Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

In the aftermath of the Manchester bomb atrocity there were so many stories of the kindness offered by strangers to those who were victims, or were caught up in, the attack – the guy who drove through the night, giving lifts home to those stranded; the woman who guided children to the safety of a local hotel; and all those who offered food and shelter for the night. Then there were the gatherings – in Manchester and Liverpool – which were, as one young woman expressed it on Channel 4 News, ‘more about love and not hatred.’

In this respect there was nothing unusual about Manchester. The kindness of strangers, in Tennessee Williams’ memorable phrase, is a quality we see repeatedly after such terrible events. And though the gatherings and vigils that follow might seem, especially for those with a sceptical or cynical turn of mind, predictable, they do perform a valuable service. Not only do they bring us together when we feel at our most frightened and vulnerable, they also remind us, as George Monbiot insists in his column today, that ‘human cooperation and reciprocity are so normal we scarcely seem to notice them.’ It can be easy after this kind of atrocity – one in which children and young people enjoying their first taste of freedom and independence were sought out to be deliberately blown apart – to conclude that there is no humanity, that we are an intrinsically fallen species. Continue reading “Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness”

John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of <em>In Our Time</em>

Terrific In  Our Time this morning (the 750th broadcast!) on John Clare, with his biographer Jonathan Bate joining Melvyn Bragg and other experts to discuss the Northamptonshire labouring class poet. The small cottage in Helpston he shared with his parents, his wife Patty and their six children still stands, now renovated by the John Clare Trust. Continue reading “John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

Chris Packham’s Natural Selection: designed to be intelligent

Chris Packham’s Natural Selection: designed to be intelligent

For an hour on Thursday evening it felt as if I’d been transported by time machine back to 1984 or thereabouts, and that I was watching the freshly-launched Channel 4. But no, it was 2015 and I was watching Chris Packham’s Natural Selection on BBC4, a one-off chatshow in which Chris Packham of Springwatch fame hosted a discussion in which his guests were the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller and activist George Monbiot. Continue reading “Chris Packham’s Natural Selection: designed to be intelligent”

Growth: the destructive god

Growth: the destructive god

Manufactured Landscapes 1

A piece in today’s Guardian by George Monbiot summed up my thoughts about the destructive nature of the economic system that we live under, with its blind commitment to constant growth, and also reminded me of a documentary film I saw recently.

Monbiot began his piece in a tone far from upbeat: ‘Another crash is coming. We all know it, now even David Cameron acknowledges it. The only questions are what the immediate catalyst will be, and when it begins’. He went on to relate the threatening symptoms of economic collapse to global capitalism’s addiction to constant growth:

If it goes down soon, as Cameron fears, in a world of empty coffers and hobbled public services it will precipitate an ideological crisis graver than the blow to Keynesianism in the 1970s. The problem that then arises – and which explains the longevity of the discredited ideology that caused the last crash – is that there is no alternative policy, accepted by mainstream political parties, with which to replace it. They will keep making the same mistakes, while expecting a different outcome.

To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, burning the furniture, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night. They are breaking up the postwar settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years – all are being stacked on to the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth. […]

Is it not time to think again? To stop sacrificing our working lives, our prospects, our surroundings to an insatiable God? To consider a different economic model, which does not demand endless pain while generating repeated crises? […]

Monbiot concludes by asking ‘the question that never gets asked: why?’

Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth, when that growth is not delivering contentment, security or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all other outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.

Super Pit #2 Manufactured Landscapes 10

Monbiot’s words recalled the striking documentary I watched a few weeks ago: Manufactured Landscapes by Edward Burtynsky, a photographer who is internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of the ‘manufactured landscapes’ created by humans – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams. The film follows Burtynsky through China, as he films the evidence and the effects of massive economic growth. There are long, breathtaking sequences, such as the opening tracking shot through an almost endless factory.

"Manufacturing #17", Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Manufactured Landscapes 3

The film is an extended meditation on the human impact on the planet through the cycle that begins with the extraction of resources, continues with industrial production and ends with the dumping of waste. It’s a testament to the unsustainability of our economic system that Monbiot writes about today.

After the mesmerising tracking shot that opens the film, we hear Edward Burtynsky’s words as he explains his objective in making Manufactured Landscapes:

Is there some way I can actually talk about nature and bring a certain appreciation for what it represents?  That we come from nature, and that we have to understand what it is so as not to harm it and then to ultimately harm ourselves. That there is an importance to have a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it and we are part of it. And if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.

So I believe that as a fundamental philosophical position when I look at the world.  I started thinking, maybe the new landscape of our time, the one to start to talk about is the landscape that we change. The one that we disrupt in pursuit of progress. I’m trying to look at the industrial landscape as a way of defining who we are and our relationship to the planet.

It’s  this thing that’s just growing, and it’s part of our economy and it’s part of our politics, and it’s a part of how we elect our governments. It’s part of everything we do. But it’s this big machine that started rolling…

Manufactured Landscapes 5 Manufactured Landscapes 7 Manufactured Landscapes 12

In a TED talk on YouTube, Burtynsky presents a slideshow of his photographs, which reveal vividly how industrial development is altering the Earth’s natural landscape: mountains of worn tyres, the hulks of rusting oil tankers waiting to be dismantled on a Bangladeshi beach, a river of bright orange waste from a nickel mine, women and children sifting through mountains of computer waste to pick out toxic but precious metals. Often the images are beautiful, but at the same time, as their significance dawns, they are horrifying.

Manufactured Landscapes 2India Climate

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

The opening tracking shot from Manufactured Landscapes:

Badgerlands: perturbation in the nation

Badgerlands: perturbation in the nation

CF Tunnicliffe, Badgers

CF Tunnicliffe, Badgers

The badger is one of our best-loved animals – and yet, despite the fact there are more badgers per square mile in Britain than any other country, few of us have seen one (our one, magical encounter is described here).  I have just finished reading Badgerlands in which Patrick Barkham sets out to trace the strange history of our relationship with badgers and find out why it is so vexed: why some people devote their lives to feeding or rescuing badgers while others risk jail by torturing and killing them for their own pleasure.

