The Shortest History of Germany

shortest history of germany.jpgI’ve been reading this little 227 page paperback by James Hawes. It does a great job of outlining the history of Germany for a popular audience. Having had a severely deficient education in the history department, I feel that this sort of knowledge should be the baseline of all Europeans, whether Brexited or not. This is after all the history of the centre of our continent.

Take some of the key points:

  • The Roman Empire  in its greater form was established by Julius Caesar. In 58BC he gave name to the peoples beyond the River Rhine that he could not easily conquer: the Germanii. He even used them as bodyguards.
  • Around 16AD Germanicus eventually claimed the territory between Rhine and Elbe for the Empire. This was not particularly secured and eventually a defensible ‘wall’ was built roughly along and to the west of the Rhine (The Limes).
  • When the Empire began to fall apart there was eventual ‘renewal’ by Constantine 306-337, changing the focus of the Empire to the east at Constantinople. But the Empire gradually fell apart with successive waves of invasion from the east – goths, franks, huns, vandals and so on.
  • After the fall of the Roman Empire the franks attempted renewal resulting in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire around 800, extended beyond the Elbe to the Oder by Otto in 948, but this extension to the east was fragile and the place was run by independent lords who became known as known as Junkers. The HRA lasted for many hundreds of years of manoeuvering between Kings, Emperors and Popes.
  • The peak was around 1229 when Frederick II briefly liberated Jerusalem without a fight. The teutonic knights that had helped pilgrimage to the holy land were given the new task of subduing an area in what is now Poland/Russia – Prussia.
  • In 1356 the Kings freed themselves from the Pope and established control on future Emperors.
  • The Reformation was begun by Luther on the Elbe and took root to the east, the west remaining Catholic. Conflict began. There was a temporary truce in Charles V’s Peace of Augsburg (1555), but eventually 30 years of war (1618-48) that destroyed much of Germany, but the Prussian/Junker state survived and prospered through great power machinations.
  • Following the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon effectively re-established the Holy Roman Empire – his hero was Charlemagne. He established the Confederation of the Rhine that got the west Germans organised again.
  • After the first defeat of Napoleon, Prussia was ‘given’ some of these west German states, instigated by Britain – to provide a counterweight to a possible French resurgence.
  • This was eventually crystallized by Bismarck into the dominance of an aggressive Prussian Germany. In 1870 Napoleon III fell into a trap set by Bismarck, and France was overrun in the subsequent war. A new German Empire was declared, and France lost territories. By 1887 the seeds were set for the coming 1914 world war, as France/Russia faced off against Germany/Austria.
  • Following the end of WW1 the liberal Weimar Republic desperately tried to re-establish a functioning country despite the over-burdensome terms of Versailles. They were undone by the 1929 Crash, with resulting reduction in American support and rising unemployment. The Nazi party gradually arose from the East, where their main support lay, and eventually got into power due to misjudgements that they could be ‘controlled’. They could not, and WW2 came to complete the battle against Prussian dominance.
  • The new West Germany was basically the old confederation, once a core part of the Roman Empire. The new East Germany was basically the residual Junker/Prussian state, Prussia itself having been obliterated.
  • Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, Chancellor Helmut Kohl engineered the recombination of the two Germanys, which has proved a major drain on the West German economy ever since. One has to wonder, was this wise? Polls show the East to be poorer, older and more right wing…

For me, this is a stunningly informative and thought-provoking book, putting in context much of European history and throwing light on modern events. (Apologies for my own oversimplification and misinterpretations.) Essential information really for understanding our world.

And of course, it is completely different from the Neil MacGregor’s Germany, reviewed a few years ago.

Ever Flowing

I contemplate the huge flowing mass of water before me, opposite the ‘German Corner’ in Koblenz where rivers Rhine and Moselle join together, overlooked by the massive monument to Kaiser Wilhelm, first German emperor 1871-88. Here is inexorable power and movement before me, a part of the cyclic flow of the earth’s water system. Today, tomorrow, it is always there, pretty much as in Wilhelm’s day, yet always different.

