down pronto.  “Well” said the vet, on a different tack, “I think you need a kidney and liver scan on Ben.”  Need? This was his jaw, not his digestive system.  We declined the scans and left the dog with the vet to look more closely at the jaw and see if he had a tooth infection.  We expected to pay for a jab.

When I came back to collect the hound, I was ushered into a state-of-the-art operating theatre, which a few years ago might have been used to carry out heart-and-lung transplants on a fee-paying plutocrat suffering the after-shocks of years of indulgence in Nice or Monte Carlo. Now it was being used for pets.  The vet put up on a screen an X-ray of Ben’s jaw.  But so what? Nothing came of having this X-ray.  The dog got his jab… and we got a bill for £212.00.  In a day or so, the swelling subsided.  It was a bee-sting.

We mused afterwards how pet treatment was out of control. Was this the effect of pet insurance? Or the depressingly familiar 21st century story of socially useful services being turned into businesses and the clients, now customers, being shaken down for what my old builder friend Gerald called dirty folding?  Whatever, pets are now being given advanced and expensive treatments developed for people and one is deemed hard-hearted if one revolts.  A good friend’s cat was injured in a feline-fight the other day.  She took it to her vets (a different one) and later collected the cat and a bill for £800.  For a moggie

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I have just finished the most important environmental book I have read in many years. "Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change" (Bloomsbury) addresses this extraordinary problem: how and why we are able to turn away from thinking and acting on climate change despite many of us knowing the horror coming down the tracks towards us.  The writer is George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network and author also of Carbon Detox, which he modestly describes as a slow-selling book on personal action on climate change.

Don’t Even Think About It sets out how the human brain has fundamental and universal cognitive wiring that that shapes the way we interpret threats and motivates us to act of them.  We are best equipped to anticipate threats from other humans, being terrifically skilled at identifying friends and enemies.  Faced with a threat from Isis, we leap to new forms of attack and defence. But climate change is not like such a relatively simple threat from Al-Bakr-Al Bhagdadi. It is, writes Marshall, “complex, unfamiliar, slow-moving and inter-generational. Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.” 

Marshall goes on, saying what’s worse, is that we all contribute to this problem by the C02 we put out. We are contributing to this ghastly problem for our children – yes 4 degrees and societal breakdown is only 60 years away.  “This moral challenge, combined with a sense of the relative powerlessness of individual action, helps mobilize a well-ingrained set of defence mechanisms that enables is to ignore the problem…

The book has full of rich anecdotes. There’s a hilarious one in which Marshall recalls a dinner party in which the guests, educated professional class, described their exotic holidays on the horizon - flying to New Zealand for Christmas (as some friends of mine are about to do) and so on.  Marshall interrupts to ask doesn’t anyone think of the global warming they are causing by these flights?  There’s a long embarrassed silence and then one lady says…  “Isn’t this spinach tart absolutely delicious.?

Don’t Even Think About It tells of how even communities which have been ravaged by extraordinary climatic events, like Hurricane Sandy, prefer to talk about almost any other subject than climate change.  But perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way it shows how the human instinct for forming into groups and remaining loyal to those groups works against everyone coming together to take action on climate change.  So greens talk to greens, and deniers talk to deniers, each group slags off the other group, and no progress is made. George Marshall calls for a different kind of action, in which all groups agree at least to see climate change as a problem, and work together to try to solve it.  Well, it is worth a try.

For my part, I am flying for pleasure no more.

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One of the advantages of living on the Welsh Borders is that it is stuffed with good writers.  A Hollywood mogul was resistant to casting Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, saying “Throw a surfboard on a California beach and you’ll hit ten the same as him”  Well, on the Welsh Borders, you can throw a party and there’ll be ten good writers turning up for jollity.

