Saturday, 28 November 2015

Is bombing ever 'a good thing'?

How have we, the inhabitants of the supposedly civilized Western world, come to a position where it seems right to kill people for political expediency? Especially when to people like me, the unimportant ones, the ones who have no influence, it seems obvious that the more people we bomb and kill, the more chaos will ensue, the more hostility we will generate, the more refugees will flea to Europe. And furthermore, our position as bedfellows to some very nasty people will be consolidated.

I suppose it’s all part of the ‘big picture’. As a person I find all this aggression extremely hard to accept, but perhaps if I was a politician, particularly one of rank, my priorities would change, and my focus would be on expediency and keeping on the right side of allies. Must all politicians leave their humanity on the back burner?
Judging by the actions of the UK Government since May, this must be true of many of our politicians; but I believe that loss of humanity is only one half of what I perceive to be the problem. The other half is an almost complete lack of imagination — an inability to think outside the box (a fatal flaw, I believe, in any political leader). After all Isis have apparently unlimited access to fuel, to arms, (how many of these are British made I wonder!), to cash. If those supply lines were cut, the movement would surely crumble. An alternative, difficult action, but surely achievable and effective.

It became clear to me, in the recent aftermath of the tragic events in Paris, when I watched the newscasts showing our Prime Minister standing cliché to cliché with President Hollande, that contrary to what he claims, force is the preferred option. The similarities between the Cameron approach and the Blair approach before the Iraq invasion are inescapable. Can we trust the secret briefings? Can we trust the claim that there are 70,000 ‘good guys’ on the ground in Syria? On balance, should I believe that the world would be a better place if we increase the number of bombs by a small percentage? Can I seriously accept that the complicated scenario which exists between Syria’s Government, Syria’s rebels, Turkey, the Kurds, The Russians, Iran and the so-called coalition led by the USA will be enhanced by a few British bombs? Statements lead us to believe that we have a capacity for accurate targeting unavailable to our allies: I find that hard to believe, but if true, would that minimize civilian casualties or diminish the risk of retaliatory actions? Information on civilian casualty numbers arising from our recent drone strikes, and bombings in Iraq, do not appear in a press widely supportive of the aggressive approach.
So many questions, so few answers!

For sure those extra bombs would get a few brownie points with Messrs. Hollande and Obama, but only until the next time! After all, how much long-term damage was done to the ‘special relationship’ by Harold Wilson’s refusal to join in the Viet Nam debacle?

The narrative offered by the pro-bombing lobby seems to me to be incomplete, and that is being kind. It seems that rather than dealing in firm and unequivocal facts it leans towards emotional blackmail and some kind of pseudo-patriotism. It would be immoral to rely on the activities of other nations to protect us from the threatened horrors of Isis. (Surely this is an almost identical approach that Tony Blair took in the run up to the Iraq invasion.) David Cameron has stated in terms that we are entitled to attack in Syria in self-defence; but we would only be defending ourselves against the retaliatory actions of those we seek to bomb. He says that it would be illogical to continue striking in Iraq but not in Syria: I agree! We should not be bombing in Iraq, but in the words of some sage or other, ‘I wouldn’t have started from here’.

There are many wise people out there who believe that to launch air strikes in Syria would be a mistake. There are many MPs who feel the same. My hope is that, for the sake of humanity, they win the day.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Russell Brand Phenomenon

The other day Russell Brand got himself a prestigious slot with Jeremy Paxman, presumably on the back of being a guest editor on the New Statesman, with a theme of revolution.

His somewhat wild rant to Paxman ‘went viral’, with a massive amount of support in the social media, but I found myself deeply critical of what he said – or more precisely what he didn’t say. I briefly expressed my concerns a couple of times in said social media, and found myself strongly challenged.

I decided to defend my position (which by the way I share with a few people a good deal more distinguished than I will ever be!).

One point that has been made to me was that at least he started a debate. True, but it was the wrong debate. The debate that Brand started, and which has become so popular, became all about what is wrong with the system, the crookedness and deceit of MPs, the pointlessness of voting and how the system looks after big business at the expense of us poor mortals.

