To be hanged with the bible

57

When the bible was written humans* didn’t know:
About bacteria and viruses and parasites
Blood circulation
Earth going around sun
More than 5 planets
About galaxies
There was a southern hemisphere
Earth round
What lightning is
That whales aren’t fish
What mental illness involves
About genes and inheritance
About Chinese, Aztecs, Zulus, Aborigines, Navaho, Japanese, Papuans, Bushmen, Mayans, Eskimo, Indonesians, West Africans, Britons
Composition of matter
Any history
Composition of moon
About fossils
There was a western hemisphere
The age of the Earth
About the great apes
About continental drift
About kangaroos, lemurs, opossums, emus, iguanas, alpacas, platypus, kiwi, gila lizards, sloths, tree frogs, humming birds, horseshoe crabs, peripatus, tasmanian tigers, rhinoceros

When bible written humans had never:
Flown
Travelled faster than a horse can run
Communicated except by speaking directly
Elected a government
Swum under the ocean
Read books
Looked through a telescope
Looked through a microscope
Warmed themselves by anything except wood fires
Been cured by antibiotics
Had a surgical operation
Seen a hospital, school or factory
Seen a town of more than few thousand people

When bible written humans were happy about:
Slavery
Women as chattels
Divine kings
Child marriage
War
Destruction of environment
Gods living on mountains
Child labour
Torture
Human sacrifice
Ghosts
Magic

And yet there are people in 2012 who believe everything written in the bible. There are people who use it to determine who to vote for, where to send their children to school, how they feel about burning environmental and social and economic and cultural issues. And if that wasn’t bad enough, incredible enough, we can’t just smile wisely and say “there there, one day you will grow up” as we might to a child who tries to live their life by, say, the Harry Potter books, because there are people who want to insist that the rest of the world obey these silly old books as well. There are people making all kinds of pronouncements about the environment, about bringing up children, about justice, about science, about art and literature, based not on some independent and rational analysis of an issue, but on what they think is said in the bible about it. And in turn appearing in the media, influencing politicians about it, indeed running for political office themselves. Some countries, notably Iran, Saudi Arabia, and America, are now theocracies run by people who know nothing except what someone has told them an old book says.

Angry? You betcha. The modern world is difficult enough, will become more difficult in the future, without the drag on political life from people living in the past. Can’t laugh at these people any more, this is serious.

*By “humans” in what follows I sometimes mean “the whole human race” and sometimes “the humans who wrote the bits and pieces of old manuscript that got collected together and called ‘the bible’”, which is which will be obvious and not of much importance anyway.

Steeped in religion

17

As regular readers will know I got an iPad to give me something to do during treatment sessions and recovery periods. As a result I have done quite a lot of browsing on Amazon for ebooks. Something seemed odd about the range of non-fiction titles available, but for a while I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Then it came to me – religion. This American site with its emphasis on American books and American customers has a non-fiction list saturated with religion. Of 479,000 non-fiction titles 71,000 (15%) are “religion & spirituality” far more than any other category except history (73,000). This strikes me as a hugely disproportionate number – almost one book in every six. In an Australian bookshop the equivalent section would be tiny, and I guess the same would be true of Europe.

The other notable characteristic is indicated by the inclusion of this out-pouring of religion in the non-fiction section. These are titles (and don’t tell me I can’t judge a book by its title) that don’t treat religion in the way a civilised country does, a somewhat embarrassed tentative offering on a topic potential readers know is nutty and esoteric, but as if this is a fully fledged alternative universe where the bible is literally true, people live their lives by its rules, prayer works, and little boys (in a current best-selling title) visit a real heaven and come back to report. When Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann talk about teaching both creationism and evolution in schools they are really reflecting a more general view that there is a religious world alongside a real world and that both are almost equally valid (the religious one being preferred) and that children need to learn both.

This is the scum floating on the surface, the bubbles emerging from the unhealthy depths, of a society in trouble. A society in which all except one of the contenders for Republican nomination for President are vying to see who can be the most fervent about teaching creationism in schools. A country where the ten commandments are appearing on walls, crosses in yards. A country where not only could an atheist never be president, but where increasingly only a rabid evangelical could be. A country whose armed forces, frighteningly, are increasingly subjected to fundamentalist religious indoctrination relating to “holy wars”.