As it happens, I have been reading The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes and A Short History of Europe by Simon Jenkins. I am struck by how the major figures in these histories have their brief flowering influence, usually driven by an overwhelming ego, often associated with some abstract concept, and without concern for the consequences on their own and other peoples: Julius Caesar, Constantine, Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and on and on…

Recent events suggest that this flow goes on, to new dimensions, with environmental breakdowns and resulting attempted migration of populations, and the rise of populists – more blooming egos with their destructive consequences. Yet ever new challenges require ever better solutions, not the gross over-simplifications of those who appeal to what is lowest in us. They will be seen in time for what they are.

The flow of history, and the zeitgeist, inevitably moves ever on, just as those great rivers – the same as before, yet ever different.

Maybe we should not fear too much. The flow that matters is here, now. Our fears are that the future may not be the same as the peace and plenty of our recent past (in the West). Our present is the opportunity for our own best action, guided by conscience, not by selfish ego or abstractions.

This Is Not A Drill

this is not a drillThese days, daughter is much more clued up about the latest ‘must read’ books on green issues than I am. So this book, subtitled An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, was kindly left for me to read. And an incredible book it is, outlining the thinking and practicalities behind the recent phenomenon of Extinction Rebellion.

The premise is that we can no longer continue to ignore the issue of climate breakdown, as argued so many times in this blog. So we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’, which has been the response to pretty well all climate change protests and initiatives so far. The first part of the book presents evidence of climate breakdown and its consequences from all over the world – you can be in no doubt that change is needed after reading this. This leads to the conclusion that the needed system change will only come about though some sort of non-violent revolution/rebellion, whereby the status quo is disrupted sufficiently to evoke and force through the necessary changes. And non-violent it must be, enabling peaceful and democratic change; violence always begets more violence and leaves the wrong sort of people in control of societies.

It is a handbook, in that it outlines the approach that was taken recently in the London protests, and the experience of many of the protestors. It really was a quite incredible operation.

This is needed to evoke the necessary economic and political change needed for continuation of human societies on the planet in a form that is a recognisable continuation of today’s societies. Otherwise, the status quo is driving us towards increasing disasters, wars and breakdown of societies and ecosystems.

Yes, this book outlines a vital aspect of the needed New Renaissance of humanity. It is not the whole story, but a vital part of it, comparable to that played by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their struggles for justice.

Read This Is Not A Drill, and you might even be inspired to become an essential part of the necessary change that is ever more pressing.

 

 

The Wrong Road

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring



We are still on the wrong road, as so beautifully expressed by Rachel Carson so many years ago. Did we really listen? No wonder people, in desperation, now take part in Extinction Rebellion.

An idea whose time is coming?

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Milton Friedman

This quote by economist Milton Friedman is used by John Lanchester in his recent article in London Review of Books on Universal Basic Income. As one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, Friedman probably has a point.

Lanchester takes us through many experiments in Universal Basic Income from across the world. The evidence is that it works, that it reduces stress among poor people, reduces drug and alcohol use, reduces crime, etc etc. Depending on the level set it can also remove the need for much other public spending on benefits for the poorer sections of society.

The direction we are moving, in terms of increasing disruption due to climate change and robotic technology, suggests that some such solution is going to be inevitable unless we are willing to revert to Victorian approaches of almost washing our hands of the problem of the ‘undeserving poor’, and leaving it to charity.

What is not clear is what would be the optimum level for such a basic income, how fraud and coercion could be avoided, etc. Which is why it is suggested that it be introduced at a low level and gradually increased.

Of course, the question is how to pay for it. The inertia in the current taxation system suggests that it is unlikely to come through ‘steady as she goes’ political change. But Lanchester suggests that with the coming crises the situation will be ripe for just such a change.

The article does not mention the possibility of more fundamental change to the underlying money system to ‘pay’ for such a system. What if money were created as basic income for people, rather than as debt to fund the banking system? Or some hybrid of the two. I.e. we change the nature of banking and money itself to be more in the interests of the people. Now there’s a thought. See Positive Money.

Sustainability and Evolution

Sustainability – in the sense of the continuation and preservation of what is – is not a realistic long-term option…

Thomas Lombardo in Future Consciousness

It’s a bit of a shock to realise that Lombardo is probably right.

Psychologically, evolution is the key to understanding this. We seek not to go back to some previous situation, but to evolve and grow to a new, transformed level, where we have learned from the past to address the challenges of the present new situation.