One near-ish neighbour and good friend is the writer Matthew Engel.   He has just published Engel’s England  (Profile Books), an idiosyncratic  tour of all the counties of England, yes even Rutland. Matthew writes wonderfully but his eye is also a very individual one.   Fond of placing bets on horses, when he goes to Cheshire, for instance, much of the chapter is written around Chester races.   None the worse for that… he tells of the horse racing authorities having a special committee which vets the proffered names of horses coming under rules, to eliminate double entendres and private jokes, as in Wear The Fur Hat.  But they let through All Fur Hat, however, not knowing the phrase in some quarters is used to describe a certain kind of  extrovert woman and is followed by another… And No Knickers.

Matthew Engel’s writing is so witty and clever that one enjoys reading as much in reading about counties in which one has never set foot as counties where one has lived and worked.

Sunday 9th November 2014
Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities
Contributor: Stockholm Resilience Centre

Sunday 19th October 2014
Be bold, Ed: Soak the rich to feed the poor.
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

A wild wind the other night blew down an ash tree on our farm which had become something of a landmark to us.   It was ailing when we first moved in, more than 20 years ago, shedding branches and each year having fewer leaves. It had lost a great slice of its trunk some time ago, heaven knows how.  The farmer before us had even poured concrete into its roots, presumably to stop up a fox den or badger set.  Yet for year after year it had hung on.  

So I was startled to walk into the Long Field and see it lying there, full length, a complete gonner.  I was also a little sad.  One of the beneficial acts we can do during our brief spin on the planet is to plant trees – directly or indirectly.  On a farm of course one has a lot of opportunities.   So we’ve planted 146 fruit trees to create an orchard, and a couple of dozen small leafed lime trees down the lane to the yard.   Every time we have laid a hedge, we’ve left a few strong plants to grow into hedgerow trees, field maples or spindle trees or indeed ash trees.  In our wood, we have cleared out some Sitka spruce to let the real trees, oaks and small-leaded limes, flourish.  In Uganda, our film company has financed quite a few acres of trees being planted on the banks of the Nile in places where rainforest trees were felled for crops.

In low moods, when one thinks what the hell has one achieved in three scores plus ten, the clouds lift a little when one thinks of the trees we’ve planted, which will be growing long after we’re pushing up daisies.  Tree-planting: it is good for the soul.

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Interesting that new report which suggests that, contrary to accepted wisdom,  the world population will go on growing and won’t level out at 11 billion or so around the mid-century. The so-called Demographic Shift may turn out to be the Demographic Chimera. I have long been baffled as to why environmentalists have been so reluctant to fight to restrict population growth.  In many countries, the greatest scourge is the galloping population, outracing the social improvements governments try to make.  

For instance, when we have visited small villages in Uganda to see the new water sources provided by the Busoga Trust, we have been struck by villagers’ gratitude for clean water - which, yes, is the beginning of improvement - but also by those same villagers saying they now need another well, or two or three, because the village is growing so fast.   I have jocularly suggested that the Busoga Trust should provide free birth control with each well.   Perhaps I should make this proposition a serious one.  There is a huge unmet demand for birth control in these villages, from women who don’t want to spend their lives having and caring for children but want to be educated and to have careers.

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I was shocked to the core of my being to read that Lord Mandelson, who we once knew as “John Taylor’s researcher”, may be deprived of some of his income.   He is a board member of Sistema, a Russian conglomerate with its fingers in many pies.  Sadly its boss Vladimir Yevtushenkov has fallen foul of Putin and been arrested on money-laundering charges.    Sistema’s share price has fallen sharply.   This must put into doubt Mandelson’s fees as a board member.

There is no spectacle more pitiful than that of a New Labour scion being deprived of an income stream.  I suggest that a fund be created to compensate His Lordship, with the public invited to make subscriptions.

To those who say there are more worthy causes, such as the relief of the starving in South Sudan, I say - pain is relative and what human being can possibly suffer more anguish that a New Labour peer checking his bank balance and finding his riches depleted?