Patrick Barkham is a Guardian journalist and Badgerlands has the feel of a series of disparate reports stitched together to form a book. That’s not to belittle it, but to draw attention to its scope. For Barkham examines every aspect of the British badger, from the place the animal occupies in our imaginations to the culture clash between countryside and city represented by the ferocious debate over the badger’s contribution to TB in cattle and whether it merits the cull of badgers that has now begun in Gloucestershire and Somerset. In addition to an informative, even-handed survey of those issues (some might say: a little too even-handed), Barkham also enters the badger’s nocturnal world, spending initially fruitless evenings trying to catch his first glimpse of a badger.  Eventually, his persistence pays dividends and we get delightful accounts of his observations of badger families foraging around their setts.

Every aspect of the badger is explored by Barkham.  He spends time on either side of the barricades in the badger wars dividing town and country – talking to dairy farmers and government officials in favour of the cull, out in the dead of night with activists attempting to disrupt it, exploring the shady underworld of badger-baiting populated by tough working-class men with tough working dogs. He visits people who care for wounded badgers, and people who watch and feed them. He talks to Brian May, the Queen guitarist, who now devotes much of his time to issues of animal welfare, especially the question of the badger cull. In one chapter (nauseating for this vegetarian) he finds a man who lives on road-kill badger and together they butcher a large boar and eat a plateful of stir-fry badger ham.

Detail of Sodoma’s ‘Life of St Benedict’ (1505), showing an unusual example of badgers as pets

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Sodoma), ‘Life of St Benedict’ (detail), 1505: a rare depiction of badgers as pets

Barkham begins with the badger’s considerable impact on the British landscape. He writes:

Our country has not only been named after badgers; it has been shaped by them. spectacular earthworks of their setts higher density of badgers here than anywhere else in the world.

The places named after badgers include anywhere with a variant of brock, pate, gray, bawson, billy in the place-name: ‘all the old badgery place names’, such as Brocklebank, Broxbourne, Grayswood, and Pately Bridge.

Despite their presence all around us, as Barkham makes clear, we still don’t actually know that much about them: not even how many of them there are. It might be 200,000, but then again it could be 600,000, of which a staggering 50,000 end up as road-kill every year. And who knew that a badger’s living quarters were so sumptuous?

When the government dispatched seven men to measure a badger sett in the Seventies, they took eight days to get to the bottom of it, unearthing a ‘typical’ sett featuring 16 entrances, 57 chambers and a maze of tunnels nearly a third of a kilometre in length. The badgers had excavated 25 tonnes of soil to create it.

Barkham describes the badger’s cleanliness (those setts are maintained in immaculate condition), their catholic tastes in food (they are omnivores who will scoff anything they are offered – as he observes when visiting those who feed badgers on their lawn or patio nightly.  They’ll happily munch grapes as much as meat, sandwiches or sausages. He informs us, too, about the latest scientific observations of their social behaviour which have overturned some long-established myths. Because they tend to forage alone, they have been regarded as ‘primitive’ animals with basic social instincts. Yet the truth is that they live harmoniously in complex groups, groom each other, care for each other (Barkham tells of one badger, born blind, which was shepherded by family members), and they bury their dead.  He concludes that their successful, largely harmonious social structures present a striking alternative to our world – and it baffles us.

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper

One night, as part of his exploration of whether vaccination offers an alternative to a cull, Barkham joins a vaccination project. He sees how the badgers trapped for vaccination all react differently. Some were naturally very stressed, attempting to dig their way out of the cage in which they were trapped; but others were calm, even laid back. When found, one was so deeply asleep it only woke up when being vaccinated. Another had managed to pull an old plastic feed sack into its cage as a bed, while a third badger had pulled grass into its cage, made a nest and gone to sleep.  Having been vaccinated, it didn’t want to leave its cage.

In his exploration of the cultural landscape of Badgerland, Barkham traces the history of badger-baiting through the centuries. At one time, pursuit of the badger was an aristocratic pastime:

To do battle with a badger, a 16th century treatise advised, a man must find the following: a dozen strong men to dig; a dozen good dogs to work underground and, for each, a collar with a bell attached; broad and narrow picks; a large spade; wood and iron shovels; a stout pair of long-handled tongs; sacks to stow the captured animals; a water bowl for the dogs; half a dozen rugs to lie on and listen, ear to the ground, for barking; Indian game fowls, hams and beef tongue to eat; copious flagons of alcoholic refreshment; and a little pavilion to light a fire for warmth in winter. ‘Further, to do the thing properly,’ wrote our badger hunter, ‘the Seigneur must have his little carriage in which he will ride, with a young girl of sixteen to seventeen years of age, who will stroke his head while he is on the road’.

But, badger-baiting was mostly a hidden, peasant activity.  Barkham quotes Richard Jeffries, writing in 1879 of the Wiltshire village of his childhood as ‘a republic without even the semblance of a Government’, venerating the ideals of liberty, equality and swearing. ‘Betting, card-playing, ferret-breeding and dog-fancying, poaching and politics, are the occupations of the populace.  A little illicit badger-baiting is varied by a little vicar-baiting.’  Obviously, Barkham can’t fail to note that the most vivid account of baiting occurs in John Clare’s poem, ‘Badger‘, written in the 1830s, which ends thus:

He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.

Barkham also cites Mary Wollstonecraft who, writing in 1792, claimed that blood sports such as badger baiting were a natural result of social oppression, the oppressed taking their frustrations out on the only outlet they had available:

It may be unspeakably cruel, it may be an expression of our basest instincts – man as bully and coward and thrill-seeker – but it is an expression of autonomy and freedom, and of one class’s contempt for the laws made by another.

CF Tunnicliffe, A Badger with Three Dachsunds

CF Tunnicliffe, A Badger with Three Dachsunds

In 1835 the Cruelty to Wild Animals Act made it illegal to bait badgers with dogs, though badger digging continued. In 1833, four years before she became queen, Victoria wrote in her diary: ‘I dressed dear, sweet, little Dash for the second time after dinner in a scarlet jacket and trousers’, Dash being her beloved dachsund, the short-legged dog bred by German and Austrian aristocrats to go underground in pursuit of the badger.

Barkham pursues the history of badger-digging and nocturnal badger hunting into the 20th century.  He finds that badger-digging, unlike baiting, ‘was sufficiently respectable to be enjoyed by members of the ruling classes for much of the twentieth century.  It was a Sunday activity, carried out after church’. The tradition persisted, the result of widespread ignorance of the animal (regarded as foe, vermin,sheep-killer) and of its continued persecution by men from the lower classes. Today it remains a white working-class male pastime (few, if any, females are present at a badger dig).

