Interested in climate change yet?

The world belongs to the next generation. Yet, according to the behavioural economist Dan Ariely, the issue of climate change seems almost designed to dampen the motivation to address it on the part of the humans living in the global north who cause it.

“… if you kind of search the whole globe for the one problem that would maximize human apathy you would come up with global warming, right? It is, as you said, it is long in the future, it will happen to other people first, we do not see it progressing, it does not have a face. And anything we would do is a drop in the bucket, right. And you could contrast it with, what happens when one guy gets on one plane with a small bomb in his shoe, right? It is clearly terrible, but since then we all take our shoes off every time we go on a flight, right? Clearly taking an action. Global warming, if you believe the science, is a much bigger risk than one person going on the plane with a small bomb in his shoe, but we do not react to it. It does not have the same emotional reaction.”

In 2012, Cameron sacked a green energy minister, Charles Hendry, and appointed a climate change sceptic, Owen Paterson, as environment secretary. Has flooding in Somerset, which has followed the pattern predicted by climate change scientists, helped our scientists convince the politicians to use the media to urge the public to give them a mandate for change? Or persuaded the media to help the scientists push the fossil-fuel lobbyists away from the politicians ears? Or whichever way round it is?

Here’s Conservative Community Secretary of State Eric Pickles in The Telegraph defending the aid budget with loose reference to helping to alleviate the effects of global warming in Somerset (I’m not so convinced by the way the Telegraph spun that, actually). Cheering.

Not good: this week The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 gave a lot of airtime to pro-fossil fuel lobbyist and anti-scientist Lord Nigel Lawson. From Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins’ complaint:

“I usually enjoy the Today Programme, but today I could quite happily have hurled my radio from the window into the unseasonal hail storm lashing the windows outside. There is no need for “balance” in pieces about climate change. Does the BBC now feel compelled to have someone who thinks that smoking is good for you every time smoking is discussed? Are we now to expect a member of Occupy to be offered the right of reply every time Robert Peston discusses the economy? The BBC has a duty to reflect reality, rather than allowing dinosaurs like Lord Lawson to fill the airwaves with unscientific and deeply-irresponsible views.”

The Conservative defence secretary Philip Hammond is kind of echoing former Labour Secretary of State for the Environment and current Labour leader Ed Miliband who said,

“The problem is that either denial or dither on climate change will damage the country. Denial is damaging because it means you won’t take the steps necessary, but dither is damaging, too, because it means you are half-hearted about taking the necessary measures.

“The science is clear. The public know there is a problem. But, because of political division in Westminster, we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change.”

Their economic policies contradict this, though, and will continue to until braver leaders – or leaders who become brave – steer us clear of this moribund consumption-driven global business model. Though I have little faith in the Green Party, here is the Green Party’s 10 Step Plan on flood resilience.

Finally, a nod to my long-held cause, people who are serious greenhouse gas emissions stop eating animal because – among all the other good reasons like suffering, water abuse and biodiversity loss – animal farming contributes a huge share of greenhouse gas emissions and is calculated to grow 70% by 2050.

Miliband, energy prices and the Big Six

British Gas, EDF Energy, Eon, Npower, Scottish Power, SSE.

At the 2013 Labour Conference, Labour leader Ed Miliband said of these Big Six:

Take the gas and electricity companies. We need successful energy companies, in Britain. We need them to invest for the future. But you need to get a fair deal and frankly, there will never be public consent for that investment unless you do get a fair deal. And the system is broken and we are going to fix it.

If we win the election 2015 the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017. Your bills will not rise. It will benefit millions of families and millions of businesses. That’s what I mean by a government that fights for you. That’s what I mean when I say Britain can do better than this.

I expect the black-hearted Conservative voting lobbies to go for Labour between now and the elections. So here is Which Magazine, bastion of consumerism, debunking some energy market myths in its October 2013 issue (pp28-29).

From it we discover that our electricity comes from coal (39%), gas (28%), nuclear (19%), renewables (11.3%) and other (2.5%). Of the 28% gas, over half is produced in the UK and around a quarter is from Qatar. Less than 1% is from Russia.

Since 2008 there have been 91 price changes of which 77% (hey Which, that’s 71) price changes have been increases. The generation and retail operations are ‘vertically integrated’ – that is, linked by a single company which sells to itself behind closed doors. You can bet they make a heap of money. Which estimates that in 2012 the generation operations averaged profits of 20%. These vertically integrated companies can and do choke off supplies to smaller companies, causing them to become uncompetitive. My fuel comes from one of these smaller companies.

Six huge vertically integrated companies prevent genuine competition in the energy market. Weak competition means that although British Gas lost 868,000 customers after increasing its prices by 28% in 2006, its gas sales revenues increased by 15%. Hiking the prices pays off for the Big Six.

4% of an average household energy bill is invested in low carbon energy – for some reason this is taken from the electricity bill. However, 26% of the 9% of British households which are electrically heated are classed as fuel poor (significantly higher in Scotland and Wales) – they are paying disproportionately for this low carbon investment.

No mention of fracking in the Which report. Miliband mentions it once – not to oppose it or rally renewables support. But to score a cheap point off the Conservatives.

Obviously the solution is a combination of nationalised and small-scale renewables. Not on Miliband’s cards, as far as I can see. Nor anything of substance in Caroline Flint’s 2013 conference speech. And what about the Living Standards and Sustainability Policy Commission – hello? Pathetic, appalling. But still, resigned gradualist that I am, I support the fuel price fixing gambit. It forces the Conservatives to either reveal themselves as profiteers or rein in the Big Six. If the former, Labour gains. If the latter, the consumer. Either way is better than now. But it’s a long way from actually doing any good. I wish Labour were better, because the Green Party is crazy nasty.

And yet, the worst thing would be not to vote.

More green / life-hacking / time-and-money-saving top tips

Over the past year or so I’ve made a number of small discoveries which cause me ridiculous levels of satisfaction, so I’ll share them:

squeegee with suction hookPreventing black mould in the shower without chemicals

It took me long enough to work this out: get the water off the tiles, shower screen and any horizontal surfaces as required with a wide, rubber-bladed squeegee.