My difficulty lies in what might be considered to be Mr Brand’s lack of ambition. Although he is claiming to be looking for a revolution, he is actually talking about protest, which is a much less powerful beast. In my mind, Brand’s protestations are a bit like the wailing of a child in a cot – he is unhappy, even distressed, but he doesn’t know why, he just wants someone else to come along and fix it!

He is right in one respect at least, which is that we do indeed need a revolution. But the point he misses is that a revolution always has a specific goal in mind. I am no historian, but there have been revolutions in Russia, Cuba, several South American countries, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and even South Africa, and in every case the revolutionaries, whether successful or not, knew what they wanted to achieve, unlike Mr Brand, who only knows what he wants to destroy.

People who complain that their vote doesn’t count have it wrong – it always counts. To start with a candidate can gauge his level of support and plan for the next occasion. But in truth, a single voter cannot expect to see his or her personal wishes reflected in the National Parliament unless those wishes are shared by a majority of voters, because we have a representative democracy which doesn’t work like that.

Russell Brand has never voted and doesn’t see the point in doing so because he doesn’t like the system – and this view seems to be shared by millions of people. But where were all those people, Mr Brand included, when we were given a referendum on changing the voting system? I presume he didn’t vote then either!

I would like Mr Brand to know that he is not the first to despair of our current system. He is not the first to find fault with our financial services, or the support by Government for large and powerful organisations, or our broken agricultural and food supply chain models and much more. But if Mr Brand wants to use his celebrity status to change things, there are many organisations he could lend his support to with good effect. Here are some:

New Economic Foundation
Positive Money
Campaign for Real Farming
GM Freeze
Good Energy
The Green Party
Friends of the Earth

And of course there are many more out there – you only have to look.

So wake up Mr Brand. The revolution has already started, and all these organisations are making it happen. I’m sorry if it isn’t happening quickly enough for you, but unlike protests, revolutions take time.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

I Dined At Fifteen Cornwall Last Night…

I was being treated. It was my first time. I was collected at 7pm and driven (at nerve wracking speed!) through a pitch black gale-riven rain-drenched night; weather which would not allow me to experience the much praised view from the huge length of glass panelling overlooking the bay.

I had little idea what to expect, and my first impression was one of bright space. Lots of tables, but not crammed together; large tear-drop pendant lights, with, I am sure, energy efficient bulbs; and welcoming smiles. The atmosphere was one of friendly cheerfulness, without any of that pseudo-subservience found in so many ‘posh’ restaurants. There is mutual respect between staff and customers. And my goodness, those guys know their stuff!

James, the young man taking our orders, who had been working there for a couple of months, talked us through an extensive menu, explaining in fine detail how each dish was put together and how the components worked with each other to achieve an effect. His command of it was stunningly impressive, and someone soon will need to pay him very good money indeed to employ him!

Gordon is a world-class sommelier. I was not going to be asked to choose the wine I would drink – I was going to be told, not only what wine would be served with each course, but why, with an explanation of how the grape was grown, where it was grown, why it was different from wines from neighbouring vineyards, and something about the people who make the wine. Pretentious? Not on your life. Gordon knows his stuff to a daunting degree (I have never been that expert at anything) and wanted to impart as much of that knowledge as possible in the short time available. None of that ‘A suspicion of gorse in the breeze’ crap but pure unadulterated expertise in a language anyone could feel comfortable with. He even suggested to me that after experiencing the Soave he produced, I should keep the taste in mind and try a supermarket Soave the next day to see the difference! My response – I would rather not, as the next Soave I would drink would almost certainly come from a Supermarket, because of budgetary constraints.

As the food was served, discreetly without fuss, there was none of that ‘OK, who’s having the crab?’! Everyone, including Gordon, knew which of us had ordered what. Each course turned up exactly when we were ready, together with fresh glasses for the next wine. Used plates and cutlery were cleared equally discreetly. And all the while there were cheerful smiles.