Evolution does not demand that we abandon technology and go back to feudal times, that we abandon large scale farming for rotation farming of small plots, that we stop travelling around the world, that we become Luddites and reject all new technologies, and retreat into our localities. Life does not, cannot, go backwards.

Evolution does demand that we, and the system of which we are a part, evolve and grow. We must transcend and overcome the problems that have emerged from previous stages of our development, from the over-development of the little ego, from the corresponding misapprehension of the role of the egoistic ‘sovereign’ nation state, from the lack of recognition that the economy is part of the ecology rather than a competing and overwhelming competitor, from the lack of real empathy with others and the natural world. This is what climate breakdown, pollution of land, sea and air, species extinctions, gross economic inequality and associated problems are teaching us.

The longer we take to respond, the more extreme the provocations caused by ourselves become. We have so-called ‘leaders’ acting like spoilt children, trying to inspire populations with supposed earlier glories and visions of becoming ‘great again’, trying to win some great power game against each other. This is all illusion and regression.

It is time for humanity to grow up and flourish through addressing these problems, rather than retreating to supposed former glories while they overwhelm us.

This is the evolutionary meaning of sustainability.

The first duty of government

alternative warBe careful what you read! A quick reading of  J.J Patrick’s book ‘Alternative War’ gives much insight into what’s going on behind the scenes of global politics. The book is not well written, but the message gets through, and it is all rather disturbing. It leads me to some reflections on the current situation in the UK, which is apparently largely oblivious to these machinations.

One of the books main themes is the ongoing Russian project to destabilise and undermine the Western powers, clearly exemplified by, for example, events in Ukraine, cyber warfare, clear influence on the US presidential election and the Brexit campaign. It would seem that one of the Russians’ prime aims is to undermine and ultimately destroy the European Union, thus leaving Russia as the dominant power on the European continent.

That this sort of thing was happening would have been apparent to Prime Minister Cameron, briefed by the intelligence community, when he called a Brexit referendum which could clearly undermine the European Union, weakening both EU and UK, in line with Moscow’s aims.

The use of social media in campaigns, and the ability and willingness of the Russians to exploit them in pursuit of their aims, would also have been familiar to a well-briefed leader. As would the fact that such use of social media and the sources of funds used are easily hidden.

Heedless of the danger, Cameron embarked on that referendum. Cameron also knew, and weakly campaigned on, the fact that the UK would also be economically affected. As we know, the referendum was marginally won by the ‘leave’ side. This was arguably significantly helped by Russian financial and IT interference. There has never been any effective UK investigation into such interference initiated by the May government.

And our security situation became much more precarious with the election of Donald Trump, clearly assisted by Russian interference (Wikileaks), and who has many links with Russia, even if there was ‘no collusion’.

So here we are now, over three years on, still arguing with EU on the form that Brexit will take, probably about to be led by Johnson, whose effectiveness in the Brexit campaign (compared to Cameron/Osborne) and willingness to lie, was probably the other main reason for the Brexit decision.

Now we know in much more detail just how detrimental Brexit will be, both economically and security-wise. Yet, lemming-like, the Conservative Party continues to insist that the dubious Brexit result must stand. We must become poorer and less secure, the people have spoken.

Actually all it seems to be in fear of Nigel Farage, whose suggested links to Russia and sources of money (according to the book) are likely to be well known to the intelligence community.

Possible answers to the current conundrum are clear

  • a new general election,
  • getting the May deal through (or not, hence remaining) via a second referendum where the issues are made crystal clear
  • or revoking Article 50 in the national interest – which is arguably the most sensible thing to do.

But a happy ending is seeming unlikely, which will leave UK adrift from Europe, and in a period of chaos, subject to the machinations of greater powers.

Now, the first duty of government is surely to ensure the ongoing sustenance and security of the people. Has the Conservative government really served us well, in creating this precarious situation?

Featured image of Pr Punch’s history of the Great War by John Bernard Partridge via Wikimedia Commons

Time of Crisis

Crisis is the mechanism used by evolution to evolve an organism to a higher level. If there is no crisis, nothing changes.

So maybe we should not be too pessimistic about the many crises that currently beset us, already listed in many other posts. They represent the opportunity for growth and change.

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy was apparently wrong linguistically, but his theme has been accepted by many as representing a fundamental insight about life.