In a fully-fledged theocracy (Afghanistan, say, under Taliban rule) I doubt that any non-religious books are available at all. In an effective theocracy (Spain at the time of the Inquisition) there will be a list of forbidden books which can not be read and must be destroyed. In a fully secular and civilised society few religious books would be wanted or available (I imagine, deliciously, religious books being sold, like cigarettes are about to be, in plain wrappers from under the counter).

We could then compile an index of the proportion of religious books for sale in a society ranging from effectively zero in a secular country to 100% in a theocracy. What proportion was sold in a country would be an indicator have how far along the road it had gone towards theocratic rule. On the evidence of America the danger point is somewhere around 16%. I wonder where Australia is up to, and which way the index is moving?

Over the cuckoo’s nest

8

Some 45 years ago, in my one-radio-station small rural town we university students used to avidly listen, with great amusement, to the broadcasts of an American evangelist, Garner Ted Armstrong. Quite mad, of course, in that American evangelical way, and he would rant and rave (what is the difference, I forget?) about sin and stuff and how everyone except those who sent money to his show were going straight to hell, not passing Go or collecting $200. We couldn’t get enough, exchanging, the next day, examples of his lunacy.

About 35 years ago, in the slightly bigger rural town I had then moved to, there was a chap who used to stand preaching in the central town square at lunchtime. Well, when I say “preaching” that doesn’t quite give the feel of it. He was a small neat man, but dressed, some 20,000km from Glasgow, in full Scottish kilt, long tartan socks, ruffled shirt and so on. And he didn’t preach so much as read inaudibly from something I presume was the bible (possibly John Knox’s personal copy) totally inaudibly, with absolutely no concern for, or eye contact with, the passing parade of secular Australians. He just read on and on in a whispering monotone, would be reading when you went to buy lunch, would still be reading when you came back half an hour later. I presume he had set himself the task of reading the book to Australia at the end of which the heavens would open or something and he would be raptured away to Brigadoon.

Incidentally I was delighted to read the other day that when another of those American millennial madmen was predicting the end of the world in May (presumably trying to beat the Mayans to the punch) that some American atheists (yes, I know, a precious few) were offering to take care of the pets of the rapturees. You know, afterwards – would be a comfort to know your cat and dog were being cared for while you were off lolling around in heaven. I suppose.

Before I became (very briefly, and ironically, I hasten to add, before you get the wrong idea here) a Garner Ted fanboy I remember going to one of those outdoor speaker’s corner locations. Forget where it was in Perth, the Esplanade perhaps? Years later I went to the equivalent one in Melbourne, but its location escapes me, one of my knowledgeable readers will help I am sure. I think they were in all Australian capital cities (was Sydney the Domain?) in the old days B.I. (Before Internet). There were people standing on soap boxes (probably literally in many cases) preaching to and/or shouting at the crowd who were, as part of the entertainment, shouting back. It was all based on the original Speaker’s Corner in London.

The speakers were self-elected prophets, political and religious, crying in the wilderness (well, crying in well-manicured parks actually, but wilderness is in the eye of the beholder), and they acted like so many pressure valves, letting off steam from the pressure cooker in which political, economic and social changes and issues were fermenting away. Each soap box, its occupant working up a sweat, was, metaphorically and in reality, letting off puffs of steam to prevent the community at large becoming overheated. Everyone accepted this function, and so the most outrageous, indeed lunatic, things could be said, often shouted, and the pairs of police, assigned to the easy duty of a stroll in the park, would smile complacently as they were accused of being the running dog hounds of world-wide capitalism, or communism, or fiends from hell. Then stroll on, hands behind backs, as if rehearsing for the old titles of The Bill, to the next eruption of fire and brimstone.