Without wishing to get too sugary, I am bound to say that in a very literal sense the whole thing worked like a symphony. The food, the wine, the service, the cheerful respect, nothing either overdone or underdone (I don’t mean just the food) contrived to produce a dining experience you would need to go a long way to match.

And consider where this experience comes from. Jamie Oliver set up a charity called Cornwall Food Foundation, which is funded largely from the restaurant, and whose purpose in a nutshell is to give young men and women from less than ideal backgrounds the chance to learn to become top class chefs. With expert teaching and support these young people, working side by side with skilled professionals, produce meals such as the one that I enjoyed.

Is it worth the money? That question cannot be answered. The menu prices are by my standards eye-watering.

Is a £500,000 house worth the money? Or a £50,000 car? Not to me! I don’t need it and wouldn’t be interested even if I could afford it. But to other people with different standards and priorities? Presumably yes.

Is it worth spending that kind of money to support this extremely effective charity? Without question, if you can afford it.

If I had to pay next time, would I go again? If the credit card would stand it, if the occasion or the company called for it, then absolutely without question!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Just What Is It With The BBC?

Last May in the USA a brave lady called Tami Canal started a movement called March Against Monsanto, because it had proved impossible to have food containing genetically modified ingredients labelled as such in California. Initially she hoped for support from perhaps 3000 people. In the event, on the Saturday in question it was estimated that two million people in 436 cities in 52 countries turned out with banners to express their support, first of all for the principle that GM food should be so labelled, but also for the campaign against the use of GMOs in our food chain.

I would have thought that was a pretty major event! But try as I might, I was unable to find any reference to it in any of the BBC’s news coverage anywhere!

The event is being planned again for October 12th. I wonder if it will make the news this time.

Like most disappointments, I allowed this one to fade from my thoughts.

In June Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, (an avowed climate change sceptic, by the way) gave a memorable speech to Rothamsted Research Centre in which he expressed enthusiastic support for GM crops, basing his enthusiasm on a selection of ‘facts’ which even his most loyal supporters would have had difficulty swallowing. This speech, however, received copious BBC coverage; as did the Prime Minister’s endorsement of the process.

In August, Dara O Briain’s Science Club programme went out with a ‘fun’ piece about using genetic modification to combat malaria. Now whatever you may think about the principle, this particular process is not without pitfalls and is far, far from fool-proof. And yet the programme was screened in such a way as to leave the viewer with the impression that genetic modification was ‘it’, ‘the answer’, problem solved. No room for doubt!

On September 18th, the BBC ran the first episode of Science Britannica with Professor Brian Cox, who is a particle physicist (O Briain studied maths and physics) as well as being a rather ubiquitous media star. I was watching it idly with half an eye, it not being on my list of things I must not miss, when Prof. Cox started talking about GM crops. By the time I was fully awake, the 5 minute section was long gone. I was away from home at the time, so my feeling of unease at the spin being put on GMOs by Cox was put on hold until I got home.

Then I was trawling through iPlayer and decided to run the programme again. This time the spin made me not just uneasy but angry!

Here is the letter I have written to the BBC.

BBC Complaints
PO Box 1922

Dear Sirs

Science Britannica episode 1
Broadcast on 18th September at 9 pm

I have recently watched, for the second time, the first episode of Science Britannica, and was very concerned at the evident bias of the programme regarding GM crops, about 40 minutes in to the programme. It was probably the most prejudicial five minutes of television I have seen in many years. This bias has appeared before in a previous program, Dara O Briain’s Science Club. It is becoming clear that the BBC, along with certain politicians, is keen to portray the anti GMO lobby as either nonexistent, or ignorant, fearful, and anti-science.

It is certainly the case that on the subject of climate change, the BBC have been criticised for giving disproportionate air time and credibility to climate change ‘deniers’ and I would echo that criticism, because there is no longer a scientific rationale for their position. But to imply, as Brian Cox does, that there is no scientific rationale for the position of the anti GMO lobby is to misunderstand the situation completely, and I would expect a more balanced approach from him and from a BBC science-based programme.