So what are the opportunities presented, through which the crises can be successfully surpassed? As a species we must rise above the causes that lie behind our many crises. To my mind it is not difficult to see what some of these are:

  • the personal, religious and national egos that want to have it all, for themselves, regardless of the effect on other persons/religions/nations, that do not recognise the need to look after the old, the weak, the poor, the other…
  • the perception that the outer, material world is all that there is, with a consequent relative lack of self understanding and/or cultivation of the inner psyche/spiritual life.
  • the related denial that we humans are part of nature, need to be in empathy with it, and are now responsible for maintaining its wondrous diversity.
  • the related worship of power, money, jobs and technology, at the expense of nature, the achievement of potential, and the pursuit of the good, the beautiful and the true.

“When faced with a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with each other and with the realm of nature doesn’t work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-form — or a species — will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap.”

Eckhart Tolle

It’s not that difficult to see what’s wrong. It’s clear that the evolutionary leap is required at all levels – personal, society/culture, political. We just need to all get with the programme,  make a start, and persevere. It’s just possible that, if enough of us change, the ‘hundredth monkey’ effect will come into play, and everything will have changed.

Featured image adapted from one by Vector conversion by Mononomic, via Wikimedia Commons

Want of foresight

Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Winston Churchill, Speech, House of Commons, May 2, 1935

Churchill was looking at the patterns of history and making a point about his own times. He could have been commenting on modern crises such as global warming, ocean acidification, over-use of pesticides, plastic pollution, Brexit, Palestine and on and on. It seems to be in the nature of humanity that only extreme crisis forces the needed change. We are not (yet), in that sense, a collectively rational species.

Picture of dark storm clouds rolling in at the Pawnee Buttes National Grasslands, Wyoming, by MichaelKirsh via Wikimedia Commons

Trump Trade Deal: It’s Not About F*cking Chicken

In this excellent post Conor Boyle shows how the media have trivialised a rather important issue on different attitudes to government responsibility for food and health regulation in EU and US. As he says, it’s not about the chicken, it’s about the responsibilities of government, and whether people are left at the mercy of essentially unaccountable large corporations. This is one of the true costs of Brexit.

The Conversation Room

Don’t get me wrong, I like chickens. As a child I loved visiting the farm and feeding the little chicks in their pen. I just don’t think when deliberating what’s at stake for the U.K in signing a post Brexit trade deal with the United States that poultry should be the focal point of debate. 

From Jeremy Corbyn to the BBC it seems everyone has bought into the idea that  chlorinated chickens entering the U.K food chain is the number one objection to a trade deal with Donald Trump. It can be quite infuriating to see political debate on respected current affairs progammes ask “Does Britain really want chlorinated chicken?” As if the primary impact of a trade deal with with the U.S is the quality of KFC.

To clarify, in the E.U chicken producers must adhere to strict hygiene and welfare regulations throughout the process of rearing…

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Teresa May faced an Impossible Task.

In this excellent post, Bruce Nixon explains why Theresa May faced and impossible task, and why Brexit is not the answer to anything, other than a power grab by vested interests. UK democracy needs refreshing.

Bruce Nixon

Peoples Vote

Protesters carry a banner at the People’s Vote anti-Brexit march in London on March 23, 2019. Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images.                                     

She faced a deeply divided House of Commons and divided Tory and Labour parties, unwilling to agree to the Brexit proposals she negotiated with EU leaders. Almost certainly any other leader would have faced the same situation. Leaving the EU is the wrong diagnosis for a real crisis – see The dismantling of the state since the 1980s .  

 

Vote Leave was launched in October 2015 with the support of both right and left wing Eurosceptic politicians, leaders from the business world and trade unions and the European Research Group . It was arguably a campaign organised by politicians wanting more power. It was not about giving more power to the people.

The constantly repeated “Brexit is the will of the people” is propaganda.

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Senatus PopulusQue Romanus

spqr coverI guess this will be my only blog title in Latin, a conceit from an early education that included this ancient language. It means ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, often abbreviated to SPQR, which is the title of classicist Mary Beard’s book.

Rigorous but readable, Mary tells the tale of 1000 years of ancient Rome. I enjoyed it, probably more so, and with greater insight, than I did reading the abbreviated version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire many years ago.