In my university vacation days I had a boss who was a young earth creationist and would attempt to gain the scalp of a young Darwinist without success. Later, as an archaeologist, I would spend time in country pubs (not much time, obviously, what did you think?) being harassed by elderly, educated in the school of hard knocks, and rather red-faced men who had seen a UFO, or knew what should be done to solve the Aboriginal problem, or were outraged that the government was poisoning us all with fluoride, or had proof that the moon landing was a fake, and by the way I did know that there was a CIA man on the grassy knoll, didn’t I? Would talk at you until the cows came home or the pub ran out of beer.

So these guys (almost always, something to do with the Y chromosome I expect) have been around a long time, even longer than me, probably back to the first human societies. If you didn’t have a village idiot it was because you had just lost one and were waiting for the new one to arrive. But in all these villages, these societies, the village idiots were recognised as being just that, a kind of tax on rational discourse. If you had freedom of speech then that included the freedom to hold ideas that a chimpanzee society wouldn’t have entertained for a moment. These little safety valves, letting off steam in pubs, or parks, or even workplaces if their delusions didn’t prevent them working, lived their own virtual lives while the rest of us got on with real life. You knew where they would be, could avoid soap box country on the street corner or pub corner. Nobody would have considered for a moment allowing, indeed encouraging, these nutters (I was searching for a word, but you don’t have to search far) to have some kind of a role in the governing of the country.

And yet here we are, in the internet age, and these fellows are clogging up every thread on climate change, ensuring that the Labor government is too frightened to undertake action on global warming, and the Liberals don’t want to. They are screaming about refugees, and Aborigines (still), and unwed mothers, and gay marriage, and guns, and “greenies”. Screaming loudly, but their voices no longer restricted to the back bar of the Black Stump Pub, instead on blogs from anywhere in the world, having an influence, their importance magnified not by the echoes of the pub toilet wall but by the world-wide web. The kind of people once represented by my lonely and inaudible Scots evangelist or my creationist boss, are now determining policies on drugs, social welfare, law and order, and, the biggie, education. My old boss would be delighted to discover that instead of his lonely path clutching a tattered book imported from America, being cheeked by a young biologist, he and his kind would now be running schools, demanding creationism be taught.

And further, not only are these people having individual influence in backroom chats with premiers or prime ministers, but they are getting elected to parliaments themselves, by hordes of their peers, suddenly seeing each other through a glass darkly, recognising the power in coordinated action. Suddenly there they are on the front bench of the federal opposition, waiting impatiently to take over the country. And there they are, with even more power, behind their own microphones in shock jock radio stations, writing opinion columns, and appearing on television.

Rational policies to deal with greenhouse gases, refugees, taxation, drugs, guns, land clearing, resources, social support, housing, terrorism, public education, health and all the rest of the conundrums facing modern governments, can no longer be reached because of the cacophony from the once soap box orators, now released, beyond the wildest dreams of their forebears, to run the country directly or by proxy.

Brave new world.

Peter Principle

4

This post was inspired by this latest piece of offensive nonsense from Australia’s Pope-in-waiting, the awe-full Cardinal P-ll. It compares the pathways to the top of their professions followed by scientists and religious leaders.

To get promotion
Religious leaders – on the way up show absolute willingness to obey, follow, believe, totally accept authority. Are fearful. Reach top by being able to demonstrate more than your rivals that you completely accept dogmatically every piece of dogma, that you are in fact holier than the pope. Remain unchanged as the world changes, in fact go backwards where possible. Apply old conclusions to new issues.


Leading scientists – on the way up show an ability to question, investigate, and an inability to accept authority, even the highest authority and the most popularly accepted theories. Lack fear. Reach top by overturning old theories, ideas, authorities. Change as data changes, ideas shift, debates are won or lost. Apply new hypotheses to old problems.

Increasingly I find, as I age (as gracefully as a belly-flop from a diving board), that I do all my best writing when I have no access to a keyboard or even a pencil. Driving down the highway, or drifting fitfully into sleep, blog posts spring unbidden, fully-formed – metaphors, clever titles, literary allusions, and all – into my head. Only to disappear almost entirely, leaving only a lingering taste like a madeleine, when I reach my destination, or shake my sleepy head, and put fingers to keyboard ready to reconstruct the masterpiece.