As with the ‘Science Club’ programme before it, the case for GM crops was made in a way which suggested that no credible opposing view exists. Professor Cox appeared to regret that scientists ‘have not always been able to control the debate’, but these programmes make it clear that they are trying to do just that. Cox suggests that ‘public opinion has been led by a vigorous anti GM campaign that started in the 1990s, which left many people dead set against GM crops’. This statement was accompanied by a film of white-suited figures jumping up and down in a field. That was as close as we have come to hearing a view from anyone who is against GM food, although today’s concerns arise not from those 1990s protests but from substantial research into the effects of GM food on both agriculture and animals, not just in a laboratory, but also in the field.

Cox continues, ’There are fears that the crops may contaminate the environment or that they may be unsafe to eat, and underlying it all is a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong about meddling with life at such a basic level.’ It is clear that Cox has not taken the time to listen to any of the premises which give rise to the opposition to GMOs. In the Americas the environment has already been irretrievably contaminated. Many ill patients in the USA have been prescribed an organic diet by their doctors, to escape the effect of the GM ingredients in almost all American food; this prescription proving successful.

Professor Cox’s interview with Professor Jones starts with an inane question about the label ‘Frankenfood’, inane because this was a journalist’s term, not one espoused by those concerned about the process, and Jones’ response was as predictable as it was banal. Cox raises the spectre of the ‘unnatural’ process, again prompting a predictable response from Jones – a response I might have used myself!

Jones rhetorically asks the obvious question, ‘What is the least bad way of protecting our crops from disease and pests, or reducing the losses caused by weeds?’ and the viewer is left to conclude that GMOs must be that least bad way.

Then Cox baldly states that Professor Jones’ view ‘is also backed up by a vast body of research that shows it to be safe and effective.’

I challenge Professor Cox to find any of that vast body of evidence. (Substantial Equivalence testing doesn’t prove anything!) I used to share Brian Cox’s willing acceptance of the GMO philosophy, until I discovered that there is no substantial research which shows that GM food is safe, and that there are many reputable and peer-reviewed scientists who say that it is not, with the evidence from tests on animals to substantiate their view. As to the effectiveness of the process, there is overwhelming evidence throughout the Americas and India which shows that the emerging disadvantages of GM crops outweigh the advantages, and that alternative less invasive science-based agricultural methods are more productive.

Professor Cox expresses himself baffled as he feels that simply presenting the evidence should be sufficient to convince us laymen. A more productive dialogue might emerge if he was to present all the evidence. He calls for effective public engagement. Does he mean that? There are plenty of scientists with credentials as worthy as his who would be happy to ‘engage’ with him and with Professor Jones.

I hope that you will be able to investigate the one-sided approach to this matter exemplified in this programme, with a view to re-establishing the reputation for fairness which used to be the hallmark of BBC programming.

I look forward to your early reply

In the past I have ignored suggestions that the BBC’s impartiality is a myth. But now I am beginning to wonder. It is crystal clear that the unscientific Mr Paterson has formed his views based on the scientific opinions he is given by his establishment advisers. It is certainly the case that those opinions are coloured by the GM industry, or at least their extremely well funded propaganda machine. It can be proved that as soon as a study emerges that finds fault with any aspect of GM crops, that propaganda machine will take steps to discredit it. The same tactics were used by the tobacco industry for years, and are still being used by the oil industry in respect of global warming. Happily both the politicians and the BBC have realised that the positions taken by those industries have been discredited some time ago.

