Play up play up


The last football match I went to, forty years ago, was Coventry Reserves playing Preston North End Reserves (starring an ancient Nobby Styles) in 1974. I say this to demonstrate my lack of interest in football as a spectator sport rather than for any historic interest (other than the aforesaid young Nobby) in that game itself.

Oh, I have watched on tv the odd cup and grand final since then, read an occasional analytical piece on, say, “the future of rugby league” – I always aim to be able to hold my end up for two minutes in a discussion on any subject, part of being civilised. But no more than 2 minutes on sport.
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Society offenders


Why are people so intent on blocking wind farms in both England and Australia in recent years?

Well, some of it is clearly genuine stupidity. While, it is well-known, not all stupid people are conservatives, it is undoubtedly the case that all conservatives are stupid. Add to that natural stupidity the pungent anti-science of the Tea Party style no-nothings in recent years, and you have the perfect recipe for believing any kind of crap nonscience that people of ill-will feed to you. If some clown pretends that there is a link between wind farms and an imaginary disease, then no matter how much proper science disproves this pretence, British Conservatives and Australian Liberals and Nationals will believe the clown every time. If only someone would tell them that gravity is a communist plot and a chap calling in to Alan Jones say it is well-known you can jump from high buildings but our socialist prime minister has covered it up!
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Ill wind


This month, once again, air pollution in Beijing has been in the news again. The only new part was that some enterprising fellow was selling bottled air to the public! Let’s leave that for a moment to sink in.

Yes, bottled air. I mean, once upon a time bottled water seemed the ultimate in environmental madness, but we as a species have now really excelled ourselves.

Still, an ill wind and all that, the right-wing think tanks of the US and Australia will be pleased. You see their major task, and this of course has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with the big corporations that fund them, is to get rid of all regulations in their respective countries. “The Market”, they profess to believe, and I am sure, almost sure, this is a genuine belief they would hold even without funding, will take care of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, once freed of the terrible burdens of red, black, green, purple tape.

And here in China (just a touch ironically, but never mind) is the perfect example of their belief in action. Allow business to pour fumes into the air unchecked and, cometh the hour, cometh the libertarian, someone will be ready to sell bottles of less polluted air to twenty million people.

Not saying their beliefs haven’t been proved correct over and over. Here the collapse of a building erected without the burden of building codes provides work for bulldozer drivers in the clean-up; there people burnt in a factory with no fire escapes or sprinklers will provide work for undertakers. Polluted drinking water provides work for medical personnel, as do train and plane crashes, and cigarettes.

In fact scarcely a day goes by but somewhere in the world someone, as well as the owner, is making money as a result of regulations unwritten or unenforced. And, thanks to the think tanks succesful fight against any action on climate change, the whole world is still the oyster for energy companies as well as forestry industries, fisheries, agribusiness.

What’s the old Yorkshire saying – ah yes, “Where there’s muck there’s brass”.

Je regrette tout


Whenever a young person comes to me and says “Listen, wise old man, what career should I think about? What occupations are going to be most needed in the next twenty years?” I am always happy to help.

“Young Person” I say “you have come to the right man. There are just three occupations you should consider:

1. Plastic Surgeon specialising in tattoo removal. There are going to be hundreds of thousands of Australians, millions perhaps, who are going to reach the age of, say, sixty, and say to themselves ‘What the hell was I thinking? What is all this rubbish on my arms and legs and back and neck? Who is this person whose name is on my arm in big letters? And are those Chinese characters? Really? A tiger, a motor bike, the Southern Cross? FFS’ And then they will be desperately searching for someone who can remove all this rubbish, which once seemed like a good idea (perhaps under influence of alcohol) when they were younger and smoother, from their now wrinkly skin.

2. Financial Guru specialising in the return of privatised companies to public ownership. Australia, like a number of other countries, tattooed its economy with once public utilities turned into glossy private companies. What seemed like a good idea (under the influence of neocon think tanks) in those carefree days of the 1980s and 1990s now is revealed as a terrible error of judgement. Smart people are going to be needed to undo the thatcherite damage, and return railways, water, telecommunications, airports, wharves, hospitals, schools, energy, to public ownership.