Tips: have the squeegee ready on a suction-hook in the shower; vertically downwards and then along, sluicing the water into the bath or shower tray, works for me; do this immediately before you get out.

Costs: squeegee and good power-lock suction hook c. £5

Saving: money on mould remover or even re-doing your grout and sealant; pollution and packaging; in hard water areas you save time cleaning limescale off the tiles – it just doesn’t build up nearly as fast.

Paper potter for seedlings

You can turn old newspapers into little seedling pots with this inexpensive bit of kit. I feel it does need an endorsement since it looks so improbable. The great advantage of these is that you don’t have to remove the seeds from them when potting on – the paper rots down in the soil and the roots penetrate out through it.

Tips: since these are paper they best retain water and their shape if packed together pretty snugly; feel with a desert spoon if you don’t have a scoop; don’t buy trays – save any plastic packaging trays and use those, or cardboard packaging lined with waste plastic e.g. from junk mail or mags with supplements.

Costs: c.£7 for the potter

Saving: I think this saves time – potting-on and particularly cleaning; space storing plastic pots; perhaps seedling lives since there’s less disturbance at potting-on time.

Spinning wet salad leaves without the spinner

We wash salad leaves (the garden is watered from a slimy old water butt). But who has the space to store a stupid salad spinner or the time to dab the water of wet lettuce? Instead place wet leaves in a clean tea towel, draw the corners together in your hand go outside and whirl the towel round and round to create a centrifugal effect. The water flies out and the towel doesn’t even seem to get wet.

Tips: if you don’t have an outside I think even using the shower cubicle is less silly than having a bulky bit of plastic that is only good for one thing.

Costs: none.

Savings: space, the cost of a salad spinner.

Co-op biodegradable fragrance-free wet wipes

I like to bathe at night but this winter I became soap-shy because of the cold. So I decided to shower only every other day, instead applying a strictly rationed number of wet wipes (one in the morning, two in the evening) to various body surfaces as needed.

Tips: compost the wipes (this is good – our compost is too wet and needs more cellulose); there is an order – one wipe for face, neck, ears, under-croft, then the other for underarms lastly feet. I don’t bother with the rest – it doesn’t get dirty. Is this too much information?

Saving: steam, water, misery

Hair washing over the bath

Why did it take me so long to unhitch washing my hair from having a shower?

Tips: you need to be quite supple to do this comfortably – commence yoga practice early autumn.

Costs: none.

Saving: unsure.

Blanket rather than winter/summer duvet

This winter we made a discovery during a week in Devon at New Year: king size duvets prevent drafts. When we returned I went looking for one in Ilford but even in the January sales the costs were prohibitive. So I went into TK Maxx and happened upon a navy waffle-weave jacquard cotton bedspread, quite heavy, from Portugal. That struck me as a better idea because in summer we could use it over a sheet and stow the duvet. And as it turned out, we were much warmer and as summer advances, cooler too.

Tips: it’s all about keeping out the drafts that come in round your neck so the blanket needs to be big enough and of the right heft to pull up and settle round your neck and come right down over the sides of the bed

Costs: this cost me £14. I’ve seen similarly promising bed-spreads in charity shops and the spare bed sports a white fringed rose-studded candlewick.

Savings: space storing an extra duvet; misery.

And now to the Alternative Vote debate

A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Just bear with me a minute before I get started on the book. One Saturday morning in 1996 I set off by bus from Rusholme in south Manchester to visit my mother’s cousin’s family in the northern suburb of Prestwich. At some stage during my journey up Oxford Road the Irish Republican Army detonated their last Manchester bomb and when the bus terminated prematurely nobody knew the reason. The city’s response was still being scrambled and I managed to duck the cordons and skirt across Market Street to the bus station where the situation became clear. From a call box I dialed my relatives but it was sabbath and they weren’t picking up. I arrived hours late and was greeted with the raised eyebrow of a mother used to keeping student time. When lunch was produced I realised with dismay that I’d forgotten to tell her I was vegetarian. Never having encountered liver before, I had to inquire about the greyish lump on my plate. I considered what to do. I hadn’t warned her; in the sabbath-related news vacuum there was consternation about the bomb; I’d been very late; I didn’t want her to worry; I was hungry; the food was nearly spoiled and if I didn’t eat it it was going in the bin. So I ate a calf’s liver without complaint. It was claggy and tasted the way bad breath smells. To this day it’s the foulest thing ever to have passed my lips.

These kinds of dilemmas, arising from “the fact that we do not eat alone”, foment inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a book I read because I received a copy gratis from his publicist to review on this blog. I usually avoid books on this subject because the suffering of the scores of billions of animals farmed and killed each year confounds me to the point of incoherence. But remembering that I read Everything is Illuminated even though the Holocaust confounds me, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though September 11th confounds me, I accepted the book.

It quickly becomes clear that Eating Animals isn’t a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Instead Safran Foer, picking a path through this “slippery, frustrating and resonant subject” with discretion, ingenuity, and not a little guile, examines what it entails to eat animals – not only for the animals but also for the eaters of animals. Towards the eaters he extends only gentleness and understanding, and this is the book’s most fascinating attribute given the scale of the death, suffering, and malpractice he reveals. But Safran Foer is not diverted by hypocrisy. Instead he has done what all good activists do: made the object of his activism, the animals, his central concern, rather than the wrong-doings of the people whose behaviour he hopes to change.

My review below is divided into four parts, and as well as the book I also refer to Safran Foer’s January 2011 RSA interview, which I recommend listening to.


As in the UK, in the USA most animals humans eat are factory-farmed. These animals have pain and illness bred into them and are disabled from enacting their instinctive behaviour. Broiler chickens whose ability to walk or mate have been sacrified to explosive growth and disabling bodily proportions are one example. Like me, Jonathan Safran Foer wouldn’t describe himself as an animal lover, nor do you need to love animals to object to their suffering.