All the same, when it is increasingly clear that the policies of this Government are guided by the demands of Big Business (just listen to David Cameron’s conference speech!) it is disconcerting to think that the policies of the BBC are increasingly influenced by the Government.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Cornwall Pride

I went into Truro today because it is the day of Cornwall Pride, and there is traditionally a parade through Truro followed by a party in the park. The event brought home to me how much in the world has changed since I walked with the first Truro Pride, at the invitation of friends, in 2008. Those friends were able subsequently to get married in Holland, where same-sex marriages were allowed from 2001, and now live on the other side of the world. But now, each time I check on the internet, the number of countries allowing such unions has increased. Scotland is likely to be the next. At that first Pride event in Truro, there were protests from members of the religious right, who tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the parade; although it should be said that there was very visible support from Christians who do not share that antipathy. Today, I saw no sign of any hostility – absolutely the reverse.
During those five years, so much has changed around the world: one of my favourite moments was that great speech in support of same sex marriage in the New Zealand Parliament. However the plight of LGBT people in some other countries is a good deal less comfortable. In Uganda, there is still a proposal on the table to pass a bill making homosexual acts punishable by prison, and even the death penalty. The situation there has been publicised by a prize-winning documentary, ‘Call Me Kuchu’, which relates the story of David Kato who was an outspoken campaigner in Uganda for LGBT rights, and was murdered for his trouble. Now there has been plenty of media coverage and discussions around the new laws in Russia. There are however up to 80 countries where laws on homosexuality are at least as intolerant as those in Russia, and in many others LGBT people are victimised, and such crimes as ‘corrective rape’ are condoned by the authorities.

But events like Cornwall Pride, along with the publicity they are given, must, in the end, have an effect. Throw a pebble in a pond and watch the ripples! By world standards our Pride parade is small, but it would be wrong to suggest that the global effect is too small to matter.

Until 1967, homosexual acts between men were illegal. When the bill was passed, homosexuals were invited to ‘show their thanks’ by ‘ comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done’.
I don’t know what the sponsors of that 1967 bill would have thought in Truro today, but I hope they would have been proud!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Staff of Life

I Googled ‘The Staff of Life’. I used Google, although it isn’t my default search engine (which is Ecosia), because I wanted to get an idea about how many entries there were. I got 1.4 billion. I didn’t check them all! Most of the entries seemed to relate to pubs and hotels; a few were about churches, and a few were about food, mostly bread.

About five years ago I read an article in Resurgence Magazine about ‘Slow Sunday’, which put forward the idea of using a leisurely Sunday to bake bread, good bread being produced slowly. There was a recipe in the magazine contributed by Andrew Whitley which I used, and that whetted my appetite. I bought Andrew Whitley’s book, Bread Matters, and read it from cover to cover, and I must admit that it put me off factory bread for life, as well as getting me started on a journey which even now becomes more interesting month by month.

I suppose that now, five years on from that first Slow Sunday, and there have been many since, if someone asked me what my hobbies were, I would have to include bread making. The only time I have bought bread during those five years was when I was refurbishing my kitchen and had to disconnect the cooker. Unfortunately I can’t eat the bread quickly enough to allow me to bake as often as I would like to, particularly as I am trying to lose weight! Bread has become more to me than just something to support the marmalade. Making bread is therapeutic. Taking it hot out of the oven is intensely satisfying. Eating a chunk of carefully baked bread is an infinitely more pleasurable experience than popping a piece of factory sliced white out of the toaster. And if you are making sourdough bread – well, you can double all of the above.

And that’s why I was Googling ‘the staff of life’; because that’s how I think of my bread!

I believe that with the prospect of a changing climate as a result of, amongst other things, a destructive system of agriculture and food preparation; and with the rising cost of fossil fuel (which in my opinion continues to be inevitable) we should all be reviewing what we eat and how we prepare our own food. Holding that belief, I continue to adjust what food I buy, and what food I grow in my own garden. The result, which should not surprise me, is that I am healthier than I have been for years, and my food bills are very much lower. Certainly I am now in the position of being able to spend more time on all this than someone in full employment, and so people with full time jobs who want to follow the same path would need to compromise to some degree. But that should not alter the basic premise.

So if you do nothing else, think about the staff of life.

Fracking 2013

What does ‘fracking’ mean?

The other day I read a Guardian article on line in which a fracking protagonist stated that fracking has been used for years in UK land-based oil wells when water is pumped into the well to force oil out. It’s true that that practice has been common in the oil industry for many years, particularly in wells which have passed their peak production. But that has never been called ‘fracking’ before, that I am aware of.