She begins in the middle, around 63 BCE, with the story of Cicero putting down the conspiracy by Cataline and other members of the Roman Senate itself, a story that is well understood because Cicero himself was a writer, many of whose works have survived, and history is written by the winners. The true story we do not know!

Mary then takes us back to the beginnings of Rome and the legend of Romulus and Remus, the foundation story of Rome. As Rome began to expand and co-opt nearby communities there eventually emerged what is characterised as a time of absolute kings, which ended around 490 BCE when Tarquin was defeated, a Republic was declared, and kingship got a bad name. Pairs of consuls were elected and ruled on an annual basis, overseen by the Senate – or rather such a system eventually emerged. Rome expanded, co-opting subject peoples into the system, particularly the army.

While Cicero was still alive, ever expanding overseas adventures led to the emergence of two major figures, Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. After years of accomodation, in 49 BCE Caesar ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and engaged in civil war with Pompey. Pompey was eventually defeated and Caesar became dictator, or Emperor. Not for long, he was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Amazingly this led to many years of stability as Augustus Caesar dominated the scene for many years, dying in old age (possibly).

Problems of succession then dominated for the next 14 Emperors. In 212 ACE Caracalla extended citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire, and a different game began, with ever-increasing turnover of Emperors. This is where Mary Beard leaves the subject, to be taken up by someone else!

Mary cautions against trying to draw lessons for today from these historic events. But what is clear from Rome’s history is the danger of any state becoming identified with one man (it’s always a man!). Then there is the inevitable problem of succession, competitors, warring factions, and wars. This is what democratic systems avoid, by providing for the people to elect a new leader from time to time. So beware any leader or faction which seeks to extend his/its leadership beyond the specified time, who wants to rule for life or be a one-party state, in fact any dictator, populist or otherwise, and any party that seeks to rule forever. I won’t name names.

 

 

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What causes War?

I was intrigued by Ferdinand Mount‘s article in the recent issue of London Review of Books. His basic premise is that countries go to war because of economic and related resource issues. WW1 was really about Germany’s lack of natural resources which were available in neighbouring countries. This festered on into WW2 which continued the argument. The same is true of most wars, often a reaction against ‘imperial’ exploitation by a stronger power. The EU and the supranational European Court of Justice were established to provide an arrangement whereby such conflict would not happen again in Europe.

Of course I’ve oversimplified, but the essence is there. Brexit will inevitably increase the probability of a future European war. If there were a no-deal Brexit, the resulting arguments about unwinding the hugely complex relationships between UK and EU will probably go on for decades, probably with ill will.

The UK will also go into negotiations with US, China, India etc, with the relatively weak negotiating position of desperation, resulting in more conflict and ill will.

Of course, in general democracies do not go to war, but with the threatening rise of populism who knows? War and conflict are historically favoured tactics of populists to get the people behind them.

Those of us who believe Brexit to be a total disaster should not cease saying so. We know that the Brexit vote was ‘won’ one lucky day three years ago. It can be changed.

Featured image of German troops entering Sudetenland 1938 from Bundesarchiv, via Wikimedia Commons

 

D-Day Dissonance

I’m not the only one to notice a certain cognitive dissonance between the current D-Day celebrations in Normandy and the actions of our leaders.

Out of the experience of World War came a determination that such an event should never happen again, never again would European and other major countries resolve their differences by war. This led to the creation of international institutions including the UN, NATO, WTO, and ultimately the EU.

So there we have the leading politicians of France and UK, M Macron and Mrs May, pledging future cooperation, while in the process of the appalling Brexit negotiations that have signally failed to produce cooperation. While at home the ‘colleagues’ who have connived in removing Mrs May, due to their failure to support her, argue over the minutiae of negotiating positions with the EU – like monkeys arguing over scraps of food. Supported by M Macron, the EU has concluded negotiations and is determined to ‘give’ nothing of substance. The two sides appear determined to not agree.

And of course, there is Mr Trump, determined in his course to undermine all those collaborative institutions, because America can be great again by bullying every country individually in one-to-one negotiations. And the Brexiteers are willing lambs to this slaughter, in the supposed name of making UK great again.

Sometimes current politics seems like Alice in Wonderland!