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There is much mocking of Ed Milliband at the moment.  True, he was appallingly unwise to deliver his conference speech without an autocue.  True, he was equally unwise to have Ed Balls as his shadow chancellor, a man so contaminated by his past that a skip of highly radioactive rubbish from Fukushima is pure tide-washed sand by comparison. True, he looks a little awkward and uncharismatic. 

But was that not also true of Clement Atlee, the greatest post-war prime minister?  Atlee was so unprepossessing that people cracked jokes such as “An empty taxi drew up outside Downing Street and Mr Atlee got out.”   Atlee was so little concerned about the pomp of office that he used to travel unaccompanied, third class, on railway journeys.   On one train trip, a passenger leaned forward and said to him: “Has anyone ever told you that you are the split image of Clement Atlee?”   The Prime Minister replied: “Frequently.”

The great aspect to Atlee was that he was serious about social change and that he was bold.  More boldness from Ed Milliband (an excellent climate change minister) and we will have the best Prime Minister this century.  (True, the hurdle is not set high.)   To connect with working people I suggest the following in the pre-election programme:

  • Promise to replace the minimum wage with the living wage on taking office.

  • Hugely increase the number of employment inspectors to ensure the living wage is enforced.

  • Tax rising progressively from 50 per cent on those earning more than £100,000;  60 per cent on £200,000; 70 per cent on £300,000.

Soak the rich? You bet.  Feed the poor? Oh yes.

Sunday 12th October 2014
Video: Boosting Bangkok's flood resilience with community-based technology
Contributor: Next City

In 2011, an historic flood devastated Bangkok. Hundreds died, and tens of billions of dollars were lost in economic damages. During and after the disaster, the combined efforts of thousands of residents formed the foundation of the city’s response. But while groups of citizens working in concert were able to deploy boats and organize shelters, one thing they couldn’t do on their own was distribute real-time data about the disaster. For that, they would need technology: a homegrown system that’s cheap, durable, and takes advantage of the city’s informal networks, perhaps its greatest strength in times of crisis.

Sunday 14th September 2014
Nigel 'The Pouter' Lawson's Foundation and its links to Big Oil
Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

One of the pleasures on our farm as summer shades into autumn is a stroll around the Top Orchard, looking at the trees and their differing crops of cider apples.  This orchard, only a little over four acres in size, has no less than sixteen different varieties of cider trees growing in it.

Such a rich spread is due to advice Sue and I received about 15 years ago when we were planting up the empty field.   It was Ivor Dunkerton who gave us the wisdom, Ivor who with his wife Susie created the peerless Dunkertons organic Hereford cider.   Ivor gave me a list of varieties to order and I followed his instructions faithfully.   Years later this former top BBC film editor turned master cider-maker came to the Top Orchard, turned to me and said “Why the hell have you got so many varieties?   It must be a bugger to harvest.”   I kept my customary ice-cold calm.

Fifteen years on, the trees are fine specimens, their branches bestrewn with colourful little apples like Christmas decorations. Their very names are a delight - names such as Sweet Coppin and Harry Masters Jersey and Court Royal.  I particularly like  Brown Snout and Bloody Turk.  The varieties have their own social history.  For instance, we have a few trees of Morgan Sweet, which in the early part of the last century was widely grown in the West Country to supply eating apples to the South Wales miners.  It makes a light fruity cider ready to drink before Christmas.

In truth, having the multiple varieties is a benefit too:  we get an extra price for taking loads of specific varieties to the cider mill.   For example,  our Kingston Blacks this year are terrific and they make such a good cider that often Kingston Black is sold as a specific cider.  Our thirteen Broxwood  Foxwhelps are loaded this year   - and our cider maker just loves getting in these loads of Brox Fox  - they give a lovely flavour when a small quantity is mixed in with other varieties.

Now who is the cider maker who pays us these premiums for these lovely organic apples?  Why, the excellent Ivor Dunkerton of course.