I listened to another protagonist on the Today programme, who said that fracking was an integral part of drilling for geothermal energy, although geothermal drilling is an entirely different process, which recycles the water. In all the time since I first assisted in a geothermal test drill in the Rosemanowes Quarry in Cornwall in the early ‘80s, I have never heard the word ‘fracking’ in this context.

I have a sense that the ‘fracking’ enthusiasts are subtly widening the meaning of the word, to include processes which are, or have been, in common use without controversy, thereby gaining a kind of 'borrowed respectability'. It’s a neat trick!

So when I read the Telegraph article by David Cameron, I admit to looking at it with an analytical eye, because, like Tony Blair, he is good with words!

It has to be said that although the protests at Balcombe have turned into a national event, many of those protesters are there because they perceive a potential effect on their own lives from copious heavy road transport and the likely effect on the water supply, both through over use and through pollution, both of which have been experienced in the USA. These are entirely reasonable and valid motives for the protests, but in global terms they are probably amongst the less important reasons for objecting.

There are many lessons to be learned from the American experience, but it seems that our political leaders are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear, rather than the facts. On the other hand it has been suggested to me that the present Government attitude is simply designed to fend off UKIP and keep the Tory Right in check, and that after the next election many obstacles to planning permission may be discovered! But they are politicians – how can we possibly know what they really think!

In his article, Mr Cameron said, ‘If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive. Without it, we could lose ground in the tough global race.’

It is difficult to understand exactly what he means, aside from the bit about bills. How will it make us more competitive? How will it affect our position in the ‘tough global race’? As for that bit about bills, that probably won't happen, because fracking is a very expensive process, and importing gas from Norway and Qatar is actually likely to be cheaper, even with George Osborne's generous tax concessions.

As Mr Cameron says, ’Just look at the United States: they’ve got more than 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than here’.

10,000 wells a year! Imagine that!

Well, exactly! Mr Cameron, this is how it works:

The banks, always on the lookout for an opportunity, have smothered the industry in the US with loans, secured against the assets of the companies, who are making hay while the sun shines. But a shale gas well produces about 80% of its capacity in the first two years. So in order to maintain the flow (and it is the flow rate which is important) they have to keep drilling new wells as the old ones die (hence Mr Cameron’s 10,000). And as we have said, drilling wells is expensive. So why are gas prices in the US so low? Because they have been over producing, running fast to try to keep up with themselves! Then they have been exporting gas to countries like ours where gas prices are higher than at home, to try and recoup some of that money. In 2012, the expenditure on shale gas drilling in the United States was $42 billion. But receipts from sales of that gas were less than that by about $10 billion. As our American cousins would say, ‘Do the math!’ To me (but I am no expert) it has the smell of subprime about it!

Meanwhile, in the US the green-washers have been triumphantly extolling their reduction in CO2 emissions, forgetting that the coal which they haven’t been using has been exported to someone else, whose emissions have gone up.

Mr Cameron is undoubtedly right in claiming that a thriving shale-gas industry in this country would support plenty of jobs (although not for a while yet), but not nearly as many as would be supported by a thriving renewable and energy conservation industry.

Mr Cameron claims that a well-regulated shale-gas industry would be safe, by which I presume he means no water pollution, no loss of domestic water supplies and no leakage of methane into the atmosphere. Good luck with that! But I can afford to take an objective view because there will be no fracking where I live (unless it is for geothermal energy).

My objections to this industry are twofold. The first is that it merely prolongs our dependency on fossil fuel, with all that that implies for the decarbonisation of our energy supply. The second is that for a relatively short term benefit it is far, far too expensive (and will do nothing to reduce our energy bills).

I do have a third objection, which is more general and relates to the whole approach to Government by this coalition. In his article, Mr Cameron once more suggests that we are all in this together. He wants us all to share the benefits. He says, ‘Local people will not be cut out and ignored’.

But that is just what is happening at Balcombe.