Graves are at the American Cemetery, Colleville su Mer, Normandy

Climate Emergency

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.

from Christopher Fry’s poem A Sleep of Prisoners

Maybe the recent spate of declarations of climate emergency by UK parliament, local councils, and across the world is the welcome beginning of the end of the equivalent of Christopher Fry’s ‘frozen misery’, as the human-race frog sat in the warming pan awaiting the result of its long satanical deal with exploiting the fossil fuels of the earth.

Maybe the ideas of Zero Carbon Britain, propagated for many years by the Centre for Alternative Technology, are at last finding a receptive environment which will lead to their implementation.

But let’s be under no illusion. The obstacles are all too real: governments, banks and the prevailing mindset. Yes, you and I can do things, but governments and banks still support and underpin the fossil fuel economy, and it is they that need a radical change of direction towards the sustainable future.

And this will only happen when the majority of people is more obsessed with climate breakdown than it is about frippery such as Brexit and the myth of the strong populist leader.

And can this happen when it is apparent that rich white men are intent on retaining their dominance of the planet’s political sphere through control of the sources of those very fossil fuels at the root of the problem?

A fuller version of Fry’s poem was in this post.
Featured image is from the CAT website.

Humanity’s biggest own goals

This is a great post by Matthew Wright on the human-created problems of global warming and potential nuclear calamity. I am reblogging it with the following observation, already made in a comment:

We will never get out of this with a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. With the ingenuity of billions of people becoming aware of these existential problems, there is always the possibility that we will collectively work out ways through the apparently impossible situation we are creating.

Matthew Wright

There’s no question in my mind that human-driven climate
change has to be one of the biggest own-goals humanity has ever struck on
itself. And we should have seen it coming. I mean, we’ve been pushing
combustion products into the atmosphere in ever-larger quantities since the
advent of industrialisation, over 200 years ago. We’ve been burning up fossil
fuels, polluting the environment, hacking down forests and generally creating
ecological mayhem at ever-increasing scale and speed. What did we think would
happen?

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

When I say ‘one of’ the biggest own goals, to my thinking there’s only one other totally massive own-goal in the same league; the invention of nuclear weapons. And it’s a bigger one. The thing about human-driven climate change is that ultimately it’s not risking end-game. It’ll likely reduce what we call our civilisation. It’ll change…

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Air pollution

I remember hearing about the great smog of London in 1952 and the clean air acts that were supposed to resolve the problem. Luckily I lived far away up north, in Lincoln. Although I remember cycling through thick East-England fogs, scarf over mouth, there was nothing to compare with that polluted London smog that killed thousands.

This was brought to mind by a recent insightful article in The Times by Tom Whipple: Air pollution: Undertakers knew truth about the Great Smog (sorry, it’s behind the Times paywall). As well as outlining the story of the smog and the official prevarication before it was addressed, Whipple takes the story forward through a number of similar problems related to air pollution in the intervening years since then.

The response to the smog was to reduce smoke by mandating smokeless fuels and tall chimneys. But nothing was done about the sulphur, until ‘acid rain’ made the problem unavoidable from the 1970s.

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s it was realised that lead in fuel was reducing the general IQ, so there came lead-free petrol.

Then came global warming and the move towards more diesel cars to reduce C02 emissions. Sadly, the car manufacturers and standards authorities were economical with the actualité of NO2 and other emissions, and gradually another major pollution problem has engulfed our cities. And there is an unexplained spike in occurrences of asthma, alzheimers, cancers,…

So what did we learn over those nearly 70 years since the London smog?

Basically, we need more checks and balances on introducing new technologies, and we need to anticipate the downsides that are inevitably there, with more effective regulation. So we need a U-turn from the current political atmosphere of deregulation.

But don’t hold your breath… Or maybe you should, while waiting to cross the road at a busy junction.

Featured image Nelson’s Column during the great smog 1952,
by N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons

Mainstream Environment?

I’d guess it was the 1980s when I really became aware of environmental issues, including fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, including pollution of the air in cities, including degrading of farmland by intensive farming, including the effects of pesticides on the natural world. For so long, those 40 years since, the mainstream media have largely ignored these issues, or reported them as the concern of ‘environmentalists’, neatly compartmentalized away from the mainstream.