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I first set eyes on Nigel Lawson, arch climate-change denier, in the Sixties when as a journalist on The Sunday Times I had to meet someone at the Financial Times.  Lawson then wrote the Lex column for the FT; down in the FT basement bar, he was pointed out to me as a rising star.  He certainly looked extraordinarily pleased with himself, plump and sleek as a pouter pigeon.

Decades on, Lawson’s principle activity appears to be denying that climate change is happening.  He does all this denying through the `Global Warming Policy Foundation’  a supposed charity that misses no opportunity to rubbish green energy and highlight every knuckle-dragger who denies climate change, every difficulty in the path of getting the world to act on global warming. 

Image: 'Puffed up': Nigel Lawson

The Pouter Pigeon’s Foundation has for years been shy about saying just who contributes the money that keeps it going. The Pouter has said that they are not fossil fuel firms and that he’s keep their names out of it so they don’t have to suffer the obloquy that he has nobly born for years.

Now this week, two funders have been revealed, both with strong links to the extreme neo-liberal  think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs, who are no mean deniers themselves.  One funder is a Mr Neil Record, boss of a currency management company - no I don’t know what that is – and the other is Lord Nigel Vinson, described as a wealthy industrialist.  Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change has commented “ It is not surprising to find such strong links with a right-wing lobby group, the IEA, which also promotes climate change denial.  It is now crystal clear that the campaign by the GWPF against the UK government’s climate change policies is driven by right-wing ideological zeal rather than evidence-based reason.”   Well, I am not sure its crystal clear, but there’s a smell in the air. The Pouter refused to comment, at least to the Guardian.

I’m sure it is not a co-incidence that the Global Warming Policy Foundation has this week announced that it is setting up a campaigning arm – to be called the GWP Forum.  My guess – it’s just a guess -  is that the Pouter has had a quiet call from the Charity Commission telling him that his Foundation is really a bit too political to be a true charity  and he has therefore set up the forum.

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I was pleased that a woman, Rona Fairhead , is to be the new head of the BBC Trust.   The top women at the BBC, people such as Janice Hadlow and Jana Bennett, have usually been better than the top men.  (Think of the frightful  Mark Thompson).  It’s interesting though that a person whose entire life has been wrapped up in finance since graduating from university thirty years ago is now thought to have the right background for such a job.  Her CV, from Harvard Business School through to endless company boards, has kept her well away from ordinary life.  I can’t see any notable evidence of an interest in arts and culture, including popular culture. Having a home on the Highclere Estate in Berkshire where Downton Abbey is shot, doesn’t count.   Nor does being ex-boss of the FT  (yes I  know it’s got arts pages, but they’re not what the FT is about.    It’s about “the quick pulse of gain” to use Charles Lamb’s phrase on walking into the City)   Her hobbies are listed as scuba-diving, flying and ski-ing  - not films or theatre or rock music or indeed any of the arts.

She will know all about balance sheets and out-sourcing.  But the value of a public cultural institution in which making money is not the key concern?   I am not so sure.

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I have recently finished reading Adventures in the Anthropocene  (Chatto and Windus) by an author with a peerless green name: Gaia Vince. She gives us a most interesting foray into how the planet is moving from the Holocene into the period where its dynamics are shaped by its dominant species.  It has drawbacks: Gaia Vince often writes in the historic present, which I find hard to take.   What is most arresting about the book are its descriptions of  the various and varied ways in which communities are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change by ingenious engineering.   There’s an ex-railway worker in the Himalayas working on techniques to create artificial glaciers;  there’s a bloke in the Caribbean making islands out of rubbish and the people painting Peruvian mountains white so the snow doesn’t melt rapidly away.

Will such human ingenuity be enough to mitigate the worst of climate change as the century rolls onwards into higher temperatures?  It’s the last best hope I suppose. One has to be a gold-plated optimist to think that hungry home sapiens  is going to cut its carbon output in time.

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