3. Landscape ecologist specialising in revegetation. Australia has tattooed its landscape (under the influence of agribusinesses, forestry companies, coastal developers) with the scars of bulldozers and fires and chain saws. What seemed like a good idea thirty years ago has left a barren landscape, erosion, loss of biodiversity and species, and contributed to the terrible consequences of climate change, and the public will soon be demanding that sand dunes, water courses, grasslands, ruined farmland be returned as far as now possible, to the habitats they once contained (not totally possible of course, land, like skin, loses its elasticity).”

So there you have it. Where once, devil-may-care about future consequences, singing along with Edith “Je ne regrette rien”, young people and politicians gaily jumped into decisions with little thought for how hard they would be to later reverse, soon all of us will be trying to undo them now the consequences are clear. And there will be plenty of jobs for young persons.

One hit wonders


Bill Clinton, presidential candidate, famously had pinned to his wall by his campaign manager (the glib James Carville) a sign saying “It’s the economy, stupid”. It was shorthand for “all the voters are interested in is their hip pocket so give them what they want, not any high falutin’ stuff about environment, or arts, or foreign affairs, or infrastructure, or health, or education, Dumbo”. It was instantly adopted as the kind of ageless political advice on stone tablets brought down from the Acropolis by Machiavelli after everybody said “gosh darn why didn’t I think of that?”

And away they went. And because it was the preferred political fighting ground of the Right it suited them down to the balance sheet to have progressives always focused on “the economy” and not the hundreds, thousands of other aspects of daily life that the Right don’t have a clue about. While the strengths of progressive politicians were left undiscussed. As time went by this became a self-fulfilling bon mot because progressives were expected to focus on the economy, so only those who were happy to do so, looked the part, and talked the talk, could become political candidates. Game set and match to the corporations and banks. Bravo Mr Carville.

But the ramifications of this ratty little bit of paper with its fortune cookie sentiment went even further. The public began to believe that you only had to utter the phrase “the economy”, and, like a Hogwarts’ spell, demons would be defeated, all put to rights, happy ever after. An answer to a perceived problem which is “the economy” ignores all the other aspects of society and culture that combine to keep the wheels of history turning. Ignores environmental issues, education, health, infrastructure, culture, technology, communication, ethnic relations, population parameters, geography, history itself indeed. To pretend that there is some magic economic lever you can pull and everything comes good is fooling both yourself and the people.

But it has got worse since that golden age when the Clinton-Carville political renaissance was in full bloom, like a hundred flowers. At least then the post-it note’s wisdom for the ages encompassed the whole economy. In more recent times politicians have come to reduce the language of a campaign to three word slogans, and the “policies” to glib single issues. Modern Carvilles I guess pin-up notes saying “It’s the Dummies, Stupid”. Can’t confuse the dumbed-down voters, so politicians wander around, repeating the same mantra endlessly – all will be well if you elect me and I just do this one thing. The one thing might be the removal of a tax, the change in a law, the building of a railroad, the bulldozing of a forest, the cutting of “red tape” (or these days “green tape” or “black tape”), the stopping of immigration, the reduction of minimum wages, fighting terrorism, and so on.

Our very own Tony Abbott, who three word slogans suit just fine because he can’t remember sequences longer than three words (Romney in America the same) has been telling the public, daily for two years that the “Big New Tax” (ie what is actually a price on carbon applicable only to a few hundred big companies) will be removed and the Golden Years of Howard will be restored. Nothing else needed, just keep telling people (ranging from fishermen to antique dealers to coal miners), over and over that the removal of this ‘tax’ will solve all their problems, for ever and ever amen.

Tony Abbott, Opposition Leader and prime minister manque, doesn’t bother explaining to the businesses that, if they do have “problems”, those problems have nothing whatsoever to do with a carbon price. Their businesses are the way they are (for better or worse) because of the exchange rate of the dollar, free trade agreements, global financial crises, lack of funding for education, inadequate infrastructure, the labour market distortion caused by the mining boom, the adequacy of workplace safety regulations, health care for workers, business tax concessions, the wages that potential customers get, the presence of sufficient housing for a workforce, adequate transport and communications, and so on. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a society to support a business.