But in the first half of the 20th century, the badger’s relationship with the human population of Britain was ‘turned on its head’; Barkham writes:

The badger was transformed from an object of fear, superstition and rural torture into a cuddly hero for children and a revered symbol of conservation for adults.

Badger, Toad, Rat and Mole from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Illustrations by E. H. Shepard.

Badger, Toad, Ratty and Mole from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Illustration by EH Shepard

One man, and one badger, largely responsible: far more people have encountered Mr Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and EH Shepard’s illustrations than have ever seen a badger living in the wild:

In 1908, Mole caught sight of Badger peering from a hedge.  Badger trotted forward, grunted, ‘H’m! Company’, and disappeared again. ‘Simply hates Society!’ explained the Water Rat.

Barkham devotes a whole chapter of Badgerlands to an exploration of the background to the book. He discusses the passage – ‘the very heart of Grahame’s Arcadian dream’ – in which we are introduced to Badger’s kitchen, ‘a child’s fantasy of warmth and safety’.Toad is terrorising the neighbourhood with his new obsession for motor vehicles, and Badger decides he must be ‘taken in hand’. Without Badger, Grahame seems to suggest, his bucolic idyll of the English countryside would be lost for ever.

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught. A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

Badger cubs by Eileen Soper

 Badger cubs by Eileen Soper

In another chapter Barkham tells of the women – including his maternal grandmother – who have been compelled by badgers to write about them, draw and paint them, observe them or protect them.  One such was Eileen Soper, dedicated badger-watcher who illustrated Enid Blyton’s adventure stories – and whose drawings of badgers illustrate this post.

When Badgers Wake

The cover of Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’

When Eileen Soper died in March 1990, executors found a profusion of watercolours and a large number of her drawings at her home in Hertfordshire. She had been hailed as a child prodigy when she had two etchings hung by the Royal Academy at the age of fifteen. Later she had a successful  career as a book-illustrator, enjoying a long partnership with Enid Blyton. Yet it was as an observer and painter of wildlife that she really came into her own. Hundreds of hours of patient study went into her book When Badgers Wake, much of her work done in the half-wild garden which surrounded her home near Welwyn.

Soper When Badgers Wake

A double page spread from Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’

In the same chapter Barkham writes of his maternal grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, and wonders what she would have made of his initially fumbled and futile attempts to watch badgers.  She wrote a book, Through the Badger Gate, that Barkham describes as ‘a love letter to Bodger, her first badger’ (you can read Barkham’s Guardian obituary of his grandmother here). Ratcliffe was a vocal supporter of badgers, nursing them back to health and releasing them into the wild.  She and her husband volunteered for the local Wildlife Trust on the Wirral and recorded badgers at 27 setts in Cheshire, 15 of which were destroyed between 1969 and 1971 by badger diggers who travelled from the Potteries with their terriers.  By 1973 only one of the setts was still occupied.

In 1970, Jane took in her first badger, an orphaned and desperately-ill cub she called Bodger. The previous day she had been in London at the Women’s Institute AGM where she had spoken in support of a resolution she had submitted to her local WI branch calling for legislation to prohibit any killing of badgers other than under licence.  It was supported overwhelmingly, and after a successful lobbying campaign, resulted in the Badgers Act of 1973 being passed, for the first time in British history giving a land mammal specific protection from persecution by making it an offence to ‘cruelly ill-treat’ any badger.

But even as the legislation reached the statute book, a new threat to Britain’s badgers had emerged: bovine TB. Badgers were now in direct conflict with the interests of farmers and consumers. Barkham points up the ironies: that it happened to be cows that first passed the disease to badgers, and that the disease materialised in badgers just months before they finally gained full legal protection.

Soper When Badgers Wake The Lean Days

An illustration from Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’: ‘The Lean Days’

This leads Barkham into an even-handed examination of the bovine TB question.  He records the anxieties and despair of people on both sides of the culling debate, and picks apart the confused mess of government policy. Those in favour of culling say that badgers spread contagion, that it’s impossible to fence them out of farms, and that they’ve been legislatively overprotected for years. Those against say culling only promotes the wider distribution of TB and that it’s not just badgers that are responsible for the disease. He notes the confusion over the actual numbers of badgers in the cull areas –  a matter that is crucial because to be successful a cull must achieve the target of killing 70% of the badger population.  It was that confusion over the actual size of the badger population in Gloucestershire and Somerset that led to the initial postponement of the cull.

Barkham discusses the evidence that culling can actually make things worse by pushing surviving badgers out to surrounding areas – a process labelled ‘perturbation’ – and compares the costs of culling with the costs of vaccination (now being implemented by some landowners, including the National Trust). The cost of the proposed cull seems likely to outstrip the putative benefits, at the same time as driving badgers from their current territories and spreading the incidence of bovine TB.

The 2013 cull singularly failed the test of being able to kill sufficient badgers to meet criteria set by the government. The cull failed to kill at least 70% of the local badgers within a six-week period, and even though the culling period was extended, the total number of badgers slaughtered rose only marginally.  The government was also forced to admit that only 24 % of the badgers killed were by controlled shooting, which was precisely the method that the pilots were supposed to be testing. The rest were cage trapped, which is much more expensive.

The 2013 culls were branded an ‘epic failure’ by Professor David Macdonald – the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, the organisation that had authorised them. He said: ‘It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified’.  Yet this year, the government announced a repeat. Barkham points out how misleading is the term ‘cull’, since the vast majority of badgers killed will be healthy and free of the disease. (On the subject of this Orwellian use of language – and how it spreads to the way governments talk about human beings, do read today’s Guardian piece, ‘‘Cleansing the stock’ and other ways governments talk about human beings‘, by George Monbiot, in which he argues that those in power don’t speak of ‘people’ or ‘killing’, but employ dehumanising euphemisms that help them pursue policies that we might otherwise consider unpalatable.)

