Thursday 11 October 2018

spineless and blind

"Nobody made a greater mistake 
than he who did nothing 
because he could do only a little.
Edmund Burke
What do we have to do to get The Man to wake up? Would shouting help? A brisk clatter upside the head with a stick? Setting fire to his ministerial car? The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report was released on Monday 8th October. It announced that the prognosis was worse than we have allowed ourselves to believe. Things are progressing down the global toilet faster, less has been done to deal with our carbon footprint; the evidence for climate change and its symptoms have been presented in yet starker contrast. Storms hot-and-wet and freezing blasts; too much rain and none at all; people drowned, frozen to death, starved, electrocuted, displaced and beset by coliforms. If you haven't read the report [Grauniad exec summary] it must be because you are curled up under the duvet hoping the boogie-monster won't eat you. One of my more articulate students asked me what I thought and I answered "We buggered".

That was a wholly spineless response. More adult commentators reckoned that bleakness, like so many things, is on a sliding scale: there are degrees of horror that we can visit upon our children. Hence the quote from Burke at the head of this piece. Ireland could play a powerful role in these interesting times. A small, non-aligned, articulate, educated nation, with some colonial baggage for Third World empathy, speaking English, having a reputation for hard work . . . such a country could lead by example. We could shame bigger countries into taking a more radical position. With only 5 million people and slightly more cows, even punching above our weight on the conspicuous consumption, we can't be causing more than 1% of the problem. But it's a cop-out to allow ourselves to think that all those Chinese, Indians, Germans, Americans are having a far bigger dump in the toilet of armageddon.

Ireland agreed, through the EU, to reduce our carbon emissions by 20% compared to 2005 levels by 2020. How are we doing? NOT! We have conspicuously failed to achieve any part of that target. We have not made any effective sacrifice of our extraordinarily extravagant lifestyle. Piffling about with a bit of recycling is not the answer if we are driving a car to the recycle centre. Next month, we will take delivery of 1 tonne of heating oil to see us through the winter, we won't choose to wear gloves indoors or wear a woolly hat while cooking. I'm still driving to work every day because I choose to live hundreds of metres from our neighbours in the remotest part of Leinster and an 80km round trip away from the nearest place for sensiblework.

My need to embrace shame is as nothing to compared to what Paschal Donohue the Minister of Finance should have taken on when he released his Budget for 2019. His plans rearranged the deckchairs so that nobody was offended or disturbed or compelled by taxation to make the smallest change to their life-style. Except that €0.50 was added to a packet of cigarettes. That will raise a bit of revenue but it will also serve to stop a few people smoking who would otherwise die early and take one for Team Earth instead of the coral reefs, Sumatran tigers, Guatamalan frogs and the corncrake Crex crex which are all being driven to the brink by the mass of humanity and its vanities.

Years ago Jane Gitschier started publishing in PLOS Genetics a string of fascinating interviews with Effective scientists. They are almost as interesting as The Blob. I've written about David Botstein's inspiring insight into post-graduate education

Another piece about Pat Brown, who invented microarrays [and PLOS!], is interesting enough but stopped me dead right at the end:
Gitschier: OK, Pat, with that, I think I'm ready to hear about the NEXT big project. 
Brown: OK—I'm serious, and I'm going to do my sabbatical on this: I am going to devote myself, for a year, to trying to the maximum extent possible to eliminate animal farming on the planet Earth. 
Gitschier: [Pause. Sensation of jaw dropping.] 
Brown: And you are thinking I'm out of my mind. 
Gitschier: [Continued silence.] 
Brown: I feel like I can go a long way toward doing it, and I love the project because it is purely strategy. And it involves learning about economics, agriculture, world trade, behavioral psychology, and even an interesting component of it is creative food science. Animal farming is by far the most environmentally destructive identified practice on the planet. Do you believe that? More greenhouse production than all transportation combined.

Well what about it Paschal Donohue? If, with a stroke of the ministerial pen and a bit of support from the Dáil, we could ban smoking in public places [2004] and put a tax on plastic bags [2002], both of which immeasurably improved the quality of Irish life, then surely we could make it illegal to eat meat except on Sunday and then only if you have a chit to say you've been to Mass.

Okay, okay, that is, like Pat Brown's, an impossible aspiration. So why not do something easier: put a carbon tax of €1/litre on gasoline and thus
a) raise a lot of cash for the common good and
b) perhaps discourage me from driving to work, mummies driving their kids to school, Deliveroo [prev] from sending food to the suburbs and all the spoiled brat indulgences that we heedless load on to the unhappy shoulders of this our blue planet.

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