Similarly the general public, offered, say, a tax cut by a wannabe leader, might want to consider what that wannabe might to do public transport, public schools and hospitals, road maintenance, whether they will ensure the air and water are clean (whether indeed they will help to stop the climate itself changing), whether they will be tempted to take the country to war for some less than adequate reason, whether they will encourage development of the arts, and so on.

It is no good making promises about what you will do about one tiny element of people’s lives. What counts is the entirety of the society in which we all live. And the entirety of the people who ask to lead us.

The C Word


An odd discussion on one of the Australian tv networks yesterday morning. They had run, to their credit, a segment looking at extreme weather events in different parts of world and tentatively suggested that these might be due to climate change. Well done (more than our public broadcaster has been permitted to do).

At some point during the editing of the segment (and obviously I am guessing this) someone seems to have said “hey, guys, balance, remember, we must have balance”. So they had created “balance” by saying something like “of course all major disasters can’t be ascribed to climate change”. Curiously though, they clearly hadn’t understood their own attempt at balance because they gave an example about flooding. I forget which major flood it was, Thailand perhaps, and the comment was that the damage there was the result of people building in the wrong places, and drainage being impeded (there may have been other factors I forget). So, “not climate change in that case”.

So the discussion by the bright young things began. One was delighted that the presenter of the segment had been “moderate” by pointing out that one even couldn’t be “blamed” on climate change. In her view in general in fact there was far too much talk about catastrophes associated with climate change, and what we wanted was a much more moderate view. The others agreed that, yes indeedy, moderation every time was their preferred option, and that it was really bad to scare people by warning about calamities. The first speaker, who makes much of her origins in the country, said farmers were getting the idea of climate change, but resisted it because of the lack of a “moderate” approach.

Now a number of things occurred to me while listening to this. First, while the media determination to prevent any serious information about climate change reaching the public, and hence prevent any action on greenhouse gases, is as strong as ever, the changes we are seeing in the Earth’s climate are becoming so obvious that they can’t continue totally ignoring the matter. Hence the segment.

Second was the total misunderstanding of what the issue is with extreme weather events and climate change. Events can’t be ascribed or not to climate change based on whether they were made worse by human activity on the ground or not. It isn’t the effects (in loss of life, crops, infrastructure) that is the measure, but the origin of those events. Were they caused by record high rainfall or temperatures, or record numbers or extent of storms, is the question to ask, not what happens afterwards (though of course one of the responses to the now inevitable serious climate change must be improvement of infrastructure to try to make effects less severe on the ground).

My final thought was what a confusion of thinking (not unique to this bunch of tv identities) about what is actually happening to our planet was represented. They were again unable to separate two different issues. Partly they were saying – mustn’t tell people bad stuff that’s going to happen because then they will get scared and react badly and not do anything. Fear not a good motivator. A rare Republican with the nous to understand climate change is saying similar things in the US currently. This sounds kinda logical until you think about it. There are two major aspects to climate change. The first is the gradual rise in CO2 levels, gradual rise in average world temperature, gradual seal level rise and increasing acidity, gradual melting ice caps and glaciers, gradual changes in plant and animal distributions. The second is the manifestations of these changes in weather patterns – record hot days, extreme rainfall events, storm intensity and frequency, droughts, Now the first kind of change is impossible for the average human being to perceive. We rely on scientists to measure such things over time, and report, but we can’t experience the changes for ourselves from one day to the next or even one decade to the next. The extreme weather events however are what we can experience. They are not only a major way in which humans are being directly affected, but the only way we can sense that change is happening and what the implications are. So what these tv personalities (and the Republican, and others) were saying was don’t emphasise to the public what is going on by pointing out to them that what they are sensing is happening is indeed relevant. Instead concentrate on the slow changes that they can’t perceive. This is a recipe that has been in operation for 20 years now and it has resulted in precisely no public awareness or alarm. It is the classic frog in boiling water syndrome.