As Barkham notes, there are less than 300,000 badgers in Britain. Although protected by laws to prevent badger baiting, licences can be granted by the Government for ‘disease control’ and ‘research’ reasons. It is believed that only between 11-15% of the national population of badgers has bovine TB.  Some argue that bovine TB in badgers has been accelerated by the increased movement of cattle around the country by the farming industry. Barkham represents both sides of the argument, but signs off with the case presented by a group of vets, as reported in the Veterinary Times. Their view is that the spread of bovine TB is more a symptom of unhealthy, overbred cattle herds with low immunity than it is of any wild animal acting as a carrier. The authors argue that bovine TB has become more prevalent in the UK because of increasingly intensive cattle breeding and farming. In particular, artificial insemination (AI), widely used in the dairy industry since the 1950s, has selectively bred ‘mutant cows’ that produce large quantities of milk but have little resistance to diseases such as bovine TB and BSE. ‘Dairy cows stopped co-evolving with TB more than 50 years ago, due to AI’, they say. They continue:

TB is often a disease of poverty, in humans as well as animals, and many of our dairy cattle live in poverty equivalent to that of a workhouse during the industrial revolution.  Most importantly, there is poverty in the lack of any normal relationships around breeding and calf rearing. The only long-term solution is a paradigm shift in favour of cattle welfare, small farmers and wildlife – not mega-dairies and money.  We need to start looking, right now, at the economic and genetic background to the dairy industry, and fix it, before it’s too late.  We support the long-term restructuring and de-intensification of the dairy industry to better support the health and welfare of cattle, as well as small farmers and consumers.

At the end of his journey through Britain’s Badgerlands, Patrick Barkham visits Judy Salisbury, a woman in her eighties, who has been feeding badgers on the patio of her lonely house on the edge of the Camel estuary for years.  On her patio, the badgers’ absorption, their utter contentment in the fine dining they found nightly in Judy Salisbury’s garden reminds him of a scientist’s comment he had recorded earlier that foraging badgers were like shoppers in a supermarket: different family groups foraging and eating together, tolerantly stepping around ‘shoppers’ from other social groups.  He has an awful thought:

My admiration for this feeding fraternity was suddenly halted by a thought so vivid it was as if I had seen it.  At some point soon, this exact scene would be played out at apparently generous and benign badger supermarkets built conveniently close to setts in Gloucestershire and Somerset.  Having taken all the usual precautions, a dozen badgers would be browsing the aisles together and then a barrage of shots would ring out.  Most, hopefully all, would perceive a flash of light, a punch in the guts like nothing they had ever experienced, before darkness descended for ever.  A few unlucky animals would stagger off, nursing horrendous injuries, if they were not wiped out by the second, or third, volley of shots.

During the months he spent exploring Badgerlands, Barkham came to understand how we view the badger as quintessentially British because of its long presence on our lands – and yet we do not take it for granted because most of us rarely see it.  The badger manages to be both native and exotic.  No matter how hard farmers try to persuade us, Meles meles will never be viewed as a pest like the rabbit, magpie or rat. The badger’s visual qualities should not be underestimated either.  No jury, he writes, would ever find such an appealing criminal guilty.

See also

Privatisation: a modern enclosure movement

Privatisation: a modern enclosure movement

Is there any part of Britain’s private sector that is free from corruption, mismanagement and blatant profiteering?  The banks, G4s, etc, etc: day after day, evidence of the scale of the rip-off being endured by British taxpayers piles up.  But are sufficient numbers of us angry enough?  Seumus Milne writing in today’s Guardian claims that public opinion in Britain has always opposed privatisation. But:

after the G4S fiasco, even paid-up Conservatives are getting restless. The Tory MP Michael Ellis told Buckles the public was “sick of huge corporations like yours thinking they can get away with everything”. And the Thatcher minister William Waldegrave warned Conservatives in Monday’s Times never to “make the mistake of falling in love with free enterprise”, adding that people who believe “private companies are always more efficient than the public service have never worked in real private enterprise”. […]

Milne reminds us of some recent examples of private sector disasters:

The G4S saga is only the latest in a series of recent outsourcing scandals: from the alleged fraud and incompetence of A4E’s welfare-to-work contract, to the “staggering losses” incurred by Somerset council in a disastrous private-sector joint venture, to the shipping of vulnerable children half way across the country to private equity-owned care homes in Rochdale. That’s not to mention the exorbitant private finance initiative to build and run schools, hospitals and prisons, which, it is now estimated, will cost up to £25bn more than if the government had paid for them directly; or the £1.2bn of public money lost every year because of rail privatisation and fragmentation; or the water shortage achieved in rain-drenched southern England this summer by a privatised water company that had sold off 25 reservoirs over the past 20 years while rewarding shareholders with £5bn in dividends.

Meanwhile, today the Liverpool radical magazine Nerve has this:

Former Labour Cabinet member John Reid who originally gave G4S contract for Olympic security is now a director at G4S. Teresa May has shares in Prudential, owned by G4S and Goldman Sachs have the most shares in G4S. How cosy!

Milne concludes:

The privatisation juggernaut isn’t unstoppable. Just as energy and water were brought under public control through the “municipal socialism” of a century or more ago, services and industries can be taken into modern forms of democratic social ownership today.  But while unions can resist outsourcing on the ground and groups like UK Uncut take direct action against the privateers, the emerging consensus against a discredited neoliberalism now has to find a real voice in national politics. Labour frontbenchers, such as Maria Eagle and Jon Trickett, have started to float the case for returning rail to public ownership and a “change of direction” on public services. But after G4S, what’s needed is a political sea change.

Back in March, on openDemocracy, Mel Kelly described how, with precious little public scrutiny, G4S – the world’s largest security company – has gained astonishing influence over our government and our lives.  Meanwhile – to take another example – in the Education section of yesterday’s Guardian, a revealing article explored the ever-growing influence of Pearson, the giant multinational that is the world’s largest education firm, on the English education system. Pearson is at the heart of what goes on in English secondary schools and FE colleges through its ownership of Edexcel, the largest UK exam board.  At the same time, Pearson’s education publishing business, via the brands of Heinemann, Longman, and Edexcel publishing sell textbooks and computer-based resources to schools, parents and pupils. Since 2009, Pearson, through Edexcel, has also had a contract to administer the marking of Sats tests for England’s 11-year-olds.

Now Pearson is moving closer to the heart of English education, running and funding several government-sponsored inquiries into aspects of the education system, and, crucially, developing a computer-based curriculum – ‘the Always Learning Gateway’ – currently being trialled in secondary schools.