The above post was one of those. I have put back together what I can, but it is a mere ghost of a post, a shadow of its former bedtime glory. Perhaps next time I sleep, perchance to blog, more of it will return to beguile you. Or perhaps my more wide-awake readers, keyboards at the ready, can add to my lists.

Essentially destructive

4

And off we go again. Doesn’t seem like five minutes since I was handing out how-to-vote pamphlets in the Boorowa Schoolyard in 2007, not much more than ten minutes since I was doing the same at Gunning in 2004, and yet, here we go again, another election campaign. Already the silliness has begun. As the announcement was made Tony Abbott said Gillard was running to the polls before she had established her leadership credentials. Had she postponed until October it would have been because she was running scared of facing the people. Abbott also said “this election is not about glib slogans”, repeating it so often it became a glib slogan (like “big new tax”). And he said that “I expect this to be a filthy campaign from the Labor Party”, showing once again that what is said in an election campaign stays in an election campaign, with Tony obviously having no memory at all of Liberal election campaigns of the last 14 years.

It’s a looking glass world in an election campaign where words splinter, break, lose all connection with ordinary meanings in the everyday world. Where phrases are chosen from focus groups and repeated more often than a certain advert for spectacles, Julia Gillard of course with “looking forward” and “hard work”, and Tony Abbott with whatever glib slogans his focus groups throw up, probably something about pink batts and the simple lie about debt levels forcing up interest rates. There will be glib references to recent history, but nothing with a time depth of more than a few weeks (Rudd’s overthrow referred to but not that of Malcolm Turnbull), and certainly nothing from the Liberals about the consequences of 11 years of Howard government, or from Labor about their abject failure on climate change.

All of it, for five long weeks (or one long week five times) will have the feel of being in a preschool with small children clamoring for glittering prizes, all the time calling out “Pick me miss, pick me, I’ve been good, they were the naughty ones, pick me.” And jolting the arm of their neighbour to make them spill something or knock something over. Remember the old saying “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, said by Churchill, no great democrat himself, and usually used when a government has done something appalling and wants to blame the voters for it. Well, how about “Democracy, the best system of all except for true democracy”?

The current democracy we have, corporate controlled, media-driven, spin-doctor and focus-group inspired really isn’t much of an attempt at democracy. We need a true democracy where facts are checked, journalists pursue real stories, political advertising is limited and must be truthful. One where politicians really debate the issues, not present sound grabs, and one where they say what they really think, really intend. One where a platform is a genuine prescription for action, not one that can be negated by non-core promises or changed circumstances. And one where the health of the environment is first on the list of things to do, not last, where not putting a price on carbon is a political death wish, not some kind of populist race to the bottom.

Don’t want much, do I? What do you want from an election campaign?

Fly me to the …

1

A couple of astronomical things tickled my fancy recently. First was the arrival back, after a long day’s journey into night, of the Japanese space ship that had journeyed to the asteroid belt, landed, astonishingly, on an asteroid, taken a sample of dirt, set sail again for Earth, and arrived back, by parachute, in the Australian desert. Television news managed, as always with science stories, to get this all wrong, persisting in saying the capsule had “crash-landed” even while showing pictures of its parachute, and persisting in saying it would reveal the “origins of the universe” when of course it was all about the origins of the solar system.

Anyway, the sight of that capsule lying in the desert gave me a warm fuzzy feeling – I mean mostly, as a species, we are pretty rubbish, let’s face it, but every so often we excel ourselves. “Hah”, we can say to the chimps, still investigating sticks and stone tools, “bet you couldn’t get a spaceship to the asteroids and back”. If only we could excel ourselves a bit more often.

Next example isn’t for 5 years. The softly landing capsule roughly coincided with the second anniversary of Pluto losing its status as a planet and becoming just another rock in the Kuiper belt (sort of like the asteroid belt except outside the solar system, not in the middle of it). Never mind, it is still important enough to have a space mission aimed at it about 5 trillion kilometres away. When “New Horizons” flies by Pluto in 2015 we will, astonishingly, be able to see close up photos of the surface of an object that is so far away even the most powerful telescopes can make out nothing of what it is like from here. If there was no other reason for making sure you were still alive in 2015, the prospect of these images would be reason enough for me. And I will again dip my lid to the best and brightest of Homo sapiens.