So I’ve had a strange sense of cognitive dissonance this past week or so as these issues are being discussed on the mainstream bulletins of the BBC, that bastion of UK establishment thinking. Of course, this is a reaction to the success of Extinction Rebellion in highlighting just how urgent now is the situation on global warming/ climate change and species loss (as well as to the success of Netflix in pinching David Attenborough and allowing him his full environmental voice). It really is a planetary emergency with little time left to effectively act.

The worry is that this is just to fill in the air time left by a government and parliament doing nothing but obsess about Brexit. There is no other legislation, no ‘queen’s speech’. The broadcasters must be sick of reiterating the minutiae of customs union, the withdrawal agreement, the splits in the two main parties and on and on.

But we have to be optimistic and suppose that
(a) something will eventually be sorted on Brexit and then
(b) this time legislators are accepting of the urgency and will eventually set out a programme that will at least partially address the climate/fossil fuel issue, encouraging people and business in the right direction. That is their job.
Difficult for a Conservative government that has spent 4 years rolling back the little environmental progress they allowed the Liberal Democrats to make in the coalition government of 2010.

The big question at the moment: Is Environment Secretary Michael Gove up to the job? He appears to understand the issues, but can he persuade the government to act and explain to the public what they are doing and why, and anyway will he still be there when prime minister Theresa May goes (ie soon)?

My optimism is somewhat subdued!

 

The glass IS half full

glass half fullIt is a well known characterisation that optimists see a glass 50% full of liquid as ‘half full’, whereas pessimist see it as ‘half empty’. Does it matter which of these attitudes we take towards life and towards its mega problems such as climate change and Brexit?

The bulk of psychological evidence suggests that it does. Optimists tend to be more realistic and thus more effective at addressing the problems. Pessimists tend to expect the worst, not look at things too closely, and hide from difficulties – hence the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Life is all about change, so an optimistic outlook is the only one that enables us to face and deal with the realities of change.

Of course, there are limitations to being positive if it is not tempered with a grounding in reality. (The Brexit campaign comes to mind!)  I’m arguing against myself, but maybe we should see optimism-pessimism as a polarity that is only resolved through the ‘third pole’ of realism.

I suggest that we will only find a way through climate change and Brexit will be with an optimistic reality-based attitude. There are so many brains on the problems we will find a way through.

The glass really is half full!

The idea for this post came while reading
Professor Tom Lombardo’s book Future Consciousness.

Image by S nova via Wikimedia Commons.

The Water Will Come

Anyone who follows the regular NASA ‘vital signs’ reports on sea level will be aware that the trend in global sea level is for an average rise of 3mm per year (see graph). This correlates with the increasing trend of CO2 concentration of around 2ppm per year (currently 410ppm). There is no significant debate about this. These are the figures accepted by most scientists.

Now, 3mm doesn’t sound much, but multiply by 100 to get us to 2119, that would be 300mm, which is 0.3 metre or about 1 foot – and that’s within the potential lifetime of babies being born today. Yes, you may say, but 1 foot is not much either.

But now consider that

  1. the rate of sea level rise is increasing as CO2 levels increase,
  2. the effect is not evenly spread around the globe, for example the East coast of North America is sinking, so the rate is much greater
  3. the increased weather variability caused by CO2 levels means greater tides, and more flooding
  4. Scientists are very worried about so-called positive feedback effects whereby CO2 and ice melting would be rapidly accelerated.

Add all this together. What does that mean for the beaches of England that I grew up with. Higher embankments? Loss of sand? Regular inundation? What of other even more vulnerable places?

I was inspired to write this by Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come, which describes how some of the affected communities are today preparing for rises in sea levels – such as southern Florida, Venice, New York, Tokyo, Marshall Islands, Maldives. All are attempting to mitigate the effects, but how can they possibly cope in the long term? Consider that when CO2 concentration was last at this level, sea levels were 20 METRES higher – which it is fairly logical to assume is where we are headed in the long run.

We clearly have a global emergency that is currently being inadequately addressed. If humanity was behaving rationally, a major global programme would be in place to attempt to address and mitigate the effects of this emerging cataclysm. If only. The poorly supported Paris agreement is but a shadow of what is needed.

So all power to those young people, and to campaigning groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are trying to wake up those in power to their responsibilities.