In other words, there is now a multinational company at the heart of the English education system which is gaining the position in which it designs the secondary curriculum, sells the educational resources to support that curriculum, and sets and marks the tests that assess student outcomes.  The Guardian article quotes Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at London University’s Institute of Education as saying: ‘I think it’s … an overall strategy: they want to offer products and services in all areas of school practice: assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and management, and they want to create the possibility for that through policy work. … It’s a very well thought-out business strategy. I think we should be thinking about it, because a lot of it is going unnoticed’.  While Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is critical of corporate influence in education, says: ‘This stuff frightens the life out of me. My concern is that business dictates the nature of education, and especially the aims of education, when it should be one voice among others’.

Stuart Weir has been issuing bulletins on ‘the full enormity of what is going on’ on openDemocracy; writing again in June, he spoke of ‘the huge expansion of privatisation’:

According to the Financial Times, Britain is poised “for the biggest wave of outsourcing [that word again] since the 1980s”. More than £4 billion in tenders are being negotiated this year, according to studies of contracts published in the Official Journal of the European Union and analysis of companies’ bid pipelines. According to analysts, the FT reports, contracts involving the prison service – which is going to be almost wholly taken over – police forces, defence and health are “coming to market this year”.

Three government departments – the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defence and Department for Work and Pensions – are the big drivers, but the expansion in privatisation includes local government, transport and education.  Local authorities are losing 27 per cent of their grant over four years and government is under increasing pressure to use the private sector in order to maintain frontline services in the face of the cuts.

In March, Weir characterised what is happening as ‘no less than a modern enclosure movement’:

Cameron and co – a group which includes Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander – and their two parties are engaged in the destruction of the historic postwar compromise between the public and private sectors with the wholesale transfer of public functions to private enterprise.  Their project amounts to no less than a modern enclosure movement, in which it is not common land but what is still left in the public sphere as a whole that is being wrested from the people.

In his poem To a Fallen Elm that railed against enclosure, John Clare saw precisely how those who hypocritically promote the interests of profit before the community ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’.  The poem concludes:

With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate that sound
It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right
It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might
Thus came enclosure – ruin was her guide
But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite
Een natures dwelling far away from men
The common heath became the spoilers prey
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labours only cow was drove away
No matter- wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song
Such was thy ruin music making Elm
The rights of freedom was to injure thine
As thou wert served so would they overwhelm
In freedoms name the little so would they over whelm
And these are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devours

George Monbiot, in another of his increasingly urgent missives from the frontline of modern encroachments on our commons and our liberty, wrote yesterday in The Guardian of the Diggers 2012, a group being hounded from land adjacent, ironically, to the meadows at Runnymede where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.

Writing this, a lyric by Joni Mitchell comes to mind.  The other day I watched a rather good account of her life and artistic career, Woman of Heart and Mind.  In part, the film touched on the albums of the late ’80s and early ’90s (albums such as Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, and Turbulent Indigo) on which Mitchell expressed discontent with the way things were heading, politically, socially and environmentally. ‘Dog Eat Dog’ seems particularly apposite in these times:

Where the wealth’s displayed
Thieves and sycophants parade
And where it’s made
the slaves will be taken
Some are treated well
In these games of buy and sell
And some like poor beast
Are burdened down to breaking

Dog Eat Dog
It’s dog eat dog ain’t it Flim Flam man
Dog eat dog you can lie cheat skim scam
Beat’ em any way you can
Dog eat Dog
You’ll do well in this land of
Snakebite evangelists and racketeers
You could get to be
a big wig financier

Land of snap decisions
Land of short attention spans
Nothing is savored
Long enough to really understand
In every culture in decline
The watchful ones among the slaves
Know all that is genuine will be
Scorned and conned and cast away

Dog eat dog
People looking seeing nothing …

Curtains for Lonesome George – and the rest of us too?

This is the giant tortoise Lonesome George, last survivor of his Galapagos Islands subspecies, at the Darwin research centre on Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador, where he died last weekend, aged 100. George had survived pirates, whalers and goats, which ate their way through his habitat. But his destiny was to be the last of his subspecies, the Pinta Island tortoise.

On the same day as it reports this news, The Guardian carries George Monbiot’s latest column in which he eviscerates the leaders of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – who could not even be bothered to attend the Earth summit in Rio last week.  It is, Monbiot says, ‘the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war’. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing and yet the world’s nations solemnly agreed at the end of the summit to ‘keep stoking the destructive fires’: sixteen times in the final text, Monbiot notes, they pledged to pursue ‘sustained growth’, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.

The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before. The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics. The machine greatly enriches the economic elite, while insulating the political elite from the mass movements it might otherwise confront.

Monbiot writes dismissively of what has been achieved internationally in the last two decades:

It marks, more or less, the end of the multilateral effort to protect the biosphere. The only successful global instrument – the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer – was agreed and implemented years before the first Earth Summit in 1992. It was one of the last fruits of a different political era, in which intervention in the market for the sake of the greater good was not considered anathema, even by the Thatcher and Reagan governments. Everything of value discussed since then has led to weak, unenforceable agreements, or to no agreements at all.

In his column last week, he was even more scathing:

This … earth summit in Rio de Janeiro is a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago. By now, the leaders who gathered in the same city in 1992 told us, the world’s environmental problems were to have been solved. But all they have generated is more meetings, which will continue until the delegates, surrounded by rising waters, have eaten the last rare dove, exquisitely presented with an olive leaf roulade. The biosphere that world leaders promised to protect is in a far worse state than it was 20 years ago. Is it not time to recognise that they have failed?

These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed. Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires’ banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. […]

You have only to see the way the United States has savaged the Earth summit’s draft declaration to grasp the scale of this problem. The word “equitable”, the US insists, must be cleansed from the text. So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change “unsustainable consumption and production patterns”, and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources.

He is led to draw the deeply pessimistic conclusion that we have missed the chance of preventing two degrees of global warming, and that most of the other planetary boundaries will be crossed. So, he asks, what do we do now?

Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long?

He offers three ways of continuing to care for the planet, focussing on rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – which, he believes, offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world. He, personally, decided to spend much of the next few years promoting rewilding in the UK and abroad.

