If Only They Didn’t Speak English

of onlyMy post on Competition and Co-operation touched on cultural differences between The UK and the US, so I was attracted to read Jon Sopel’s recent book ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’, which explores the differences Jon has found during his long stint as the BBC’s North America correspondent.

Jon’s book confirms that the US is a very different country, quite alien in many ways to a European perspective – resulting of course from a very different history and geography. A list of the subjects covered by chapter gives an idea of its scope:

  • the anger felt by many Americans, the ‘losers’ in the globalising project
  • the pervasive influence of race and discrimination
  • the evident patriotism
  • the system of government, and the current neglect of public infrastructure
  • the continued major influence of religion and God
  • the issue of guns and the right to bear arms
  • the easily aroused anxiety felt by many Americans
  • the ‘special’ role that Americans feel they have with the world, and the supposed ‘special’ relationship with UK
  • the increasing loss of contact with truth in the political arena
  • the descent into chaos with the Trump administration.

There is much insight here, although interestingly he does not focus on issues of competition vs co-operation. The book provides a stimulating read. And Jon warns that we should not expect major change or realignment; these are real differences. We really are confused by a common language, to suppose that the differences are not as great as they appear – they are.

At the end of the day, although Britain aspires to provide a bridge between Europe and America, our culture is much more European than American. Attempts to move us in an American direction must be seen in this light. Americans think we’re socialists, and most Brits don’t really want to change the current settlement and, for example, lose our NHS. Brexit puts this all in jeopardy, engineered as it was on a misleading and false prospectus of supporting the NHS.

 

Costa Rica

So we took a family holiday in Costa Rica, which proved to be a delightful country with mostly friendly people, particularly in the tourist industry,  its biggest industry. Well informed and passionate guides introduced us to the flora and fauna of three major national parks and to Costa Rica itself.

The national parks are prolific in vegetation, with a wide variety of birds and animals – well worth visiting. And you see and understand so much more with an experienced guide.

It was said that over 25% of the land is protected as national parks – which puts most other countries to shame. Yet there are still apparent tensions between conservation and development that are not going to go away.

The biodiversity is incredible. Costa Rica lies at the junction of two continents, resulting in an ingtermingling of species, and the history of volcanic activity ensures great fertility. This is truly precious resource for mankind that we cannot afford to lose. So tourists are actually helping in this process, so long as the tourism is managed sustainably, which appears to be the case today. Loss of tourism could actually jeopardise the whole enterprise.

In US and Europe, particularly UK, the pressure for development too often trumps that for ‘the environment ‘,  so our protected land area is much less, with little wilderness. Our biodiversity is much impoverished and under constant threat. In days of ignorance that may have been OK, now we know that our biodiversity for future generations is at stake – life as we know it, inherited from our forebears.

The effects of global warming are being felt in Costa Rica, as elsewhere, with changes in the seasons. This will put even more pressure on this biodiversity,  but who knows how nature might respond to this challenge?

There is no separate ‘environment’,  just us as an integral part of our earth and cosmos.

Featured map by Peter Fitzgerald, via Wikimedia Commmons

Mega farming

I’m standing on a country road by the edge of a rather large field in Picardy. Nothing stirs, apart from a tractor in the distance, slowly wending its way across the field.

It seems like a desert. Except that, in my experience, most deserts actually support a fair population of vegetation and wildlife – probably much more than this godforsaken space.

How is the fertility/ biodiversity/ microorganisms/ health of the soil maintained in this space where fertiliser and weedkiller are probably the only inputs, apart from sun and rain? And should we really be surprised if heavy rainfall, increasingly common, causes run-off, flooding and loss of topsoil? And if long dry spells lead to dust storms?

picardy-field-edgeThere is no alleviation, even at the roadside. A thin strip of grass is all there is – no hedge, no trees, no ditch. No environment for small mammals, birds, insects – no space for the natural world. All confined to the nearby small village and woodland.

This shows quite clearly the alienation of the money economy from the nature on which it is dependent – and the alienation of European politics, such as in the Common Agricultural Policy that would appear to have encouraged this sort of thing.

Just imagine the difference if each field could only be so big, and had to be surrounded by hedges with trees, and space for grasses and wildflowers – well you don’t actually have to imagine it, as there are still plenty of examples in England and the rest of Europe. We spent millennia learning how to farm sustainably alongside nature. Yes, crop yields might be less in the short term, but I suggest they would be much greater in the long run.

Economy cannot win this battle with ecology. We will all be the losers.

Please note that I am not criticising Picardy itself –  a mostly charming part of France with many examples of small farms and rolling countryside. However, this mega farming is quite prevalent in that large area of northern France you drive through as quickly as possible to get to the nice bits! Having toured in the USA, I know where it came from.

Germany

Review of the book ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ by Neil MacGregor.

Germany_coverMy education in the history of Europe was deficient. Previously a ‘tech college’, my grammar school was very oriented to science and technology – an interest in history was not encouraged. And as for Germany, the world wars were too recent in the fifties for its history to be given much consideration at all. So I’ve only picked up the story of Europe bit by bit since then – on many European holidays and through reading. I was thus interested to see the recently published book Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor, a former Director of the National Gallery and of the British Museum.

MacGregor approaches his subject through the lens of major historical, cultural and artistic figures and takes us through key events and places in the history of the German speaking peoples of Europe.Read More »

Dear Brothers and Sisters

Letter to our European friends following the UK’s decision on ‘Brexit’.

I say brothers and sisters because we are. The UK people are the descendants of the many waves of migration from Europe over centuries – Romans, Vikings, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Normans,… –  so our ancestors are common. We have all fought the good fight over recent centuries against those who would dominate the continent by force.

The European Union is a wonderful dream to bring together the peoples of Europe in peaceful and fruitful cooperation. I am sad that my fellows have decided not to continue with you in such close association. I suspect that as a result you should yourselves reflect on whether the current realisation of the EU is adequate to the purpose, and whether enough regard has been given to the EU’s founding ideals of subsidiarity and democracy – taking decisions at the furthest possible point from the centre. However, that is now a matter for you.

What is needed now is that we all seize the opportunity to create a new form of association between UK and EU so that our continent remains united around our common values. The precedents of Switzerland, Norway and Iceland augur well.

What is not needed is posturing, fear-mongering and any desire to punish. Let’s imagine a central more-integrated Union surrounded by states with common values and varying but lesser levels of integration. We can still form the world’s strongest economic bloc and remain a major influence together, as we address the real impacts that will increasingly hit us related to energy, climate change and related wars, terrorism and economic problems. A looser form of periphery could indeed make it easier to expand the sphere of influence of the Union.

Yes you will be afraid that our French siblings and maybe others will also wish to vote to leave. The way to avoid that is to address the problems that might cause this, not to punish the UK, which of course would effectively be self-punishment. Of course, there must also still be advantages to those in the Union that are not available to those outside. The coming negotiations will stretch the ingenuity of those involved, but will only work if approached in a positive spirit on all sides.

With love and hope…

Featured image by Rob984, via Wikimedia Commons