But in this brave new world that has such creatures in it, why on Earth can’t we do a better job of all these minor problems of stopping greenhouse gas production, preventing war, sorting out hunger and disease for 90% of the planet’s inhabitants, getting decent television news bulletins, getting rid of Steve Fielding from the Senate?

I mean, none of that stuff is rocket science, is it?

Life on Mars

2

My eyes always light up when I see there is a press release from the National Farmers Federation, my fingers itch to hit the keyboard, knowing, for sure, there will be a column in there somewhere for me. So there we were last week, Labor and Liberal parties trying to outdo each other in developing a scheme that gave the most money to energy and coal companies while ensuring that reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was kept to an absolute minimum, certainly any time in the next century. And there were Larry, Curly and Moe, sorry, that should read Wilson, Barnaby and Steve, doing some comedy routine involving fish net stockings and a fruit head dress, in which they not only demanded no reduction in carbon dioxide, but wanted an increase above and beyond business as usual, just to teach those greenies a lesson.

And suddenly, there in the middle, was the Farmer's Federation (yes, the Farmer's Federation that had leading climate change denialist Professor Plimer address their national conference), demanding that not only should agriculture be excluded from whatever minimal emissions reduction scheme eventually got past any of the stooges for the next five years, but that it should be excluded forever, or an infinite number of years, whichever was longer. The Federation seems to see itself not as the NFF but as the MFF, the Mars Farmer's Federation, representing the population of the Red Planet, happily growing crops with irrigation from the melting polar ice caps, and sending the produce off in clipper space ships back to the mother planet of Earth. And Earth's concerns are of no concern to the farmers, not their problem, and if some socialist government wants to reduce emissions on Earth, well then, get on with it, but don't expect the farmers to be involved. "Don't call us", says the MFF, "we'll call you. Not."

It could be so different if the Federation saw themselves as part of the solution, not part of the problem. If they saw opportunities not costs. If they saw themselves as players not uninvolved onlookers. Is it not in the interests of farmers to reduce their energy use and dependence? Can we not look at more efficient engines, more efficient use? Would farmhouses not benefit from renewable energy supplies and insulation? Is it beyond imagining that a viable modernised rail network instead of semi trailers could once again serve country areas? Are there not farming practices (low tillage crops, biochar, changed pastures) that might reduce energy use, absorb CO2, reduce methane? Will farmers really be not interested in putting aside land for, and generating an income from, solar or wind or geothermal arrays? Can farmers not be involved in a greatly expanded LandCare style program to not just put a full stop to land clearing, but bring more wind breaks, tree clusters, native hedgerows to Australian farms? Should there be a nation-wide project to make every country town carbon neutral? Would not all of those things benefit country Australia as well as the rest of the continent that the farmers are, and it's odd to have to make the point, part of?

I don't remember reading that farmers demanded not to be involved at times when Australia was at war. On the contrary, farming sons and daughters flocked to the colours, and farmers themselves kept the home fires burning, kept the nation fed, did their bit, made do in difficult times. And in spite of what the three stooges seem to believe, and in spite of what the Labor and Liberal Parties are failing to do, we should be on a war footing now. The globe is warming, the climate (of Australia, and elsewhere on Earth, though not on Mars) is changing, and not for the better. And farmers are going to be not keeping home fires burning this time but in the front line.

On Mars  its cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere, time the NFF brought its members, all alone now, more or less, in from the cold, got them involved in the fight against global warming. It's going to take us all, working together, to win this fight.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

Family jewels

14

Every week, it seems, comes a new story of some terribly dysfunctional and often violent family unit. And there are not too many happy endings, especially where children are involved, and where women are subjected to violent attacks. In both cases death can be the outcome, far too often, but even where it is not, the victims remain physically and mentally damaged, often for life.