Which brings us neatly back to Lonesome George.  Although his relatives were exterminated for food or oil by whalers and seal hunters in the 19th century, and his habitat on Pinta was devastated by escaped goats, his survival was the result of his relocation from Pinta Island in 1972 to Santa Cruz Island, where conservationists run a tortoise breeding centre.  Scientists tried to get George to mate with other giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands and to eventually repopulate Pinta – but all their attempts failed, even that of Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss zoology graduate student, who smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and, in the cause of science, spent four months trying to manually stimulate him.

But, echoing George Monbiot’s point, whereas in 1960, only 11 of the Galápagos Islands’ original 14 populations of tortoises remained, and most were on the point of extinction, today, around 20,000 giant tortoises of different subspecies inhabit the islands and most of the feral goats that plagued Lonesome George have been eradicated.

Conservation scientists agree that George was important because he symbolised both the rapid loss of biodiversity now taking place around the world, but at the same time he provided the inspiration to begin restoring it in places like the Galápagos Islands.

Monbiot concludes his piece by turning his guns again on the failure of world leaders at Rio:

Was it too much to have asked of the world’s governments, which performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global markets and trillion-dollar bailouts, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet? It seems, sadly, that it was.

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

The other night I watched Surviving Progress, a documentary shown on BBC4 that questions the standard view of progress, suggesting that civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – technologies that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. In the past, civilizations could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today the global economic system collapses from over-consumption and laying waste the planet’s resources, that’s it. There is nowhere else to go.

The message of the film seemed to reinforce a growing feeling I’ve had in recent weeks that the global capitalist system we live under (‘civilization’ seems to noble a term), far from being, as presented by the practitioners of that dubious discipline economics, one of rationally operating markets that deliver sensible and sustainable outcomes, is no more than an infantile disorder: stupid, irrational, and self-destructive.

Surviving Progress argues that the world has financed an unsustainable growth rate by essentially encouraging whole nations to take out unpayable mortgages on their own futures. In the film, Brazil is taken as an example: huge loans are advanced to the nation, which is unable to keep up the repayments, and is then encouraged to liquefy its own natural assets – the rainforests. When the assets are gone and the wealth extracted, the corporations leave behind a drained nation and the bankers move on to another loan customer.

Dumb? Absolutely.  The same sense of stupidity emerged from a piece in The Guardian recently, written by Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University and author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Commenting on the eurozone crisis and the unwillingness of the eurozone leaders to alter their austerity policies, even as Greece and Spain fall apart, he noted that it is increasingly accepted that these policies are not working in the current environment. But what’s worse is that there is abundant historical evidence showing that austerity has never worked. What kind of person fails to learn the lessons of previous experience?  Ha-Joon Chang has the answer:

Perhaps they are insane – if we follow Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve – or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy – the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.

He concludes that the time has come for us to decide:

Do we want a society where 50% of young people are kept out of work in order to bring the deficit down from 9% of GDP to 3% in three years? A society in which the rich have to be made richer to work harder (at their supposed jobs of investing and creating wealth) while the poor have to be made poorer in order to work harder? Where a tiny minority (often called the 1% but more like the 0.1% or even 0.01%) control a disproportionate, and increasing, share of everything – not just income and wealth but also political power and influence (through control of the media, thinktanks, and even academia)?

If you want a tiny example of how a rich elite are increasing their share of wealth and running the country in their selfish interests, meanwhile threatening the environment, read George Monbiot’s brilliant piece of investigative journalism, published this week in the Guardian.  He writes that ‘the pheasant, rather than the Gini coefficient should now be the unit for measuring inequality.

As Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality, the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich, in which anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet. The aristocracy is back in charge. … In the countryside, as in the towns, policy is becoming the preserve of the 1%. The rest of us pay the landowners to expand their estates and destroy the wildlife. That’s what they mean when they say we’re all in this together.

Worth reading, too, is Larry Elliott’s chilling despatch from Greece last week.  Elliott, along with Paul Mason of Newsnight, is always a reliable guide to the world of financial capitalism.  Just days after IMF Chief Christine Lagarde provoked fury with her outrageous comments about ‘tax-dodging’ Greeks, Elliott wrote:

Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.  It is a country where the fascists and the anarchists battle for control of the streets, where immigrants fear to go out at night and where a woman whispers “it’s like the Weimar republic” as a motorcycle cavalcade from the Golden Dawn party, devotees of Adolf Hitler, cruises past the parliament building. Graffiti says: “Foreigners get out of Greece. Greece is for the Greeks. I will vote for Golden Dawn to remove the filth from the country.”

It has been interesting, too, to read the reviews of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy.  It’s a study of ‘the moral limits of markets’ in the context of the increasing ubiquity of market ideas.

Michael Sandel

‘Over the past three decades,’ Sandel writes, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before.’ Sandel is not arguing from a socialist position, and argues that markets can work in the right situation. He asserts: ‘No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity’. But Sandel is interested in what he sees as a critical loss of our collective moral compass in recent times as market thinking has swept the board in economics, and then spread to almost every area of public policy:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.

His central thesis is that markets have a moral impact on the goods that are traded in them. When something which is supposed to be a common good is marketised it invariably leads not only to unfairness, but, just as importantly, it corrupts and degrades the thing being marketised.

He quotes a vivid example that sums up the entire argument of What Money Can’t Buy; an Israeli daycare centre, which had a problem of parents turning up late to collect their children, introduced fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.  Morality had been marketised.  The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing (turning up late) was based on non-monetary values, on morality. Even though the daycare centre went back to the old system, parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Sandel concludes:

The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?

The economic and social progress that has resulted in climate change raises questions of morality in an intractable form.  In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull wrote:

Adam Smith once noted that we are less troubled by the prospect of a hundred million people dying as a result of an earthquake in some distant location than of losing our little finger, but would nevertheless be horrified by the idea we might allow them to die in order to save it. Climate change effectively transforms the former scenario into the latter, and so places unprecedented demands on our moral imagination. Almost every little thing we do contributes to our carbon footprint, which increases greenhouse gases, which could in turn ultimately threaten hundreds of millions of lives in some remote time and place – the uncertainty only adding to the sublime awfulness of our responsibilities.

Bull’s conclusion was hopeful, though:

Climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. … Climate ethics is … a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know … but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.