The accounts of animal experiences in the cage, on the kill floor and being processed are present and graphic, but rather than dominating the book they form a pivot. Although he identifies that factory farm companies rely on ignorance to continue their cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally degrading business practices, when Safran Foer describes the brutal circumstances of these animals lives and deaths, there are no jeremiads and no relish, only a sense of duty to represent the actualities.

He quotes (p228) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”

One of the book’s recurring ideas is the need for advocacy:

“It seems to me that it’s plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one’s family. It’s probably even wrong to sit silently with friends eating factory-farmed pork, however difficult it can be to say something. Pigs clearly have rich minds and just as clearly are condemned to miserable lives on factor farms. The analogy of a dog kept in a closet it fairly accurate, if somewhat generous. The environmental case against eating factory-farmed pork is airtight and damning.

“For similar reasons, I wouldn’t eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods.” (p195)

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference … We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animal?”

Reading that, I thought of Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka which researches connections between species bias and the extremes of racism, between the slaughterhouse and the industrial genocide of the Jews. 

Here in the UK, as I have mentioned before on this blog, industrial farmers campaign to avoid animal and human welfare regulations which, because they are not global, make their business less competitive. The eaters of animals are so thoroughly insulated from what animals endure between their birth and our plates that we expect our meals to cost a fraction of what they used to cost. The book doesn’t evade the arguments of the factory farmers, but represents them. Safran Foer worked hard to surface accounts from within the industry and to a great extent he considers the farmers to be victims of the system in which they are trying to earn a living. Available on BBC iPlayer, Panorama’s recent documentary on the true cost of cheap food illustrates farmers’ predicament.


From these accounts from farmers it becomes clear that a change in consumer behaviour is the best chance for human and animal welfare – but in this respect there’s much that Safran Foer leaves unsaid. His RSA interview confirmed this unwillingness to take on the individual consumer, at least directly. Instead the book is a prelude, an effort to open up a space for decision-making between the extremes of, on the one hand, either eating meat with the defiance of say, food critic Jay Rayner or restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, both of whom spent time at abattoirs in order to achieve consistence in their defence of eating animal – and, on the other hand, eating no meat at all. Safran Foer correctly identifies this behaviour as a visceral aversion to hypocrisy potent enough to overpower all other aversions. Some people in the grip of this aversion will, like Ramsay and Rayner, confront and commit themselves to the violent deaths of animals. Others would prefer to remain fully ignorant rather than confront hypocrisy in themselves. Disgust of hypocrisy becomes an enemy of compassion because the hypocritical space in between the two extremes is an uncomfortable space.

Disgust of hypocrisy is one possible explanation for why consciousness of factory farming fails to penetrate the bovine disregard of the chewing human majority. Another the book doesn’t suggest is the defensive assertion of identity when confronted with a perceived attack on that identity. The main proposition of the book – “to allow ourselves to fill a hypocritical space” – is astute in the light of this psychology. Safran Foer cautions against the moral vanity of putting undue emphasis on the behaviour of single individuals. Single individuals do not change the world but they can become insufferable in the attempt.

So, although Safran Foer makes plenty of forays into dead-pan rationalism – in his case for eating dogs, for example – these are in service of a more profound invitation to consider how what we eat tells stories about ourselves. One key story is that of his grandmother, pursued by the Nazis and on the verge of starvation (p16-17):

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A Russian, a farmer, God bless him, he saw my condition and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”


“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

We make categorical decisions about what we eat – the “lines we draw in the sand, lines that if we cross them we cease to be ourselves”. It wasn’t a fear of hypocrisy which compelled her to decline the meat, but a will to lead a dignified, undegraded human existence according to her own principles. This is a key idea in the book.


Safran Foer doesn’t relish the specifics of animal suffering, but given that he could have written “an encyclopedia of cruelty” with the testimonials of animal agriculture workers, and given these practices are clearly part of a conscious business model, he cannot well leave them out. I’d venture to say that unless he has an angelic temperament, he must have been horrified, sickened and angered by what he saw and read in researching the book. During his talk at the RSA he hinted as much when he told the audience that in writing the book he had sought the “most productive approach” possible – ‘productive’ contrasts here with ‘direct’. I’d say that this book is one of the most heroically un-self-indulgent pieces of campaigning literature I’ve encountered. This is why some of its strongest advocates have been farmers – who, it turns out, feel degraded by the obligation to produce according to Kentucky Fried Chicken protocols – and why when his book was published, the incendiary reaction anticipated by some of his writer associates didn’t materialise:

“It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way. Is it controversial that we don’t want chickens packed body to body in cages? Is it controversial that we don’t want our air and water polluted? It only happens one way: the more you talk about it the less you want it.”

This is how farmers who want their animals to live contented lives before they die came to be some of his most significant supporters, as well as he theirs.

I’m left with the impression of somebody who has assumed the role of mediator. In response to a question at the RSA about whether he kept in touch with the flinty, uncompromising activist whom he accompanied in breaking into an industrial chicken farm:

“It’s good to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, and she – despite my barely knowing her – I wouldn’t consider her a friend and she wouldn’t consider me one – she really keeps me honest – I have her in the back on my mind when I’m getting lazy about choices”.

I find myself wondering whether evoking the idea of Jonathan Safran Foer would keep a meat eater honest, when he makes their excuses so generously, and this question opens up a contradiction, though it’s not a particularly crucial one. Safran Foer recognises that he needs to be kept honest, while he views most meat eaters as deserving of excuses. It also occurs to me that perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Uncompromising activists also need to be kept honest – in the sense of grounded and sociological. Safran Foer’s book works in this direction.

At the same time, he allocates the responsibility for animal welfare to the industry’s policy-makers while simultaneously treating the industry as a force of nature responding to the stimulus of consumer preferences, so advancing his argument for consumer empowerment. It is left unsaid that if consumers can change this, then consumers have a degree of equal and various responsibility to change it. In the marketplace of ideas Safran Foer has not considered directness to be the most productive approach for animals. The most productive approach is one which massages us into the hypocritical space – the least uncomfortable and confrontational overtures to ordinary supermarket shoppers with their withered consciences. He would never put it that way. I think he’s right.