But partly what these tv icons were also saying is that the “moderate” view was by definition the correct one. That, three bears-like, climate change would be not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Not too wet, not too dry. And so on. It is the kind of mentality that sees a driver whose petrol gauge shows empty driving faster to get to the petrol pump before he runs out. That sees people believing that after a run of “bad luck” they are due some good. That a lump somewhere in the body must be benign, because, well, it just must be. That people who behave well get rewarded. And so on. The climate cannot be changing in a major and disastrous way because, well, it just can’t be. So people who tell us we are in big trouble must be wrong. And while people who tell us we don’t have any problem might just, possibly, also be wrong, it is those who tell us things will change a bit, moderately, but won’t be too bad, who must be right. If change wasn’t going to be moderate, these tv clowns would have to say something, do something, but they aren’t so it must be.

Reality check, guys. The planet, indeed the universe, has absolutely no concern about human beings at all. Knows nothing and cares less about our existence. Doesn’t in fact have the wherewithal to care. Is not sentient. Things happen as a result of physical laws. That’s it. If you pour CO2 into the atmosphere of a planet that planet will warm up, whether or not it contains naked apes. If it warms up enough the consequences for ice, water, soil, oceans, are also inevitable, Homo sapiens or no Homo sapiens. There is no moderator, there is no “moderate”. There are no bargains. There is no good behaviour that keeps you safe, there is just what there is.

And what there is represents calamity ahead, coming ready or not. And if tv clowns think everything will be fine as long as we don’t mention the C word, then we are in really big trouble.

Open for business


NSW govt approving uranium exploration; Qld opposition to dump Wild Rivers legislation; Victoria trying to get cattle into high country; South Australia downgrades renewable energy; Tasmania demanding to continue forest destruction; NT wanting crocodile “hunting”; WA prescribed burning big areas of forest. CSG, seal culling, duck shooting, flying fox culling, wood chipping, land clearing, estuary dredging, salmon “farming”, blocking wind farms.

What do all these things have in common? Activities by state governments, Labor and Liberal, that have, or will, cause enormous damage to their respective states. Nothing much in common, these state premiers, not much similarity between the different states, but time after time, often within days of winning an election, away they go with an announcement welcoming some destructive program. Usually with the identical words “We are open for business”, as if they have just set up a used car yard.

Something else one of the premiers and a soon-to-be-premier have in common is the bright idea of adding the “cost of the carbon tax” to electricity bills. See, this is clever because this will make people hate Labor when they see this extra cost go on the bills. But, hey, guys, you gonna do that, we need a bit of balance. You must also add to the bills the increasing CO2 levels, the rising temperature levels, the cost of lost production as a result of droughts and floods and storms. What’s that, those costs would greatly exceed the few dollars from a carbon price? Good heavens, really, hadn’t thought of that. You know, I understood that the costs of years of infrastructure neglect and privatisation of power companies had added far more to the bills than carbon price, but hadn’t thought about the costs of climate change. Don’t suppose you guys had either, eh?

Same with “open for business”. It’s always billions to be made here, and thousands of jobs over there, and export markets and infrastructure, oh, and did I mention billions of dollars? All put on the plus side of the public ledger, trumpeted by the media. But what they don’t add, to balance the ledger, is the ultimate costs to the state of cleared land, polluted ocean, dried up rivers, lost biodiversity, extinction of species, air pollution. Nor even of more direct costs in poor human health, imbalance of the economy, infrastructure costs, depletion of resources. Pretty nasty business all of it.

So, state premiers, you want to play businessman “running a state like a business”? Good, go for it. But remember real businessmen, and businesswomen, prepare real balance sheets for the balance as a whole. And when costs outweigh profits it’s time to reconsider.

Quite a lot of cost being imposed on states these days. And largely illusory profits.