Returning to Surviving Progress.  The film illustrates the argument of the book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. He was previously known to me as an authority on the pre-Colombian civilizations of the Americas.  Some time ago I read a couple of his books on this subject, Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ through Indian Eyes and Cut Stones and Crossroads: Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru.  This film continues and develops Wright’s interest in how civilizations rise – and are destroyed. He coins the term ‘progress trap’ to define human behaviours that seem to amount to progress and to provide benefits in the short-term, but which ultimately lead to disaster because they’re unsustainable.

The film argues his case that the exponential growth in human numbers, the development of technologies, and the rapacious exploitation of the world’s natural resources threaten the planet, and the very existence of humanity.  ‘Progress’ – defined in terms of never-ending economic growth – could destroy us.  On population growth, he states controversially:

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus sailing, it took 13 centuries to add 200 million people to the world’s population. Now it takes only three years. A simple thing like pasteurization, the warming of milk so that the bacteria are killed and the control of smallpox. Things like that have led to a great boom in human numbers.  So, overpopulation, which nobody really wants to talk about because it cuts at things like religious beliefs and the freedom of the individual and the autonomy of the family and so forth, is something that we’re going to have to deal with. We probably have to work towards a much smaller worldwide population than 6 or 7 billion. We probably need to go down to a half that or possibly even a third of that, if everybody is going to live comfortably and decently.

But the film also tackles the more significant aspect of this problem: the footprint of the individuals at the top of the social pyramid who are consuming the most. Somebody in the United States or Europe is consuming about 50 times more resources than a poor person in a place like Bangladesh.  And to sustain the lifestyles of the planet’s rich, the banks and big corporations plunder the natural capital of our home, planet earth.  In the film Wright sums up the problem as he sees it:

Some people have written about natural capital, the capital that nature provides, which is the clean air, the clean water, the, the uncut forests, the, the rich farmland, and the minerals, the oil, the metals. All of these things are the capital that nature has provided. And until about 1980, human civilization was able to live on, what we might term, the interest of that capital, the surplus that nature is able to produce, the food that farmland can grow without actually degrading the farmland or the number of fish you can pull out of the sea without causing the fish stocks to crash. But since 1980, we’ve been using more than the interest, and so we are in effect like somebody who thinks he’s rich because he’s spending the money that has been left in his inheritance, not spending the interest but eating into the capital.

Margaret Atwood appears in the film, and underlines its message with these words:

Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just, this endless credit card that we can just keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive. Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any ‘the economy’.

Surviving Progress argues that faith in progress has become a kind of religious faith, a sort of fundamentalism, rather like the market fundamentalism that has just recently crashed and burned. Wright says:

The idea that you can let markets rip is a delusion, just as the idea that you can let technology rip, and it will solve the problems created by itself in a slightly earlier phase. That, that has become a belief very similar to the religious delusions that caused some societies to crash and burn in the past.

The anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it this way:

Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse. And we keep seeing it collapsing, but then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests, we must have business as usual. And you know, you get the arms manufacturers, you get the petroleum industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.

Towards the end of the film, Ronald Wright sums up his case in these words:

All the civilizations of the past, and I think our own, only seem to be doing well when they’re expanding, when the population is growing, when the industrial output is growing, and when the cities are spreading outwards. Eventually you reach the point at which the population has overrun everything, the cities have expanded over the farmland, the people at the bottom begin to starve, and the people at the top lose their legitimacy. And so, you get, you get hunger, you get revolution.Now, one kind of scary thing about the moment we’re in is that for the first time there’s kind of only one system. So, if the whole thing goes down, you won’t have what you’ve had in previous eras of epic collapse, which is that even a one civilization goes down, and it may take a while to recover, there are other robust civilizations that are kind of the guardians of progress.

As I listened to Margaret Atwood say, ‘all we’ve got is planet Earth, and we are destroying, we are polluting, we are damaging the future of our own species’, I thought of Banga, the new album from Patti Smith that I’ve been listening to this week.  In part, her theme is  environmental crisis and the destruction of the beauty and mystery of the natural world.  The album concludes with her own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home.  Only – there is nowhere else to go.

On the previous track Patti Smith explores ideas that touch on the discussion here. ‘Constantine’s Dream’ is a ten minute improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis weeps at the current state of the environment,then, in the dawn, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing to him
All the beauty of nature surrounded him as he walked

But Patti is senses ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross: ‘with this sign shall thou conquer’. In her poem, Patti has Francesca cry out on finishing his painting:

Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a swoon and a vision of his own:

The 21st century advancing like the angel
That had come to Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

The album closes with Patti, accompanied by small children, singing:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

Fukushima and Chernobyl: why worry?

It’s notable that, since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, the most visited post on this blog has been one I wrote a couple of years ago about the film Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl.  You’re searching, I guess, for information about that previous nuclear disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, anxious about the likely effects of the Japanese disaster and looking for facts.

Recently a torrent of condemnation has poured down on the head of George Monbiot who used his Guardian column a couple of weeks ago to present the astonishing argument that Fukushima had caused him to change his mind about nuclear power: in his piece – Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power – Monbiot wrote:

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation. […]

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

The best response to Monbiot’s strange lapse of reason comes today from John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor.  In Nuclear’s green cheerleaders forget Chernobyl at our peril, he writes:

Every day there are more setbacks to solving the Japanese nuclear crisis and it’s pretty clear that the industry and governments are telling us little; have no idea how long it will take to control; or what the real risk of cumulative contamination may be.

The authorities reassure us by saying there is no immediate danger and a few absolutist environmentalists obsessed with nuclear power because of the urgency to limit emissions repeat the industry mantra that only a few people died at Chernobyl – the worst nuclear accident in history. Those who disagree are smeared and put in the same camp as climate change deniers.

I prefer the words of Alexey Yablokov, member of the Russian academy of sciences, and adviser to President Gorbachev at the time of Chernobyl: “When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.” […]

Five years ago I visited the still highly contaminated areas of Ukraine and the Belarus border where much of the radioactive plume from Chernobyl descended on 26 April 1986. I challenge chief scientist John Beddington and environmentalists like George Monbiot or any of the pundits now downplaying the risks of radiation to talk to the doctors, the scientists, the mothers, children and villagers who have been left with the consequences of a major nuclear accident.