Accordingly, although he recognises veganism to be the ideal diet, Safran Foer urges his readers to focus on reducing the amount of animal eaten rather than increasing the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The illustration he gives is powerful: one less meat meal a week in the US would bring about a reduction in emissions equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road. “If you can’t eat one less meal a week, that begins to sound pathological”, he told the audience at the RSA.

I appreciate Safran Foer’s talent, which is to simultaneously hold ideas which scuffle – one that factory farming is a locus of atrocity and suffering, another that veganism is the ideal way to eat, and a third being an attitude of straightforward unrancorous remonstrance with factory farmers and consumers. I think this will contribute to something important – a reduction in meat meals consumed.  I also think that it will sow confusion, and in the current circumstances that can only be a good thing.

Another issue Safran Foer didn’t address is the comparative price of nourishing, convenient and delectable vegan food. In fact at the RSA he argued that vegan food was cheaper – this isn’t currently the case. Vegans are either sitting ducks trapped in a niche market, or they are given boring and uncreative alternative dishes at a cost which subsidises the hospitality industry’s meat eating clientele.


Beginning on page 181 is a section titled ‘Our New Sadism’. It documents the perversions of violence and sexual abuse which take place in the closed environment of the industrial farm, before proceeding to talk about those which are part of the business plan.

I look at the media. Nigel Slater continues to push animal consumption despite all he has pledged to the contrary. Industrial milk producers are planning a cruel and unnatural megadairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire. One English family farmer given a tour of a U.S. megadairy for the investigative BBC programme Panorama says “This is the way that probably milk is going to have to be produced”. The World Wildlife Fund has commissioned a weekly menu intended to balance sustainability and health which I scan with growing incredulity: every single meal contains animal. There’s plenty of soya – only it’s been eaten by the animal on the menu before it gets to the human eaters. Arthur Potts Dawson of The People’s Supermarket observes the last hours of a dairy farm as it goes out of business. It turns out that most of The Guardian’s so-called ‘New Vegetarian’ Yotam Ottolenghi‘s recipes are so dependent on egg and cheese that on the whole they’re impossible to adapt for an animal-free diet. Chickens continue to have their beaks mutilated because we allow farmers to overcrowd them. The Observer has a double page spread on the premature slaughter of clapped out race horses for Europe’s meat market. In In Denial – Climate on the Couch, the movers and shakers of societal behaviour change are avoiding confronting us with bad news – rather than “Don’t”, they say “Instead”.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t go in accusations. Instead he presents readers with a vision of what it is to be human, the humanising act of declining something you want because you know that it is wrong to take it. After all, “We incarcerate people who cannot restrain their instincts to have sex” and “those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure” (p196)

“I miss lots of things and I feel good missing them. I feel better missing them than I do having them.”

Good things to eat

If like Jonathan Safran Foer you agree that a vegan diet is a good idea but you’re having trouble following one, I recommend you poke around your nearest town or city, not to mention the Web. Today I ate Ethiopian lunch from a vegan place in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. I bought solid, therefore unpackaged, shampoo from Lush in Liverpool Street Station. From a vegetarian grocery on Commercial Road something came over me and I bought ginger and orange chocolate and rasberry chocolate from Divine, the Essential co-operative’s chocolate spread (all Fairtrade), the peerless Sojade rasberry yoghurt, Viana hazlenut tofu and Taifun Hungarian-style wieners. As I write this I’m drinking red beer from the Pitfield Brewery near Chelmsford, Essex.

Like Safran Foer, the savoury smells of scorched flesh in street markets make me salivate, and like him I feel better missing meat than having it.

The book requests that we give thought to the life before the act of slaughter which dominates the attention we pay to farmed animals – if you focus only on the slaughter, you cannot attend to the lives of suffering that would have been better unlived. Safran Foer coaxes readers away from the slough of extremes and hypotheticals – in broad and deep ways don’t we all agree? he implores. 95% of people in a survey may say it’s right to eat animals, but who would condone a farm industry which contributes global warming, or pollution, or the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics? Who thinks it is a good thing to keep pregnant pigs in concrete crates without bedding and too small to turn around in? On these things all but the most marginal agree, and this consensus is the most productive and promising starting point Safran Foer can identify.

10:10 – having a bad day, going nowhere fast

10:10 inspires me, and The Guardian’s environmentalism has been one of its few redeeming features. But this:

It’s a bit like Joel Schumacher’s film Falling Down.

Bill Foster has become monomaniacal about reaching his destination. He abandons his car on the free-way and takes a direct route on foot through the most troubled part of L.A., enacting summary justice on transgressors he encounters. He’s not an unsympathetic character – just embittered to the point of violent misanthropic insanity. You know he has to die.

But while you’re relishing the carnage over at Harry’s Place or (more than likely) Spiked, keep in mind that inertia and targeted discredit are bigger forces for harm than shrill environmentalism. For those who haven’t noticed, there’s the bloodiest of wars going on between climate scientists and various agents whose interests are entrenched in greenhouse gas emissions, and in general, we-the-public are not helping.

Watch University of Plymouth Professor of Geosciences Communication Iain Stewart’s BBC series Earth: the Climate Wars. Read sociologist Anthony Giddens, listen to ethicist Clive Hamilton, and follow Open University geographer Joe Smith’s Creative Climate initiative. If organisations like 10:10 fail, we’re going down.

10:10 update, some photos

As you may or may not remember, I signed up to the 10:10 campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here is an update.

I repaired a pair of knickers that had gone in the gusset. About to darn my coat, which is worn through at the hip (like everything else which comes into prolonged contact with my hip on the shoulder bag side – the bag is also wearing through).

Between my friend’s hen weekend and her wedding my camera (compact and modestly-priced little Samsung NV3) started to grind and switch itself off when I tried to take a photo. So I sent it to my local Samsung-approved service contractors in Letchworth, who got it back to me repaired on the day before the wedding. Clean, mend and recalibration cost £65 including a £25 assessment fee. I’m happy – only whoever tested it left their battery in. So I hope my reconditioned camera outlasts its current battery so I have a chance to use this one.