Whenever a politician speaks about "values" you can be sure it will be related to families. Happy families, good families, large families, heterosexual couple families, white picket fence families, conservative families, salt of the earth families, god-given families, god-fearing families, tax-cut wanting families, apolitical families. And on the other hand will be all those people who aren't, it seems, part of "proper" families – same sex couples, single mothers, people on welfare, teenage mothers, homeless families, extended families.

There is indeed one party that refers to itself as "family first", which is a curious sort of title. I think I might start a party called "breathing first" and from which I will condemn all other parties as not caring about breathing. But more generally, there are some politicians who think there is mileage to be gained out of expressing support for the "happy families" while discouraging, preventing, forcing apart, forcing together, any family grouping of which they do not, for ideological or religious reasons, approve. The idea, they would have you believe, is to support children, and this kind of politician has every confidence that they know the only true formula for family life. A woman in an abusive relationship tries to keep children away from the father? Force them back together. Simultaneously denigrate extended families in Aboriginal or migrant communities and single parent families in outer suburbs. Refuse to allow same sex couples to have a legally recognised relationship and raise children, while trying to prevent sex education and contraception for poor families with too many children.

Much of this kind of meddling is reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy's saying that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". And of course there is a grain of truth in that if you understand that Leo had it completely back to front. In fact all unhappy families are much the same, all happy ones are happy in different ways. Unhappy families tend to have some or all of – poverty, addiction problems, lack of education, untreated mental illness, poor housing, abusive relationships, poor work-life balance, little access to services, and so on. The most politically correct family unit of man, woman and 2.4 children is not going to be happy in its political correctness if it is faced with those kinds of pressures. On the other hand all kinds of families – two women with an IVF child; children, parents, uncles, aunties, cousins all under one roof; teenage mother with three children; two men with adopted child; grandmother, mother and son; unrelated people sharing a house; single people living alone; "blended" families; and yes, father, mother, and 2.4 children – will have all kinds of different happiness, and loving supportive relationships.

So next time you hear a politician talk about "family values", ask yourself whether he, or she, really values families, all families. And whether that valuing is reflected in support for the unhappy ones, and delighted approval of all the happy ones. Or has the ideology resulted in him, or her, making the happy ones less happy, and the unhappy ones dangerous to all concerned.

Putting families, all families, first, should be as easy as breathing in and out. But it seems to be remarkably difficult for some people. Different values I guess.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

Who you gonna call?

You know how young children make bargains in their minds – "If I don't miss this bus I will do my homework for a month", that sort of thing? It's a bit like whistling as you pass the graveyard to keep the ghosts away. Or clapping hands to keep the elephants away ("Does it work?" "Well, you don't see any elephants do you?").

Penny Wong reminded me of all of that last week. There were nation-wide protests about the lack of meaningful action on climate change. Afterwards Ms Wong said people's expectations were unrealistic – "What many of these people are calling for simply can't be done. It can't be done while supporting jobs," she said. About the same time it was revealed that Australia was demanding that CO2 emissions from bushfires not be included in calculating Australia's total, because we had so many (and will be having more and more as the continent dries out). You can hear Penny clapping, whistling, and making bargains with invisible beings can't you? She seems to think that good intentions ("Like the people who are at these rallies, this Government does want to take action on climate change") will make that nasty global warming go away. That she can make bargains, that the CO2 already in the atmosphere will totally understand if the politics of coal companies, the CFMEU, and Barnaby Joyce make it impossible to reduce our emissions. There are no bargains Penny, and clapping hands won't make the elephant in the room go away. The world (yes, Penny, the world does include Australia) has to actually reduce emissions (including bushfires and everything else), quickly, and no amount of whistling and bargain making changes that grim reality. Ms Wong has failed.

Harsh? Yes, but we expected better of Kevin "we will let the science decide" Rudd and his team of the best and the brightest. Penny Wong has that aura of brightest girl in class [Steve Fielding on the other hand is the class clown and doesn't know anything but has learnt to stick his hand up and say stupid things ("Now class, what do astronomers tell us the moon is made of?" "Please miss, please miss, green cheese miss") just to get the class laughing - loves being the centre of attention] but she has been given the most important job in government and she has failed to do her homework, failed to hand it in, and Australia is going to miss the bus in Copenhagen.