Since sliced bread


Was doing some cleaning up, sorting out, the Steptoesque room that is my Study, when the question arose as to whether to keep some old atlases. The answer was sort of yes, but only on the basis that I can’t bear to throw out books like that, and that I have always loved maps. But got me thinking about recent changes in the way we live now. If I want to check on something about a country, look at a map, I use the internet, not a big printed atlas. So what else has changed? Well, here is a list I put together quickly of things that no longer apply or happen that we once used to take for granted:

Wearing a wrist watch
Using lined paper
Using liquid ink
Using actual money
Using reference books
Having a newspaper delivered
Cutting unsliced bread
Going to movies
Having phone plugged into wall
Having written address and birthday books
Following a sporting team that isn’t an “investment”
Being totally surprised by weather change
Use logarithms or slide rules
Having a piece of film developed
Speaking on phone to real person in a company
Lowering a stylus on to a music record
Visiting a bank in person

When climate change really starts to kick in, there are going to be a lot more things we can’t do that we once took for granted. But what else can you think of that we used to commonly do but do no longer? Come on, thinking caps on, elephant stamp for the mostest and bestest.

Government for Dummies


It is not just the media which aims at the lowest common denominator these days, and not just politicians (notably Abbott), but government itself.

The stupidity and ignorance of the limits placed on wind farms by the new Victorian and NSW governments is only exceeded by the stupidity and ignorance of the people whose “opinions” they are responding to. Both in turn exceeded by the cynicism and viciousness of the people manipulating the useful idiots.

Whether it’s water in the Murray, prescribed forest burning, smart meters, speed cameras, cattle in high country, phone towers, sharks, and now wind farms, whatever the complex issue requiring research, analysis, specialist scientific knowledge, and a modicum of common sense, governments instead rely on the yobbo in the street informed only by shock jocks, think tanks, religious nutters, and astroturfers, working on behalf of vested interests.

The planet is in great peril, we need great wisdom to stave off disaster. At a time like this why would political leaders seek the advice of the most stupid in society?

Government of the dummies, by the dummies, for the dummies.

Not a home


Terrible event the other day with the fire in the nursing home. Anyone who has known people in nursing homes, had to put close relatives into one, would have been very upset by the images of the poor people out on the street. Of course the worst things were the injuries from fire and subsequent deaths from smoke, but even the unhurt survivors will have been psychologically damaged. A nursing home is almost always the last “address”, the last “home” you will have. My grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s at the end, thought the Nursing Home was literally her old home, and used to welcome visitors into it as she had once done in her real home of 50 years.

Nursing home rooms are often packed with family photos, ornaments, pictures, trinkets, soft toys, bed covers – trying to take some of their old life with them, and to be in comfortable surroundings reminded of that life. That’s why a nursing home is vastly preferable to a hospital bed where little of that reminder is possible. Perhaps most importantly the nursing home room needs to be one where the person can feel secure, safe from what becomes an increasingly threatening world they have little control over. Another reason why the fire, and the evacuation, out on to a street, will have been so disturbing. “Where on earth am I?” their faces said.

Not just old people who need special conditions in their care. Very young children in child care, and people with mental or severe physical disabilities, and homeless people, also need comfortable, secure, familiar surroundings. That’s why I am so wary about having old and young people’s care subject to the vagaries of finance markets and stock market. If there is a constant undercurrent of possible takeover, or bankruptcy, or overseas sale, then the security element is not there for either the person concerned or their families. And it’s why we need to have a decent national disability scheme, and adequate allowances for carers, adequate pensions for individuals. Many elderly carers worry about what will happen to their cared-for children after they are gone. And financial stress on top of mental and physical stress certainly doesn’t make for security of surroundings.

We are, rightly, concerned about the health needs of elderly people in care, and of the disabled in care. And we should be concerned about the educational and physical needs of children in child care. But our first priority should be to ensure that everyone with special needs should have a secure and familiar base – much good will come from that in other areas, and without it efforts in other areas will be less effective.

At Xmas, in a secure comfortable home, surrounded by family, and familiar possessions holding memories, spare a thought for those not in that situation, and see if there is anything we can do to help change things.