Some photos follow, documenting the happy arrival of rain after a worryingly long period of no rain.

Picnic today in Crystal Palace Park shortly before precipitation:

Shortly afterwards during precipitation

Crystal Park Palace

On our way back – Matt on Throgmorton Street, City of London.

Throgmorton Street, City of London

Outside the Hayward Gallery, London South Bank Centre:

From the Hayward Gallery

Climate change is a matter of social science

A synopsis of a talk, plus a book review.

The entire way home this evening I listened to a long recording of Clive Hamilton (Professor of Public Ethics, Australian Green Party candidate, author of Affluenza) addressing the RSA on May 12th 2010, on the occasion of the publication of his book Requiem for a Species. (Just one species? Apparently so.) The presentation took in the failure of the international summit at Copenhagen, the tendency of official bodies to omit what cannot be said for certain, the vilification of climate scientists, Climategate, the climate change denial movement, and the irresponsibility of the media, different adaptive and maladaptive responses ordinary people have to news this bad, the poverty of the consumer movement, Camus’ The Plague and what people do when hope is all but gone, young people’s youth lost to worry, poor people’s stolen prospects, and the hollowness of optimism.

Hamilton is in line with the most enlightened climate scientists in recognising that only social science can provide the tools steer us, by activating humanity’s collective imagination about our future. I fear it may be counter-productive to talk like this, because it sounds redemptive, and as such it would probably raise hackles about academic freedom and instrumentalisation of research. (Or maybe I’ve been working where I work – a distinctive place where an institutional scheme to reduce waste is baselessly condemned by senior academics as a disingenuous austerity measure – for too long.)

His summary of the predictions, that we have exceeded the tipping points to limit global warming to the 2 degrees most scientists think would limit climate change, aren’t new to anybody who has been taking notice these past few years. The expectation is 650ppm by the end of the century and the attendant 4 degree global temperature rise. This certainly makes a mockery of the way I live my life, and as somebody pointed out in the discussion, we are all everyday denialists. The effects, most people who have studied these things agree, are going to be drastic.

But what was new were the kinds of questions he was asked, including one about whether society could afford democracy (response: to become authoritarian would be unconscionable), whether we should control the population (response: a statistic – one British person’s emissions legacy – where the legacy is your descendants and theirs – is equivalent to that of 136 Bangladeshis’, so if we do control, we start with the most developed countries first), whether we need to live like it’s WW2 (response: yes). I had no idea that a critical mass of people was talking about that stuff. It must then be time to think about how to be responsible global citizens, and also to live fully human lives where we look after what is valuable and what want to protect, out of the stuff that may not look so important when it’s crunch time.

Extract in The Guardian about the intertwinement, post Cold War, of climate denial and political conservatism. A predictable part for The Guardian to pick up on, which doesn’t deal with the more interesting parts of the book, about maladaptive responses of ordinary people, short of denial.

To end, a Times Higher review by Steven Yearley (Professor of Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh).

“As the reader quickly anticipates, there is to be no happy conclusion to this book. Hamilton is looking for a different kind of “closure”, arguing first of all for acceptance that things really will alter for the worse. We should despair and banish false hopes, acknowledge that the world will change irrevocably and commit to what actions we can to reduce emissions.

This is a provocative and sobering book, in which Hamilton shows very clearly that the climate problem is now primarily a question of social science: of psychology and political economy. For my money, he could have done more to systematise his social scientific analyses and to specify the relative importance of the numerous factors he highlights. But this is nonetheless a vivid book and an urgent invitation to do much more detailed social science.”

Survivalism, dissent, conspiracy beliefs

The upshots of viewing Collapse, an illustrated interview with Michael Ruppert, fall into the category of lifestyle change – see the end of this post – and an undertaking to kill myself rather than fight another human being in order to feed myself (though this may be complicated by dependants, my capacity for murderous rage etc).

Such are the limits of my engagement with Michael Ruppert’s views and plans. I’ve seen enough of his patterns of reasoning and argument not to feel that I would gain much from investigating him any further. I feel very compassionate towards him – his experiences with the LAPD (which should have been unimpeachable) refusing to respond to illegal activities within the CIA (ditto) would probably severely damage anybody’s ability to trust authority. Cultural theorists like Mark Fenster talk about conspiracy beliefs as disaffection, a deep and painful concern about the state of the world, feelings of political estrangemement from the power bloc and at the same time, responsibility and a desire to be involved. Coming at things from a different direction, psychologists like Karen Douglas say of unfounded conspiracy beliefs that if you hold one you probably hold many, and you probably also hold machiavellian views of the world, believing in conspiracy because it makes sense to you. So, I draw certain conclusions when I find that Michael Ruppert has written in an earlier book that Dick Cheney actively colluded with the perpetrators of 9/11. From a subsequent interview (source

“Few have done more detailed investigation of the 9-11 attacks than I have. Even though Rubicon is in the Harvard Business Library and has sold around 100,000 copies in two countries, it has never even been acknowledged by my government. 9-11 was a predictable event and it was motivated precisely and solely by Peak Oil and nothing else. I believe I proved that conclusively in Rubicon which has never been challenged; only ignored. It is absolutely too late to go back and seek justice for the crimes of Richard Cheney and George W. Bush. I believe they were counting on that. It would be literally a waste of energy. Oil and natural gas can only be burned or consumed once. The present crisis is so severe that we cannot waste oil, natural gas and the limited energies of human consciousness to go back there.”

Formerly a self-employed investigative journalist, Michael Ruppert is now a survivalist  primarily concerned with (he says this) his own survival during the decline of oil production. Early in the documentary we are informed that he used to be an insider – his father was an aviator in the USA, other family were in the CIA and he himself grew up to become an exemplary LAPD narcotics officer. To summarise the story he told of his life, his career foundered when he tried to use official channels of the LAPD to expose a drugs ring within the CIA. Confronted by the reluctance of those official channels to disrupt the criminal activities of power-holders, he resigned in 1978 and adopted a more troublesome approach to the authorities which attracted the attention he is positive led to his targeting by assassins. When he received news that a whistleblower in not dissimilar circumstances to his own had been “suicided”, he began a newsletter probing political cover-ups which rapidly gained readership. Realising that he had a talent for writing, he subsequently authored a large number of texts, including the book he promoted during the video link-up after the film was shown.