And Greg Hunt – doing much better than Penny Wong (and won't she be cross when she reads that). But he reminds me of the star eighteen year old recruit to a football team doing really badly, full of has-beens and never-wases. You can enjoy his flashes of brilliance in a Reserve's game, but you know that the team as a whole is never going to achieve anything. And you are quite certain that he won't get a start in the first team, and if he did he will never be allowed to play his natural style.

As American scientists, detailing the disastrous changes (bigger graveyards among them) that are coming to America this century (many of which are coming to a southern continent near you too), said "These are not opinions to be debated, these are facts to be acted upon". Penny Wong clearly doesn't understand this – the whistling has to stop, and the action has to start, ghosts or no ghosts.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

My way or the highway

5

Well, it seems that making ready-mixed drinks as cheap as chips again, and therefore helping kids get smashed out of their brains even if they only get a small allowance, is a family friendly and conservative policy. Who knew?

Hard to escape talking about the budget. Seems governments all round the world, unable previously to find any money for environmental concerns, or social welfare, or public schools and hospitals, are suddenly in the business of propping up banks, large companies. and making sure that CEOs, those good and faithful company servants, don't go without their multi-million dollar bonuses. Governments are bent on proving the old adage "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money".

A lot of it is being spread around like confetti. Did you see that American car chase the other day where the driver threw money out of the window on the freeway and everyone stopped to pick it up? For a moment I thought Kevin Rudd might have been the driver. But as well as the $900 bills being splashed out on freeways, big chunks of money seemed to be aimed that way. When governments talk about "infrastructure projects" they always have in mind something that can carry a plaque announcing that they have opened it. And Oppositions get in on the act, with Mr Turnbull horrified the other day that massive expenditure wasn't immediately beginning on a freeway near Newcastle. A freeway here, a railway there, a desalination plant down south, a port up north, and suddenly you are talking real money.

Remember one of Parkinson's laws. A committee will spend only two minutes approving a nuclear reactor costing $20 million (those were the days, 50 years ago!) because no one understands anything about it, and hours debating the building of a bicycle shed costing a few hundred dollars because everyone knows what a bicycle shed is, and even longer discussing refreshments for morning tea costing $20. I get the feeling that Cabinets from both sides of politics generally work like this. And generally they have got away with it. Oh, perhaps the odd white elephant (especially at Olympic's time) but new freeways fill with traffic sooner rather than later, new airports are crammed with planes, and, like fences and sheds on a farm, you can never have too many bridges and tunnels.

But the times they are a-changing, and in twenty years time freeways will be safe for cyclists, coal shipping ports will be black elephants, and airport runways will be ploughed up to make market gardens. Cabinets at federal and state level, and local governments, are going to have to start thinking about a future without petrol, a future where coal is left in the ground, a future where people work and shop locally rather than commuting, a future with low energy use. A future where in order to act globally you have to think locally. A future where politicians understand that seemingly small actions, like, say, increasing tax on alcopops, will do more to reduce binge-drinking by teenagers than splashing hundreds of millions of dollars at advertising agencies and television stations to run advertising campaigns.

So instead of freeways and tunnels, smaller sums spent on narrow and dangerous dirt roads, or dilapidated old local bridges, or country telephone exchanges, or country fire brigades, or supporting farmers markets, or making country towns energy neutral, or conserving important habitats, or recycling water, or helping farmers develop new enterprises, would be much more effective, far into the future, for the welfare of people in a changing land.

Look, to be fair, and I always (well, nearly always) am, the federal government does seem to understand this to some extent. And their programs on house insulation, and repairing (at last, at last) schools, and seeking project ideas from local government, are all steps in the right direction.

But I think we would be better off as a country if all the stimulus money was spent on low scale, unglamorous, unplaqueworthy (a new word, invented in this very column) projects. They could still spend only two minutes discussing giant projects, but the short time would be because they were rejecting them, out of hand. And then they could spend hours discussing bicycle sheds (I wonder …) or at least bicycle pathways, and school sheds, and farm sheds, and fire sheds and …

And then break for a cheap morning tea (without alcopops), job well done.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.