Vidal notes that, though a great number of studies into the health effects of radiation from Chernobyl have been carried out, only a very few have been accepted by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, and estimates of the damage to health from Chernobyl vary wildly.   A study by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that only 57 direct deaths and 4,000 expected cancers could be attributed to Chernobyl.  But the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), estimate that more than 10,000 people had been affected by thyroid cancer alone and a further 50,000 cases could be expected. Vidal continues:

Moving up the scale, a 2006 report for Green MEPs suggested up to 60,000 possible deaths; Greenpeace took the evidence of 52 scientists and estimated the deaths and illnesses to be 93,000 terminal cancers already and perhaps 140,000 more in time. Using other data, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences declared in 2006 that 212,000 people had died as a direct consequence of Chernobyl.  … [Another study]… factoring in the worldwide drop in births and increase in cancers seen after the accident, estimated … that 985,000 people had so far died and the environment had been devastated. Their findings were met with almost complete silence by the World Health Organisation and the industry.

Vidal concludes:

So who can we trust when the estimates swing so wildly? Should we believe the empirical evidence of the doctors; or governments and industrialists backed by their PR companies? So politicised has nuclear energy become, that you can now pick and choose your data, rubbish your opponents, and ignore anything you do not like. The fact is we may never know the truth about Chernobyl because the records are lost, thousands of people from 24 countries who cleaned up the site have dispersed across the vast former Soviet Union, and many people have died.

Fukushima is not Chernobyl, but it is potentially worse. It is a multiple reactor catastrophe happening within 150 miles of a metropolis of 30 million people. If it happened at Sellafield, there would be panic in every major city in Britain. We still don’t know the final outcome but to hear experts claiming that nuclear radiation is not that serious, or that this accident proves the need for nuclear power, is nothing short of disgraceful.

The latest news from Fukushima seems to bear out Vidal’s case – radioactive water has been found leaking into the sea through a crack near the sluice gate of one of the damaged reactor units at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

Also in The Guardian today is an article by Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author of the first book to warn of climate change back in 1989 – The End of Nature. In his esssay, ‘Natural disasters?‘ (the question-mark is significant), McKibben argues that, after a an era of relative stability, the earth is now moving into a new geological epoch:

a world remade by man, most obvious in his emissions of carbon dioxide. That CO2 traps heat near the planet that would otherwise have radiated back to space – there is, simply, more energy in our atmosphere than there used to be. And that energy expresses itself in many ways: ice melts, water heats, clouds gather. 2010 was the warmest year on record, and according to insurers – the people we task with totting up disasters – it demonstrated the unprecedented mayhem this new heat causes. Global warming was “the only plausible explanation”, the giant reinsurer Munich Re explained in December, of 2010’s catastrophes, the drought, heatwave and fires across Russia, and the mega-floods in Pakistan, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere were at least plausibly connected to the general heating. They were, that is to say, not precisely “natural disasters”, but something more complex; the human thumb was on the scale.

McKibben concludes on a positive note:

Not every natural disaster is unnatural now, and we may be able to fool ourselves a little longer. But these days it’s the climate deniers who act like the pious of yore, unable to accept the truth. I was surprised, and impressed, to read a poll of Americans taken recently. By healthy majorities, this most religious of western citizenries said natural disasters were more likely to be a sign of climate change than of God’s displeasure.

Which is good news, because for the first time in human history we can prevent a great deal of unnecessary cataclysm in the years ahead. Not all of it – there will always be earthquakes and hurricanes. But every bit of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere is that much less extra energy we add to the system. It’s that much less disaster waiting to happen.

Returning to Chernobyl: sometimes we need poetry as well as science to help us understand.  Lyubov Sirota was director of a writing project for children in the city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  On 25 April 1986 she went out on to her balcony seeking a breath of fresh air in the night and saw the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explode in front of her. In the days that followed, she and her son grew gravely ill from heavy doses of radioactive contamination. To express her grief and rage, she turned to writing poems, and collected them in a small book entitled Burden.  As the months went by, Lyubov developed cataracts and a brain tumor as a consequence of her exposure to radiation.


How amazing
in my thirtieth year
not to live
but instead
stumble along –
all bygone years
both happy and deadly,
heavy, wet, like logs,
crowd in the soul
as if in a tomb!

The soul does not sing
but rather becomes mute;
rather than aches . . .
So it is harder to breathe.

I am not to fly!
Though the shallow edge
of heaven is over my porch.
Already the roads have tired me,
hobbled me so –
I can no longer soar!

Faces reflect in the heavens.
faces of those
to whom I have said farewell.
Not one can be forgotten!
No oblivion!

The soul, it seems –
is a difficult memory.
Nothing can be erased,
nothing subtracted,
nothing canceled,
nothing corrected!

Even so, the burden is sacred,
the heavier
the dearer!

To Pripyat

We can neither expiate nor rectify
the mistakes and misery of that April.
The bowed shoulders of a conscience awakened
must bear the burden of torment for life.
It’s impossible, believe me,
to overpower
or overhaul
our pain for the lost home.
Pain will endure in the beating hearts
stamped by the memory of fear.
surrounded by prickly bitterness,
our puzzled town asks:
since it loves us
and forgives everything,
why was it abandoned forever?

At night, of course, our town
though emptied forever, comes to life.
There, our dreams wander like clouds,
illuminate windows with moonlight.

There trees live by unwavering memories,
remember the touch of hands.
How bitter for them to know
there will be no one for their shade
to protect from the scorching heat!
At night their branches quietly rock
our inflamed dreams.
Stars thrust down
onto the pavement,
to stand guard until morning . . .
But the hour will pass . . .
Abandoned by dreams,
the orphaned houses
whose windows
have gone insane
will freeze and bid us farewell! . . .

We’ve stood over our ashes;
now what do we take on our long journey?
The secret fear that wherever we go
we are superfluous?
The sense of loss
that revealed the essence
of a strange and sudden kinlessness,
showed that our calamity is not
shared by those who might, one day,
themselves face annihilation?
. . . We are doomed to be left behind by the flock
in the harshest of winters . . .
You, fly away!
But when you fly off
don’t forget us, grounded in the field!
And no matter to what joyful faraway lands
your happy wings bear you,
may our charred wings
protect you from carelessness.