One of the things I wasn’t so clear about (from the documentary) was how he made the transition from outrage at the corruption of the LAPD and derelict closing of ranks against its whistleblowers, to his apocalyptic predictions around the demise of humanity after peak oil.

I thought he was particularly strong on illustrating the extent of humanity’s reliance on oil and the relationship between oil and the population spike which has led to the often-quoted observation that for the current population of planet earth to live as Americans live would require two further planets. However, I dispute that Michael Ruppert has said much that hasn’t been widely accepted in policy-making circles for many years. For example – peak oil is self-evident knowledge. Oil comes from former forests, and nobody says there have been infinite forests. It’s an inconvenient truth which continues to be confronted with a holding pattern by lobbying oil companies. The blockage – illustrated by Iain Stewart in the BBC documentary series Earth: the Climate Wars – is the stalemate of power and economic interests which has left this knowledge un-acted upon. Humanity is indeed vulnerable to power interests.

While my hunch is that Michael Ruppert is right about the threat, at the same time I don’t find him qualified or credible. It’s as if I, with my English literature degree and multidisciplinary practical doctorate, had become frantic, angry and extremely motivated to research a subject, grow a following, write some books and commission a documentary in which I wove together a narrative about a lot of things I have no authority to speak on glued together by a theory of peak oil, to which I attributed overarching explanatory power. Who would find me credible? People who wanted to believe me, or who already held the same views. In order to earn credibility, I should pursue the society – preferably in a professional capacity – of academics at a university which excels in energy studies and subject my thinking to their and their international peers’ scrutiny. If they ignored my work, I should assume this was a matter of rigour rather than politics.

Instead Michael Ruppert cites Cynthia McKinney and George Galloway, both of whom I consider analytically poor and ethically compromised. By way of asserting his authority, he tells us that one of his books is in the Harvard Business School library, and that many government officials and elected representatives read his newsletter. But why should we suppose they consider him an influence, rather than an example of an important but ultimately misguided social movement? He also exaggerates – I don’t think that troubled and bankrupt Greece is having a revolution and nor does my Greek friend who was watching next to me.

Other observations.

One question I’d have asked is what he left out of his presentation in order to avoid alienating his audience. Some of the things he avoided mentioning were the 11th of September and Afghanistan (although he rapidly dispatched his case that Iraq was an oil war) and the role that animal farming plays in the depletion of resources. One of the most interesting things about this film and his responses afterwards (and I don’t know his earlier work, perhaps he has adapted recently) was that he didn’t appear to be scapegoating. So, trade unions must stop behaving as if there were a national pie to divide equitably; left and right would become irrelevant; all religions would be judged according to their relevance to the dire reality in which people existed. And the enmity he predicted between humans was behavioural or bestial (and well-worth considering in the light of Rodney Barker’s 2008 discussion of enmity at Gresham College) rather than anything targeted at a culprit. For him, peak oil has sufficient explanatory power, in itself. Most, if not all, of what he believes now can be hung from that – or you get this impression from the film.

Another question I’d have asked is how many weapons he owns. He predicts that people who leave their plans for survival too late will be the victims of those who have not, and he is surely one of the early ones. On more than one occasion he explicitly and implicitly reveals his anger with people who are “like deer in the headlights” or “zombies”, as well as the oil companies and those who collude with them for personal gain. This reminded me of a (beery) conversation with some survivalists among the technical people where I work, the upshot of which was that I could join the group as long as I could demonstrate my contribution. No contribution, then they would defend themselves against any attempt I might make to penetrate their fortifications. It was a lifeboat situation they anticipated – unless you have something which improves the buoyancy of the lifeboat then you jeopardise the existence of the people already on the lifeboat. This is bloody stuff he predicts, and I found one of his strategies of coping with his burden of knowledge – to take his dog out and count the number of smiles they could create – very hard to reconcile. As somebody with a lot of cognitive dissonance myself I was very interested in this.

Other examples of cognitive dissonance. He is an almost iconographic smoker. He has a very smart-looking barbeque and a guitar which are almost certainly painted with an oil-based lacquer. He addressed us live via a video web-link showing what would have looked like the pinnacle of material well-being to most people on the planet, being much worse-off. His physical stature suggests he consumes a surplus of energy. He keeps a dog. Although all these things depend on oil, from this I’m guessing that he doesn’t find them profligate. And yet he has identified them as part of the drain, things we have to change our mind about – things which can form no part of the world he envisages when oil is unobtainable. He emphasises the urgency of change; we are to take our cues from him. I don’t dispute his sincerity, but his lifestyle undermines his predictions. He permitted himself to be filmed with a barbeque and hasn’t managed to quit smoking – sympathetic as I am to self-medicators, this doesn’t fit.

This may be related to his unconcern for social (as distinct from criminal or political) justice. He doesn’t seem to be giving any consideration to protecting the rights of vulnerable groups – women, people with impairments, for example. Most of us have seen or read enough apocalypsia to understand the nature of social breakdown when resources are scarce. Those who understand the impending collapse should be working on a framework of law and distribution to maintain cohesion and cooperation, and to keep the ground we have gained in civil and human rights. Michael Ruppert seems willing to surrender all this as yet another illusory oil-gain. He says that religions, political parties, trade unions are all part of an obsolete paradigm which should be abandoned.

He says he hates money, considers it the root of all evil. At the same time, he recommends we buy up gold and consider alternative currencies (such as organic seeds). Money is clearly a means of material security here, and not the root of all evil. I wish he hadn’t dealt so rapidly with money, but had given some attention to how extortion could be avoided in the circumstances of social meltdown. But sadly I don’t think it would be out of character for him to suppose that extorting from those of us who stupidly failed to take his advice would be justifiable.

So, what are Matt and I doing? We’re collecting our piss in the receptacle we use at festivals and pouring it onto the compost heap and soil (and frantic spiders). This makes us feel quite eccentric but what the hey. We’ll attempt to temper our thoughtless (though, scarily, much less thoughtless than most people I know) relationship with oil-based plastics with more sustainable substitutes. (What I am going to do about my second favourite food, crisps, I have no idea – perhaps substitute with more of my first favourite food, pastry? Anyway, as Richard Herring would say – or did of people who leave their TV on standby, in his peerlessly revolting and excellent stand-up show, Menage a Un – “it’s a small price to pay”). The last thing is that we’ll investigate permaculture for the garden. None of these are new ideas for us – they are mainstream thinking in the columns I read about the environment – but they’re ones we, our government, and our vendors have allowed to stall.

Our chief negotiator at the Copenhagen Climate Summit

The name of our negotiator at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen this fortnight is Jan Thompson. She is very private and a woman, so The Guardian finds itself talking more about her red patent boots than her political position.

Luckily she is being tracked by somebody more communicative. Her name is Anna and she’s from Warrington. She’s one of many youth climate activists who have adopted a negotiator at the behest of Global Climate Action, meet with them, shadow them and are relaying their actions to us. They exist to keep Copenhagen negotiators connected to the populations they represent. Far from all of the 192 countries at the summit have trackers, but some of the biggest emitters do including China, the US and India.

It sounds like Anna is struggling to stay positive:

“It’s been 6 months now since I ‘adopted you’ and today I set off for Copenhagen. I can hardly believe time has passed so quickly.

Before I start my journey, before we all return to the UN, and before the craziness and seemingly inevitable frustration sets in I wanted to take this time to write to you.

Over the last 6 months I have developed a much deeper understanding of the way the UNFCCC works. 6 months ago in Bonn I was fresh to this, eager and if the truth be known probably a little naive. As time has passed and we have been through Bangkok and Barcelona, as the process has developed and Copenhagen drawn ever closer, you know, I have often become frustrated. I have grown weary of the process, tired and often overwhelmed by it all. I’m sure at points you have felt all these things too. At times it maybe seemed you did.

Often when we meet at the UN the intensity of the situation, the long hours we are all working and the simple hugeness of the task in hand brings all these emotions to the surface for me. I know that’s true for my friends at the UN as well, and I’m pretty sure you could say the same for you and many of the other delegates.

That’s why I wanted to take this time to write to you now, before Copenhagen.

I wish sometimes we could meet away from the process, away from the UN, because then you would experience a very different me.

Away from the UN I am laid back and calm. I like to laugh and joke around, most of all I am optimistic, hopeful and happy. I see climate change not just as a challenge but also as the greatest opportunity our generation has ever had.”

Jan replies. The letter made her cry. Which in turn made me cry until I diverted myself with the red patent boots.

Here’s Anna’s collection of pieces about Jan. I now know that Jan hasn’t had a weekend off since the beginning of October. Bless her.

On this first day of the summit, Leela Rainer, tracking the Indian negotiator, has deja vu – same old spiel, different day. There doesn’t seem to be much energy. And the signage is really bad – people are lost and missing their meetings. And there are delegation offices at the conference venue (the Bella Centre), so people aren’t mingling. And fucking hell:

“From the UNFCCC documents to the free bags in the NGO centre, from the Copenhagen bottle to the green raincoat, to the badges, stickers, and posters; it was RAINING freebies and Bella Centre residents were scrambling to get each one to not miss on their COP collection.

If people could have spent even 50 % of that energy putting pressure on the negotiators as they moved around, we might be expecting fireworks by the end of this thing instead of months or a year from now.”

This is a lively, humorous and critical blog about a summit which will probably fail and indirectly kill us all. Read this from Anna trying to negotiate about her future with Jan’s boss.

Update: the front page of the Adopt A Negotiator site has chosen to foreground the most commented posts. These are not reliably the most important posts, but ones like Why Shouldn’t I Date and Annex-1 Guy. For those, look in the top right hand corner for the Recent Entries From: list.

The meaning of Climategate

The Copenhagen Summit on climate change is approaching, and the politics are overheating.

Over 1000 private emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU – site is currently down, post-hack).

At The Telegraph, James Delingpole is trying to convince us that climate change is a figleaf over a one-world government globalisation agenda.

Bob from Brockey sent me a Wall Street Journal piece by an author who doesn’t seem to believe that in the physical sciences the ‘peer review’ process precludes the publication of work which puts up “alternative hypotheses” without solid basis for their relevance. More of such understandings below.

The author objects to the following, reproduced from a stolen email sent by Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann:

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that-take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…”

Note how Michael Mann calls these people ‘skeptics’. I’m not sure this is a good term – or at least, it reflects badly on skepticism. I wish there were a better word which stopped short of ‘denier’ but recognised the role of loyalties and strongly-held beliefs. Reckon I might have to put ‘skeptics’ in scare quotes, which is something I only do when I’ve run out of words.

Anyway, these ‘skeptics’ hope to convince us that the unprecedented scientific consensus that we (humanity) are responsible for this period of climate change is a fiction, and only sustained by suppressing the work of heroic lone voices like the Climate Research journal.

But Climate Research has been politicised for a long time. Former editor Clare Goodess (researcher at CRU) relates the resignation of half its editorial board in 2003. After the publication of a skeptical paper (Soon and Baliunas, 2003) many climatologists protested and the publisher, Inter-Research, initiated an investigation into the peer review process.

“This left many of us somewhat confused and still very concerned about what had happened. The review process had apparently been correct, but a fundamentally flawed paper had been published. These flaws are described in an extended rebuttal to both Soon and Baliunas (2003) and Soon et al. (2003) published by Mike Mann and 11 other eminent climate scientists in July (Mann et al., 2003). Hans von Storch and I were also aware of three earlier Climate Research papers about which people had raised concerns over the review process. In all these cases, de Freitas had had editorial responsibility.

My main objective in raising the concerns of myself and many others over the most recent paper was to try to protect the reputation of the journal by focusing on the scientific rather than the political issues. Though I was well aware of the deliberate political use being made of the paper by Soon and Baliunas (well-known ‘climate sceptics’) and others. Chris de Freitas has also published what can be regarded as ‘climate sceptic’ views.

Eventually, however, Inter-Research recognised that something needed to be done and appointed Hans von Storch as editor-in-chief with effect from 1 August 2003. This would have marked a change from the existing system, where each of the 10 editors works independently. Authors can submit a manuscript to which ever of these editors they like. Hans drafted an editorial to appear in the next edition of Climate Research and circulated it to all the other editors for comment. However, Otto Kinne then decided that Hans could not publish the editorial without the agreement of all of the editors. Since at least one of the editors thought there was nothing wrong with the Soon and Baliunas paper, such an agreement was clearly never going to be obtained. In view of this, and the intervention of the publisher in editorial matters, Hans understandably felt that he could not take up the Editor-in-Chief position and resigned four days before he was due to start his new position. I also resigned as soon as I heard what had happened. This turned out to be the day of Inofhe’s US senate committee hearing and the news of the two resignations was announced at the hearing . Since then, another three editors have resigned.”

Hans von Storch, resignee editor-in-chief mentioned there, now Director of the Institute of Coastal Research at Geesthacht, has (hastily) updated his web site with a restrained account, and a call for action. There’s a link from it to a recent paper – von Storch, H., 2009: Climate Research and Policy Advice: Scientific and Cultural Constructions of Knowledge. Environmental Science and Policy;12(7) 741-747 which I have just read. It’s about the practice of ‘Bringschuld’, the communication of danger on the horizon as a moral obligation of the scientist.

I’m now in a hurry so I’ll dump rather than digest:

On postnormalisation of science and a new awareness of  the role of ‘cultural constructs’ in scientific communication:

“The quality of being “postnormal” was introduced into the analysis of science by the philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1985 S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis. In: C. Whipple and V.T. Covello, Editors, Risk Analysis in the Private Sector, Plenum, New York (1985), pp. 217–231.Silvio Funtovitz and Jerry Ravetz (1985). In a situation where science cannot make concrete statements with high certainty, and in which the evidence of science is of considerable practical significance for formulating policies and decisions, then this science is impelled less and less by the pure “curiosity” that idealistic views glorify as the innermost driving force of science, and increasingly by the usefulness of the possible evidence for just such formulations of decisions and policy. It is no longer being scientific that is of central importance, nor the methodical quality, nor Popper’s dictum of falsification, nor Fleck’s idea of repairing outmoded systems of explanation (Fleck, 1980); instead, it is utility that carries the day. The saying “Nothing is as practical as a good theory,” attributed to Kurt Lewin, refers to the ability to facilitate decisions and guide actions. Not correctness, nor objective falsifiability, occupies the foreground, but rather social acceptance.

In its postnormal phase, science thus lives on its claims, on its staging in the media, on its congruity with cultural constructions. These knowledge claims are raised not only by established scientists, but also by other, self-appointed experts, who frequently enough are bound to special interests, be they Exxon or Greenpeace.”

von Storch recognises that scientific findings are socially situated, and that the skills and sensitivities of a cultural theorist are required when entering into communication with the public:

“In order to give our analysis depth and substance, we need the skills of the social and cultural sciences. My personal experience, which is admittedly limited, informs me that up to now, however, these sciences have largely kept their distance. What I have heard are occasional and general hints that everything would be socially constructed and relative—which I consider mostly signs of an unfortunate refusal to go into concrete detail, which would be unavoidable for any real synergy. It is annoying when colleagues from these fields obviously fail to notice that the scientific and cultural constructs are falling away from each other; instead, they content themselves with cultural constructions as circulated by the popular media and vested interests.”

He refers to science as a proxy battlefield whereby politicians present politics as subservient to science, and so the political battles are accordingly played out in the laboratories and scholarly publications. Policy-makers wait to see who “wins”, but science is supposed to hold itself open, to explore where there is a lack of resolution. Science is about question-finding; it should not be about propagandist tactics.

von Storch then goes on to discuss risks inherent in the representation of climate change as a catastrophic event for three different actors: scientists, politicians and the media:

“Science, or more precisely: the scientific institutions react to this risk by implementing professional “press relations”—which are oriented to “representational principles of the mass media.” Policy-makers protect themselves by creating a “hierarchy of knowledge, or of advice,” with advisors to the Chancellor, Climate Service Centres and the like. The mass media seek the attention of the public by selectively presenting scientific findings that either agree or conflict with the cultural construct, or else by staging controversies, by which means yet another cultural construct is served; namely, the construct of the allegedly arbitrary nature of scientific evidence.”

He ends by acknowledging that his view is limited to Central and Northern European experience, and hoping (in fact, I think it’s a yearning) for a reconciliation of cultural construction and scientific construction, concluding:

“The insight of two competing types of knowledge has a number of practical implications for science. One is, that science itself is under permanent influence of non-scientific knowledge claims, such as ideological or pre-scientific claims. They influence the scientist in his way of asking and in her request for evidence before accepting answers. Claims, which are consistent with cultural constructed knowledge are easier accepted as accurate than results, which contradict such claims. Another issue is the transfer of scientific understanding into the policy process. Here, the scientific understanding should help to prepare policy design – which must not be misunderstood as enforcing certain designs – by clarifying the natural science part of the issues.”

Besides the security breach of a university’s secure system (which I’ve passed over but which is terribly important), this is what the story of Climategate is really about . It isn’t that climate change is suddenly not human-induced. The consensus that it is is overwhelming. The real story (an old story) is that science is politicised. Consequently it falls to politicians to take responsibility for asking the right questions, coping with uncertainty and acting on the findings. We know that rigorous, disinterested climate scientists are being marginalised and unrecognised as authorities because they are cloistered. Policy-makers must pursue both relations and public relations on their behalf as a matter of urgency.

To read:

Update: “Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, said: “While there will always be debate over climate data, it’s important to remember that the state of the world’s icebergs and glaciers remains wholly dependant on which group of tedious, hectoring arseholes is currently winning the argument.” HT Weggis.